The Spirit of the Time Shall Teach Me Speed

The city was expanding quickly. It lured both the poor and the wealthy, the immigrant and the agricultural labourer. The aspiring youth of the country came to the Inns of Court, while the gentry haunted the legal courts and royal court of Westminster. The London “season,” for gentry and nobility, really only developed between 1590 and 1620. But there were also more beggars in London than in the rest of the country combined. The city was in a ferment of building and rebuilding, with tenements being erected on any and every vacant spot or spare piece of land. Proclamations of 1580 and 1593 attempted to halt the spread of new construction, but they might as well have tried to halt the tides. Houses and hovels were built away from the streets and the alleys, in gardens or in courtyards, and existing houses were divided up into smaller and smaller dwellings. The graveyards had houses built upon them. A population of approximately fifty thousand in 1520 had reached two hundred thousand by 1600. The shock of the new, for the young Shakespeare, was in part the shock of great numbers of people huddled together in a vast effusion of life.

That is why the city was pushing westward and eastward, too, beyond the city walls. The road between London and Westminster was as busy as the streets within the City, filled with litters and hackney coaches, carts and drays, wagons and pack-horses and four-wheeled carriages called “caroches.” Shakespeare may have been surprised by the narrowness of some of these streets that had not been built for the access of new traffic: the principal streets of Stratford were wider.

London was unique. It was the only city of its kind, and of its size, in England. So there grew a unique form of self-awareness among Londoners. It would be absurd to suppose some sudden change of consciousness—most citizens were too busy to be reflective in that manner—but there was an instinctive awareness that they were engaged in forms of life that had no real precedent. This was no longer a medieval city. It had suffered a sea-change. It was a new kind of thing, an urban mass comprised of people who related to each other in specifically urban ways. It is of vital consequence in the context of Shakespeare’s plays.

The city created, and existed upon, confusion. Thomas Dekker, in The Honest Whore, asked: “Is change strange? ’Tis not the fashion unless it alter …” The rise of the gentry and the merchant class steadily eroded the position and privileges of the old nobility. Kinship counted for less, and civic society for more; privately sworn obedience gave way to more impersonal bonds. It has been described as the transition from a “lineage society” to a “civil society.”

Costume is of the utmost significance in determining the quality of the Elizabethan urban world. Appearance indicated status and position as well as wealth. The emphasis among all groups of citizens—apart, that is, from the Puritan elect and the more staid members of the merchant aristocracy—was upon brightness or originality of colour and upon the wealth of minute detail lavished upon each article. One fashion was that of wearing a very large rose, made of silk, on each shoe. The nature of your dress also indicated the nature of your profession. Even street-sellers dressed in the clothing that would signify their role. Prostitutes made use of blue starch to advertise their trade. Apprentices wore blue gowns in winter and blue cloaks in summer; they were also obliged to wear blue breeches, stockings of white cloth and flat caps. Beggars and vagrants dressed in a way that would elicit pity and alms. In the theatres themselves infinitely more money was spent on costumes than on hiring playwrights or actors. It was a young city in this sense, too. More and more significantly the city itself became a form of theatre. London was a forcing house for dramatic improvisation and theatrical performance. It encompassed the ritual recantation of the traitor at the scaffold and the parade of the merchants in the Royal Exchange. It was the world of Shakespeare.

The city became the home of the pageant, in which all the spectacle and colour of the urban world were on display. On these festival occasions, arches and fountains were especially built, thereby turning London into a piece of moving scenery; the members of the various guilds and the aldermen, the knights and the merchants, dressed in their appropriate costume and were accompanied by ensigns and bannerets. There were platforms and stages upon which tableaux were performed. There was no real distinction between those who participated in, and those who watched, the moving displays. It was a piece of intense theatricality in which life and art were lit by the same pure, bright flame. It was also a means of expressing the power and wealth of the city. In the same spirit an historian has noted, of Elizabethan style, that “it was magnificent by design and saw magnificence the sum of all virtues” with “a glorious ostentation of random craftsmanship” that endlessly diverts: “it never rests; it demands response and elicits pleasure; there is no concession to order or to simplicity.”1 It might in part be a definition of Shakespeare’s own art. The predilection was for bold colour, and intricate pattern, all designed to elicit wonder or amazement. These were also the characteristics attributed to Shakespearian drama. In any one period, all the manifestations of a culture are of a piece.

This sense of magnificence was particularly pertinent to royalty. Elizabeth I declared that “we Princes are set as it were upon stages in the sight and view of the world,” an opinion echoed by Mary Queen of Scots who at her trial explained to her judges that “the theatre of the world is wider than the realm of England.” Shakespeare, with sure dramatic instinct, populated his stage with monarchs and courtiers. It is the world of his history plays, where ritual and ceremonial play so large a part. But there are surely risks in such an enterprise. A player can be a king, or a queen. What if the sovereign herself were no more than a player? It is a potentially delicate question that he broaches in Richard II and Richard III.

As the Church became desacralised, its candles and its images removed, so urban society became more profoundly ritualistic and spectacular. This is of the utmost importance for any understanding of Shakespeare’s genius. He thrived in a city where dramatic spectacle became the primary means of understanding reality. The pulpit just outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, known as Paul’s Cross, was defined as “the very stage of this land”2 where the preacher played his part, and John Donne declared that “this City is a great Theatre.” An early dramatist, Edward Sharpham, echoed this sentiment with his observation that “the Cittie is a Commedie, both in partes and in apparel, and your Gallants are the Actors.”3 Just as in more recent times New York has become a cinematic city, known primarily through the images in film and television, so London was the first theatrical city. The success of the drama in London, whether presented at the Globe or at the Curtain, had no parallel in any other European capital. From the production in 1581 of Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London, there were innumerable plays that used the city as their setting.

The London playhouse was a new kind of building, erected for the first time in this period. People watched the actors in order to learn how to behave, how to speak and how to bow; the audience applauded individual speeches. The drama was also used as a means of conveying a social or political message to those assembled. A preacher complained that “plays are grown nowadays into such high request, as that some profane persons affirm they can learn as much both for edifying and example at a play, as at a sermon.”4 For the majority of the English, the drama of the mystery plays and the morality plays had until recent times been the major vehicle for spiritual instruction and doctrinal fable. It still retained its authority as an instructor. It was not simply an entertainment in the modern sense.

There was a profound recognition of life as a play. Jaques’s metaphor, “All the world’s a stage …” in As You Like It, was already a Renaissance commonplace. In sixteenth-century London, however, the truism acquired a more powerful resonance. For some the conflation of life and theatre was a source of comedy and high spirits; for others, like the Duchess of Malfi in Webster’s melodrama, it provoked sadness rather than mirth. Whatever its precise connotation, it consorted with what may be called the London vision. This has a direct bearing on Shakespeare’s drama. If life was a play, then what was a play but heightened life? The action on stage might be artificial, and might even draw attention to its artificiality, but it was still deeply authentic.

What were the characteristics of this London vision? It combined mockery and satire, discontinuity and change. It included cruelty and spectacle, where bears were tied to the stake and baited until death. It was mixed and variable, conflating satire and tragedy, melodrama and burlesque. It was the context for what Voltaire described as “les farces monstrueuses” of Shakespeare. It often depended upon coincidence and chance encounter. It was interested in the behaviour of crowds. It was bright and garish. It jostled for attention: Walt Whitman believed that Shakespeare “painted too intensely.” It was also implicitly egalitarian. Once the actors had taken off the robes of king or common soldier, all were equal. On the stage itself the queen shared the same space—had the same presence—as the clown. As Hazlitt said at a later date, “it raises the great, the remote, and the possible to an equality with the real, the little and the near.” This was Shakespeare’s experience of the city.

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