SHAKESPEARE IN HELL

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

WILLIAM, a playwright.
CHRISTOPHER SLY, a drunken tinker.

ACT I. SCENE I.
Hell.
Enter CHRISTOPHER SLY.
CHRISTOPHER SLY.
Please pheeze me, do as thy will.
Rack stretch’d, till cri d’corpse serves thy comedy,
Eyes fix’d taut, to behold mine own tragedy.
By fire sear’d, forget not our tortured history.
Belly starv’d of beef much less laughs,
I cry for naught save one bitter draught.
With the last of my tongue parched of song and wine,
Grant me this, bring hither that serpentine,
Foul rogue of the stage,
Empire’s fawning, dastardly knave.
That he may behold on my flay’d crispt flesh,
That which his scrivening verse hath wreck’d.
What now?
Enter WILLIAM.
WILLIAM.
Marry, ‘tis passing strange, this fancy I dream,
Of which I cannot help but scream,
I know all that I am yet not my own name,
Only sorrow, deceit, my personal shame.
CHRISTOPHER SLY.
Well deserv’d.
WILLIAM
Hark, my own words, the way that I speak
Gone from ars poetic to totally weak.
My rhyming mind hath degenerated,
Into styles of doggerel, trite and quite dated.
A fall from grace from a throne of satin
To an eindkay of eachspay not far from Pig
Latinate humor lay high in the sky,
Now my gutterate tastes run to risqué.
Alack, fie fey, my may, die day, nigh neigh,
‘Tis a fatal misstep in an opening act
To establish a rhyme and then give it away
To the first Gallic strumpet adjectival
When its perfectly logical English rival
Mirrors all in the air, the stars and the clouds,
Would that I lived there, but zounds!
CHRISTOPHER SLY.
Your soliloqual reverie through?
I’ll speak no more to you.
WILLIAM.
To what do I owe disquiet temper,
From this apparition accursed?
I speak to myself, do not we all, forsooth?
‘Tis a trick of the mind that the words in our head
Flow as Euphrates to the ocean wed,
But our vigilant tongues wax and wane
That the cleverest thoughts meet nought but the drain.
Ay, what’s a drain? A prudent invention
Keeps pipery clear of strife and dissension,
Ere the pride of the comb turn to underground violence
Once fallen from heights twixt a copper contrivance
To where on bended metallic knee,
The follicles gather in twos and in threes
Polygamist unions bide their grim time
Whence the tub overflows with a viscous grime.
Such are the words that our mouths fain to speak.
If they are trapped, we speak clear and meek.
Said bitter words loosed summon fortune and power
O’er weapons of war, words doth make kings cower.
But take heed! Loosed in flight, like Bassanio’s shafts,
Poison-dipp’d words found by enemies fast
Cross’d form the knowledge, “Strike at the heel!”
Oh! Achillean poet, thou canst but yield.
Thus do we put our lives on the line
When we venture to speak the plots of our mind.
Mark well my words, an emboldening factor,
‘Tis always safer to speak through an actor.
For unlike heroes in metal and armor,
The poet glides silent, invisible charmer.
Swords to their makers are easily traced
Not so simple syllables, florid and laced,
Umbilical cut, to where they alight,
Our poet knows nothing, ‘tis merely a trite.
CHRISTOPHER SLY.
Trite makes right – eh, demon?
WILLIAM.
Why, thou art an apt wit, though fallow in sight
If villain thou hast mark’d me.
CHRISTOPHER SLY.
Ay, a mark with more than with words.
Your presence defines you.
WILLIAM.
Thus spoken, breaketh thy vow of silence?
CHRISTOPHER SLY.
Broken vows are but coin of the realm here, good sir accursed cur.
WILLIAM.
If I may–
CHRISTOPHER SLY.
As thou prattle freely, ‘tis ever May day.
WILLIAM.
Prithee, what crucible scarce give thee pause
That thy wounds excess all laws
Physick and medic can hardly improve
Such fatal burns where the skin still doth move.
CHRISTOPHER SLY.
Hearken thee not vile sulphurous smell?
Christopher Sly welcomes thee to—
WILLIAM.
Hallo? Sly is it?
You mock me, good player.
Christopher Sly, a figment of first act fancy —
Have you no ambition more worthy than that?
Kings noble and wicked, fine gentlemen callers,
Battle-scarr’d heroes and ancient lords all.
I knowest thee passing, if Sly thou art.
If my plays be a banquet, Sly’s nought but a —
CHRISTOPHER SLY.
What is thy name, playwright?
WILLIAM.
Why, everyone knows me, I know that is so.
But as for my name – by my troth, I don’t know.
CHRISTOPHER SLY.
Knave! That will stick.
WILLIAM.
Thine unkind abuse bespeaks your injury
Not thy mind.
You hide thy true name,
I shall still call thee Sly.
How stands thee here, Sly?
CHRISTOPHER SLY.
Acknowledge thy patrimony, if but in jest,
That will suffice. I will tell thee the rest,
Would that thine blood turn to ice.
WILLIAM.
Art thou my son?
If bearing the name of mine poetic minions
Maketh thee a child, then legions must follow.
By Jove, I’ve fathered a brood of the finest.
How now, my wayward son,
What trouble hath stayed thee so?
CHRISTOPHER SLY.
Tarry, look well, if answers must to thine spirit,
Gaze into my wounds, stray not thine eyes.
On score by score fifty-one burns, agonize!
Borne as thy son – Son! I’ll spit these words out.
Had the Sun itself sired me,
Through scorching desert rage
On cloudless high I’d rather embrace.
Long have I kindled this literal burn
You’ll know full well mine’s not the last turn.
WILLIAM.
Oh wretched spawn, I gaze and grow weak,
Visions appear in my head as we speak.
CHRISTOPHER SLY.
Farewell, clever William, this is your end.
A frozen first act with nary a friend.
I know your fate well. Shall I remind?
Sodden with drink, you stole me to a pedestal,
Raiments false, servants false, a matrimonial false with woman false. Oh, what petty farce!
Made me feel as a king, For what, pray tell?
Though a poor drunk, would you have me play noble?
While ‘tis true nobility’s not in the purse
The purse of my lips did soon form a curse.
‘Twas sporting of lords to uplift the besotten
To show such a play of marriages rotten.
A shrew to be tamed, Ha! I felt the sting
At the end of five acts when absent a ring
My role was exeunt’d, and like a mirage
Dump’d back in the hay, not a scent of corsage.
Wouldst that thou hadst slain me on the spot.
Rather than thus, my flesh fails to rot.
I learned from the best, thine examples did guide
For that I do suffer without leave to die.
Know you not what I did?
By force of Will, uplifted I was.
Shook loose of drink, paid for my doss.
Found a rough wench, made love to her then,
Marriage we entered, good fortune our friend.
But by your example our happiness withered
A shrew I believed her, so shrew her I did her.
Alas! When she landed, felled over like lead.
Slain my own bride in my own wedding bed.
Night of the nuptials, morn of the gallows.
By Petruchio’s deeds I know not what you mean.
I am naught but a mimic, I play scene by scene.
But mine’s not the only story to tell.
Hear them all, villain – welcome to Hell!

(Somerville, Mass., August 2003)