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
There are some great lines too:
- "the simmering randiness of the age"
April 2016; 278 pages
Books about Shakespeare reviewed in this blog include:
- Contested Will by James Shapiro about the authorship debate
- 1599 by James Shapiro, the year in which Shakespeare wrote Henry V, As You Like It, Julius Caesar and Hamlet
- 1606: William Shakespeare and the year of Lear by James Shapiro
- Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt: a biography of Shakespeare
- The Lodger by Charles Nicholls about Shakespeare staying in a house in Cripplegate
- Shakespeare and Co by Stanley Wells about Shakespeare in the context of the other contemporary playwrights
- Shakespeare's Workmanship by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch
- The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate