I was in Paris yesterday, and managed a quick ten minutes' browse in that excellent bookshop, Shakespeare and Co. Not surprisingly, given their name, they have a shelf of books about Shakespeare, and this one attracted my attention.
It's the story behind the only surviving documentary record of Shakespeare's own spoken words, his evidence in a court case of 1612 relating to a family dispute in the household of his former landlord, Christopher Mountjoy. Back in 1604, Mountjoy's daughter Mary had married his apprentice, Stephen Belott. Shakespeare was not only the upstairs lodger in the Mountjoy's house; he also "perswaded" Belott to marry Mary and officiated at their handfasting ceremony a few weeks before their church marriage. The newlyweds then moved out and became tenants of George Wilkins, a brothel-keeper and occasional playwright, with whom Shakespeare was collaborating on Pericles. Both Stephen Belott and Christopher Mountjoy were French, and as Nicholl points out it is rather interesting that at precisely the same time as Shakespeare was persuading a young Frenchman to get married he was writing a play, All's Well That Ends Well, featuring a young Frenchman who is persuaded into marriage.
Nicholl has produced a real gem of a book here. He takes us in and out of the small corner of London where it all happened (now buried by the Barbican); he goes deeply into customs of marriage and sex, and also the immigrant experience, illustrating them with a wealth of contemporary documents. (Though I could perhaps have been satisfied with two chapters rather than four on tire-making, the manufacture of ladies' head-dresses which was the trade of the Mountjoys and Bellotts.)
Part of the charm of Nicholl's approach is that he has clear views about the people whose actions he is reconstructing. Christopher Mountjoy, Shakespeare's landlord, is described as a tight-fisted irritable git - the court case relates to his alleged non-payment of his daughter's dowry (and was referred by the English court to the elders of the French church, who found for the Belotts but awarded them much less than they sought). On the other hand, Nicholl seems attracted to and fascinated by Mountjoy's wife Mary, who had died by the time of the court case but is very visible in other surviving records of the early James I years, supplying headgear to the new Queen, consulting with the notorious astrologer Simon Foreman. Nicholl speculates that Shakespeare may have been a little in love with his landlady; one gets the feeling that Nicholl himself certainly is! He doesn't quite dare to investigate Shakespeare himself too deeply, his most substantial point being that Shakespeare's convenient and probably feigned uncertainty on a crucial fact in the court case probably prevented the Belotts from getting the settlement they deserved.
So, this is a brilliant example of how to take a single documentary source and weave a real historical apparatus around it, something I have seen done both well and badly by others.
Rant on tangentially connected subject: My biggest irritation is that the book has endnotes rather than footnotes - this is just about tolerable if the endnotes are mere citations of sources, but if as in this book they contain substantial nuggets of additional fact, it is bizarre to bury them hundreds of pages away, and a huge disservice to both writer and reader on the part of the publisher. In these days of advanced software, why not as a matter of course put the notes at the bottom of the page, where they clearly relate to the relevant text? I just don't understand.