Shakespeare in Silver Street


It is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this month, so a good moment to write something about Charles Nicholl’s Shakespeare book, The Lodger. It’s about Shakespeare’s time lodging on Silver Street with the Huguenot family the Mountjoys, and I bought it on the strength of Nicholl’s fine book on the death of Marlowe, The Reckoning.

Silver Street, or Sylver Street, doesn’t exist any longer, bombed in 1940, but it ran east to west near the London Wall, close to the present Museum of London and south of the current Barbican complex. The Huguenot church in Fann Street is about five minutes walk to the north. The house was destroyed earlier, in the Great Fire of London, or before.

Old Map Showing Silver StreetsmallNicholl suggests Shakespeare was probably a lodger in the Silver Street house from 1603-1605, which would mean that he probably wrote Othello, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That End’s Well, Timon of Athens and King Lear while he was there.

Shakespeare’s stay at Silver Street is interesting to Shakespeareans because it gave rise to the one document from his lifetime that Shakespeare attested in his own voice, as a witness in a court case between the owner of the house, Christopher Mountjoy, and his daughter, Mary, and son-in-law (and former apprentice) Stephen Belott.

Weighing the evidence

It’s a slender enough thing to build a book around, as slender as the tires (Elizabethan headgear) that Mountjoy built his business on. Nicholl treads carefully; the biographer’s uncertainty in dealing with the sketchy sources of the late 16th and early 17th century is there for us to see on the page. He weighs the evidence, tries to connect the different characters, and assesses how much, or little, we can conclude. He shares the tentative nature of his research and knowledge with the reader as he goes.

In the process we learn quite a lot of Shakespeare and something more of Elizabethan and Jacobean society. Perhaps I should have known more about Shakespeare’s collaborators, but I hadn’t realised how many there were. Nor the reason: to keep his commercial reputation flying high, in the face of competition from the the more streetwise writers of the early Jacobean “city-comedies“.

The first of these collaborators was George Wilkins, on Pericles, first perfomed in 1607. It’s entirely possible that Belott and Mountjoy were the route through which Shakespeare met Wilkins, for after they left the Silver Street house in 1605 they lodged with Wilkins. Shortly afterwards Wilkins was commissioned by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, to write The Miseries of Enforced Marriage. So the collaboration on Pericles was not the first connection between the two men.

Racy city-comedies

Wilkins wasn’t much of a writer, although Miseries was a commercial success. The records we have suggest that his writing career lasted only three years, from around 1606, when Miseries was first performed, to 1608. Critics and scholars are sniffy about the parts of Pericles that he wrote, and Nicholl describes Wilkins as “a voluble but unsophisticated hack.”

But Wilkins certainly lived the life of the racy city-comedies that were suddenly in vogue in London. He later kept a bawdy house on the corner of Cow Cross Street and Turnmill Street, now adjacent to Farringdon Station, then on “the edge of the notorious brothel quarter of Clerkenwell.” Wilkins was in frequent trouble with the law, sometimes on charges of violence against prostitutes. In the court case, where he was also a witness, he described himself as a “victualler”, but “pimp” or “panderer” would have been more accurate.

If the connection between playwrights and prostitutes seems odd to modern eyes, not so for most of the history of the theatre, and particularly so in the early 17th century.IMG_20160424_185005

“According to Thomas Dekker,” writes Nicholl, in the 1600s “prostitutes were so frequently in the theatre that they knew the plays word for word… A generation later, in the 1630s, William Prynne notes the proximity of theatre and brothels.”

In a flourish, he warms to the theme:

“Trulls, trots, molls, punks, queans, drabs, stales, nuns, hackneys, vaulters, wagtails–in a word, whores–were everywhere, but professional prostitution was only part of it. According to the same writers the theatres were a general free-for-all of assignations, pick-ups and uninhibited flirtations, a place where ‘light & lewd disposed persons’ congregated for ‘acts and bargains of incontinencie’.”

Stolen literary goods

And in the first decade of the 17th century there was a run of plays on this theme, on sex, money, and the limits of licentiousness. Shakespeare’s first contribution was Measure for Measure, a complex play but not a commercial one. The collaboration with Wilkins on Pericles, a city-comedy whose plot revolves around the heroine, Marina, being sold into prostitution, was probably fuelled by the success of Miseries.

Although Pericles is rarely performed now it was one of the most commercially successful of Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays. But the two men collaborated only once. Nicholl notes that Wilkins produced a “novelisation” of the play in 1608, perhaps not with the approval of the Kings Men, and most likely had something to do with the publication of a “bad folio” of the play in 1609. “[B]oth The Painfull Adventures of Pericles and the 1609 Pericles contain stolen literary goods with Wilkins fingerprints all over them.”

Shakespeare was notoriously protective of his copyrights, and did not forgive those who breached them.

‘Strangers of everywhere’

There’s a second literary connection that Nicholl traces, and this is about migrants. Lodgings were plentiful in London at the time, and so Shakespeare made a choice to lodge with the Huguenot family in a period when anti-migrant feeling was running high. There were anti-immigrant riots in London in 1593, and “a vein of boisterous xenophobia runs through the playhouse comedies of the 1590s.”

Shakespeare wasn’t immune to the appearance of the comic foreigner in is work, or the opportunities for word-play that this afforded. But Nicholl argues that in his more serious work, Shakespeare has a “tendency to challenge prejudices against immigrant aliens.” This is famously the case in The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock is a rounded character when he could easily be a pantomime villain. In Othello, written while lodging in Silver Street, which departs “radically with convention,” Othello is the hero and Iago, his white subordinate, the villain.

As Nicholl notes, “there are many differences between a French tiremaker in Cripplegate and an African condiottiere in Venice, but they share a social identity as immigrants of ‘strangers’. Their status, however high, is tenuous. Their presence, however settled, remains essentially transient; they are ‘strangers of here and everywhere’.

And a little more. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are set abroad, although of course all portray aspects of contemporary England to their Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences. English life was shown “distorted and magnified” through a prism of foreignness.

“The foreign—the ‘strange’—is an imaginative key for Shakespeare: it opens up fresher and freer ways of seeing the people and things which daily reality dulled with familiarity.”


A forgetful witness

As for Christopher Mountjoy, he was a successful businessman but a terrible human being, by various accounts censured by the French Church in London for adultery and notoriously tight with money. It was this that led to the legal dispute in which Shakespeare was a witness. Stephen Belott alleged that Mountjoy had promised a dowry of £60, perhaps £12,000 in modern money,  which had not been paid; Christopher Mountjoy denied that such a sum had been promised.

Shakespeare did not help their case. In his deposition he recalled a figure of £50, but in the witness box his memory was less certain. Yes, a sum was promised, “but what certain portion he remembereth not.”

One of our endless frustrations about Shakespeare is that we would like to know more about him, that we can deduce only glimpses. Records have disappeared, if they ever existed. One of the pleasures of The Lodger is that it conveys, through Nicholl’s careful forensic work, how much we can know of someone who lived more than 400 years ago.

The image of the Silver Street plaque is from The Lost City of London blog: the map showing Silver Street is from the Knowledge of London blog; the other two images are by Andrew Curry and are published here under this Creative Commons licence.

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