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Globe: Life in Shakespeare's London (2015)

by Catharine Arnold

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Catharine Arnold

Globe: Life in Shakespeare’s London

Simon & Schuster, Paperback, 2016.

8vo. 312 pp. Introduction by the authoress [1-14]. Notes [284-98] and Index [299-312].

First published, 2015.
This paperback edition, 2016.

Contents

Introduction
Acknowledgements

1. London, the flower of cities all
2. A fellowship of players
3. The first theatre in London
4. The upstart crow
5. The hollow crown
6. All the world’s a stage
7. The great Globe itself
8. Gunpowder, treason and plot
9. Chimes at midnight
10. The Globe reborn

Bibliography
Picture Acknowledgements
Notes
Index

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My task in this book was to create a portrait of Shakespeare and his London from Shakespeare’s own plays and contemporary sources, combining a novelist’s eye for detail with a historian’s grasp of Shakespeare’s unique contribution to the development of the English theatre.

So writes Catharine Arnold in her introduction to this book. On the whole, she has succeeded admirably. Not an easy task, I guess. Even Victorian England, now less than two centuries in the past, can sometimes look like a different world. Elizabethan times, three centuries further back, are more like a different universe.

This is a book for the curious general reader, but it’s far from being fiction in disguise. I’m glad to report Mistress Arnold’s research seems to be well done. It is not entirely secondary. She is familiar with plenty of contemporary sources (e.g. Greene, Meres, Henslowe, Camden, Platter), of course including Shakespeare’s plays, and she uses them adroitly and critically. When secondary sources are used, they are scholarly volumes of unimpeachable reputation like Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare (2004). Some of them have become classics themselves, for example G. B. Harrison’s Elizabethan Plays and Players (1940) and Shakespeare At Work (1933 as Shakespeare Under Elizabeth, repr. 1958 with a new preface), E. K. Chambers’ mammoth The Elizabethan Stage (1923) and Shakespeare: A Study in Facts and Problems (1930), or Charlotte Stopes’ Burbage and Shakespeare’s Stage (1913). On the average, about 50 endnotes with citations accompany each chapter, but not all sources from them are to be found in the more detailed Bibliography. I must say I am glad Mistress Arnold is not afraid of using “old” volumes. As a general rule, limited as my reading experience is, I have found Shakespearean criticism from the first half of the twentieth century superior to its modern equivalent. The latter’s smug pretensions of being more “modern” (i.e. better) are nothing short of obnoxious.

Mistress Arnold begins with her only chapter that reads more or less like a historical novel. She imagines the young Will’s first visit to London, ostensibly to deliver a letter, and his being overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of the big city. Chapter 2 is a fascinating portrait of the motley groups that passed for actors in various noble houses or inn yards in the beginning of the Elizabethan era. Chapter 3 is dedicated to St James (Burbage), the man who founded the first theatre in London (1576), simply called the Theatre, and whose son, Richard, became the greatest tragedian of his time as much thanks to his talent as to Shakespeare’s star roles. In Chapter 4, as you can guess from the title, Will appears again as a prominent young playwright on the rise. The pace picks up and until the penultimate chapter we follow Will’s unusually long and productive career. The focus is predominantly theatrical, but wider aspects of the zeitgeist are occasionally mentioned as well. Everyday life, except in the first chapter, is not discussed. The last, and dullest, chapter is dedicated to the Globe reincarnated.

The writing is rather dry, somewhat repetitious and not terribly distinguished. I wish the authoress had used more phrases like “the Bull Inn enjoyed an enduringly lurid reputation” or “[the hostility against the Jews] was a toxic legacy of medieval Christianity”, but this kind of liveliness seems foreign to her. That said, the writing is lucid and engaging enough to keep one’s attention, or at least it kept mine for most of the time.

Two leitmotifs that run through the book like sinister sets of variations impressed me. One is the violence that permeated those strange times. The other is the enormously precarious situation of the theatres. It requires a great deal of imagination to picture life back then, but with a book like that you can try the experiment.

“While today the greatest professional threat faced by London’s actors is that of unemployment,” Mistress Arnold writes, “Elizabethan actors lived with the constant reality of violent death.” This is not an exaggeration. War was imminent at any time, for one thing, and men could be called to service and killed in action. But the Elizabethans were violent people in the first place. They enjoyed a degree of animal violence (e.g. bear-baiting), brutal types of wrestling (cf. As You Like It, I.2.) and gruesome public executions (e.g. hanging, disembowelling and quartering) that today we would regard as disgusting. Men generally carried swords and were not afraid to use them if verbal arguments proved ineffectual. In the year of the Lord 1598, Ben Jonson, no less, was arrested and imprisoned, having slain an unfortunate actor who provoked him. Even if you were a famous playwright, you could still end up being tortured in prison (like Tom Kyd) or with a knife in your head (like Kit Marlowe). (My favourite pet theory is that it was Will Shakespeare, or the Earl of Whatever, who arranged these fortunate events in order to become the reigning dramatist of the London stage. But I am glad Mistress Arnold does not elaborate on that.)

The life of James Burbage is not a bad subject for Shakespearean tragedy. It must have wanted huge courage and determination to build something to which people would come and actually pay for the privilege of watching plays. No more touring the provinces and acting in dilapidated inns for board and lodging! The problems Burbage had to cope with were almost unimaginable, and they continued until the very end of his life in 1597, aged about 66 (pretty good age for the time). Some of them were probably due to his volatile character, but the greater part stemmed from circumstances beyond his control. The authorities regarded “strutters” with, to say the least, unqualified suspicion. Ever since the Theatre was opened in 1576, they tried to close it. Edicts, petitions and proclamations to ban the stage flowed from the Mayor of London, the Privy Council and who not. Even the Queen joined the lines in 1597 when The Isle of Dogs by Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe caused a massive scandal with its presumably seditious content. Jonson ended up in prison and so would Nashe had he not fled to his native Norfolk. The Queen and the Privy Council demanded that the theatres should not only be closed but “plucked down” as well. This scheme did not succeed, but a quarrel with the landlord over the lease did. So the Theatre was no more. (Much of it was recycled in the Globe, though, in a stunning piece of Elizabethan logistics evocatively described by Mistress Arnold.)

If state censorship wasn’t bad enough, all playhouses were denounced by the Church as the proverbial breeders of sin. Many a sermon fell from the lips of sweet-spoken preachers what dens of wickedness theatres were. It was a violently superstitious age: witch hunting and burning was a popular entertainment. Then there was Its Majesty the Plague. It came regularly and wiped off whole families. All theatres had to be closed, reasonably enough, but the players had no other choice except to start touring the provinces as in the bad old days. Shakespeare and his colleagues were relieved at least from that trouble when they became King’s Men in 1603. When the Plague closed the Globe, they were entitled to royal compensation. In February 1604, Richard Burbage was presented with the colossal sum of £30 “for the maintenance and relief of himself and the rest of his company being prohibited to present any plays publicly in or near London by reason of the great peril that might growe through the extraordinary concourse and assemblie of people to a newe increase in the plague, till it shall please God to settle the city in a more perfect health.” You have to love the Elizabethans!

Throughout the whole book, Shakespeare the man is thankfully kept in the background. The authoress is careful to state clearly what we know for sure (nothing) and what is sheer guesswork (everything). When she quotes the detailed descriptions of Shakespeare’s character by John Aubrey and Thomas Fuller, she wisely reminds us that these fellows were born just a few years before Shakespeare’s death. Nevertheless, she tentatively accepts their speculations that Will, though a good mixer, was of relatively abstemious disposition. He preferred to burn the midnight oil writing and re-writing rather than carousing. Considering Shakespeare’s longevity and productivity, this doesn’t sound implausible. Fuller’s famous description of the battle of wits between Jonson and Shakespeare in the Mermaid Tavern is probably fictional, maybe because he invented it or maybe because (as Mistress Arnold somewhat naively thinks) Shakespeare didn’t frequent the place, but the naval imagery is so accurate and revealing that it deserves to be quoted:

Which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war. Master Jonson (like the former) was built far higher in learning; solid, but slow, in his performances. Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention.

As history has confirmed ever since, Shakespeare has indeed destroyed Jonson much like the English fleet destroyed the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Another favourite quote, this time by Mistress Arnold, is her only take on the “Authorship Question”. This happens in the introduction and, rightly, is never heard of again. Thanks to his profound obscurity as a man, she says, “we are all tempted to create our own Shakespeare, in our own image.” This godlike activity leads Mistress Arnold to a passage I cannot resist quoting:

Which is perhaps one explanation for the extraordinary efforts, by many writers and academics, to strip Shakespeare himself of the authorship of his works and attribute them to someone – anyone? – else. Is this the reason for frequently touted theories that Shakespeare was Irish, French, even German? Or that he was not the author of his own plays, a distinction which must instead be awarded to the Earl of Oxford, Sir Francis Bacon, to anyone it seems apart from William Shakespeare himself. There are over 5,000 books on this subject alone. My own feeling is that these theories originate from literary snobbery, from a mind-set that cannot endure the thought of such talent pouring forth from the son of a provincial glove-maker who never attended university.

Shakespeare’s plays are mentioned and quoted frequently, but mostly when they serve to illuminate the epoch. Mistress Arnold has some interesting things to say on the subject. I’m not sure I agree with her that topical references are rare in Will’s plays. I suspect they are numerous, but most of them, alas, have been lost in the endless maze of time. Somewhat contrary to her words, the authoress mentions a number of topical references beyond the famous one about the Irish campaign of Essex (Henry V, Act 5, Prologue). She makes wonderful sense of the cryptic conversation about children actors between Hamlet and Rosencrantz (Hamlet, II.2.) and even speculates that Touchstone’s mysterious “great reckoning in a little room” (As You Like It, III.3.) may be a reference to Marlowe’s grisly death. It is well known that Macbeth was at least partly written to please the Scottish sentiments and witch-hunting passions of James I, but I didn’t know the story – a true story – of the witch trials connected with his marriage to Anne of Denmark. With this in mind, you read how the Weird Sisters plan to raise storms at sea (I.3.) with a different mind. And the Porter is even cooler if he refers obliquely to Jesuits and the Gunpowder Plot!

Newcomers to Shakespeare who want to know more about his times can’t go wrong with this book. Readable, informative and with a great index, it’s a nice volume to read for pleasure or use as a reference. It is a fine alternative to Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as a Stage (2007), though less lively and more specialised. G. B. Harrison’s classics Introducing Shakespeare (1939, rev. 1954) and Shakespeare At Work (1958) are highly recommended for his unique insights as well. Experienced Shakespeareans may well find all these books superfluous, but since they are not necessarily experienced Elizabethans, they may find them useful as a brief introduction to the historical background against which Shakespeare wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote… ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Aug 1, 2016 |
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The life of William Shakespeare, Britain's greatest dramatist, was inextricably linked with the history of London. Together, the great writer and the great city came of age and confronted triumph and tragedy. Triumph came when Shakespeare's company, the Chamberlain's Men, opened the Globe playhouse on Bankside in 1599, under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I. Tragedy touched the lives of many of his contemporaries, from fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe to the disgraced Earl of Essex, while London struggled against the ever-present threat of riots, rebellions and outbreaks of plague.… (more)

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