Panorama of London and the Thames, showing the Tower and the church of St. Olave. The Tower is mentioned in Shakespeare’s work more frequently than any other building.
It was an explosion of human energy. He had to reach it. Scholars and biographers have argued about the exact date of his arrival, but his destination was not in doubt. Others had made the journey from Stratford to London in the same period. His contemporary Richard Field had gone from the King’s New School to be enrolled as an apprentice. Roger Lock, son of John Lock the glover, had also taken up an apprenticeship in the city. Richard Quiney became a London merchant, as did his cousin John Sadler. Another native of Stratford, John Lane, journeyed from London to the Levant on a merchant ship. They may all have agreed that “Home-keeping youth, haue euer homely wits” (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 2).
In Shakespeare’s plays, too, young men often chafe and complain at being kept “rustically at home”; they wish to speed away and be free, on the wind of their instinct and ambition. Goethe once wrote that “in stillness talent forms itself, but character [is created] in the great current of the world.” The case of William Shakespeare, however, is singular in more than one sense. None of his contemporaries made their departures from wives or children. It was in fact almost unprecedented for a young man to leave behind his young family. It was unusual even in aristocratic households. It suggests, at the very least, strong determination and single-mindedness on Shakespeare’s part. He had to leave.
He was a very practical person. So it seems unlikely that he abandoned his family in some indeterminate or undetermined way. It is also improbable that he decided to seek his fortune in London on the basis of some irrational impulse. Some have suggested that he was fleeing from a bad or forced marriage. There is no evidence for this. Nevertheless he can hardly have been part of a completely successful or happy marriage, for the very good reason that he would not then have considered leaving it. What contented husband would have left his wife and children for an unknown future in an unknown city? It is the merest common sense, then, to imagine him in some respects restless or dissatisfied. Some force greater than familial love drove him onward. He left with a plan, and a purpose. He may conceivably have been accepting an invitation from a group of players, and the prospects of making money as a player were greater than those currently available for a provincial lawyer’s clerk. It was soon commonly reported of players that some “have gone to London very meanly and have come in time to be exceeding wealthy.”1 If the best means of supporting his young family were to be found in London, then to London he must go. In the lives of great men and women, however, there is a pattern of destiny. Time and place seem in some strange way to shape themselves around them as they move forward. There would be no Shakespeare without London. Some oblique or inward recognition of that fact spurred his determination. In hisObservations on Translating Shakespeare, Boris Pasternak wrote that at this time Shakespeare was “led by a definite star which he trusted absolutely.” That is another way of putting it.
James Joyce noted that “banishment from the heart, banishment from home” is a dominant motif in Shakespeare’s drama. The perception may better fit Joyce’s own exilic status, but it has an authentic note. Shakespeare’s “star” may have led him from home, but it would still be natural to look back at what had been lost. Joyce could only write about Dublin after he had left it. Did Shakespeare have a similar relation to the fields and forests of Arden?
There were two roads to London. The shorter route would have taken him through Oxford and High Wycombe; the other arrived in the capital by way of Banbury and Aylesbury. John Aubrey connects him with a small village on a side-road of the Oxford route. In Grendon Underwood, the dramatist is supposed to have found the model for Dogberry. But any talk of “models” is misplaced. Shakespeare would in subsequent years, however, become thoroughly familiar with the wooded regions and ridges of the Chilterns, the valley of the Great Ouse, the villages and market towns that characterise these journeys. The modern roads follow much the same path, through a transformed landscape.
As sensible as Shakespeare was, he would have set out in late spring or early summer. It was good travelling weather. He might have gone in company, as a safeguard against thieves, or travelled with the Stratford—London “carriers.” The principal one of these, William Greenaway, was a neighbour in Henley Street; on his pack-horses he took cheese and brawn, lamb-skins and linseed oil, woollen shirts and hose, to the capital, where he exchanged them for city goods such as spices and silverware. The journey by foot lasted for four days; by horse it took only two.
And then, as Shakespeare approached the city, he saw the pall of smoke. He heard it, a confused roar striated with bells. He smelled it, too. The distinct odour of London penetrated some twenty-five miles on all sides. One route took him to the north by way of Highgate, but the more direct led him into the heart of the capital. It passed the hamlet of Shepherd’s Bush and the gravel pits at Kensington, crossing the Westburne brook and the Maryburne brook, until it reached the hanging-tree of Tyburn. Here the road parted, one path going towards Westminster and the other towards the City itself. If Shakespeare had chosen the City route, as is most likely, he travelled down the Oxford Road to the church and village of St. Giles-in-the-Fields. It was his first sight of the London suburbs or in the words of John Stow’s Survey of London, published in 1598, here “have ye many fair houses builded, and lodgings for Gentlemen, Innes for Travellers, and such like, up almost (for it lacketh but little) to St. Giles in the Fields.” But the suburbs also had a reputation for lawlessness where “a great number of dissolute, loose, and insolent people harboured in such and the lyke noysom and disorderly houses, as namely poor cottages, and habitacions of beggars and people without trade, stables, inns, alehouses, taverns, garden-houses converted to dwellings, ordinaries, dicyng houses, bowling-allies and brothel houses.”2 The young Shakespeare had never seen anything like it before; he must have found it, in the phrase Charlotte Bronte used when she first entered the City, deeply exciting. Then onwards towards the bars of Holborn, past straggling lines of shops and tenements, yards and inns, and towards the terrible prison of Newgate. This was the gateway of London, “the floure of cities alle.”
A traveller entering the city for the first time could not help but be profoundly moved or disturbed by the experience. It assaulted all of the senses with its stridency and vigour. It was a vortex of energy. It was voracious. The traveller was surrounded by street-traders or by merchants beseeching him to buy; he was hustled and jostled. It was a city of continuous noise—of argument, of conflict, of street-selling, of salutations such as “God ye good morrow” and “God ye good den”—and more often than not it smelled terribly of dung and offal and human labour. Some of the phrases of the streets are deeply redolent of London life—“goe too you are a whore of your tung,” and “as much worth as a piss in the Thames.” If you were “snout-fair” you were good-looking, and to have sex was “to occupy.” There were merchants standing in the doorways of their shops, lounging about, picking their teeth; their wives were inside, sitting on joint-stools, ready to bargain with the customers. Apprentices stood outside the workshops of their masters, calling out to passers-by. Householders, as often as not, took up position on their doorsteps where they might trade gossip or insults with their neighbours. There was no privacy in the modern sense of that word.
There were rows of shops, all in one vicinity selling the same limited range of goods—cheeses, pickles, gloves, spices. There were dimly lit basements, entered by stone steps from the street, where sacks of corn or malt were stacked up for sale. There were old women crouched upon the ground with parcels of nuts, or withered vegetables, spread out around them. There were street-sellers with their goods piled high on wooden trays hung about their necks. There seemed to be endless numbers of men carrying sacks and burdens on their backs, weaving through the crowds that packed the narrow streets. The children were busily at work alongside the adults, too, wheeling barrows or calling out for trade. People ate pies or small roasted birds as they walked, throwing the bones of the thrush into the roadway. There were literally hundreds of ballad-sellers, “singing men” or “singing women” who stood at street-corners or on barrels to advertise their wares. There were alleys that seemed to lead nowhere, ruinous gates and tenements encroaching upon the streets, sudden flights of steps, gaping holes and rivulets of filth and garbage.
It was already an ancient place, inhabited for more than fifteen hundred years, and it savoured of age and decay. John Stow loved to survey the ruins of ancient times in the sixteenth-century streets through which he walked; in shape and texture it was still the medieval city, with the old walls and gatehouses, chapels and barns. The sites of the monasteries and priories, some of them dismantled as a result of Henry’s “dissolution” but others put to new use, were still marked out as precincts and liberties. The palace of the Savoy, linked with the French wars of Edward III, survived. The Earl of Warwick’s house, in Dowgate between Walbrook and the Thames, still stood. The Tower of London, to which Shakespeare adverted more than to any other edifice in his plays, still watched over the city. Stone House in Lombard Street was known as King John’s House. Crosby Hall, where Richard III was supposed to have accepted the crown of England, endured. It was only to be expected that Shakespeare’s history plays would be imagined within the very heart of the city where he lived and worked.
But the miracle of late sixteenth-century London lay in the fact that it was renewing itself. Its vigour and energy came from a fresh access of youthfulness. It has been estimated that half of the urban population was under the age of twenty years. This is what rendered it so strident, so tough, so excitable. Never again would it be so young. Apprentices made up 10 per cent of its population, and apprentices were known for their high spirits and for their occasional tendency towards violence. Londoners were often compared to a swarm of bees, quick to congregate and to act in instinctive union.
There is another aspect to this youthful city. The average expectancy of life in the parishes of London, rich or poor, was very low. An early sixteenth-century diarist noted that he was “growing towards the age of forty, at the which year begins the first part of the old man’s age.”3 The expectation of a relatively short life must have affected the conduct and attitude of many Londoners. They were consigned to a short burst of existence with the evidence of disease and mortality all around them. Their experience was all the more vital and intense. This is the proper context for the growth of drama. Elizabethan Londoners acquired, or amassed, experience with more eagerness and expedition. They were quicker, sharper, more colourful, than their contemporaries elsewhere in the kingdom. The reign of Elizabeth has often been seen as that of an ageing monarch surrounded by foolish and headstrong boys; strange though it may seem, it is part of an authentic historical picture. But the boys—and girls—were also on the streets of London, buying and selling, conversing and fighting.
That is why this is properly seen as the age of the adventurer and the projector, the dreamer of vast schemes. The formation of joint stock companies and the promotion of colonialist enterprises, the voyages of Martin Frobisher and Francis Drake, were all part of the same quickening energy and activity. It was a young man’s world in which aspiration and ambition might lead anywhere and everywhere. This was where Shakespeare belonged.