Charles Nicholl's books about Marlowe and da Vinci have previously graced my reading list: the first is a meticulous reconstruction of Marlowe's final meal in an attempt to explain the playwright's death, which is sometimes a little repetitive; the second a more conventional biography of the renaissance polymath.
The Lodger is closer to the first, in being a depiction of how Shakespeare possibly lived whilst in London, centring on a single event, the signing of a legal deposition by the playwright which concerned his landlord, but fortunately without the repetitiousness.
So little is actually known about the bard that to say it is amazing nobody did this before is an understatement, but it is a tribute to Nicholl that he has picked up the baton and run with it.
As with the Marlowe book, The Reckoning, in The Lodger Nicholl takes small clues from documents relating to Shakespeare's deposition and expands them, using contemporary evidence, to construct a likely picture of how Shakespeare and his acquaintances would have lived and worked.
Somewhat tenuous, but well done nevertheless, is the speculation around how Shakespeare may have drawn on his everyday life in order to write the plays. Previous attempts have been made, albeit on a grander scale, to prove that he was, for example, a seaman whose travels had given him access to the various locations featured in the plays. It takes less of a stretch to imagine Shakespeare incorporating at least some of his day-to-day experience into his works, for example his association with George Wilkins, nominally a victualler, in reality most likely a pimp and keeper of a bawdy house, which Nicholl contends could quite easily have formed the basis of the frolics in Measure For Measure.
Maybe as good as giving some colour to the life of the Swan of Avon is the picture Nicholl paints of the City of London in the early 16th Century. Throughout the book he carefully relates London then to London now, so he tells us, for example, what was formerly in the place where modern day Gresham Street is. This interests me especially because I walked the streets of the city on a daily basis for the better part of two decades with my job, but what an excellent resource he has provided also for visitors to London curious about the history of the area they're walking around, just over the Millennium Bridge from the Tate Modern and within walking distance of a performance of one of the plays at the Barbican.
Also quite clever is the way Nicholl takes us on a tour of the Huguenot immigrant community of the time, their networks and preoccupations and the milieu of tire-making, which then links into the headgear seen in brothels, stately homes and theatres, bringing us neatly back to Shakespeare himself and the possible reason he found himself lodging in the residence of the Mountjoys, themselves immigrant French tiremakers.
Nicholl's knowledge of the works of Shakespeare is extensive, and he uses this well in relating the events in the book to the events in the works. But beyond that is his knowledge of the works of other Elizabethan and Jacobean writers and playwrights, including that of the aforementioned George Wilkins, whose plays seem to echo his criminal record, but also seem quite self-aware in assessing the lifestyle of a debauched and decadent cad.
Sometimes, true, the book nudges towards a prurient nudge-nudge wink-wink suggestiveness regarding the bard's personal life, but somehow never quite gets there, more maybe than can be said for some of the plays themselves! Altogether, whilst lacking some of the gravitas of the likes of Frank Kermode, this is an educational, erudite and entertaining book, one any Shakespeare aficionado can't afford to overlook.