Monday, 29 October 2007

More Shakespeare!

Hello- sorry for the silence, but a combination of life, Facebook and post-General Election-that-never-was Hamlet-style political procrastination has led me to neglect this blog. Hence to plug the gap I'm back to post some other people's stuff I like and you may like too! I saw this in yesterday's Sunday Times "Culture" section.

Bawdy face of the Bard’s London: A long-neglected document started this writer off on his latest piece of literary detective work
Charles Nicholl, The Sunday Times, October 28, 2007

The story begins with a sheet of greyish paper, housed unceremoniously with others in a cardboard box at the National Archives in Kew. Though slightly mouldered at one edge, it is in remarkably good condition after nearly four centuries. It is mostly filled with the handwriting of an unknown Jacobean law clerk, but what makes it special is the rather hurried-looking signature at the bottom: “Willm Shaks”.

The document records Shakespeare’s testimony in a lawsuit at the Court of Requests in Westminster in 1612. Much of it is the usual legalistic cotton wool, but the nub of it, the actual answers to the court’s questions, is purely Shakespeare. It is the only occasion when his spoken words are recorded. This intriguing piece of paper was discovered nearly 100 years ago, but has been strangely neglected as a biographical source. This little window into Shakespeare’s life has not been opened.

The case was a family dispute about money: standard fare at the Court of Requests, which was something like the small-claims courts of today. The defendant was Christopher Mountjoy, described as a “tiremaker”, a maker of the decorative headwear for ladies known as “headtires” or “attires”. The plaintiff, Stephen Belott, had once been Mountjoy’s apprentice and was now his son-in-law. Both were French immigrants but had lived for many years in London. The dispute concerned an unpaid dowry: a goodly sum of £60, which Belott claimed had been promised when he married Mountjoy’s daughter in 1604.

Shakespeare was one of three witnesses called on the first day of the hearings: Monday, May 11, 1612. He tells the court he has known both the disputants “for the space of tenne yeres or there-aboutes” – that is, since about 1602. He remembers the apprentice Belott as a “good and industrious servant”, who “did well and honestly behave himselfe”; he was “a very honest fellowe”. Shakespeare is sure Belott had been promised a dowry – a marriage “porcion” – but he cannot remember the sum mentioned. Nor does he remember “what kinde of household stuffe” had been given to the couple when they married.

And then, amid the general blandness of his statement, there is a hint of something more. He says he had been asked by the girl’s mother, Marie Mountjoy, to “perswade” the apparently reluctant former apprentice to go through with the marriage. This presents him as a kind of marriage counsellor, but another witness implies that Shakespeare’s role went further than this: the couple was “made sure by Mr Shakespeare” and gave “each other’s hand to the hand”. These phrases have a precise significance. They suggest Shakespeare had formally betrothed the couple, performing the simple household ceremony known as “trothplighting” or “handfasting”. There are scenes and stories preserved in these old papers: a message in a bottle.

Shakespeare does not actually say why he was involved in these family affairs chez Mountjoy, but the answer is soon provided by another witness, the Mountjoys’ former maid, Joan Johnson, who refers to “one Mr Shakespeare that laye in the house”. To “lie” in a house meant to be staying there, and she undoubtedly means that Shakespeare was the Mountjoys’ lodger.

This is one of the primary nuggets of information from the Belott-Mountjoy case: it gives us an address for Shakespeare in London. His wife and family were up in Stratford, but for professional reasons (and perhaps others), the “sweet swan of Avon” spent most of his working life in rented accommodation in London. We know of other areas of the city he lived in – Shoreditch, Bishops-gate, Southwark – but this is the only time we have a specific address. The Mountjoys lived on Silver Street, in Cripplegate, close to the northeastern corner of the city walls. How long Shakespeare lodged there is not certain, but he was definitely there in 1604, when the marriage in question took place. He was then 40 years old, a writer, actor and shareholder in the leading troupe of the day, the King’s Men – a man at the peak of his profession.

Silver Street was bombed out in the Blitz and never rebuilt. The old line of it runs partly under and partly alongside a busy road, London Wall, part of the A1211. Pacing it out, I conclude that the closest one can now get to the Mountjoys’ house is underneath the road, in London Wall car park. I am at roughly the right spot, even at the right depth – the preFire stratum is some metres below the current surface – but this is, on the whole, a depressing proximity. An underground car park is unmis-takably an underground car park, whether or not Shakespeare once lived on the site of it.

I am a great believer in physically searching out traces of the past, but here there really is nothing. The house and the street are gone – “melted into air, into thin air” – and it is to that box of old papers in the National Archives that one must turn to reconstruct something of what it was like and of what went on there. Shakespeare’s testimony is only the beginning, a few curt words of reminiscence. From there, the paper chase leads on – other depositions, other documents: tax records, immigrant lists, medical casebooks, probate registers, scribbled marginalia, and the rich, dense sociology of the St Olave’s parish registers, preserved in the Guildhall manuscript library.

Bit by bit, this little corner of Jacobean London emerges: the industrious, quarrelsome, somewhat rackety French family with whom he lodged; the neighbours he knew – the trumpeter Humphrey Fludd, the adulterous mercer Henry Wood, and, most interesting, the brothel-keeper and hack author George Wilkins, who later collaborated with him on Pericles. Wilkins was a dangerous and unpleasant character – his voluminous police record includes brutal acts of violence against prostitutes. On one occasion, he “outrageously beat one Judith Walton, & stamped upon her, so that she was carried home in a chayre”; on another, he was charged with “kicking a woman on the belly which was the greate with childe”. Wilkins’s establishment – nominally a tavern but certainly a brothel – was on Turnmill Street, in the notorious red-light district of Clerkenwell. His wife, Katherine, was nicknamed “Mistress Sweetmeat” – perhaps she served the overpriced cakes and pastries that were associated with brothels. “For a pippin pie that cost in the market fourpence”, warns the pamphleteer Robert Greene, you will pay “at one of the trugging houses 18 pence”.

Wilkins and Shakespeare probably met in 1605, when the newly wed Belotts were actually lodging with Wilkins. In that year, Wilkins, then unknown as a writer, was commissioned by Shakespeare’s company to write a play based on a recent murder case. The result, The Miseries of Enforced Marriage – his best and most biting work, full of the “low-life” he knew so well – played to packed houses. The collaboration on Pericles followed, Wilkins writing the first two acts (and perhaps contributing some expertise to Act IV, which has the only scenes in Shakespeare set in a brothel).

Shakespeare’s connection with this lurid young pimp-playwright is slightly troubling. Was it merely literary opportunism, or were there other services Wilkins offered to a middle-aged man working away from home for months at a stretch? Prostitution was one of the growth industries of Jacobean London; the theatre was another. The two were linked in the minds of moralists, and in topographical fact. The Globe theatre stood among the famous bawdyhouses of Southwark – The Cardinal’s Hat, Holland’s Leaguer and The Castle, the latter on the site of the present-day Southwark pub The Anchor – and the playhouse itself was a place of simmering erotic potential, where “lewd” and “light-tailed” ladies offered “bargaines of incontinency”.

Pursuing these characters, one is prey to the randomness of historical evidence. Whole tracts of the Mountjoys’ life are lost to us, but amid this desert are little oases of actuality. Here is Shakespeare’s landlady in 1597, as recorded in the casebooks of the astrologer Simon Forman: “In Silver Street Mary Mountioy of 30 years lost out of her purse in the street as she went, the 10 of Septembris last between 7 & 8 at night, a gold ring, a hoop ring & a French crown.” In the same entry, we hear of one of the Mountjoys’ maids, Margaret Browne, described as a “tall wench” with a freckled face. It appears this unmarried girl is pregnant; the master of the house might be suspected, as he was later accused of having fathered two bastard children by a serving girl.

In these old pages of semi-legible ink, we start to hear the voices of the past and to feel ourselves back in the narrow lanes of Cripplegate, where the elusive Mr Shakespeare is discreetly lodged above the Mountjoys’ busy workshop, with its wire-mills and twisting-wheels, and its clientele of fashionable and not always very reputable ladies, and the sound of foreign voices floating up into the room where he writes.

The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, by Charles Nicholl, is published by Penguin on November 8 at £20

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