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Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century By Virginia Tatnall Peacock Characters: 19655

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02

The London that Shakespeare knew has vanished like a dream. The Great Fire swept most of it out of existence in a few days of 1666, and the two and a half centuries of time since then have made away with nearly all the rest of it. The Tower still remains; there are parts of the Temple; a stray relic or so, such as the London Stone in Cannon Street, by which Shakespeare lays one of the Jack Cade scenes of his Henry VI. There are the stately water-gates along the Embankment, too; here and there an old house or so, such as that above the Inner Temple gateway, those of Staple Inn, those in Cloth Fair, and over in the Borough High Street; a few ancient Inns, like the Mitre off Ely Place, the Dick Whittington in Cloth Fair, the George in Southwark; some dozen of churches, including Westminster Abbey (in whose Jerusalem Chamber the translators of the Bible held their meetings), St. Saviour's, Southwark, St. Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, St. Andrew Undershaft, St. Ethelburga's and St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, in which latter parish it seems probable that Shakespeare was for a while a householder; otherwise Elizabethan London has dwindled to little but remembered sites of once-famous buildings and streets that have changed in everything but their names.


Until quite recently none of us knew of any address in London that had ever been Shakespeare's; we knew of no house, of no street even, which had once numbered him among its tenants, though we know that he passed at least twenty of the busiest and most momentous years of his life in the metropolis. There is a plausible but vague tradition that during some part of that period he had lodgings in Southwark near the Globe Theatre, in which he acted, for which he wrote plays, and of which he was one of the proprietors. There used to be an inscription: "Here lived William Shakespeare," on the face of an old gabled house in Aldersgate Street, but there was never a rag of evidence to support the statement. We have no letters of Shakespeare, but we have one or two that refer to him, and one written to him by Richard Quiney, and I think we may infer from this latter that Shakespeare occasionally visited Quiney, who was a vintner, dwelling at the sign of the Bell in Carter Lane. Otherwise, except for a handful of small-beer chronicles about him that were picked up in theatrical circles two or three generations after his death, we had no record of any incident in his London life that brought us into actual personal touch with him until little more than two years ago. Then an American professor, Mr. Charles William Wallace, came over and did what our English students do not appear to have had the energy or enterprise to do for themselves-he toiled carefully through the dusty piles of documents preserved in the Record Office, and succeeded in unearthing one of the most interesting Shakespearean discoveries that have ever been made-a discovery that gives us vividly intimate glimpses of Shakespeare's life in London, and establishes beyond question his place of residence here in the years when he was writing some of the greatest of his dramas.

In 1587 the company of the "Queen's Players" made their first appearance in Stratford-on-Avon, and it was about this date, so far as can be traced, that Shakespeare ran away from home; so you may reasonably play with a fancy that he joined this company in some very minor capacity and travelled with them to London. At this time, Burbage, who was by profession an actor and by trade a carpenter and joiner, was owner and manager of "The Theatre," which stood in Shoreditch near the site of the present Standard Theatre, and close by was a rival house, "The Curtain" (commemorated nowadays by Curtain Road); and according to the legend, which has developed into a legend of exact detail, yet rests on nothing but the airiest rumour, it was outside one or both of these theatres Shakespeare picked up a living on his arrival in London by minding horses whilst their owners were inside witnessing a performance.

By 1593 Shakespeare had become known as an actor and as a dramatist. He had revised and tinkered at various plays for Burbage's company, and as a consequence had been charged with plagiarism by poor Greene, whose Groatsworth of Wit (published after he had died miserably in Dowgate) pours scorn on the "upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a players hide supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a countrie." For his acting, Shakespeare appears for the first time in the Lord Chamberlain's accounts of 1594 as having taken equal shares with William Kemp and Richard Burbage in a sum of twenty pounds "for two severall Comedies or Interludes shewed by them" before Queen Elizabeth at Christmas 1593.

After the Theatre of Shoreditch was pulled down in 1598, Burbage built the Globe Theatre on Bankside, Southwark, on the ground of which part of Barclay & Perkins's brewery now stands; and Shakespeare, "being a deserveing man," was taken as one of the partners and received a "chief-actor's share" of the profits. And it is to this prosperous period of his London career that Professor Wallace's recent discoveries belong.

In 1598 there lived in a shop at the corner of Silver Street and Monkwell Street a certain Christopher Mountjoy, a maker of wigs and fashionable headdresses. He was a Frenchman, born at Cressy, and probably a refugee Huguenot. His household consisted of a wife and daughter, an apprentice named Stephen Bellott, and one lodger, and this lodger was William Shakespeare. Being out of his apprenticeship in 1604, Stephen had six pounds from his master and, with this and his own savings, went travelling into Spain, but returned towards the end of the year and resumed work again at Mountjoy's shop. In his 'prentice days Stephen seems to have formed some shy attachment to his master's daughter, Mary, but because of his lack of means and prospects, or because he was naturally reticent, he had made no attempt to press his suit, and Madame Mountjoy, seeing how the young people were affected to each other, followed the fashion of the time and persuaded Shakespeare, who had then been living under the same roof with them for six years, to act as match-maker between her and the hesitating lover. She one day laid the case before Shakespeare and asked his good offices, as Professor Wallace has it; she told him that "if he could bring the young man to make a proposal of marriage, a dower fitting to their station should be settled upon them at marriage. This was the sum of fifty pounds in money of that time, or approximately four hundred pounds in money of to-day." Shakespeare consented to undertake this delicate duty; he spoke with young Bellott, and the outcome of his negotiations was that Stephen and Mary were married, as the entry in the church register shows, at St. Olave, Silver Street, on the 19th November 1604.

On the death of Madame Mountjoy in 1606, Stephen and his wife went back to live with the father and help him in his business, but they soon fell out with him, and became on such bad terms that some six months later they left him and took lodgings with George Wilkins, a victualler, who kept an inn in the parish of St. Sepulchre's. The quarrel between them culminated in Stephen Bellott bringing an action in the Court of Requests in 1612, to recover from his father-in-law a promised dower of sixty pounds and to ensure that Mountjoy carried out an alleged arrangement to bequeath a sum of two hundred pounds to him by his will. At the Record Office Professor Wallace found all the legal documents relating to these proceedings, and amongst them are the depositions of Shakespeare setting forth to the best of his recollection his own share in the arranging of the marriage. From these depositions, and from those of other witnesses who make reference to him, one gets the first clear and authentic revelation of Shakespeare's home life in London.

He lived with the Mountjoys over that shop at the corner of Monkwell Street for at least six years, down to the date of the wedding, and there is little doubt that he stayed on with them after that. It is more than likely, indeed, that he was still boarding there when he appeared as a witness in the 1612 lawsuit and stated that he had been intimate with the family some "ten years, more or less." Throughout the later of those years he was absent on occasional visits to Stratford, and hitherto it has been generally assumed (on the negative evidence that no trace of him could be found after this date) that he returned and settled down in Stratford permanently about 1609.

Taking only the six years we are certain of, however, he wrote between 1598 and 1604 Henry V., The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, All's Well that Ends Well, Julius C?sar, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, and Othello. In the two years following, whilst it is pretty sure he was still dwelling with the Mountjoys, he wrote Macbeth and King Lear, and the fact that he had his home here during the period in which he was writing ten of his plays-three of them amongst the greatest he or any man ever wrote-makes this corner of Monkwell Street the most glorious literary landmark in the world.


The house in which he lodged was destroyed by the Great Fire, and the site is occupied now by an old tavern, "The Cooper's Arms." Almost facing it, just the other side of Silver Street, is a fragment of the churchyard of St. Olave's. The church, in which the apprentice Stephen was married to Mary Mountjoy, vanished also in

the Great Fire and was not rebuilt, and this weedy remnant of the churchyard with its three or four crumbling tombs is all that survives of the street as Shakespeare knew it; his glance must have rested on that forlorn garden of the dead as often as he looked from the windows opposite or came out at Mountjoy's door.


Turning to the right when he came out at that door, half a minute's walk up Falcon Street would have brought him into Aldersgate Street, so the announcement on one of the shops there that he had lived in it may have been nothing worse than a perfectly honest mistake; it was known as a fact that he lived thereabouts, and tradition settled on the wrong house instead of on the right one, that was a hundred yards or so away from it. But when Shakespeare issued from Mountjoy's shop you may depend that his feet more frequently trod the ground in the opposite direction; he would go to the left, along Silver Street, into Wood Street, and down the length of that to Cheapside, where, almost fronting the end of Wood Street, stood the Mermaid Tavern, and he must needs pass to the right or left of it, by way of Friday Street, or Bread Street, across Cannon Street and then down Huggin Lane or Little Bread Street Hill to Thames Street, whence, from Queenhithe, Puddle Wharf, or Paul's Wharf, he could take boat over the Thames to the Globe Theatre on Bankside.

There has been no theatre on Bankside these many years; there is nothing there or in that vicinity now that belongs to Shakespeare's age except some scattered, ancient, inglorious houses that he may or may not have known and the stately cathedral of St. Saviour. This holds still the span of ground that has belonged to it since before Chaucer's day. You may enter and see there the quaint effigy of Chaucer's contemporary, Gower, sleeping on his five-century-old tomb; and here and there about the aisles and in the nave are memorials of remembered or forgotten men and women who died while Shakespeare was living, and somewhere in it were buried men, too, who were intimate with him, though no evidence of their burial there remains except in the parish register. In the "monthly accounts" of St. Saviour's you come upon these entries concerning two of his contemporary dramatists:-

"1625. August 29th, John Fletcher, a poet, in the church."

"1638. March 18th, Philip Massinger, stranger, in the church."

the inference being that Fletcher had resided in the parish, and Massinger, the "stranger," had not. But earlier than either of these, it is on record that on the 31st December 1607, Shakespeare's youngest brother, Edmund, "a player," was buried here, and a fee of twenty shillings was paid by some one for "a forenoon knell of the great bell."

St. Saviour's, then, the sites of the Globe Theatre and the Mermaid, and that corner of Monkwell Street are London's chief Shakespearean shrines. The discovery of the Monkwell Street residence emphasises that before Ben Jonson founded his Apollo Club at the Devil Tavern by Temple Bar, Cheapside and not Fleet Street was the heart of literary London. Whilst Shakespeare made his home with the Mountjoys, Ben Jonson and Dekker were living near him in Cripplegate, in which district also resided Johnson the actor, Anthony Munday, and other of Shakespeare's intimates; nearer still, in Aldermanbury, lived Heminges and Condell, his brother actors, who first collected and published his plays after his death: and George Wilkins, at whose inn near St. Sepulchre's Stephen Bellott and his wife lodged after their quarrel with Mountjoy, was a minor dramatist who, besides collaborating with Rowley, collaborated with Shakespeare himself in the writing of Pericles. Coryat, the eccentric author of the Crudities, lived in Bow Lane; Donne, who was born in Wood Street, wrote his early poems there in the house of the good merchant, his father, and was a frequenter of the Mermaid.

In 1608 Milton was born in Bread Street (Shakespeare must have passed his door many a time in his goings to and fro), and grew up to live and work within the City walls in Aldersgate Street, and in Bartholomew Close, and just without them in Bunhill Row, and was brought back within them to be buried in Cripplegate Church. These, and its earlier and many later literary associations, help to halo Cheapside and its environs, and, in spite of the sordid commercial aspect and history that have overtaken it, to make it for ever a street in the kingdom of romance.

And the chief glory of Cheapside itself is, of course, the Mermaid. One of these days a fitting sign will be placed above the spot where it stood, and set forth in letters of gold the great names that are inseparable from its story, and first among these will be the names of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Selden, Donne, Carew, Fuller, Sir Walter Raleigh.

The Mermaid rose on Cheapside with a side entrance in Friday Street, and of evenings when no business took him to the theatre, or towards midnight when he was on his way home from it, Shakespeare often turned aside into this famous meeting-place of the immortals of his generation. Everybody is familiar with those rapturous lines in Beaumont's letter to Ben Jonson, "written before he and Master Fletcher came to London with two of the precedent comedies, then not finished, which deferred their merry meetings at the Mermaid;" but one cannot talk of the Mermaid without remembering them and quoting from them once again:-

"In this warm shine

I lie and dream of your full Mermaid wine....

Methinks the little wit I had is lost

Since I saw you: for wit is like a rest

Held up at tennis, which men do the best

With the best gamesters! What things have we seen

Done at the Mermaid! heard words that have been

So nimble and so full of subtile flame

As if that every one from whence they came

Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,

And had resolved to live a fool the rest

Of his dull life; then when there hath been thrown

Wit able enough to justify the town

For three days past, wit that might warrant be

For the whole city to talk foolishly

Till that were cancelled; and when that was gone,

We left an air behind us which alone

Was able to make the next two companies

Right witty; though but downright fools, mere wise."


Well might Keats ask in a much later day (probably whilst he was tenanting the Cheapside rooms over Bird-in-Hand Court in which he wrote the sonnet on Chapman's Homer):

"Souls of poets dead and gone,

What Elysium have ye known,

Happy field or mossy cavern

Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?"

And in our own time, in Christmas at the Mermaid, Watts-Dunton has recreated that glamorous hostelry and brought together again the fine spirits who used to frequent it-brought them together in an imaginary winter's night shortly after Shakespeare had departed from them and gone back to Stratford for good. Jonson is of that visionary company, and Raleigh, Lodge, Dekker, Chapman, Drayton and Heywood, and it is Heywood who breaks in, after the tale-telling and reminiscent talk, with-

"More than all the pictures, Ben,

Winter weaves by wood or stream,

Christmas loves our London, when

Rise thy clouds of wassail-steam:

Clouds like these that, curling, take

Forms of faces gone, and wake

Many a lay from lips we loved, and make

London like a dream."

It is because of the memories that sleep within it, like music in a lute until a hand that knows touches it, because of all it has been, and because it is never more wonderful than when you can so make it like a dream, that I give thanks for the fog that comes down upon London at intervals, in the grey months, and with silent wizardries conjures it out of sight. Look at this same Cheapside on a clear day, and it is simply a plain, prosperous, common-place street, but when a fog steals quietly through it and spiritualises it to something of the vagueness and grandeur and mystery of poetry it is no longer a mere earthly thoroughfare under the control of the Corporation; it becomes a dream-street in some mist-built city of the clouds, and you feel that at any moment the pavements might thin out and shred away and let you through into starry, illimitable spaces. Where the brown fog warms to a misty, golden glow you know there are shop windows. As you advance the street-lamps twinkle in the thick air, as if they were kindled magically at your coming and flickered out again directly you were past. The coiling darkness is loud with noises of life, but you walk among them with a sense of aloofness and solitude, for you can see nothing but flitting shadows all about you and know that you are yourself only a shadow to them.

For me, three of the loveliest and most strangely touching sights of London are the stars shining very high in the blue and very quietly when you look up at them from the roaring depths of a crowded, naphtha-flaring, poverty-stricken market street; a sunrise brightening over the Thames below London Bridge, while the barges are still asleep with the gleam of their lamps showing pale in the dawn; and the blurred lights and ghostly buildings of a long city road that is clothed in mystery and transfigured by a brooding, dream-haunted fog. Perhaps this is only because of the dim feeling one has that the stars and the sunrise are of the things that the wasting centuries have not changed; and the fog that blots out to-day makes it easier to realise that yesterday and the life of yesterday are close about us still, and that we might see them with our waking eyes, even as we see them in our dreams, if the darkness would but lift.


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