Nice one, Shakespeare

Whenever someone starts dissing South London, my defence is always, “Well, it was good enough for Shakespeare.” I’m no scholar, y’understand, but being in Southwark seems to have done the Bard no harm at all.

Take, for instance, the stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” from A Winter’s Tale. There’s some debate over what is behind the frankly baffling inclusion of an ursine quadruped in this scene, but a popular suggestion is that, in fact, Shakespeare (or one of the other shareholders at the Globe) arranged to borrow said animal from one of the local bear-baiting pits.

A bear

A bear


And then there’s what might actually be an example of Elizabethan product placement in Twelfth Night – Antonio advises Sebastian that “in the south suburbs at the Elephant is best to lodge.” This is often mistaken for a reference to the Elephant and Castle, the inn that gives its name to the oddly-named area of London within walking distance. Actually, the Elephant and Castle hadn’t yet been built. There was, however, an inn called the Oliphaunt in Southwark which would have been contemporary.

Shakespeare's Glob

Shakespeare's Glob

As with more-or-less everything related to Shakespeare scholarship, there’s more than one interpretation. One that’s relevant to this blog (because you know how much I like to stick to the point) is that it was in fact a slightly naughty joke relying on local knowledge. Southwark, at the time, was London’s embarrassing neighbour. The thing about a big, respectable city is that it needs somewhere to go where it can be, well, not respectable for a bit. Southwark, being separated from the City by the Thames, fulfilled this need nicely for several centuries. Theatres, cockpits, bearpits, gambling dens and brothels were the main tourist attractions in Shakespeare’s day. This is a very rambling way of saying that the Oliphaunt might well have been a brothel as well as an inn, and so Antonio was basically offering Sebastian advice on where to get laid. I like to imagine that there were a few nervous titters from members of the audience and mutters of, “or so I heard, anyway” from married men explaining the joke.

Ah, Southwark and prostitutes. They do go together quite neatly. Part of the area was known in medieval times as “the Whore’s Nest”. So numerous were the prostitutes that they received their own graveyard.

More like Cross BONERS, am I right? Sorry, that was tasteless.

More like Cross BONERS, am I right? Sorry, that was tasteless.

This was the Cross Bones graveyard which, as you can see from the photo above, is still identifiable. It’s now a patch of waste ground on Redcross Way, but as you can see above, the Friends of Cross Bones are going to make damn sure it’s not lost.
The graveyard was built at the behest of the Bishop of Winchester, who felt that they really didn’t want those awful, awful prostitutes sharing a graveyard with respectable folk in the churchyard. Cross Bones isn’t hallowed ground. Now, if you’re a Christian, you may well be thinking that this isn’t exactly in the spirit of Christ, but it gets worse. See, a popular euphemistic nickname for prostitutes in Southwark was “Winchester Geese”. This curious phrase derives from the fact that, by Royal decree, prostitutes in Southwark were licensed by… the Bishop of Winchester. So no doubt the medieval Bishop who condemned the working girls to unconsecrated burial was simultaneously growing fat off the profits he made from them.
Far be it from me to say “pious hypocrite,” but fortunately Shakespeare did it for me. In Henry VI Part I he very comprehensively bashes the Bishop with a character called, yes, the Bishop of Winchester. It wasn’t unknown for historical plays to comment on the present day (so much so that Shakespeare almost got into some serious difficulties over the fact that many found the events of Richard II a little too similar to the real-life events of Elizabeth I), so I suspect Shakespeare was quite pleased to get the chance to legitimately have characters tell the Bishop,


Stand back, thou manifest conspirator,
Thou that contrivedst to murder our dead lord;
Thou that givest whores indulgences to sin:
I’ll canvass thee in thy broad cardinal’s hat,
If thou proceed in this thy insolence.

Man, I’d love to say that to my landlord, I can tell you.

Further reading:

1 Comment

Filed under Arts, Crime, History, Literature, London, Notable Londoners, Tudor London, Waterloo and Southwark

One response to “Nice one, Shakespeare

  1. Pingback: A bright, cold day in April « London Particulars

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