A Review of Charles Nicholl's The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street
The Belott-Mountjoy papers were discovered by researchers Charles and Hulda Wallace at the Public Records Office in the early years of the twentieth century. They were first published in the University of Nebraska Studies, 10/4, pp. 8-44, and have since been mentioned by every Shakespeare biographer at least in passing. Charles Nicholl has now exhaustively examined the documents again, with the eye of a skilled investigative biographer and historical prose master. The result is this wonderful work that fleshes out the life of William Shakespeare, and those of his landlord and his family and acquaintances, in the period 1603-1605, give or take. The story is absorbing, the prose splendid, its only defect being a tendency to speculate a little too freely from the evidence presented. If it weren't for speculation, however, Shakespeare biography would be a very dull field indeed.
The story of the documents is, briefly, the story of the courtship, betrothal and marriage of the apprentice of Christopher Mountjoy, a Huguenot tire maker living on the corner of Monkwell and Silver Streets near Cripplegate, London, hard upon St. Giles fields, and their famous lodger, William Shakespeare. The story is not a happy one, however, because it concerns a court suit, brought by Stephen Belott, husband of Mary Mountjoy, against his father-in-law Christopher Mountjoy, for failure to pay a dowry that was promised at the time of the betrothal and subsequent marriage. Mr. Shakespeare is involved because it was he who was asked by the mother-in-law, the dark and sympathetic Marie Mountjoy, to speak to the young couple. It seems, indeed, that it was Mr. Shakespeare who presided over the hand-fasting, or troth plighting of the couple. Mr. Shakespeare appears in the papers in the words of his deposition, his formal replies to the court's prepared questions. He is asked, pointedly, how much money the father had promised the son-in-law for dowry and, in a pre-trial questioning recalled that it was 50 pounds, but under oath, cannot recall. There are a number of other factual responses mixed with vague recollections in the deposition, and it is hurriedly signed by the man, "Willm Shaks," giving us one of only six authentic surviving signatures.
June 12, 1612. Mr. Shakespeare was a busy and highly successful theatrical impresario who couldn't be expected to recall the minute details of such a transaction occurring years before, the dismissive signature seems to suggest. And thereby hangs Nicholl's tale.
Nicholl is, most famously, the author of The Reckoning, where the murder of Christopher Marlowe gets a similar look under the magnifying lens of an indefatigable researcher and inspired writer. The Reckoning is a wonderful book. He is also the author of The Creature in the Map, dealing with Raleigh's new world exploits in search of El Dorado, and A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe, among other books. He is one of the experts on the period, then, and an accomplished prose artist. Reading him is an enormous pleasure.
The period of Shakespeare's life Nicholl is concerned with in this book is 1603-1605; the period of Othello, the great tragedy, Measure for Measure, All's Well That Ends Well, those "noirish" works, Timon of Athens, that odd, failed collaboration with Middleton, and emerging into Shakespeare's greatest work, perhaps, King Lear. While the story told in this book begins and ends with the documents in the case, the legal documents that "...are a way into the little world of Silver Street, and to Shakespeare's living presence within it." Under the skillful hand of Nicholl it also becomes "...the broader story...this unexpected little window into Shakespeare's life..." And so it is.
The story being rooted in the legal documents gives it a substantiality and palpability that is often lacking in Shakespeare biography. This is welcome. Unfortunately, or perhaps not, depending on your feelings about speculative history, the story also takes wing in fancy as Nicholl makes guesses, some inspired some farfetched, relating the events and people of the Mountjoy-Belott case to the art produced by Shakespeare during this period (and much before, perhaps).
The concrete aspects of the story are very welcome. Nicholl locates the house in which Shakespeare lodged on the Agas map, so that we can see it, though admittedly stylized, and spares no ink in fleshing out its early seventeenth century materiality. "What would you have seen, and who might you have met, if you were walking in and around Silver Street on a day in 1604?" Nicholl asks, and proceeds to tell us, deftly, in welcome detail. This is not filler for filler's sake, but is the essence of the reportorial style of the book. We see, feel, smell Windsor's garden and St. Olave's churchyard. It is a respectable neighborhood, but, as with any neighborhood in London, not far from the seamier side. Shakespeare, residing here, would have been near the parish of St. Mary Aldermanbury and his two close friends Heminge and Condell, who were both church wardens in the parish. He also would have resided not far from the less respectable George Wilkins, whose play The Miseries of Enforst Marriage was played by the King's men and who afterwards collaborated with Shakespeare in the enormously popular Perices, Prince of Tyre. Wilkins has much to do with Nicholl's narrative, because it is at his "boarding house" (read, brothel) that the young married couple Stephen and Mary, on abandoning the Mountjoy residence, went to live. Wilkins also gives a deposition in the case, but more on him anon.
Nicholl summarizes elegantly the neighborhood:
One of the more interesting passages in this section of the work is Nicholl's speculations on what Shakespeare might have seen from his chamber window. (Of course, he quickly admits no one knows which room, exactly, might have been Shakespeare's). He draws an elegant and inspired connection between the "garden circummur'd with brick, / Whose western side is with a vineyard back'd," with its "planched gate" into the vinyard with Lord Windsor's walled garden to the west of the Silver Street residence. The lines were written in 1604 (most likely) and in all probability, written from the very room.
So much for the physicality of the house, neighbourhood, and very chamber occupied by Shakespeare. The story becomes more complicated when Nicholl introduces the Mountjoy family and associates. Mounjoy and his wife Marie were fugitive Huguenots, aliens in a strange land, who through diligence rose in the world of high fashion. The tire making business (makers of the fanciful headgear worn by Elizabethan and Jacobean women) was the right business at the right time to make for prosperity. Nicholl takes time to provide the cultural context in which the Mountjoys found themselves, and throws a deft spotlight on the anti-alien feelings of the Englanders of the day. In the early 1590s, times were hard and aliens made convenient scapegoats. Nicholl also hints at, though cannot exactly document, an air of sexual between the elder Mountjoys. Marie is a visitor to the famous doctor Simon Forman in this respect, as she appears in his casebooks. It is all rather vague, but Nicholl weaves a consistent story about the slender references. This, I think, might be my only serious criticism of the book, that there appears to be a surprising amount of speculative gossip for such a serious study. As I say, however, it depends on how you feel about speculative history. If we banish speculative gossip, many Shakespeare biographies would shrink significantly.
The description of tire making and the trade in wigs I found to be somewhat interesting, but many readers may find it less than scintillating. It is dressed up with references to the greats of the age, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth herself, James' Queen Anne, Lord and Lady Carey, and so on. It was the world where high society fashion and show business intersected, and at the nexus we are not surprised to find Shakespeare. The technical discussion of tire making might have been dispensed with, but on the other hands, scholars may find this one of the most useful parts of the book.
As with hundreds of Shakespeare biographers before him, Nicholl cannot resist detours into set pieces about the works of Shakespeare; the role of strangers in the plays, for example: a minor Frenchman M. LeBon in The Merchant of Venice, Dr. Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Othello himself, and Aaron in Titus Andronicus, are expounded upon, though they have little or nothing to do with the Mountjoy narrative. The works of Shakespeare are to his biographers like the head of King Charles is to Mr. Dick in David Copperfield. No matter where they start out, they can't keep them out of their discussions. The subject is so compelling that the biographer can hardly be blamed. It only rises to a fault in the hands of Nicholl when it becomes too speculative, His discussion of the darkness of the dark lady of the Sonnets is the most prominent example in the work (chapter 20). "We seem to find that Shakespeare was sexually drawn to dark, foreign-looking women, and one could say that the idea of foreignness was sparky and exciting to him in other ways" (192). Indeed. What this has to do with anything in the Mountjoy case remains unclear, but then, we do not share Mr. Dick's perspective either.
A more significant and interesting aspect of the story involves Shakespeare's collaborator in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, George Wilkins. In fact, he is given a section of the book himself, called "Sex & the City." Actually, it is more depressing than interesting, and Nicholl does his best to explain how the successful and fastidious Shakespeare could have become involved with such a low-life character. Wilkins literary output was brief, but popular. He authored a pamphlet Three Miseries of Barbary in 1607, the successful The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, played by the King's Men in 1607, a novelization of the Pericles story in 1608, which probably broke his relationship with the King's Men, and a couple of collaborations with Dekker and John Day. After this he seems to have descended into an inveterate life of crime, which Nicholl details by giving an exhaustive account of his police record topped with his savage acts of brutality to the prostitutes for whom he pimped.
Wilkins is important in the Mountjoy story, however, because he runs a tavern-cum-brothel on Turnmill Street where the young married couple, Stephen and Mary Belott, flee after leaving the residence on Silver Street after the undoubted blow-up with the tight fisted Christopher Mountjoy. Nicholl goes so far as to say, in fact, that "The arrival of the Belotts in Wilkins's house marks the first known connection between Wilkins and Shakespeare" (207). Well, "known," yes, but likely? Who knows. Nicholl goes a little too quickly here in establishing concrete relationships from the fuzziest of details. Nevertheless it makes for a good story, which Nicholl dresses up as best he can with period details ("Prunes are often associated with brothels: possibly they were considered aphrodisiac" and Mr. Dick-like, "Pistol, an habitue of bawdy houses, 'lives upon mouldy stewed prunes..." (219)) and theatrical associations "It occurs to me that Marina in the bawdy house at Myteline might have some traces of a real person in a real situation -- Mary Belott in the house of Wilkins" (223). As I say, the only real fault in this book lies in the prevalence of too many loosely speculative scenarios.
In summing up the section of the book titled "Sex & the City" Nicholl says "If I had to sum up the relationship between Shakespeare and Marie Mountjoy I would way only that she was his friend -- a description of her at once bland and deeply resonant. If there was something more, it remains a secret between them" (248). A serious historical study would never have included that final sentence, a speculative, popular biography could not do without it. This book is elegant, entertaining, but certainly not cautious. In fact, on occasion it verges on the downright incautious. In speaking of Mary Belott "of whom we know next to nothing," Nicholl admits, he asks "Was it Mary's hands Shakespeare saw in his mind's eye when he wrote in Pericles of a girl weaving silk 'with fingers long, small, white as milk?'" (270). Most of the book Nicholl in truly engaging and informative, but one in a while, as this passage illustrates, he slips beyond the bounds of historical prudence into the irresistible terra incognita of the fictive. He is redeemed by the many warnings he gives the reader about the limits of our factual knowledge, and his willingness to label speculation for what it is.
One of the chief benefits of owning the book is the Appendix which reprints the chief documents relating to the Belott-Mountjoy case (which seemed to just fade over time, and never came to a satisfactory conclusion for Belott, by the way), and adds other documents not commonly available elsewhere, like Mountjoy's will, with its odd mathematics (1620), Belott's petition to the House of Lords (1621) and Belott's will (1646).
For its engaging prose, careful research, and documentary foundation I rate the book highly, for its few unfortunate excesses of speculation I give it four and a half diamonds rather than a full five.