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Shakespeare in Spitalfields

October 29, 2009
by the gentle author


This nineteenth century Staffordshire figure of Shakespeare stands on my chimney piece in Spitalfields to remind me of the writer I love best. (On the right is Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth and on the left is her brother John Phillip Kemble as Hamlet.)

Coming across William Shakespeare’s  younger brother Edmond‘s tombstone in Southwark recently and learning that some of William’s plays were first performed in our neighbourhood has set me wondering about whether he was actually here in Spitalfields.

According to a memo by fellow actor Ned Alleyn, in 1596 Shakespeare lived “near the Bear Garden in Southwark.” London Bridge was the only bridge across the Thames in those days, so Shakespeare must have walked up and down Bishopsgate (he knew it as Bishoppes gate streete) whenever he made his way between Southwark and Shoreditch, while his plays were being performed at the Theatre and the Curtain Theatre here on Curtain Rd .

Maybe he got sick of trudging to and fro, commuting across the City? – because in  1598 there is a William Shakespeare listed by the tax collectors as resident in the parish of St Anne’s, Bishopsgate, though we cannot be certain if this was our man. We know he was lodging on Silver St (at the south of the Barbican) in 1604, based on the words of a maid “one Mr Shakespeare laye in the house” and a court deposition signed by Shakespeare himself when his landlord was challenged with not paying his daughter’s dowry

For five years I lived in the Highlands of Scotland and I remember the Gaelic weavers’ working songs, so it touched a chord with me when in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays I came across Falstaff’s line from “Henry IV Part One” in a scene at the Boar’s Head, Eastcheap in the City of London, “I would I were a weaver. I could sing all manner of songs.” Wool was the primary industry in Shakespeare’s day and in Spitalfields we have Tenterground, where once pieces of newly woven woollen cloth were staked out to dry. Surely the weavers sang at their work here just as the those in the Hebrides still do today? Shakespeare could have heard them singing when he walked through Spitalfields.

I was further intrigued to discover that in the earlier Quarto edition of 1598 the line reads “I could sing psalms or anything”. Many of the wool weavers in Shakespeare’s time were Calvinist exiles from Flanders who fled the Duke of Alva and were known for their love of psalmody. Scholars believe the line was altered in the First Folio to prevent any politically incorrect anti-Protestant reading.

I rest my case with a line from Shakespeare’s fellow playwright and drinking pal Ben Jonson, whose character Cutbeard in “The Silent Woman” has the line, “He got his cold with sitting up late and singing catches with clothworkers”.

So there you have it, Shakespeare knew Spitalfields and it is no stretch of the imagination to envisage him and Jonson enjoying late night singing sessions with the weavers here, just like the guys who come on all-night benders to the clubs in Brick Lane nowadays. And of course, Shakespeare portrayed a weaver in the character of Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – is it possible he met the prototype in Spitalfields?


4 Responses leave one →
  1. Ade Clarke permalink
    October 29, 2009

    Hi gentle author.

    Love the blog which I discovered yesterday!

    You may be interested in ‘Shakespeare’s Women’ – a bit of fringe theatre being performed in the Old Blue Last on Great Eastern Street at 3.00 on Saturday afternoon. This is of course just about where Shakespeare’s original theatre was. The piece is being performed by Lights of London who did ‘Shakespeare in Shoreditch’ at the same venue last year.

  2. February 13, 2010

    This was fascinating to read. It led me on a hunt for Shakespeare residences. Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Sharon O'Connor permalink
    April 15, 2014

    Fellow actor Ned Alleyn is a Bishopsgate lad. Born here and baptised in St Botolph’s, his father had a pub on Bishopsgate. Marlowe wrote Dr Faustus and other plays for him and he became spectacularly successful with his own theatre and bear baiting company. His will still benefits the Central Foundations schools today.

  4. Nick Whitsun-Jones permalink
    December 27, 2015

    Fascinating, as are all your Shakespeare writings.

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