Academic journal article Early Theatre

Taking Liberties

Academic journal article Early Theatre

Taking Liberties

Article excerpt

In her recent study of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Theatre, Court and City, 1595-1610, Janette Dillon remarks on a kind of complacency in the view 'modern critics' continue to espouse of London's best-known public amphitheatres: 'the Bankside theatres are frequently described by modern critics as being outside the city boundary because they were across the river in Southwark, but this is incorrect. It was because they were located within the liberties of Paris Garden and the Clink in Southwark that they were outside city jurisdiction'. (1) The difference between 'across the river' and 'in the liberties of Paris Garden and the Clink' is a simple matter on the surface level, and the misunderstanding is easily cleared up by a quick survey of the jurisdictional areas into which Southwark was divided. But the mistake is symptomatic of a much broader and more significant set of conceptual indiscretions on the part of contemporary literary critical approaches to early modern drama. Other missteps attendant on this idea--that the Bankside theatres were, in fact, outside of city jurisdiction, or that the Bankside was a 'suburb' of license and sin--are more difficult to set straight. Indeed, Dillon's correction itself needs revising. The Liberty of the Clink and Paris Garden were, as she notes, outside of London's twenty-six wards, but as David Johnson demonstrates in his study Southwark and the City, jurisdiction in Southwark is an especially complicated matter, (2) and the flat insistence that the Bankside theatres, or their peers in to the north, were untouchable by the lord mayor, the court of aldermen, or other manifestations of city authority, must be reconsidered. I want to suggest that the city authorities, insofar as they can be taken as a uniform entity, were not powerless over the suburbs, and that the suburbs were neither the lawless repositories of criminals and outcasts they are often taken to have been, nor a class of homogenous spaces made uniform by their exemption from city authority. Both suggestions are of considerable importance in assessing the geographical, juridical, and cultural place of the stage in early modern London.

The current critical conception of city jurisdiction and the theatre's marginal place in early modern London is the product of a shaky historical record--the tattered and incomplete paper trails from which we have had to construct what we know about the playhouse at Newington Butts, for example, raises as many questions as it does answers--but it is also in part a matter of literary critics contentedly inheriting a streamlined and simplified picture of the emergence of the popular theatre in early modern London. Seminal studies such as Stephen Mullaney's The Place of the Stage have offered compelling but ultimately disputable visions of the role and orientation of London's theatres with regard to the city authorities and the city itself, and these visions have been canonized by studies that follow them. As a result, the relationship between the city and its theatres has come to have a storybook simplicity built on generalized distinctions between central and marginal in the culture and geography of greater London. One can understand from Mullaney's study that the stage was 'effectively banished' from the city proper by aggressive legislation to 'the Liberties', a homogenous class of spaces made uniform by their freedom from city jurisdiction. As theatres moved into these areas, they acquired a particular cultural valence and a particular cultural liberty traditionally associated with London's margins. Having left the city for the green world outside the walls, the theatre reinvented itself as a marginal spectacle with the 'culturally and ideologically removed vantage point' necessary to help London make sense of itself. (3) Mullaney offers an inviting connection to Rosalind in As You Like It: 'like Rosalind's withdrawal from court in As You Like It, the withdrawal of drama from the city was a flight "to liberty, and not to banishment"'. …

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