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There's gold in Shakespeare's Silver Street days

On Monday, May 11, 1612, William Shakespeare testified at the Court of Requests in Westminster in a lawsuit involving an unpaid dowry. Stephen Belott was suing his father-in-law, Christopher Mountjoy, over what he claimed was an unpaid dowry of £60 (about $12,000) and a legacy of £200. Court parchments show that Shakespeare had been asked by Mountjoy's wife in 1604 to persuade the reluctant bridegroom to marry her daughter Mary.

Apparently, it was Shakespeare who had relayed the news of the promised dowry to help in the persuasion, and it was Shakespeare to whom Mary Belott and family friend Charles Nichols went to confirm the amount (at that time, according to Nichols' testimony, Shakespeare said the amount was to have been £50). In his court testimony, Shakespeare says only that Belott had been promised a marriage "porcion" but adds that he cannot remember the sum mentioned. It seems to be a moot point anyway, because Christopher Mountjoy defaulted even on the amount he was eventually ordered to pay (slightly more than £6) by the elders of the French Church, to whom the case was referred.

In "The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street" (Viking Adult, 2008), author Charles Nicholl places the nonfiction story – and Shakespeare – in the context of London after the plague of 1603 and before the Great Fire, the boomtown, entertainment-laden London in which Shakespeare lived and worked, where the leap from the Globe Theatre to the bear-baiting pits and the bawdy houses was but a short one.

Using period maps and accounts, subsidy rolls, probate records, parish registers, even the notebooks of astrologer Simon Forman, Nicholl painstakingly pieces together tiny slivers of historical fact to show us the movements of the Mountjoys as they emigrate from France to England, and move several times before settling in the house on the corner of Silver and Monkwell streets, where Shakespeare was their lodger in 1603 and 1604.

We can see the wall of the garden that belongs to Windsor House, the Earl of Westmoreland's estate, sweep our gaze to the parish church (St. Olave's), stroll up to Cripplegate and from there out beyond the city walls, on the way passing livery stables and the workplaces of diverse craftsmen.

We learn about the Mountjoys' profession of tire-making: creating the elaborate headpieces worn by royals (Queen Anne was a Mountjoy customer) and noblewomen and copied by courtesans. We even get an image of Shakespeare's room on the first floor with its four-poster bed, wall-hangings, fireplace, desk and chair near the window, inkwell, books that served as his source material: Plutarch's "Lives," Ovid's "Metamorphoses," and manuscripts in progress.

While at the Mountjoys, Shakespeare wrote several plays and collaborated on "Pericles" with an unlikely partner, Simon Wilkins, the owner of a bawdy house who was often in trouble with the law for brawling and other misdemeanors. Nichols examines how this odd pairing may have come about and why it ended abruptly. He muses how much of the daily doings on Silver Street seeped into Shakespeare's unconscious to form the characters he created while there: Helena in "All's Well That Ends Well," who is betrothed to a reluctant husband; Cordelia in "King Lear," who is banished without a dowry by her father; and Marina in "Pericles," who is lodged in the house of a pimp.

The result is a Shakespeare who is not only the writer whose work we admire 400 years later, but a Shakespeare who is more fully human: one who lives amid others but wants to stay above the fray, thus "forgetting" the amount of the Mountjoy dowry.

"The Lodger Shakespeare" is available at the Los Altos Library.

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