The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 30.051 Saturday, 9 February 2019
Date: February 9, 2019 at 8:25:10 AM EST
Subject: From TLS - 'Life in the stews'
Life in the stews
Shakespeare in the nation’s capital
By Farah Karim-Cooper
SHAKESPEARE AND LONDON
224pp. Oxford University Press. Paperback, £16.99 (US $24.95).
Writing a biography of London must be a daunting task, given the sheer volume of records and documents to rifle through. Writing a biography of Shakespeare is even more daunting for the opposite reason: because there is a paucity of material from which to create an accurate, linear narrative. A book called Shakespeare and London, as Duncan Salkeld has written, is perhaps a less intimidating prospect. Elizabethan and Jacobean London is extremely well documented; and those decades also, arguably, formed one of the most exciting periods in the city’s history. It was an era of unprecedented growth, not only in terms of physical expansion, but also its migrant and non- migrant populations. London was where the country’s first purpose-built theatres were erected, and where politics and theatre converged. Those playhouses stood among numerous manufacturing centres, populated by migrant communities, and not far from the financial heart of the city.
In this fascinating study, Salkeld argues that even as “Shakespeare owed his success to London”, it seems that “he was always attempting to transport his audience out of it”. Comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It left the city behind to adventure into the woods (even though it continued to loom, sometimes oppressively, in the background). Battlefields, palaces and enchanted islands easily outnumber urban settings. Questions frequently asked of Shakespeare scholars include, “why are so many of Shakespeare’s plays set outside of London?” and, concomitantly, “why did Shakespeare not write a city comedy as his contemporaries Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton did?” (There are numerous theories: the reason may be that, as an outsider, Shakespeare never really came to grips with the metropolis; or that, politically, it may have been safer, though exciting and provocative, to transfer the action to Venice or Vienna.) Salkeld wisely shifts away from these questions. Taking a broader view, he considers the character of London at the time, and how it may have worked its way into Shakespeare’s imagination. His alternative questions include, “what was it like to live in London?” – “Do we have historical records of Shakespeare’s whereabouts, associations, and activities there? Do Shakespeare’s works disclose his thoughts or attitudes about urban life? . . . To what extent did he refer to, or describe, the City in his works, and did his representation of it change?”
Chapters titled “Places”, “People”, “Art/Authority” and “Diversity” invite the reader to concentrate on London itself – but Salkeld returns to Shakespeare often enough and throughout, mainly via fascinating accounts of the urban anecdotes, documented events and real lives that are peppered throughout the plays. Beatrice describing Benedick as being “in the fleet”, for example, alludes to the River Fleet, “which ran from underground springs near Clerkenwell southward to the Thames, past the Fleet prison, [and] was notorious for its filth and stench”. Beatrice, according to Salkeld, is implying that Benedick is “up to his neck in it”. The frequency of such allusions suggests a Shakespeare who was also steeped in London life. Although Salkeld is careful to emphasize the lack of direct evidence linking the dramatist to particular urban scenes or incidents, it is credible that – working in a busy, collaborative industry, visiting court, Inns of Court and estates for performances – he saw and heard much that later came out in his plays.
The chapter on diversity is perhaps the only disappointing part of the book, failing to engage with the groundbreaking scholarly work done on this subject recently as well as in the past thirty years. (Studies by Kim F. Hall, Ania Loomba and Imtiaz Habib come to mind.) Salkeld describes the essential presence of “strangers” or “aliens” in the city, which included not only European but African contingents, but he takes little account of the resulting tensions. Instead, he cites historians who question “whether early modern Londoners should be described as broadly xenophobic”. The word “racism” may be anachronistic, but racism itself – as scholars of race studies have shown – was at work in the city, its structures, and in its dramatic and literary productions, too. What we do have here, though, is a lively and engaging portrait of London the bustling metropolis and the extraordinary place where Shakespeare worked, lived and thrived, as both playwright and theatre company shareholder. Without London, there would be no Shakespeare as we know him. As Duncan Salkeld remarks, Shakespeare was truly “a London phenomenon”.