Open Mike Night at the Mermaid Tavern
Tell Us Another One
by Nicholas Rasche
The following text was first discovered in the Elizabethan collection of the British Museum in 1922, and initially caused great excitement as it was believed to be the only extant piece of correspondence between William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Due to the vagaries of Elizabethan spelling, it was some time before it was realised that the letter was actually sent from Willem Shapster, a London grain merchant and amateur talent agent, to his second cousin Ben Jameson. The text fell into obscurity and was only recently rediscovered by the Department of History at the Benny Hill Academy of Stage, TV and Film™ (‘Let us make you a STAR!!!!!!’). Despite the disappointment surrounding its provenance, it still provides us with a startling glimpse into the live performance world of London in the 1580s’ its peculiarities and — perhaps most of all — its haunting familiarity.
The first page is lost, but scholars are confident that the location referred to is the legendary Mermaid Tavern, where for the first five Fridays after Michelmas, aspiring jesters were admitted to the stage regardless of their social station, performance history, or chance of survival. Wenches drank for free.
The surviving text begins as follows:
The first jester being called upon to perform, he greeted the crowd with a hearty ‘Halloa!’ There was i’truth the merest smattering of applause, but the jackanapes bowed full and deep in feigned humility before he did launch upon his routine, which to the best of my recollection was like unto the following.
‘Truly, my masters, you are a right generous audience. I prithee, give yourselves a resounding ovation. Ah, truly wonderful 'tis to be once more among your goodly selves in this great city of London. Truth be told, I have but late returned from Sussex. Now, is't anyone here from Sussex?’
Here a churl from the audience seated hard by the stage roared ‘Aye’ with a fierce passion.
The jester responded ‘Never concern yourself, I shall speak more slowly. Nay, I but jest. The Sussex yeomanry are as stout and true a body of men as you shall find anywhere in Albion. Give'st my greetings to your mother and goodwife — if they be not one and the same.’
This was the occasion for a deep full-throated swell of laughter from the villeins there assembled. Emboldened, the jester would have continued, I ween, had not the Sussex churl bellowed ‘Poxy knave!’, launched himself at the stage and set about the jester with his cudgel. The good barkeep summoned the constables, who at length were able to end the affray and removed the whoreson dog, but the jester was pronounced quite unfit to continue. He was sent to the apothecary for a good bleeding.
The show, as they say, must continueth. Jester the second made his appearance, a pale-faced, knock-kneed milksop of a man. Many a cough did he give before speaking in a quavering tone, thusly:
‘Prithily, there were these two coxcombs who took it into their heads to enter a tavern forthwith. Therein many and many an ale was sunk, aye, and truly the host was struck dumb with amazement at their prodigious thirst. Presently, turns he to one and says, 'I would fain know what strange power 'tis that thus lends speed to your elbow, good sir.' And the scurvy rogue makes his reply so, “Tis not a Shropshire orchard, fellow, that thou keep'st such a bawdy house. Take that for thy pains and never seek to take from the serpent his sting!’”’
Truly coz, it pains me to report what a deep and vasty silence this jest did occasion. The poor fool spake again.
‘Tarry, gentles, I fear I have got that wrong. A moment.’
Herein the fool did con his notes. Many a shout of ‘Get off!’ and ‘Let us hear another!’ were heard. Boldly, he made to reply,
‘I'faith, I remember when supped I my first ale.’
Several were heard to groan at th' utterance of this old chestnut. The knave spoke again.
‘What, I beg of thee, may be called the difference between a chandler and a stabled ox? Because the chandler for to ply his trade knows not of the sharp tongue of the farmer's eldest child!’
The silence admitting of no respite, the fool did make as to tap upon his rattle.
‘Be this on?’ quoth he.
Kinder hands did lead him off before physical hurt were to come to him. The mood of the crowd, thus far unsatisfied, did start to grow restive and dangerous for the next rascal, who did bound onto the stage as one who knows no fear, and speaking without hesitation or pause.
‘Is't cold in here, or be I just dead?’
To a melancholy apprentice in the first row, he remarked ‘Cheer up, sport, 'tis as sure as elevenpence the wench merits not your tears. Wenches, a man may neither endure his life bound to one nor incommoded of the comfort of their welcoming arms. Am I right, gentles?’
This being met with raucous cheers from the male rogues in attendance (my voice, I own, among them), he did pump his fist i’the unfeeling air and barked he like a mangy cur.
‘So, how is't with our fair queen Elizabeth? 'Tis much bruited about she is a maiden unknown to the touch of man. Let me tell thee, if our just monarch be a virgin, the hair upon our barkeep's head be a thick and lust'rous mane!’
Much hilarity ensued, as the popular host is renowned far and wide for lacking a single hair upon his pate.
‘And how about that Earl of Stratford, eh, good folk? I'd wager the price of a plate of good eels, there walks one who's never known a woman's touch!’ Here the jester did stride to and fro with a gait of exaggerated effeminacy, and his hand loose-wristed did he wave to the crowd, who, much taken with the merriment, did roar and pound the table with their mugs.
‘I bid thee take care, 'tis a very old building. Whoops!’
Fell he down with a great crash and bounded up again with a great grin.
‘Methinks the Sussex churl spread a little of his life's blood here. Forsooth, how does the Earl of Essex? I hear his noble self is not of a little importance to one who…’
At this point, guardsmen did enter the tavern and charge all present begone on pain of internment. The jester made a dash for the window, but found himself ensconced in the frame. The soldiers removed him hence and he was conveyed to the Tower and the next day had his neck broken for the crimes of High Treason and Seditious Libel.
In trust, dear coz, this business they call ‘show’ is truly a harsh mistress.
Trusting all is well with you and your goodly wife,