Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Book Review: The Lodger Shakespeare

The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street
Charles Nicholl
Viking Penguin, New York (2008 -- American edition)

I doff my proverbial cap to any scholar who has to rely upon pre-19th Century English records as his primary sources. The vagaries in spelling alone twist your eyeballs inside-out (not to mention the inconsistent data and the tendency of fires to destroy everything every few years). And, if that scholar happens also to be writing in a biographical way of William Shakespeare, he has my respect two-fold. Infuriating Will lurks in the shadows of history, confounding those who would extract him from his enigmatic repose. So, many books about the Bard that tend toward the biographical, rather than literary, are long on speculation and extrapolation, short on facts and corroboration.

But, that does not mean they cannot be a lot of fun.

Charles Nicholl certainly has a lot of fun, it seems, coaxing out a vivid and entertaining tale of the people and situations that surrounded Shakespeare in the two years when history can actually pinpoint his lodgings. The bare facts are as follows: In 1612, William Shakespeare gave testimony and signed a deposition at the Court of Requests in Westminster. The case was a family dispute brought by the son-in-law of Mr. Mountjoy -- a man who had let a room to Shakespeare nearly ten years before. The son-in-law, Mr. Bellot, claimed that Mountjoy had promised to pay him a dowry of £60 when he married Mountjoy's daughter in 1604. Shakespeare gave evidence that, as he was living in the Mountjoy house on Silver Street at that time (from 1603-1605), he did remember that a dowry was promised, but could not recall the sum mentioned. Then, he signed his name -- the short way: Willm Shaks -- and that was that.

But, since this is one of the rare glimpses of the man who was, inarguably, England's greatest playwright, that could not possibly be left at that. In The Lodger Shakespeare, Nicholl takes this gossamer court account and spins from it a narrative equal parts concrete and fancy. The Mountjoys, French Huguenot immigrants and tradesmen specializing in wigs and elaborate hair adornments ('tiremaking'), certainly got around, and Nicholl found traces of them all over surviving records of the era. He has also found intriguing little bits on other players in the life of the Bard, and he leaves no stone unturned in connecting the people, places and interactions of this widespread group into a web that rests lightly on the estimable shoulders of Shakespeare.

Really, I don't know how he managed to keep his wits about him while doing the research for this book. I suspect that either an abiding love of Shakespeare or massive doses of Advil got him through. 16th and 17th Century handwriting is almost indecipherable -- and this is from clerks, ministers and other learned men; you can only imagine what the script of the barely literate was like. The spelling is a thing of wild beauty and utter incomprehensibility -- they spelled words as they sounded to the speaker; and spelling varied with regional accents. The first plate in the book's illustrations is the deposition, featuring the famous signature. Charles and Hulda Wallace, who discovered these papers in 1909, must have had thrice the collective patience of Job even to have found this historical treasure. I'm sure that I would have given up looking at wretched, yellowed manuscripts and gone off to drink long before I unearthed the precious document.

So, when I think of Charles Nicholl bending his head over page after page of parish registries, ancient journals, and royal records of payment, I am grateful on two accounts. The first is that the records survive at all -- for this was a fascinating era. The second is that he did it, not I, and that he so kindly recorded his findings for me to enjoy leisurely in bed with a cup of tea. Excellent!

In The Lodger Shakespeare, Will does not dominate the action -- because we have no real insight into his extra-theatrical doings -- but he is the center. It is like a Six Degrees of William Shakespeare adventure. People march through the scenes -- the Mountjoys, the Bellots, the irritable and unstable George Wilkins, fallen women, debauched men, quacks and royalty -- and their lives only really matter now because they may just have come into contact with the Man from Avon. And yet, their lives mattered very much to them at the time. Nicholl mines their stories and rounds out their characters with an eye for the colorful supposition. Was Marie Mountjoy's dead infant son a bastard? Were Stephen and Mary Bellot ever really in love? Could Christopher Mountjoy have really despised his daughter that much? Was Sir William Devenant actually Shakespeare's illegitimate son? Was George Wilkins career with The King's Men cut short by Shakespeare? And did Dr. Forman's methods ever work for anybody?

Most of all: How did these places where Shakespeare dwelt and these people with whom he interacted affect his work? Did they inspire and amuse him? Repulse and annoy him? Did their dramas ever find their ways onto the stage at The Globe? We'll never know, of course. Nicholl knows throughout that this is a type of game that writer and reader have agreed to play. We do not know anything more about the Man or the Author Shakespeare at the end of this book. But we do know more about his surroundings and his interactions and the world in which he lived. And that is a gift and the very joy of this book.

Bill Bryson wrote in his brief, witty, and free-wheeling biography, Shakespeare: The World as Stage (HarperCollins, 2007), "It is diverting to imagine a tired and no doubt overstressed William Shakespeare trying to write Measure for Measure or Othello ( both probably written [in 1604]) in an upstairs room over a background din of family arguments" (pp 137-138). Of course, Bryson is right. It is fun to imagine all the things that Shakespeare saw and heard and what he must have thought of them -- with that unparalleled ability of his to capture the comedy and tragedy of the human condition. Nicholl has given us more than merely the Bellot-Mountjoy squabble to contemplate. He has given us a vivid snapshot of early Jacobean London, with just enough Shakespeare in it to keep you awake nights wondering just what that keen eye and ready wit made of the scenes around him. That alone makes this volume a worthy addition to the ever-growing body of work that seeks out the elusive Bard.

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