“All right, gather ‘round, gentlemen. Good Master Fraser, good Master Raymond, do you join us for rehearsal, an you have naught else better to do?”
These two members of Will Shakespeare’s company were indeed otherwise engaged in the occupation that took up most of their spare time – making out. As long as they did it within the confines of the theatre and only in the company of their fellow thespians and not in the view of paying customers, nobody really minded.
Fraser Benson and Raymond Stanley broke off their embrace and ambled over to the centre of the wooden stage where all the company sat in a rough circle ready to listen to Will give them their instructions.
“I have truly great news, gentlemen. We’ve been commissioned to perform for Her Majesty at her Twelfth Night celebration.”
There were first murmurs of approval, which gradually built into full-blown cheering. This was a major achievement for Will and his company of players.
“She commands of us a comedy, which I have written withal, and it now falls on us to be ready in time. So, I have your parts here. It is set in Italy . . .”
“Another one in Italy. ‘Zwounds, but I tire of Italy, Italy, always Italy as the setting,” groused a dark-haired, actor with the most prominent nose of the company.
“Vance, thou knowest full well the audiences like Italy this year. Why dost thou complain about every meanest thing?”
“I? Complain? ‘Sblood!”
Fraser and Raymond had settled down, sitting close together, of course. Raymond turned to Vance, saying, “Oh, sneck up, you whoreson wretch. Let Will tell our parts.”
Vance let out a heavy put-upon sigh and subsided.
“Thank you kindly, Raymond. Now, as I was saying, it is set in Italy and we have this damsel, her ship is wracked in a storm and the sweet maid set upon the shore. To get by she . . .”
“Don’t tell me, she dresses as a boy. A plague on all these disguised heroines!” whined Vance. “Hast thou no other plot-line in thy addled pate, Will?”
“For the love of God, peace, Vance!” interjected Raymond.
“Thank you again, Raymond. Now Vance, you will play the brother of this unhappy maid. In the plot, the brother and sister are most alike in visage, there will be confusion of identity. Therein lies the comedy. The brother’s name is Sebastian. The girl, Viola, she thinks you are drowned. Now, one of you gentlemen must play Viola. I was thinking Fraser, since he is the most comely when dressed in women’s weeds.”
Fraser was soft spoken and when he ever did protest something it meant that it was very important to him. Sadly he said, “Let me not play the maiden again, I prithee, Will. Let me play some man this time.”
“You have the smoothest face, Fraser. And the most well-fashioned leg.”
“Please, an thou lovest me . . .”
“Nay, ‘tis Raymond who loves thee, and whenever and wherever he may.”
The company all laughed.
“Even so, let Raymond play the woman this time,” Fraser suggested.
“I? Play the woman? A pox on that!” protested Raymond.
“Let the whoreson wretch play my sister. It would serve him right,” observed Vance.
“But, you said the brother and sister look alike. I look nothing like Vance. Look you, he is dark and I am fair. And he’s got a nose the size of a bull’s pizzle.”
“True,” Will allowed, “But you two are of a height. And the audience will not care. We need but say that you two look alike, and they’ll buy it. They always do. So, it is settled that Raymond will be the lady, Viola. The story goes thus: Viola is shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria and she dresses as a man . . .”
“Like we’ve never heard that before,” said Vance.
“Peace, you filthy bung. Let me tell it!” Will finally lost patience with the always-complaining Vance. “She dresses as a man and gets a job serving as eunuch to a Duke, by name Orsino. Viola falls in love with the Duke Orsino. So, you may play the Duke, Fraser, and Raymond may love thee. Like there’s aught unusual in that.”
Fraser nodded eagerly. He seldom got the chance to play a male, let alone the romantic lead.
“It still likes me not that Raymond and I should be said to look the same. It defies all reason.”
“Vance, an thou dost not hold thy tongue, I’ll skewer thee! B’yr Lady, peace!”
“Well, I’ve done,” Vance muttered.
“God’s body, I hope so. Now, to go on with the story: Orsino thinks Viola is an eunuch. He sends her on his behalf to woo another lady, and that lady will be played by Francisco.”
A small, dark young man looked up shyly. “Gladly, Master Will.”
“Hey,” one of the company called out, “Francisco actually looks like Vance. They should be sister and brother.” A general rhubarb of commentary rose up in agreement.
Will sank to his knees on the wooden stage and buried his head in his hands. “Will I never have a chance to tell you all your parts? Mark me, all of you!”
Thus appealed to, the men settled down to pay attention. Will regained his composure and stood back up.
“Orsino, that is Fraser, is in love with the Lady Olivia, that is Francisco, and sends Viola, that is Raymond, to woo her on his behalf. But Olivia falls in love with Viola, thinking she is a man. Later, the brother, Sebastian, and that is Vance, encounters Olivia and she thinks he is Viola. So, you see, everybody gets confused.”
“I’m certainly confused,” put in Vance, but softly enough that all he got from Will was a dirty look.
“But the four are all wed in the end: Francisco with Vance and Raymond with Fraser. This is the main plot. We have the subplot with a fool, a Puritan and . . .”
Will went on to assign the rest of the parts. The play was performed on Twelfth Night in front of Elizabeth the First and she approved of it heartily. After the show, she sent a footman to summon Fraser Benson, who had played a most dashing Orsino, to attend to her in her bedchamber. Unfortunately for the Queen, Fraser’s interest lay elsewhere, and thus her the validity of her title, The Virgin Queen was in no way in jeopardy that night.