Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Bard as nosy neighbor

William Shakespeare, arguably the greatest English writer of all time, is notorious for having brilliantly concealed his true identity. Almost none of his spoken words are recorded, so it is thrilling, and also revealing, to brush through Charles Nicholl's expert reconstruction of the one time that the Bard's words were actually reported.

In 1909, Charles William Wallace, an associate English professor at the University of Nebraska, and his wife discovered the Bellot-Mountjoy papers. This was a set of 26 depositions made before the Court of Requests in Westminster at the beginning of the 17th century. One of those depositions was signed by "William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon."

Before the world came to appreciate his talent, the 40-something Shakespeare had lodged at the Mountjoy residence on the corner of Silver and Monkwell streets in London "in and around" 1604.

Not that he had to lodge with others, unlike impecunious members of his profession who were forced to (Nicholl cites Ben Johnson and Matthew Roydon in this club). Shakespeare, on the other hand, owned an apartment in town. Yet, he chose to stay at the Mountjoys' — on the first floor, as Nicholl speculates, with reason.

The Mountjoys, Christopher and Marie, were French Protestant immigrants who had arrived in London in 1582. Christopher was a skilled "maker of decorative headgear for ladies" but a lousy family man. He had numerous "amorous accomplices or victims."

But even by his rather loose moral standards, what he did at the time of his daughter Mary's wedding in 1604 to Stephen Bellott was unexpected. Stephen, a hardworking apprentice of Christopher's, had been given Mary's hand in the hope of a suitable dowry, which Christopher eventually refused to pay. Shakespeare had a role to play both in assuring a wary Stephen of the solidness of Christopher's promise, and in giving evidence when that promise turned out to be hollow.

Eight years after he was married to Mary, Stephen filed a lawsuit in the Court of Requests. Thus, in 1612, Shakespeare was called to give evidence.

By itself, the testimony does not amount to much, but Nicholl's excitement is justified. Apart from its being the only signed spoken statement by Shakespeare, the deposition makes us see him "not from the viewpoint of literary greatness" but from a "marvelously banal" perch.

From here, Nicholl takes us into Shakespeare's life on Silver Street, the squalid underworld of medieval London. Taverns that double as brothels, cantankerous pimps, ambitious prostitutes, famed quacks — it's all here. For a writer who built a career by delving into the dark recesses of the mind, such a milieu must have been very rewarding.

All's Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, concerns "a Frenchman being pressed into marriage." Any surprise that it was, by all accounts, written during his time at Silver Street?

Another witness at the Bellot-Mountjoy trial was George Wilkins, playwright and pimp, who has been long suspected of being the original writer of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, credited to Shakespeare. At any rate, Shakespeare and Wilkins collaborated, and Nicholl brings Wilkins to life as a classic low-life character of the time, dissolute and intriguing.

So, what was Shakespeare's testimony? And how did it affect the judgment? For that, you'd have to dip into this atmospheric evocation of a slice in the life of "the gent upstairs."


A said...
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A said...

Terrific writing, sir! Damn impressive!

Vikram Johri said...

Finally! Thank you, thank you.

Uhm, uhm, I rest my case.