“The Lodger Shakespeare – His Life on Silver Street, ” by Charles Nicholl; Viking; 378 pages; $26.95

Like a strobe light, historian Charles Nicholl’s “The Lodger” provides a few bright, sharp glimpses of private life among Shakespeare and some of his friends and contacts.

The stories could make anyone wish for more researchers as industrious and successful, though maybe a little less inclined to jump to conclusions on short evidence.

There’s Shakespeare’s landlady, Mrs. Marie Mountjoy, an earnest Frenchwoman in her mid-30s who had fled religious tumult in France years before. At the time Shakespeare rented from her on London’s Silver Street, corner of Monkwell Street, she was trying to marry off her only daughter, Mary, to Stephen Bellott, another Huguenot refugee. He was an apprentice in her family’s business. German bombs destroyed Silver Street in World War II.

Based on fragmentary notes of a famous fortune teller, Nicholl concludes that Mrs. Mountjoy had an affair with a neighbor. He hints at more than a landlady’s contact with Shakespeare but says their relations must remain a secret between them. Her own marriage could not have been happy. Her husband, Christopher, also a refugee, was a stingy and, according to his French Reformed Church, dissolute character.

“(He) had been censured by the Church elders,” Nicholls writes of Mountjoy’s later life, “for having fathered two bastards by his serving-maid, had been often exhorted to piety because of his irregular and outlandish lifestyles, hauled before the magistrate for his lewd acts and adulteries, and publicly suspended from the Church on account of these scandals.”

Bellott and the Mountjoy daughter married. Years later, he sued Mountjoy for a dowry of 60 pounds – something like $24,000 in today’s money, under Nicholl’s calculations. The prosperous Mountjoy business was making “tires” – headdresses of silver or gold wire, adorned with beads, ribbons and sometimes gems. Queen Anne, wife of the new king James I, was a customer.

Bellott claimed the dowry was promised but undelivered. Shakespeare’s role comes out in a deposition.

The playwright swore that when Bellot was still an apprentice, Mrs. Mountjoy “did sollicitt and entreat this deponent to moue (move) and perswade the said Complainant (Bellott) to effect the said Marriadge” with Mary. He doesn’t say why Bellott needed persuasion or what arguments were used, but the tactic apparently worked. In 15 years or so after the wedding, the couple had six children, all daughters.

Shakespeare had discreetly added to his deposition that Montjoy promised a “porcion” (dowry) to the couple.

The court finally turned the matter over to the French church, which assessed a modest penalty against Mountjoy of 6 pounds 13 shillings. There is no information whether he paid that or not.

Soon after the Bellotts married, they moved out of the Mountjoy house and into one nearby owned by writer George Wilkins. Several theater people, including Shakespeare’s younger brother Edmund, lived in the area. Shakespeare may have found it a quieter place for writing. It lay across the Thames some distance from Southwark, a boisterous district known not only for the Globe but for the popular bearbaiting arena and at least one famous bawdy house, “Holland’s Leaguer.”

Nicholl says it is generally believed that Wilkins wrote the first two acts of Shakespeare’s “Pericles,” a big hit in its time, now rarely produced. He has no evidence of Wilkins’ personal contact with Shakespeare, but plenty about Wilkins’ career as the violent keeper of a tavern where sex was available for cash.

The year before the Bellott-Mountjoy trial, Wilkins was accused of kicking a pregnant woman in the belly and abusing Randall Berkes, a bookseller. His legal troubles continued until he was charged, six years later, with having “feloniously, received, harboured and comforted” a woman known as a pickpocket.

That case dragged on but Wilkins died before it was resolved.


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