Kevin Saving on
the latest book in Bardic speculation
The Lodger - Shakespeare on Silver Street
By C. Nicholl
Allen Lane (2007) ISBN 978-0-713-99890-0
All's Well That Reads Well
When we survey the life - and attempt to divine the personality - of William Shakespeare, it is a little like staring down into a deep well. At the end of an ever-darkening tunnel looms a face, recognisably human, but possessing features which seem to shift and warp -just too far off to be recognisable. In some ways we feel that we know Geoffrey Chaucer (his predecessor by two centuries) better, both as an historical figure and as a man. Like quite a few such shafts, the Shakespearean well has been used as a bit of a dumping place for things which shouldn't really belong there, a huge freight of cod-scholarship, wishful-thinking, recycled rumour and gossip which, latterly, has reached industrial proportions. Charles Nicholl's new book does not, however, deserve to be consigned together with this unhealthy sump: it represents an authentic attempt at retrieval.
Nicholl, previously best-known for The Reckoning (1995) (which probes into the rather seamy locale of Christopher Marlowe's last days and observes there an extraordinary cast of dodgy charactors) is an informed and insightful guide into the labyrinthine world of the late Elizabethans/early Jacobeans. He has mastered his primary sources and the focus of his current historical detective work is the period of a few years (just after the turn of the seventeenth century) when Shakespeare boarded in the now-defunct Silver Street, London with the French emigres (and fashionable wig-makers), Mr and Mrs Mountjoy. Much of the chronology is necessarily inexact but this is the period, Shakespeare's early forties, of his plays King Lear and Othello. The circumstance which lights up, briefly and intriguingly, The Bard's domestic arrangements, is his being called as witness - some eight years after the event - to attest to his own part in the Handfasting (betrothal, pledgeing) of his landlord's and landlady's daughter, Marie, to their apprentice Stephen Belott. The Landlord, Christopher Mountjoy, has reneged on his promise of an adequate dowry and -the Elizabethans were highly litigious- been sued.
Shakespeare makes an oddly inadequate and, one surmises, highly reluctant witness. His attestation, such as it is, will not have helped or pleased either party. Nicholl employs careful textual analysis of both the Shakespearean opus and contemporaneous manuscripts (those of rivals, friends and collaborators) to tease out societal views on topics with such modern resonnances as economic migration, lady's fashion and the sex-industry. He tentatively, but tantalisingly, speculates on an affaire d'amour between landlady and playright...Mrs Mountjoy -like her daughter, a Marie - may even be 'The Dark Lady' of the sonnets.
Always readable and sometimes fascinating, The Lodger prods a lantern into numerous indistinct corners of the Shakespearean milieu. Yet despite this tour de force of painstaking erudition and elegant conjecture, at the book's conclusion we do not feel notably more acquainted with the Mountjoy's eponymous paying-guest. As ever, Shakespeare, The Man, lurks just off-stage or enigmatically at its periphery.
When we return from this particular descent into our murky wishing-well, we'll remember scraps of sometimes poignant, sometimes racy graffitti scrawled around its walls. Unfortunately, the deeper we investigate, the less real illumination is afforded us, and the substance of our enquiries, like Shakespeare himself, continues to slip between our fingers.
Kevin Saving © 2008