I never fail to be impressed by popular writing on Shakespeare’s life. Authors manage to squeeze three hundred pages out of the most meager facts, often by writing generally about life in Shakespeare’s England. To distinguish itself from other Shakespeare biographies, Charles Nicholl’s book The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, like James Shapiro’s 1599, limits itself to a specific time (c. 1603-5), but more interestingly, to a specific place: the house on Silver Street where Shakespeare lodged in northwest London. Nicholl’s is a clever choice, since of the paltry Shakespearean biographical facts, a goodly chunk of them relate to his testimony in a court case concerning his landlord on Silver Street. Nicholl draws on Shakespeare’s testimony and the other depositions in the case to construct a doorway into life in early Jacobean England. Unfortunately, while Nicholl presents interesting contextual information, his project is undercut by a tendency to make unsupported and unnecessary claims.
On May 11, 1612, Shakespeare gave testimony in a dispute between his former landlord (Christopher Mountjoy) and Mountjoy’s son-in-law, Stephen Belott. Mountjoy was a tiremaker, that is, a skilled craftsman who designed elaborate headpieces for fashionable women. Belott was Mountjoy’s apprentice, and, after persuading from Shakespeare himself, he married Mountjoy’s daughter, Mary. Belott claimed that Mountjoy promised him £60 as a dowry plus £200 upon Mountjoy’s death. Mountjoy, who does not come off well in this account, said he promised no such thing, and, as history would have it, he effectively nitpicked his own daughter out of his will so as to avoid his son-in-law’s laying hold of too much of the inheritance money (“…one other thirde part of the said ffower Third parts I doe hereby give & bequeath unto my daughter Mary Blott and wife of Stephen Blott.” It is a bitter domestic drama played out in an immigrant family (Mountjoy and Belott were French), a drama which Shakespeare, of all people, witnessed.
By far the most interesting section of the book involves the transcriptions of the legal documents from the trial. The depositions make for surprisingly gripping (and understandable) reading. Indeed the greatest value of the book may well be its dissemination of these transcriptions, previously only available (according to Nicholl) in the October 1910 issues of Nebraska University Studies. As Nicholl writes, “This choice of periodical does not now make for easy availability.” The transcriptions were made when the documents were first discovered by an associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska (hence the choice of publication) named Charles William Wallace and his wife Hulda, who poured through mountains of documents in the Public Records Office in London. But Nicholl neglects the transcriptions, placing them as an appendix to his sometimes interesting, but mostly eyebrow-raising text, when they would be much better served as the main event, supported by Nicholl’s text as an introduction.
There is much informative material in the book, which provide a full explanation of the details found in the trial records. Nicholl writes chapters on the Mountjoy’s family history, the status of French immigrants in early modern society, the craftsmanship involved in tiremaking, the social associations of “tires” (worn by both wealthy women and high-class prostitutes), betrothal practices, and the geography of Silver Street both then and now. Nicholl even includes information related to Mountjoy’s wife (also named Mary or Marie—the spellings were interchangeable), who frequented the astrologer Simon Forman (who recorded her visits in his many notebooks). When Nicholl sticks to illuminating early modern life and describing the social currents affecting Shakespeare’s writing, The Lodger succeeds in offering compelling, quirky background story.
But Nicholl has an unfortunate habit of populating his work with claims that he can in no way prove. His work proceeds by the “Kevin Bacon” school of argument—Wine Merchant X was related to Shop Keeper Y who was related to Actor Z who was related to Shakespeare. So, for example, one of Nicholl’s pet unsubstantiated theories is that the Mountjoy household was rife with sexual looseness because it was associated with (in varying degrees of separation) some possibly ill-reputed characters (though in the case of George Wilkins, one need not search too far). Nicholl drops dark hints throughout the book about an affair between Mary Mountjoy (Christopher Mountjoy’s wife) and Shakespeare, but he can only weakly conclude: “In the absence of evidence one weighs probabilities. Conducting an affair with a married woman while living in her husband’s house sounds complicated and tiring….But what argues against it in the real world is inconvenience and emotional claustrophobia.” Nicholl also makes the amateur mistake of reading biographical information out of Shakespeare’s works, particularly the “Dark Lady” sonnets (didn’t he read Contested Will?). Though no picture of her exists, Nicholl assumes (1) that Mary Mountjoy must have been “dark” because she was French and that (2) Shakespeare found her sexually alluring. Both assumptions are completely groundless: they might both be true, or one and not the other, or neither—the point is that Nicholl should not be setting down every unprovable fancy that enters his head. This is not to mention that the sonnets are notoriously ambiguous, and it is no surprise that Nicholl glides over any mention of their other main subject—the young man.
As popular scholarly literature on Shakespeare goes, The Lodger offers an interesting and focused take on Shakespeare’s life and Jacobean England. But Nicholl needs to take off his tabloid writer hat and stick to the facts—even if that means shrinking his manuscript.