Welcome to Episode #041 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.
I believe that if you want to understand Shakespeare's plays, then understanding the life of William Shakespeare, the man, is essential. This podcast is designed to help you explore early modern England as Shakespeare would have lived it by interviewing the historians, performers, authors, and experts that know him best.
Elizabeth I issued several proclamations during her reign concerning property, renting, and housing in England. London proper would see it’s population more than double over the course of Shakespeare’s lifetime, and there was very little in the way of any government concerning who could rent the limited available space owned in the city, what they could charge, or even basic safety regulations. Historical documents tell us that William Shakespeare himself rented property in London, with the landlord and tenant documents being some of the few tangible paper records we have at all of William Shakespeare’s life. So why was the world’s leading playwright renting a room in London not unlike a poor college student, instead of owning property outright? And what can the history of landlords in England help us learn about the life of William Shakespeare?
Here to help us explore the history of tenants and renting property in 16th century England is Callan Davies.
Callan Davies is a Research Fellow on the “Before Shakespeare” project, based at the University of Roehampton, which focuses on the first thirty years of the Elizabethan playhouses in London, from 1565-95. He is the Editor for the Curtain records for Records of Early English Drama Online, and is the author of the blog article, Rent must be paid, duties dischargd”: A Note on Elizabethan Landlords, which we have invited him here to discuss today.
In this episode, I’ll be asking Callan about :
- Why would a successful playwright, dominating the theater industry in London, not own a property outright in the city?
In his article for Urban History, William Baer suggests that nearly “three quarters of London households were tenant occupants.” That’s quite substantial figure. Does this mean that being a tenant was not necessarily limited to the lower classes?
I read that rental properties in the 1600s were not just a means of securing a place to stay in the city, but would also be regarded as a kind of investment property, where renters could sublease their homes for personal profit. Shakespeare seems like a business-savvy guy, with such an obvious market for rental properties, did Shakespeare ever rent his own place?
” [If] this law hold in Vienna ten year, I'll rent the fairest house in it after three-pence a bay: if you live to see this come to pass, say Pompey told you so.”
When William Shakespeare was in London, he stayed with a family called the Mountjoy's. We know who they were from a legal document uncovered by Charles Wallace in the Public Records of London.
The Mountjoy's had a house in Cripplegate that they rented rooms to travellers, and playwrights like Shakespeare. Due to a widespread housing shortage in London in the 16-17th century, landlords were quite common, as space in general was not widely available.
According to the documents uncovered, Shakespeare was a material witness in the case brought against the Mountjoy family. We have record of a signed depisition. William Shakespeare is even said to have been involved in arranging the betrothal of the Mountjoy's son. Shakespeare was living with the Mountjoys in 1604, at the corner of Silver and Monkwell Streets in Cripplegate, London. This is the same year the Earl of Oxford died and that Shakespeare wrote Timon of Athens.
Charles and his wife Hulda were immense fans of William Shakespeare. Living well after the life of the bard, the Wallaces were researching Shakespeare's life in the early 1900s America.
Charles Wallace became professor of English Dramatic Literature in 1910 at the University of Nebraska. From 1907 until 1916, he and his wife dug through numerous boxes of records at the Public Office trying to find what was there about Shakespeare. The couple discovered not only the Mountjoy's court records, but also a dispute between Edward Alleyn and the owners of The Theater. There are several other court records involving Richard Burbage, John Heminges, and Henry Condell–all close connections with William Shakespeare that the Wallaces uncovered in their (seemingly audacious) search through documents in the early 20th century.
Image to the right is an archival photo of Charles and Hulda Wallace. Unknown author. The World's Work, 1910 Source
Charles Wallace published many of his findings in several books. The first is called The First London Theatre: Materials for a History, but he speaks about their other findings, including the various court cases they uncovered inside The Children of the Chapel at Blackfriars, 1597–1603 (1908), The Evolution of the English Drama Up to Shakespeare (1912).
In his book, Shakespeare and the World as Stage, Bill Bryson casts the Wallace couple as something of an oddity in their time, with observers of their work rather scoffing at how two people felt they were able, or that it was valuable, to dig through an immense amount of work, but as the recent discovery of records about Shakespeare's childhood that were uncovered in a similarly hidden box by Glyn Parry, goes to show: there's power in the historical value of digging through an old box.
Lose all, and more, by paying too much rent…
Cover art for the 2015 re-publication of George Wapull's play, The Tide Tarrieth No Man. According to the Folger Library, the original description for this play including instructions that it could played by just four people.
The Tide Tarrieth No Man
Ample laws and declarations in court are not the only place in Elizabethan England where we can learn a thing or two about the relationship of the common man to their landlords. The subject of renting, landlords, laws, and motives are all the subject of George Wapull's play, The Tide Tarrieth No Man which premiered in London in 1576.
Callan's blog article on renting quotes Lloyd Kermode's description of the play thusly: “play in which immigrant aliens are represented as “increasing a tainted wealth of the nation that gets circulated by landlord-merchants like Greediness who practise usury as a matter of course” (Aliens and Englishness in Elizabethan Drama [CUP, 2009]; 55)”
You can read this play online at The Folger Shakespeare Library, or buy your own copy on Kindle for less than $3 here.
Another writer with connections to Shakespeare who wrote about renting and landlords in his plays was Henry Chettle.
Chettle's pamphlet, Kind Hart's Dream, is one in which the famous actor Richard Tarleton gives a complaint about landlords:
“Well, I get me a wife, with her a little money: when we are married, seek a house we must, no other occupation have I but to be an Ale-draper, the Landlord will have forty pound fine, and twenty mark[s] a year, I and mine must not lie in the street: he knows by honest courses I can never paye the Rent. What should I say: somewhat must be done, rent must be paid, duties discharged, or we undone. To be short, what must be shall be… (E3v)” Source (Callan's blog article)
Often in debt (a theme, it seems just as ever true of 16th century artists as it remains stereotypically today), we know Chettle owed Philip Henslowe money. Henslowe is well known for his fastidious record keeping, and it includes no less than 36 payments for his assistance in plays from 1598 to 1603.
Henry Chettle was also a popular playwright in Elizabethan England. While he was well known, likely to Shakespeare himself, as an excellent collaborator, the one surviving work we do have attributed solely to Henry Chettle is The Tragedy of Hoffman: or a Revenge for a Father (1602). This play is considered by some historians to have been a competitor of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Interestingly, during his lifetime, Henry Chettle was accused of writing the Groatsworth of Wit against William Shakespeare, and took to the preface of this pamphlet, Kind Hart's Dreame, to publicly deny that claim. (source: Harold Jenkins, “On the Authenticiy of Greene's Groatsworth of Wit and The Repentance of Robert Greene,” The Review of English Studies 11 (1935): 33.)
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