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Shakespeare's London

The River Thames, London
The River Thames, London
Shakespeare's London was a very small world, and the theatrical world within that even smaller. Everyone knew everyone.

Physically the city was growing beyond its original fortifications – during Elizabeth's reign the population would grow to around 200,000 - and was increasingly becoming a place of interest for visitors from abroad.

London's prosperity was linked to the River Thames. The Thames was a harbor, a source of food – including the oysters that in Elizabethan days were considered a poor man's dish – a transport route for goods inland and out, London's principle source of water and also its sewer. At that time no embankments existed and so the river would routinely flood during the spring – a fact of life that would later inform the reconstruction of The Globe theatre in 1598-9.

The Thames would from time to time freeze over in winter – as in 1607 - creating an impromptu skating rink and talking point for the locals, where Londoners would promenade and browse market stalls.

If one were to close one's eyes somewhere near the Thames back in the 1500s (and not wake up minus your purse and with a nasty headache) the sounds you would hear – the gentle wash of boats breaking upon the shore, the banter and bustle of commerce etc - might be more familiar from present day Venice than modern day London.

This was a city without street lamps or a patrolling police force promising to "protect and serve." The well-to-do areas like Blackfriars could be dangerous enough on a dark of night. Areas beyond the city walls like Shoreditch were where the low life and more criminally inclined were more densely concentrated, attracted by the huge numbers of reveling theatregoers. This is the world so evocatively created in Shakespeare's "Henry IV" Parts 1 & 2. This is Cheapside, the netherworld of one of Shakespeare's best-known characters, Sir John Falstaff.

The Melting Pot

London was becoming more ethnically mixed. The Jewish community centered at that time on Houndsditch at the end of Bishopsgate, and there were probably several thousand black people in the city – a significant minority of often highly treasured workers, and servants as well as musicians, dancers and entertainers.

The uneasy mix of cultures, and the heightened English fear of things unfamiliar and foreign, would come to a head in 1601 when the increase in the numbers of black people began to result in bad feeling and prejudice from the locals. These people were generally slaves liberated from Spanish galleys (refugees and asylum seekers in our modern day parlance). In 1601 the black population was officially designated a nuisance and there were even moves to have all black people deported.

Earlier in 1600 an embassy from Morocco had arrived in London for a short stay. The Ambassador's Moorish ways must have been just as perplexing and intriguing to the locals as the English climate, diet and local drinking songs were to the Moroccans.

Such events and their repercussions upon society as always would find themselves into Shakespeare's work, in this case "Othello," which was written around 1602.

Around this time the streets of London were also filling up with maimed veterans from the war in Ireland, forced to beg for a living around the fleshpots and theatres of the city.

Bright Lights

Mass entertainment might have started with the Greeks but it was no less popular with the Elizabethans. The area around Southwark, close to Bankside where Shakespeare would finally site The Globe, might be thought of as a kind of Elizabethan Mall or multiplex. Here, out of the jurisdiction of the city, could be found contemporary entertainment red in tooth and claw. Only recently archaeologists have discovered the remains of bear pits where bears and mastiffs would do battle to the death, and a thick layer of discarded hazelnut shells – the Elizabethan's equivalent of popcorn. Bull baiting would also have taken place here, while the inns and brothels hereabouts were plentiful and rowdy.

The contrast between the rural and urban existence is key to much of Shakespeare's works. The clear divisions that he saw around him every day – the city and the land, the Catholic and the Protestant - and which he found himself for the most part sandwiched in between will manifest themselves in his works time and time again.

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UK map London

Other Locations

Blackfriars, LondonBlackfriars, London

Southwark, LondonSouthwark, London

The Oxford Arms near Bishopsgate, London, circa 1900Shoreditch, London

exterior of St Helens, Bishopsgate, London, circa 1900Bishopsgate, London

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