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Reading Charles Nicoll’s masterly slice into Shakespeare’s life story The Lodger has made me reflect on the frustrations of knowing so little about him. We have an outline of his life, we have some vital statistics and a family tree, and we have a beautiful setting in Stratford-on-Avon for its beginning and end. There are such enormous gaps, and the desire to know more about the mind that created the body of plays that we know makes the temptation to fill them irresistible. A visit to Stratford is enough to tell us how far that can take us – such a conveniently lovely place as a setting for our imaginative reconstruction of his world; however, as a location for the Shakespeare of our imagination, it raises doubts – how did all the exotic locations, the world of stories, the wealth of characters we find in the plays come teeming out of that pretty, prosperous, provincial little town?
The Lodger however reminds us that the core of his creative life was spent in London, and London was a wildly different place from Stratford. Taking a small slice of that London life, and its aftermath, Charles Nicholl triumphantly demonstrates the extent to which Shakespeare was a creature of this cosmopolitan city, how far it fed his imagination and inspired his theatrical world.
Documentary records of Shakespeare’s life are few, and examples of his handwriting even fewer. A single, tiny example is the starting point for this book, which covers a particular passage of Shakespeare’s London life, from about 1603 to 1612. Shakespeare’s signature appears in a witness statement in a case before the Court of Requests in 1612. It is a fragment full of intriguing lines of enquiry that Charles Nicholl follows in an ingenious way, shining a spotlight on the handful of years around 1604 when Shakespeare had lodgings with an artisan family in Silver Street in the City of London. This lodging is in the house of Christopher Mountjoy and his wife Marie, makers of the fantastic head-dresses known as tires, or attires, confections of gold wire, spangles and feathers. Years after Shakespeare left the house, he is called as a witness in a case concerning a marriage dowry. We know, because this is sworn testimony, that he was a sufficiently intimate and trusted member of the household to act as a go-between to secure the marriage of Mary Mountjoy, the daughter of the house, to Stephen Belott, Mountjoy’s apprentice – to the extent possibly even of presiding over a hand-fasting, a more or less binding betrothal. Now Mountjoy is accused of reneging on his promise of a dowry, and Shakespeare is reluctantly dragged back into the affairs of a family one can’t help felling he tired of and was happy to leave.
This single document, discovered many years ago but never fully exploited, is the starting point for a remarkable display of data mining, illuminating a particularly fruitful period of Shakespeare’s writing career, covering Othello, Measure for Measure and King Lear. The Mountjoys are French Protestants, part of a rich cosmopolitan mix of communities in London. Silver Street, now completely lost under modern development near the Barbican, is in an artisan quarter, inhabited by craftsmen in precious metals, but hard by taverns, slums and brothels. The theatres of Shoreditch are a stone’s-throw away. Tire-making is a fascinating trade, where fashion and theatre meet. Tires are adornments for aristocratic and royal ladies, for actors, and for whores. Nicholl excavates these subjects, and also searches the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries for the evidence that their authors’ imagination had been fed by this exciting, gamey city. Shakespeare’s London is a far, far more exciting and intriguing place than Shakespeare’s Stratford. Nicholl finds traces of the people from its streets in the minor characters of the plays, their preoccupations and turns of phrase. He also gives a strong flavour of the city’s ‘creative industry’ – the playwrights, poets and pamphleteers, writing alone, collaborating, and all feeding off London’s vibrant street culture.
And then there are the Mountjoys themselves. They left many more traces in the records than Shakespeare does. They are at the top of their trade – Marie is at one point a tirewoman to Queen Anne. Chistopher Mountjoy is one of a huge number of immigrant tradesmen from London, who becomes naturalised in due course. His sex life is complicated, as is his wife’s. They appear in the records of the doctor and necromancer Simon Forman (the focus for an earlier attempt at a breakthrough in Shakespeare’s biography, A L Rowse’s study of Forman’s records, which excitingly for a while gave us a candidate for the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. It is sad that the discrediting of his identification of Emilia Lanier overshadows the remarkable discovery Rowse made in the Forman papers). Marie Mountjoy regularly consults Forman (including asking for him to use his diviner’s gift in the matter of rings and a gold coin lost from her purse). Mountjoy comes across as irascible and mean – the case arises because he has thrown off his daughter and her husband. Marie has a sufficiently easy relationship with Shakespeare to ask him to act as the family’s friend in furthering her daughter’s marriage. Did this go further? We have no idea – Marie Mountjoy’s life is far more a matter of record than Shakespeare’s. In a neat illustration of what a small world this is, after the breach with her father, the Belotts go to live with George Wilkins, writer, wheeler-dealer and criminal, who is also a witness in the case, and also highly likely to be the co-author with Shakespeare of Pericles. These characters shine through – the Mountjoys, Belotts, George Wilkins – they could people a work of imaginative fiction, but they are real; Shakespeare remains the enigma.
So, this ingenious book tells us far more about London, its quarters, its inhabitants and their activities and habits, about the trades, the theatrical world, the mindset of its citizens than ever it does about Shakespeare the man. In the end, I am left feeling a sort of sardonic affection for him. Good old Will – he has evaded capture again. There are shreds of evidence to help us build up a picture of his personality: he seems to have opened up to the Mountjoys, and taken a role in their family life, that, by the tone of his deposition, he rather regrets now he has moved on. This is putting him to some trouble. By 1612, Marie is dead, Christopher is even more of a rebarbative man than he was when she was alive. Shakespeare will reluctantly testify to his part in the betrothal, but he conveniently forgets how much dowry Mountjoy promised, so he’s not much help to the Belotts, either. I wonder if, as is sometimes the way with family rows, everybody ends up behaving badly.
This is a book of immense scholarship. If there is such a thing as bravura research, (and, as a research addict, I know it when I see it) Nicholl is a great exponent, as I already knew from his remarkably fine study of the death of Marlowe, The Reckoning. (I highly recommend that work too – if anything he has more to work with, and it’s far better than many detective novels I’ve read.)
So – the frustration of chasing down Shakespeare the man: he is the arch-observer, and the arch-concealer. He is the lens that concentrates the rays of light that come from the people and places around him, from their language, their knowledge and their stories, into the plays we see on the stage. This is why, I think, his biographers are having to take the different tacks that make for such rich reading around the life of Shakespeare. Nicholl mines a single record for all this detail about London and the life in its streets in the early years of King James; James Shapiro in 1599 mines a single year to give the political and social context in which Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. It is a brilliant school of quasi-biography, immensely vivid, informative and entertaining, but which fails to lay a glove on Shakespeare. We are still left just with the bare bones, and in the end, to me, it does not matter, exciting though any future discoveries will be. He is the lens through which we see not only his plays, but the life of the world he inhabited.
Charles Nicholl. The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street. Penguin Books, 2009. 377pp