Whitehall, March 1592
'The Queen comes! Lights, ho!'
It is night, and a Thames mist has crept over Whitehall, so the great sprawl of the palace is almost hid from sight.
'Bring lights!' come the voices again, and the doors of the great hall are flung open, and a hundred shining lanterns blaze into the foggy night, and serving men rush out, torches aflame, to show the way.
And here she is, great Gloriana, and a light comes off her too, as she progresses towards the wide entrance and its gaggle of waiting gentlemen, and the Master of the Revels puffing on the steps. There never was a mortal such as she. Behind her is the moving tableau of her ladies, silver and white like the nymphs of Nysa. Beyond them, the spluttering torches and the night sky. She is set among the fire-illuminated faces like a great jewel, so that as I look at her I blink to save my sight. Her face is white as bone, her lips the colour of new-spilt blood. Her eyes, dark and darting, take in all before her and give nothing back. And her hair, the copper hue of turning leaves, is dressed high in plaits and curlicues and riddled with pearls.
'Is Mr Burbage with us?' she demands, as she sets her small foot on the bottom step. 'Is he within? We've heard this is a comedy we want his promise we shall be forced to laugh.'
I look down at the skirts of her farthingale, which is of Genoa velvet, glittering with a multitude of ant-sized gems.
The Master of the Revels makes his lowest bow. 'He is waiting, Your Majesty. He and the playwright are inside.'
'Is it witty?' she demands of him. 'We are in peevish spirits. This cloaked-up night disquiets us.'
'I laughed until I thought I had the palsy,' says the Master of the Revels. 'I trust it will divert Your Majesty.'
'Trust! Hmm. You are amusing us already. What did you say it was called?'
'It is The Taming of the Shrew, Your Majesty.'
'Ha!' says the Queen. Which could mean anything. I follow her whispering, simpering retinue and we go inside.
At one end of the long banqueting hall is a grand archway, built after the manner of the theatre at Venice. The archway shows a magnificent Roman street lined with gold and marble columns. Above the street is a plaster firmament. King Henry built the banqueting hall in the years of his great glory, and the ceiling, which swirls with choirs of angels, seems nearly high enough to reach to heaven itself, while the walls are hung with cloth-of-gold and tissue like the hazy outskirts of a dream. The most powerful lords and ladies in England are perched upon the stools and benches which are ranged before the stage, and above them all, upon a raised dais, stands the throne. It glitters as the pages bear their lanterns into the hall, dividing into twin processions of golden light. Even this seat itself has its own air of expectancy, as if it shares the Queen's fine discernment and knows what makes the difference between what is merely diverting, and what is worthy of royal acclaim.
The Queen processes to her throne and sits upon it with great exactness, and her ladies arrange themselves around her. When all are assembled, and after much bowing and flummery, the play begins. After a few moments, I see that this is a work of the direst cruelty. And I form the opinion that the playwright whoever he might be is nothing better than a rat-souled scoundrel who thinks that belittling a woman will make him twice the man. He is not content that a woman has no more freedom than a house-dog. Nor that she does not even own the chair she sits upon, nor go to school, nor follow a profession (unless she is a widow who must work in her dead husband's place). No. He must make a mock of her, and push her down still further, till her face is squashed into the street-mud. And what grates such fellows most of all is one like me: a woman with a fiery spirit, and a quick tongue.
Excerpted from Dark Aemilia by Sally O'Reilly. Copyright © 2014 by Sally O'Reilly. Excerpted by permission of Picador. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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