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An interesting narrative detailing Shakespear's life and friends while lodging with the Mountjoy family. It looks into the court cases which gives readers the chance to actually hear the voice of the Bard, whilst describing the Jacobean life and lodgings where some well know works were written. We meet the people who become characters within the plays and learn a little of William himself. It was a great opportunity to learn details of the people who surrounded him. I enjoyed reading this book and think others will too, but this could have been due to my ulterior motive to find out about my family, I'm the 12th Great Granddaughter of Christopher Mountjoy/11th Great Granddaughter of Stephen Belott!
Interesting as a description of the environment and society of the time, but Shakespeare isn't to be found here, despite some of his very formal words of legal attestation. No, he's hardly a shadow on the wall or a murmur in the room next door. Some of his contemporaries are made more manifest. This is not a story, more of a text book or general account of our great bard's sojourn in London. The house, the street, everything, now swept away, tarmacked over. I dipped into the book - and still intend to browse it some more, but not the sort of book to grip you until finished.
I’d probably rate this about 3.5 overall, though it’s a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, I bought this book primarily to learn some more about Shakespeare, and he hardly features beyond cameos throughout. On the other, this is an incredibly well researched look at early seventeenth century London people and places, and is at times really fascinating. So, on balance, a very good book, but just not the book I was expecting. I did at times feel a little overwhelmed at the huge amount of information thrown at us, but I genuinely learnt a lot I was unaware of before. As I said, the research on this book was incredible, and the author deserves a lot of credit for that alone. Recommended.
As with any honest book about Shakespeare, Nicholl's book is forced to provide mainly context rather than actual details of the life (there aren't many). It does this very well, giving the reader a good sense of the London in which Shakespeare lived and of how it impinged on his life. The court case which is at the centre of the book and which provides the only known example of Shakespeare's actual words (as transcribed by a clerk anyway) tells us two things clearly: that Shakespeare was an approachable person, not aloof (he willingly acted as matchmaker at the house where he was a lodger) and, secondly, that like most of us he could be economical with the truth when it suited him. By claiming not to be able to recall the dowry promised to the newly weds by the landlord, Mountjoy (he had remembered well enough when talking to another participant in the court case), he remained loyal to an old friendship at the expense of letting down the couple whose marriage he had helped to arrange.
The book benefits from an analysis of a civil court case that involved Shakespeare as a witness and the associated characters to trace the author's lodgings and the people he knew. It's an intriguing insight into Elizabethan times, where Shakespeare lived, who he associated with. You feel as if you are walking through the very London streets of Shakespeare's times.
Its shortcomings are its tedious descriptions of "tire making", the occupation of his landlord and landlady, and its needless obsession with the prostitution of the time. The "tire making", in particular, is tiresome and of no real relevance to Shakespeare. It's like writing a book on Churchill and finding he lodged with a gardener for a while so using that to justify analysing the internal workings of a lawnmower. Some justification for this is sought by finding any reference to "tire making" in the plays but it smacks of padding out a book that has little substantial material to work with at the start.
A worthwhile buy and read but not the landmark publication some critics have hyped it up to be.
It is a good read, with some great insights, but I thought it could have done with better editing. For example. Nicholl dismisses the idea that Emilia Lanier is the Dark Lady because she told Simon Foreman that her husband's name was Alfonso (not William). Yet this is surely not incompatible with the idea that she was Will's mistress - in fact, it's part of the standard narrative that Alfonso was a waster who deserted her. I've re-read this bit several times, and can't really make sense of it. But I love the domestic detail in the book, and the insight it gives into the inhabitants of Silver Street. The clients of the small businesses there included surprisingly exalted people (including her Maj!)
We should be turning the screws on every last scrap of contemporary information we have about Shakespeare, yet a lot of what is forensically examined here here has been dismissed or not even recognised as evidence by numerous biographers. Nicholl doesn't underestimate the value of small clues, and writes exactly the kind of book I wanted to read,given what we know. It isn't the disappointing series of overly speculative what ifs you get from the lesser Shakespeare biographies, but a winsome series of minor victories in the scholarly struggle to make the writer of the plays we know further connect with a man named William Shakespeare who was born in Stratford in 1564. (The premise of the book isn't to settle authorship, but it certainly dents Oxfordian assumptions a number of times). We are introduced to people Shakespeare knew and know what sort of dealings he had with them and they are not the usual suspects I've read about so many times. We read how living with the Mountjoys and associating with the writer and pandar George Wilkins in those times may have impacted his art. For example,in 1604 Shakespeare presided over a hand fasting. The only hand fasting central to any of his plays is one in a play called Measure for Measure, which received its first known performance in 1604. The hand fasting was an invented plot element not taken from the source he based his story on. As for Mr Wilkins, well, you'll have to read the book. Of course, these bare facts in themselves do not a five star biography make. It's Nicholl's relentless turn of the screw that does. It's not a perfect book, but the ratings system is approximate. Charles does make one or two obvious errors. He acknowledges John Fletcher wrote Henry VIII with Shakespeare but then immediately talks about one of Fletcher's scenes as if Shakespeare had written it. The line about 'quarrels, talk and tailors' is probably not by William, in my view. The second point is perhaps not to observe that Shakespeare was most likely a Catholic living in a land where Catholics were persecuted living with Calvinists (albeit probably not particularly devout) who had come from a land where protestants were persecuted. A paradox that would probably have appealed to Shakespeare, reflects his ability to see things from two sides and perhaps gave him some cover from the secret police. Of course this book probably contains wrong turnings which will be weeded out as the scholarship marches on, sifting whatever we can find weighing it against what we think we know. But I found it to be a thoroughly worthwhile read and look forward to what more can be dug up. I'd like to know more of the litigation and disputes we have from people in that area at that time to see if it can shed any further light.
An interesting analysis of the locality in which Shakespeare probably passed some of the most productive years of his play-writing career, reconstructed from painstaking analysis of a variety of records. Nicholl, perhaps best known for his previous work, "The Reckoning", an account of the events leading to the death of Christopher Marlowe, has an engaging writing style which quickly grabs and holds the reader's attention. I do think that he might be slightly guilty of leaping to conclusions for which there is not really enough supporting evidence, but his story never lacks for interest. More than anything else, I think that this book serves to demonstrate the very delicate strands of luck on which hang our knowledge of Shakespeare's work and existence. We only have six examples of his signature (two of which are on depositions that he made in the case of Belott v Mountjoy, the civil case which is at the centre of Nicholl's book, and it is only because of the act of homage by some of his fellow playwrights that the Folio edition of his plays was published at all. As that edition contains the only surviving text of several of his plays we would otherwise have had no knowledge of the man, and scant evidence of his work.