William Shakespeare is a large draw for tourists in London. This city is where he lived and worked. Over four hundred years on from his writing, Shakespeare remains a giant of the English language with his plays, poems and sonnets. Yet relatively little is known about his day to day life. How did he manage to amass such knowledge of Europe with the settings of his plays? Are all the works attributed to him entirely his own creation or are there collaborators? And what of his personal life, especially the earring?
Shakespeare was born in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, baptised on 26th April 1564. His father, John, was a glover-maker and Alderman presumably, fairly affluent and well respected. A young William Shakespeare moved to the Shoreditch area of London, which was little more than a shanty town on the north east outskirts of the city. Drawn here by the first purpose built playhouse/theatre, owned by the Don of London theatre, James Burbage. London playhouses were the first purpose built theatrical spaces in northern Europe.
There are records of Shakespeare’s tax affairs showing him living in Bishopsgate in October 1596 and then a further move to St Helen’s off Bishopsgate in 1598, also shown in tax records.
Thanks to the excellent book, The Lodger, Shakespeare on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl, we can be fairly sure of him residing on the north fringe on the City of London where the Barbican stands, possibly on the site of Shakespeare tower? He lived there around 1603 renting a room from a Huguenot landlord, Christopher Mountjoy, who probably sub-let Shakespeare his lodgings. We also know he worked across the river Thames in Southwark close to the site of today’s Globe theatre and travelled to Warwickshire, where his family hailed from. All these places have monuments and markings to do with the great man. How far else he ventured is difficult to assess. It has been documented he went to Brentford, possibly by boat, west along the river Thames on many occasions, as this suburb was a place for the Elizabethans to visit for some raunchy fun. But that is not so very far away I hear you say dear reader…..Indeed not, but England in the 1500’s and 1600’s was heavily wooded, very dangerous, slow to negotiate and virtually a police state. London was a cosmopolitan place with many Europeans and North Africans including Italians, Dutch, Huguenots, and Moors swapping stories about places as far afield as Denmark and Cyprus, or Italy and Scotland. Mixing with foreigners would have been the engine to drive his fascination with faraway places. Overseas visitors could not get enough of English theatre. It was unique in northern Europe.
Exotic settings coupled with the narrative of splendid storytelling and moral dilemmas are the key to The Bard’s enduring interest. The play, The Tempest is set upon a mythical island. Could it perhaps be a Caribbean island? Pericles is set in the Levant and the eastern Mediterranean. Twelfth Night, Illyria, nowadays known as Croatia and the historical plays like Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 or Richard III are, of course, domestically based. Shakespeare may have visited northern France and possibly Scotland. It is thought he worked as a teacher in Lancashire for a while. There was interest in a playhouse in Blackfriars and another called the Curtain in Shoreditch. Playhouses were the preferred name to theatre as Shakespeare’s dramatic work were stories, comedies and tragedies, supposedly without any truth to them…. as relating something as true could land a playwright in deep trouble with the authorities i.e. The Church and The Crown. As mentioned earlier, England was effectively a police state, merely wearing clothes above one’s social status could be punishable with a spell in the stocks or worse……..Shakespeare’s history works, like Henry IV parts one and two, or Richard III were a safer form of interpretation, probably to curry favour with the royal household. His knowledge of Latin and other European languages would have assisted with research along with various books, particularly Chronicles of English History by Raphael Holinshed who lived from 1529 to 1580.
There is a statue (or more accurately, a bust) of Shakespeare in the small gardens immediately to the north of Love Lane in the City of London. Love Lane is so called as there is where you went to find love, but it came at a price….easier than travelling to Brentford though….
The monument to the Bard acknowledges the First Folio of his works, put together by his friends and fellow actors John Hemmings and Henry Condell. The First Folio contains thirty-six of Shakespeare’s plays and is the first attempt to collect his works into a single volume. Condell and Hemmings driving force was to place their friend at the forefront of English writers, although Shakespeare’s stock was high and he died a well off man, his status as a dramatist and writer needed to be enhanced.
One of the Bard’s collaborators was George Wilkins, an Elizabethan hardnut and headcase. He worked as a tavern landlord and brothel keeper, so this is probably how Shakespeare got to meet him. Records show the riotous Wilkins was bound over to keep the peace by Clerkenwell magistrates. Charles Nicholl’s book makes reference to the play Pericles being mainly Wilkins work and therefore Condell and Hemmings omitted it from the First Folio. It appeared in 1664 in the Third Folio. Wilkins is viewed as a writer of considerable bite. His play The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, which is based on a real-life murder case, was performed by Shakespeare’s company around 1606.
London’s population in 1600 was around 200,000 dwarfing the next largest city in England, Norwich which was home to a mere 20,000. Shakespeare was a member of three theatrical companies, Lord Leicester’s Men, The Chamberlain’s Men and The Kings Men. These companies were exclusively male. They would have included Richard Burbage, the son of James Burbage, and Henry Condell amongst others. Connections, collaborations and success led to Shakespeare becoming a wealthy businessman. Critics may highlight a degree of anti-Semitism in the works. Clearly Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, is a stereotypical Jew which can be considered lazy caricature or pandering to the audience who blamed the Jews for killing Jesus. Yet Shylock appears to be a role that commands some sympathy with the audience with the mixed up scheming of the protagonists, Bassanio and Antonio. Other lines in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Much Ado About Nothing have unflattering references, plus Macbeth has one of the witches mixing a cauldron up thus;
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf, Witch's mummy, maw and gulf Of the ravined salt sea shark, Root of hemlock digged i'the dark, Liver of blaspheming Jew, Gall of goat, and slips of yew Slivered in the moon's eclipse, Nose of Turk, and Tartar's lips . . .
These must be a sensitive issue for thespians to deal with and awkward for Shakespeare scholars and admirers to explain. But, as can be seen, dragons, fish, animals, Turks and Tartars are also thrown into the mix….
Shakespeare strikes me as an empathetic man, clearly a liberal, progressive and, it would appear smitten with dark skinned women. The London of four hundred years ago would have had a cosmopolitan feel, not quite like today, however, for the times, and compared to most other places in Elizabethan England, it would have been titillating. Whether Shakespeare would have been an advocate for Brexit or Remain is for debate….there is an element of populism in his work and perhaps that is why it is still being read today.
On compiling this piece I have had to read a fair bit of Shakespeare. Timon of Athens stands out as a favourite. Timon has it all. Wealth, power, family, adoration, generosity which he forgoes to live a simple life isolate in the wild. He has become a victim of his own good nature and dies never knowing how much he is loved….To gain an understanding of the Bard’s plays, the Charles & Mary Lamb 1807 compilation of condensed versions is a good place to begin. Also some of the illustrated adaptations for children help to ease one in. Plus, parking your cab and taking a stroll around the Globe theatre on the south-side of the Thames taking in the surrounding area will whet one’s appetite for some Bardism.
Thanks are due to my good friend, Simon Müller, actor, Shakespearean scholar and Globe Theatre Education Practitioner for his guidance on this article. And as for the earring? Well apparently all fashionable men about town would have them……