London at the end of the 16th century already had a population of around 100,000 and included royalty, courtiers, noblemen, merchants, artisans, thieves, beggars, and prostitutes. There were also a large number of foreigners from continental Europe so that even in those days one would hear a lot of foreign languages being spoken.
London appears in several of Shakespeare’s plays: Richard III’s brother and nephews were killed in the Tower of London, while the Boar’s Head Inn where Falstaff spends his time in Henry IV parts one and two was in Eastcheap.
The River Thames was a vital contributor to the prosperity of the city bringing, as it did, ships carrying goods from abroad and taking back with them goods manufactured in London and beyond. Unfortunately it was also badly polluted, being full of both industrial and human waste, and must have been a serious carrier of disease. Audiences visiting the Globe Theatre must have hoped that there would be cool weather in order to keep down the stench of the river flowing past next door to it.
London Bridge was erected by the Romans and the site was chosen because it was the first place as you come up the Thames from its’ estuary that was narrow enough to erect a bridge. At the time of Shakespeare there were over 100 buildings on the bridge, many of which were shops with apartments above them, market stalls, and the mighty Nonesuch House – a four story palace so named because there was “none such” like it in Europe.
In Shakespeare’s day the queen had several palaces around London including Westminster, St. James, Whitehall, Greenwich, Richmond, Hampton Court, and Windsor Castle. The royal court consisted of over 1,000 people – courtiers, servants and other attendants – and the queen and her court frequently moved from one palace to another, not just to change the view but for a very basic more practical reason. There was no plumbing in any of the palaces and the human waste created by over 1,000 people obviously produced a very unpleasant atmosphere. Although the flush toilet was invented by one John Harrington, one of the queen’s courtiers, it didn’t get installed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. (Incidentally, the American slang term for the toilet – “the john” – was in honour of its’ inventor!).
In Shakespeare’s day most of the population of London either worked for a living, begged, or stole. The merchants, tradesmen and manufacturers contributed immensely to the growth of the city and although anyone with a skill set could make a living one of the problems that they faced was the guild system. In order to work in a particular trade you had to be a member of the appropriate guild, in much the same way as some trade unions operated in the 20th century. Your rank in the guild depended on your level of skill and length of time you had worked. However, if for some reason you were expelled from the guild you could no longer find work, which meant that in London you would join the ranks of the poor and be reduced to begging or stealing.
Those wanting to learn more about Shakespeare should book our walking Shakespeare tour here. You will learn more about the history and London life of the world’s most famous playwright.
Being poor was not just a hardship, but was also likely to make you more vulnerable to disease. The plague still came and went, and in London was a part of life, especially as the city’s population grew at an alarming rate with the arrival of many foreigners. In fact, by 1601 there was so much poverty that the queen “handed down ‘An Act for the Relief of the Poor’, which mandated local, community responses to indigent populations. The government wished to provide for the poor not necessarily out of any sense of charity or human kindness, but rather because of the plague” (https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/shakespeares-london).
Theft and burglary abounded, and there were many footpads and pickpockets in the crowded streets in Shakespeare’s day who stole in order to be able to live.