The Lodger Shakespeare

When he turned forty in 1604, William Shakespeare was lodging in the house of a London merchant who made “tires”: decorative headwear for the aristocracy, members of the upper middle class, and, very likely, theater companies. According to The Lodger Shakespeare by Charles Nicholl, Shakespeare stayed for a season or two before moving. Eight years later, he gave a deposition in a lawsuit brought against his former landlord. Ironically, the playwright whose verbal memory has long amazed critics said he could not recall the terms of an agreement about which he was asked to testify.

The court papers were discovered a century ago, in the Public Records Office in London, and have been studied by biographers such as Samuel Schoenbaum, whose documentary life of Shakespeare is considered the standard study. The bare facts of the case seem unpromising. Christopher Mountjoy, tire-maker, had settled a dowry on his only child when she married his former apprentice Stephen Belott. Something went wrong between the two men, and Mountjoy refused to pay what Belott claimed he had promised. Belott took the matter to the Jacobean equivalent of small-claims court, naming Shakespeare as a witness to the contract. The famous playwright testified, though probably not as Belott anticipated. Shakespeare said that Belott was a fine young man but that he could not recall the promised sum. As Nicholl puts it, he weaseled out, displaying a memory more selective than defective.

Nicholl has written about the legal ordeals of Shakespeare’s contemporaries Thomas Nashe, the pamphleteer, and Christopher Marlowe, the author of Doctor Faustus (pr. 1588) and Shakespeare’s early rival. Indeed, he has come close to writing the case for the prosecution of the shadowy figures responsible for Marlowe’s early death, under suspicious circumstances, in a tavern brawl. The case of Belott v. Mountjoy is tamer by far, but Nicholl finds more interesting tidbits than one might reasonably expect. Following the first law of forensic science, that “every contact leaves traces,” he discovers a world of detail concerning the people whose lives touched Shakespeare.

The case involves a good deal of bickering over household items to be included in the dowry and money to be settled on the bride. After hearing from the plaintiff and defendant, the court held three sessions to hear from witnesses. At each session, a set of interrogatories, or questions, was put to each witness. Shakespeare testified at the first session and seems to have signed his recorded account in haste: “Willm Shaks.” Nine witnesses appeared in all, some of them more than once. (Shakespeare did not return.) Then the court took statements from the plaintiff and defendant on separate dates, including Belott’s rejoinder to Mountjoy’s final plea. Almost six months after the case opened, the court made a ruling of sorts. It ordered Mountjoy to pay Belott a small sum, representing only a fraction of the money in question, and sent the matter to arbitration.

Both Mountjoy and his former apprentice belonged to London’s large community of Huguenots, French Protestants seeking refuge from religious persecution. Although each was formally affiliated with a different parish church near his place of residence, both were known to the larger body of the French Church, if only for non-attendance at Mass. The records of that body indicate that Mountjoy was summoned a year later to explain why he had not yet paid the amount awarded to Belott. He refused to recognize the church’s authority, and he was excommunicated until such time as he repented the various scandals of his life, including two children born out of wedlock. By all appearances, he never settled the debt, for he wrote his will in such a way as to leave his daughter as little as was legally possible.

The Lodger Shakespeare has seven sections of roughly equal length. These sections move from Shakespeare at forty to the house where he lodged on Silver Street, the members of the household, and the business carried on in the house. Moving outward from Silver Street, they pass through the larger communities to which the Mountjoys belonged, including their French neighbors in London and their diverse clientele. The family’s contacts include such colorful people as Simon Forman (the astrological physician whose casebooks have been studied by Shakespeareans such as A. L. Rowse) and George Wilkins, a caterer, or victualler, who served for a time as a playwright for Shakespeare’s acting company. Following these contacts,...

(The entire section is 1876 words.)