Shakespeare's London

A Guided Tour of Shakespeare's London

Portrait of Shakespeare Performing for the Queen. Getty Images

As a young man, William Shakespeare left the comforts of his home town, Stratford-upon-Avon, and set off to establish a new career in London ... and thank goodness he did! Upon arrival, London would have been very different to the small market town that he grew up in.

So let's slip back in time and take a guided tour around Shakespeare's London.

Get Your Bearings in Shakespeare's London

During Elizabeth’s reign the population grew to around 200,000 but London was a very small world and the theatrical community an even smaller one.

Everyone knew everyone else.

The cities prosperity grew due to the River Thames which acted as a harbor where goods could be imported and exported. The river was also a source of food; Oysters were a poor man’s food and were eaten routinely. The river was also a sewer and having no embankments at the time it would regularly flood during the spring, this informed the reconstruction of The Globe in 1598-9.

The city was not lit at night which created an eerie and dangerous atmosphere. There were no patrolling police officers and although Blackfriars was considered to be a ‘nice’ area, it was still not a safe place to be at night. Shoreditch was another world entirely, with a lower class of people who were criminally inclined and a high concentration of theatre goers and pleasure seekers. This is where Sir John Falstaff hails from in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.

The area around Southwark, close to Bankside where Shakespeare would eventually site The Globe was where you would find much of the contemporary entertainment.

Recently archaeologists discovered the remains of bear pits and a layer of hazelnut shells. Hazelnuts were like our modern equivalent of popcorn.

A Night Out in Shakespeare's London

Elizabethan London was a cultural hub, hosting plays, bull and bear baiting and cockfighting. Bear baiting was even enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth.

The bear was tethered to a post in the middle of a ring. The bear was only able to move a short distance. Dogs would then come and taunt the bear as the bear had nowhere else to go. This is where the phrase at the end of my tether comes from; the frustration and agony of not being able to escape a situation.

Shakespeare regularly refers to bear baiting in his plays using it as a metaphor for the situations the characters are in. When Macbeth is cornered in Dunsinane castle he says;  “They have tied me to the stake; I cannot fly...but bearlike I must fight the course” (Act 5, Scene 7).

Cockfighting took place in tiny round theaters called ‘cockpits’. The audience would place bets on the birds, sometimes large sums of money would change hands and they would sit around cheering their chosen bird on. The Chorus in Henry V asks “Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” (Act 1, Prologue)

It was very cheap to attend the theater and the poor could pay just a penny to go and watch a play. They were known as ‘the groundlings’ and they would stand on the ground throughout the play. Such was the demand for theaters and plays that by 1614 there were sixteen theaters for a relatively small population of 200,000.

Elizabethan Londoners

London was very ethnically mixed even then; there was a large Jewish community and several thousand Black people, some of whom were refugees who had been liberated from Slavery by the Spanish Galleys. A significant number of the black community were valued as servants, musicians, dancers and entertainers.

However in 1601, there was discontent about the number of immigrants threatening the accepted British lifestyle and there was a move to have all black people deported.

In 1600 an embassy from Morocco came to London and intrigued the people with their Moorish ways. Shakespeare’s Othello written in 1602 reflects the discussions and arguments around race and culture which would have taken place at the time.

Shakespeare’s London would have drastically contrasted to the rural town of Stratford upon Avon where he grew up.

It would have seemed very vibrant and exciting, full of entertainment but also with the threat of foreboding and violence that came with big crowds being whipped up into a frenzy with the various forms of entertainment there, not to mention the strong smell from the sewage, poor hygiene and the threat of disease.

However, Shakespeare became famous in London and his influence and popularity there must have allowed him access to much of the city.

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Jamieson, Lee. "Shakespeare's London." ThoughtCo, Apr. 4, 2016, Jamieson, Lee. (2016, April 4). Shakespeare's London. Retrieved from Jamieson, Lee. "Shakespeare's London." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 24, 2017).