Saturday, October 4, 2008

Pox, Punks & Poetry: Charles Nicholl's The Lodger Shakespeare

Writing a biography of Shakespeare is a difficult task. In fact, that degree of difficulty is what's kept the dim bulbs of the "Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare" movement burning. There are many gaps in the record. Years in which we have absolutely no idea what Shakespeare was doing -- particularly in his early adulthood. The holes in the narrative have tempted some to rely upon conjecture and informed guesses to fill in many of the gaps -- or exploit holes in the narrative to deny Shakespeare his due.

The last major effort to write Shakepeare's life -- Stephen Greenblatt's 2004 book Will in the World -- filled those gaps with forays into historical context and the fashionable hypothesis that Shakespeare's early years may have been spent in the home of a recusant family. James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 took a similar tack in a more telescoped fashion. (I interviewed Greenblatt and other scholars for this article when his book was published.)

Over the last few weeks, I have read another Shakespeare biography of sorts that is among the best things I have ever read about the dramatist/poet. Charles Nicholl's The Lodger Shakespeare takes as its starting point the playwright's curious role in a bitter lawsuit waged between a French emigre (from whom he rented a room) and his son-in-law over a promised and largely-undelivered dowry.

Nicholl notes that Shakespeare's deposition in the case bears "one of six surviving signatures, and the earliest of them," but he adds that it is the dramatist's statements within the document that also carry special weight :

We know the thousands of lines he wrote in plays and poems, but this is the only occasion when his actual spoken words are recorded.

Yet The Lodger Shakespeare is much more than a close reading of legal documents. Nicholl uses that starting point to examine the world of high fashion, extramarital affairs and seedy taverns and whoring that most certainly surrounded Shakespeare in his rented quarters. He also points out the precarious situation of foreigners in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean England, and teases out the ways in which Shakespeare's proximity to the "foreign" may have impressed itself in his works.

Nicholl has a keen nose for finding bits of Shakespeare's London and the milieu in which he must have slept and written after long days and nights at The Globe in the plays. In one passage, Nicholl tackles the perplexing issue of why none of Shakespeare's comedies or tragedies are set in England itself -- and what Shakespeare was trying to accomplish by such displacement of setting for plays that were so distinctively English in every other way:

In Shakespeare, and particularly in Shakespearean comedy, real English life as it was experienced by the audience was shown to them through a prism of foreignness, by which process it was subtly distorted and magnified. In this sense 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.

The author of The Lodger Shakespeare also tackles an even more perplexing issue: what was Shakespeare doing hanging out (let alone collaborating on Pericles, Prince of Tyre) with George Wilkins -- a violent brothel keeper whose Elizabethan rap sheet included brutal attacks on women (many of them prostitutes) and, in one case, "woundinge one John Ball in the head with a Welshe hooke."

Nicholl argues quite convincingly that Wilkins provided a hot commodity for Shakespeare and his company, the King's Men -- plays with a hot off the presses vitality and cutting edge. He is particularly compelling in his analysis of one of Wilkins' plays -- The Miseries of Enforced Marriage -- which was performed by Shakespeare's company.

The Miseries of Enforced Marriage
was based on the same brutal and bizarre crime -- a father's murder of his two children and attempted murder of his wife, hyped in garish pamphlets of the period -- that inspired Thomas Middleton's A Yorkshire Tragedy. But in Wilkins' hands it becomes as much a farce (happy ending?) and a ripped-from-the headlines potboiler as it is a tragedy. "The Miseries does not have the intensity of the Yorkshire Tragedy but its lack of artistry makes it valuable in another sense -- we hear Wilkins and his world throughout it." (Having finally obtained a copy of the play --which has been unpublished since 1964 -- I can attest to its crude vigor, which leaps off the page.)

The Lodger Shakespeare is one of those rare books that not only confirms the genius of Shakespeare -- but places it carefully within its context of the squalor and chaos of his London. It is a brilliant piece of scholarship.

1 comment:

Confluence City said...