The other day I went to a talk at Guildhall Library given by by Dr Lucy Munro from King’s College London. The talk was about the London of Shakespeare and Beaumont, marking the 400th anniversary of the death of both writers. William Shakespeare of course died on 23 April 1616, but Francis Beaumont also died that year (on 6 March, aged only 31): he has been rather overshadowed by Shakespeare over the past four centuries, but his life is worth celebrating too.
Munro began her talk by showing us a 1572 map of London, revealing a much smaller-scale city than the one we are familiar with today. Playhouses were growing up all over London. One of the first such houses Shakespeare wrote for was “The Theatre” – not such an unimaginative name as it sounds, as the term “theatre” was usually used for private indoor spaces. The name harks back to the classical world of Greek and Roman drama.
Shakespeare lived on Silver Street for a time; he also, in 1613, bought a gatehouse on Blackfriars (the road on which another playhouse for which he wrote was located). Beaumont was born in Leicestershire in 1584, his father a judge, his mother a recusant Catholic. His wife may have been Roman Catholic too, which would have marked out Beaumont as an outsider. He entered the Inner Temple in 1600 after studying at Oxford, and began his collaboration with the writer John Fletcher in 1605.
The pair’s first play The Woman Hater was written for the Children of St Paul’s, though the pair also wrote for the Children of the Queen’s Revels at the Blackfriars Theatre. Beaumont and Fletcher lodged together on Bankside: an anecdote from John Aubrey, found in his Brief Lives, suggests the closeness of their relationship, as they lived together and shared everything. When Beaumont died he was buried in London, in Westminster Abbey.
Whereas Shakespeare set most of his plays in fairly exotic locations (excepting the histories, which mention such landmarks as the Tower of London, Westminster, and the Boar’s Head Tavern at Eastcheap), Francis Beaumont wrote regularly about specific London locations including the Mermaid Tavern (mentioned in a poem to Ben Jonson). A painting by the nineteenth-century artist John Ford imagines what poets’ meetings at the Mermaid might have looked like, although it is not particularly accurate: it is not known that Shakespeare was involved in these meetings, but he has a central place in Ford’s painting.
Beaumont’s writing makes reference to the London streets, their smells and sights; locations reflect the social, moral and economic circumstances of the characters. The Knight of the Burning Pestle, his significant solo play, mentions London locations, transforming them from real-life places into fantastical locations for his knight’s Quixotic journey.
I really enjoyed this talk: I think Beaumont is a vastly underrated writer (The Knight of the Burning Pestle, which I saw at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, is a masterpiece) and I enjoyed learning about how he uses London in his work and his relationship to the city.