April 25, 2008
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The Lodger Shakespeare

by Charles Nicholl

We know almost nothing about Shakespeare's biography, but we do have one record of something he actually said, not wrote.

On Monday 11 May 1612, William Shakespeare gave evidence in a lawsuit at the Court of Requests in Westminster.

This deposition involves a dispute over an unpaid dowry; back in 1604, when he was lodging in Silver Street with in the Montjoy household, Christopher Montjoy has asked Shakespeare to convince Montjoy's former apprentice to marry Montjoy's daughter and to officiate at the betrothal. Shakespeare obliged. The family has now fallen out, the son-in-law is suing for his dowry, and Shakespeare testifies that some dowry was agreed, but he can't remember the exact amount.

From this small shred, Nichols pursues a fascinating, rigorous, and readable pursuit of Shakespeare's London environment. The house on Silver Street is gone, burnt in The Great Fire. Silver Street itself is gone, erased in postwar development. We can know that Shakespeare's room was upstairs, as was the privy. We can know he had a window. He finds out who else lived on the street, how they lived, whom they married. And though we have no idea in which direction Shakespeare's window faced, Nichols reconstructs that he might have looked out on the busy shopping street, or overlooked the parish churchyard, or perhaps had a nice view into a neighboring apothecary garden. And he finds out what they grew in that garden, and why.

Nichols' tireless search through record rolls, tax ledgers, physician’s case books, property archives, and the entire body of Elizabethan and Jacobean literature yields remarkable detail. When the newly-married couple moved out of the house, they moved in with George Wilkins, a nearby victualler who longed to be a poet, who was indeed writing a play (Pericles) with Shakespeare, and who — Nichols pieces together the evidence very neatly — seems to have at the same time been launching a career as a pimp.

Nichols is careful not to dash beyond the evidence, but his point is wonderful. As Shakespeare was writing Lear, we know — we have contemporary testimony from multiple sources — that in the house where he was living, a young bride and her father were bitterly falling out. They moved into a friend's house, a shady friend — shadier, perhaps, than they realized — at about the time Shakespeare is writing about a virtuous woman living in a brothel.