I found it fascinating. Although he cannot tell us much about Shakespeare that isn't speculation, he has reconstructed the lives of those around him with the forensics skills of a master sleuth. This is a house where Shakespeare persuaded an apprentice to marry his master's daughter, although it is not clear why the lad needed persuading. The family are French Huguenot refugees and they possess an undercurrent of sexual promiscuity. Shakespeare's landlord owns a house in Brentford, at the time a notorious red light district, and has children by his maid while in between marriages; he is a stingy man who is required by law to leave a third of his property to his daughter but in his will instructs that his property should be divided into four 'thirds' of which she will get one (which is a quarter of course). Another party to the court case is George Wilkins who wrote a couple of plays and collaborated with Shakespeare on Pericles before returning to a low life of pimping and violence. And at this time Shakespeare wrote the wonderful Measure for Measure, a 'problem play' which deals with the closing of brothels in Vienna.
I really liked this book.
I love books that tell me interesting things:
- The 'ell' is an old unit of length (45 inches) derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for arm: we still call the bend in the middle of the arm the 'elbow'.
- Cripplegate is so called because it was low so you had to creep under it.
- The upper floor of a Tudor house stuck out ('juttied') because taxes were based on the ground area; the upper floor was called the 'pentiss' or 'penthouse'
- Pub called the 'Swan with Two Nicks' are common because vintners were entitled to keep swans but their swans were distinguished from the royal swans by having two nicks cut in their beaks.
- Measure for Measure (A2S2: 137-8): "Go to your bosom,/Knock there, and ask thy heart what it doth know" echoes the motto of the essayist Michel de Montaigne: "What do I know?"; this predates the scepticism of Descartes; Montaigne's essays were designed to test ('assay') assumptions
- Threadneedle Street was originally Three Needles Street echoing the logo of the Needlemakers' Company
- St Olave's church is dedicated to Olaf, a Christian Norwegian king who fought in England against the pagan Danes
- When an Elizabethan lost something he or she might go to a 'cunning man' such as Simon Forman who would cast horoscopes and suggest how it might be found or who had stolen it.
- The word wench comes from Middle English wenchel meaning a child and had no bad meaning at first.
- Till death us do part started off as 'till death us depart'
- The plot of Measure for Measure mimics to some extent the situation in which Shakespeare presided at a hand-fasting ceremony (formal betrothal/ informal marriage) between his landlord's apprentice and his landlord's daughter; the couple later consummated the marriage and married in church but the court case is about the non-payment of dowry; Claudio in M4M gets into trouble for having sex with his betrothed before the actual marriage while the dowry is delayed whilst Angelo refuses to consummate his betrothal because of the non-payment of her dowry
- All's Well That Ends Well which was also written about this time is also about a man being pressured into marriage and has the wonderful lines:
He wears his honour in a box unseen
That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home,
Spending his manly marrow in her arms
- "In his later plays Shakespeare keeps returning to the theme of the ... daughter lost or banished" (p 269):
- King Lear: Lear and Cordelia,
- A Winter's Tale: Leontes and Perdita,
- The Tempest: Prospero and Miranda
- Pericles: Pericles and Miranda
- Cymbeline: Cymbeline and Imogen
There are some great lines too:
- "the simmering randiness of the age"
April 2016; 278 pages
Other Shakespeare biographies reviewed in the blog include:
- Contested Will by the brilliant James Shapiro which considers Shakespeare as someone who writes plays for his theatre company to perform and so debunks the myth that someone else wrote the corpus
- 1599 by the brilliant James Shapiro which culminates in Hamlet
- 1606 by the brilliant James Shapiro which culminates in Lear
- Shakespeare & Co by Stanley Wells which puts Shakespeare in the context of his contemporaries
- Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt who also wrote the wonderful The Swerve