Shakespeare's London: Everyday Life in London 1580-1616

August 12, 2010

In a recent interview for Times Higher Education, the world's foremost Shakespearean, Stanley Wells, distances himself from the literary theorists: "I ... see myself as a sort of populariser. I have no shame - indeed, I take pride - in writing intelligibly and trying to interest the non-specialist." While Wells' modesty belies both the originality and brilliance of his scholarly achievements, his democratising spirit prompts him to lament esotericism: "I find it depressing when critics write in a way that can be understood only by people within a very small circle."

This is a salutary, not to mention timely, defence of didactic endeavour in these philistine days when the tail of research "output" wags the dog of rounded academic accomplishment (which ought rather to stress the close relationship between teaching and research).

The uneven playing field between research and teaching has long been accepted as an awkward fact of life, with the latest chimera, "impact", attempting to smuggle in by the back door, as part of a "research framework", the proselytising enthusiasm that Wells, a former schoolteacher, champions.

All this by way of introducing, unashamedly, Shakespeare's London as a popular history (with more than 100 illustrations) and to insist, in accordance with Wellsian principles, that it is none the worse for that.

Stephen Porter's vivid account of the capital city is, he insists at the outset, "a study of London in Shakespeare's time, not of Shakespeare in London".

Although an absent genius of the place, in this sense, the playwright infuses the location. While there is a chapter on the city's resident theatre companies, including Shakespeare's own (The King's Men), and while there is some discussion of the publication of the First Folio, this is not a biography of Shakespeare; it is rather a vigorous recreation of the landscape - political, social, economic and cultural - of the seething capital within which Shakespeare and his contemporaries variously went hungry, struggled to survive, enjoyed a prosperous way of life, or exploited the luxuries of patronage or social status.

It is this kaleidoscopic quality that Porter so ably recreates: "London was just so difficult to summarize briefly, a problem succinctly expressed by Thomas Adams in 1612 with the comment: 'Looking one way, you see a beautiful virgin; another way, some deformed monster.'?" The early chapters attribute this civic schizophrenia to the explosion in the city's population numbers, as well as the diversity of "the complex patchwork of communities which made up London".

There is much here that is familiar: the Essex Rebellion; the Gunpowder Plot; the apprentice boys' xenophobia; London's growing importance as a manufacturing centre and international port. The eyewitnesses are the usual suspects, including Thomas Platter, Thomas Dekker, John Stow, William Camden, Robert Greene and Philip Stubbes, but their often incidental remarks are judiciously integrated in Porter's larger assertions as though they convincingly demonstrate that they and he are in complete agreement.

Topics covered include religious tensions, the place of the court, pollution (including road rage), literacy and publishing, poverty and crime, architecture, music, civic pageants and the theatre. These topics have each been covered in greater depth in specialist studies elsewhere, but the virtue of Porter's inclusiveness is the ease with which he deploys them together to further complicate the idea of London as a place of danger, enlightenment, grinding poverty, conspicuous consumption, artistic ascendancy, political control and public disorder. For Porter, Shakespeare's London was at once the best of places and the worst of places, and in capturing the city's inherent and energetic incongruities, he has done popular history of the early modern capital a great service.

Shakespeare's London: Everyday Life in London 1580-1616

By Stephen Porter. Amberley Publishing. 320pp, £20.00. ISBN 9781848683334. Published 13 November 2009

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