The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street
by Charles Nicholl
(Viking, $27)

In 1612, William Shakespeare was called upon by a London court to help settle some messy business. Some eight years earlier, while living in a home owned by a French Protestant couple named Mountjoy, he had agreed to help his landlords persuade a particular young man to marry their daughter. Now the young man was suing his father-in-law for reneging on his promise of a dowry. Shakespeare had consented to serve as a witness, and the 48-year-old playwright’s testimony wasn’t earth-shattering: He simply backed the son-in-law’s story. But the case offers a contemporary scholar a web of names to investigate. By tracing them, Charles Nicholl hoped to vividly re-create a single period in Shakespeare’s mist-shrouded life.

Nicholl’s gambit “bore delicious fruit,” said William Grimes in The New York Times. Balancing a painstaking commitment to facts with a healthy interest in gossip and supposition, the veteran scholar brings forth “a gaudy, tumultuous, richly imagined world” in which a reader can walk side by side with Shakespeare. The playwright was well established by the time he came to live with the Mountjoys, said Peter Ackroyd in the London Times. He owned property in Stratford but chose to live as a boarder in a tradesman’s house, apparently because he enjoyed the “sense of belonging and not belonging.” What is clear is that the whole atmosphere was sexually charged. “When Shakespeare described brothels and pimps, he knew of what he wrote.”

Two of Shakespeare’s neighborhood acquaintances prove particularly compelling, said Michael Dirda in The Washington Post. His collaborator on the rarely performed Pericles, George Wilkins, was a flamboyant pimp and brawler. Shakespeare’s French landlady appears to have been a dark, foreign woman of the type that the playwright found most attractive. Nicholl has a “lovely” touch with such matters. He’s deft enough to highlight echoes of life at the Mountjoys in Othello, Measure for Measure, and the other “bitter sexual dramas” that Shakespeare was writing at the time. But if the relationship between playwright and landlady was more than friendship, “it remains,” he writes, “a secret between them.”