What with all those Henrys being succeeded by all those other Henrys in the histories, and all those worryingly ghostly patriarchs looming over the tragedies – Julius Caesar, Old Hamlet, Banquo – you never get very far from paternity in the Shakespeare canon. Nor is fatherhood presented solely as a matter between father and son, in the manner highlighted to the point of overdetermination in the battle scene near York in Act II of Henry VI Part 2, when the stage is simultaneously occupied by a nameless father bearing the corpse of the son he has just killed, and a nameless son bearing the corpse of the father he has just killed, both of them watched by a king who, having inherited the crown from his never-to-be-equalled father, has now disinherited his own son, thereby occasioning the battle. Outside the obsessively patrilineal English histories, trouble between fathers and daughters seems just as common, whether the daughter is getting married, as in the comedies and the romances, or is married and then killed, as in several of the tragedies. The play now usually regarded as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, King Lear, is one to which the father-daughter problem is absolutely central, and in which the repudiation and the dismissal into marriage of a doomed, hitherto beloved daughter happen in almost the same breath.
It is a play to which this notoriously fluent and even careless writer seems to have devoted special attention, and over an unusually long period of time:
No, trust me. She is peevish, sullen, froward,
Proud, disobedient, stubborn, lacking duty,
Neither regarding that she is my child
Nor fearing me as if I were her father.
And may I say to thee, this pride of hers
Upon advice hath drawn my love from her,
And where I thought the remnant of mine age
Should have been cherished by her child-like duty,
I … turn her out to who will take her in.
Then let her beauty be her wedding dower …
This speech isn’t from the first scene of King Lear (1605-6) at all, but from The Two Gentlemen of Verona (c.1589), at III.i, 68-78. I have cheated slightly by removing a single line, but even so this passage would look much more at home in the speech in which the old king tells Cordelia’s hitherto enthusiastic suitor Burgundy that her price is now fallen than it does in its actual dramatic context. The speech forms part of a long, irrelevant piece of dissimulation in which the duke of Milan, tipped off by one gentleman of Verona that his daughter is planning to elope with the other, toys with his would-be son-in-law for some minutes before ‘finding’ the rope-ladder he already knows the youth is concealing under his cloak and sentencing him to banishment. Writing what was probably his first play, Shakespeare had already been so profoundly struck by the story of another royal father and his disobedient daughter that he couldn’t help starting to draft the opening scene of his own account of the subject, regardless of its immediate pertinence. Had he recently acted in the anonymous The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella, and found himself unable to get its initial dramatic situation out of his head? Had his attention strayed from the section of Holinshed’s Chronicles he was reading with a view to dramatising the Wars of the Roses towards the legendary stuff nearer the beginning? In any case, in the midst of a comedy that otherwise looks more like a botched first attempt at Twelfth Night, Shakespeare fleetingly began work on a tragedy that would preoccupy him at intervals for the rest of his career.
His own version of the Lear story – complete with the death of Cordelia, suppressed in the happy ending of Leir and postponed for several happy years even in the legendary history on which that play is based – would relegate The True Chronicle History of King Leir to the status of an incidentally interesting piece of raw material. The older play possibly only got into print at all – in 1605, many years after its composition – in order to capitalise on the success of Shakespeare’s version, which, after a presumed try-out in his company’s public repertoire at the Globe, received its first documented performance before James I’s court at Whitehall on 26 December 1606. It was then printed in 1608, as M. William Shak-speare, his True Chronicle History of the life and death of King LEAR and his three daughters, but even after spending fifteen years or more training and nerving himself to complete it, then having it acted before his public and his royal patron and seeing it on the bookstalls in St Paul’s Churchyard, Shakespeare did not set it aside. Instead, he continued to revise it, producing not only The Tragedie of King Lear (c.1610, the streamlined and polished version that would be printed in the Folio in 1623) but those plays in which the monarch’s exiled daughter miraculously survives: Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, The Tempest.
Why was Shakespeare so fixated on this story? And why did he wait until the early 1600s before completing his own dramatisation of it? If what we want or trust is a biographical explanation, it must be relevant that he was already himself a father, though a largely absentee one, before he even embarked on The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and that since his son, Hamnet, had died in Stratford in 1596, he had been the father only of daughters – the elder of whom, Susanna, was on the point of getting betrothed when he finally premiered King Lear. (She married Dr John Hall in 1607, the year between Lear’s performance at court and its publication.) Biographers have pointed out, too, that Shakespeare had a younger brother called Edmund, who followed him to London and into the theatre business. Did Shakespeare name the illegitimate villain – who dominates the subplot he added to the Lear story – after his actor brother as a favour, so as to earmark the role for him, or was he trying to signal that he thought his sibling was a complete bastard? (Edmund Shakespeare died in the great frost of 1607 without leaving any testimony on the subject.) Critics happier to interpret the Shakespeare canon in political contexts, meanwhile, have noted that Shakespeare appears cannily to have postponed writing his first drama featuring a king of Britain rather than of England until the long-predicted accession of James (after whose sons, the dukes of Cornwall and of Albany, Shakespeare pointedly names two of Lear’s sons-in-law). The new king’s determination to produce a Great Britain through the legal union of England and Scotland, they note, made the English chronicle play look obsolete (goodbye Richards and Henrys, hello Lear and Cymbeline).
For Charles Nicholl, however, another simultaneously personal and geopolitical factor has a bearing on the timing of King Lear: Shakespeare’s long-standing interest in France. The country whose king Cordelia marries and whose army she deploys in her attempt to restore her father to power had already provided a setting for Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594), which alludes in detail to recent French politics, and for As You Like It (1599) and All’s Well That Ends Well (1604?); while Anglo-French relations dominate Henry VI Part 1 (c.1592), King John (1596) and Henry V (1599). The last of these demonstrates, furthermore, particularly in the scene of Princess Katherine’s English lesson, III.iv, that Shakespeare had a reasonable grasp of French. Just as important for the story Nicholl tells in The Lodger, it also demonstrates that Shakespeare had a reasonable grasp of the sorry position occupied by women in struggles between men over property: Katherine, fated to be handed over to Henry as part of the spoils should he defeat her father, sweetly learns to name the parts of her body in English immediately after the scene in which Henry threatens the women of Harfleur with rape unless their menfolk surrender the town. If James’s accession in 1603, becoming not just king of England and Scotland but patron of the newly adopted King’s Men into the bargain, had stimulated the dramatist’s interest in stories about Britain, Nicholl suggests that something else more local and personal might have reignited his interest in stories about French marriages. Around 1603 Shakespeare acquired a French landlady with a marriageable daughter, a landlady who bore the same surname as the suave French herald who demands a ransom from Shakespeare’s Henry V before Agincourt.
Herald: So far my King and master; so much my office.
King Harry: What is thy name? I know thy quality.
Marie Mountjoy, of Silver Street, near the Barbican, ran a business with her husband, Christopher, making ‘tires’, ornamental headwear fashionable among ladies at court (‘tires’ were elaborate compounds of wire, jewellery and false hair). Thanks to a lawsuit brought in 1612 by their son-in-law, Stephen Belott, over the non-payment of the dowry allegedly promised with their daughter, Mary, in 1604, we know a good deal more about the Mountjoy family’s affairs than we do about those of their lodger, whose bit-part role as a go-between in the marriage negotiations between Stephen and Mary is much better documented than his participation, if any, in arranging the marriages of his own children. In lieu of any surviving interviews with Shakespeare about how he came to write King Lear – let alone any dramatic spy-thriller testimony about his dealings with the state, of the kind that made Nicholl’s previous biographical study of a Renaissance playwright, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, such a page-turner – a book about the Mountjoys will have to do.
But is there really a whole book to be made out of this tiny overlap between the life of our greatest playwright and the domestic squabbles of a family of French expatriate head-dressers? The Belott-Mountjoy suit was first exhumed in 1909 by Charles William Wallace of the University of Nebraska and his wife, Hulda, who found its traces among the uncalendared papers of the Court of Requests at the old Record Office in Chancery Lane, but even the couple who made the most extensive archival discovery about Shakespeare of the 20th century admitted that the documents provided, as Charles put it, ‘so much less than we had wished!’ Shakespeare’s biographers have been able to make very little of the playwright’s paraphrased and non-committal replies to the court’s ‘interrogatories’ about how much money Christopher Mountjoy really promised as Mary’s dowry, and how much he promised to bequeath to her and her husband at his death. As Stanley Wells summarises the affair in the general introduction to the Oxford edition of Shakespeare, ‘in 1604 Shakespeare was lodging in north London with a Huguenot family called Mountjoy; in 1612 he was to testify in a court case relating to a marriage settlement on the daughter of the house. The records of the case provide our only transcript of words actually spoken by Shakespeare; they are not characterful.’ They certainly aren’t, not even in their original Jacobean spelling:
And further this deponent sayethe that the said defftes [defendant’s, i.e. Christopher Mountjoy’s] wyeffe did sollicitt and entreat this deponent to moue and perswade the said Complainant [Stephen Belott] to effect the said Marriadge and accordingly this deponent did moue and perswade the complainant therevnto: And more to this Interrogatorye he cannott depose. To the ffourth Interr [interrogatory] this deponent sayth that the defendt promissed to geue the said Complainant a porcion [‘of monie and goodes’ deleted] in Marriadg[e] wth Marye his daughter. but what certayne porcion he Rememberithe not. nor when to be payed … To the vth Interrogatory this deponent sayth he can saye noth[inge] touchinge any parte or poynte of the same Interrogatory for he knoweth not what Implentes [implements] and necessaries of househould stuffe the defendant gaue the plaintiff in Marriadge wth his daughter Marye.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Shakespeare was an unmitigatedly boring and unhelpful witness. The young couple whose hand-fast betrothal he had personally conducted, deprived of the dowry about which he remained so irresponsibly vague, can’t have had a very high opinion of his gifts as a marriage-broker either. He wasn’t even consistent, forgetting the crucial matter at issue, the size of the promised portion, only when actually in court. According to Belott’s friend Daniel Nicholas, Shakespeare at first said when questioned on Belott’s behalf that Mountjoy had promised a dowry of ‘about the some of ffyftye poundes in money and Certayne Houshould stuffe’. The Court of Requests ultimately referred the matter to the elders of the French Protestant church to which Mountjoy belonged, and although they eventually ruled that he should pay the couple £6 13s 4d – less than a seventh of the amount they were trying to claim – the last surviving document of the case is a note made in mid-1613 recording the fact that Mountjoy still hadn’t paid up, nearly a decade after the wedding.
Nicholl’s success in teasing a book out of this unpromising material is a tribute both to his skill and determination as a close-reader of documents and to his tact as a reader of Shakespeare’s plays. Although The Lodger is framed by a preliminary account of the case in its first chapter and a more detailed return to it in its last three (and rounded off by a substantial appendix which provides a fuller transcript of the surviving Belott-Mountjoy papers than has previously been available in print), Nicholl does not rely on the meagre narrative offered by the records of the Court of Requests to provide either the book’s principal content or its main interest. The intervening 24 chapters instead provide something which is neither strictly a vignette from Shakespeare’s life in 1604 nor an attempt directly to relate his involvement in the Mountjoys’ affairs to the plays he was writing, but a composite portrait of the shifting and sometimes treacherous city of which he, the plays and the Mountjoys were all inhabitants.
Some of this material is already familiar to Shakespearean scholars, but not to the wider readership which prefers biography and history to literary criticism. The Lodger caters to this life-story-hungry public by considering some appealingly seedy and well-attested bit-parts and bystanders. It provides vivid portraits, for instance, of Simon Forman, the controversial astrologer-cum-gynaecologist whom Marie Mountjoy had consulted in 1597 (when she thought herself pregnant by a neighbouring mercer, Henry Wood), and of George Wilkins, the violent brothel-keeper-turned-author with whom Shakespeare cowrote his most innocent play, Pericles, and with whom the hapless Mary Belott née Mountjoy lodged for a while after her marriage. A.L. Rowse wrote about Forman in the 1970s (though this quack therapist’s wonderfully dodgy casebooks have yet to be published in full), and Katherine Duncan-Jones, in Ungentle Shakespeare, did a pretty thorough job on Wilkins and the bad light his picturesque police record casts on his better-known literary collaborator, but neither dealt at length with Christopher Mountjoy. Without being crudely identified as a real-life source, Mountjoy emerges from Nicholl’s account as a small-time Lear of the head-tiring trade, unaccountably angry and ungenerous towards his daughter, and so miserly with everyone else that he probably wouldn’t have divided his kingdom between her elder sisters either, if she had had them.
One effect of this contagious interest in the people and indeed objects with which Shakespeare shared his world is that The Lodger is a book about Shakespeare that is largely, and perhaps refreshingly, not really about Shakespeare at all, but instead shows us the way his London looked to people who saw it quite differently. Not only does it tell us about Shakespeare’s own life and character only from the perspective of those whom his life briefly and accidentally touched (such as the Mountjoys), but it reconstructs what his room in Silver Street might have been like, for instance, by quoting from contemporary writers who, unlike Shakespeare, were interested in describing what contemporary writers’ rooms were like (such as Thomas Nashe). Equally, it tells us about the head-tiring industry in the words of writers much more interested in documenting contemporary status symbols and fashions than Shakespeare ever was (principally Thomas Middleton); and it tells us about what Nicholl calls the ‘simmering randiness’ of London’s sleazier quarters in the words of writers much more interested in the sex trade even than the author of Measure for Measure (such as John Marston). Shakespeare’s plays, however incidentally inflected in the early 1600s by what Nicholl calls the ‘brothel realism’ of the more satirical generation of playwrights whose work now shared the London stage with his own, remain convincingly aloof from all this, except on the very few occasions when The Lodger strains a point and tries to make a more direct connection between a detail in the archive and a detail in the works. Nicholl, after ingeniously making a whole chapter out of a list of the Mountjoys’ neighbours gleaned from local church records, cannot restrain his excitement when he discovers that another parishioner, an embroiderer called Tailor, has given his daughter a Shakespearean-looking name:
On 1 December 1605 a daughter of Tailor’s was baptised at St Olave’s. She was christened Cordelia. The name – spelt thus in the register – was still unusual … The most famous Cordelia, of course, is the fictional one – the daughter of King Lear … . Just possibly [the Tailors] got the name from the author himself, lodged around the corner and then at work on the play – asked him, sensibly enough, for a nice name for their new daughter, and received from him the beautiful gift of Cordelia.
Leaving aside the old King Leir play, and Holinshed, and all the other places where the Tailors might have read or heard about the legendary king of Britain and his children, would it really be a ‘beautiful gift’ for Shakespeare to give a real child a name which, even in the pre-Shakespearean versions of the story, refers directly to the princess’s unhappy death? Cordelia is called Cordelia after the cord that will choke her, whether she is lynched in custody by Edmund’s assassin, as in Shakespeare’s version, or kills herself after being deposed as the restored Lear’s successor by Goneril and Regan’s children, as in the original legend, retold by, among others, Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene:
So to his crowne she him restor’d againe,
In which he dyde, made ripe for death by eld,
And after wild, it should to her remaine:
Who peaceably the same long time did weld:
And all mens harts in dew obedience held:
Till that her sisters children, woxen strong
Through proud ambition, against her rebeld,
And ouercommen kept in prison long,
Till wearie of that wretched life, her selfe she hong.
In any event, this one lapse into misplaced sentiment provides a reminder that The Lodger is definitely a book about where Shakespeare was living when he wrote King Lear, rather than a book in which to look for insights about King Lear itself. As such it is at once a triumph of archival scholarship, and the perfect book about Shakespeare for people not especially interested either in the theatre or in poetry. For those who are, however, it offers the fascinating and pleasingly off-centre frisson of imagining the father-daughter rows that must have echoed up the stairs in Silver Street while William Shakespeare, the daddy of all literary paying guests, sat at his desk, scripting, for whatever reasons, some rather more sublime father-daughter rows of his own.