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Welcome to Episode #182 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

According to The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, edited by Stanley Wells and Michael Dobson, the phrase “the Clink” described a specific prison in an area of London called Bankside, where Shakespeare is known to have lived at least from 1597-1596. The prison itself was housed inside what used to be a manor house owned by the Bishop of Winchester. It was the closest prison to the theaters of Bankside, which included The Globe and the Rose theater, among others. This prison was best known for being a prison for debtors. While Shakespeare’s works do reference the word “clink” to describe the sound of metal clanging against other metal, there is no direct reference to the prison by name. However, in Cymbeline Act III Scene 3, Guidierius says “A prison for a debtor, that not dares To stride a limit.” While Shakespeare may or may not have been referring to the debtor’s prison located right down the road from his theater with this remark in the play, nonetheless, The Clink itself was a notorious house of incarceration during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Legendary as an entirely horrible place, the prison gained a reputation for being where prisoners were sent to die. Stories are told of the prisoners being left in their cells to starve to death, or even drown in the rising tide of the Thames that was nearby. This prison’s notoriety is the reason why we use the phrase “thrown into the Clink” today to mean that someone has gone to prison. No one knows the full history of The Clink prison and what it was like for Shakespeare better than the curator at The Clink Prison Museum in London, and our guest this week, Alex Lyon. 

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Alex Lyon joined the Clink Prison Museum in 2011 as historian in residence for the restructuring of the museum, and remains there as Head of Box Office and tour guide. Alex is a Shakespearean actor, who graduated at Manchester University and trained at the Academy Dram School.  He has payed both Starveling and Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Duke Frederick in As You Lik It, and the titel role in his own feature film of Macbeth. In 2005, he originated the role of Nicodemus Merriweather in his own one man show ‘Shakespeare and Me’, telling the sotry of Shakespeare and his company, as seen from backstage3. In 2011, Alex Lyon joined the Clink Prison Museum as historian in residence for the restructuring of the museum, and remains there as Head of Box Office and tour guide.  Last year he began work as a photographic London history hnter.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Alex Lyon about :

  • How did the Clink prison get its name? Why is it called The Clink?
  • The Clink was originally a prison inside the manor house owned by the Bishop of Winchester. Did most manor houses have their own prison? Why was a Bishop of the church licensed to imprison people?
  • The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare describes The Clink as being known “particularly” as a “debtors” prison, but when looking over the list of known inmates at the Clink throughout the 16th century (provided at The Clink Prison Museum website that we will link to in the show notes), there are men imprisoned for not going to church, for being involved in the Babington Plot, and even one man, John Greenwood, in 1586 who was imprisoned “for reading Scripture.” Alex, exactly what kind of crime could land someone in The Clink? 
  • … and more!

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Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Map showing civil parishes of Southwark as they appeared in 1870
  • 1917 map showing theatres of 16th and 17th century London
  • Photo of the Blue plaque on the former site of The Clink prison in London
  • Sketch of John Bradford in prison with bishops, a scene from the Tower of London
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Book & Resources Alex Lyon recommends:

A few resources Cassidy thinks you might find useful: 

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