Everyday Life in Elizabethan and Jacobean London
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Everyday Life in Shakespeare's London
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008
London in 1600 was one of the great crossroads of the world. From all the regions of Britain and from lands across the seas, people crowded into the city to conduct business, find work (see the glossary of common occupations, below), gain standing at the royal court, or entertain themselves or others. Greater London at that time had more than 200,000 residents, many of them living beyond the boundaries of the original walled city founded as Londinium by the Romans when they arrived in southeastern Britain in AD 43.
William Shakespeare made London his second home between the late 1580's and 1612. He shared the narrow thoroughfares with sundry animals—such as dogs, cats, pigs, and ducks—and with a motley swatch of humanity: milkmaids, blacksmiths, jugglers, sailors, chimney sweeps, wheelwrights, magicians, stool-makers, government spies, perfumed ladies, bejeweled gentlemen—and, on occasion, perhaps even the queen herself traveling with an entourage of carriages. Here and there he would cross paths with a prince or a pickpocket—or push through a crowd gathered at a gallows for a hanging. From time to time, he would step around horse dung, a pile of ashes from last night’s supper fire, or, in years of plague, a wagon loading corpses.
The chief city official was the lord mayor, elected each year on Michaelmas Day (September 29) by a body known as Common Hall. This body consisted of members of livery companies, such as clothworkers, drapers, fish merchants, goldsmiths, grocers, haberdashers, ironmongers, mercers (dealers in textiles and dry goods), salters, skinners, and vintners. Sheriffs kept the peace, assisted by constables in sections of the city known as parishes. In each parish, citizens helped the constable maintain order by patrolling neighborhoods at night.
Shakespeare went to London to make his mark as a writer and actor, traveling back and forth between the city and the town of his birth, Stratford, about 90 miles to the northwest. The trip probably took two to four days by horseback or wagon along roads shared by cadgers, robbers, messengers, itinerant merchants, minstrels, farmers, and soldiers marching to or from service. Over the years, he rented lodging in various parts of London, usually not far from the Thames, the great river that rose in the Cotswold Hills in England’s western Midlands and snaked its way more than 200 miles southeastward to London and the sea.
The river was a vital artery in the city’s life, carrying rowboats, barges, and sailing ships on missions of commerce. After rainstorms, the river carried away human excrement and rotting food washing in from ditches, dung piles, cesspits, and streams. (Citizens emptied chamber pots into cesspits or ditches, or simply threw the contents out of windows or doors or into a stream crossing their property. They emptied containers from outdoor toilets the same way.) The river divided Greater London into northern and southern sections. Shakespeare lodged in more than half-a-dozen dwellings on both sides of the Thames in districts that included Bishopsgate, in the northern section, and Southwark, in the southern section.
London Bridge, constructed between 1176 and 1209, was the only causeway connecting the northern and southern sections, although boats were available to ferry travelers across the river. Shops on which dwellings were built lined both sides of the bridge. Above the traffic lane in the middle were passageways (resembling overpasses above modern highways) connecting buildings on one side of the bridge with those on the other. When approaching the wondrous span, Shakespeare would see a strange and frightening sight: the impaled heads of traitors atop an entranceway as a reminder to citizens that although they could cross the bridge they could not cross the royal government.
In Southwark, Shakespeare staged plays at the Globe Theatre, built in 1599 west of London Bridge in an area known as Bankside. The Globe was not the first playhouse in Southwark. Others constructed there before it were the Newington Butts Playhouse (1580), the Rose (circa 1587), and the Swan (1595).
Southwark was wild and raucous—a haven for drunks, prostitutes, con men, gamblers, and thieves. There were scores of inns and taverns. One was The Tabard Inn, made famous in the prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There were also bloodsport rings and arenas, where spectators paid to see cockfighting or snarling dogs attack chained bears or bulls. Queen Elizabeth was among the aficionados of bearbaiting and bullbaiting, as these brutal divertissements were called.
Shakespeare apparently passed no small portion of his time in taverns, as historical records and scenes in his plays suggest. There, he made the acquaintance of other playwrights, poets, and actors, all noted for their wit and learning. This brotherhood of ale and assonance included Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, George Peele, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Watson, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, and Edward Alleyn. They were a sometimes rowdy coterie. Jonson, for example, had been accused of murder after dueling to the death with an actor; he was exonerated. Marlowe and Watson had also been accused of murder, notes Stephen Greenblatt in his book Will in the World.
Watson . . . intervened in a street brawl between Marlowe and an innkeeper’s son named William Bradley. The brawl, on Hog Lane, near the Theatre [playhouse] and the Curtain [playhouse], ended with Watson’s sword stuck six inches into Bradley’s chest. Watson and Marlowe were both arrested on suspicion of murder but were eventually released, on grounds of self-defense. (201)Marlowe, an extraordinarily gifted writer, died in a brawl at an inn, the Eleanor Bull house, in the London suburb of Deptford after suffering a dagger wound in or above his right eye. He was only 29.
Great Buys on the Following Items at Amazon.comGreene, a popular poet and playwright, was well educated, having obtained degrees at Oxford and Cambridge. However, he, too, was a rowdy fellow, known especially for overindulging in drink and food and keeping company with thieves, swindlers, and gamblers.
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Alleyn, an exceptionally talented actor, was also an exceptionally unscrupulous investor—at least by modern standards—for he was a part owner of a bearbaiting enterprise.
Shakespeare, of course, drew upon the lifestyle and social environment of all these men to shape the characters in his plays. He also borrowed plot lines and themes from their literary works. However, he generally did not imitate their reckless and dissolute behavior.
Besides members of the threatre community, Shakespeare also made the acquaintance of high and mighty courtiers, perhaps the better to promote himself and his writing. For Shakespeare was, after all, a businessman with a commodity to sell: literature. Among his noble acquaintances was Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton, a patron of writers and a court favorite of Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare dedicated two long poems, The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, to Wriothesley.
In 1602, the year before the death of Elizabeth and the accession of King James I, Shakespeare began lodging with Christopher and Mary Mountjoy, French Huguenots who lived north of the river in a section of London known as Cripplegate. Their home was on the corner of Silver Street and Monkwell Street (also known to local denizens as Mugwell or Muggle Street). Mr. Mountjoy, a London resident since 1572, made hats and wigs. At the Mountjoy residence, Shakespeare wrote with a quill dipped in ink and kept account of his money interests, namely a share in the ownership and the proceeds of the Globe and whatever other enterprises coaxed jingle from his pockets. He also rehearsed parts he performed in his own plays and the plays of others.
After his plays earned him widespread acclaim, he even staged them before Queen Elizabeth at the royal residence, Whitehall Palace. Falstaff, the bumbling braggart in Henry IV, Parts I and II, was a favorite character of hers. A popular but undocumented story maintains that Shakespeare wrote his play The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which Falstaff is the central character, expressly for the queen.
When Shakespeare ventured through the city on a typical morning, a goodly portion of the population—like the ever-tippling Falstaff in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II—was a bit schnockered, for ale and wine were more plentiful than potable water, available mostly from springs and wells in the open country crowding up against the city. Merry England was so named for a reason.
No doubt Shakespeare at times walked the streets for exercise or to allow the sights and sounds to inspire him. There was much to marvel at: flower gardens with marigolds, roses, delphiniums, lilacs, and lilies; the soaring spires, ornate facades, and stained glass of more than 100 churches; sailing ships—including mighty, three-masted merchant vessels heavily armed against piracy—catching wind for trips to the Americas or the East Indies; the smoke of myriad coal and wood fires curling from chimneys; troops of proud marching soldiers. At times, though, the noises of the city—from rolling wheels, boisterous merchants, children at play, church bells, pounding hammers, hogs, sheep, cattle, grouchy dogs—could be irritating. Such was the racket after King James I acceded to the throne in 1603 that Thomas Dekker, another Elizabethan playwright and poet, was prompted to write the following in a pamphlet entitled “The Seven Deady Sins of London”:
Carts and coaches make such a thundering din as if the world ran on wheels; at every corner men, women, and children meet in such shoals [large groups] that posts are set up to strengthen the houses lest with jostling with one another they should shoulder them down. Besides, hammers are beating in one place, tubs hooping in another [placing of metal hoops around tubs or barrels to hold the staves together], pots clinking in a third, water-tankards running at tilt in a fourth. . . . Tradesmen, as if they were dancing galliards [a dance in triple time], are lusty at legs and never stand still. (Quoted in Brown 30)Before his trips home to Stratford, about 90 miles away, Shakespeare probably sometimes purchased gifts for his wife, his children, his brothers and sisters, or other relatives. He could buy perfume, wigs, jewelry, hats, shirts, shoes, breeches, feathers, ruffles, ribbons, silks, tweeds, wine, drugs, spices, toys, paper, ink, candles. Because the city had no zoning regulations, the shops selling these and other products stood alongside churches, inns, homes, workshops, or stables.
One of the shopping locales Shakespeare must have frequented was the Royal Exchange on Threadneedle Street on the north side of the river. It was a huge arcaded building with banking facilities and accommodations for more than 150 shops and thousands of businessmen and shoppers. The building surrounded a courtyard where 4,000 bankers and tradesmen conducted business.
Shakespeare could probably buy almost anything there—quills, inks, paper, and candles. One wonders how many times he came away from that site with the makings of a play tucked under his arm—and the rhythms iambic pentameter dancing through his head.
Brown, Ivor. Shakespeare and His World. New York: Henry Z. Walck, 1964.
Will in the World. New York: W.W. Norton,
Glossary of Common Occupations
Jobs in Shakespeare's Time or the Times When He Set His Plays
Actor.Man or boy who
performs in a stage play. In Shakespeare's time,
males acted both male and female parts in a