The Lodger Shakespeare

His Life on Silver Street
13 Books Donated 40 min



This book looks into some aspects of Shakespeare’s life in London over a couple of years in the early seventeenth century. Larger issues of interpretation belong to the book itself. I will confine this preface to a few procedural points and some hearty thanks.


Many Jacobean documents use the ‘old style’ year, which ran from 25 March (‘Lady Day’). This is useful to know when reading them – it means that an event dated 1 January 1605 took place a month after an event dated 1 December 1605 – but is liable to cause confusion when quoting them. Where necessary I have amended to modern style (in the example cited I would give the first date as 1 January 1606).


On the matter of original spellings the demands of authenticity and readability pull in opposite directions. To modernize everything is to lose a certain richness – an orthographic brogue intrinsic to the period. On the other hand, quoting everything in archaic spelling can make things hard going for the reader. Inconsistency has seemed a lesser evil than either of these. I have tended to quote documents, letters, diaries and so on in original spelling, and literary texts in modern form.


Sums of money mentioned in the text cannot be correlated precisely with modern values. Based on the retail price index, it is estimated that £1 in 1604 had a purchasing power equivalent to about £144 in 2006. However, this is not always helpful as an overall conversion factor. In 1604 you could lease a large London town-house for £20 per annum, buy an unbound copy of Hamlet for sixpence, and drink a pint of beer for a halfpenny. A printer paid £2 (‘forty shillings and an odd pottle of wine’) for a pamphlet, and the author might get the same again for a slavish dedication to ‘my Lord What-call-ye-him’. Wages were low: a labourer might earn 5 shillings a week. There are too many anomalies to make it very meaningful, but as a rough rule of thumb I use an exchange rate of 1:200. That is, an early Jacobean pound was worth about £200 today, a shilling (1S) about £10, and a penny (1d) something under £1.


My research on this book has been greatly assisted by staff at the National Archives, British Library, Guildhall Library, London Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, French Protestant Church and Ealing Local History Centre in London, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the Bibliothèque Municipale in Amiens. I am particularly grateful to James Travers for his help in tracking down some elusive documents; to Susan North and Jenny Tiramani for advice on early Jacobean costume; and to Matt Steggle, Colin Burrow, Christiane Gould-Krieger, Elsie Hart, Kat Underwood, Thomas Dumont and the late Eric Sams for help and expertise generously given. My thanks also to my agent David Godwin, my editor Stuart Proffitt, my picture-editor Cecilia Mackay and my copy-editor Peter James, and – as ever – to my mother, my wife and my children.


For some corrections incorporated into the paperback edition I am grateful to Roger Davey, Michael Wood, Claire Preston, David Cairns, Norbert Hirschhorn and Hester Davenport.




‘One Mr Shakespeare’

Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live . . .
All’s Well that Ends Well, 4.3.322-3



The deposition


On Monday 11 May 1612, William Shakespeare gave evidence in a lawsuit at the Court of Requests in Westminster. His statement, or deposition, was taken down by a clerk of the court, writing in an averagely illegible hand on a sheet of paper measuring about 12 × 16 inches (see Plate 1). At the end of the session Shakespeare signed his name at the bottom. It is one of six surviving signatures, and the earliest of them (though it can hardly be called early: he was forty-eight years old and already in semi-retirement). He signs quickly and rather carelessly. The initial W is firm and clear, with the characteristic looping and dotting of the final upstroke, but the surname becomes a scrawl and is abruptly concluded with an omissive flourish: ‘Willm Shaks’ (or possibly ‘Shakp’).1 These abbreviations were not dictated by space, as they were in a mortgage-deed of 1613 (‘Wm Shakspe’), which he had to sign on a thin tag of parchment. They contribute a note of perfunctoriness, or perhaps impatience.


The signature draws the eye. It is, as the graphologists say, a ‘frozen gesture’; it touches this otherwise unlovely piece of paper with Shakespeare’s physical presence. But what makes this document special is not just – not even primarily – the signature. It is the anonymously scripted text above it, the text which the signature authenticates as Shakespeare’s sworn statement. We know the thousands of lines he wrote in plays and poems, but this is the only occasion when his actual spoken words are recorded.2


The case in which he was testifying is listed in the court registers as Belott v Mountjoy. It was a family dispute: trivial, pecuniary, faintly sordid – standard fare at the Court of Requests, whose function was broadly equivalent to the Small Claims Courts of today. The defendant, Christopher Mountjoy, is described as a ‘tiremaker’ – a maker of the decorative headwear for ladies known generically as ‘head-tires’ or ‘attires’. The plaintiff, Stephen Belott, had once been Mountjoy’s apprentice and was now his son-in-law. Both men were French by birth but had lived for many years in London. The Mountjoys’ house was on Silver Street, in Cripplegate, close to the north-west corner of the city walls. This is the setting of the story which unfolds in the court proceedings – a story which involves William Shakespeare.


The dispute concerned a dowry: a sum of £60 which, Belott alleged, had been promised when he married Mountjoy’s daughter in 1604, and which had never been paid. (This is a good but not a huge dowry: according to the rough rule-of-thumb outlined in the Preface, it would be equivalent to about £12,000 today.) Belott also claimed that Mountjoy had promised to leave the couple a legacy of £200 when he died. Mountjoy denied both claims, and now, eight years after the event, the case was before the court.


Shakespeare was one of three witnesses called on the first day of hearings (see Plate 3). What does he have to say? Not a lot would be the short answer, though this book attempts a longer one. The ‘interrogatories’ are put to him, five in number; he answers them briefly – one cannot say curtly, because his answers are shaped to the formulae of court depositions and cannot be reconstructed as to their particular tone, but he does not elaborate much, as some of the other witnesses do, and on some points he remains a little vaguer, a little less helpful, than one feels he might have been. His statement, like the signature beneath it, is adequate and no more. He says he has known both men, the plaintiff and the defendant, ‘for the space of tenne yeres or thereaboutes’ – in other words, since about 1602. He remembers young Belott as a ‘very good and industrious servant’, one who ‘did well and honestly behave himselfe’. Yes, he was ‘a very honest fellowe’, and was accounted so by his employer. As to the particular matter in dispute, Shakespeare is sure Belott had been promised a dowry – a marriage ‘porcion’ – but he cannot remember the sum mentioned. Nor does he remember ‘what kinde of houshould stuffe’ had been given to the couple when they married.a


And he says – and here, amid the general blandness of his statement, there is a hint of something more – he says that he had himself been asked by the girl’s mother, Marie Mountjoy, to ‘perswade’ the apparently reluctant apprentice to go through with the marriage. In the unwieldy language of the law-courts, ‘This deponent sayethe that the said deffendantes wyeffe did sollicitt and entreat this deponent to move and perswade the said complainant to effect the said marriadge, and accordingly this deponent did move and perswade the complainant thereunto.’ This presents him as a kind of counsellor or go-between, a romantic or perhaps merely practical advocate. But another witness in the case implies that Shakespeare’s role went further than this. He says the couple was ‘made sure by Mr Shakespeare’, and speaks of them ‘giving each other’s hand to the hand’. These phrases have a precise significance. They suggest that Shakespeare formally betrothed the young couple, performing the simple lay ceremony known as a ‘troth-plighting’ or ‘handfasting’. An intriguing little scene flickers up before us.


Shakespeare does not actually say why he was involved in these family affairs chez Mountjoy, but the answer is not far to seek. It is provided by the Mountjoys’ former maidservant, Joan Johnson, when she refers in her deposition to ‘one Mr Shakespeare that laye in the house’. In Elizabethan and Jacobean usage to ‘lie’ in a house meant to be staying there, and in this context undoubtedly means he was the Mountjoys’ lodger. Shakespeare quibbles on this sense of the word in Othello –


DESDEMONA: Do you know, Sirrah, where the lieutenant Cassio lies?

clown: I dare not say he lies anywhere . . .

DESDEMONA: Go to, where lodges he? . . .

clown: I know not where he lodges, and for me to devise a lodging, and say he lies here or he lies there, were to lie in mine own throat. (3.4.1-11)


A similar pun is in Sir Henry Wotton’s famous definition of an ambassador, ‘An honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country’.3 This is one of the primary nuggets of information which the Belott-Mountjoy case offers – it gives us an address for Shakespeare in London. How long he lodged or lay in Silver Street is something to look into: he was certainly there in 1604, when the marriage in question took place.


‘One Mr Shakespeare . . .’ I think it was the marvellous banality of this phrase that first sparked my interest in the case. For a moment we see him not from the viewpoint of literary greatness, but as he was seen by the maid of the house, a woman of no literary pretensions, indeed unable to sign her name except with a rather quavery little mark. ‘Mr’ is perhaps not quite as banal as it looks, because it was at that time a contraction of ‘Master’ rather than of ‘Mister’ – it is the term of address for a gentleman, a connotation of status. But the effect is the same. We have a fleeting sense of Shakespeare’s ‘other’ life, the daily, ordinary (or ordinary-seeming) life which we know he must have led, but about which we know so little. He is merely the lodger, the gent in the upstairs chamber: a certain Mr Shakespeare.


Shakespeare’s deposition in the Belott-Mountjoy case has been known for nearly a hundred years, but has been oddly neglected as a biographical source. It was found in 1909, along with others in the case, at the Public Record Office in London. Its discoverer was a forty-four-year-old American, Dr Charles William Wallace, Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska. If you have an image of the archival scholar Wallace is not it. There is a photograph of him, taken around the time of the discovery (see Plate 5). He is black-bearded, glossy-haired, elegantly dressed; his wife Hulda stands beside him, her hair primly braided. They might be minor characters from an Edith Wharton novel, but instead they are standing in the fusty surrounds of the old Record Office on Chancery Lane, with a fat bundle of old parchments on the table before them.


The Wallaces – they were very much a team – had been sleuthing in the archives for some years, and had already made some Shakespeare-related finds. They had turned up some legal documents relating to the Blackfriars Gatehouse, purchased by Shakespeare in 1613, and some lawsuits involving two of his closest theatrical colleagues, Richard Burbage and John Heminges.4 Wallace had also experienced the sniffiness of the British academic establishment, which regarded him as a brash American intruder. He has ‘boomed’ his discoveries ‘in true Transatlantic manner’, wrote one critic. His prose-style, winced a reviewer in the Athenaeum , ‘does not always economize the reader’s attention’. Wallace particularly clashed with C. C. Stopes, doyenne of Edwardian Shakespeare studies (and mother of the birth-control pioneer Marie Stopes), whom he suspected of cajoling Record Office employees to show her documents he had ordered up.5


Wallace’s earlier discoveries touched on Shakespeare, but none of them had the sheer archival glamour of the deposition. Acting on certain clues, he tracked it down among the then uncalendared Court of Requests proceedings – ‘great bundles of miscellaneous old skins and papers’, some still pristine, some ‘mouldered’ and ‘grimed’, some still tied up with hempen rope ‘harsh to handle’.6 His account breathes the thrill of the chase but the reality was dogged labour. Even today the Court of Requests collection is something of a jungle, especially for the Jacobean and Caroline periods when the court was at its busiest. In some private notes, Wallace describes his paradoxical feelings when he finally came upon the sheet of paper he was hunting. He felt ‘glad, but disappointed in measure’. ‘We were aware of the bigness of what we had’ – not only Shakespeare’s signature, but ‘a personal expression from him’ – but it ‘was so much less than we had wished!’ They felt a strange anti-climactic calm: ‘We exchanged a few words over the document, but no-one in the room might have guessed that we had before us anything more important or juicy than a court-docket.’ Perhaps this sang-froid was in part the paranoia of the document-hunter, for whom primacy of discovery is everything. Nothing was given away, no cries of ‘Eureka!’ – the spies of Mrs Stopes were everywhere. And anyway there was work to do. ‘We saw that we had only a part of the documents in the case: we must find the rest.’7


Wallace announced his discovery the following year, in an article in Harper’s Monthly (March 1910). He had by then recovered a total of twenty-six documents relating to the Belott- Mountjoy suit, some merely administrative, and some very ‘juicy’ indeed. Twelve contain some kind of reference to Shakespeare. He published a complete transcript in the October 1910 issue of Nebraska University Studies. This choice of periodical does not now make for easy availability, but seems commendable as one in the eye for the Athenaeum.


Shakespeare’s deposition was exhibited for a while in the Record Office Museum, mounted under glass, but is now back where it ought to be, safely and unceremoniously stored in a stout cardboard box at the National Archives’ new headquarters in Kew. There, duly vetted, one may consult it. Ensconced behind two locked doors in the Safe Room, I carefully extract from the box this sheet of greyish, coarse-grained paper which Shakespeare once handled, rather less carefully, on a Monday morning nearly four centuries ago. It is hard to say quite what the page has which the photographic reproductions of it do not. The signature is clearer, of course. That dot inside the arcade of the W is very sharp: it stares out like a beady eye. The ill-formed k is perceivable as a sudden blotching of ink – a malfunction of the unfamiliar courtroom pen, perhaps. Beyond this one has to resort to vaguer sensations. This bit of paper has presence, or anyway pedigree – an unbroken lineage back to Shakespeare’s writing hand.


After some moments of cargo-cultish reverence, and some futile speculation about fingerprints and DNA traces, I turn to the other papers in the box, also found by Wallace, most of which have never been reproduced. There are four sets of documents. The first set consists of four parchments – or ‘skins’, as Wallace liked to call them – fastened at the upper-left corner with a grubby white cord. These are the initial pleadings of the case. There is the Bill of Complaint lodged by Stephen Belott, through his solicitor Ralph Wormlaighton, dated on the verso 28 January 1612, and then the ‘Answeare of Christopher Mountioy’, of 3 February, signed by his solicitor George Hartopp. Some phrasings suggest these texts had been written, in the first instance, a year or more previously.8 They are followed by a further exchange: Belott’s ‘Replication’, dated 5 May, and Mountjoy’s ‘Rejoinder’, undated. These largely echo the previous documents and perhaps served more to fatten the attorneys’ fees than to throw further light on the dispute.


The remaining three sets of documents correspond to three separate sessions at the Court of Requests, at which witnesses testified or ‘deposed’ in answer to a prearranged list of questions. The court sat in the legal precinct of Westminster, in a first-floor chamber reached by stairs from Westminster Hall – thus John Stow, the great topographer of Shakespeare’s London: ‘By the King’s Bench is a going-up to a great chamber called the White Hall, where is now kept the Court of Wards and Liveries, and adjoyning thereunto is the Court of Requests.’9 At the first two sessions the witnesses (including Shakespeare) were called on behalf of Belott; at the third they were ex parte Mountjoy. All the depositions were recorded by the same clerk, on the same kind of paper, written on one side only. A courtroom scene in a seventeenth-century woodcut (see Plate 2) gives us something of the set-up – the clerk writing, the judge listening, the papers on the table.


The first set, of 11 May, contains the statements of Joan Johnson, ‘wife of Thomas Johnson, of the parish of Ealing in the county of Middlesex, basketmaker’; Daniel Nicholas ‘of the parish of St Olphadge [Alphage] within Cripplegate, London, gent’; and William Shakespeare ‘of Stratford upon Avon in the county of Warwickshire, gent’. They were examined in that order – the clerk’s hand is visibly tired by the time Shakespeare takes the stand. The papers, four folios in all, are in good condition apart from some mouldering down the lower-right edge, with some minor loss of text.


At the second session, on 19 June 1612, there were six deponents. First up was Daniel Nicholas, again: he is the most active and involved of the witnesses. Then follow the testimonies of William Eaton or Eyton, who was Belott’s apprentice; George Wilkins, ‘victualler’, of St Sepulchre’s parish; Humphrey Fludd of St Giles, Cripplegate, who was Belott’s stepfather, and who is described as ‘one of His Majesty’s trumpeters’; Christopher Weaver, ‘mercer’; and Noel Mountjoy, ‘tiremaker’, who was the defendant’s younger brother. These last two are both of St Olave’s, Silver Street – the parish where the Mountjoys lived, where Shakespeare lodged, and where Stephen Belott married Miss Mountjoy in the parish church.


At the third session, on 23 June, witnesses called by the defence were examined. There were just three: Christopher Weaver and Noel Mountjoy, who had both testified previously; and Thomas Flower, ‘merchant tailor’ of the parish of St Albans, Wood Street.


Of the nine witnesses in the case, five have a specified relationship to one or other of the disputants (a brother, a stepfather, an apprentice, a lodger and a maid) and four can be summed up under the general heading of friends and neighbours. Three have artisan occupations (basketmaker, tiremaker, tiremaker’s apprentice), three are tradesmen (victualler, mercer, merchant tailor), two are in the entertainment business (playwright, trumpeter), and two are gentlemen (who do not need to have an occupation, though at least one of them has). Seven of the nine live in London, either in or immediately adjacent to the Cripplegate area; and the two that do not – Joan Johnson of Ealing and Shakespeare of Stratford – had formerly lived in the area. This is a local story: its physical boundaries can be paced in half an hour.


Eight of the nine witnesses are men, and there are two women central to the story whose testimony one sorely misses – Christopher’s wife, Marie Mountjoy, who had died before the case came to court; and their daughter, Mary Belott, who was not called to testify, presumably because she was the plaintiff’s wife. That the mother and daughter have the same forename is a small inconvenience. The name is often written ‘Marye’. To avoid the nuisance of ‘senior’ and ‘junior’, I use Marie for the mother and Mary for the daughter (which is vaguely logical, as Marie was almost certainly born in France and Mary in England). Many immigrant families Anglicized their names, as this one seems to have done – hence Christopher Mountjoy rather than Christophe Montjoi or Montjoie. This is not to deny their foreignness, an intrinsic aspect of the story, nor their sense of themselves as French. They lived the immigrant’s double-life. After half a century in London Stephen Belott would sign his will, ‘Par moy Etiene Belot’.10


In these depositions we make our first acquaintance with some of the protagonists of this book – people personally known to Shakespeare: his landlord and landlady, the apprentice Belott and others. We get an impression of them, though conscious that a lawsuit can give a distorted, or anyway narrow, view of those involved.


Our first impression of Christopher Mountjoy is that he is a mean and rather crabby sort of man. The meanness is apparent in the whole case, which hinges on his refusal to pay his daughter’s dowry (his refusal is not in doubt: the matter before the court was whether he was breaching a promise to pay). That Mary was his only child compounds this impression, as does the opinion of witnesses that he was a man of ‘good estate’, in other words well off enough to pay up. We are also told that in the time of Belott’s apprenticeship Mountjoy was ‘strict unto’ him – ‘strict’ meaning tight or stingy – and that Stephen’s mother and stepfather had to find him ‘sutes of apparel’, and ‘were fain many times . . . to pay the barber for cutting the hair of his head’ (deposition of Humphrey Fludd). Later, as litigation approaches, we hear Mountjoy’s blustering tone. He said that ‘if he were condemned in this suit undeserved he would lye in prison before he would give the plaintiff anything’ (Noel Mountjoy). And in similar vein – or perhaps the same occasion differently reported – that ‘he would rather rott in prison than geve them any thinge more than he had geven them before’ (Christopher Weaver).


His antagonist Stephen Belott is no less intransigent but the tone is cooler. Some of the witnesses had tried to patch up the ‘unkindnes’ between them before the matter came to court. They went to talk to Belott – who had left Mountjoy’s house, with Mary, for the last time in about 1607 – but could get no concession from him. ‘Where I have a penniworth of anything, I would I had more of his,’ he told Thomas Flower, ‘and if I owe him anything let him come by it as he can.’ This is, unusually, given as direct speech, as if verbatim.


In contrast, one gets a gentler, more amenable note from the late Mrs Mountjoy. Her encouragement of the hesitant young couple is recalled by the maidservant Joan Johnson – ‘There was a shewe of goodwill’ between Stephen and Mary, ‘which the defendant’s wife did give countenance unto and thinke well of.’ And then later, when everyone was falling out over the dowry, she tries to mollify the situation: ‘Marye, the late wife of Christopher Mountjoy the defendant, did in her lifetime urge him to give something more unto Belott and his wife than he had done’ (Christopher Weaver). To which Mountjoy retorted: ‘He would never promise them anything, because he knew not what he should need himself.’


The depositions of Daniel Nicholas have an interesting twist, for they supply a kind of secondary recording of Shakespeare’s comments on the matter. It seems Nicholas visited Shakespeare at Belott’s request, presumably within the context of the impending lawsuit. As there is evidence that the litigation began some while before the case came to court, this visit might be around 1610 or so. Belott, says Nicholas, did request him this deponent to go with his wife to Shakespeare, to understand the truth how much and what the defendant did promise to bestow on his daughter in marriage with him the plaintiff, who did so. And asking Shakespeare thereof, he answered that he [Mountjoy] promised if the plaintiff would marry with Mary his only daughter, he would by his promise, as he [Shakespeare] remembered, give the plaintiff with her in marriage about the sum of fifty pounds in money and certain household stuff.


One notes a discrepancy here. When he was asked by Daniel Nicholas what dowry Mountjoy had promised, Shakespeare said it was about £50; but when he was asked the same question in court, under oath, he said he could not remember the figure. Does this tell us something? Was his memory – that miraculously agile and sensitive instrument – beginning to fail? The vagueness of his statements in court has been interpreted this way, but it seems that his memory was, in this instance, more selective than defective. It is an anomaly, a little fault-line in Shakespeare’s testimony, and I will return to it later.


Nicholas also adds to the small store of Shakespearean utterances we have gleaned from his own deposition. ‘Shakespeare told this deponent’, Nicholas says, ‘that the defendant told him that if the plaintiff . . . did not marry with Marye and she with the plaintiff she should never coste him the defendant her father a groat.’ Given the lapse of time, those last words are more likely to be Shakespeare’s paraphrase than Mountjoy’s exact words in 1604. So here again, among the tiresome exactitudes of legal-speak, nestles an authentic Shakespeare phrasing: ‘She should never cost him a groat.’ As we might say, ‘She wouldn’t get a penny out of him.’


We might have had another quotation, courtesy of Belott’s apprentice William Eaton, but all that remains is a curtailed half-sentence: ‘And Mr Shakespeare tould the plaintiff . . .’. For whatever reason, the court considered this inadmissible. The words were immediately crossed out, and replaced with the formulaic conclusion, ‘And more he cannot depose.’ Whatever it was that Shakespeare had said to Stephen Belott remains off the record.


Finally, on 30 June 1612, the court handed down its judgment. Or rather, it failed to reach a judgment, but referred the ‘matter of varyance’ to the French Church, of which both parties were – nominally, at least – members:


It is by His Majesty’s said counsel of this Court, in presence of the said parties and of counsel learned on both sides, ordered by and with the full consent of the said parties, that the same matter shall be referred to the hearing, ordering and final determination of the reverend & grave overseers and elders of the French Church in London.


The ledgers of the French Church, which was then on Threadneedle Street and is now in Soho Square, have some fragmentary records of the case.11 On 30 July four representatives of the Church were assigned to argue the matter, two for each of the disputants. But of more interest – to the prying biographer, at least – is a disparaging note at the end of the entry: ‘Tous 2 père & gendre débauchez’ (‘Both the father and the son-in-law are debauched’). One suspects the Calvinist elders of the French Church had a pretty inclusive idea of ‘debauchery’, but in the case of Mountjoy more explicit charges are found in later entries:


Montioye fut censuré d’avoir eu 2 bastardes de sa servante . . . Montioye, ayant souvent esté exhorté d’estre pieux, de sa vie dereglée & desborde’e . . . [et] ayant esté tiré au Magistrat pour ses paillardises & adulte‘res . . . [est] suspendu publiquement pour ses scandales.


According to this, Mountjoy had been censured by the Church elders for having fathered two bastards by his serving-maid; had been often exhorted to piety because of his irregular and outlandish lifestyle; had been hauled before the magistrate for his lewd acts and adulteries; and had been publicly suspended from the Church on account of these scandals. We may not be as aghast as the elders were – Mountjoy was by this stage a widower, and cohabiting with his maid does not seem very heinous. Nonetheless, these perceived sexual irregularities – ‘paillardises & adultères’ – are noted as we embark on our enquiry into the Silver Street milieu.


The case was adjudicated at a meeting of the consistoire or Church council in December. They found in favour of Stephen Belott, but the sum they ordered Mountjoy to pay was only 20 nobles (£6 13s 4d), scarcely a tenth of what Belott claimed was owed to him. Thus the long-awaited judgment managed to satisfy neither party. Some months later it is noted that Mountjoy has still not paid up. The case peters out; nothing much is resolved.


The events narrated in the Belott-Mountjoy suit are part of the story I want to tell, but they are not the story itself. Rather, these documents are a way into the little world of Silver Street, and to Shakespeare’s living presence within it. For Charles William Wallace, they revealed Shakespeare as ‘a man among men’ (and indeed women). For Samuel Schoenbaum, the Belott-Mountjoy suit is unique because alone among the Shakespeare records it ‘shows him living amidst the raw materials for domestic comedy’. 12 These are splendid invitations, and it is curious that no one has fully responded to them. The broader story that emerges from the case has not been told; this unexpected little window into Shakespeare’s life remains to be opened.


The Mountjoys themselves are a tantalizing quarry. Since Wallace there have been some additions to our knowledge of them – important new material was published by Leslie Hotson in 1941 and by A. L. Rowse in 197313 – but there is more to come out. The court case itself has details about them which have been ignored, and others have lain unnoticed in parish registers, subsidy rolls, probate records and medical casebooks. The evidence remains fragmentary, but we begin to know the Mountjoys a little better – and one of them in particular, whose personality has begun faintly to glow as my researches have progressed.


Other interesting characters hover at the periphery of the story. There is Belott’s stepfather, the trumpeter Humphrey Fludd: a professional entertainer, a man on the outer fringes of the royal court, and sounding in that brief synopsis not unlike Shakespeare himself. There is Henry Wood of Swan Alley, whose business as a cloth merchant brings him into professional contact with the Mountjoys, but whose relationship with Marie goes a good deal further than that.


And then there is the difficult figure of George Wilkins, another of the witnesses in the case. In his deposition he calls himself a ‘victualler’, which is true up to a point. He would hardly describe himself as a ‘brothel-keeper’, though this would convey more precisely the nature of his establishment; ‘pimp’ would also be correct. He was frequently in trouble with the law, some of the charges involving acts of violence against prostitutes. But there is a further twist to Wilkins: he was also a writer. Shakespeare knew this dangerous and rather unpleasant character – indeed it is almost certain Wilkins wrote most of the opening two acts of Pericles.14 Written in c. 1607-8, Pericles was notably absent from the great collection of Shakespeare’s plays, the ‘First Folio’ of 1623, probably because of Wilkins’s extensive contribution; it was first included in the Third Folio of 1664. In this book I explore Shakespeare’s relations with this underworld figure. Though his literary career was brief and minor, Wilkins is a writer of considerable bite, as best seen in his play The Miseries of Enforced Marriage , loosely based on a real-life murder case, and performed by Shakespeare’s company in c. 1606.


The first law of forensic science, otherwise known as Locard’s Exchange Principle, is that ‘every contact leaves traces’.15 I cannot call this book a ‘forensic’ study – the word refers to criminal investigations – but it is animated by a similar idea of proximity: of lives that touch, and the traces of evidence they leave. To find out more about the Mountjoys and their world has seemed to me worthwhile in itself, but is primarily a means to find out more about their lodger, the famous but so often obscure Mr Shakespeare, with whom they were in casual daily contact. His deposition is a beginning: a few curt sentences of reminiscence. From there the paperchase leads on, through the dark streets and alleys of Jacobean London, to arrive at a certain house where a light burns dimly in an upstairs window. After 400 years the traces are faint, but he is there.




Turning forty


Of the house where Shakespeare lived, and the people he knew there, I will give a full account in later chapters, but to begin with it is important to know when he was there – to place this slice of his life in a precise chronological context.


Though the deposition dates from 1612, the testimony it gives takes us back to the early years of the century. On his own evidence Shakespeare first knew Christopher Mountjoy in about 1602. There may be some imprecision in the recollection, but without evidence to the contrary this is the earliest possible date – the terminus post quem – for his presence in the Mountjoys’ house. He may have moved in to the house in that year, or in 1603. The latter was a disrupted year: the death of Queen Elizabeth, a savage outbreak of plague, the closure of the theatres. The last two are reasons – and there are others – for thinking Shakespeare was not in London at all during the summer of 1603, so we are more likely to find him on Silver Street in the later months of the year. One should not, anyway, think of his presence in the house as continuous. This was rented accommodation; he came and went as he wished.


We can be sure, at least, that he was lodging there in mid-1604. The wedding of Stephen and Mary took place in November that year. It was some time before that, obviously, that Shakespeare ‘persuaded’ them to marry. Probably, as I will show, it was not very long before, a few weeks or a couple of months at the most. At that point – as Joan Johnson tells us – Mr Shakespeare ‘laye in the house’, and indeed his status as the lodger, in a sort of provisional intimacy with the family, seems intrinsic to the part he plays.


How long after this he remained with the Mountjoys is difficult to say. The court case offers no hint, and we know little of Shakespeare’s whereabouts in the later stages of his London career. The death of Marie Mountjoy in the autumn of 1606 may have made the arrangement less congenial to him. His collaboration with George Wilkins in 1607 may be the fruit of an earlier connection within the Mountjoy ambit, but does not presuppose he was then still living on Silver Street. There is one bit of evidence which suggests Shakespeare was not there in the later years of the decade. It is a document dated 6 April 1609, which lists him among the ‘inhabitants’ of Southwark being assessed for ‘weekely paiment towards the relief of the poore’.16 This seems to show that Shakespeare was living in Southwark by 1609, though it is possible he features on the list as a representative of the Globe theatre, which was located there.


The exact termini of Shakespeare’s tenancy must remain vague, but within that vagueness there is a point of chronological certainty centred on the year 1604, when he is identifiably present in the house. And while the ups and downs of the Belott-Mountjoy marriage may be ‘raw materials for domestic comedy’, one does not require Mr Shakespeare to hurry in immediately prior to the marriage negotiations, and rush out again as soon as the church bells chime at St Olave’s, so it seems legitimate to express the known period of his tenancy as c. 1603-5. It is this period which is the focus of my book – the years when Shakespeare approached, and passed, the age of forty.17


Shakespeare in 1603 was a man at the peak of his profession. He had written many of the plays by which he is known today – Romeo and Juliet and Richard IIIA Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of VeniceAs You Like It and Twelfth Night, the Falstaff comedies, Julius CaesarHamlet. The latter, staged in about 1601, had plumbed its hero’s psyche with a subtlety and complexity never before seen on the Elizabethan stage. It was a watershed, and he was now in that ambivalent stage after the production of a masterpiece – his reputation assured by it, but the way forward from it unmapped. The period which follows Hamlet is characterized by those awkward, paradoxical, noirish works often called the ‘problem plays’, two of which – Measure for Measure and All’s Well that Ends Well – belong to the Silver Street years.