In his latest forensic biography, Nicholl tackles The Bard.
In a fashion similar to his previous explorations of such 16th-century luminaries as Christopher Marlowe (The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, 1994), Sir Walter Raleigh (The Creature in the Map: A Journey to El Dorado, 1996) and Leonardo da Vinci (Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind, 2004), Nicholl examines a curious biographical shard unearthed in 1909 and largely ignored since: the brief deposition then-48-year-old Shakespeare gave on May 11, 1612, in a suit brought by Stephen Belott against Christopher Mountjoy, Shakespeare’s former landlord. Belott accused his father-in-law of having reneged on the £60 dowry (today worth about £12,000, Nicholl estimates) promised when he wed Mountjoy’s daughter in 1604 and was now seeking restitution. When called as a witness, Shakespeare, a tenant in Mountjoy’s London residence on Silver Street from approximately 1603 to 1605, said he knew Belott was promised a dowry but couldn’t quite recall the amount. “His statement,” writes Nicholl, “like the signature beneath it, is adequate and no more.” Intrigued by both the ambiguity and impartiality of Shakespeare’s testimony, Nicholl leaps from the court papers (transcribed in full in the appendix) of this mild domestic squabble into a comprehensive analysis of what Shakespeare might have observed during his stay in that unhappy household, and how he may well have drawn upon those experiences in creating Othello, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That End’s Well, King Lear, all written during or shortly after the Silver Street years. He suggests: “The ‘unconsidered trifles’ of domestic life are snapped up by the dramatist. They go into the mix, enriching it with secret flavours of particularity which are, for the most part, unknown to us.”
A persuasively argued book that provides a rich context for Shakespeare’s later years and works.