Charles Nicholl: New book opens a window onto Jacobean London and Shakespeare

Historians in the News

To posterity the balding man in the courtroom was the greatest writer in the English language. To the maidservant formerly employed at his lodgings, he was “one Mr Shakespeare that laye in the house.” To the Court of Requests, taking depositions in a lawsuit in 1612, he was simply a witness who gave his statement, signed a hurried “Wm Shakspe” and then took his leave.

This fleeting glimpse of Shakespeare as he appeared to others, grounded in a specific London setting, seized the imagination of Charles Nicholl, a British biographer and historian. He embarked on a painstaking investigation into the particulars of the lawsuit, the family that rented rooms to the middle-aged playwright and life on Silver Street, where Shakespeare “laye” (that is, resided) from about 1603 to 1605, a period when he wrote, among other plays, “Macbeth,” “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Measure for Measure.”

Mr. Nicholl’s efforts bore delicious fruit. “The Lodger Shakespeare,” resting on a solid foundation of teased-out biographical details, opens a window onto Jacobean London and the swirl of sights and sensations that surrounded Shakespeare and inevitably found their way into his plays. From a mere handful of dry facts embedded in an obscure lawsuit, Mr. Nicholl brings forth a gaudy, tumultuous, richly imagined world....
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