The Player King
MY TALE BEGINS in Oxford, England, in the Year of our Lord 1486. At the time, I was living, sleeping, and forever working in a place known as Tackley’s Tavern on the High Street. The tavern was a deep, cellar place, darkful, foul, and loud-tongued so that of all the never-ending chores I was required to do, the one task I truly liked was going out to fetch the bread. Only then did I gain a bit of daylight liberty.
When I went walking out that morning, a rare, bright sun was over loft. It had rained the night before, so the city stench was but slight. The High Street was crowded with children, women, and men,
plus dogs and pigs. There were scholars, beggars, clerics, soldiers, and merchants, including wealthy folk in their finery. The clothing most wore was far better than my own tattered brown tunic, and their feet were wrapped in leather, not mud as were mine. A goodly number of people were even clean. As for the dog and pigs, they, like me, were mostly skin and bones, all slubberly with soot.
The street was lined by three-story timbered houses that leaned over my head while all kinds of pretty flags fluttered. Painted and carved signs proclaimed what was being sold in shops. Keepers of stalls were crying, “New onions!” “Spices!” “Meat pies!”
Being always hungry, I would have much loved to have devoured a round dozen pies. Alas, I possessed not so much as a farthing, the smallest coin in the kingdom—one fourth of a penny.
It was as I passed before All Saints Church that I heard the swirl of pipe and beating drum. Observing that a crowd had gathered, I was curious to learn the reason why. I was always wishing to enjoy a free pastime, so I wiggled to the front.
To my great delight, what I saw was a band of
players about to perform an interlude on a rickety platform before a frayed cloth. The cloth, hanging from a rope, bore a painting of a castle. Musicians stood on either side of the platform, one playing a recorder, the other thumping a tabor. A woman held up a banner with words, which no doubt explained what story was to be mimed. It mattered nothing to me that I could not read: Street interludes were usually full of jolly sport and I loved them.
Three players—all men—strode out from behind the painted cloth. They wore motley costumes, multi-patched and many colored. One man had a black beard tied to his chin, and a crumped crown—something colored gold—on his head. I guessed he was meant to be a king.
In one hand, this player king dangled a live piglet—a blue ribbon tied round its head—which squealed and twisted about in great distress. In the king’s other hand was a large sword made of wood.
Just to see it all made me grin.
Two other players, dressed as women, knelt before the king and held up their hands, as if begging.
“Oh, great King Solomon,” one of them cried in a
loud, high-pitched voice. “That sweet babe is mine!”
No sooner did “she” say this than the piglet let out an unruly squeal. That sent the crowd into loud laughter, in which I joined.
Then the other pretend woman cried, “Not true, beloved King. It is my beautiful child!”
The piglet gave yet another scritching scream, which pleased the crowd even more. My empty stomach hurt with laughing.
In a loud voice, the player king proclaimed, “Since I am the great king Solomon, full of noble wisdom, it is for me to decide to which of you this child belongs. Since you both say this babe is yours, I shall cut him in twain, so each may have half.” He lifted his sword.
“Yes,” said one of the women, “that’s the wisest thing to do.”
“No! No!” cried the other woman. “Don’t do that, O great King. Let the child live whole with her, rather than cut him in two.”
“Aha!” said the king. “Surely true love always champions life. Thus, a woman who does not wish the child to die must be the real mother. I say, let her have it.”
With that, he handed the piglet to the woman, who caused the beast to squeak and wrenk so much it broke free, and the king and two women had to scuddle madly to catch it.
This prompted the crowd to the greatest crowing of all, in which I joined with utmost glee.
These players retired behind the castle cloth, but two others came forth, including yet another who was meant, I think, to be God the Father, because a halo was fastened to his head and a white beard was tied to his chin. Another man—called Noah—held a goblet and acted drunk. Though God warned him a great flood would come unless he stopped drinking, this Noah drank anyway, so God dumped a filled piss-pot over him. The crowd roared.
Oh, how I adored such jests.
Finally, two men came forward and began to do a jig as the musicians played. The most nimble was the player king. The other players—in their costumes—walked about with hats, begging for coins.
The interlude over, I pushed through the crowd intent upon going on to the bakery. The comedy had filled me with joy.
It was only when I stepped back into the High
Street that I realized a friar had followed me and now stood staring after me. I recognized him as a Dominican priest, of the order known as Black Friars because they wore black cloaks over white robes.
He was a tall, sinewy man, his pate shaved on top, tonsure style. He had a smooth, narrow-headed, and sharp-chinned face, piercing eyes, a long nose, and small, somewhat pointy ears. Pale hands, which emerged from his black cloak, were clasped piously over his robes, while his delicate fingers suggested he pushed pens, not plows. On his slender feet he wore sandals.
I recalled having seen this priest at Tackley’s Tavern any number of times. He always made me think of a sleek hunter’s hound. But this time, the way he stood there looking at me suggested I was a rabbit, which he had a mind to catch, cook, and eat.
Refusing to have him dull my spirits, I gave him no further heed and continued on to the bakery. But I shall tell you true: If this priest had never seen me, my life would have been very different.