The world might be forgiven for rolling its eyes at the prospect of another book on Shakespeare. Does Shakespeare in London, the latest addition to the Bloomsbury Arden list, have anything new to say? The answer is a confident yes.
Shakespeare in London is a short book with big ambitions. It weaves together various narratives – Shakespeare’s London career, a physical journey west to east across early-modern London – with vivid readings of eight plays, each of which is used to explore aspects of London life around the turn of the 17th century. So, for example, the book opens with an account of Titus Andronicus, relating it to the culture of punishment, bloodshed and retribution embodied in the site of Tyburn.
The process is not without its difficulties. Where the Merchant of Venice, say, can be mapped closely onto an examination of the law, or King Lear onto early modern ideas of medicine and madness, the approach taken to Romeo & Juliet – marrying it to the domestic wealth and power evident in the great riverside mansions on the Strand – is more subtle, perhaps even metaphorical.
But on balance the flexibility of that approach is one of the book’s greatest strengths. The fact that the book is a wholly collective effort and each chapter is co-authored by all three authors seems commendably appropriate to the collaborative working practices of the theatre they describe.
Shakespeare is one of the least literal of the early modern playwrights. Whereas the work of Jonson, say, or Middleton gains strength and purpose from its precise and detailed evocation of contemporary London, Shakespeare is characteristically more elusive – evasive, even.
The authors both capture and, in some ways, mirror that trait: reflecting on Shakespeare’s writing at the Globe they self-consciously echo their own description of early-modern London as being always and never the same.
The society revealed here, whether focusing on religion or scientific experimentation or economics, is one undergoing a seismic collision of values. Innovation is competing with tradition; modernity with the memorially fixed. This is, of course, as true of the material city, in which the great monastic houses had been repurposed into mansions – as well as the odd theatre or two – if not torn down all together, as it is of the multitude of ideas the city contains.
The book is clearly aimed at a general audience and, as such, benefits greatly from the bold decision to dispense with the compulsive hat-tipping and knee-bending to the vast array of literary critics that so bedevils much contemporary academic writing. That is not to say that the text is unacademic – the ideas and insights of others are scrupulously noted where relevant and there is an excellent selection of further reading and works cited at the end. But the writers’ decision has freed them to create a more allusive, thought-provoking and approachable work that should be required reading for any undergraduate student of early-modern English literature.
Shakespeare in London offers useful insights into Shakespeare’s work and his working practices. But it is also a wonderful, wide-ranging introduction to the richness and complexity of late-Elizabethan and early-Jacobean society. It would be instructive reading for anyone, including young historians, although its play-by-play structure might sadly alienate those outside the silo of English studies who are less engaged by the literary culture.
This review first appeared in the August 2015 issue of History Today.
Read more of Mathew’s reviews here.