‘At his game’

We have an idea of the simmering randiness of the age-the pliant dames at the playhouse, the prostitutes scattered through the suburbs, the ‘fine-faced’ shopkeepers’ wives in their wainscot seats, the jaunts upriver to the fleshpots of Brentford. And we have seen something of how this impinges on Shakespeare. The fictive brothels and bawds of Measure for Measure and Pericles are in part a product of literary necessity, of competitive playhouse modernity, but they are also connected with the real-life brothel-world of George Wilkins, the tavern-keeper and pimp who becomes - briefly and more or less simultaneously - a landlord of the Belotts and a playmaker for the King’s Men. With Wilkins we touch on violence and squalor. He beats up prostitutes; he receives stolen goods from them; his own wife is called a bawd in the street. These particular events occur after Shakespeare’s known involvement with him, but the kicker of women and the penner of the Miseries are demonstrably one and the same man.

This remains a literary relationship, a brief and ultimately unsatisfactory collaboration with a promising but deeply unstable young writer. But one wonders about the more personal side. What did Shakespeare think of Wilkins? Or more broadly - because that specific question is unanswerable - what was Shakespeare’s own relationship to the Wilkinsian world of low taverns and punks; or to the slinkier demi-monde of those upmarket courtesans with foreign accents; or indeed to that more decorously erotic milieu of desperate housewives and flirtatious shopkeepers to which his landlady might be thought to belong? What, in short, was Shakespeare’s love-life like, during the long months he spent in London, far from a marriage-bed which had anyway - if the tradition is to be believed - long ago turned cold?

Here is one answer, proposed by a young law-student at the Middle Temple, John Manningham, who on 13 March 1602 wrote down the following story in his diary:

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 3d was at the dore, Shakespeare caused returne to be made that William the Conquerour was before Rich. the 3.

Beneath this Manningham adds helpfully: ‘Shakespeare’s name William’, and then the name, ‘Mr Curle’, signifying that he got the story from his fellow-student at the Temple, Edward Curle.46

It is a wonderful story and of course quite unverifiable: the neatness of the punchline tends to argue against its being true, yet it was obviously ‘true’ enough in another sense - credible, typical, backgrounded - to the teller of the story. It remains at the anecdotal level of the ‘jest-book’, where apocryphal stories are fathered on to real people (Dick Tarlton, George Peele, Mary Frith et al.).

That the players participated in the sexual opportunities on offer in the theatres is hardly to be doubted. The Manningham anecdote is part of a general lore about the sexual attractiveness of players to their female audience. The women did not scream and faint, or throw their underwear onstage like girls at the height of Beatlemania, but the charisma of the stage is perennial. ‘O my troth,’ cries Frank Gullman in Middleton’s A Mad World, as she watches the handsome Follywit deliver the prologue of a play-within-the-play called The Slip,

an’ I were not married, I could find in my heart to fall in love with that player now, and send for him to a supper. I know some i’ th’ town that have done as much, and there took such a good conceit of their parts into th’ two-penny room that the actors have been found i’ th’ morning in less compass than their stage, tho’ ’twere ne’er so full of gentlemen . . . (5.2.33-9)

There are the standard bawdy equivoques in ‘parts’, ‘room’ and ‘compass’.

The character-writer John Earle also notes the charisma of the actor: ‘the waiting-women spectators are over-eares in love with [him], and Ladies send for him to act in their chambers’.47 And we have hints of an actual affair between the Countess of Argyll and the player-poet Nathan Field, for a gossipy letter of 1619 relates that the Earl of Argyll ‘was privy to the paiment of 15 or 16 poundes . . . for the noursing of a childe which the worlde sayes is daughter to My Lady and N. Feild the player’. There is a portrait of Field: darkly handsome, with the look of a languid pirate. A similar frisson may be behind a reminiscence of Ben Jonson’s, recorded by William Drummond: ‘Ben being one day at table with my Lady Rutland, her husband coming in accused her that she kept table to poets.’48 (An occasion for this might be around 1606, when the Countess performed in Jonson’s masque Hymenaei, perhaps wearing a Mountjoy head-tire.)

Manningham’s anecdote places Shakespeare and Burbage in this world of actors and their stage-struck ‘groupies’, which is also a milieu of homosocial competitiveness in which such women are trophies. In the story Shakespeare is rather laddish: he is ‘at his game’ before Burbage gets there. 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.49

The Manningham anecdote is a well-informed topical jest, but Shakespeare’s name is linked more specifically with a woman called Jane (or Jennet) Davenant. She was the wife of a vintner in Oxford, John Davenant, and the mother of the future poet laureate Sir William Davenant. It is to the latter, ultimately, that we owe the information about Shakespeare and Mrs Davenant, though the conduit of the story is the indispensable but sometimes unreliable John Aubrey, who writes:

Sir William [Davenant] would sometimes when he was pleasant over a glass of wine with his most intimate friends, e.g. Sam: Butler (author of Hudibras) &c, say that it seemed to him that he writt with the very spirit that Shakespeare [sc did], and seemd contendended [sic] enough to be thought his son . . .

One interpretation of this is that Davenant meant he was Shakespeare’s godson, or perhaps only his ‘son’ in a metaphorical sense of poetic inheritance. But this was not Aubrey’s immediate interpretation, for he continued the sentence, ‘in which way his mother had a very light report, whereby she was called a whore’ - but he, or someone else, crossed this out. A later seventeenth-century embroidery of the story had the young William Davenant running to see his ‘godfather’ Shakespeare whenever he came to Oxford, and being told ‘not to take the name of God in vain’.50

Jane Davenant was, according to Aubrey, ‘a very beautiful woman, & of a very good witt and of conversation extremely agreable’. (Aubrey might be expected to say this of Shakespeare’s putative lover, but he had many Oxford connections, and was writing within living memory of her, so it may well be true.) She was born Jane Sheppard, baptized at St Margaret’s, Westminster on 1 November 1568. Her father, Robert, was probably in minor court service, as her brothers would later be. From the will of her uncle William, we learn that she was known in the family as ‘Jennet’. She married John Davenant in about 1593, in her mid-twenties. The Davenants were a successful family of wine-merchants, importing direct from Bordeaux and Gascony. They lived close to the Thames, in St James Garlickhithe, near the Three Cranes Wharf where their casks of claret and ‘butts and pipes of sweet wynes’ were unloaded. After a string of dead babies we find Jane in the consulting room of Dr Forman, in January 1598: ‘she supposeth herself with child’, Forman wrote - as he had of Marie Mountjoy a month earlier - ‘but yt is not soe’. In about 1600 the Davenants moved to Oxford, where they ran a large, four-storey wine-tavern, later in the century known as the Crown, part of which still stands at No. 3 Cornmarket. They ran the place for twenty years, had seven healthy children, and died within a few weeks of each other in the spring of 1622. In an echo of the Mountjoys, Davenant’s will expressed the hope that his apprentice would marry his daughter.51

There is much to commend the idea that Shakespeare knew the Davenants, and it is possible he did so through the Mountjoys. There is the French connection: Davenant’s wine-business, in which he deals with French exporters, and no doubt has French clients like Mountjoy keen to enjoy the wines of his homeland. There is also a connection with Jane’s brother, Thomas Sheppard, who was a glover and perfumer, employed at court. He appears in the lists of the Coronation progress of 1604, under ‘artificers’, as Shakespeare does under ‘falconers, etc’, both with the rank of Grooms of the Chamber. And in Queen Anne’s household accounts for 1604-5, Sheppard appears as a supplier of perfumes alongside Marie Mountjoy, ‘tyrewoman’.52 These are connections that might bring Shakespeare and Jennet Davenant together, though of course there are many others.

Sir William Davenant was plausibly Shakespeare’s godson, named after him, and was ‘contented’ to be thought his illegitimate son. He was born in March 1606, so, if we take him literally, Shakespeare and Jennet made ‘the beast with two backs’ in the summer of 1605, a likely time for Shakespeare to be en route to his family in Stratford. She was then in her late thirties, and had borne eight children.

One would be tempted to dismiss this as an exaggeration of Davenant’s, were it not for an unnoticed hint of the affair in Marston’s Dutch Courtesan, performed in 1604. As we have seen, the play features a flirtatious vintner’s wife, Mrs Mulligrub, who has certain gentlemen ‘at [her] table’, and who sometimes receives from them a ‘piece of flesh’, a situation of which her ‘silly husband . . . knows nothing’. I think this may be an in-joke allusion to the real vintner’s wife, Mrs Davenant, and her liaison with Marston’s literary rival, Shakespeare. This perhaps explains why the cuckolded husband Mr Mulligrub is told a rather laboured joke about ‘jennets’ (= young horses) that ‘dance the old measures’ (2.3.65-8). He finds it very amusing, and repeats it back - ‘Ha, ha, ha . . . Jennets to dance the old measures . . . Dost take me for an ass?’ But he is indeed an ass, for the joke is told by a conman disguised as a barber, who is shaving Mulligrub so he can also ‘shave’ or fleece him of a bag of money. This deceiver of the vintner is described as a ‘thick, elderly, stub-bearded fellow’, which may just about be an unflattering description of Mr Shakespeare in 1604. ‘Thick’ means portly, ‘elderly’ would refer to his baldness, and a ‘stub’ or stubble beard is precisely what Shakespeare has in the Droeshout engraving, based on an original portrait dating from around this time. Personal hits of this sort are characteristic of Marston, who was one of the squabbling poets in the earlier ‘War of the Theatres’.

The unnamed ‘citizen’ of the Manningham anecdote; the vintner’s wife Jennet Davenant - two women (or conceivably the same woman?) said to have had adulterous affairs with Shakespeare - would perhaps echo Emilia in Othello, with her worldly-wise view of extramarital flings:

DESDEMONA: Would thou do such a deed for all the world?

EMILIA: The world’s a huge thing. It is a great price for a small vice.

DESDEMONA: In truth I think thou wouldst not.

EMILIA: In truth I think I should, and undo’t when I had done.

On the matter of infidelity Emilia knows where the blame lies: ‘I do think it is their husbands’ faults / If wives so fall.’ First, there is the husband’s loss of sexual interest -

’Tis not a year or two shows us a man. 

They are all but stomachs, and we all but food. 

They eat us hungrily, and when they are full, 

They belch us. (3.4.100-103)

Then there are the husbands’ own strayings - ‘They slack their duties, / And pour our treasures into foreign laps’ - and their domestic tyrannies: they ‘break out in peevish jealousies’ and ‘strike us’ and ‘scant our former having [reduce our allowance]’. Women have not only an equal right to be unfaithful, but an equal taste for sexual adventure -

What is it that they [husbands] do 

When they change us for others? Is it sport? 

I think it is. And doth affection breed it? 

I think it doth. Is’t frailty that thus errs? 

It is so, too. And have not we affections, 

Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have? 

Then let them use us well, else let them know: 

The ills we do, their ills instruct us so . . . (4.3.87-103)

These words are spoken in the privacy of female companionship (‘us’), free from the subservience which conventional morality demanded of a wife. They are also spoken in the playhouse, where morality can be knocked around a bit, and where amorous ‘sport and frailty’ are a popular diversion, onstage and off. Upright citizens - virtually an endangered species, according to the city comedies, but still vocal - would call Emilia ‘loose’ or ‘light’, but the playgoer of 1604 could enjoy, as we do, her easygoing pragmatism on the subject.53

One person who would understand Emilia’s words is Marie Mountjoy, in whose house they may well have been written. Relations with her crabby, tight-fisted husband may have been bad. His treatment of their only child - an alienation he pursued long after Marie’s death, indeed until his own death - does not suggest a loving family man. In the only recorded conversation between them, Marie entreats him to be more generous to their daughter and is brusquely rejected - ‘He would never promise them anything, because he knew not what he should need himself’ (deposition of Christopher Weaver). He was probably unfaithful to her - ‘paillardises & adultères’ - and on the evidence of the Forman casebooks it seems likely she was unfaithful to him.

A question has hovered in my mind while writing this book. It has no real answer, but scraps of evidence and speculation keep leading me back to it. What did this apparently amorous and adulterous Frenchwoman mean to Shakespeare, and he to her?

The only relationship between them that we know for sure is that Marie Mountjoy was his landlady. Thus phrased, the relationship has a humdrum, faintly comic connotation. But we also know that she asked him - and it is Shakespeare’s own statement that she asked him - to persuade Stephen Belott to marry her daughter. And when he had successfully done this, he was also asked to ‘contract’ the young couple in a formal betrothal. Neither of these roles requires any deep personal relationship, but they at least suggest he was someone she trusted.

Was there more? In a novelistic sense the circumstances would seem quite propitious - the celebrated player-poet and the sparky French costumière. It would be pertinent to add ‘dark-eyed’ to her attractions, but the fact is we have no idea what Marie looked like. Shakespeare thinks of Frenchwomen as dark, and dark women as sexy: she may have been both, or neither.

In the absence of evidence one weighs probabilities. Conducting an affair with a married woman while living in her husband’s house sounds complicated and tiring. In the city-comedy world this sort of thing goes on all the time - ‘Here they come in term-time, hire chambers, and perhaps kiss our wives: well, what lose I by that?’ says Purge the apothecary in Middleton’s Family of Love54 - and we have a fairly strong sense that the Mountjoy household was more a place of sexual freedom than of restraint. But what argues against it in the real world is inconvenience and emotional claustrophobia.

Of the two Shakespearean extramarital encounters we hear about, one is a one-night stand and the other is with a woman in distant Oxford. They are merely anecdotal, especially the first, but even when inaccurate a contemporary anecdote carries information about what is likely or credible. The first is casual sex, the second is occasional sex; a third category, not evidenced but certainly contextualized in these chapters, is paid sex.55 Any or all of these may resolve the question of Shakespeare’s love-life in London better than the idea of a long-running sexual companionship with a ‘mistress’. The only person he actually describes as his mistress is the enigmatic ‘Dark Lady’ of the Sonnets, and the poems are full of a desire to escape his entanglement with her. The relationship is described as a confinement, a cage - ‘Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s ward’, ‘I being pent in thee / Perforce am thine’ (133) - or as a kind of debilitating sexual addiction:

My love is as a fever, longing still 

For that which longer nurseth the disease, 

Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill, 

Th’uncertain sickly appetite to please. (147)

The Sonnets, we are constantly reminded, are not autobiography, but the ‘I’ who speaks in them is a jaded lover who wants to be shot of the whole affair.

Do we look through that metaphorical window in Silver Street and see the middle-aged Shakespeare ‘at his game’ with the landlady? The answer must be no - not because it definitely never happened, but because we cannot know if it happened. An aura of sexual intrigue hangs about the house, a frisson which various hints - illegitimate children, the affair with Henry Wood, the clientele of courtesans, the house in Brentford - have suggested is intrinsic to these particular people with whom he lived. This tells us something about Shakespeare’s circumstances, and about his choice of circumstances, but nothing about his involvement in them. ‘Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silk betray thy heart to women,’ warns crazy Tom in King Lear - words Shakespeare wrote in around 1605, possibly in this very house which seems so full of exactly these dangers.

After a fair amount of snooping I can find no evidence of impropriety. If I had to sum up the relationship between Shakespeare and Marie Mountjoy I would say only that she was his friend - a description of her at once bland and deeply resonant. If there was something more, it remains a secret between them.

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