If you want a conspiracy theory …

I’ll give you one …

London, 1593. A young Ben Jonson bursts into a dark, wood-panelled room. Inside there are several figures, all wearing hooded capes. They sit around a table, heads bowed.

Jonson stops in the centre of the room. Breathless, he removes his cap.

‘Milords’. He utters. ‘There is a problem with Will’.

‘There’s always a problem with Will. What is it this time?’

The voice raised its head. Removed its hood. The Earl of Southampton was revealed beneath.

‘Gentlemen. Ladies.’ The figures all followed suit.

Francis Bacon. Edward De Vere. Lady Sidney. The Queen herself.

‘Well?’

‘Pardon me your lordship, but he’s dead. Stabbed. In the eye. Fairly popped out his eyeball, it did …’ Jonson continued, ever more animated.

There was an intake of breath. The words ‘Mary, mother of God’ were uttered.

‘That’s enough Ben’.

‘Who, Ben, who?’

‘Er, it was me, sire. I killed him.’ Jonson looked to the floor, cap in hand. ‘It just happened. I was passing this tavern in Deptford, and I heard a roaring within. It was Will, three sheets to the wind. Roaring, he was. “I am not what I am” he shouted, “I am Kit Marlowe.” Some vagabond was remonstrating with him. He was shouting about how Marlowe was twice the writer of this upstart crow, Shakspear. Will threw his tankard at the fellow, who came at him with a dagger.’

Bacon was taking notes in his inimitable scrawl. The room was hushed.

‘I rushed to separate them, and beat his assailant about the head, and he dropped his dagger. Will picked it up and stabbed him. “Why the devil came you between us?” he said, as he bled there on the floor. Will then went for me. “You tell’em, Ben, you tell ’em it’s all so much stuff and nonsense.” I told him to hold his tongue. That it would come to nothing. “Nothing comes of nothing”, he shouted, and lunged at me with his bloody dagger. I bent his arm away from me, the dagger pierced his eye, and as it came out, the eyeball followed.”

‘A bloody business.’

‘Witnesses to identify you?’

‘We must send some men. Collect the body. Soothe the way with the innkeeper.’

‘Whose body?’

‘Why, Will’s of course!’

‘I am Kit Marlowe’, said Jonson.

‘He’s right. They think he’s Kit.’

‘But Kit is a cypher.’

‘Not any more. He’s dead.’

‘And what about Will. He wrote all this stuff.’

‘True, but the world is becoming more dangerous. Kit would have been arrested soon.’

‘Which would have been difficult.’

‘And Shakspear?’

‘Well, if he and Kit died on the same day … I have an idea.’

‘Go on, Francis.’

‘Will’s pretty unknown here in town. We kill Kit. Have an inquest, make out that he was an intelligencer, an atheist, a sodomite, even … then his work will be over with, but survive.’

‘And what of Will?’

‘Well, we carry on Will’s good work. He was good, but not that good. We can do better.’

‘With Will as a name.’

‘Indeed. We carry on with Shakspear’s work, but make it a little more useful to us. More subtill. Call Burbage. I have a plan.’

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