Introduced by Michael Wood
A lively study of the seamier side of Shakespeare’s London, revealing in brilliant detail its dangers and delights
Elizabethan England calls to mind Shakespeare, the gilded palaces of Richmond and Hampton Court, and portraits of the Virgin Queen. Yet alongside such pomp lay the stews of Southwark and Shoreditch, filled with brothels and beggars, gypsies and gamblers. Pamphlets warned visitors to London of the perils that lurked there – cutpurses and whores would fleece the unwary and a public entertainment might include whipping the lunatics of the Bethlehem Hospital (‘Bedlam’) with wire. Everywhere luxury lived cheek-by-jowl with squalor; gentlemen stepped from the dazzling show of the court into the ‘suburbs of sin’.
‘Now here’s a notable discovery of cozenage and deep juggling, a manifest detection of dice players and a bedlam of benshyp autem-morts!’
Salgādo’s fascinating book plunges into the teeming alleys and strolls along the muddy runnels of London’s thoroughfares to meet a veritable rogues’ gallery of conmen, highwaymen, astrologers and alchemists – any soul, in fact, who by choice or misfortune has found himself scraping a living on the fringes of society. Salgādo plunders old court reports, pamphlets and sermons to give flesh to these characters of riot and affray and, of course, he draws on a wealth of literature. The plays are particularly revealing, reminding us that the great age of Elizabethan drama was fuelled not only by kings, but by the lowlife of the underworld. Shakespeare and Jonson celebrate the street’s rich idiom and their scenes vividly explain the snares laid out to trap ‘gulls’ and ‘conys’. Characters like Touchwood, Tapwell, Autolycus and the great Falstaff all fizz with the language and humour of the streets. Even in the midst of our disgust at Newgate Prison or blood-soaked bear-pits, reading Salgãdo makes us wish we were amongst the noisy tumult of Bank Side. To dine with Doll in the Blue Boar might even make being robbed by the swearing, smoking, thieving Moll Cutpurse worthwhile.
'A lively study ... Salgādo has fulfilled his aim of conveying the colour and energy of the Elizabethan underworld'
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