Monday, June 09, 2008

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

William Shakespeare is the subject of many biographies that take threads of evidence and try to weave his whole life. In The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street, historian Charles Nicholl takes a different approach. He focuses on a short period of Shakespeare's life, 1603-1605, the time during which he resided in an upstairs room in the home of the tyremakers Christopher and Marie Mountjoy. Without making many firm statements about the Bard himself, Nicholl fully describes the circumstances of his life.

The Mountjoys were French Huguenots living in exile in London, a very cosmopolitan city to which many European refugees had fled. Many of these people were living fairly prosperous lives as artisans, a sore point with many English-born craftspeople who felt that the immigrants were stealing their jobs. Nicholl thinks it is very interesting that Shakespeare whose Catholic affiliations are highlighted in many recent biographies lived with Huguenots, Protestants who were chased from Catholic France. The author's suggestion is that religion did not really matter that much to the playwright.

Nicholl tells much about the making of tyres, fancy ladies head decorations. These works, including hats and wigs, were created for wealthy ladies, ladies of ill repute, and theatricals. The author speculates that Shakespeare may have been introduced to the Mountjoys as a customer of headpieces for some of the plays that his company produced. In residence above the workshop, he would have come in contact with ladies of all sorts who visited to get their tyres.

While he lived on Silver Street, Shakespeare was middle aged and at work on the plays Othello, Measure for Measure, King Lear, and All's Well That Ends Well. Nicholl quotes heavily from them to show how the playwright incorporated his surroundings and the events in his own life. The historian especially draws on documents concerning a lawsuit involving Christopher Mountjoy and his son-in-law Stephen Bellott. Shakespeare gave a deposition for the case and was later required to testify what he knew about an unpaid dowry. Nicholl draws parallels between the facts of the case and King Lear disinheriting his daughter in the tragic play.

I listened to the book superbly read by Simon Vance, who kept all the minute details of daily life interesting. While working in the garden, cooking, and driving the car - my daily activities - I got the scoop on what Shakespeare did with his days 400 years ago. It is a bit of gossip that you might enjoy hearing.

Nicholl, Charles. The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street. Viking 2008. ISBN 9780670018505

8 compact discs. Tantor Audio, 2008. 9781400106288

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