February 06, 2012

The Lodger

Charles Nicholl, The Lodger Shakespeare:  His Life on Silver Street

Biographies of Shakespeare tend to go one of two ways, depending on how the biographer decides to handle the paucity of direct information about the man.  Some maintain an anti-speculative discipline, confining themselves just to the few salient facts, but embellishing with lots of background material.  We might, for example, know he went to grammar school - so these books will give you a rundown on what grammar school was like in those days.  It is a bit like describing a fish by carefully delineating its aquarium - you know a lot, but not what you want to know.  Bryson's book is the best of this type I've seen lately.

I was educated in this tradition.  My Shakespeare teacher, the late, lamented Ann Imbrie, took us through the rhetorical devices taught in English grammar schools and briefed us on what life in London was like, but ultimately held the text as the primary source of insight.  Sure, Malvolio might be based on a particularly obnoxious waiter at the Pig & Bosom, but we don’t know that, and chances are most of Shakespeare’s audience wasn't in on the joke either.

But only a few biographers are willing to hold to such an austere standard of evidence.  They look at a tantalizing clue like the 1602 diary entry of a law student that reports the joke about William the Conqueror coming before Richard III, and they can’t leave it alone.  All right, it’s not a fact, exactly, but must we ignore it entirely?  Surely it's telling us something?

Speculation becomes irresistible.  Some of the resulting conceptions – such as Greenblatt’s Will in the World - are inspired.  But once a biographer has gone down this slippery slope, it takes nerves of steel to avoid going over the precipice.  Most Shakespeare biographies end up as odd mixtures of slim evidence and robust fantasy – entertaining perhaps, but bringing us closer to the biographer than the subject.

The exercise is defensible, I suppose if there really is no hope of coming face to face with such a distant, enigmatic figure.  That elusiveness might not be so disturbing if Shakespeare had written the way Emily Dickinson did – locked in a room and exploring just his interior world.  But Shakespeare was just the opposite:  we know hardly anything about him, yet he seems to know everything about everything. The chief problem of modern Shakespeare studies is therefore, in my opinion, how we explain his astonishing scope (and he valued scope).  A grammar school kid from Stratford turns into not just the greatest poet and dramatist in the English language, but one whose defining characteristic is his exttraordinary breadth of knowledge, from botany to French politics, from high court fashion to the workings of the London underworld.

Charles Nicholl addresses this issue in his brilliant and powerful biographical essay, The Lodger Shakespeare:  His Life on Silver Street.  I call it an essay rather than a biography because it covers only a few years of Shakespeare’s life, the troubled ones after the death of his son Hamnet, when he produced some of his greatest works (e.g., Othello and the Scottish play), and also some of his most mysterious and confusing (e.g., Measure for Measure).

Nicholl, fresh off a well-received biography of Da Vinci, uses as his point of departure a small claims lawsuit from 1612, in which Shakespeare was a witness.  The suit itself is somewhat trivial – a married man is suing his stingy father-in-law to get him to pay his promised dowry.  The father-in-law is employing the “just say no” defense, which he sticks to throughout the proceeding.    The documents associated with the suit – first discovered in 1909 – include firsthand testimony taken from Shakespeare, and give extensive details on the lives of people with whom he associated during this period.  The defendant – one Christopher Mountjoy – was Shakespeare’s landlord in London at the time the marriage was arranged, and Shakespeare acknowledges in his testimony that he had a role in arranging the union.

Shakespeare was renting a room in a house on Silver Street in The City (both house and Street are now long gone, although a nearby churchyard has been preserved).  From here Nicholl starts tracking people down – the motto on the frontispiece is:  “Every contact leaves traces” (from, as every schoolchild knows, Edmond Locard’s 1923 Manuel de Technique Policiere).  He investigates relationships, notes births, deaths, and weddings, even uncovers affairs.  In this last area he is aided immeasurably by the clinical notebooks of one Simon Foreman, a dodgy, horny, and successful astrologer/medical practitioner.  Forman’s confidential notebooks give extensive detail – and there is a lot of detail to be had - on the intimate goings-on at the Mountjoy residence.  Within a few pages we have a remarkably vivid picture of a group of people Shakespeare was spending a lot of time around.

The power of the book develops gradually, through an accumulation of small bits of evidence.  We learn that Shakespeare is lodged above a tire-making shop.  This is an important detail:  a tire, in those days, was a bit of fashion headwear, handmade, expensive, and in great demand among the rich.  The Mountjoys, French immigrants in London, make them and have top customers.  Records survive showing that James' wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, was a customer of the Mountjoys:

There, on her head 

So Shakespeare is living in the same house as the people who are making fashion accessories for the queen and plenty of other high-end people in London.  And, of course, for acting companies (costumes were their biggest expense).  And, of course, for prostitutes.  Shakespeare was getting more real life over his morning bread and beer than Bacon was getting in a month.
In these ways a certain dodgy glamour attaches to the Mountjoys' shop, above which Shakespeare sits writing his mirthless comedy about a city obsessed and corrupted with sex - a city he calls 'Vienna' but which is really London.
The Mountjoys themselves are, like everyone else, living on the edge of survival.  Threats include: wars, anti-immigrant violence, regular violence, plague, sexually-transmitted diseases, other diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and God knows what else.  Life expectancy in London was about 35 in those days, according to Wikipedia, "for the richer ones."  40% of the population were dead before their mid-teens.  Let those who worry nowadays about their waistlines and 401(k) balances lend an ear to Mistress Overdone:
[W]hat with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am custom-shrunk.  
That's not hyperbole, that's 1603, explains Nicholl - "the continuing war with Spain, the plague, the bout of executions further to Jesuit-linked plots against King James (the 'Main' and 'Bye' plots), and the slackness of trade in the deserted city."

So the landlord's daughter marries the apprentice, and they fall out with the father, and move into a nearby bawdy house, because there's not a lot of options for impoverished French couples in London.  And Shakespeare maybe has something to do with this, because the guy running the bawdy house wants to be a playwright.
In Wilkins, he finds not only intimations of literary talent, not only the chafing ambition of the unpublished writer - he finds a man who knows this seedy brothel world from the inside, a man who lives this world which the other writers only look in on.
Wilkins starts writing plays around the time he meets Shakespeare, including the first two acts of Pericles (according to modern textual analysis), then does an unauthorized book version, probably pissing off Shakespeare and getting blackballed, after which his creative output stops and he spends the rest of his life beating prostitutes and constables, if court records are to be believed.  So how did Shakespeare know so much about prostitution and the underworld?

Before it's over Nicholl has explained large chunks of Measure for Measure to you, given new depth to the character of Shylock, and offered fresh readings of a dozen or so speeches based on verifiable facts of Shakespeare's life during these years.  The book, constructed as it is from minutiae, sometimes bogs down in it, and the reader will be tempted to skip a bit.  But Nicholl knows his game, and he is explaining these things to you because you need to know.  You'll be skipping back later when you realize what a marvelous web he has woven.

It is hard with just ink and paper to bring forth a man, much less a man as bright and worldly as Shakespeare.  But Nicholl shows us something of his methods and character.  He gives us a strong sense - for a few key years at least - of what The Stratford Man was like.  We will never truly know him, of course, but this is far closer than I ever thought I'd get.


Blogger Author said...

Most interesting. My tire shop has relatively few whores.

February 7, 2012 at 2:47 PM  
Blogger The Other Front said...

Cripes, look at all those typos. We hve got to get a full-time editor.

February 7, 2012 at 9:44 PM  

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