Visitors to London registered their surprise or disapproval at the level of intimacy between the sexes. Erasmus mentions that “wherever you come, you are received with a kiss by all; when you take your leave, you are dismissed with kisses.”1 It was customary, at the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century, for women to wear dresses in public that exposed their breasts.
The proximity of brothels and playhouses was always a matter for comment among contemporary moralists; they were both erected beyond the strict jurisdiction of the city, outside the walls or on the south bank, but there was a closer connection. The owners of the playhouses, the respected Henslowe and Alleyn among them, were also the owners of brothels. Alleyn’s wife was paraded in an open cart because of her connection with one such place of assignation. There were over one hundred bawdy-houses in the suburbs, and Shakespeare mentions the sign of the blind Cupid over their doors. Near the theatres, too, were “garden walks” and “garden alleys” where prostitutes gathered. The young women came from all over England. Contemporary legal documents reveal that two young girls, contemporaries of Shakespeare, had come from Stratford-upon-Avon to find an illicit income. There is a clear association between play-going and sexual indulgence, perhaps because both represented a temporary relief from the usual world. The theatre and the brothel both offered a release from conventional ethics and social morality. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with bawdy and sexual innuendo. He was catering to the tastes of a large section of the crowd.
Of disease, there was no end. The playhouses were closed down at the time of plague, precisely because they were considered to be the prime agent of infection. Waves of epidemic illness swept away the urban crowd in the most terrible ways. In 1593 more than 14 per cent of the population died of plague, and twice that number were infected. Sex and disease were closely associated. The plague was ascribed by some to “sodomitical sins.”2 Plague was also associated with the characteristic smell of the city, so that London became an organism of death as well as depravity. Few could ever have been wholly well. Mortality and anxiety were part of the air that the citizens breathed. The frontispiece of a production by Thomas Dekker in 1606 reads as The Seven Deadlie Sinns of London: Drawn in seven severall Coaches, Through the seven severall Gates of the Citie. All of Shakespeare’s plays allude to disease in one or other of its myriad forms, to agues and fevers, to palsy and sweating-sickness. In his drama, the notion of infection is associated with breathing itself.
The poor and the vagrant, also, have always been part of London’s life. They are the shadow that the city casts. In this period they comprised some 14 per cent of the population. There were the labouring poor who eked out their livings as porters or sweepers or water-bearers. There were the “sturdy beggars” who as often as not were whipped out of the city; a second or third appearance would incur the penalty of death. There were the masterless men who earned a small living by plastering or building or other casual trades. There were the destitute who lived off the parish and begged in the streets. These are “the famisht beggers” in Richard III (3374) who are “wearie of their Hues.” Shakespeare was acutely aware of this group of the dispossessed who appear, appropriately enough, in the margins of his plays; but, unlike the pamphleteers and the divines, he did not launch any great invectives against the conditions of the time. The parlous conditions of the poorer sort emerge fitfully in Coriolanus, for example, but without any great expressions either of pity or contumely.
The presence of these outcasts, who had little or nothing to lose, encouraged crime and violence on a large scale. It has been estimated that there were thirty-five serious disturbances or riots in the city between 1581 and 1602. There were food riots, riots between apprentices and the gentlemen of the Inns of Court, threats of riots against immigrants or “aliens.” In the first part of Henry IV the king blames “moody beggars staruing for a time” for causing “pell-mell hauocke and confusion” (2578). Of course in a city where male citizens customarily carried daggers or rapiers, apprentices had knives, and females were armed with bodkins or long pins, there was a constant danger of violence. Daggers were generally worn on the right hip. Shakespeare would have carried a rapier or a broadsword as a matter of habit. Cases of violent assault, brought before one of the under-sheriffs, were as common as cases of theft or over-pricing. There were criminal gangs, difficult to distinguish from gangs of disbanded soldiers, threatening the stability of certain areas of the city such as the Mint by the Tower and the Clink in Southwark.
In the course of his life Shakespeare came to know this city very well. He resided at various times in Bishopsgate, in Shoreditch, in Southwark and in Blackfriars. Well known to his neighbours and fellow parishioners, and recognisable by sight to the citizens who crowded the public theatres, he was in no sense an anonymous person. He knew the bookshops of St. Paul’s Churchyard and Paternoster Row; the title pages of his plays published in quarto list some sixteen different premises, from the sign of the Fox near St. Austin’s Gate to the sign of the White Hart in Fleet Street. He knew the taverns, where Rhenish and Gascony wines were sold, and the inns where beers and ales were purveyed. He knew the eating houses, or banqueting houses, such as the Oliphant in Southwark and Marco Lucchese’s in Hart Street. He knew the Royal Exchange, where free concerts were held on Sunday afternoons in the summer. He knew the fields to the north of the walls, where wrestling and archery contests were held. He knew the woods that encircled the city and, when in his plays he arranged meetings in the woods outside the town, the majority of his audience would have thought of London’s retreats. He also became very well acquainted with the Thames in all of its moods. He crossed it continually, and it became his primary form of transport. It was shallower, and wider, than it is now. But in the stillness of the night it could distinctly be heard, rushing between its banks. “Tut, man, I mean thou’lt loose the flood, and in loosing the flood, loose thy voyage.” So speaks Panthino in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (607-8). Shakespeare did not need to address London directly in his work; it is the rough cradle of all his drama.