The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
January 14, 2008

Charles Nicholl's The Lodger will ensure that all future Shakespeare scholars associate sex with sweetmeats, argues David Wootton: The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street - Charles Nicholl

Posted by David Wootton

The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street
by Charles Nicholl
London: Allen Lane, 2007
Hardback, £20

Charles Nicholl has written a wonderful book, a book that is a genuine pleasure to read, full of information and deeply thoughtful. The reviewers have been praising it, and it is appearing on lists of the best books of 2007. The curious thing is that, although all the praise is deserved, the book comes close to failure: this is success snatched from of the jaws of defeat.

What makes the book is, above all, Nicholl's supple prose style. I read passages from it to my first year university students in the last class of the year, for I fear that although their school teachers have talked to them about grammar and about making an argument, no one has ever told them that good prose has a rhythm, that it calls out to be read aloud, and that one needs to write, not just decent sentences, but sentences that, laid end to end, contain crescendos and diminuendos.

Here is a typical passage from Nicholl. He is writing about the law case around which his book is constructed, a case in which Shakespeare is called as a witness. The case is over an unpaid dowry, and Shakespeare almost certainly knows how much the bride's father had promised to pay. Shakespeare could speak:

But he does not. Caution prevails: a man must be careful what he says in a court of law. In his failure to remember, his shrug of non-involvement, he sides with the unforgiving father and against the spurned daughter. And so the deposition, a unique record of Shakespeare speaking, contains also this faintly sour note of silence. He follows the example of his own Parolles, that creature of the Silver Street nights, whose last words are, "I will not speak what I know".
We could analyse this paragraph: its own silences (the reader has to complete the first sentence, and recognize the turn to indirect speech in the second); its deliberate variations in sentence length and structure; its balancing of "speaking" and "silence" in the third sentence; its tendency to create a sensation of delay by withholding the punch until the end of the sentence; the reiteration of words beginning with "s" which requires the unexpected "spurned" and "sour"; the internal movement from a court of law, to Silver Street, where Shakespeare had been the unforgiving father’s lodger, to the stage; the way in which it suggests its own author's speaking voice by adopting the rhythms of colloquial speech.

But we don't need to analyse it in order to feel its effect. It is the writing - not fine writing, but workmanlike writing - that does the job for Nicholls, and without it the book would be a minor contribution to the vast Shakespeare literature.

For the book crucially depends on three archival sources, all previously explored: the Belott-Mountjoy trial documents, first published by Charles Wallace in 1910; Simon Forman's case books, made famous by A. L. Rowse in 1974; and the court appearances of George Wilkins, first detailed by Roger Prior in 1972. There's a sense in which it ought to have been possible to write a book much like this at any point in the last thirty years. Yet in other respects it seems clear that it is a book of this particular moment. Nicholl's last book, on Leonardo, came out a few months before the publication of Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, which suddenly made Shakespeare biography fashionable again, and which was followed by James Shapiro's 1599: it is not hard to imagine that Nicholl (who had already written a wonderful book, The Reckoning, on the death of Marlowe) felt that he had skills that were a match for theirs, and that he could share in their success. He was right. But what are those skills?

Greenblatt and Shapiro live, one suspects, in the darker recesses of the world's great libraries. But Nicholl is an archives man. Even when the sources he is using have been reliably published, he wants to feel the paper, get a sense of the pressure of hand on pen, the flow of ink over the page:

He appends the hurried, perfunctory signature which one sees at the bottom of the paper. The pen blotches on the k and tails off: "Willm. Shaks." It will do. It will get him out of that courtroom, away from all these questions and quarrels, the interminable loose ends of other people’s lives, like a "ravell'd sleave" of silk whose tangles can never be unpicked. The signature attests his presence at that moment, but in his mind he is already leaving.
When Nicholl comes to George Wilkins, of whom more shortly, George Wilkins who likes to kick people when they are down, he notes that there are boot shapes in his signature - and indeed there are.

Nicholl is also someone who works from the margins. Here his subject is the Mountjoy household, where Shakespeare happens to be a lodger. The Mountjoys make fancy headdresses for rich ladies - out of "sleaves" (or slender filaments) of silk and fine lengths of wire. From this starting point he grabs Shakespeare as he is passing - in his reference to "the ravell'd sleave of care" in Macbeth, for example. For Greenblatt and Shapiro the point of the enterprise is an understanding of the plays; Nicholl behaves as if any light shed on the plays is almost an unnecessary bonus; the point is to learn about the Mountjoys, amongst whom Shakespeare lived.

There is an element of sleight of hand here, for Nicholl never loses sight of Shakespeare, nor of the plays, but there is also an unspoken moral conviction. Perhaps Mary Belott, née Mountjoy, the spurned daughter, deserves as much care and consideration as Shakespeare.

And Nicholl isn't embarrassed to be writing about an author, not a text. Greenblatt and Shapiro belong to a generation of scholars who were officially committed to the death of the author, and who have found their way to biography by a good deal of backsliding and second-thinking. Nicholl, I suspect or remember, started by writing a PhD at the Warburg (his first book is on alchemy and literature) but then escaped from the academy and became a professional author (and authors, unlike academics, rather assume that authors have inner lives).

The result is that Nicholl is free of the disciplinary constraints in which almost all academics are enmeshed. What he writes is first and above all history, and then literary history. But he is not interested in measuring himself against the tall poppies of the professions, either historical or literary-critical. If he is in competition, it is with the likes of Peter Ackroyd.

So when Nicholl went to work on Shakespeare, he wasn't worrying about the biographical fallacy, nor caught up in the notion that texts are always about other texts. He was free to write a fine book, even though all the archives he explored had long ago been searched by Shakespeare scholars, and even though he found nothing new there, except local colour and the material (what Nicholl calls, in imitation of Shakespeare, "unconsidered trifles") for what the anthropologists call "thick description".

Ostensibly the two key sentences of the book are these:

If Shakespeare had written - say - a play about a young Frenchman being pressed reluctantly into marriage, and if it could be shown that he wrote the play at a time when he was himself pressing a young Frenchman into marriage, then one might think it worth asking whether there was a connection between the fictional nuptials on stage and the actual ones he was involved in. That is in fact the case - the play is All's Well - and it would be perverse to ignore these connections in the name of academic correctness.
But Nicholl's great achievement, I think, is not in his account of the marriage of Stephen Belott and Mary Mountjoy, but in bringing Shakespeare close to the brothels of Jacobean London - the brothels that feature so prominently in Measure for Measure, a play written while he was living with the Mountjoys, who sold their fancy headgear not only to the aristocracy, but also to the expensive courtesans of the metropolis.

Scholars have long known not only that Shakespeare wrote Pericles by completing a work begun by George Wilkins, but also that Wilkins was a violent pimp and brothel keeper (I confess it was news to me). But Nicholl brings Wilkins and Shakespeare into each other's company, for the Belotts, when they left the Mountjoy household in Silver Street, moved into Wilkins' tavern, where sex and sweetmeats were for sale: it was through them, perhaps, that Shakespeare met Wilkins, unless it was Shakespeare who found them their seedy lodgings. Shakespeare knew about kings and queens from reading Holinshed; he knew about Coriolanus and Caesar from reading Plutarch; he knew about brothels from George Wilkins, and from spending time in his establishment.

Wilkins lies outside Shapiro's narrow frame; but Greenblatt mentions him only once:

The strange play Pericles, which he co-authored with the very minor writer George Wilkins, is even more unmoored….
No mention of Wilkins the brothel keeper or pimp. No mention of the fact that he had been charged with kicking a pregnant woman in the belly.

One of the great achievements of new historicism (following here in the wake of Foucault) was to show how much violence there was in literary texts, and to trace that violence from the stage to the scaffold and to the marauders who made the new empires. It forgot, though, that some authors might themselves be perpetrators. Alongside George Wilkins, pimp and associate of Shakespeare, we can place Lording Barry (author, we are now told, of The Family of Love, previously attributed to Middleton), pirate and playwright. If only Charles Nicholl could show that Shakespeare was Barry's landlord: that would make a worthy sequel to The Lodger.

But of course this book, like The Reckoning, can have no sequel. That book changed, perhaps for ever, the way we think about Marlowe (though John Bossy, in a letter to the LRB, has recently cast doubt on its fundamental claim, that Marlowe was a spy); this will ensure that all future Shakespeare scholars associate sex with sweetmeats, and will never let them forget that Shakespeare, on the one occasion when we have a record of his speech, was silent when he should have spoken.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement