The Lodger Shakespeare

By CHARLES NICHOLL

At first glance, this book’s premise hardly seems book-worthy. In 1612, Stephen Belott, feeling cheated out of his dowry, brought a suit against his father-in-law, Christopher Mountjoy. One of the witnesses called to testify was Mountjoy’s former lodger, William Shakespeare. Whatever his sense of the potential theatricality of foiled marriages and in-law relations, the Bard isn’t very revelatory and fails to wax poetic on the witness stand. He claims not to remember much about what happened. The event — our only record of Shakespeare’s spoken words ever being recorded — was unearthed by an intrepid researcher in 1909. It’s remained largely unremarked for a century. Nevertheless, it offers a window, however narrow, into Shakespeare’s daily life and dealings. Charles Nichol, to his credit, illuminates that window. He’s studiously exhumed what faint traces of early Jacobean times remain in the parish where Shakespeare briefly resided, fleshed out the context of the case, and elaborated the place in London society of Shakespeare’s French landlords. What arrives through this meticulous upending is not so much a portrait, but a series of faint glimpses of the playwright at one moment of his otherwise mysterious life, as well as of the odd backdrop against which he chose for a time to prop it. At times, the very ordinariness of the life revealed is the book’s exhilaration, while at others the pleasure is glimpsing a world whose mores and artifacts are almost wholly lost to us. Nichols manages to make both types of revelation suspenseful. -