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.