London riots: 1592 to 2011

If we’re horrified by the violence that broke out this past week in London, we can take whatever comfort history offers in realizing that London riots are nothing new.  In fact, just such a riot took place in South London, not far from the scene of the present violence in Croydon, that kicked off the trouble that led to the deaths of Christopher Marlowe and his patron, Lord Strange, the dispersal of the group of writers known (today) as the University Wits, the formation of the second royal acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and the (necessary) coverup of their playwright under the (revised) name of one Willm Shagspyeer (one spelling) from a far off market town in Warwickshire.  Right from the first it was the fear of such riots that caused the City fathers to launch their long ongoing battle to keep the public theaters out of London.

In 1592 the City was facing many of the same problems that it’s facing today.  Today the rioters are immigrant youths who, having fled oppression at home in Africa and the Middle East, have found shelter in England––shelter, but no work and no understanding of English life.  In 1592 the problem was caused by gangs of poor English soldiers and sailors, many of them in the same age group as today’s rioters, who had been hired or impressed for duty against the Spanish and then, following the defeat of the Armada, ended up in the London stews with nothing to do but hang about and cause trouble.  We don’t know exactly what particular thing set off the riots in Southwark in June of ’92, but from the fact that the Privy Council reacted by shutting down the theaters it seems likely that it had something to do with what was playing nearby at Henslowe’s Rose.

On February 19, 1592, the Lord Strange’s Men, the company that in 1587 had made Marlowe’s Tamburlaine a hit, opened at the Rose with a string of plays, among them Marlowe’s Jew of Malta.  Though not recorded, also performed must surely have been Tamburlaine.  The passage of time has weakened our perception of what it was about this play that might have caused a riot.  However, that it was considered dangerous is clear from the way the fake verse libel that initiated the sting that brought Marlowe to his fate a year later, referred to the play, used iambic pentameter, the meter that made him famous, and was signed “Tamburlaine.”

Except for a few preformances when allowance was made by special petition to the Privy Council to perform at Newington Butts, the theaters remained closed until August.  Something happened during this period to cause Oxford to quit publishing his Robert Greene and Tom Watson pamphlets––The “Second Letter” was published in August, Groatsworth was published in September, and Greene and Watson were listed as dead by the end of the month.  Having reopened in August, an outbreak of the plague in September closed the theaters again until late December.

The theaters reopened for the 1592-93 holidays when Marlowe’s last play, The Massacre at Paris, was performed.   With the revival of the plague in February, they closed again, not to reopen until the following December.  With the streets empty and the Court away at Greenwich, agents who worked for Walsingham when he was alive who were now in Robert Cecil’s employ launched the sting that finally silenced the troublesome playwright by June.  Was the Massacre at Paris the straw that broke the camel’s back?  The play as we have it doesn’t give any clues to what that could have been, but it’s only half as long as most 16th-century plays, with a fragmented and incoherent plot.  With the stews being decimated by the plague, it’s unlikely that anyone left in town was in any mood to riot, but of course the disease would die away, as it always had, and there would be other hot, restless Junes.  The following June saw the elimination of Marlowe’s patron, Lord Strange, newly become one of England’s most powerful earls, and, sadly for himself, dangerously in line for the throne, dead from what Ian Wilson reports as a single massive dose of arsenic (172).

The story of the London Stage in the 1590s has always been about the arrival of Shakespeare and the dawn of perhaps the most dazzling era in English literature, certainly the most formative.  Unfortunately the history of that arrival has remained little more than a handful of unconnected incidents, held together only by their dates (where we have them) and lacking anything like a coherent plot.  I’m happy to say it’s finally beginning to come together.  We have the central characters, their motivations, the major events and turning points, and even the reason why so little remains to tell us what these were.

The fact is that the London Stage and its creators and patrons are central to understanding the politics of Elizabeth’s final decade, so it’s not only the identity of its greatest writer and publisher that got buried, but almost everything else about it as well.  Once these are brought to light, the role played by the painful birth of the modern media will bring a new understanding, not just to the history of the modern media, but to the history of the entire period, that is, for that handful who still care about history.  Stay tuned.

Today the British Establishment is battered by the same forces that led to Marlowe’s death and the permanent burial of Shakespeare’s identity, on the one hand the restless, harried downtrodden, on the other, the electronic media as today’s version of the London Stage and pamphlet press.  In recent months the  Establishment has reacted exactly as it did then, by imprisoning and attempting to destroy the modern Marlowes like hacker Julian Assange, and beating and imprisoning the rioters.

The press is too entrenched, too powerful today for the facts to get buried as they did in the 1590s, but the question remains, where is the right, where the wrong of this tension?  Surely the government is mandated to use its powers to enforce social calm, just as whistleblowers like Marlowe and Assange are doing theirs by publicizing government  repression and corruption.  What’s wrong, what’s right depends on where you stand.  If you stood with the barmy-coated groundlings at the Rose in 1592, you saw it one way; if you sat at the table with your fellow privy councillors you saw it another.

Maybe what today’s English authorities could do with their unhappy immigrants is take a leaf from Oxford and Walsingham’s book, and create a free theater (theirs was so cheap it was almost free) that teaches them English history, one that feeds them, if not with social relevance and paying work, at least with stories of heroism and, what’s actually more potent when it comes to creating solidarity, stories of proud defeat; one that brings them together in a room with a stage, where there’s the kind of human interaction that’s lacking in front of a telly screen, no matter how big it is.  Who knows, that crowd of window breakers and thieves may contain born performers who, like Marlowe, given the proper tools, will find a way to tell the English, and their fellows, their own stories.  For Man liveth not by bread alone, but by oft-told tales of human suffering and heroism.

2 thoughts on “London riots: 1592 to 2011

  1. A thoughtful commentary–thank you so much for pointing out the details of the 1592 riots and the correspondences to today’s social pressures.

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