Monday, October 6, 2008

Shakespeare entertained and at his game

In a previous post, I tried to jazz up the announcement of a program of William Shakespeare song settings by exploiting the fact that one familiar folk ballad that pops up twice in Shakespeare, "Greensleeves," is about prostitutes, who seem to have worn color-coded sleeves, back in the day.

That program is 7:30 p.m. tonight at Edison Theatre. I thought I would throw out another last-minute plug for the show as an excuse to riff on my favorite book about the Bard, The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl, which appeared just last year.

What I didn't remember about Nicholl's book - a thrilling mix of forensic journalism, textual scholarship, and sharply written prose - is that much of it plays into my sexy attempt to preview tonight's Ensemble Chaconne concert by playing up one slender streetwalker connection. Reading back through the book last night and this morning, I realized that The Lodger Shakespeare is a pretty bawdy book.

Nicholl writes about a narrow period in Shakespeare's life, 1603-1605. It was a fertile period in a fertile career; the Bard wrote Othello, Measure for Measure, All's Well That Ends Well and King Lear during those years. Already a wealthy landowner back home in Stratford, Shakespeare also maintained a pied- a-terre in the city where he worked, London, on - you guessed it - Silver Street, renting from and staying above a family of French Protestants who specialized in making tires. Not tires as in car tires, which didn't exist, but tires as in head-tires, the elaborate, decorative head pieces worn by early modern noblewomen.

And by early modern courtesans, which is one way this scholarly book gets bawdy. Shakespeare's landlord's clients included ladies of the night, and the tiremaking shop downstairs seems to have hosted a fair number of shenanigans, according to documents about births and lawsuits that Nicholl pores over. In fact, the basis of the book is a lawsuit in which Shakespeare himself got tangled up in - as a witness - regarding a tireshop romance and betrothal that went bad.

And then there is this raunchy little yarn about the Bard written down during his residence on Silver Street (on March 13, 1602) by a young law student named John Manningham. It's about a little groupie scene surorunding the production of Shakespeare's Richard III, starring Richard Burbage.

Manningham writes:

"Upon a tyme when Burbidge played Rich. 3 there was a citizen greue soe farr in liking with him, that before shee went from the play shee appointed him to come that night unto hir by the name of Ri: the 3. Shakespeare overhearing their conclusion went before, was intertained and at his game err Burbidge came. The message being brought that Rich. the 3rd was at the dore, Shakespeare caused returne to be made that William the Conquerour was before Rich. the 3."

Nicholl riffs on it:

"It is not quite clear from the story whether the 'citizen' has cheerfully accepted the arrival of Shakespeare at her door, and in her bed, or whether she is still under the illusion that the visitor is Burbage. If the latter - the 'bed-trick,' as used in various Shakespeare plays - the story would have an added biographical touch, suggesting that Shakespeare was of broadly similar build to Burbage - in other words, quite short."


Cartoon of Shakespeare writing a naughty letter by the rut.

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