The unforced and vibrant multiculturalism, the cacophany of languages and accents—these are the traits of 21st-century London that allow me to conceive something of the excitement of the 1590s.
London again. Late April. A coffee shop off Russell Square. I’ve just paid an outrageous sum for a cappuccino—most of it, I think, for the privilege of sitting down briefly to watch the life outside the window. Later I’ll walk over to Foyles on Charing Cross Road to see if a book I’ve ordered has arrived. Then I’ll head home to my B&B on Cartwright Gardens, find some dinner, maybe drink a pint at the Dolphin, do a bit more reading, and turn in.
So goes another Sunday afternoon. Tomorrow I’ll be back in the Manuscript Room at the British Library, pursuing the tasks that, given institutional simplifications, are euphemistically classified as “research.” What I’m really doing is writing a book about theater and philosophy at the end of the 16th century, trying to explain to my students, and to myself, why the most vigorous and disturbing explorations of contemporary morality occurred in drama, especially in tragedy. It’s not enough to say that Shakespeare’s astonishing talent answers the question, since his contemporaries—Marlowe, Webster, Middleton, and others—also wrote plays that challenged current orthodoxies and posed questions that still make people uneasy. About revenge, for instance. Aren’t there occasions, asks Kyd in The Spanish Tragedy, when private vengeance is the only viable response to provocation? Or sibling incest. Yes, we all experience the kneejerk revulsion. But Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore suggests that sociohistorical arguments against such behavior may be undercut by systemic corruption within the very societies that advance them.
My own hypopthesis is that Renaissance skepticism provides a major clue as to why the dramatic debates were so far-reaching. Derived from ancient sources, but transformed in the climate of Reformation theological dispute, skepticism’s essence in early-modern Europe lay in the sustained critical examination of all dogmatic viewpoints—even those generated by rational doubt. It was the nemesis of the doctrinaire, the enthusiastic, the unconsidered. It attacked fashionable as well as traditional outlooks, and in the hands of thoughtful practitioners became a corrosive intellectual force that could wear down the sharp edges of virtually any piety or position. The French essayist Montaigne was well aware of skepticism’s power; he used it to deride cultural chauvinism and religious warfare in his own scarred nation. But across the channel English writers also tapped into skeptical habits of mind, even if they weren’t fully conscious of it. Whether they mocked Calvinist predestination, like Marlowe in Doctor Faustus, or probed the relations between violence and sexual fixation, like Middleton in The Changeling, they were passionately involved in thought-experiments that questioned revered orthodoxies of their culture. It might even be said that the most searching moral philosophy in Renaissance England was carried out not by theologians or professional intellectuals but by playwrights for the popular stage.
Of course the London that produced the plays I revere is light-years removed from the London whose archives I haunt. I know the city well—I first visited it in 1968 as a boy of 11 and have returned many times since, including a stint as a college student in the ’70s—so I have a good sense of what to expect and am seldom surprised by what I see. But much about London, indeed much about Britain, disappoints me, and I confess that I’m always happy to step back on American soil. In particular I dislike the endless crowds and queues, the grime of 20 centuries of furious inhabitation, the displays of English macho, the cuisine of public cafeterias, the routine assumption that Americans are cretinous by genetic fiat, the churlish football partisanship, the large-scale absence of the colors blue and green, and the unending suspicion of things continental, especially French. I also get claustrophobic after only a few hours in the city, though admittedly this has more to do with my growing up in Idaho than with anything inherently wrong with London. And invariably, whenever I decide to make a call, someone darts into the phone box just before I arrive.
Still, most of this is trivial. And if the cultural milieu of Shakespeare and Marlowe has vanished, the Thames and the grey London skies have not. Walking west from Southwark Cathedral, passing the New Globe and looking over the river at the gardens of the Inner Temple, it’s not difficult to imagine the contours and colors of a London four centuries earlier. True, the St. Paul’s of Elizabethan days has been replaced by Wren’s neoclassical behemoth, but you can still wander through the churchyard where the thriving bookstalls stood—though nowadays you’re confronted with “Mind the Gap” T-shirts rather than with anti-papal diatribes from the hack theologians of Whitechapel’s garrets.
But what most enables my imaginative connection to London’s past is its frenetic and polyglot present. The unforced and vibrant multiculturalism, the cacophony of languages and accents—these are the traits of 21st-century London that, more than anything else, allow me to conceive something of the excitement of the 1590s, when the euphoria over Spain’s defeat was gradually eclipsed by anxieties about Elizabethan succession, and when the local presses engaged in frenzied competition with those of Paris and Antwerp to flood the English marketplace with treatises on a myriad controversial subjects. It’s the age-old and still-evolving life of London’s streets and taverns and news-stands—not the sterile electronic life of digital reality—that helps me understand the early-modern harnessing of social energy into theatrical display and critique.
And so however much I love the view from Waterloo Bridge, or the architectural fantasia of St. Pancras Station towering over King’s Cross, or the magnificent stone horse from Halikarnassos at the British Museum, what I value even more about London, and what truly aids me in my teaching and writing, is the experience of its chaotic street-life—above all the aural world, the world of argument and debate and laughter, spilling out from pubs, drifting above row-houses on early-summer evenings. This would have been familiar to Marlowe and Middleton, and it still contributes, I think, to the pungency of public discourse in London. A tradition of fast-paced and incisive social critique is taken for granted in England’s capital, a tradition that America can scarcely imagine. And though now the voices are typically channeled elsewhere—into satire, editorial, cartoon, review—in Shakespeare’s day they often reverberated on the stage.
There, largely free from religious and political censorship, playwrights captured the doubts and skeptical musings of the urban populace, giving shape and articulate expression to what must often have been thought and spoken. They transformed into fictive time not only the passions but the disenchantments and speculations of a quarter-million people—a population less diverse but just as vocal as that in present-day London. It was a volatile mix of class, status, and religion: puritans, recusants, thriving merchants, evicted farm-laborers, Inns-of-Court students, Dutch artisans, crypto-Jews, vagabonds, courtiers, pimps, nouveaux riches. And all this, combined with the constant infusion of old texts and new arguments, helped render the mental world of the Renaissance stage exuberant, experimental, exhausting. Briefly transplanted from the calm Palouse, I feel some of the same exhaustion after a month in the London of 2002. But I remind myself that what I’m eager to escape is inseparable from what always draws me back. Imaginatively, I mean—but literally too. And even now, somewhere in the depths of the Holborn tube station, a handsome young man from Calcutta is singing “Full fathom five” to the accompaniment of a raucously amplified sitar. More voices along the Thames.
Will Hamlin is associate professor of English at WSU. His National Endowment for the Humanities.