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William Shakespeare, Borough Market shopper

Mark Riddaway, author of Borough Market: Edible Histories, on why we can confidently say that the Bard of Avon bought his groceries at Borough


Let’s start with a bold statement: William Shakespeare shopped at Borough Market. The greatest playwright ever to have penned a line in the English language, the writer of some of the most sublime poetry ever published, the most talented man ever spotted wearing a pair of tights, bought his bread and vegetables and a nice bit of mackerel right here in SE1.

Okay, so we have no actual evidence of this – no documents or diary entries or archaeological proof – but since when did an absence of proof stop anyone from speculating wildly about this most galactically famous yet frustratingly opaque of individuals? Despite his words being so embedded into our culture that we use his phrasing on a daily basis without even realising it, we actually know very little about the minutiae of Shakespeare’s life. Most of the documentary evidence we have has been painstakingly pieced together from tiny details in very boring official paperwork relating to taxes and contracts and legal cases – and none of it mentions where he shopped.

What we do know for certain is that around the turn of the 17th century, William Shakespeare moved to Bankside. And the reason we know is that he happened to be a tax dodger. On 6th October 1599, the Bard of Avon’s name appeared on a list of delinquents in the Lord Treasurer’s accounts, having failed to pay a ‘subsidy’ of 13s 4d levied on his holdings in Bishopsgate.

A note in the margin suggests that the playwright had moved to “Surrey”, the county of which Bankside was a part. Exactly a year later, a further set of accounts show the tax bill still outstanding, with a note stating “Episcopo Wintonensi” – the arrears had been passed to the Bishop of Winchester, the authority responsible for Bankside. As far as the taxman was concerned, Shakespeare was now a resident of Southwark.

This would certainly fit neatly with one of the other facts we know about him. In 1599, several members of the Lord Chamberlain’s theatre company, including Shakespeare, agreed a 31-year lease on a plot of land in Southwark upon which a brand new theatre would be quickly built – the Globe, the most famed of the many playhouses that sprang up in the area during this period. For the next few years Shakespeare would both live and work on Bankside, a period which encompassed perhaps the most extraordinary burst of creative accomplishment in British history. Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure all flowed from his busy quill and were introduced to the world by the banks of the Thames.

As well as writing these immortal works, Shakespeare remained a jobbing actor for the theatre company, appearing in his own plays and those of other writers – in 1603 he was listed as the “Principal Tragedian” in Ben Jonson’s Sejanus: His Fall. He would also have taken much of the responsibility for the staging of his masterpieces – there was no such job as ‘director’ at the time – and the day to day running of the company, of which he was a senior partner.

He was, it’s fair to say, a busy man. And while music may be the food of love, it won’t keep you going when you’ve got lines to learn, actors to organise and a heart-breaking work of staggering genius to write before Friday. For that, you need actual food, and the place where the people of Bankside bought most of their food at the start of the 17th century was Borough Market.

In the early 1600s Borough Market wasn’t the well organised, nicely contained place we know today. Before it relocated to its current home in 1756, it sprawled along Borough High Street. Traders consisted mainly of farmers from Kent, Surrey and Sussex, who arrived from the countryside with grain, vegetables and livestock, and sold their wares alongside local bakers, poulterers and fishwives. This crowded, chaotic market, which ran four days a week, stretched for hundreds of metres down the highway – a regular carnival of noise and smell.

Butchers brought their meat to market both whole and very much alive, so irritable goats and wandering cattle were a constant menace. Not that Shakespeare would have been much of a beef eater. “Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has,” says Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, “but I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit.” He would, though, have shopped here. As a resident of Bankside, he had few other choices.

In truth we have very little idea precisely what Shakespeare ate to fuel his outpouring of genius – food crops up frequently in his work, but then so did pretty much everything, and it’s easy to read too much into his lines. We do know that he had a penchant for buying a little too much – in 1598 the playwright found himself in trouble with the authorities for hoarding 80 bushels of grain during a food shortage.
That original statement, then – William Shakespeare shopped at Borough Market – is about as detailed as it gets. Anything more would be silly speculation. Still, it’s not a bad celebrity endorsement, is it?