9 The Mermaid Tavern

9 The Mermaid Tavern
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9 The Mermaid Tavern
During the next few years the plague was always with us.Some years it was bad,other years not so bad.When the theatres in London closed,we went on tour.Well,the King's Men did.Will and I were mostly at home in Stratford in the summers.Will was usually writing,and I did bits of business for him when I could.
Susanna married Dr John Hall in June,1607,and Will's granddaughter Elizabeth was born in February the next year.We had a very cold winter that year.The river Thames in London froze right up to Westminster.People had parties and cooked sheep over fires on the ice.
Will's brother Edmund died that winter—he was only twenty-seven—and Will's mother died in September the next year.
Will was writing a different kind of play at this time.John Heminges said they were dark,cruel plays,and that Will was only looking at the black side of people.But that was the thing about Will.He was still changing,trying new kinds of poetry and stories in his plays all the time.And suddenly,there was a new kind of play,full of laughing and spring flowers and love:The Winter's Tale.
When we were in London,we often went in the evenings to the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside it was a very good inn,with good beer,and all the writers and poets in London went there.
We were there one evening in the winter of 1610,I think it was.A lot of Will's friends were there—actors,writers.Ben Jonson was there,of course.He was a great drinker all his life.He was writing a lot of plays now and was doing very well.But he never had any money—Will always paid for the beer.
At first,the talk was all about King James and his court.We didn't like the King so much now—he was more interest-ed in horses than in plays.Then Ben remembered something about The Winter's Tale.He knew,really,that Will's plays were the best,but he always liked to find mistakes if he could.
‘Now,Why did you put Bohemia by the sea,Will?’he said.‘Bohemia's in the middle of Europe!There's no sea for a hundred miles,you stupid man!’
‘Your plays are very clever,Ben,’Richard Burbage said,‘but they smell of the schoolbook,don't they,Will?’
Will laughed.‘How many people are going to worry about that,Ben?What does it matter?They liked the play at court.The Queen said it was a very sweet play,and the King—’
‘The King!’Ben said loudly.His face was red and angry.King James sometimes fell asleep during Ben's plays.‘The King,’he went on excitedly,‘is a very stupid man!I told him,I said it to his face:“Sir,you don't understand poetry!”’
John Heminges laughed.‘Oh my word!’he said.‘What a terrible man you are,Ben!I don't know how you've lived so long!’
Will laughed too,but he said,‘Ben,you must be careful.You don't want the King to be your enemy.Don't forget that he pays twice as much as Queen Elizabeth did
—and sees twice as many plays.’
‘Money?'shouted Bed.He loved to argue about anything.‘We're poets and actors,not businessmen!What does money matter?’
‘It puts bread and meat in your stomach,and a coat on your back,’said Will,drinking his beer.‘And you're the first to shout if you haven't got any money.’
Ben banged his beer glass on the table.‘Now listen,Mr William Shakespeare of Stratford,with your fine big house and your expensive horses,you wrote in your play King Lear that money was—’
‘Oh,do stop it,you two!John Heminges said.He turned to talk to me,but a few minutes later Ben was arguing about another of Will's plays.
‘And what about Antony and Cleopatra?What kind of writing is that?You never know which place you're in!One minute you're in Egypt,the next minute you're in Rome,then you're at sea on a ship,then back in Egypt again—’
Richard Burbage didn't like that.‘You're wrong again,Ben.It's only you who can't follow the play.You think Londoners are stupid,but they understand more than
you do!And another thing…’
I decided to go home to bed.Ben's a fine man,but he does talk so much.He goes on and on.When I left,he was calling for more beer.I knew they would be there in the Mermaid for most of the night.