Losing a daughter

Autumn comes in. The stars are for a moment in benevolent alignment over Silver Street. On 1 November the King’s Men begin their winter season at court with a performance of Othello at the Banqueting House at Whitehall. On 17 November Marie Mountjoy receives payment of £18 13s 7d from the Queen’s accountants. On 19 November, the young couple ‘made sure’ by Mr Shakespeare are married at St Olave’s, the little parish church which Stow calls ‘a small thing without any noteworthy monuments’. Perhaps Shakespeare was present. Perhaps there was a peal of bells, though it was just a Monday in November, nothing special.

Good fortune and the favour of the King 

Smile upon this contract . . .

But this good fortune will not last. All will not end well. Within a few months relations have broken down within the house. The father and the son-in-law at loggerheads, and between them the daughter, caught up in the warfare. Shouted words float upstairs to the chamber where Shakespeare writes. He is at work on King Lear. The deluded father, blind to the meaning of affection, rages at his daughter Cordelia, ‘Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better.’ More precisely, the father vents his displeasure by withholding the daughter’s promised dowry. Cordelia’s ‘price has fallen’, he tells her suitor, the Duke of Burgundy. She is now ‘dowered with our curse’ and nothing more. This ‘dowerless daughter’ is taken instead by her other suitor, the King of France: ‘she is herself a dowry,’ he says (1.1.187-241). Again we hear the echoes of Silver Street, the sublimation into high drama of what is casually there at hand. The Duke’s plaintive plea to Lear, ‘Give but that portion which yourself proposed’, is virtually a synopsis of the argument going on downstairs in the early months of 1605, and later picked over, with Shakespeare’s assistance, at the Court of Requests.

Shakespeare had daughters himself, back in Stratford. They were around the same age as Mary - Susanna born in 1583, and Judith, the twin of the lost boy Hamnet, in 1585. As his elder daughter reaches the age of twenty-one, the nominal and legal age of adulthood, the question of her marriage prospects starts to gnaw at him. For a man without a son, for a man seemingly tense about his social status, his substance as one who lived and worked in the insubstantial realm of the theatre, it is a worry. Susanna turned twenty-one in late May 1604, very close to the time her father was negotiating this other marriage down in London. Whether she had already met her future husband, Dr John Hall, is not certain - they would be married in 1607.19

Perhaps the troth-plighting of Mary Mountjoy carried some psychological freight in the mind of Mr Shakespeare, himself the father of marriageable but unmarried daughters. Perhaps there was an aspect of wish-fulfilment in it - even a kind of dramatic enactment. The brief ritual of the Silver Street betrothal becomes a little piece of theatre - let us call it ‘The Handfasting’ - in which the daughter is betrothed to an ‘honest fellow’ with prospects, and all is ‘made sure by Mr Shakespeare’. (This in ironic contrast to the actual plays he was writing at the time, which pursue the Montaignian agenda of making everyone unsure about things.)20

In his later plays Shakespeare keeps returning to the theme of the daughter. More precisely the daughter lost or banished, then arduously found: a rhythm of breakdown and reconciliation, expressed in the magico-mystical imagery which is the language of the late plays or ‘romances’. Helena in All’s Well is a kind of prologue to this. She is not the King’s daughter, yet in her healing of the King, in her steadfastness through ‘dismal’ difficulties, and in the imagery of regeneration which surrounds her, with a sudden and heart-wrenching shift of tone, at the end of the play -

DIANA: Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick. 

So there’s my riddle: one that’s dead is quick. 

And now behold the meaning. 

Enter Helena

- she prefigures the father-daughter relations of the later plays: Lear and Cordelia, Pericles and Marina, Cymbeline and Imogen, Leontes and Perdita, Prospero and Miranda.

I have been teased by the possibilities of Shakespeare’s relationship with the charming Mrs Mountjoy, but perhaps the person at the heart of the story is her daughter Mary, of whom we know next to nothing until she steps into the limelight of the Belott- Mountjoy suit. Her life touches Shakespeare’s in this circumstantial way, but seems also to touch his imagination. She is betrothed to a reluctant husband, as Helena is in All’s Well; she is banished ‘dowerless’ by her father, as Cordelia is in King Lear; she is lodged in the house of a pimp, as Marina is in Pericles. She is not the ‘model’ for these characters, any more than Stephen is the model for the recalcitrant bridegroom Bertram, but there are traces of her in them: a real young woman, living in the house where Shakespeare writes, and in the house of his co-author Wilkins. Was it Mary’s hands Shakespeare saw in his mind’s eye when he wrote in Pericles of a girl weaving silk ‘with fingers long, small, white as milk’?

I have spoken of Shakespeare’s ‘opportunism’ but the word is perhaps too pragmatic. What one means is his capacity to include so much, all the allusions and associations that are somehow drawn down into the dramatic moment, some instantly recognizable, some explained by scholarly exegesis, but much of it remaining as a kind of mist of ulterior meanings, too vaporous - and too personal to the author - for us to catch, though partly recoverable in this case from the recesses of the Belott-Mountjoy papers.

I look again through the depositions given at the Court of Requests in 1612, and my eye alights not on the brusque testimony of Mr Shakespeare himself, but on that account of the visit to Shakespeare by Daniel Nicholas, made some time before the case came to court, perhaps around 1610 or so. Here once again is what Nicholas says:

The plaintiff did request him this deponent to go with his wife to Shakespeare, to understand the truth how much and what the defendant did promise to bestow on his daughter in marriage with him the plaintiff, who did so. And asking Shakespeare thereof, he answered that he [Mountjoy] promised if the plaintiff would marry with Mary his only daughter, he would by his promise, as he [Shakespeare] remembered, give the plaintiff with her in marriage about the sum of fifty pounds in money and certain household stuff.

I note Nicholas’s wonderfully unwitting phrase - he went ‘to Shakespeare to understand the truth’: something that many have done since, though not quite in the sense he means it.

But there is something else, an unnoticed clue - indeed unnoticeable without recourse to the original document. ‘The plaintiff did request him this deponent to go with his wife to Shakespeare . . .’ In Wallace’s transcription it sounds like Daniel Nicholas was accompanied by his own wife when he visited Shakespeare. But in the original one sees that the clerk first wrote, ‘The plaintiff did requeste him this deponent to goe with him to Shakespeare,’ but then - presumably corrected by Nicholas - changed that last ‘him’ to ‘his wyffe’. It is clear, therefore, that the person who accompanied Daniel Nicholas on his visit to Shakespeare was not the otherwise unmentioned Mrs Nicholas, but Mary Belott. Indeed Nicholas now takes a subsidiary role in this little scene, which is essentially a meeting between Shakespeare and Mary, this girl whom he once knew well, and whom he handfasted to her husband, for better or worse, and who is now in need of his help.

And then there is that troubling discrepancy which I mentioned at the beginning of the book. When Daniel Nicholas (or, as we might now think, Mary Belott) asked him what dowry Mountjoy had promised the couple, Shakespeare said it was about £50. But when he was asked the same question in court, he claimed he could not remember the figure. A sum was promised, he says, ‘but what certain portion he remembereth not’. The reason he gives for his ignorance is that he had not been privy to the financial discussions at the time of the marriage. He says, ‘The plaintiff was dwelling with the defendant in his house, and they had amongest themselves many conferences about their marriadge’ - implying that he was not present at these ‘conferences’. Nonetheless the anomaly remains: his story has changed.

This seems to imbue his deposition with a note of betrayal, a refusal to involve himself. He was probably the only person who could swing the court - he was a gentleman, he was broadly impartial, and he had been personally involved in the negotiations. How much he would have pleased Mary if he had told the court what he had earlier told her and Daniel Nicholas - that Mountjoy had promised the sum of £50.

But he does not. Caution prevails: a man must be careful what he says in a court of law. In his failure to remember, his shrug of non-involvement, he sides with the unforgiving father and against the spurned daughter. And so the deposition, a unique record of Shakespeare speaking, contains also this faintly sour note of silence. He follows the example of his own Parolles, that creature of the Silver Street nights, whose last words are, ‘I will not speak what I know.’

‘Mr Words’ has spoken enough.

He appends the hurried, perfunctory signature which one sees at the bottom of the paper. The pen blotches on the k and tails off: ‘Willm Shaks’. It will do. It will get him out of that courtroom, away from all these questions and quarrels, the interminable loose ends of other people’s lives, like a ‘ravell’d sleave’ of silk whose tangles can never be unpicked. The signature attests his presence at that moment, but in his mind he is already leaving. After a last few formalities he bids good day to the Mountjoys and the Belotts. He walks down to the wharf at Westminster Stairs to catch a boat downriver. He does not know if he will see them again, and we do not know if he did.

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