James Harriman-Smith, Shakespeare and the City: The Theatrical City

July 8, 2011 in Essay, Shakespeare

Cheapside ran with wine, Cornhill was festooned with pageantry, and the Lord Mayor dressed in the most elaborate of costumes; 17th November was an important occasion in Elizabethan London, a time when, in Agnes Strickland’s words, “The city of London might…have been termed a stage.” [Ackroyd (2000), 157] 17th November, or Saint Hugh’s Day, was the Accession Day of Queen Elizabeth I, the official celebration and commemoration of her ascending to the throne of England. Not only did the festivities involve a transient, theatrical transformation of London redolent with neoclassical references to Astraea redux and the Golden Age of Ovid, but they also went down in art, preserved in such paintings as Roy Strong’s Eliza Triumphis and echoed throughout the plays of William Shakespeare. The form of the Accession Day pageant and celebrations can be clearly discerned behind one of Shakespeare’s most remarkable evocations of the city:

CHORUS…But now behold,
In the quick forge and working-house of thought,
How London doth pour out her citizens.
The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of th’antique Rome
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in;
As, by a lower but as loving likelihood,
Were now the General of our gracious Empress,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit
To welcome him! Much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry. Now in London place him.
(King Henry V, 5 Chorus 22-35)
[Note: a variety of critical editions have been used for the plays cited in this essay. Please refer to bibliography.]

Before its obvious contemporary political resonance is discussed, it is necessary to examine the language of this passage in detail. Despite the urgency and excitement of “now behold”, the Chorus delays the mention of “London” with a metaphorical description of the imaginative process. Like many of the Chorus’ speeches that beg the audience to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” (Prologue 23), the language of “quick forge and working-house of thought” suggests the constructedness of theatrical endeavour and, perhaps, of kingship itself. However, the metaphor “quick forge and working-house of thought” also takes for its vehicle the workshops and industries of Elizabethan London. Incidentally, so does “piece out” by calling up the work of a tailor.[cf. OED “piece out”: ‘To enlarge or complete by the addition of a piece; to eke out or extend with extra pieces’; and “piece”: 1. trans. a. ‘To mend, make whole, or complete by adding a piece or pieces; to patch.’] As in the labour spent constructing the triumphal arches, and fake scenery of the Accession Day pageant, so is this constructedness an urban effort. From this position things grow more complex: the first simile equates Elizabethan London with Rome, Henry V with Caesar. Such an equation is not uncommon: as the title of Roy Strong’s painting made clear, the Accession Day procession used the Roman military triumph as a model; London and Rome (and Troy) were habitually linked as part of the translatio imperii;[That is to say, the belief that imperial power moved westward through the ages.] and, furthermore, Henry V was written in the same year as Julius Caesar and it is not unreasonable to expect some cross pollination. The second simile is a rarity in Shakespeare’s opus: it is not only a contemporary reference, but a reference to a contemporary hope: that the Earl of Essex would return triumphant from his attempts to quash the Irish rebellions. The passage goes out of its way to avoid any hints of treason: Essex is “the General of our gracious Empress”, no Caesar nor Henry V; and the royal welcome of “this Harry” is with “much more cause”. Nevertheless, such blunt denial, as close to the edge of dramatic illusion as only a choric figure can be, suggests that such equation contained a risky contemporary political resonance that had to be avoided. But this chorus’ purpose is not to make a political statement anyway: the last sentence is as clear as it can be when it tells the audience to “Now in London place him”, and what is truly remarkable about this passage is the way in which a city is evoked as a constant across time. Or, more precisely, the relationship of a large group of people to a single figure, to a single piece of display, is considered as something unchanging in this presentation of the city.

“Now in London place him” is not the last sentence of the Chorus’ speech, though; by the end of the description Henry V is “back return again to France”, and the plot moves on from that position. The fact that the Chorus continues smoothly from such a resonant description of contemporary London helps to counteract the way in which a metatheatrical reference to the current urban milieu normally occurs at the conclusion of a play, and thus limits the ‘episodic’ feel of a play already sharply demarcated into acts. Much can be discerned about the relationship between drama and the city, which provided space for its theatre and the money of its audience, by examining a few of those moments at the end of the play when the theatre opens up to the city around it and the city folk watching it, where the world of the play and of the theatre appear to come into alignment. Perhaps the best example is the conclusion of Jonson’s Volpone:

1st AVVOCATO […] Away with them!
Let all that see these vices thus rewarded
Take heart, and love to study ’em. Mischiefs feed
Like beasts till they be fat, and then they bleed.

[Exeunt all. Volpone re-enters]

VOLPONE The seasoning of a play is the applause.
Now, though the fox be punished by the laws,
He yet doth hope there is no suffering due
For any fact which he hath done ’gainst you;
If there be, censure him – here he doubtful stands.
If not, fare jovially, and clap your hands.
(Volpone, 5xii148-57)

The stage direction is editorial, but, regardless of who is on stage, the effect is very clear indeed. The couplet of the 1st Avvocato, with its clear masculine endings, sounds like the conclusion to the play, and the applause may even have started when Volpone comes forward to speak. If so, this would add an extra level of irony to “The seasoning of the play is the applause” since this line already plays upon the animal imagery of the 1st Avvocato: once the lawyer has (metaphorically) slaughtered the “beast”, Volpone steps forward to ask the audience to “season” it. In a play infused with the influence of animal fables (Volpone himself owes no small debt to the French Reynard the Fox), a culinary conclusion is very apt. This may amuse the audience but the real force of the epilogue is the way in which Volpone makes an alternate tribunal out of the audience. The city of the play has condemned the wily Fox, but the character’s final trick is, as the Chorus of Henry V does, to walk the line between the place represented on stage and the place of the theatre to achieve a different kind of pardon. Volpone’s words tell his audience the meaning of their applause, and, perhaps, briefly offer a window into the dynamics of the city itself that, at tribunal, or at play, seeks and is validated by an audience. Of course, Jonson’s play is far from unique in this: the declaration of Face that he “puts myself / On you” (5.v.163-4) at the conclusion of the highly metatheatrical Alchemist has much the same effect. So too is the ending of Eastward Ho! a useful example: because the play parodies ‘city comedy’, its inclusion of such an ending helps to link an urban awareness and concluding metatheatre even more strongly; furthermore, the occasion it characters make reference to is none other than the Accession Day pageantry.

QUICKSILVER …See if the streets and the fronts of the houses be not stuck with people, and the windows filled with ladies, as on the solemn day of the pageant.
(Eastward Ho! Epilogue 5-6)

Shakespeare too, at the end of both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest also takes the opportunity an epilogue offers to collapse illusion to have characters beg “indulgence” or to “be friends”. But the best example of them all has to be the conclusion of King Henry VIII. Now known as a collaborative effort between Shakespeare and Fletcher, its last few scenes represent a sustained evocation of the city and its people that concludes with Cranmer’s famous ‘prophecy’ of both Elizabeth I, and he “Who from the sacred ashes of her honour/Shall star-like rise as great in fame as she was, /And so stand fixed” (5.iv.45-7), James I. The sequence of scenes is important: the action before Cranmer’s prophecy is focused on the Porter and his Man, and is filled with a sense of the city’s closeness. The Porter’s first line, “You’ll leave your noise anon, ye rascals. Do you take the court for Parish Garden? Ye rude slaves, leave your gaping” (5.iii.1-3) not only acts as an implicit stage direction for some off-stage noise to represent crowds outside the court, but actually makes reference to some other, more literally ‘off stage’ noises. A glance at a map of seventeenth century London shows the proximity of the Globe and Paris(h) Garden, both situated on the Bankside, and the latter’s bull- and bear-baiting drew crowds and noise easily audible at the Globe. Later references to “Paul’s” (14), “Moorfields” (31), “youths that thunder at a playhouse” (57), and the Porter’s order for “You i’th’chamblet, get up o’th’rail,” (86-7)["Chamblet" or 'camlet': expensive material made from silk and hair, worn by wealthier playgoers; “rail”: probably a low railing that went round the stage. – McMullan, 426] perpetuate the city’s presence and bring it even closer. Every time the city is articulated it is shaped: rhetorical magic creates the fiction on stage, but also reminds the audience of where they are. When Cranmer delivers the prophecy, he does so from this position so that he speaks both fictional, climactic revelation, and contemporary commentary and praise. This play, even more than the other conclusions open to the audience, offers a direct comment on contemporary theatre and society. The play’s own epilogue, probably Fletcher’s, that follows seems weak in comparison to this larger concluding movement.

So far, we have seen a few of those moments where the interface between Shakespeare and others’ plays and the city is at its clearest. At such points, the drama attempts to gloss the society, the city, or at least the audience of city folk, around it. This is only a small sample of Shakespeare’s approaches to the city; Anne Barton has written that the plays “are filled with evasions of the urban”, but, as should already be apparent, this is not quite right. The epilogues of The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and others would all be directly addressed to an audience of city-dwellers, be they groundlings or gallants (as well as to a court audience, and, if touring, a provincial one); the noise of the “Parish Garden” could be heard in a theatre built into the city; and even Henry V, which admittedly has a very limited portrayal of actual urban events, still approaches the city in its choruses and the reminiscing of the troops before Agincourt. What would be more accurate is to say that Shakespeare approaches the urban by a roundabout route, and thus does not ‘evade’ it. To return to my earlier references to the triumphal tradition behind the Accession Day parades or the penultimate chorus of Henry V, this roundabout route to the urban is present in several other similar descriptions, all to be found in Shakespeare’s Roman Plays.

Julius Caesar is known for its anachronistic mentioning of clocks and tunics, and there is the same mix of Elizabethan “chimney-tops” and Roman generals in Murellus’ chastising description of the citizens’ previous festivities:

MURELLUS …Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climbed up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome.
(Julius Caesar 1.i.36-41)

Although this is quite a clear description, it should be noted that Murellus is describing something that happened in the past. Here the Rome of Pompey’s triumph is used to gloss the Rome of Caesar’s return; but, at the same time, the Rome of Caesar is seen through an Elizabethan overlay of “chimney tops”. This may result, as references to “cobblers”, and “base mechanicals” in this scene certainly do, from North’s Elizabethan translation of Plutarch. What is important, though, is the way in which Murellus’ strange, composite Rome is inextricably part of his argument, and of the play’s development. A similar use of the city occurs in Anthony and Cleopatra:

CLEOPATRA Now, Iras, what think’st thou?
Thou an Egyptian puppet shall be shown
In Rome as well as I. Mechanic slaves
With greasy aprons, rules and hammers shall
Uplift us to the view. In their thick breaths,
Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded
And forced to drink their vapour.
(Antony and Cleopatra 5.ii.206-12)

Once more, the city is presented hypothetically, and as part of an argument. It is also distinctly Elizabethan in flavour: Cleopatra goes on to say how “scald rhymers [will]/Ballad us out o’tune” and “quick comedians”, including “Some squeaking Cleopatra boy” (214-9), will portray her and Antony. Of course, this is exactly what the Elizabethan theatre has been doing for the last two hours. Rather like the peculiarly self-aware characters of Troilus and Cressida, Cleopatra sees her future and it is in a city: she can escape Rome, but London and the pervasive Elizabethan milieu can never be completely evaded. The (literal) distaste and contempt that inflects Cleopatra’s imagery of “gross diet” and being “forced to drink their vapour”, resembles Brutus’ withering description of Coriolanus’ triumphal return from Corioles:

BRUTUS […] Your prattling nurse
Into a rapture lets her baby cry
While she chats him. The kitchen malkin pins
Her richest lockram ’bout her reechy neck,
Clambering the walls to eye him. Stalls, bulks, windows
Are smothered up, leads filled, and ridges horsed
With variable complexions, all agreeing
In earnestness to see him.
(Coriolanus 2.i.179-87)

The triplet of “chats him”, “eye him”, “see him”, contributes as much as “reechy” and “smothered” to a sense of commonness that Brutus (rather ironically, given his being one of the people’s tribunes) seeks to attribute to Coriolanus. As in the other two examples, the “leads”, “lockram”, and “malkin” (a shortened version of Matilda, printed as a proper name, ‘Malkin’ in the First Folio) all create the same bifocal effect of Rome in Elizabethan terms. Or, rather, Jacobean, since passages of Brutus’ description echo two accounts of James I’s accession day parade: Dekker’s The Magnificent Entertainment and Jonson’s Ben Jonson His Part of King James his Royall and Magnificent Entertainement through his Honorable Cittie of London.[David George, Notes &Queries, 241 (June 1966): 164] The Tribune’s words also manage to find a middle ground between Cleopatra’s hypothetical experience and Murellus’ evocation of past triumph: for although Brutus is ostensibly describing something that just happened, the triumph that the audience has seen on stage consists only of Cominius, Lartius, Coriolanus, Captains, Soldiers, and a Herald (2.i.134SD). This is not to say Brutus is lying: he is simply telling Sicinius and the audience what has been going on offstage, elsewhere in Rome; alternatively, as with the Porter of Henry VIII, he could also be describing a rather different offstage. The “reechy” crowds so eager to see Coriolanus could have been present earlier in the play: they could have been the groundlings themselves.

It is hard to conceive the difference between the early modern theatres, especially amphitheatres like the Globe, and the modern stage. Andrew Gurr has pointed out several differences. The first of them is his distinction between “early audiences” and “modern spectators” [Gurr (2004), 1]; that is to say a collective mass of listeners, and a group of individual spectators. One reason for this difference is that, what with many gallants wearing elaborate headgear or smoking vast quantities of tobacco, the early modern theatregoer would not have been able to see very well at all. This was not for lack of trying: ‘auditors’ all but surrounded the stage so that, if you did manage to see past the plumes and puffs, the view would be both of actor and of the audience members behind him, along with itinerant tradesmen, prostitutes and thieves. An obvious result of this is that what Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief” was exceptionally difficult in such a theatre. Not just sight, but touch, smell, hearing, and (should you have bought an apple as refreshment) taste constantly and intrusively reminded the auditor of where they were. There were also no on-site toilets. In such an environment, then, there was only one illusion that could be produced with ease, and that was the illusion of the city itself. Shakespeare’s plays do not evade the urban, instead their illusions must respond to and profit from the presence of city. The city is intrusive, and not just in the Roman plays, which, as has been noted, partake of a clear intellectual and traditional link between Rome and London, England and the world of Homer, Ovid, and Virgil. Anne Barton notes that even As You Like It has Duke Senior call deer the “native burghers of this desert city” (2.i.23), and Jaques (according to the First Lord) call cows “you fat and greasy citizens” (2.i.55) [Barton (1994), 331]. These intrusions are part of the chaos of the city, its novelty and uncertainty; and it can be said that the Accession Day pageant did not complicate the city by making it into a stage, but simplified it instead. The Chorus’, Brutus’, Cleopatra’s, and Marcellus’ conceptions of the city are all so clear as to be part of a wider expression, whether of the fear of shame, the sense of greatness, or otherwise. The city of the pageant and other special occasions was uncomplicated, but this is not to say that Shakespeare was unaware of the complexity and strangeness of the normal, everyday city in which he lived. It is to that city and Shakespeare’s relation to it that I will now turn.

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