London as Shakespeare liked it
LONDON — In 1587 a young man from the provinces came to London. Twenty-three-year-old Will from Warwickshire wanted to be a writer, and in Queen Elizabeth's beautiful and bloody, marvelous and murderous metropolis, theater was the new sensation.
But the London that called out to William Shakespeare was a far different city from today's megalopolis. During the past four centuries, the great fire of 1666, and the German blitz of World War II destroyed most of Elizabethan London. Fortunately, however, Shakespeare sleuths can still find places where our man lived and worked.
The Bard's life is a marvelous mystery. Hard facts are so few that we have to look to the writings to find the man. Many of his fabulous characters were inspired by the bawdy, bibulous Elizabethans who were William's friends and neighbors along the south bank of the Thames. This area was a Tudor Las Vegas-cum-Hollywood, and Shakespeare lived at its heart.
Tudor Londoners drank ale, never the poisonous local water - so our first stop is the George Inn. Hidden behind an unpromising sooty facade, this 16th-century pub was built around three sides of a courtyard.
Before Elizabethan impresarios saw the profit in building theaters, plays were performed in inns. The audience stood on the double-tiered balconies, the players working the crowd from below.
The George was one of Shakespeare's local pubs. He probably watched plays here, supping the evening away after the show. Four centuries later, it's still a working pub, restaurant, and - in summer - a theater, too. So before starting our walk down the South Bank, sit in the George's high pine settles, which divide the tables in the smallest of the bars.
Westward down the riverbank is London's oldest Gothic building, Southwark Cathedral. In Elizabethan times, this was St. Mary Overy - Shakespeare's parish church. In those days, everybody went to church, and William must have attended services here many times.
St. Mary's held a special place in Shakespeare's heart. On a cold December morning in 1607 he buried his brother Edmond here. Edmond wanted to be an actor and followed William to London. But by the age of 27, he was dead. We sense William's grief by the way he commemorated his brother: Edmond was buried in the choir loft, at the cost of 20 shillings, a sum that only a gentleman writer such as William could afford. Edmond's gravestone still sits in Southwark Cathedral choir.
William's walk to work was westward along the Thames path - from his lodgings by the cathedral to Bankside. Bankside was the Elizabethan Broadway, home to the Rose, the Swan, and the Globe theaters.
Secreted among the space-age art galleries and glassy penthouses of modern Bankside is London's tribute to Shakespeare: the new Globe Theater. Shakespeare was a shareholder in the original Globe. Built in 1599, the "wooden O"-shaped playhouse charmed audiences with his celebrated plays until Puritan frenzy closed the theaters and the Globe crumbled into the Bankside mud.
Four hundred years later, US director and actor Sam Wanamaker came to London. He was shocked by the meager memorial plaque marking the spot. Wanamaker was determined to create a fitting tribute, and the idea to rebuild Shakespeare's Globe was born. The new Globe is made from the same green oak and horse-hair plaster as the earlier theater, and covered by the only thatched roof in London (thatched roofs were banned after the 1666 fire that destroyed the city).
So the Globe graces London's riverscape once again, and its dynamic theater company offers Shakespeare's plays in the theater they were written for.
The "groundlings" are back, too - audience members who pay £5 to stand and watch the play. In Shakespeare's time these were the ordinary people who paid one penny to come in.
They would drink and shout, and, since they owned only one set of clothes each and had an aversion to bathing, on a hot day the seething masses would not smell so good; they earned the name "the penny stinkers."
During the summer season of plays, the more fragrant modern groundlings are encouraged to cheer and jeer the actors. They can also visit a Shakespeare exhibition, tour the theater, and visit the original foundations of the Rose Theatre.
Across the River Thames at Victoria Embankment is a building Shakespeare knew: Middle Temple Hall. A survivor of the Great Fire of London, this oak- timbered hall with its imposing Gothic wooden ceiling, detailed carvings, and ornamental armor was home to English lawyers.
In one of those elusive glimpses of Shakespeare's life, on Feb. 2, 1602, a lawyer at the Middle Temple wrote in his diary: "At our feast wee had a play called 'Twelve Night or What You Will.' "
He didn't say if the performance was a success, but since Elizabeth I was in the audience, it's pretty certain that Shakespeare was there to see if the queen enjoyed the play.
After a short walk along the north bank of the Thames, we come upon another building Shakespeare would recognize: Westminster Abbey. By the time he left London to retire to Stratford in 1612, the glovemaker's son was the most popular writer in England. Shakespeare would certainly have visited the Abbey, but he could never have imagined that his statue would stand in Poet's Corner.
Most people associate Shakespeare with Stratford, where he was born and buried, but his working life was spent in London. Londoners inspired his stories and feted him for his tales. And though the city is much changed, if you spend a few moments in the places where he lived and worked, you can conjure up the spirit of the writer's life.
George Inn - 77 Borough High Street, SE1. Open Monday-Saturday,11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday, noon-10:30 p.m.
Southwark Cathedral - Montague Close, SE1. Open 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Check for times of services. Phone: 020-7367-6700.
Shakespeare's Globe - 21 New Globe Walk, SE1. Website: www.shakespeares globe.org.
Middle Temple Hall - Middle Temple Lane, EC4. Open 10 a.m.-11:30 a.m. and 3-4 p.m. Check beforehand, as the building closes for functions.
Westminster Abbey - Broad Sanctuary, SW1. Open 9:30 a.m.-3:45 p.m. Monday-Friday. Online at www.westminster-abbey.org. Check before going, as the Abbey is closed to visitors during services.