Treasons, stratagems and spoils

Roderigo Lopes or Rodrigo Lopez was a Portuguese Converso and suspected Marrano, for which he had to flee for his life to England. A Converso was a Jew who had renounced his faith and been baptised, a New Christian, as they also were called. For a Jew in those days, in Spain and Portugal, it was rather a good idea to renounce your faith and become a Christian, otherwise they fried you at the stake. After having tortured you pretty extensively, that is. Hence many Conversos were also Marranos. A Marrano was a secret Jew, one who practised Christianity in public and Judaism in private.

In England Lopes, a doctor, eventually became physician-in-chief to Queen Elizabeth. He was granted privileges and soon became a wealthy man. Then, in 1593 he was arrested. The charge was extremely serious: conspiring to poison Her Majesty the Queen. The charge may have been false and simply politics; the Queen never seems to have been convinced of his guilt. However, Lopes was executed: hanged, drawn and quartered.

Marlowe mentions Dr. Lopes in one version of his Doctor Faustus: "Doctor Lopus was never such a doctor!" More significantly, he may have been the inspiration for the Jew Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. In the play Shylock's "currish spirit Govern'd a wolf . . . hanged for human slaughter." Wolf being lupus or Lopes. There seems to be some indication for this theory but the evidence is by no means more than circumstancial.

In Faye Kellerman's 1989 novel The Quality of Mercy Shakespeare encounters Lopes's plucky daughter Rebecca and, inevitably, falls in love. The year is 1593, the theatres have been closed - plague year - and Will has time on his hands. He can't write bloody poetry all the time! He's also trying to do some sleuthing: somebody has murdered a player colleague and Will aims to get to the bottom of the mystery and get justice for his wickedly slain friend.

Then we have the story of Dr. Lopes seen through his daughter's eyes. No, it's more than that, Kellerman expands it to include the whole history of Conversos and Marranos in Europe. There is also an interesting parallel: Catholics and the secret Catholics in England. The murdered man was born a Catholic, maybe he even died one. What about Shakespeare himself? Peter Levi's Shakespeare biography The Life and Time of William Shakespeare claims that Shakespeare too was a secret Catholic, at least born and raised one, and that his father John was a very stubborn Catholic and that this was the cause of his very spectacular downfall. There may be some truth in the suspicion, though I'd be wildly surprised if Shakespeare himself was ever particularly religious in any traditional sectarian fashion.

There is a lot of fascinating stuff in Kellerman's novel. Lopes is a meaty morsel and personifies a number of dynamic dichotomies. One couldn't ask for a better focal point. He's a Protestant but a Jew. The blood is never quite forgiven and former Jews and their offspring are ever second rate Christians. He's a doctor but has access to the highest circles in the realm. He's a bit of a profiteer. He's from Catholic Spain (Spain and Portugal were the same country at the time) and therefore automatically a suspect. He has secret dealings with Spaniards - obviously there are still family ties and suchlike - perhaps to smuggle out other Marranos. Nobody quite knows where his loyalties lie. He isn't much liked by Walsingham, the Queen's spy master. It's only five years since the Armada was crushed and the Catholics are still plotting. And the Jews? On whose side are they? Nobody much cares about that and everybody's out to get them. In retrospect it all seems so very obvious. For a man of his background he simply flew to close to the sun not to get his wings burned off. He never stood a chance really.

Rebecca is a good, strong, independent character in a world where women have just about zero independence and absolutely no clout (at least if they're unmarried). So naturally she dresses up as a man in order to acheive a certain degree of freedom, much like the more intrepid heroines of Shakespeare's plays. Which is of course why Will is attracted to her. Her father is close to the Queen so we get a glimpse of the courtly life and even of Old Bess herself (who, a bit surprisingly, turns out to be a fairly wicked lesbian lusting after young flesh), the only woman with any clout and independence at all. Her father's position doesn't make it any easier for Rebecca and fundamentally Rebecca's situation is, to say the least, impossible, her being not only a Jewess and Portuguese but a woman to boot. The odds cannot be beaten. There is no happy ending to her story, nor can there be.

As the novel is well-nigh 600 pages long there's also a lot of boring stuff. The main problem is that the bits about the Lopes family and the bits about the murder mystery never quite connect on any satisfactory level. The analogy between Jew and Catholic simply isn't enough to carry the book. It's like Kellerman wrote two novels and for some reason decided to package them between one set of covers: two for the price of one as it were. Another flaw is definitely the murder mystery; it isn't particularly interesting and it's abandoned for the longest periods of time, only for the case to be cracked wide open at the end. As if it were something of an afterthought. But at that point we don't particularly care who's croaked Will's chum and erstwhile mentor Harry Whitman any longer because Harry Whitman doesn't mean anything to us, nor does his murder. We've all but forgotten him. It's all very distant and academic. Pity. The fate of the Lopes family, that's what we care about. And so does the author. The murder mystery is superfluous and rather redundant. The book would be far better without it.

Another thing. Shakespeare and Lopes never actually mingle much. So the case of Lopes being the inspiration for Shylock is not particularly strong here. Which is a bit ironic, it being the whole premise, I suppose.

A few years back Charles Nicholl wrote a most excellent book on Christopher Marlowe and the events surrounding his death called The Reckoning. Now he's written another book called The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street. Silver Street in Cripplegate is the only known address of Shakespeare in London. He lived there for a while around 1603-04 (it's anybody's guess just for how long) as the lodger of a certain Christopher Mountjoy, a French tire-maker. A tire-maker, by the way, produces headgear and any little whatnots and thingummies one wears on one's head short of hats: wigs, head-dresses, headpieces. Some of it was for the stage - a nice solid theatrical connection there.

In 1612 Mountjoy's son-in-law Stephen Bellott sued him. According to Bellott Mountjoy had promised his daughter £60 in dowry and another £200 to Bellott in his will. But Mountjoy had gone back on his word and not paid. Mountjoy of course denied this. The key witness in the case was the lodger William Shakespeare. It was on his testimony the whole case turned.

The really fascinating thing is: the actual testimony of Shakespeare, word for word, is amongst the documents of the case. Shakespeare's words, just as he spoke them, have been taken down and preserved for posterity. The only such case known to exist.

Shakespeare's role in the affair was curiously large. Marie Mountjoy even asked him to act as a go-between in the courtship of her daughter and Mountjoy's apprentice Bellott (which sounds like it was from one of his own comedies - almost to good to be true). Testimony of Joan Johnson, maidservant: "And as she remembereth the defendant did send and perswade one Mr Shakespeare that lay in the house to perswade the plaintiff to the same marriadge." Shakespeare's testimony: "To the third interrogatory this deponent sayeth . . . that the said deffendantes wyeffe did sollicitt and entreat this deponent to move and perswade the said complainant to effect the said marriadge, and accordingly this deponent did moue and perswade the complainant therevnto".

Apparently he was also crucial in the dowry negotiations. Then in 1612 he was asked to testify. At first he told the officials that Bellott's cause was just and that the sums Belott claimed were indeed what Mountjoy had promised. Later, when he gave his deposition, he changed his story. Now, he claimed, he couldn't remember the exact sum that was agreed upon. This meant that Bellott lost his case.

There is no doubt that Mountjoy was in the wrong and lied. He seems to have been a notorious rascal. From the church elders he received stiff letters about his unfortunate habit of getting his serving wenches pregnant with illegitimate offspring. His reason for not giving his daughter her money was that he could not give it as he didn't know what he might need for himself later on. To Bellott he raved that he'd never see a penny of it whatever happened.

Another witness of note, besides Shakespeare, was a certain George Wilkins. Wilkins was a writer of sorts, a playwright, a novelist, a pamfletist, and thus Shakespeare's colleague. He wrote a novel about Pericles, based on the play, and a play called The Miseries of Inforst Marriage, based on a recent murder tragedy. He collaborated with Dekker, Day and Rowley. And possibly with Shakespeare as well. It is widely thought that he wrote the inferior bits in Pericles while Shakespeare wrote the better ones.

Wilkins was also a victualler. That was his main occupation. Victualler in those days was code for brothel keeper. One immediately thinks of the marvellous Pompey in Measure For Measure. Wilkins seems not to have been particulary marvellous, he was in fact a remarkably vicious pimp and a violent criminal. His assaults were always on women, he was a multiple woman beater. Once he kicked a pregnant woman in the stomach. This seems to have been how he kept his punks in order. Nasty character, I must say, and a fairly unlikely fellow to have collaborated with Shakespeare. Could he be the link between Shakespeare and other shady underworld operators like Wayte, Gardner and Langley? Is there a connection? As most theatre owners also owned brothels (on the very same premises too) it may well be that Wilkins was in fact a prime example of the sort of company Shakespeare did keep.

Nicholl's The Lodger is a pretty riveting read. However it suffers from the same ailment every other biographical study of Shakespeare's life. There simply isn't enough material there. It's just shreds and guesses. Nicholl hasn't got much to work with and ends up grasping at straws. He goes around in concentric circles, praying that he'd be in luck and stumble on something directly bearing on the case. The hard facts are few and far between. Nicholl does his best. It just isn't there. He simply does not catch that wily figure William Shakespeare napping. He shines his light but Shakespeare is already gone, he's slipped into the night without a trace. Thus always. Blasted man!

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