London’s entertainment district in Shakespeare’s time was to be found in the suburb of Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames. It was 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 more stringently regulated daily ordinances. The numerous inns and bawdy houses on Bankside in Southwark were more than willing to absorb 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 rather scary place at night, when an inordinately high criminal element came out of the woodwork in the face of minimal constabulary and little accountability. If you look closely at the Southwark section of John Norden’s Civitas Londini (dated 1600), regarded as the era’s most topographically reliable map (despite the skewed perspectives of individual buildings), you can just see in the far right-hand lower corner the top of the Globe theater jutting out of trees; the Rose theater is more clearly visible a little to 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.” It would have been like finding yourself in an American inner-city ghetto during a power outage with no streetlights, while gangs moved freely under canopies of trees blocking 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 to be anywhere from 10 to 50 times greater than your being murdered there or in any modern city today.
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 disreputable activity was banned from the city proper, the suburbs to the north and south of the city filled the void. Southwark experienced much of this growth. Disreputable activity – animal baiting and the playhouses – attracted all the social classes. The logistics of cross-river transportation were hardly straightforward, though, and had significant repercussions. The gentility and others reasonably 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 traffic jams around the bridge were infamous. Returning to the city via the bridge after dusk when the performances ended must have been an unpleasant prospect, particularly as the city gates shut at sundown. Many theatergoers would have stayed put overnight in the local inns and taverns. Surely many as well, having skipped their day job to catch a performance, were fired for absenteeism and set themselves up in Southwark for good. It’s known that the city’s main justification for threatening to close down the theaters was not their ostensible indecency but the loss of economic revenue from the 15-20% of the city population who regularly attended plays and skipped work in order to do so (each of the 9 outdoor playhouses over the 70 years of theatrical life in Renaissance London had up to 1,000,000 visits 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 interesting demographic situation.
For many decades the only organized entertainment in Southwark was bull and bear baiting in two respective amphitheaters and cockfighting. 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 which survived the encounter. It was an extremely popular sport across the population, attracting not only, as we might expect, lowlifes and the vulgar but the nobility and Queen Elizabeth herself as well, 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, recall that one of the most popular forms of public entertainment in the era was the regular 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 other 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. (While the tradition of animal baiting survives in Spanish bullfighting, a better modern analogy might be the enticing threat of a stampede of unruly crowds in 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, as they were in direct competition with the baiting companies for audiences. Playwrights were also poets, wordsmiths with a higher calling than base entertainment and with a more capacious empathy for pain and suffering, hence Shakespeare’s comparing of several 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). Due to the lack of any explicit evidence that a real bear was employed, fussy scholars assume it must have been a mock bear. But an actor prancing across the stage in a bear costume would have struck the audience as ludicrous, whereas a real bear would not only have been a clever selling point, they were readily available at the bear kennel near the baiting arena only a stone’s throw away. Clearly a live bear was used, although probably a tame one yanked 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 of the audience accustomed to more visceral entertainment. That would have been too easy. We might assume a more 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 fellow playwright and friend 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 a playhouse and a bear-baiting arena. At the play’s opening, the stage back in place, a clown in the guise of a stagehand speaks directly to the audience in the “ground” or “pit” (the standing area in front of the stage for the cheapest admission) as if to a leftover bear-baiting crowd – and they may indeed have largely been the same crowd – who have been growing restless for more entertainment and tossing apple cores onto the stage, when a prompter (Book-Holder) probably 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?
These playwrights, in other words, could never be completely reconciled 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. The northern playhouses, however, were spread thin over a broad territory with no established entertainment district on the scale of Southwark (Shoreditch, the closest competitor, was in fact every bit as sordid a place). 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 rising from the ditches 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 modern accounts of the era and Shakespeare studies generally as an unsavory distraction from our appreciation of the glories of the plays, 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, 24% of patients at St. Bartholomew’s hospital in London were infected; by 1579, 75%. By 1585, syphilitic patients were so numerous they were being turned away from hospitals throughout the city.
Shakespeare’s 25-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 very much 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 animal 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 the disease 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 and heavy makeup and cosmetics so as to keep up a veneer of remaining dignity and attractiveness to the opposite sex (to say nothing of the prostitutes busily plying their trade among the playhouse and animal-baiting audiences). Those in the galleries likely had fewer overt symptoms, having more funds to spare on the various expensive treatments available, primarily mercury chemotherapy, which 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. Apparently the treatment is acknowledged even by modern medicine to have probably worked for some, while many others succumbed to symptoms of 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 attributed to the former, and Queen Elizabeth’s to the latter).
Shakespeare clearly underwent the mercury treatment for his syphilis, as he himself describes in the bizarre final pair of sonnets capping off his great cycle. These present two variations on the same theme, in which the narrator describes how his penis 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 sonnet 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 their 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, the sonnets’ 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 simply the truth, and he wanted truth out.
Over this same decade, numerous references to syphilis and its treatment crop up in many of his plays, often gratuitously, as if he simply couldn’t get it off his mind and had to talk to his audience about it. Literally so: the rich cesspool of foul language and double entendres regularly issuing from the mouths of his lowlife characters was typically spoken directly to the groundlings in the audience, 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 61 lines detailing the symptoms of secondary and tertiary syphilis, while Measure for Measure (1604) contains 55 lines and Timon of Athens (1605-8) 67 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 have been covered extensively in scholarly accounts. The point I would like to make is that there was something greater at stake than the mere fixation on sex and violence in the plays and other entertainments but a more complex and uncanny phenomenon preoccupying and bothering the audience.
It’s known that venereal diseases have not just physical but also pronounced psychological symptoms – anxiousness, anger and depression. Even those spared disease or its worst symptoms 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 freely and highwaymen congregated; 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 in the scholarship that the era’s belief in ghosts derives from the still largely medievalist Renaissance magical conception of the universe, as one consisting of heavenly spheres and angelic elements, astronomy still 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 believe, but rather of their generally 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 finally 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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