Picker and Stealer, knowing they had informations I longed to hear, did not hide their triumphant selves away for long.
Onix brought word that they wished to meet me beyond the citie wall where we first became akwaynted.
“And they bade me tell you,” sayt Onix, “that nothing will come of nothing. What mean they?”
“Recompense for their pains,” sayt I. “A fresh-caught rabbit will suffice.”
After they’d eat their fill, eyeing me all the while, they told me of their search for villain Snakes-Purr.
They spake in turns as is their way, but oft paused to cleanse their whiskers or gnaw their paws. (A trick to try my patience, and keep me in thrall.)
“We went first to Newgate, though we knew that we ourselves would gain nowt by it.
“There are more prisoners in Newgate jail than six cats could number on their claws, and all are starved. They writ to Mr Secretarie [Sir Robert Cecil], complaining of their hunger and the cold. They sayt things were better in his father’s day. Hah!
“But when we was last there we’d learnt of a poet confined for killing a player, and we sought first to know if that player were Snakes-Purr. It were not.”
“So why was this player killed? I arrkst. “Did he speak the poet’s lines ill?”
“They fought, and the player died of it. That’s all we know.
“The poet – his name is Pen – was not hanged, because he knew the neck verse. Who does not know it? And what’s one player less in this world?”
“Next we set forth to find Pen, thinking he might lead us to Snakes-Purr.”
“We went clean across the citie to Sore-Ditch [Shoreditch], where we met the cat who told us of the playhouse that was carried across the river.
“That cat’s a mad fellow. He haunts the playhouses, yet he swore that all poets – yes, and players too – stank alike to him, and he knew not one from the other.
“Then he complained that dogs are oft upon the stage, winning great applauds, but his best entrance was two winters past.
“Now hear these fine words, sayt he. Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a cat, up-tails all. He took them for his kew [cue] and ran on with his tail held high, to the joy of all beholders. But no sooner had he quit the stage than an envious player seized him and cast him out the door.
“We told him of your uncle who’d penned finer words that were stole by a player called Snakes-Purr and given out as his own. And we sayt your uncle had wrought a play most fit for cats, but what hope of its being enacted here where players are so envious? None.
“The player cat then cried: Thus and thus are we poor artists abused. He told us that Snakes-Purr could be found over the river where the Theater had been builded anew.
“He sayt wickedness abounds there. No honest cat may go safe about his business, but if it be thieves and murtherers we sought, that were the place to go.”
This was a hangover from medieval times when secular courts had no jurisdiction over the clergy. Clerics were tried by ecclesiastical courts (discussed here by April Munday) which couldn’t impose the death penalty. That gave anyone indicted for a capital offence an incentive to be tried as a member of the clergy, and the way to achieve it was to demonstrate you could read a verse from the Bible.
In medieval times the verse would have been in Latin. By Elizabethan times it was in English, making the task easier for an increasingly literate population. Better still, the courts customarily asked people to read Psalms 51:1, which became known as the neck verse because it saved your neck.
There’s no doubting Ben Jonson’s literacy, but Picker and Stealer – well-acquainted with crime – talk of knowing the neck verse, rather than being able to read it.
Also well-acquainted with crime in late 16th and early 17th century England is Professor Keith Wrightson whose lecture here on Crime and the Law includes some then-and-now statistical comparisons, and a discussion of the use of benefit of clergy in Elizabethan courts with particular reference to sheep-stealing.
Picker and Stealer did well in their search for Shakespeare. They would have made this excursion across the city in early 1600, and Shoreditch was the logical place to start looking.
There are definite traces of Shakespeare in the vicinity – failing to pay his householder’s tax in Bishopsgate, and acting in Ben Jonson’s comedy Every Man in his Humour at the Curtain playhouse in the autumn of 1598. I do hope he wasn’t the envious player who cast out the cat with theatrical aspirations.