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.
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.
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.
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.