The characters who have populated this little corner of Shakespeare’s life now slip back into the shadows briefly penetrated by the Belott-Mountjoy suit.
Other than his marriage to Isabel d’Est, in the summer of 1615, nothing further is heard of Christopher Mountjoy. When he drew up his will on 26 January 1620 (see Plate 35) he was living in St Giles, Cripplegate. It would be nice to think this betokens some reconciliation with his daughter and son-in-law, who also lived in the parish, but the financial contortions of the will itself seem to argue against this. The will has a faint connection with Mr Mountjoy’s erstwhile lodger - one of its overseers was a man called Thomas Seaman, who would later perform the same service for Elizabeth Condell, widow of Shakespeare’s old colleague Henry Condell. In her will she bequeathed Seaman £10 and ‘all her books’ - the latter probably including a copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, of which Condell had been co-editor.1
The burial register of St Giles records the funeral of ‘Christopher Mountioie Tyremaker’ on 29 March 1620 (see Plate 36). Administration of his goods was granted to Isabel on 5 April. His grieving widow did not remain so for long, however, for on 17 July she was married at St Giles to one William Broxon. He is described elsewhere as a ‘smith’, and was himself recently widowed. We might perceive in Isabel a penchant for elderly husbands, for within a few years Broxon was also dead, and she was at the altar for (at least) the third time, at St Dunstan’s in Stepney, where she married John Fisher on 1 May 1627.
The Belotts continued to live in St Giles at least until the early 1620s. They had six children - all daughters - of whom two died in infancy. Three were later married: Anne, the eldest, to William Haier or Hayer, ‘wiredrawer’; Jane to Francis Overing, a glover; and Hester - or, as Stephen Belott wrote it, ‘Easter’ - to a Christopher Bates.2 The husbands sound English, their professions artisan; the wiredrawing son-in-law may be a partner in the tiremaking business. Of their youngest daughter Elizabeth, born in 1621, there is no further record, and she is not mentioned in Belott’s will. Perhaps she died young, or perhaps - families being one of the chief ways in which history repeats itself - she is another shunned daughter.
In 1619 Belott was at loggerheads with the new monopoly on gold and silver thread. Strict production quotas were imposed on the thread-workers, who had to pay nearly 60 per cent of their earnings to the commissioners. At the apex of this pyramid of royally licensed robbery was the notorious Sir Giles Mompesson, who made huge profits until protests led to his investigation and impeachment; he is caricatured as the greedy schemer Sir Giles Overreach in Philip Massinger’s New Way to Pay Old Debts (c. 1621). Belott was one of many who suffered violent intimidation from the monopolists’ heavies, and as we know he was not a man to leave offences unanswered. His petition for redress, dated 20 March 1621, survives in the House of Lords Record Office, a stone’s throw from the former site of the Court of Requests. ‘About two yeares since,’ he complains, a ‘pursuivant’ named Ireland ‘did forciblie enter’ his house,
and going into an upper room, where the chamber door was locked, the said Ireland did violentlie breake open the said doore & tooke out of the chamber the peticioners mill, the onlie instrument of his living, and caried away the same . . . wherebie the peticioner his wife & children are utterlie undone.3
Another upstairs room in Cripplegate, another faint glimpse of Mary, shielding her frightened children as the men rifle through the chamber. Whether Belott ever got the ‘recompense’ he craved we do not know.
The last record of Mary Belott ne’e Mountjoy is the baptism of her daughter Elizabeth on 21 September 1621. I have not found any record of her burial. She was dead when Stephen Belott drew up his will in July 1646. He had by then a second wife, Thomasine, though no children by her. Their address was ‘the Bowling Alley neere Long Lane’. The street ran down from Aldersgate to Smithfield. Stow describes it as ‘builded on both the sides with tenements for brokers, tipplers, and such like’; John Taylor the water-poet associates it with pawnshops.4 The neighbourhood has a down-at-heel air.
Belott bequeathed money to Thomasine and his three married daughters, but the money was inconveniently overseas, in Holland - 900 guilders, then worth £90, left to him by his brother John, who had died in Haarlem: another pot of cash just out of reach. Stephen Belott died in early 1647, probably in his mid-sixties.5
And what of Mr Shakespeare? These others all outlived him. When he walked out of that courtroom in the early summer of 1612 he had just under four years left. In literary terms he was already coasting downhill. The only plays later than this date are his three collaborations with John Fletcher. Two of them - Henry VIII and the lost Cardenio - were performed by the King’s Men in 1613; and the last, The Two Noble Kinsmen, probably in 1614.
He was sometimes to be seen in London - indeed he became, for the first time, a property-owner in the city. The Blackfriars Gatehouse, which he bought in March 1613, was a rambling old house near the river, with ‘sundry back-dores and bye-ways’, and was probably a pied-à-terre as well as an investment. But most of what we know of these last years belongs to his life in Stratford: a well-off gentleman in well-earned retirement, surrounded by his family and his fruit-trees at New Place, though not entirely free of the small vexations that come with respectability. There was a brief but embarrassing court case, when his daughter Susanna Hall sued a man who said she had ‘bin naught with [had sex with] Rafe Smith’ and had ‘the runinge of the raynes [gonorrhea]’. There was the threat of enclosure in the Welcombe area, where he owned land - ‘My cosen Shakspeare’ (wrote the town clerk, Thomas Greene, in his diary) ‘told me that they assured him they ment to enclose noe further then to Gospell Bushe, and so upp straight . . . [to] Clopton Hedge.’6
And then there was the matter of his younger daughter Judith, who turned thirty in 1615 - one last piece of matrimonial business to be arranged. She was married at Holy Trinity church on 10 February 1616. Her husband was a feckless young man, Thomas Quiney, who had recently sired an illegitimate child. His business ventures would fail, his children by Judith would die young.7 Not quite an ‘honest fellow’, perhaps: a match made in haste rather than heaven. Six weeks later, already sick, Shakespeare drew up his will, and on 23 April 1616 he died.
Half a century later, a Stratford vicar obligingly offered a cause of death - Shakespeare had over-indulged at a ‘merry meeting’ with fellow-poets Drayton and Jonson. ‘It seems [they] drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.’ This Parnassian binge is certainly too good to be true. Neither Shakespeare nor Drayton has any reputation for roistering, and Jonson (who could drink enough for all three of them) is not known to have visited Stratford. A more sober conjecture is that Shakespeare died of typhoid fever. The spring of 1616 was unseasonably warm and wet, favourable to water-borne infections. The mortality rate in Stratford was high that year, nearly 50 per cent up on recent years.8 He died in the company not of poets, but of his fellow-townspeople - one among many.
In his last sole-authored play, The Tempest (1611), Prospero’s great speeches of recantation are often taken as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage: ‘This rough magic I here abjure . . .’; ‘Our revels now are ended . . .’; and most poignantly in the Epilogue, also spoken by Prospero -
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s my own,
Which is most faint.
But though these lines may be, in part, Shakespeare’s swansong, they are not his last words on the stage. These are to be found in the little-read and seldom performed Two Noble Kinsmen of c. 1614. The play, an elegant tragicomedy set in ancient Athens, has more Fletcher and less Shakespeare than Henry VIII, and was not included in the Folio, but the final act is demonstrably his.
A speech by Theseus - one of those ‘kingly parts’ that Shakespeare himself used to take - brings the play to a close.9 Its concluding lines, addressed to the ‘gods’, are the nearest we have to Shakespeare’s last words - oddly unfamous, quietly spoken, serenely puzzling:
O you heavenly charmers,
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh; for what we have are sorry; still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question. Let’s go off
And bear us like the time. (5.6.131-7)
The stage direction calls for a ‘flourish’ of music before the characters walk off.