Shakespeare’s London

Leave Your Mark on Shakespeare’s London

In 2016, the nation is coming together to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Southbank Mosaic wants your help to reweave the lost fabric of Elizabethan and Jacobean London in the form of site specific murals evoking the streets where Shakespeare lived and worked. These mosaics will reflect the places, people and words he wrote.

The street art mosaics will have a permanent impact on public space and we need your help to get it right. Join our team of scholars, archaeologists, actors, architects, historians, artisans, artists, citizens,  local businesses and the dispossessed. You can support us through research and detective work about Shakespeare’s life, using your imagination for ideas about what we could install, by gaining permissions from landlords and the authorities, with design and making of mosaic murals, or with fundraising to support the project.

If Shakespeare was to walk around London today, he would hardly recognise where he was apart from the river Thames. The bridge over the river which he knew has gone and our bridges have been built since his time.

If you or I take a walk with the City of London Guides around Shakespeare’s London you will find few in situ buildings from his time and most likely you will listen to the guide explaining how Shakespeare was an actor at the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch, or put on indoor plays in the former Blackfriars monastery, or passed by a bull fight on his way to the Globe Theatre, but you will be looking at brick and concrete buildings and exercising your imagination about the daub and wattle he was more familiar with.

Isn’t it remarkable how the English language flows like liquid history into the sea and reaches every shore on earth, having been replenished by the rainfall of global dialects from the highlands and lowlands of every continent, while emanating from these sceptred British Isles? One thing Shakespeare would understand is the language we use, many of whose phrases come from him.

No individual has risen to such international acclaim for his way with words as William Shakespeare. Mostly self-educated, from an obscure shire town, Shakespeare made his way to London and here was to write plays about Moors, Venetians, Danes, imagined states, Verona and Scotland although there is no evidence he left England.

Francis Drake became the second captain of a ship to circumnavigate the Globe 1577-80. News of this feat and how the world was round-shaped rather than flat was spread to every village and town in the country. England was ruled by Elizabeth I, and through force of personality women achieved forms of equality that were many years ahead of their legal status. The threat of invasion by the Armada in 1588 as Shakespeare walked to London pitched the greatest military force on earth (Spain) against a virgin queen and her anxious people.

If subjects of the crown were not watching the coast line for invasion, they were often fighting each other, with some estimates saying that virtually the entire adult male population were armed with blades and a quarter of all men died from knife and sword wounds. When Shakespeare arrived in London you were lucky to reach the age of 30. Even more likely than being murdered, you could erupt with buboes and the plague would strike you down. Doctors of the time thought blood-letting with leeches was the best way to cure maladies. Economists, financiers and accountants had yet to be named, but Duke’s, Falstaffs and Belches abounded.

Elizabeth I’s lack of a successor threatened civil war between aggressive contenders, fuelled by international politics and the flames of religious fanaticism. The port of London traded goods from as far as China, with ambassadors from principalities in Asia, Africa and Europe – many other nations were aware of rich pickings for a new head of state.

After James I took over the crown following Elizabeth’s death in 1603 he had to contend with the most serious terrorist plot in England’s history, an attempt to blow up Parliament. Shakespeare may well have been in the crowd and he certainly would have heard stories about the gruesome end of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plotters, hanging until near death, with their arms and legs hacked off, stomachs split open, hearts taken out and heads put on spikes outside the House of Lords.

There were many forms of entertainment in London at the time, apart from hanging around. Bears were baited with dogs, cocks were fitted with spurs and set against each other, bull fights took place where Tate Modern now looms, and the Bishop of Winchester ran a brothel. The rock stars of the day were preachers who gave public sermons and could draw crowds of up to 5000 people in St Paul’s church yard. Theatres were a licensed form of public entertainment, slightly frowned on, somewhere you could go to meet friends and strangers and see and hear fantastic stories of royal intrigue, love and bravery, or corrupt officials. For a brief period when Shakespeare was writing there was a sense of tangible freedom, as well as the chance to make some money in private playhouses by putting on shows which captured the excitement and ferment of the time. Like a renowned meteor whose path lit up both space and time, Shakespeare’s words have come down to us and continue to give many audiences and readers pleasure.

Very little is known about Shakespeare’s life apart from his writing. The great fire of London, the blitz and developers through the ages have destroyed the buildings he knew. The river remains (although much embanked since Shakespeare’s time) and a few churches and palaces. It is only recently that as a culture we have learned to value what was built in the past, to upkeep masonry and ancient decorations, to understand, protect and treasure our history.

Part of the Enlightenment (mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity), The Society of Antiquaries was founded in 1707 and received its royal charter in 1751 in “furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries.”  It was largely a discussion forum. It wasn’t until 1814 the first archaeological site opened to the public at Bignor farm stead, with the mosaic floors of a Roman villa being the main attraction. Gradually a fascination with our past spread out of salons into the wider culture.

When two world wars destroyed much of Europe people realised we had to reflect on and protect the valuable hard work of previous generations if we wanted to avoid destroying ourselves. Heritage was shielded with listing and regulations to protect how we used to live and make use of what was handed down. The fashion to destroy and pull things down has waned, although many still rail against this heritage movement.

Southbank Mosaics will revive a spirit of the Elizabethan city through our Shakespeare’s London project. Contact us for further details and to discuss how you can help.


Tel: 0207620 6070