One Minute Book Review – The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl

The Lodger Shakespeare by Charles Nicholl

In 1612 William Shakespeare gave evidence in a case at the Court of Requests brought by Stephen Belott against the tire-maker, Christopher Mountjoy who was his father-in-law and with whom he had served an apprenticeship. Belott was suing Mountjoy for failure to pay in full the dowry promised when Belott had married Mountjoy’s daughter Mary in 1604. During the years 1603 to 1605 Shakespeare had lodged with the Mountjoys and had, at the behest of Mountjoy’s wife Marie, acted as a go-between promoting the marriage of Belott and Mary Mountjoy. The deposition is this case is the only known record of Shakespeare the man’s spoken word.

The Lodger Shakespeare takes this case as a starting point in examining William Shakespeare’s London world. Christopher Mountjoy and his wife Marie were Huguenot refugees who had a well-established tire-making business in Silver Street by the time Shakespeare rented rooms there. Tires are elaborate headpieces made of gold wire, feathers and spangles of all sorts. The Mountjoys were clearly masters at their craft as Marie provided tires to Queen Anne, James I’s wife as well as to other members of the court. Nicholl suggests that the Mountjoys might also have assisted with providing tires needed as part of the costumes for Shakespeare’ s plays.

Nicholl begins by describing the physical environment of the house on Silver Street, Cripplegate Ward. He looks at the surrounding streets and buildings, drawing on both the Agas map and John Stow’s Survey of London. He goes on to examine in detail the lives the Mountjoys would have lived as both French refugees and as tire-makers detailing the workshop and the equipment needed for making and twisting the wires on which the headdresses were built, as well as their clientele at the court and also the prostitutes and players who might have made use of their services. Various contemporary identities also come into the Mountyjoys’ orbit including Simon Forman, astrologer and herbalist, whom Marie consulted to find a missing purse and rings, as well as George Wilkins. Shakespeare collaborated on Pericles, Prince of Tyre with Wilkins, a man who counted inn and brothel keeping, as well as violence, among his unsavoury skills. Wilkins was also a deponent in the Mountjoy case as the Belotts lived for a time with him. His presence allows Nicholl to examine the Jacobean underworld. As the Mountjoy-Bellot case involved matters of dowry, the Early Modern approach to the making of marriage is discussed, including issues such as betrothals and marriage settlements. In all, the reader gets a well rounded view of London as it was in the early 17th century.

Nicholl believes, understandably, that the vibrant London life surrounding Shakespeare was fodder for the plays he wrote during the period he lodged with the Mountjoys – Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. He convincingly points to examples in Shakespeare’s text that reflect not only the Mountjoys and their milieu, but the characters in the streets of London at large.

The Lodger Shakespeare is immensely scholarly yet very readable, with an often humourous turn of phrase. It does not tell us much more than we already know about William Shakespeare but it paints a colourful picture of London and the people of all walks of life who lived there when he lodged on Silver Street. The book is well footnoted and has a collection of court records from the Belott-Mountjoy case, in their original spelling, at the end.

A more detailed review can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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