Thursday, December 29, 2016
Book Review 377: The Lodger
A century ago, a diligent professor from the University of Nebraska discovered an authentic autograph of William Shakespeare at the Public Record Office, only the sixth example known. English Shakespeareans were embarrassed and outraged that a hick from what Mencken called one of the cow states would have upstaged them on their own ground, but at that time Shakespeare scholarship was limited to memento hunting and arguments about line readings.
It was not until half a century later that the study took a more sociological shift, and even then not much was made of the lawsuit to which Shakespeare signed his deposition. After another half century Charles Nicholl decided to look deeper into the suit to see if perhaps it would yield some insights into a writer so universal that the individual author seems hidden from view.
The short answer is that the lawsuit doesn’t tell us much about Shakespeare but we learn a fair amount about a family of French refugees from Catholic atrocities who were prospering in London and from whom Shakespeare rented rooms.
“The Lodger” came out in 2007 but is particularly relevant this month because some attention is being given to a writers’ petition in favor of humane treatment of refugees, to which Shakespeare wrote some compelling thoughts. The threats, xenophobia, pure ignorance and violence being displayed by Trump and his acolytes is no different than the violence of the London mob in the 1590s, and Shakespeare’s humanity and tolerance then is as needed now as then.
But Shakespeare did not merely speak on behalf of refugees. He lived among them, and this was unusual. Silver Street, where the Mountjoys had their shop and residence, was far from convenient to the Globe or Blackfriars and not close to the districts where London’s litterateurs congregated. Nicholl imagines that Shakespeare needed to get away from the theater district to find the calm he needed to write two plays a year while also acting nearly every day.
But discoveries about the (possible) sexual looseness of Maria Mountjoy, the landlady, leads to many pages of arch speculation about how close the lodger and the landlady were and whether he chose this particular place because of his attraction to dark ladies.
As it turns out, Nicholl finds exactly nothing to support his lewd imaginings, and we don’t even know if Maria Mountjoy was dark or fair. All the heavy breathing was irritating but nevertheless, to anyone interested in Jacobean drama, “The Lodger” is still full of interest as Nicholl chases hares down many boltholes.
Two points were especially revealing: Shakespeare’s collaboration on “Pericles” with a pimp with literary aspirations, George Wilkins, who perhaps was brought in to help the aging Shakespeare (by 1604-5 nearing the end of his 25 years of writing and somewhat out of touch with new tastes) catch the current market; and the oddity that most of Shakespeare’s later plays were about fathers having trouble with daughters.
It is not known that Shakespeare had much trouble with his two daughters, one of whom married well (so far as we can tell) and the other rather late and to a layabout, but that came nearly at the end of his life.
Nicholl makes a fair case that Shakespeare’s involvement in the marriage at Silver Street — he helped bring the apprentice and the landlady’s daughter together — combined with his anxiety about his daughters (he had no living son) — colored all the work of his last years.
But we do not learn whether Shakespeare’s real-life matchmaking turned out well or not. The son-in-law and the father-in-law did not get along but we do not know whether the husband and the wife were a love-match or even well-suited in the more mercenary aspirations of 17th century marriage making among the middle class.
It’s good yarn even if unfinished.