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Shakespeare's England and London

( Originally Published 1918 )



SHAKESPEARE lived in a period of change. In religion, politics, literature, and commerce, in the habits of daily living, in the world of ideas, his life-time witnessed continual change and movement. When Elizabeth came to the throne, six years before he was born, England was still largely Catholic, as it had been for nine centuries; when she died England was Protestant, and by the date of Shakespeare's death it was well on the way to becoming Puritan. The Protestant Reformation had worked nearly its full course of revolution in ideas, habits, and beliefs. The authority of the church had been replaced by that of the Bible, of the English Bible, superbly translated by Shakespeare's contemporaries. Within his lifetime, again, England had attained a national unity and an international importance heretofore unknown. The Spanish Armada had been defeated, the kingdoms of England and Scotland united, and the first colony established in America. Even more revolutionary had been the assertion of national greatness in literature and thought. The Italian Renaissance, following the rediscovery of Greek and Roman literature, had extended its influence to England early in the century, but only after the accession of Elizabeth did it bring full harvest. The names that crowd the next fifty years represent fine native endowments, boundless aspiration, and also novelty, as Spenser in poetry, Bacon in philosophy, Hooker in theology. In commerce as well as in letters there was this same activity and innovation. It was a time of commercial prosperity, of increase in comfort and luxury, of the growth of a powerful commercial class, of large fortunes and large benefactions. Whatever your status, your birth, trade, profession, residence, religion, education, or property, in the year 1564 you had a better chance to change these than any of your ancestors had ; and there was more chance than there had ever been that your son would improve his inheritance. The individual man had long been boxed up in guild, church, or the feudal system ; now the covers were opened, and the new opportunity bred daring, initiative, and ambition. The exploits of the Elizabethan sea rovers still stir us with the thrill of adventure ; but adventure and vicissitude were hardly less the share of merchant, priest, poet, or politician. The individual has had no such opportunity for fame in England before or since.

The nineteenth century, which saw the industrial revolution, the triumphs of steam and electricity, and the discoveries of natural science, is the only period that equalled the Elizabethan in the rapidity of its changes in ideas and in the conditions of living ; and even that era of change offered relatively fewer new impulses to individual greatness than the fifty years of Shakespeare's life.

Shakespeare's England was an agricultural country of four or five million inhabitants. It fed itself, except when poor harvests compelled the importation of grain, and it supplemented agriculture by grazing, fishing, and commerce, chiefly with the Netherlands, but growing in many directions. The forests were becoming thin, but the houses were still of timber ; the roads were poor, the large towns mostly seaports. The dialects spoken were various, but the speech of the midland counties had become established in London, at the universities, and in printed books, and was rapidly increasing its dominance. The monasteries and religious orders were gone, but feudalism still held sway, and the people were divided into classes, the various ranks of the nobility, the gentry, the yeomen, the burgesses, and the common people. But changes from one class to another were numerous ; for many lords were losing their inheritances by extravagance, while many business men were putting their profits into land. In spite of persecutions, occasional insurrections, and the plague which devastated the unsanitary towns, it was a time of peace and prosperity. The coinage was reformed, roads were improved, taxes were not burdensome, and life in the country was more comfortable and secure than it had been. Books and education were spreading. Numerous grammar schools taught Latin, the universities made provision for poor students, and there were now many careers besides that of the church open to the educated man.

Stratford, then a village of some two thousand inhabitants, somewhat off the main route of traffic, was far more removed from the world than most towns of similar size in this day of railways, newspapers, and the telegraph. With the nearby country, it made up an independent community that attended to its own affairs with great thoroughness. The corporation, itself the outgrowth of a medieval religious guild, regulated the affairs of every one with little regard for personal liberty. It was especially severe on rebellious servants, idle apprentices, shrewish women, the pigs that ran loose in the streets, and (after 1605) persons guilty of profanity. Regular church attendance and fixed hours of work were required. The corporation frequently punished with fines (the poet's father on one occasion) those who did not clean the street before their houses ; and it was much occupied in regulating the ale-houses, of which the village possessed some thirty. Like all towns of this period, Stratford suffered frequently from fire and the plague. Trade was dependent mainly on the weekly markets and semi-annual fairs, and Stratford was by no means isolated, being not far from the great market town of Coventry, near Kenilworth and Warwick, and only eighty miles from London.

Shakespeare's England was merry England. At least, it was probably as near to deserving that adjective as at any time before or since. There was plenty of time for amusement. There were public bowling-greens and archery butts in Stratford, though the corporation was very strict in regard to the hours when these could be used. Every one enjoyed hunting, hawking, cock-fighting, bull-baiting, dancing, until the Puritans found such enjoyments immoral. The youthful Shakespeare acquired an intimate knowledge of dogs and horses, hunting and falconry, though this was a gentleman's sport. The highways were full of ballad singers, beggars, acrobats, and wandering players. Play-acting of one kind or another had long been common over most of rural England. Miracle plays were given at Coventry up to 1580, and bands of professional actors came to Stratford frequently, and on their first recorded appearance received their per-mission to act from the bailiff, John Shakespeare (1568-1569). There was many a Holofernes or Bottom to marshal his pupils or fellow-mechanics for an amateur performance ; and Shakespeare may have seen the most famous of the royal entertainments, that at Kenilworth in 1575, when Gascoigne recited poetry, and Leicester, impersonating Deep Desire, addressed Elizabeth from a bush, and a minstrel represented Anion on a dolphin's back. The tradition may be right which declares that it was the trumpets of the comedians that summoned Shakespeare to London.

In the main, life in the country was not so very different from what it is now in the remoter places. Many a secluded English village, as recently as fifty years ago, jogged on much as in the sixteenth century. Opportunity then as now dwelt mostly in the cities, but the city of the sixteenth century bore slight resemblance to a city of today.

London, with less than 200,000 inhabitants, was still a medieval city in appearance, surrounded by a defensive wall, guarded by the Tower, and crowned by the cathedral. The city proper lay on the north of the Thames, and the wall made a semicircle of some two miles, from the Tower on the east to the Fleet ditch and Blackfriars on the west. Seven gates pierced the wall to the north, and the roads passing through them into the fields were lined with houses. West-ward along the river were great palaces, behind which the building was practically continuous along the muddy road that led to the separate city of Westminster. The Thames, noted for its fish and swans, was the great thoroughfare, crowded with many kinds of boats and spanned by the famous London Bridge. By one of the many rowboats that carried passengers hither and thither, or on foot over the arches of the bridge, between the rows of houses that lined it, and under the heads of criminals which decorated its entrance, you might cross the Thames to Southwark. Turning west, past St. Saviour's and the palace of the Bishop of Winchester, you were soon on the Bankside, a locality long given over to houses of ill fame and rings for the baiting of bulls and bears. The theaters, forbidden in the city proper, were built either in the fields to the north of the walls, or across the river close by the kennels and rings. Here, as Shakespeare waited for a boatman to ferry him across to Blackfriars, the whole city was spread before his eyes, in the foreground the panorama of the beautiful river, beyond it the crowded houses, the spires of many churches, and the great tower of old St. Paul's.

It was a city of narrow streets, open sewers, wooden houses, without an adequate water supply or sanitation, in constant danger from fire and plague. But dirt and disease were no more prevalent than they had been for centuries ; in spite of them, there was no lack of life in the crowded lanes. The great palaces were outside the city proper, and there were few notable buildings within its precincts except the churches. The dismantled monasteries still occupied large areas, but were being made over to strange uses, the theaters eventually finding a place in Blackfriars and White-friars. The Strand was an ill-paved street running behind the river palaces, past the village of Charing Cross, on to the royal palace of Whitehall and to the Abbey and Hall at Westminster. The walls and surrounding moat had ceased to be of use for defense, and building constantly spread into the fields without. These fields were favorite places for recreation and served the purpose of city parks. The Elizabethans were fond of outdoor sports and spent little daytime indoors. The shops were open to the street, and the clear spaces at Cheapside and St. Paul's Church-yard seem to have been always crowded. St. Paul's, although still used for religious services, had become a sort of city club or general meeting place. Mules and horses were no longer to be found there as in the reign of Mary, but the nave was in constant use as a place for gossip and business. The churchyard was the usual place for holding lotteries, and here were the shops of a majority of the London booksellers. In its northeast corner was Paul's Cross, the famous pulpit whence the wishes of the government were announced and popularized by the Sunday preachers. And here the variety of London life was most fully exhibited. The processions and entertainments at court, the ambassadors from afar, the law students from the Temple, the old soldiers destitute after service in Flanders, the seamen returned from plundering the Spanish gold fleet, the youths from the university come to the city to earn their living by their wits, the bishop and the puritan, who looked at each other askance, the young squire come to be gulled of his lands by the roarers of the tavern, the solid merchant with his chain of gold, the wives who aped the court ladies with their enormous farthingales and ruffs, the court gallant with his dyed beard and huge breeches, the idle apprentices quick to riot, the poor poets in prison for debt these and how many more are familiar to every reader of the Elizabethan drama. As often in periods of commercial prosperity, luxury became fantastic. Men sold their acres to put costly garments on their backs. Clothing was absurd and ran to extreme sizes of ruffs, farthingales, and breeches, or to gaudy colors and jewels. Enormous sums were spent on feasts, entertainments, and masques, especially in the reign of James I. Cleanliness did not thrive, perfumes took the place of baths, and rushes, seldom renewed, covered the floor even of the presence chamber of Elizabeth. But the comforts and luxuries of life increased and spread to all classes. Tobacco, potatoes, and forks were first introduced in Shakespeare's time. Building improved, streets were widened, and coaches became so common as to excite much adversion and complaint. If some poets spent much time in the debtors' prison, others lived well, and some actors gained large fortunes.

The industrious apprentice who refused the allurements of pageants, theaters, tailors, and taverns, was sure to have his reward. It was a time of commercial expansion, such as the last generation has witnessed in Germany and the United States. Bankers, brokers, and merchants gained great fortunes and managed to protect them. Industry, thrift, and shrewdness were likely to win enough to buy a knighthood. The trade of the old East and the new West came to the London wharves, and every one was ready to take a risk. The merchants of London had furnished support to the policies of Henry VIII and were rich enough to fit out the expedition against Flanders and to pay for a third of the fleet that met the Armada. It was a time, too, for great enterprises and benefactions to charity. Sir Thomas Gresham built the Exchange, Sir Hugh Middleton paid for the New River water supply, and there were many gifts to hospitals. With all this increase in wealth, the various professions prospered, especially that of law. The inns of court were crowded with students, not a few of whom forsook the courts for the drama. The age of chivalry was over, that of commerce begun. No one gained much glory by a military career in the days of Elizabeth. The church, the law, banking, commerce, even politics and literature, offered better roads to wealth or fame.

The importance of the court in Elizabethan London is not easy to realize to-day. It dominated the life of the small city. Its nobles and their retainers, its courtiers and hangers-on, made up a considerable portion of the population ; its shows supplied the entertainment, its gossip the politics of the hour. It was the seat of pageantry, the mirror of manners, the patron or the oppressor of every one. No one could be so humble as to escape coming somehow within its sway, and some of the greatest wrecked their lives in efforts to secure its approval. It is no wonder that the plays of Shakespeare deal so largely with kings, queens, and their courts. Under the Tudors, and still more under the Stuarts, the court aimed at increasing the central authority so as to bring every affair of its subjects under its direct control. In London, however, this effort at centralization met with strong opposition. The government was in the hands of the guilds representative of the wealth of the city, and was coming face to face with many of the problems of modern municipalities. The corporation was in constant clash with the court ; and in the end the city, which had supported Henry VIII and Elizabeth against powerful nobles, became the Puritan London that aided in ousting the Stuarts.

This conflict between city and court is illustrated in the regulation of the theaters and companies of actors. The actors had a legal status only as the license of some nobleman enrolled them as his servants, and they relied on the protection of their patron and the court against the opposition of the city authorities. The fact that they were employed to give plays before the Queen was, indeed, about the only argument that won any consideration from the corporation. This opposition was based in part on moral or puritan grounds, but was determined still more by the fear of three menaces, fire, sedition, and the plague. Wooden buildings were already discouraged by statute, and the danger of fire from the wooden theaters is shown by the burning of the Globe and the Fortune. The gathering of crowds was feared by every property holder, and the theaters were frequently the scenes of outbreaks of the apprentices. The danger of the plague from the crowd at plays was the greatest of all. London was hardly ever free from it, and suffered terrible devastation in the years 1593 and 1603. For these reasons the theaters were forbidden within the city's jurisdiction, and were driven into the outskirts. The best companies appeared frequently at court, and on the accession of James I they were licensed directly as servants of various members of the royal family. The actors were thereafter under the immediate control of the court, and certain "private" theaters were established within the city. But this triumph of the court over the long opposition of the city was not an unmixed blessing for the drama.

The theaters in 1590 represented the public on which they depended for support ; by 1616 they were far less representative of the nation or London, and more dependent on the court and its following. The Blackfriars theater, before which gathered the crowd of coaches that annoyed the puritans of the neighborhood, was a symptom of the growth of wealth and luxury, and of the increased power of the monarchy ; the protests of the puritan neighborhood were an indication of the growth of a large class hostile alike to an arbitrary court, luxury, and the theater.

Shakespeare's lifetime, however, saw little of this sharp division into parties or of that narrow moral consistency which Puritanism came to require. Looking back on his age in contrast with our own, we are perhaps most impressed by its striking incongruities. This London of dirt and disease was also the arena for extravagant fashion and princely display. This populace that watched with joy the cruel torment of a bear or the execution of a Catholic also delighted in the romantic comedies of Shakespeare. This people, so appallingly credulous and ignorant, so brutal, childish, so mercurial compared with Englishmen of today, yet set the standard of national greatness. This absurdly decorated gallant could stab a rival in the back or write a penitential lyric. Each man presents strange, almost inexplicable, contrasts in character, as Bacon or Raleigh, or Elizabeth herself. The drama mingles its sentiment and fancy with horrors and bloodshed ; and no wonder, for poetry was no occupation of the cloister. Read the lives of the poets Surrey, Wyatt, Sidney, Spenser, Raleigh, Marlowe, Jonson and of these, only Spenser and Jonson died in their beds, and Ben had killed his man in a duel. The student of Elizabethan history and biography will find stranger contrasts than in the lives of these poets, for crime, meanness, and sexual depravity often appear in the closest juxtaposition with imaginative idealism, intellectual freedom, and moral grandeur.

The Italian Renaissance, with its mingled passions for beauty, art, blood, lust, and intellect, seems for a time transferred to London and dwelling alongside of commerce and Puritanism. Yet these incongruities of character, manners, and motives that seem so striking to us today may probably be explained by conditions already described. The opportunities created by the changes in church and religion, the new education and prosperity, the new America, and the revived classics, all tended to create a new thirst for experience. This thirst for experience led to excess and incongruity, but it also furnished an unparalleled range of human motive for a poet's observation and imitation.

In the wide range of our poet's survey, there is, how-ever, one notable omission. The reign of Elizabeth, like those of her three predecessors, was one of religious controversy, change, and persecution. But all this strife, all this debate, repression, persecution, and all of this great turmoil working in the minds of English-men, find little reflection in Shakespeare's plays, and little in the whole Elizabethan drama. Religious controversy had played a part in the drama of the reign of Edward and Mary, but it rarely enters the Elizabethan drama, and then mainly in the form of ridicule for the puritan. Shakespeare's plays seem almost to ignore the most momentous facts of his time. They treat pagan, Catholic, and Protestant with cordiality and only smile at the puritan or Brownist. His England of the merry wives or Falstaff's justices seems strangely untroubled by questions of faith or ritual. There is, to be sure, plenty of religion and controversy in the literature of the time, but the drama as a whole is singularly non-religious. It reflects rather that freedom from restraint, that buoyancy of spirit, that lively interest in experience, which had their full course in the few years when the old garment was off and the new not quite fitted. The immense intellectual and imaginative activity of the period consists precisely in this freedom from restrictions, partisanship, dogmas, or caste. Things had lost their labels and some time and argument were required to find new ones. Ideas were free and not bound to any school, party, or cause. You grasped an idea without knowing whether it made you realist, romanticist, or classicist ; papist, puritan, or pagan. After centuries of imprisonment, individuality had its full chance in the world of ideas as elsewhere.

In a few years this was all over, and your sphere of life and the ideas proper to that sphere were prescribed for you. By another century, England had fought out the issues of creed and government with expense of blood and spirit, and had settled down to the compromise of 1688. In Shakespeare's day there was also, of course, some movement toward fixity of ideas, and there were great men who strove to convert others to their ideas and to dictate belief and conduct. But there was a breathing spell in which, comparatively speaking, men were not alike, but individual, and in which their motives and ideas revelled in a freedom from ancient precedent. In this era of flux the modern drama found its panorama of novel and varied experience making and marring character.

Shakespeare lived peaceably in the heyday of this change, nearly of an age with Sidney, Raleigh, Spenser, Bacon, Marlowe. Like Marlowe in the soliloquies of Barabbas and Faust, he recognized the new possibilities that the age opened through money or ideas. He made much out of the commercial prosperity of the day, gained such profits as were possible from his profession, raised his estate, and acquired wealth. He gave his mind not to any cause or party but to the study of men. The drunkards of the London inn, the yokels of Warwickshire, and the finest gentlewomen of the land alike came under the scrutiny of the creator of Falstaff, Dogberry, and Rosalind. And like his great contemporaries, he triumphed over incongruities, for he translated his studies of the human mind into verse of immortal beauty that yet delighted the public stage which was located halfway between the bear dens and the brothels.



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