The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.154  Wednesday, 27 April 2016


From:        Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Subject:    SBReview_27: Shakespeare in London


[Editor’s Note: I am delighted to announce the publication of Crawforth, Hannah, Sarah Dustagheer, and Jennifer Young’s Shakespeare in London reviewed by Lana Harper University of Sussex. All SBReviews are peer-reviewed and are archived at the SHAKSPER web site’s Scholarly Resources section: in book-quality PDF files.]




Crawforth, Hannah, Sarah Dustagheer, and Jennifer Young. Shakespeare in London. Bloomsbury: London, 2015. ISBN-PB: 978-1-4081-4596-8 xvii + 262 pages. US$29.95


Reviewed by Lana Harper 

University of Sussex


Shakespeare in London belongs within the relatively recent trend in Early Modern drama studies of using spatial theory, inspired by the work of French philosophers like Foucault and Lefebvre, to illuminate the ways in which Early Modern individuals engaged with the environment around them and how spaces produced meaning beyond their basic physical realities. But this book is not a dense or inaccessible theoretical volume: quite the opposite. The book’s premise is both simple and convincing: although, unlike many of his contemporaries, Shakespeare famously avoided writing directly about London, nevertheless, the city suffused his life, experiences, and plays. Crucially, the book reminds us of the importance of a more concrete understanding of the realities and topography of London and insists that we think about Shakespeare’s plays in tangible, even visceral terms, rather than abstracting them from their material contexts.


While scholarship influenced by spatial theory often focuses on conceptualizing the spatial identities of the playhouses or considering how the settings depicted in plays produced meaning for audience members, Crawforth, Dustagheer, and Young adopt a slightly different methodology. For each chapter, the book draws together information from three sources: a play, a theme, and a location, analysing them in light of each other. In this manner, nine Shakespeare plays are considered in terms of one of their prominent themes and through a London location that is an apposite spatial manifestation of that subject. This tripartite methodology is reflected by the chapter titles, all produced in the same format; for example, Chapter Two is “Politics in Shakespeare’s London: Richard II (1595) and Whitehall.” Although it is apparent in each case that there are other relevant locations that could have been chosen instead, the authors largely manage to avoid overemphasizing the connection or the site’s excessive importance to reading the play; the book opens up the field rather than attempting the impossible task of situating itself as exhaustive. Some of the locations through which the plays are read have more obviously connected than others: the link between Timon of Athens and The King’s Bench – the main debtor’s prison where Dekker and many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries were held – is abundantly clear, as is that between The Merchant of Venice and the Inns of Court. Surprisingly, in Chapter 8, The Tempest is linked to Lime Street, an area where many inhabitants were involved in proto-scientific experimentation reminiscent of Prospero’s magic, while Chapter 3 reads Romeo and Juliet through The Strand, a busy thoroughfare where people of different classes would meet much as they do on the fictional streets of Verona. 


Although unanticipated, these less obvious links yield interesting and productive results. The connection between The Tempest and the Lime Street community, whose “work laid the foundations for the scientific revolution of the following centuries” (p. 197) is not immediately clear. Nevertheless, enough connections are made between the play’s representation of the natural world and Prospero’s penchant for learning to show how the types of knowledge developed in Lime Street permeate the play’s plot and its descriptions of the island’s flora, fauna, and inhabitants. The authors also productively outline the ways in which disciplines now viewed as distinctly separate were connected in Early Modern learning, including pseudo-scientific studies such as alchemy and astrology, as well as precursors to botany, chemistry, and geography; and, of course, the study of the colonial reports, objects, and plants that were brought back from the “New World.” 


Similarly, the unexpected linking of Romeo and Juliet, The Strand, and the concept of class creates productive connections. Considering the large servant population of the Capulet household provides access to ways of thinking about the complexities of wealth and status in Early Modern London; additionally, I found it refreshing to see these characters and scenes considered in detail as such aspects are frequently neglected in both criticism and productions of Early Modern drama. At times class identity and lack of social mobility in Early Modern society is slightly over-conflated with the social barriers imposed because of the Montague/ Capulet family feud – the authors could have pointed out more clearly that these are not the same thing, although arguably (as the authors are suggesting) they would all come under the broad umbrella of social and familial restrictions. On occasion, some of the close analysis can also seem a little strained and reminiscent of more traditional kinds of literary criticism. In regards to Juliet’s line “The orchard walls are high and hard to climb,” Romeo’s successful scaling of the wall is presented as Shakespeare’s showing “how these seemingly immoveable familial and social boundaries are ultimately as surmountable as the orchard walls” (p. 84). As well as making a rather abstract connection between physical and social barriers, one could question whether, given the ending of the play, we would consider the social boundaries successfully surmounted by the couple. Indeed, the chapter itself concludes, “Romeo and Juliet are still restricted by the boundaries of their family identities” and “fail to rise above the restrictions place upon them by their feuding families” (p. 96). These are, however, minor quibbles, and the authors produce a convincing reading of the Queen Mab speech as criticizing the dissolute elite while celebrating citizens and the serving classes, as well as demonstrating that the references to Capulet’s possessions, gardens, and house would have evoked for the Early Modern audience a household of a similar size and grandeur to the aristocratic town houses that had been being built along the south side of The Strand for several decades. By pointing out that The Strand was still a mixed neighbourhood with poorer tenements on the north side and through which people of all classes would travel, the authors make the important observation that, at this time, different areas were not particularly segregated into those for rich, poor, and the various shades in between. This segregation is a phenomenon which we are now well accustomed to – especially in places such as London – but which did not begin to manifest in the metropolis until the first half of the seventeenth century.


The book’s first chapter, “Violence in Shakespeare’s London: Titus Andronicus (1594) and Tyburn” is also particularly insightful and reaches some striking conclusions. Crawforth, Dustagheer, and Young argue that Titus is not just part of the Elizabethan trend for gore on the stage but is also a reflection of the loss of life happening on an epidemic scale from the plague, from the number and popularity of executions at Tyburn including the often brutal execution of Catholic martyrs, and, more than this, from the context of the ongoing loss of life that ensued for generations following the Reformation. The authors’ close readings convincingly support these ideas of religious strife: “the corruption of Rome is a recurring motif and . . . Aaron, the personification of evil in the drama, is accused of ‘popish tricks’’ (p. 44), while the delayed execution of two Puritan martyrs is referred to in the clown’s reference to a gibbet-maker who “hath taken them down again [from the scaffold], for the man must not be hanged till the next week” (pp. 23-24). Appropriately, other gory and extremely popular plays are included in the discussion: The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, and The Changeling are all noted as featuring “gruesome tales of brutalities inflicted upon one’s enemies, and a kind of excessive violence that was designed to be not just effective but, most of all, spectacular” (p. 30), preventing readers from assuming by omission that these contexts were a phenomenon that was only influencing Shakespeare’s work.


Moreover, this chapter is particularly good at producing details that can truly refresh our ideas about Early Modern London. Knowing that executions took place in the city where Shakespeare lived is one thing, but considering that Tyburn was likely to have been one of Shakespeare’s first encounters with London is another, since “Approaching early modern London from the west, as a traveller from Stratford would, some of the first sights, sounds and smells to greet the visitor would have been those of Tyburn” (p. 21). Public execution is perhaps one of the hardest aspects of Early Modern life for a modern sensibility to be able truly to comprehend, but this chapter does a very good job of making the reader feel how the culture’s brutal aspects pervaded people’s lives. By this point, I became convinced by the introduction’s claim that “understanding the important presence of this exhilarating city with his [Shakespeare’s] work can thus help us to read the plays anew, to capture something of the freshness of the moment – and the place – in which they were written” (p. 2).


In their acknowledgements, Crawforth, Dustagheer, and Young note that the book originated from their teaching on the King’s College London course “Shakespeare in London,” and this point is apparent: the book works extremely well as a student’s guide and is written in a way that is accessible without compromising intellectual integrity or complexity. The work does not assume knowledge –for example, including succinct definitions of potentially confusing terms, such as “microcosm” (p. 9) or “synecdoche” (p. 41) – and treads lightly with its theoretical aspects, spelling out very clearly what conclusions it will draw and why. The book’s didactic intent also manifests in a particularly useful compilation of books for further reading, which provides a handful of up-to-date and important works for each of the main locations and fields of study related to the book. Because of its intended audience, some of the readings and explanations of the plots of the plays adhere rather closely to well-established conventions; however, this point is not problematic because it establishes a groundwork that ensures all readers share the same knowledge base. The additional elements that develop from these readings are informative and original, invariably providing an accessible way to learn more about the institutions, topography, and cultural contexts of Early Modern London.


This is not to say that Shakespeare in London cannot be useful to scholars as well, as it provides an excellent compendium to some of the ways spatial considerations can be applied to the analysis of Early Modern drama; further, a clear, readable style, and structure ensures that the book’s meanings are never obfuscated as in some academic and theoretical writing. Most of all, readers are sure to discover more about the different institutions in London; also, academics of Early Modern literature can discover new nuggets of information about St Paul’s, Bedlam, and the King’s Bench that they might not have known. Further, it is now undeniably apparent that Early Modern scholars need to be aware of spatial theory and to take it into account in their work. Perhaps, one of the clearest signs that the turn towards spatial theory has thoroughly taken root in Early Modern studies is that it is being used not just in monographs and articles destined to be read primarily by a scholarly audience but that it is also being adopted in student teaching and to speak about Shakespeare to a general readership. I only hope that there will be more books in a similar vein that explore the wealth of work by other Early Modern playwrights in light of space and place. With such an accessible and interesting book as a prototype, this contention certainly seems like a strong possibility.



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