A Shakespeare sex-and-violence starter kit

“Civitas Londini” panorama of 1600 by John Norden, Southwark section. The Swan theater is visible on the left, the Beargarden, Rose and Globe theaters on the right (with permission of the National Library of Sweden).

London’s entertainment district in Shakespeare’s time was to be found in the suburb of Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames, a bohemian enclave burgeoning with artists, poets, dramatists, craftsmen, migrants from the countryside and abroad, foreign agents and spies, and pretty much everyone kept or spat out of the city limits and its stringently regulated daily ordinances. The numerous inns and bawdy houses on Bankside in Southwark were more than willing to accommodate them, but the suburb’s main attraction was of course the theaters for plays and animal baiting. These were open-roofed amphitheaters for daytime use, nighttime illumination using candles or oil lamps being unfeasible for wooden thatched-roof firetraps packing in several thousand spectators.

Another reason favoring daytime performance was that the suburb turned into a scary place at night. In the face of minimal constabulary and little accountability, an inordinately high criminal element came out of the woodwork. If you look closely at the Southwark section of John Norden’s Civitas Londini (dated 1600), the era’s most topographically reliable map (despite the skewed perspectives of individual buildings), you can just see in the lower right-hand corner the top of the Globe theater jutting out of the trees; the Rose theater is more clearly visible a hop, skip and a jump the northwest. That Southwark was shrouded in tree cover is likewise confirmed by a sergeant-in-law at the time, one William Fleetwood, who described the area at night as “so dark and obscured by trees that a man needed ‘cat’s eyes’ to see.” I suppose it would have been like finding yourself in an American inner-city ghetto during a power outage with no streetlights, while gangs operated freely under tree cover thick enough to block out the moon. Southwark swarmed with all manner of cutpurses, cutthroats, cony-catchers, ravishers, and the growing ranks of the unemployed. To put some perspective on the crime rate, your chances of being murdered in London 400 years ago has been estimated at anywhere from ten to fifty times greater than your chances of being murdered in that city today.

Detail of above map, showing the Rose (upper left) and Globe (lower right) theaters jutting out of the trees.

From the last years of Henry VIII’s reign in the 1540s until the Puritans shut down the theaters a century later in 1642, the population of London and vicinity doubled from 100,000 to 200,000. Because unwholesome activity was banned from the city proper, the suburbs to the north and south filled the void. Southwark experienced much of this growth. The disreputable pastimes of animal baiting and the playhouses attracted all the social classes. The logistics of cross-river transportation were daunting, though, and had significant repercussions. The nobility and the well off could hire private ferries to cross the Thames; everyone else had to use London Bridge. Walking across the bridge was not a simple matter when thousands were trying to make their way in both directions on foot, horse and cart. The ensuing traffic jams were infamous. Racing back to the city via the bridge after dusk when the performances had ended must have been an unpleasant prospect, particularly as the city gates shut at sundown. Many theatergoers would have stayed put overnight in nearby inns and taverns. The heads of the executed were stuck on pikes at the gate to warn the same theater-goes against the temptations of crime. Others were fired for absenteeism after skipping their day job to catch a performance, and ended up in Southwark for good.

The modern reconstructed Globe theater sits roughly on the site of the old Swan theater. The foundation of the original Globe lies 200 meters to the southeast, under the Anchor Terrace building.

The city’s real reason for threatening to close down the theaters was not their ostensible indecency, but the loss of economic revenue from the fifteen to twenty percent of the city population who were regularly absent in order to attend the plays (each of the nine outdoor playhouses over the seventy years of theatrical life in Renaissance London had up to 1,000,000 visitors per year). To the mix of this large theater-going riffraff hanging out more or less permanently in Southwark without game occupation, add the thousands of unemployed migrants continuously pouring in from outlying areas, and you have a very colorful demographic situation.

For decades, the only organized entertainment in Southwark was bull and bear baiting, in two respective amphitheaters. Animal baiting involved the tying of a bull or a bear to a stake with a leash and setting vicious mastiffs on it to see who survived the encounter. It was an extremely popular sport across the population, attracting not only those we might expect—lowlife and the rabble—but everyone on up to the Queen herself, a fanatical fan, who ordered the nearby playhouses to stagger their schedules with the baiting performances so they wouldn’t conflict. This was a society whose conception of ethics had very different emphases, and concern for the welfare of animals wasn’t one of them. To grasp the indifference with which audiences regarded animals, one of the most popular forms of public entertainment in the era was the spectacle of public execution by axe. If people thirsted so much for fountains of human blood, they certainly didn’t have any qualms about fountains of animal blood.

Yet the real thrill and draw of the baiting arenas, I suspect, was the perverse desire that one would be lucky enough to witness a bear or bull escaping into the crowd and mauling the spectators, as happened more than occasionally. Either that or the outright danger of the amphitheaters themselves; a stand at the Paris Gardens bear-baiting arena collapsed in 1583, killing eight and injuring many. (The animal-baiting tradition survives in Spanish bullfighting, but a better modern analogy might be the enticing threat of a stampede of unruly crowds at an English football match.)

To put some perspective on the crime rate, your chances of being murdered in London 400 years ago has been estimated to be anywhere from 10 to 50 times greater than your being murdered there or in any modern city today.

Shakespeare was not particularly interested in animal baiting. References crop up here and there in his plays but no more frequently than other stock animal metaphors such as falconry and hunting. If any group held distaste for animal baiting it would have been the dramatists, who were in direct competition with the baiting companies for audiences. Playwrights were poets, wordsmiths with a higher calling than base entertainment and with a more capacious empathy for pain and suffering. Hence Shakespeare’s comparison of some of his major characters (Gloucester in King Lear, Macbeth) to a bear tied at the stake. The most famous mention occurs in The Winter’s Tale, when Antigonus is attacked and killed by a bear, and the stage direction calls for a bear (3.3.57). Fussy scholars assume it was most likely a mock bear, absent explicit evidence a real animal was employed. But an actor prancing across the stage in a bear costume would have struck the audience as ludicrous, whereas a real one would not only have been a clever selling point, they were readily available at the bear kennel near the baiting arena only a short walk away. Clearly a live bear was used, although probably one tame enough to yank across the stage on a discreet leash, just scary enough, that is, to give the audience a start. And I don’t think Shakespeare employed the bear as a mere compensatory gesture to the vulgar half accustomed to visceral entertainment. That would have been too easy. We might assume a hostile wit, a sardonic baiting of his very audience, as if to say, “Here’s your bear, let’s hope the leash doesn’t break!”

Shakespeare’s friend and fellow playwright Ben Jonson echoed this contempt for the seedy nature of bear baiting in his Bartholomew Fair, performed at the Hope a few years later, whose removable stage allowed it to function as both playhouse and animal-baiting arena. At the play’s opening, the stage back in place, a clown in the guise of a stagehand speaks to those in the “ground” or “pit” (the standing audience with the cheapest admission) as if to a leftover bear-baiting crowd—and they may indeed have been the same crowd—now growing restless for the next entertainment and tossing apple cores onto the stage, when a prompter (Book-Holder) stationed in the pit interrupts disdainfully:

Book-Holder: How now? What rare discourse are you fall’n upon? Ha! ha’ you found any familiars here, that you are so free? What’s the business?

Stage-Keeper: Nothing, but the understanding gentlemen o’ the ground here asked my judgment.

Book-Holder: Your judgment, rascal? For what? Sweeping the stage? Or gathering up the broken apples for the bears within?

The playwrights, in other words, could never quite reconcile themselves to the Southwark population they depended on for their livelihood. Many theater companies had at the outset dissociated themselves from the environs by erecting the first playhouses in the northern suburbs—the Theatre (1576) and Curtain (1577) in Shoreditch, later the Fortune (1600) and Red Bull (1604) in Clerkenwell, etc. These northern playhouses, however, were spread over a broad territory with no established entertainment district on the scale of Southwark (though Shoreditch, the closest competitor, was in fact every bit as sordid an environment). Meanwhile, the traffic jams along the narrow northern roads could be as bad as those crossing the river. Thus other playhouses capitulated and went south to where the action was: first the Rose (1587), followed by the Swan (1595), the Globe (1599), and the Hope (1614). The Globe itself was reconstructed from the timber of the dismantled Theatre, after a lease dispute forced Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to opt for a measly plot of marshy land in Southwark not far from the Rose, hemmed in by sewage drainage ditches. The daily miasma surrounding the Globe must have been a depressing reminder of their new locale, as well as an apt metaphor for the predicament of having to cater to a sophisticated audience among a volatile population in a suspicious environment. And yet, the theater companies and their crowds not only needed each other, theatrical entertainment was the only heady antidote to the anxiety and precariousness of life in those earlier times.

Figuring prominently among people’s worries was disease. The plague was a recurrent problem, grave enough to force the authorities to close all the theaters from 1592-94 and again from 1603-4 and 1608-10. But there was a newcomer on the scene that was here to stay and only getting worse: the syphilis epidemic. This is typically played down in most accounts of the era, above all in Shakespeare studies, as an unsavory distraction from our appreciation of the glories of the plays and the poetry. But it was very much a reality of the time, a ubiquitous presence and on everyone’s mind.

The treponema pallidum bacterium was brought to Europe on Columbus’ ships upon their return from their first expedition to the Americas. From there in 1494, Spanish-occupied Naples used infected Italian prostitutes to inflict the disease on invading French troops (one of the earliest accounts of biological warfare), whereupon the “French Pox” rapidly spread throughout Europe (and Asia too via Vasco de Gama’s expeditions). By 1548, twenty-four percent of patients at St. Bartholomew’s hospital in London were infected; by 1579, seventy-five percent. By 1585, syphilitic patients were so numerous they were being turned away from hospitals throughout the city (John J. Ross, “Shakespeare’s chancre: Did the bard have syphilis?,” Clinical Infectious Diseases, Feb. 2005).

Shakespeare’s twenty-five-year career as a playwright began in the late 1580s, when the syphilis epidemic in England was in full bloom. The disease was a major fact of existence throughout his and the life of everyone around him. In contrast to animal baiting, the pox was something he was keenly interested in. Few things are regarded by people with as much distaste and indifference as is sexually transmitted disease—until you are the one infected, whereupon it becomes a source of personal fascination. It was not just Shakespeare’s obsession; we can assume virtually the entire audience attending the plays and the baitings was syphilitic; only the clergy and the celibate were largely free of the disease, and, for a brief spell, the yet-to-be sexually active youth not congenitally infected through their mother at birth. In addition, the outward signs and physical ravages of syphilis were much more pronounced then than now, as happens when a new infectious agent strikes a population with no immunity.

It was not just Shakespeare’s obsession; we can assume virtually the entire audience attending the plays was syphilitic.

It would have been a motley pitiable bunch on display in the playhouse audiences, trying to hide the sores and lesions of secondary and tertiary syphilis under patches of velvet, hats, wigs, heavy makeup and cosmetics, so as to keep up a veneer of dwindling dignity and attractiveness to the opposite sex (to say nothing of the prostitutes busily plying their trade among the audience). Those in the galleries likely had fewer overt symptoms, having more funds to spare on the various expensive treatments available, primarily mercury chemotherapy. This involved sitting in an enclosed mercury-fumigated sauna or tub to raise the body temperature to the point where the infectious bacteria were killed off. The treatment is acknowledged even by modern medicine to have likely worked for some, while many others succumbed to mercury poisoning worse than the disease itself (blindness and baldness were common symptoms ambiguously attributed to the pox, mercury used to treat the pox, as well as the smallpox; Shakespeare’s baldness has been blamed on the former, and Queen Elizabeth’s on the latter).

Shakespeare clearly underwent the mercury treatment for his syphilis, as he himself confesses in the bizarre final pair of sonnets capping off his great cycle. These present two variations on the same theme. The narrator of both describes how his member is still capable of growing erect at the thought of his beloved, despite his diseased state, metaphorically disguised as a sleeping Cupid awakened by the fire of lust, the same fire which heats the bath he steeps himself in as a remedy: “I, sick withal, the help of bath desired, / And thither hied, a sad distempered guest, / But found no cure….” (sonnet 153). And: “Growing a bath and healthful remedy / For men diseased; but I, my mistress’ thrall, / Came there for cure….” (sonnet 154). The cycle was written at some point over the decade from the late 1590s until their sudden unauthorized publication in 1609, allegedly deeply upsetting Shakespeare, who would naturally have worried about the public airing of the sonnets’ numerous homoerotic and sexual allusions, not to mention his admission of treatment for the pox. Yet good writers tend to be shamelessly autobiographical, and he must have foreseen, if not intended, their inevitable publication. The final pair of syphilitic sonnets was tacked onto the cycle not as an irreverent afterthought; on the contrary, the ultimate aesthetic that distinguishes genius is finally the truth, and he may have wanted truth out.

Over this same decade, numerous references to syphilis and its treatments crop up in his plays, often gratuitously, as if he simply couldn’t get it off his mind and had to keep talking about it. Literally so: the rich cesspool of foul language and double entendres issuing from the mouths of his plebian characters was typically spoken directly to the groundlings, as if having a conversation with them in their own argot. But when the context of the story invited descriptions of corruption and decrepitude, he waxed eloquent on the “infinite malady.” Troilus and Cressida (1601-2) contains sixty-one lines expounding on aspects of secondary and tertiary syphilis, while Measure for Measure (1604) contains fifty-five lines and Timon of Athens (1605-8) sixty-seven lines on the symptoms of both the disease and the mercury bath treatments. This is not the space to examine these references in detail, which can be found in scholarly accounts. The point I wish to make is there was something greater at stake than the mere fixation on sex and violence in the plays, a more complex and uncanny phenomenon preoccupying and bothering the audience.

It’s known that venereal diseases have not just physical but also psychological symptoms—anxiousness, anger and depression. Even those spared disease were not free of incessant fear and worry. I’ve spoken of the menacing physical environs of the suburbs, where the criminal half of the population locked out of the city gates lived and roamed at will and highwaymen assembled; where injury, sickness and death were omnipresent and life was shorter and more precarious than life as we know it today.

The general population in Shakespeare’s time lived with a higher level of anxiety than we do, and they were therefore more suggestible.

The general population in Shakespeare’s time lived with a higher level of anxiety than we do, and they were therefore more suggestible. It’s usually claimed that the era’s belief in ghosts derives from the still largely medievalist Renaissance magical conception of the universe, consisting of heavenly spheres and angelic elements, astronomy then being subsumed to astrology in scientific prestige in the universities of the time. But many people today, in our enlightened modern era, also believe in ghosts, spiritual influences, the zodiac and horoscope, and the like.

The Elizabethans’ greater susceptibility to suggestion and superstition was not a function of their spiritual understanding of the universe, I suggest, but rather of their higher level of daily anxiety. And the daily antidote for this anxiety was vicarious participation in spectacles of drama, violence and sex. There were those of course who rejected this addiction to sensation—Puritans and the religious—who vociferously protested and campaigned against the theaters and other public entertainments and were at length to succeed in the Revolution of 1642. But for the rest, the strange paradox of life in an environment of fear and shock was the compulsion to indulge precisely in these emotions for cathartic relief.

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