There is another reason to think that Shakespeare may have had talents as a middle-man, and derived part of his income this way. Although activity of this sort is generally only recorded when it goes wrong, we know from the break-down of one particular negotiated deal, that Shakespeare acted as a marriage broker. During 1604 he was lodging with wig-making family the Mountjoys on the corner of Silver Street and Monkwell Street in the Cripplegate area of London. According to William Shakespeare’s deposition, dated 11th May 1612, Mrs Mountjoy asked him to ‘move and persuade’ Stephen Belott, her husband’s former apprentice, to marry their only daughter. According to Stephen Belott, a dowry of £60 was promised, with a further £200 to be bequeathed by Christopher Mountjoy in his will. Subsequently, Christopher Mountjoy disputed any such amounts had been agreed, and eight years after the marriage, Stephen Belott went to court in an attempt to settle the matter.

In his deposition, William Shakespeare said that a ‘portion’ had been agreed, but claimed not to remember the amount agreed upon, or when it was to be paid. Whether his forgetfulness was genuine, or arose from a wish to be neutral and discreet, is impossible to tell; when not under oath he had given the figure as about £50, and Charles Nicholl concludes that his memory was ‘more selective than defective’.[1]

Since the discovery of the Belott-Mountjoy papers in 1909, commentators have been inclined to see Shakespeare’s role as marriage broker in a somewhat romantic light, imagining the author of the Sonnets and Romeo & Juliet conducting the hand-fasting of two lovers. But the arrangement appears to have been far more tempered by financial considerations than by love; since not only did Shakespeare have to ‘persuade’ Belott to marry his former boss’s daughter, but the promised payments for doing so appear to have been the chief object of persuasion.

William Shakespeare, described on his deposition as ‘of Stratford upon Avon in the county of Warwick, gentleman’, emerges from the Belott-Mountjoy case as an effective negotiator. His selective memory under oath suggests he was also a discreet one, unwilling to divulge what might be termed sensitive commercial information. As with his holding 1.23 tonnes of malted barley in a time of famine, the best explanation for his role in the marriage of Stephen Belott and Mary Mountjoy is that he was the broker; that neutral yet persuasive central party who acts as an anonymous buffer, matching the needs of buyer and seller, while potentially making a profit in the process.


[1] Charles Nicholl, The Lodger on Silver Street, p.13.

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