This summer celebrates the 400 year anniversary of the first publication of the plays of William Shakespeare in 1623. The First Folio, as it has come to be known, was published seven years after his death. During the anniversary celebrations, The First Folio will visit Solihull as part of a tour of Birmingham, courtesy of The Everything to Everybody Project at The Library of Birmingham.
In anticipation of the visit, Solihull Writers Group chose Shakespeare in Solihull as the theme of their 2023 Creative Fiction Writing Competition. My offering, was awarded third place. You can read it below:
Shakespeare in Solihull – The Lost Years
Scholars often refer to the years between 1585 and 1592 as Shakespeare’s “lost years”. All historical records pertaining to him cease after the birth of his twins in Stratford-on-Avon in 1585, and only resume in 1592 when he reappears in the London theatre community.
There has been much speculation as to where he was and what he was doing during these “lost” years, alongside just as much speculation about his sexuality and the mysterious “Fair Youth” that is the subject of his first 126 sonnets …
Shafts of morning sunlight streamed through the leaded window bathing the naked youth in warm shades of pink and gold. The light down of golden hair that covered his soft, smooth skin sparkled with a cherubic glow. He was stretched out across the bed in the deep, worry-free sleep of youth so envied by the old. He was indeed a beauty. Long athletic limbs, flat belly, rounded buttocks, muscled back and shoulders. But, if his body was a study in perfection, his face was a triumph of grace and beauty. Porcelain, unmarked skin, a strong jaw supporting otherwise fine and delicate features framed by a tangle of yellow curls, long dark lashes that in sleep concealed laughing eyes of the brightest blue.
William stood by the side of the bed. He reached down to touch him then sighed and withdrew his hand. He must learn to deny himself. Last night had been their final one together. By the days end he would be riding south to London, where he could lay low until interest in his transgressions had waned, where he could walk the streets unnoticed and merge into the sea of afflicted and troubled souls seeking to do the same.
Outside, the solid clang of metal on metal signified the start of the working day for the famed blacksmiths of Solihull. Soon it would be joined by the hiss of steam and the air would be thick with the scent of molten iron and burning charcoal. Within the hour, le Smythstreet would be bustling with people bringing plough blades and weapons to be sharpened and horses to be shod. He moved to the window and looked down at the street below the tavern where he had taken rooms for the summer.
The events of the previous evening weighed heavy on his mind and heavier still on his heart. The youth knew nothing, and so it must remain. He had already retired for the night when William had stepped out to take some air and, as much ale had been consumed over the course of the afternoon, to relieve himself before bed.
If truth be told, he had feared that he was about to be robbed, or worse, when the hooded figure stepped from the shadows and silently approached him.
“Who is thither? What doeth thou want?” He had called with as much bravado as he could muster, all the while regretfully picturing his casually discarded dagger lying on the bedroom mantel.
The figure continued to move towards him, and as it drew closer, he realised it was slight. Almost certainly female. A whore. Why else would a member of the fairer sex be wandering the streets alone at this hour. He raised his hand to dismiss her. She was not to know that his passions lay elsewhere and that a fair youth awaited him in his bedchamber directly above the place where they stood.
But before he could speak, she dropped her hood and he gasped with shocked recognition as her long auburn curls cascaded over her shoulders and her wronged green eyes locked with his.
“Anne! Mine lady wife. What brings thou to the town at this hour. Is something amiss? Are the children well?
Her eyes shimmered with tears.
“The children are well, husband. It is I who am in distress.”
“What ails thee, wife? Are thou ill?”
“Mine heart is in pain, husband, and it is thee who hath delivered the blow.”
“How? What hast I done?”
“Doeth not taketh me for a fool, husband. We both know thou hast betrayed me.” She cast her eyes up to the window above.
“Anne. Anne. What can I say? I am undone. But, wife, doeth not make too much of it. She is but a whore.”
“William, I wilt say again. Doeth not taketh me for a fool. I know it is a youth that thou hast ensconced in thy rooms above the tavern. The rooms thou took for the summer to pursue thy writing ambitions unfettered by the responsibilities of a wife and children.”
“Anne! Dear wife …”
“Nay! William, dear husband! The timeth for sorry is long past. I can ne’r taketh thee back to mine bed. Now it is timeth for the price to art paid. Thou art a sodomite, husband, and by the Queens law must art put to death for thy crimes. By the morrow the Sherriff of Birmingham wilt hast heard tidings of thy foul acts and wilt art on his way to arrest thou.”
A sob escaped her lips as she pulled her hood up, turned and walked away. Before she disappeared into the night, William saw her head bow and her shoulders sag and shake.
Now, he looked again at the sleeping youth on the bed, and it was he who allowed a sob to escape his lips. He must go before he awoke. But before that he must write one last verse for the fair youth who had captured his heart.
William sat down at his desk and lifted his quill from the ink pot.
He began to write …
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate …