The Bard at large in the capital
Despite the time the playwright spent in the city, he never became a Londoner, says Lisa Hopkins
Shakespeare and London By Duncan Salkeld
Oxford University Press 224pp, £50.00 and £16.99 ISBN 9780198709947 and 9954 Published 27 June 2018
Awhile ago, my neighbour’s daughter, doing a school project on Shakespeare, asked me what was the most interesting thing I knew about him. My answer was that he never went to prison. This was, of course, good news for Shakespeare, and a testimony to his skill in dramatising difficult issues, but it might have been bad news for Duncan Salkeld’s book, whose lifeblood is people who went to prison, or at least came to the attention of authority.
Salkeld is the master of the unpromising-looking record. He can do wonders with a baptism or burial entry, as with that for Richard Burbage’s daughter Juliet (he also identifies other resonant names, such as the couple named Elsinore who kept a victuallinghouse). He can do even more wonders with the report of an actual or supposed crime (one of the few times Shakespeare himself surfaces in Salkeld’s archive is when a move to Southwark left him apparently still liable for tax at his previous address). He is particularly good with sex crime, although he has an advantage here because there was such a lot of it about. Indeed, one might almost conclude that the French and Italian populations of early modern London never did anything else, although I’m sure that the Genoese financier Sir Horatio Pallavicino and his uncle led full, rounded lives when not harassing very young girls.
The star of the show, the madam Black Luce, is already familiar as one of Salkeld’s previous contributions to the recovery of black lives in London, but there is other material that is new and welcome. Black Luce’s story is also one of many places in which Salkeld shows himself alert to the fact that London was a very different city for men (for whom it could represent opportunity) and for women (for whom it was all too often a place to be exploited). There is also a nice sense of the materiality of the early modern city – its rivers, its Roman wall, the mysterious London stone of which it was so proud – and some judicious reflection on how Shakespeare does (or, more usually, does not) reflect it in his plays.
In the end, though, Salkeld concludes that, despite his long residence there, Shakespeare was never really a Londoner. His early plays transmit a strong sense of the excitement of a young man arriving in a strange city, yet the later ones lay the emphasis primarily on the strangeness. Salkeld notes too that Shakespeare tended to live in areas with a high population of other nationalities, and that an account of Jonson’s London, or Middleton’s, Heywood’s or Dekker’s, would look very different.
Personally, I would have preferred a straight bibliography to the annotated list of further reading, which I found cumbersome, and the book could sometimes be a little kinder to the non-specialist (for instance, John Hall is mentioned without the clarification that he was Shakespeare’s son-in-law).
Yet Salkeld has produced a valuable, scholarly account of an important topic that is informed by recent archaeological discoveries as well as archival work, and which never loses sight of the human touch.