Catharine Arnold, Globe: Life in Shakespeare's London
More young people flocking here than ever before. New buildings appearing all the time as it bursts at its seams. The rich getting richer and the poor poorer. A city balanced precariously on the edge of chaos. Shakespeare's London shares some uncanny resemblances with modern London in Catharine Arnold's fascinating and wonderfully evocative new book.
Without London, as she shows, there would have been no great playwright Shakespeare. Arriving as a young ambitious man in the late 1580s and only retiring to Stratford at the end of his life, Shakespeare knew the city as an actor and writer, theatre manager and co-owner, canny property owner and investor. From the Royal palaces where he performed to the Thames-side merchants and the Cheapside taverns where actors, writers and low-life mixed (Shakespeare collaborated more than we were ever taught at school), all human life was conveniently here for the taking.
Catharine Arnold breathes new life into what has sometimes become a twice told - and even more - story. More than anything she gives is the living London and playwright. Rather than the disembodied Shakespeare of academics hers is the man of the theatre through and through with all the highs and lows and frequent uncertainties that this entailed.
No one, least of all Shakespeare, can have seen his success as a foregone conclusion: the country was at war for much of the period, dynastic succession caused division, the Plague constantly threatened, audiences were demanding and fickle and, famously, no edition of the plays was ever published in his lifetime. It's seat of breeches stuff and Catharine Arnold tells it as it must have been for its protagonist.
Shakespeare knew by the roar of his audience's approval at the Theatre, Curtain, Rose and then Globe Theatre that he had struck a nerve. But London hasn't always been as grateful to him as it might. With the Globe's final destruction by Cromwell, the physical incarnation of Shakespeare's (and other writers') glory vanished. The Great Fire of London that followed destroyed much of Elizabethan London and took the city rudely into the new modern age.
Early last century literally nothing remained of the original Globe, not even a plaque. It was only the heroic efforts of two Americans: the literary pilgrim cum psycho-geographer James Fairfield and then the mighty Sam Wannamaker that led to a new Globe rising phoenix-like on the South Bank.
I was gripped by a book that has an historian's rigour but matched with a novelist's eye for all the quirky and telling details that make a human life. Globe: Life in Shakespeare's London is the barnstorming story of a man and the city that he made his own and how they were richly and inextricably bound.
Catharine Arnold, Globe: Life in Shakespeare's London, £16.99, Simon & Schuster