Search the name “William Shakespeare” on Google and you will obtain 46,300,000 hits. The Library of Congress lists 7,000 volumes with Shakespeare as their subject. He is the most celebrated playwright in the English language, yet the mysteries of his life are such that Shakespeare scholar Charles Wallace observed that “every Shakespeare biography is five percent fact and 95 percent conjecture.” In this vast ocean of material, one would think that there could be little new information about the man who lived and wrote more than four centuries ago.
THE LODGER SHAKESPEARE by Charles Nicholl offers insight into a little-known episode of Shakespeare’s life and provides readers with something truly unique. In his plays and sonnets, Shakespeare gave his audience over one million written words. This book offers something far different: the actual spoken words of the man who still remains a mystery as a person to those who know him well as a writer.
During the early years of the 17th century, around the period when he was writing “Othello,” “All’s Well that Ends Well” and “Measure for Measure,” Shakespeare lodged in London with a French family named Mountjoy. Christopher and Marie Mountjoy’s daughter, Mary, was involved in a romantic relationship with Stephen Belott, the Mountjoys’ apprentice. The young Belott appeared reluctant to enter into matrimony, and the senior Mountjoys sought Shakespeare’s help to convince the reluctant suitor of the wisdom of marriage.
It turned out that Belott’s reluctance was due in part to his concern that the father would not honor his obligation to provide the promised dowry. Shakespeare assured the young couple that “they should have a sum of money for a portion from the father.” Not only did Shakespeare encourage the marriage, he had Mary and Stephen join hands and swear commitment, a legally binding ceremony identical to the one lightheartedly undertaken by Orlando and Rosalind in “As You Like It.
In 1612 Shakespeare was called upon to give testimony concerning the dowry that Belott had never received. His statement, what the law would now call a deposition, was transcribed by a court clerk, reviewed by the 48-year-old playwright and then signed. The document is one of six known Shakespeare signatures, the earliest discovered.
While knowledge of Shakespeare’s involvement in the Mountjoy family battle has been common knowledge since the discovery of the court papers in 1909, Nicholl provides readers with a vivid portrayal of the Bard’s life and times during the period when he resided with them and wrote several of his greatest plays. Scholars have long debated how Shakespeare came to write many of the plays that bear his name. The theories surrounding authorship of his work range far and wide. Regardless of one’s views, there can be little debate that events inspired his works. It is Nicholl’s view that the time spent living with the Mountjoys may have influenced some of his later plays. “All’s Well that Ends Well” features a young man being forced into marriage, a not-uncommon event during the Elizabethan times when Shakespeare lived. Perhaps his experience with the young couple he met on Silver Street shaped that play.
THE LODGER SHAKESPEARE is very much like the plays Shakespeare crafted in his lifetime. At one level, it is simple and straightforward and can be enjoyed by ordinary readers. At a higher level, Shakespeare scholars will find important biographical materials. In either respect, the characters introduced in this historical biography will provide readers a few more glimpses into a life that remains one of the most scrutinized in literary history.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on December 30, 2010