We were well along into the play, toward the end of Act Three, Scene One, when John, playing Nick Bottom, did the strangest thing. I had just said the line, “Out of this wood do not desire to go.”
That’s when John interrupted. “Oh, Titania,” he exclaimed, as if lost in the throes of love. He startled me, for I still had several more lines to go before his next. I paused for a second and stared at him, the ass head on his shoulders obscuring whatever expression might have been on his face.
I collected myself and continued. “Therefore, go with me; I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee. Peaseblossom! Cobweb! Moth! Mustardseed!” They bounded in and the scene continued to its conclusion.
We then exited the stage, and while the next scene played out, I approached John.
“What the hell was that?”
“What are you talking about, Angie?”
“That ‘Oh, Titania’ you blurted out.”
“Oh, that. I have my reasons.”
“You can’t just go ad-libbing lines in Shakespeare.”
“Oh, my dear, I assure you it wasn’t an ad lib.”
“Oh really? Can you show me in the play just where that line was written?”
“I’ll be glad to. Meet me in my dressing room after the show’s over.”
I gave him a scowl. “You’re damn right I will.”
After the play concluded, I followed John to his dressing room, where he pulled out a marked up copy of the play. He rifled through the pages until he got to Act Three, Scene One, and pointed to the lines I’d been reading when he made his outburst.
“Okay, I see my lines, nothing more.”
“Look at the first letters of each word.”
I looked closely at the page, scanning the first letters of the lines I had read.
Out of this wood do not desire to go:
Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.
I am a spirit of no common rate;
The summer still doth tend upon my state;
And I do love thee: therefore, go with me;
I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep.
“Yes? They’re all capitals. What of them?”
John took out a pen and underlined the first letter of each line, except for the fifth line, where he underlined the first two letters. “Read it from top to bottom.”
I scanned the letters. O-T-I-T-An-I-A. “O, Titania,” I said. “That’s your reason for the outburst?”
“It’s an acrostic. Wordplay, my dear. Shakespeare surely meant something when he did that.”
“I doubt that he meant for you to vocalize it.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. Either way, it’s a fabulous little gem and it deserves notice. I was merely planting a seed in the audience’s mind. Perhaps there’s a kindred spirit out there who also notices such things. I’ve found others, you know. The Bard’s work is replete with little acrostics like this. I believe he was trying to tell us something.”
“Jeez. I think it’s just random chance. Stop trying to read so much into things, John. And no more ad-libbing Shakespeare.” I slipped off my shoes and rubbed my tired feet, then walked out of John’s dressing room.
“I won’t be silenced, Angie. There are clues hidden in the pages of these plays. Clues to something. Something important!”
Southwark, England, 400 years earlier.
“Will Shakespeare!” shouted Richard Burbage as he entered the pub. “Pay up.” He shook a manuscript in his fist as he hurried across the chamber.
Shakespeare looked up from his ale cup to Burbage, then to his friend John Heminges, who shared his table.
“What’s Burbage going off about, Will?” asked Heminges.
“A wager,” said Burbage. “One that our Will has lost.”
“What wager?” asked Heminges.
“Oh, a trifle of whimsy, merely,” said Shakespeare. “I was to guess the age of his latest mistress, a bawdy woman who goes by the moniker Titania. And in a fit of pride, I proclaimed that I would write her name as many times as her number of years in my latest play. Which I did.”
“One and forty times,” said Burbage. “One year too few, my good scrivener.”
“She’s forty-two?” asked Heminges.
“Egads, Burbage. Are you robbing graves of late, man?”
“She looks young for her age. Now, Will, kindly pay up. Five pounds, I believe it was.”
“You’ve counted all the Titanias, I take it?” asked Shakespeare.
“Ticked them off, each and every one in this very script.”
“Let me see that script.” Shakespeare took the manuscript, and shuffled through the handwritten pages. When he reached Act Three, Scene One, he held the page up to Burbage. “You’ve missed one, Rich.”
Burbage examined the page, his eyebrows furrowing and his nose wrinkling. “A hidden Titania?”
“Bringing the total to two and forty.”
“You expect me to accept that?”
“The letters do connect, Burbage,” said Heminges. “You’re not one to welch, are you, sir?”
“Oh, blast you both, it was a stupid bet in the first place, born of one too many drinks. Here!” Burbage shuffled through his purse and smacked five pounds on the table. He then turned and stormed out of the pub. Will laughed.
Heminges took a sip of ale, then asked: “Why did you hide it like that, Will? Wouldn’t it have been easier just to list the name normally one more time?”
“When I wrote the damned play, I wasn’t sure when the Stationer would register it. The old hag was forty-one at the time, but had a birthday coming up, so I gave myself an ace in the hole, so to speak.”
“Ah, well played, Will. But how did you come to guess her age in the first place?”
Shakespeare took the money and slipped it into his purse. “A woman of her sort will give up many secrets… in her bed, for the right price. Just don’t tell Burbage. I think he could bear it not!”
Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Fried Fiction, Mystic Signals and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.