Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 July 2009
Late Tudor London comes alive when Stephen Greenblatt's acclaimed biography of William Shakespeare, shadowing its subject, takes to the streets. “The unprecedented concentration of bodies jostling … crossing and recrossing the great bridge, pressing into taverns and theaters and churches,” Greenblatt suggests, is a “key to the whole spectacle” of crowds in the playwright's histories and tragedies. To be sure, his little excursions in London left their mark on his scripts, yet he scrupulously sifted his literary sources from which he drew characters and crises onto the stage. He prowled around Plutarch and read Stow and Hollinshed on the wars of succession he chronicled. Nonetheless, “the sight of all those people—along with the noise, the smell of their breath, and their rowdiness and potential for violence—seems,” Greenblatt says, “to have been Shakespeare's first and most enduring impression of the city” in the 1580s and to have been the inspiration for the “greasy aprons” and “gross diets” of “tag-rag people” or rabble in his plays. There, onstage, the glory that was Rome and the grit of fifteenth-century England were “suffused less with the otherness of the past than with the familiar coordinates of Shakespeare's own present.” And familiarity bred contempt for “the sweaty multitude.” “All those people” were terribly, dangerously unpredictable or, as with Jack Cade's crowd in the second part of Henry VI, just plain dangerous. Cade stirred his prole followers to kill the city's more cultured citizens. Sinisterly self-interested tribunes—or so they may have seemed to some playgoers—swayed the crowd in Coriolanus against the play's protagonist, Rome's most noble soldier. And commoners could be “lightly blown to and fro.”
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