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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: October ::
Online Book Review: The Gent Upstairs
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0708  Saturday, 20 October 2007

From: 		Hardy M. Cook <
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Date: 		Saturday, October 20, 2007
Subject: 	Online Book Review: The Gent Upstairs

The follow review appeared in today Guardian and the complete review can 
be found online:

http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2194958,00.html

_The Gent Upstairs_
Charles Nicholl
Saturday October 20, 2007

An unpaid dowry, an amorous landlady, a trumpeter and a brothel-keeper 
... Charles Nicholl pieces together the untold story of a Jacobean court 
case and asks what it reveals about the ordinary life of 'a certain Mr 
Shakespeare'

On Monday, May 11 1612, William Shakespeare gave evidence in a lawsuit 
at the Court of Requests in Westminster. His statement, or deposition, 
was taken down by a clerk of the court, writing in an averagely 
illegible hand on a sheet of paper measuring about 12 x 16 inches. At 
the end of the session Shakespeare signed his name at the bottom. It is 
one of six surviving signatures, and the earliest of them (though it can 
hardly be called early: he was 48 years old and already in 
semi-retirement). He signs quickly and rather carelessly. The initial W 
is firm and clear, with that characteristic looping and dotting of the 
final upstroke, but the surname becomes a scrawl and is abruptly 
concluded with an omissive flourish: "Willm Shaks". These abbreviations 
were not dictated by space, as they are in a mortgage-deed of 1613 ("Wm 
Shakspe") which he had to sign on a thin tag of parchment. They 
contribute a note of perfunctoriness, or perhaps impatience.

The signature draws the eye. It is, as the graphologists say, a "frozen 
gesture": it touches this otherwise unlovely piece of paper with 
Shakespeare's physical presence. But what makes this document special is 
not just - not even primarily - the signature. It is the anonymously 
scripted text above it, the text which the signature authenticates as 
Shakespeare's sworn statement. We know the thousands of lines he wrote 
in plays and poems, but this is the only occasion when his spoken words 
are recorded.

The case in which he was testifying is listed in the court registers as 
Belott v Mountjoy. It was a family dispute: trivial, pecuniary, faintly 
sordid - standard fare at the court of requests, whose function was 
broadly equivalent to the small claims courts of today. The defendant, 
Christopher Mountjoy, is described as a "tiremaker", which means that he 
was a maker of the decorative headwear for ladies known generically as 
"head-tires" or "attires". The plaintiff, Stephen Belott, had once been 
Mountjoy's apprentice and was now his son-in-law. Both men were French 
by birth but had lived for many years in London.

The Mountjoys' house was on Silver Street in Cripplegate, close to the 
north-west corner of the city walls - a respectable residential street 
of "fair houses" and walled gardens, in which lived doctors and 
surgeons, goldsmiths and moneylenders, though the more pungent amenities 
of Pie Corner and Love Lane were only a few minutes' walk away. This is 
the setting of the story which unfolds in the court proceedings - a 
story which involves William Shakespeare.

[ . . . ]


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