Michael Dirda

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, February 3, 2008


His Life on Silver Street

By Charles Nicholl

Viking. 378 pp. $26.95

"On Monday 11 May 1612, William Shakespeare gave evidence in a lawsuit at the Court of Requests of Westminster. His statement, or deposition, was taken down by a clerk of the court, writing in an averagely illegible hand on a sheet of paper measuring about 12 x 16 inches. . . . At the end of the session Shakespeare signed his name at the bottom. It is one of six surviving signatures, and the earliest of them (though it can hardly be called early: he was forty-eight years old and already in semi-retirement). He signs quickly and rather carelessly. . . . But what makes this document special is not just -- not even primarily -- the signature. It is the anonymously scripted text above it, the text which the signature authenticates as Shakespeare's sworn statement. We know the thousands of lines he wrote in plays and poems, but this is the only occasion when his actual words are recorded."

These opening sentences from Charles Nicholl's latest work of what one might call historical detection neatly display some of their author's skills as a storyteller. Note the exact details (date, size of paper), the touch of humor ("averagely illegible hand"), the pointing up of context (one of six signatures, Shakespeare in semi-retirement) and the quiet rhetorical flourish (the only occasion recording his actual words). Moreover, the prose moves steadily along, eschews gush, jargon and digression, and generally inspires confidence. This is the voice of a man who knows his stuff. A pro.

Nicholl has, in fact, been publishing books about aspects of the Renaissance for most of his literary career. They range from the youthful and technical The Chemical Theatre -- about the use of alchemical lore in Elizabethan drama -- to his recent Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind. He's written about the search for El Dorado and, in a departure, about the African adventures of the poet-turned-gunrunner Arthur Rimbaud. Still, Nicholl remains best known as the author of The Reckoning, a thrilling re-creation of the life, world and death of Christopher Marlowe.

As in the Marlowe book, The Lodger Shakespeare enhances our sense of a great dramatist's work and world by looking at the people around him. "Every contact leaves traces" -- according to a guide to police technique -- and from this particular court appearance we learn that Shakespeare not only knew a French family called Mountjoy, but at one time had lodged with them in Silver Street. That was likely around 1602-04, when he was producing such bitter sexual dramas as "Othello," "All's Well That Ends Well," and "Measure for Measure." This last, in particular -- the most notorious of the "problem plays" -- strikes a tone that is "elusive, blurred, faintly unwholesome. . . . The admirable characters are not entirely likeable, and the likeable characters not at all admirable."

Eight years later, in 1612, Shakespeare was called to testify because he had helped bring about the marriage of young Mary Mountjoy to the apprentice Stephen Belott. Now Belott was claiming that he was owed money by his penny-pinching father-in-law, the "tiremaker" Christopher Mountjoy; he'd never been given the promised "portion" or dowry. The Mountjoys and their servants designed and fabricated elaborate hair decorations called "tires" or "attires." One might think of these as super-sized tiaras. At one point, the family even supplied tires to Queen Anne, the wife of James I. But we also know that plenty of upscale prostitutes liked to wear them.

Nicholl describes in detail -- perhaps more detail than some readers will want -- the operation of a tire-making shop. But, then, this is his technique: There are chapters on the character of the neighborhood around Silver Street (doctors, tradesmen), the books that Shakespeare would likely have kept in his pied-¿-terre away from the brouhaha of the Globe (Holinshed's Chronicles, Plutarch's Lives, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Montaigne's essays); the attitude in London to foreigners, especially the French; theatrical costuming; and the legal validity of "handfasting" (and whether the young couple could engage in sex after making this nuptial pledge).

It was apparently quite common for writers to take rooms in tradesmen's houses like that of the Mountjoys. "We hear of Robert Greene living, and dying, in the house of a 'cordwainer' (leather-worker) in Dowgate; of Ben Jonson lodged 'at a comb-maker's shop about the Elephant and Castle'; of Matthew Roydon 'making his abode' at a shoemaker's house in the Blackfriars; of [Thomas] Nashe billeted with the catchpenny printer John Danter in Hosier Lane." But, Nicholl reminds us, Shakespeare wasn't hard up, and he owned property in Stratford. He was simply renting an apartment in town, "which is a different matter."

Nicholl's research (and that of others before him) reveals that the Mountjoy household was full of sexual irregularity. Christopher, the mean-hearted father, was frequently accused of lechery (and after the death of his wife, Marie, gave his servant girls a few illegitimate children). We know Marie visited the notorious astrologer Simon Forman on more than one occasion, first for help in locating some lost property, then for advice on a possible pregnancy due to an affair with one Henry Wood. Even more suggestively, George Wilkins -- a flamboyant rascal, whoremonger and would-be dramatist -- was among the family's acquaintances: Daughter Mary and her new husband rented rooms from him.

Sex, then, was rampant around the Mountjoy household, profession and associates. Christopher even owned a house in Brentford -- the city of choice for illicit couples wanting a weekend of fun. In London "trulls, trots, molls, punks, queans, drabs, stales, nuns, hackneys, vaulters, wagtails -- in a word, whores -- were everywhere." We are reminded that Shakespeare appears to have been drawn to dark, foreign women, whom he found "sparky" and "exciting."

So Nicholl eventually asks the question that has been hovering in the background throughout his study of the Mountjoys and their world: "Do we look through that metaphorical window in Silver Street and see the middle-aged Shakespeare 'at his game' with the landlady? The answer must be no -- not because it definitely never happened, but because we cannot know if it happened. An aura of sexual intrigue hangs about the house, a frisson which various hints -- illegitimate children, the affair with Henry Wood, the clientele of courtesans, the house in Brentford -- have suggested is intrinsic to these particular people with whom he lived. . . . 'Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silk betray thy heart to women,' warns crazy Tom in King Lear-- words Shakespeare wrote in around 1605, possibly in this very house which seems so full of exactly these dangers. . . . If I had to sum up the relationship between Shakespeare and Marie Mountjoy I would say 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."

That's really lovely.

Usefully, Nicholl reprints in his extensive appendices to this engrossing book the Mountjoy documents he cites. Doubtless, this will make the book more attractive to scholars. But ordinary readers, especially those with a taste for historical detection, will simply enjoy the way Nicholl recreates "the physical and cultural circumstances" of one brief and strange period in Shakespeare's life. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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