When Men Were fond, I Smild, and Wondred How

Shakespeare returned to Stratford in the early months of 1612 to bury his brother, Gilbert, in the old church. Gilbert Shakespeare was two and half years younger; he had never married, living with his sister and her husband in the family home of Henley Street where he may have continued his father’s trade as glover. He was literate, and well enough acquainted with business to act on his brother’s behalf in the purchase of Stratford land. There was now one surviving brother, Richard Shakespeare, who also continued to live as a bachelor in Henley Street; but he, too, would die before Shakespeare himself. It would be a strange man who, under these circumstances, did not consider the limits of his own mortality. It was a shrinking family, emphasised by the fact that Shakespeare had no male descendants direct or indirect.

He was back in London three months later, when he was asked to testify in a case concerning the Mountjoy family of Silver Street with whom he had lodged. The case had been brought by one of Mountjoy’s apprentices, Stephen Belott, who had married Mary Mountjoy but had still not received from Mountjoy himself the dowry that he had been promised. So he called William Shakespeare to testify on his behalf. The case was heard at the Court of Requests, at Westminster, on 11 May. Shakespeare was described as “of Stratford-upon-Avon,” which suggests that he had no residence in London during this period. He had been called as a witness because, as it transpired, he had acted as an intermediary between Belott and the Mountjoys in the matter of the marriage and the dowry.

A maidservant, Joan Johnson, declared the Mountjoys had encouraged “the shewe of goodwill betweene the plaintiff [Belott] and defendants daughter Marye.” She also recalled Shakespeare’s role in the affair. “And as she Remembreth the defendant [Mountjoy] did send and perswade one mr Shakespeare that laye in the house to perswade the plaintiff to the same marriadge.” It would seem, then, that Shakespeare had some skill as a “persuader” in affairs of the heart. A friend of the family, Daniel Nicholas, then amplified the picture of Shakespeare with his testimony that

Shakespeare told this deponent [Nicholas] that the defendant told him that yf the plaintiff would Marrye the said Marye his daughter he would geve him the plaintiff A some of money with her for A porcion in Marriadge with her. And that yf he the plaintiff did not marry with her the said Marye and shee with the plaintiff shee should never coste him the defendant her ffather A groate, Whereuppon And in Regard Mr. Shakespeare hadd tould them that they should have A some of money for A porcion from the father they Weare made suer by mr Shakespeare by gevinge there Consent, and agreed to marrye.

It is not clear if these are the exact words that Shakespeare used to Nicholas on this occasion; given the interval of eight years, it is unlikely. But it is clear that he played an intimate part in all the arrangements for the marriage portion, and in fact took upon himself the task of match-making. To be “made sure” was to perform a troth plight, pledging marriage one to another.

The testimony of Shakespeare himself, as transcribed in the court, is non-committal. This must have been a peculiarly sensitive moment, assuming that Shakespeare still retained the trust of Mountjoy himself. He was in practice being asked to testify against him. So there is a measure of caution in his reported testimony. It is most interesting, however, as the only recorded transcript of Shakespeare’s voice. The dramatist stated that “he knoweth the parties plaintiff and deffendant and hath known them bothe as he now remembrethe for the space of tenne yeres or thereabouts.” Stephen Belott “did well and honestly behave himselfe” and was a “very good and industrious servant in the said service,” although Shakespeare had never heard him state that he “had gott any great profitt and comodytye by the service.” Perhaps this was in answer to a question about Belott’s recompense from Mountjoy. Mrs. Mountjoy had been the one to solicit Shakespeare’s help in the marriage when she did “entreat” him “to move and perswade” Stephen Belott. He testified that she and her husband did “sundrye tymes saye and reporte that the said complainant was a very honest fellow.”

It seems that at some point Belott had then asked Daniel Nicholas to get some specific answer from Shakespeare about “how muche and what” Mountjoy was promising him on marriage to Mary. Shakespeare then replied, according to Nicholas, “that he promised yf the plaintiff would marrye with Marye … he the defendant [Mountjoy] would by his promise as he Remembered geve the plaintiff with her in marriadge about the some of ffyftye poundes in money and Certayn houshould stuffe.” But in subsequent questioning Shakespeare was extremely vague. He recalled that a dowry of some kind had been promised but, in contrast to Nicholas, he could not remember the sum “nor when to be payed.” Nor could he remember any occasion when Mountjoy “promised the plaintiff twoe hundered poundes with his daughter Marye at the tyme of his decease.” Nor could Shakespeare describe “what implementes and necessaries of houshold stuff”1 Mountjoy gave with his daughter. In fact Belott and his new wife had received only the sum of £10, and some old furniture. It seems that Mrs. Mountjoy had urged her husband to be more generous, but she had died in 1606. From Belott’s point of view, it was all very unsatisfactory. And Shakespeare had not been of any help. He could not remember any details of any conversations. It might even be concluded that he was being deliberately vague or forgetful, for the sake of his old friendship with Mountjoy.

A second hearing took place on 19 June, when Shakespeare’s memory would have been further put to the test, but Shakespeare did not appear on that occasion. Like many such cases it grumbled on without any definite conclusion. It was referred to arbitration, and Belott was awarded a little over £6, but no payment by Mountjoy is recorded. The details of this ancient case are no longer of any consequence, except in so far as they help to illuminate Shakespeare’s life in the ordinary world. He seems to have been willing to act as a “go-between” in delicate marital negotiations, no doubt because he had a reputation for finesse in such matters. He was clearly not a forbidding or unapproachable man; quite the contrary. But when called to account for his actions he becomes non-committal or impartial, maintaining a studied neutrality. He withdraws; he becomes almost invisible.

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