Magazine article The Spectator

Traced to an Underground Car Park

Magazine article The Spectator

Traced to an Underground Car Park

Article excerpt

THE LODGER :SHAKESPEARE ON SILVER STREET by Charles Nicholl Allen Lane, £20, pp. 400, ISBN 9780713998900 £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Nine years ago Park Honan published a modest biography of Shakespeare which alerted the literary world to the amount of hard fact that has gradually accumulated over the centuries alongside the speculation and mythology.

Honan's book opened the floodgates. A spate of Shakespeare biographies followed which shows no sign of abating. According to Honan, this is just how it should be: 'Our collective picture of the poet's life is surely best when many people test it, doubt it, discuss it . . . when we are not under any illusion that it is to be finished.' Charles Nicholl delicately avoids the heavily trampled centre ground by following the example of James Shapiro's 1599 and narrowing his focus, in this case right down to a single episode: a domestic lawsuit, unearthed in the Public Records Office at the beginning of the last century. The case itself is unremarkable. In 1612 Stephen Belott sued his father-in-law, Christopher Mountjoy, a Huguenot wig and 'tire' maker, for the dowry he was promised back in 1604.

Witnesses testified that a dowry was part of the marriage deal, and that the Mountjoys had to get their lodger to persuade Belott to marry at all. Mountjoy disputed the story:

he couldn't afford a dowry, and anyway it was Belott who wanted marriage. Belott was awarded a tenth of the £60 he asked for.

What made this discovery dynamite was the identity of the lodger. It was Shakespeare himself who testified that Mrs Mountjoy did 'solicit and entreat' him to persuade Belott, Shakespeare who oversaw the betrothal and Shakespeare whose memory of a projected dowry of £50 swiftly faded to the vague 'what certain portion he remembereth not'.

Nicholl explores this anomaly in his evidence; but, intriguing though it is, the circumstances are more intriguing still. Here is the elusive Shakespeare caught briefly in the spotlight at the pinnacle of his career, living with a French family in a leafy part of north London, some way from the Globe but close to the high road to Stratford.

What does this tell us about the man?

No one does the thrill of the literary paperchase better than Nicholl, a writer whose unerring eye for telling circumstantial detail is as much poetic as forensic. He invites us to feel the 'greyish, coarse-grained paper which Shakespeare once handled', we are beside him as he kneels to peer at half-obliterated tombstones, traces the hurried penstrokes misread by earlier scholars, paces out long-vanished streets, pinpoints with a sense of anticlimax the exact site of the house in Silver Street: 'An underground car park is unmistakeably an underground car park whether or not Shakespeare once lived on the site of it'. …

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