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Shakespeare in the marketplace

Categories: History of food

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, sometime resident of Southwark. Jane Levi, writer and visiting research fellow at King’s College London, explores his evocation of markets

Illustrations: Jonny Hannah

“Hath my sword therefore broke through London Gates, that you should leave me at the White Hart in Southwark?”
Jack Cade, Henry VI Part 2, act 4, scene 8

Four hundred years ago Southwark was a happening place. London Bridge was the only road across the river into the City of London, meaning all travellers from the south, just like Jack Cade and his rebel army in Shakespeare’s dramatisation, made their approach via Southwark. Inns, taverns theatres and other entertainments sprang up to cater to residents and visitors alike, and the market formed a crucial element of this vibrant scene. To be left at the White Hart, especially on market day, might not be such a terrible fate.

In Shakespeare’s time, the market operated four days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday), selling every kind of food. Business was booming in this period, and visitors could buy goods from local suppliers and country producers from further afield in the counties of Middlesex, Kent, Essex and Surrey. Arranged in regulated groups along the river and down the main street vendors sold everything a hungry visitor might wish to eat: from meat, poultry and fish; to fruit, vegetables and herbs; to grains, bread, beer and wine.

The market bell rang in the mid-afternoon signalling the close—just in time for curtain up at the Globe and the Rose. Excavations at the theatres show that audiences snacked on oysters, ale, nuts and fruit, and it’s tempting to imagine them picking up a few supplies on their way through the market towards the theatre.

Shakespeare illustration

“Oh God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace.”
Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing, act 4, scene 1

But Shakespeare’s marketplace was more than a bustling vision of bucolic plenty. In line with its serious status as a highly regulated and tightly managed centre of commerce, it also had a visible darker side—certainly for wrong-doers. The on-site ‘Court of Pie Poudre’ or Piepowder Court had the power to administer immediate justice to those caught in unlawful acts on market days.

For example, a wine merchant who sold sour wine had half of his stock poured over his head and was forced to drink the rest; and bakers whose bread failed to match the legal weight had to sit in the pillory with crowns made of the offending loaves wound around their heads. So, when Beatrice rages against Claudio’s unfair public shaming of her cousin, she is giving us more than a vivid—if gory—image. By taking her revenge to market she declares that it should be immediate, it should be as public as possible, and that the punishment should fit the crime.

“I’ th’ marketplace, on a tribunal silvered,
Cleopatra and himself in chairs of gold
Were publicly enthroned.”

Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, act 3, scene 6.

In Julius Caesar, Antony uses the marketplace for a public funeral oration that seals the fate of Cassius and Brutus, Caesar’s assassins. In Antony and Cleopatra, having waited in vain in the marketplace for Cleopatra to come to their first meeting (she sailed in glory up the Nile and made him go to meet her), Antony returns there as her consort, publicly flaunting his seduction and their grab for power as far as his Roman colleagues are concerned. 

Whether as gateway to the city or centre of commerce, Shakespeare evokes the marketplace as a public space where important events are played out and witnessed—and where, in the case of his local Borough Market, you could always pick a few good snacks.