Practicing the City: Early Modern London on Stage

Practicing the City: Early Modern London on Stage

Practicing the City: Early Modern London on Stage

Practicing the City: Early Modern London on Stage


In late-sixteenth-century London, the commercial theaters undertook a novel experiment, fueling a fashion for plays that trafficked in the contemporary urban scene. But beyond the stage's representing the everyday activities of the expanding metropolis, its unprecedented urban turn introduced a new dimension into theatrical experience, opening up a reflexive space within which an increasingly diverse population might begin to "practice" the city. In this, the London stage began to operate as a medium as well as a model for urban understanding.

Practicing the City traces a range of local engagements, onstage and off, in which the city's population came to practice new forms of urban sociability and belonging. With this practice, Levine suggests, city residents became more self-conscious about their place within the expanding metropolis and, in the process, began to experiment in new forms of collective association. Reading an array of materials, from Shakespeare and Middleton to plague bills and French-language manuals, Levine explores urban practices that push against the exclusions of civic tradition and look instead to the more fluid relations playing out in the disruptive encounters of urban plurality.


Cordatus O, marry, this is one for whose better illustration
we must desire you to presuppose the stage the middle aisle in
Paul’s, and that [Pointing to the door on which Shift is posting his
bills] the west end of it.

Mitis So, sir. and what follows?

Cordatus Faith, a whole volume of humour, and worthy the

—Ben Jonson, Every Man Out of His Humor

By the sixteenth century’s end, London had arrived on stage. Not only was the commercial theater now a prominent fixture within the growing metropolis—the city’s “ornament,” Thomas Heywood would soon proclaim—but the metropolis itself was fast becoming a popular dramatic subject. in Every Man Out of His Humor, Jonson prominently marks this convergence of city and stage when Cordatus steps forward at the start of Act 3 to enjoin spectators “to presuppose the stage the middle aisle in Paul’s” (3.1.2–3). Performed at the recently opened Globe Theater in late 1599, Every Man Out is Jonson’s first experiment with a London setting, and the invitation “to presuppose” seems calculated to play up the scene’s audacious replication of one of the city’s most prominent public locations. Cordatus’s invitation indeed commands attention in its seeming boast to reduce the Bankside’s newly acclaimed world stage to an explicitly city stage, an urban simulacrum bounded by Paul’s Walk and populated not by princes and monarchs but by a parade of city types—knights, courtiers, overdressed gallants, bumbling rustics, doting citizens, threadbare rogues, even a leashed greyhound and a cat in a sack.

But what does it mean to presuppose that the stage is the city? Every Man Out’s unusually lengthy induction offers one answer with Asper’s arch pronouncement that the play is a “mirror” in which the audience “shall see . . .

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