Travel Guide to Southwark

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Southwark and William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare lived in London at the height of the play houses boom at Bankside, thus he was inevitably drawn towards Southwark. The area was to have a great influence on him and his works. He wrote the majority of his greatest works whilst resident in Southwark and they were first performed at The Globe. Southwark is even mentioned in his works.

"What! Buckingham and Clifford are ye so brave? And you base peasants do ye believe him? Will you needs be hanged with your pardons about your necks? Hath my sword therefore broke through London Gates, that you should leave me at the White Hart in South-Wark."
The first play house in South London was built at Newington Butts, near Elephant & Castle, in about 1580. This play house was too far from Central London and soon flopped. In approximately 1587 speculators built a new play house, The Rose, at Bankside and the play house boom began. Bankside had long been home to animal baiting pits but this was the first purpose built play house in the area. The Rose is better known for its connections with Christopher Marlowe than Shakespeare but Titus Andronicus was performed here before the lease expired in around 1605.

With The Rose a proven success other play houses soon followed it into Bankside. A 3000 seater, The Swan, was built in 1595 and closed around 1637. The third play house was The Globe, in which Shakespeare was a shareholder. The final play house, The Hope, was built in 1614 to try and capitalise on The Globe burning down in 1613. The Hope is interesting as it was purpose built to hold both animal baiting and plays. The Hope was built on the site of an animal baiting pen where seven people had died when a stand collapsed in 1583.

When Shakespeare was in Southwark the play houses were far from respectable, but gaining in popularity. Theatres were soon banned from performing on Thursdays, the traditional day for bear baiting. A sure sign of growing popularity. Shakespeare moved to London in 1586 or 1587 and lived there until 1613. Initially he lived in North London but his involvement with The Globe caused him to move to the Bankside area. It is believed he lived at a site now partially covered by Blackfriars bridge. It was during this era that he wrote many of his greatest plays, including Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth , King Lear and The Tempest. Little of Shakespeare's Southwark remains, though it is believed he worshipped at what is now Southwark Cathedral. It is certain that he was present there for his brothers funeral. It is also possible that he visited The George Inn. He certainly frequented the local inns, often in the company of Edward Alleyne and Ben Jonson.

The importance of Bankside as a centre for play houses did not survive much beyond Shakespeare himself. Relations between the theatres and the locals were strained. In 1587 the people of Southwark complained to the Privy Council about the nature of the plays. The local Vestry complained about the Bear Garden in 1596 and the play houses in 1598. A 1597 performance of the lost play The Isle of Dogs, at The Swan, was ruled seditious and slanderous. In the immediate aftermath the Privy Council ruled that all theatres should be demolished, fortunately this order was not implemented. A half hearted attempt was made to close all but two play houses in London. The Globe was one of those to be allowed to stay open. That attempt was also abandoned though the theatres were carefully controlled for the rest of Elizabeth I reign. In 1642 the Puritans ordered the suppression of the remaining play houses. The Globe was shut down in 1644. Three years later JP's were given the power to demolish the stage, galleries and boxes of a theatre, whip the players and fine the audience 5 shillings each. The Hope, the last surviving Bankside play house was demolished marking an ignoble end to a glorious era in local history.
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