Shakespeare was born five years after the coronation of Elizabeth I, and much of his life was spent within the constraints and uncertainties of her highly individualistic reign. Her principal concern was always for the stability and solvency of the country (and of her own position), so that all the imperiousness and ingenuity of her character were dedicated to the avoidance of civil disturbance and external conflict. She feared disorder more than anything else, and fought only when it became absolutely necessary to do so. An unmarried queen also created an inherently unstable polity, especially when she created competing “favourites” at her court, but Elizabeth managed to thwart or divert a number of conspiracies against her throne. Her impatient and often indecisive rule lifted the horizons of the country. It was an age of exploration, of renewed commerce and of literature. In retrospect it has even been called the age of Shakespeare. There is no reason to assume, however, that Shakespeare himself either liked or admired her. As a child, of course, he was part of a quite different world.
Stratford lay on the north bank of the Avon. The river was the most familiar presence in a landscape filled with trees, with orchards and with gardens. When it was in flood, whether in summer or in winter, it could be heard in every street. When “Avon was up,” according to Leland, the people attempting a crossing “stood in jeopardy of life.” In the summer of 1588, for example, it rose 3 feet an hour continuously for eight hours. A prominent local gentleman, Sir Hugh Clopton, financed the building of the stone bridge that survives still. But the flooded river has another important memorial. No Elizabethan dramatist invokes the river more often than Shakespeare; and, of the fifty-nine separate references, twenty-six concern the river in flood.1 The river was part of his imagination. There is a particular and peculiar image in The Rape of Lucrece, where an eddy of water is forced back by the current in the same direction from which it came; the phenomenon can be observed from the eighteenth arch of the stone bridge2 at Stratford.
The bridge led by a walled causeway into Bridge Street, running through the middle of the town. It was part of a matrix of six or seven streets that supported 217 houses and two hundred families; the population of Stratford in the late sixteenth century has been estimated at approximately nineteen hundred. The streets themselves retained their medieval identity, as Sheep Street and Wood Street and Mill Lane still testify. Rother Street was named after the rother or local cattle that were sold there. Yet the majority of the houses were of relatively recent construction, having been erected in the fifteenth century by the close-timbered method. The timber was oak, felled in the adjacent forest, and the wooden frame was filled with the familiar wattle-and-daub. The foundations were of lias stone quarried in the neighbouring village of Wilmcote, from which Mary Arden came, and the roofs were of thatch. The windows were not glazed but were protected by thick wooden bars. These were natural and local dwellings in every sense.
It was a well-watered town with various streams or streamlets running through the streets, with adjacent wells and ponds as well as standing water and cess-pools. Two doors down from Shakespeare’s house was a smithy that made use of the water from a stream called the Mere. He was never very far from the sound of water. The streets of Stratford were wide enough for wagons to pass each other, yet not so wide that they were not pestered by dunghills and gutters, ditches and mud walls. They were “paved” or cobbled on each side, but anything might flow down the middle channel. They were also encroached upon by uncultivated land, marked by makeshift and shapeless roads.
Pigs, geese and ducks were not supposed to wander freely through the town but the presence of the pigs, in particular, was signalled by the numerous sties and yards in every street. There were many goodly houses, to use the expression of the day, but there were also hovels and tenements for the poorer sort, thatched barns for the storage of corn and many decayed outbuildings. There were stone crosses to show humankind the way; there was a pillory, stocks and a whipping post for those who defied the authority of the town’s governors, one of whom was Shakespeare’s father; there was also a gaol, a structure known as “the cage,” and a ducking stool. This was no Tudor idyll. The engravings of Stratford—of the mills and the market crosses, the church and the chapel—naturally display a world of stillness and of silence, populated by merchants or labourers in picturesque costume. The earliest photographs also show a world preternaturally solemn and still, the wide streets almost bare of human habitation. They do not evoke the pressing and chaotic life that was Shakespeare’s reality.
Each trade had its own place and station. Pigs were sold in Swine Street, and horses in Church Way; sellers of hides took their place at the cross in Rother Market, while the salters and sugarers put up their stalls in Corn Street. The ironmongers and ropers were to be found in Bridge Street, while the “fleshers” or butchers were at the top of Middle Row. There were various markets for corn, cattle and cloth. When Shakespeare returned to Stratford in later life, there was a butter and cheese market at the White Cross just outside his front door.
By four o’clock in the morning, the town had awakened; by five, the streets were filled with people. The traders and labourers breakfasted at eight, and took their dinner or nuncheon at noon; they finished their work at seven in the evening, at the end of a fourteen-hour day. The Statute of Artificers, however, promulgated in 1563, allowed one hour of sleep after the noonday meal. There were no holidays but the various holy days.
Many of the Stratford trades had been followed for centuries. A survey of occupations, from 1570 to 1630, shows that the town had twenty-three butchers, twenty weavers, sixteen shoemakers, fifteen bakers and fifteen carpenters.3 These were “primary” occupations; townspeople, such as Shakespeare’s own father, engaged in a variety of different trades. John Shakespeare’s principal occupation was that of glover, one of twenty-three in the town, but he also earned his living as a trader in wool, a money-lender and a maker of malt. The brewing and selling of ale was a speciality in Stratford; no fewer than sixty-seven households were involved in the trade.4
Yet underlying these trades, and the whole of the town’s economy, was the larger rhythm of the agricultural year with the February sowing and harrowing, the March pruning, the June haymaking, the reaping of August, the threshing of September and the pig-killing of November. There were horses and sheep and pigs and cattle and bees. There was tillage land and fallow land, meadow and pasture. “Again, sir, shal we sow the hade land with wheate?” a servant asks Justice Shallow in the second part of King Henry IV. “With red wheat, Dauy” (Part Two, 2704-5). Shakespeare evidently understood the language of the land.
In 1549 the Bishop of Worcester was obliged to cede his manorial rights over Stratford to John Dudley, Earl of Warwick; the town was in that sense secularised. In 1553 it was granted a charter whereby the erstwhile officers of the Guild of the Holy Cross became aldermen; fourteen townsmen were given this role, and out of their number a bailiff or mayor was to be elected. They in turn chose fourteen other “burgesses,” and together they comprised the town council.
They met in the old guildhall beside the chapel where their duties included the supervision of the bridge, the school and the chapel itself; the properties that once belonged to the guild were now used to garner income for the council. Although many regretted the demise of church authority, it represented a signal advance in local self-government. The bailiff and a chosen alderman acted as Justices of the Peace in place of the church court. There were two chamberlains and four constables, all appointed from this oligarchy of the more respectable townsmen. This was the world in which Shakespeare’s father flourished for a time; it was part of the fabric of Shakespeare’s childhood.
The stocks and the pillory of Stratford, not to mention the gaol and the ducking stool, afford good reason to believe that the way of life in the town itself was thoroughly supervised. It has become customary to describe the England of Elizabeth I as a “police state,” but that is an anachronism. Yet it was a world of strict and almost paternal discipline. It was in other words still governed by medieval prescription. There was a keen sense of the difference between social classes and of the power granted to those who owned land. These were principles observed faithfully by Shakespeare himself. It was a world of patronage and prerogative, of customary observance and strictly local justice. Anyone who spoke disrespectfully of a town officer, or who disobeyed a municipal order, was placed in the stocks for three days and three nights. No one could lodge a stranger without the mayor’s permission. No servant or apprentice could leave the house after nine in the evening. Bowling was permitted only at certain times. Woollen caps were to be worn on Sundays, and it was obligatory to attend church at least once a month. There were no secrets in Stratford; it was an open society in which everyone knew everybody else’s business, where marital or familial problems became the common gossip of the immediate neighbourhood. There was no notion of “private” life in any sense that would now be recognised. It is suggestive, therefore, that Shakespeare has often been credited with the invention of private identity within his dramas. He was keenly aware of its absence in the town of his birth.
It is generally assumed that the nature or atmosphere of the town did not alter in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and did not materially change until well into the nineteenth century, but this is incorrect. Changing agricultural methods brought their own problems and uncertainties; in particular the enclosure of common fields, and the intensive rearing of sheep, sent many labourers away from the land. There were more vagrants and landless workers in the streets of the town. In 1601 the overseers of Stratford remarked upon the presence of seven hundred poor people, and these would in large part comprise labourers coming from the surrounding countryside. The migration of the poor also increased underlying social tensions. Between 1590 and 1620 there was a rapid increase in “serious offences” tried at the county assize.5
The presence of the landless and unemployed exacerbated a problem that at the time seemed insoluble. How to prevent the poor from becoming ever more destitute? It was a period of rising prices. Sugar was 1s 4d a pound in 1586, 2s 2d in 1612. Barley was sold at 13s 13d a quarter in 1574, but by the mid-1590s this price had risen to £1 6s 8d. The increase of population also depressed the earnings of wage labourers. A mason was paid 1s 1d a day in 1570 but thirty years later, after a time of steeply rising prices, he was earning only 1s. These conditions were rendered ever more severe with a succession of four bad harvests after 1594; in the latter half of 1596, and the first months of 1597, there were many Stratford deaths that seem directly related to malnutrition. It was a time of famine. The mutinous citizens of Coriolanus, “in hunger for Bread” (21), were not some historical fantasy.
Yet as the poor were reduced to the level of subsistence, or worse, yeomen and landowners became steadily richer. The growing population, and the demand for wool in particular, favoured land speculation on a large scale. It was a means of making easy profit that Shakespeare himself enjoyed, and he can in fact be cited as a major beneficiary of the economic change that proved so disadvantageous to the labouring poor. He was not in the least sentimental about such matters, and arranged his finances with the same business-like acumen that he applied to his dramatic career. But he saw what was happening.
The nature of the new secular economy was becoming increasingly clear, in any case, and many studies have been devoted to Shakespeare’s expression of the change from medieval to early modern England. What happens when old concepts of faith and authority are usurped, when old ties of patronage and obligation are sundered? It is the transition from Lear to Goneril and Regan, from Duncan to Macbeth. There also emerged a disparity between polite and popular traditions that grew ever more pronounced; Shakespeare was perhaps the last English dramatist to reconcile the two cultures.