“The Puritans were threatening Shakespeare’s lively hood.”

I don’t know if “livelihood” was in this student’s mind and the word just looked funny to him when he wrote it, or if “livelihood” wasn’t in the student’s lexicon at all, and when other people mentioned the word he actually did picture a lively ‘hood.

Well, it’s certainly true that London in the late 1500s was a lively ‘hood. Intercontinental trade and exploration, cosmopolitan crowds in the taverns, glorious Elizabethan music (ballads AND madrigals, jig tunes AND allemandes, tabors and lutes and celestes and hurdy gurdys), Armadas to defeat in the Thames, thieves and plotters and would-be assassins in the back streets, traitors in the Tower, priests in cupboards, iambic pentameter in the air, the theater in full vigorous flower, the English language becoming its glorious self. And there, stalking and scowling through the streets in their plain outfits and text-only religion, were the Puritans, enemies of art and artifice (and, if you can believe Ben Jonson in his slightly-later Bartholomew Fair—and I do—bilking the gullible in the name of God). Man, that can bring a lively ‘hood down.

The Puritan campaign against the theater, where some actors dressed in the garb of the other sex and all of them capered on stage and spouted LIES in the name of “art,” was implacable, waged through pamphlets and pulpits and probably boycotts (don’t know, the word didn’t exist yet to get into print on the subject). When they arrested and warred and beheaded their way to power in 1640, they did close the theaters down. (My music professor Back in The Day said that’s how opera became popular in England, because the Puritans didn’t ban musical concerts and operas were, more or less, sung plays, so theater-lovers kept their drama somehow during the ensuing 20 years, ha ha!) Shakespeare had already retired from the stage by then, and had died in 1616, so his own livelihood wasn’t destroyed by them; but surely he was spinning in his grave, bemoaning the violence done to the craft he had loved and transformed.

Well, the less said about the Puritans the better. Cling to the picture painted by my student, of Willy the Shake in his high-tops, jiving his way to the Mermaid, high-fiving all his boys, rapping with the balladeers, jamming with his crew, generally getting down in the ‘hood, the lively lively ‘hood, of Elizabethan London.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

One response to ““The Puritans were threatening Shakespeare’s lively hood.”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    Interestingly enough, Shakespeare’s older daughter, Susannah, married a “moderate” Puritan named Dr. John Hall. He must have been moderate because Shakespeare liked him very much and trusted him to execute his will.
    As for taverns, etc., that Shakespeare frequented–and what a delightful picture you made of Elizabethan London, RA–there was a four-part series on A and E, a few months ago, called “In Search of Shakespeare.” The narrator talked about how the haunts of Shakespeare had pretty much disappeared, due to the London Blitz during WWII and also Victorian housing projects (let’s level the ones that are ready to fall down). But, then, to our extreme delight, he says: However, the Victorians took these photos of the following places! And, there you see a few of the spots where Shakespeare had a pint with his illustrious Company and assorted/sordid friends. What a miracle that photography was there in time!

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