Monday, January 26, 2009

Festival notes 3: Shakespeare's unconsidered trifles

You know a literary discussion has been successful when you come out of it wanting to immediately pick up the book at the centre of the talk. More so if the “you” in question happens to be a weary professional reviewer like yours truly, who already has a backlog of hundreds of unread books that will require multiple lifetimes to get through. The “Shakespeare Wallahs” panel in Jaipur between Charles Nicholl and Michael Wood whetted my interest in Nicholl’s The Lodger, an investigation of the time spent by William Shakespeare as a lodger in the house of Christopher Mountjoy in 1604, and the possible effect his experiences there had on his writing. (Full disclosure: I didn’t see all of the session, since it was on at the same time as another one that I wanted to follow.)

As Nicholl put it at the start of the talk, he and Wood count among the Shakespeare aficionados who “challenge the idea of Shakespeare’s facelessness – the idea that very little is known about him”. The Lodger is based on a remarkably well-preserved piece of paper that dates back to 1612; a court document from a case where one “William Shakespeare, Gent” appeared as witness. Nicholl showed us a print of the paper on a screen, focusing on Shakespeare’s signature ("William Shaks") at the bottom – “hurriedly scrawled, much like a busy writer signing away on book copies at a literature festival like this one!” – and called it a valuable relic, an immediate representation of a moment in the Bard’s life, of “his voice coming down to us through the centuries”. The document is a record of the questions put to Shakespeare in the court and his answers, and Nicholl was boyishly enthusiastic about it: “When I first saw it, I speculated about the possibility of retrieving fingerprints from it – or, more far-fetchedly, a DNA sample.”

The case in question pertained to a marriage that ran into trouble because the father – Shakespeare’s landlord Mountjoy – had withheld his daughter’s dowry; what adds spice to the tale is that Shakespeare himself had presided over the ceremony seven years earlier where the young couple plighted their troth, to use the language of the time (put differently, he “made them sure”). All this was happening around the time that he was writing King Lear in an upstairs room in the Mountjoys' house, and Nicholl remarked on the opening Act of that great play, with its reference to Cordelia as the old king’s “dowerless daughter”. He also made connections between the goings on in the household and other Shakespeare plays of the time, such as All’s Well That Ends Well.

“That single court document,” Nicholl said, “reveals intimate biographical details about someone who has always been an enigma, along with many links between life and art." Pointing out that a character in The Winter’s Tale is described as "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles", he said, "What we see here is William Shakespeare himself snapping up unconsidered trifles from his landlord’s house and using them in his work. We see him in the full flow of life, drawing from the life around him, a picture that’s very different from the usual portrait of the reclusive writer.”

He also joked about a maid at the Mountjoys' house referring to the playwright as "One Mister Shakespeare who lay [lodged] at the house." "She probably couldn't understand what this man was doing alone in his room all day, keeping these odd hours," Nicholl said, "and perceptions about writers haven't changed much all these centuries later."

[More on The Lodger here]


  1. Hi Jai,
    Have you read Shakespeare? Can you post something on his writings....I mean, his books(abridged version...if they are available).
    For someone like me who is far from reading any literary work, such a post would be interesting. Also, it may make me decide if I have the "reading quotient" for Shakespeare's work.

  2. Jai

    Does this literary fest take place every year?