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Art & the Underworld: Life in Shakespeare’s London

Shakespeare’s London, The Globe Theatre, Shakespeare Walking Tour:


The Art & the Underworld walking tour covers the breadth of the south bank of the River Thames, beginning at Waterloo station and following the curve of the river to London City Hall. Along the way, the finest examples of London’s art scene are to be found: from the most modern - BBC television, graffiti on the Southbank, the Tate Modern contemporary art gallery - to the very foundations of the cultural life of the city, in the form of relics from the Tudor period when London grew to become a world-leading metropolis.


Those who produce culture are often on the margins of society, and that is also true in London. Indeed, the entire Southbank was once a lawless, dangerous place, with crime and vice never far away. It was into this London that England’s greatest cultural force, William Shakespeare, arrived in the late 16th century, and it was for the people of this area that he wrote his plays. Even today, vestiges of that time are still to be found, if only one seeks them out. Join us for a walking tour of Shakespeare’s London to discover the city as he found it.


Walking into London in Shakespeare’s time:


When beginning a walking tour of Shakespeare’s London, the obvious place to begin would be The Globe Theatre on the Southbank. After all, it is the representation of the mass appreciation of theatre that he essentially created, the greatest example of his prominence within the world of arts and culture. To do so, though, would be to set off on the wrong foot.


Better would be to begin the tour with a walk through the area of south London that the man himself first experienced, well before the Globe was built, to get a feel for the city as Shakespeare saw it when he first arrived in the 1590s.


As good a place to start that as any is at Winchester Palace. It is no longer to be found, but it appears on our walking tour and with good reason: it represents the growth of London and the outsider nature of many of those who populated the area and expanded the bounds of the city. It is not known when exactly Shakespeare moved to London. He disappears from records in his hometown of Warwick in 1585 and reappears in London in 1592, as a playwright.


The London of 1592 was considerably smaller than it is today, stretching from the Tower at the eastern end along the river as far as perhaps Covent Garden. It was expanding as migrants, such as Shakespeare, came to London in search of work and opportunity. When the City of London became too crowded, a suburb began to appear on the other side of the river, where Winchester Palace - once home to the Bishop of Winchester - stood. The second sight on the Cities Talking London walking tour, the Clink Prison, was at the centre of this new area, which was known as the Liberty of the Clink.


Shakespeare’s London walking tour


This area stood outside of the jurisdiction of the City of London and thus was a haven for gambling, brothels, drinking and other associated entertainment, including the theatre. Shakespeare would have attended plays in the Clink, and he lived in the area in 1598, as The Globe was under construction. The theatre was popular, but in terms of entertainment, it lagged behind bear-baiting, gambling and even public executions in terms of spectator activities.

As the Clink was on the edges of the city, it was here that the authorities that ran London in Shakespeare’s time allowed the activities that they knew they could not contain. That meant brothels, which had proliferated in the City of London, but were regulated in the Clink; it meant that alehouses and gambling, which followed the poor wherever they went, were tolerated and, of course, it meant that the theatre, the favourite pastime of many of the poorest people, was concentrated here.


A secondary point about living on the margins of London society - as Shakespeare most definitely did in his early days - was that he mingled with people from all classes and from all over the world. London was a multicultural city even in the 1590s, with an estimated black population of several thousand as well as Jews, Huguenot refugees from France and merchants from Spain, France and Italy. Along from the Clink is the Golden Hind, another stop on any Shakespeare walking tour, which shows the breadth of geography that was linked back to England and to London.

The Golden Hind is a ship that belonged to Francis Drake. Drake was explorer who sailed around Cape Horn and up the far side of South America, engaging in privateering - that is to say, early piracy, though on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I - with Spanish and Portuguese vessels. The clamour for exploration and tales of exotic climes perhaps influenced Shakespeare to set so many of his plays abroad, while the diversity of London meant that characters such as the black Othello and the Jewish Shylock could have been influenced by people that he met in London.


Shakespeare, London and The Globe


The Globe Theatre is most associated with Shakespeare and was built for the purposes of his theatre company, but it was far from the first playhouse in the area. Two theatres existed in Shoreditch, north of the river, plus a third in Newington Butts, south of the river. Featured on our walking tour of Shakespeare’s London is The Rose theatre, which was built in 1587 and was the principal place of entertainment on the south bank of the Thames, alongside its neighbouring bear-baiting garden.


The playwright in residence at The Rose was Christopher Marlowe, whom many consider the equal of Shakespeare, and who was something of a precursor to The Bard in his fame and success. The Rose proved that the theatre was sustainable south of the river as a business, if the plays produced were good enough to draw in a paying crowd and for punters to take the ferry over the Thames. Only the foundations remain to this day, illuminated at night, but the legacy of The Rose remains.


Of course, the biggest testament to The Rose theatre was that Shakespeare picked, of all London, to site his theatre next to it. The Globe was constructed in 1599, by which point Shakespeare was the most famous playwright in London and his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the hottest ticket in town. Though the original Globe burned down just 14 years later, the reconstructed theatre played host to the first performances of some of his greatest works. The Globe featured space for up to 3,000 people, with the so-called groundlings paying a penny to stand in the stalls while wealthier spectators could sit in banked seats across three tiers. Shakespeare’s London was a competitive theatre market, and the plays were written to appeal to the tastes of the lower classes, who would provide the bulk of the audience: thus, the large themes of death, love, redemption and revenge were designed like today’s Hollywood blockbusters, with a mass market in mind. The Globe was where they could all be seen. Audiences too were impressed by gimmicks, such as trapdoors that could make actors disappear and balconies that could make them appear above, and thus these were also often integrated into narratives.


While it is, of course, no longer possible to walk through Shakespeare’s London, the allure of taking a walking tour along its fringes is massive. The Southbank has evolved from the lawless hinterland that it was in the late 16th century, but it still retains a flair for creativity that it had in that period. Perhaps Shakespeare himself would still have chosen to call this place home.


Download Christopher Biggins' walking tour to hear about the two opposing worlds that lie either side of the iconic River Thames.