Friday, August 26, 2011

Shakespeare slept here

The final book finished on the summer's great road trip was a work of nonfiction: The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl. Taking his cue from Shakespeare's testimony in a financial dispute (the only time the Bard's words were recorded and acknowledged to be his by his signature), Nicholl creates a vivid picture of the playwright and actor in middle age, what life was like in Jacobean London, and how Shakespeare's tenure on the corner of Silver and Muggle (the locals' shortened version of Monkwell) Streets may have influenced such plays as King Lear, All's Well That Ends Well, and Pericles.

Shakespeare's testimony in the 1612 case of Belott v. Mountjoy (recorded verbatim on the second page of text in this PDF) was unearthed by an American researcher in 1909 (much to the horror of many British scholars) and tells us that he assisted his landlady, Marie Mountjoy, to convince her family's apprentice, Stephen Belott, to marry her daughter, Mary, in 1604. The Mountjoys were French Huguenots (Calvinists) who had fled to England following the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. Once in London, they became very successful "tirers" -- creators of elaborate headdresses -- who counted the Queen among their clientele. According to the lawsuit, Mary's father Christopher had promised the young couple a dowry, but eight years later, Christopher had yet to pay out.

Nicholl uses a very charming "we" voice to speculate a great deal about Shakespeare in his 40s -- why he sought to live at a slight distance from his theatrical cronies, what he might have seen coming and going from the Mountjoy's tire shop, how he may have formed relationships with the less-salubrious (including the owner of a brothel who later collaborated with him on his play Pericles) denizens of Cripplegate, and the affectionate, paternal relationship he may have developed with Mary that may be the result of her own father's distance and/or cruelty. It's fascinating stuff, and it is written in such an avuncular and accessible style that "we" want to keep listening. (Only once did my ears glaze over, during an especially lengthy and detailed description of the tires of Jacobean London.)

Simon Vance contributes to this accessibility, I think. His low, pleasant voice invites us to be a part of Nicholl's "we." He's just telling us this fascinating story over a pint in a London pub. Throughout the book, he has the opportunity to orate -- to recreate a passage from a Shakespeare play or sonnet, or another primary document. When individuals are speaking from these documents, Vance provides the appropriate accent -- Huguenot immigrant, cockney brothel keeper, loving daughter, even Shakespeare himself (who has a little bit of a country accent).

Since I've listened to Vance read two nonfiction titles practically back-to-back (purely by accident), I just need to add that there is a nonfiction narrative technique that he -- and others -- employ that I just don't like. (Although in a post on another nonfiction title earlier this year, I said that this technique was "appropriate" [for goodness sake, Lee, make up your mind!].) I fully understand why they read this way and can't offer an alternative way to satisfy the requirements of the text.

Here it is: When an author incorporates a quotation (either a person speaking or simply a passage from someone else's material) in the middle of a sentence, narrators inevitably take a dramatic pause and read the quoted section in another voice -- a set of auditory quotation marks. To my listening ear, this sounds dreadfully awkward and artificial. But how else are we supposed to know that the author is quoting? I suppose it would be worse if the narrator actually said the word "quote." No matter how much I love listening (and enjoy listening to nonfiction), the medium can occasionally fail. It's a question of weighing the two and, for me, the medium ultimately outweighs the artificiality of the "quotation marks." You'll be relieved to know [ ;-) ], I'm not going to stop listening to nonfiction.

[The portrait of Shakespeare is believed to be from around the time he was living on Silver Street (1610), and was possibly painted by John Taylor. It resides at the National Portrait Gallery (the first portrait acquired for its collection), and this image was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl
Narrated by Simon Vance
Tantor Audio, 2008. 9:00

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