Charles Nicholl: The pimp and the playmaker

What exactly was Shakespeare up to in Silver Street, renting a room above a wigmaker's and collaborating with a villain? Forensic archivist Charles Nicholl teases out the strange story in his new book. Words by Suzi Feay
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In 1909 a diligent American scholar, Dr Charles William Wallace of the University of Nebraska, uncovered an extraordinary series of documents in the Public Record Office in London. On the face of it, the Belott-Mountjoy papers recorded a run-of-the-mill legal wrangle of 1612 between a curmudgeonly father, living in Silver Street, Cripplegate, and his daughter and son-in-law who claimed they'd been promised dowry money. But one of the documents was literary gold: a deposition from "one Mr Shakespeare that laye in the house".

Biographers have long banged their heads in despair over the comparative lack of Shakespearean documentary evidence. (It's played into the hands of those who espouse the so-called "authorship controversy", too.) The house in Silver Street is the only known London address for Shakespeare, and in the depositions we meet and listen to people who knew him personally. So you'd expect the Mountjoy case to have been thoroughly chewed over by scholars and experts. Not so, says Charles Nicholl, who set himself to discover just what Shakespeare was up to in the Silver Street years.

"This court case, these depositions, is about as near as one gets to a personal experience of Shakespeare," says Nicholl fervently, "and the key to it is what he doesn't say. He's rather curt and brusque. One's not expecting him to be expansive, but he's rather less helpful than some of the other witnesses."

Nicholl is a sort of forensic archivist; he describes his method as " microhistory; you start off with something very small and see what you can bring out of it". He used the technique to shed fascinating new light on the death of Christopher Marlowe in The Reckoning; and on Rimbaud's years as a gun-runner and slaver in Africa in Somebody Else. In The Lodger, " it's a process of transforming something tiny, a fragment, into a story and into a picture of at least a couple of years of Shakespeare's life."

So what was he up to when he took lodgings with the Mountjoys, and what sort of a place was Silver Street? The house itself is long gone, and the street disappeared in the Blitz, though Nicholl has paced it out and worked out, as well as he can, that an underground car park near the Barbican centre stands on the site. "He could have been writing some of the sonnets," he says, "and the plays I take as very characteristic of his time there are the ones that are generally called the problem plays. He's also just turning 40, so the tone of Silver Street is that he's getting on a bit and writing these rather difficult, experimental, bitter, in some ways slightly nasty plays."

The neighbourhood was leafy and comparatively quiet. "There's a big walled garden down the end of the street, there's a churchyard opposite, there's another garden of a house whose ground plan I came upon. So yes, if he's in an upstairs chamber, which he almost certainly is, he's looking out over suburban treetops. Goldsmiths, moneylenders, doctors are his neighbours there, but I don't want to exaggerate that: it wasn't a rich, grand street. The word is humdrum. Though of course the more pungent amenities of the city are never far away."

The Mountjoys, Shakespeare's landlord and landlady, were "tiremakers", creators of wigs and elaborate headdresses worn at court. They were also probably theatrical costumiers, which, Nicholl infers, may well be the link between them and the playwright.

Most suggestive, though, is the fact that they were French. London was hostile to and suspicious of immigrants then as now, and Nicholl traces an interest in and sympathy for high French culture in the plays.

While the term landlady gives rise to irresistible images of a bedraggled harridan shrieking "Mr Shakespeare! Rent's due!", Nicholl takes a different view. "I think I have opened up a new atmosphere around her. Shakespeare's landlady, Mrs Mountjoy – chances are she's a bit of an old battleaxe. But in fact she's younger than he is, in her mid-thirties, and there's documentary evidence that she had at least one extramarital fling with a chap called Henry Wood of Swan Alley. I think I've found at least one other admirer of hers. She's rather sparkier, more charming and attractive than has been understood before. One doesn't jump to conclusions and I specifically say that I think Shakespeare is rather too busy to be conducting the rather exhausting business of having an affair with a married woman while living in her husband's house..."

Then he adds mischievously: "I raise the spectre of the Dark Lady for a moment; I point out that various women have been identified as her, and that Shakespeare's French landlady has as good a claim as any of the others. Whether fictional or real, the Dark Lady is described within the sonnets as undoubtedly a foreign-looking woman. There are other dark ladies in his comedies, so one gets the general idea, to sum it up somewhat bluntly, he finds foreign women rather sexy!"

Shakespeare by this time was a celebrity, a well-known face about town. It's maddeningly frustrating therefore to read in the deposition, given that the other witnesses in the court case are described variously as the "wyffe" of a "baskettmaker", a "victuler", a "tyremaker" and, most intriguingly, one of the King's "trumpetores", that Shakespeare is just a "gentleman". This only adds fuel to the anti-Stratfordian argument that as the surviving documents never explicitly connect him with writing, Shakespeare of Stratford must be a different man from the playwright. "Well, apart from all the title pages! No one among his contemporaries apparently noticed this strange alias business," snorts Nicholl. He has "less than no time" for authorship theories. "It's like saying there's a green cheese controversy in lunar studies. Or a flat earth controversy. You're forced into a shadow world of circular arguments."

There's a simpler answer, he insists. Shakespeare fought hard to be seen as a gentleman. "'A poet and a filthy playmaker' is how Christopher Marlowe was described. There does run through this period a tremendous ambiguity about the profession. They're famous, but they're also rather dodgy. It wasn't a profession with a great deal of respectability. So while you may be frustrated there was a 'William Shakespeare, gent' on the witness list, Shakespeare would be extremely pleased."

Nicholl is not at all cast down by the paucity of the evidence; quite the reverse. Elusiveness, he feels, is the hallmark of the man. "With a character like Ben Jonson, we've got a mass of stuff. You've got letters, you've got dedications, you've got handwritten inscriptions in books that he's given to people, you've got a sort of printed version of a journal or commonplace book, you've got his conversations with the poet William Drummond which Drummond wrote down. That's because Jonson is that sort of character. He buttonholes people and tells them exactly what he thinks, he swaggers into a room and knocks the cups off the table as he sits down. Shakespeare's not that sort of person. In the story that I try to tease out in this book, he is always just on the edge, he's drifting across the back of the shop. There are foreground characters but he's not one of them, he's just gone out of frame."

Eveyone has more charisma than Shakespeare, it seems. There's another fascinating character who turns up in the depositions, George Wilkins, the "victuler" or tavern-keeper who also, to judge from the numerous court cases he was involved in, many involving violence against women, supplied prostitutes. "What a charmer! The pimp and playwright, George Wilkins. It's quite a CV."

The fad for racy, spicy Jacobean city comedies had left the middle-aged Shakespeare looking old-fashioned. Astonishingly, this unsavoury wide-boy collaborated with Shakespeare on Pericles, writing "getting on for half of it. That's very well documented. There would be a much more contentious view," Nicholl says with a twinkle in his eye, "that George Wilkins may have supplied Shakespeare with services other than just literary ones. I don't even dare to phrase that in print."

The Lodger gives an eye-opening new portrait of the Bard in London; in some ways, not a very attractive one. Nicholl, after all, is a "de-iconiser". And you can any or all of it with your own pinch of salt.

"I'm a great believer in raising questions without necessarily knowing the answer. In fact, I almost prefer not to answer them. It's like the question, did Shakespeare and this sparky and amorous French landlady have an affair? There isn't an answer. The question itself is worth posing."

The extract

The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, by Charles Nicholl

'...You can see the house quite clearly in the woodcut map of Elizabethan London... known as the "Agas" map. It has steeply pitched gables, and a projection suggestive of a "pentice" or penthouse above a shop front, and then those four tantalising windows upstairs – but here the map fails us, for the windows are only little blocks of printer's ink which the magnifying-glass cannot pry into'

Allen Lane £20