Theater of a City: The Places of London Comedy, 1598-1642

Theater of a City: The Places of London Comedy, 1598-1642

Theater of a City: The Places of London Comedy, 1598-1642

Theater of a City: The Places of London Comedy, 1598-1642


Arguing that the commercial stage depended on the unprecedented demographic growth and commercial vibrancy of London to fuel its own development, Jean E. Howard posits a particular synergy between the early modern stage and the city in which it flourished.

In London comedy, place functions as the material arena in which social relations are regulated, urban problems negotiated, and city space rendered socially intelligible. Rather than simply describing London, the stage participated in interpreting it and giving it social meaning. Each chapter of this book focuses on a particular place within the city--the Royal Exchange, the Counters, London's whorehouses, and its academies of manners--and examines the theater's role in creating distinctive narratives about each. In these stories, specific locations are transformed into venues defined by particular kinds of interactions, whether between citizen and alien, debtor and creditor, prostitute and client, or dancing master and country gentleman. Collectively, they suggest how city space could be used and by whom, and they make place the arena for addressing pressing urban problems: demographic change and the influx of foreigners and strangers into the city; new ways of making money and losing it; changing gender roles within the metropolis; and the rise of a distinctive "town culture" in the West End.

Drawing on a wide range of familiar and little-studied plays from four decades of a defining era of theater history, Theater of a City shows how the stage imaginatively shaped and responded to the changing face of early modern London.


London is a large, excellent, and mighty city of business, and the most impor
tant in the whole kingdom; most of the inhabitants are employed in buying and
selling merchandize [sic], and trading in almost every corner of the world,
since the river is most useful and convenient for this purpose, considering that
ships from France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Hamburg, and other
kingdoms, come almost up to the city, to which they convey goods and receive
and take away others in exchange.

This description of London, written by Frederick, Duke of Wirtemberg, who visited London in 1592, attests to the impressive size and perceptible commercial energy of England’s premier metropolis. Although the Duke assumed that London was preeminent among other English towns, what he could not know was just how considerably it outstripped them in population and commercial activity at the end of the sixteenth century. In 1600 the population of London included approximately 200,000 people, up from 55,000 just fifty years before. The next largest English city was Norwich, with a population of 15,000 in 1600, followed by York and Bristol with 12,000 people each. Only twenty towns in all of England had populations of 5,000 or more. With London taken out of the mix, the other nineteen towns contained only 136,000 people in total, considerably less than the population of London alone.

Demographics by themselves, of course, do not explain why London was so impressive to this foreign visitor. But they begin to suggest how unusually beyond scale—how vast and sprawling—the city must have appeared to those hundreds of migrants who streamed into the capital from other parts of England and from the Continent throughout the second half of the sixteenth and then the seventeenth century. Not only did London dwarf other English cities; it also rivaled in size the most expansive cities on the Continent. In 1600, London was the third largest city in Europe, outpaced only by Naples and by Paris. By 1650 it was second only to Paris; by 1700 it was first in terms of size. London’s spectacular demographic growth during this period was matched only by its economic development. Frederick, Duke of Wirtemberg, describes London in 1592 as a “mighty city of business,” and it was. By . . .

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