Shakespeare to Spoken Word: A Brief History of East London Poets

The artistic communities of East London have left their fingerprints all over their boroughs; from towering spray-paint murals to tiny, indie art galleries, from preppy art clubs to shabby storefront museums. This is no mere coincidence! For the East was once the stomping ground of our greatest poets, canons of English Literature and rowdy bards. You know them well; Shakespeare himself trod these cobbled walks and spilt his locally brewed beer in his carefully maintained beard. Meanwhile Marlowe was up to no good, chatting up birds, chewing tobacco and challenging rivals to fights.

Neither lad was born in our capital, so it is curious they were both drawn to the same quarter of London, visiting the same haunts and seeking inspiration from the same fertile ground. William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1564, just two months after Marlowe. Although it is unknown what exact date Shakespeare moved to the capital, it is presumed to be between 1585 and 1592. However, we know the city fuelled Shakespeare’s imagination throughout his life. An example of this can be found in his play The Tempest, which drew its plot from an anonymously published 1609 poem, ‘Pimlyco: or ‘tis a mad world at Hogsdon’, an ode to Hoxton night life. Dr Howell, lecturer at St Mary’s University, has stated there are marked similarities between the description of Prospero’s island in The Tempest and that of the ‘Isle of Pimlyco’, which describes Hoxton as an out-of-town leisure resort characterised by drunkenness and equality between the classes. Dr Howell went on to explain: “What’s so fascinating about this research is that it suggests that one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays – full of ‘timeless’ themes of love and life, nature and civilisation, colonisation and lost voices – is actually rooted in something very local, almost banal: drinking, socialising and sexual promiscuity in east London!” Indeed, many of us can vouch for East London as a pretty raucous night out…

Interestingly, Christopher Marlowe’s removal to London, from his birthplace Canterbury, overlaps with Shakespeare’s own dates. Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine the Great was performed in London in 1587, the year he arrived, just as he was beginning to take his writing more seriously. Historically, there is much less known of Marlowe’s whereabouts, with his dramatic career spanning only six short years, but we do know he had lodgings in Norton Folgate, just south of Shoreditch. He can also be placed in Bishopsgate, due to the unsavoury nature of his legal woes and subsequent arrests. In fact, in 1589 he was glimpsed with “daggers drawn in an affray” on nearby Hog Lane, now known as Worship Street. Perhaps it was Bishopsgate itself that inspired criminal feelings; Shakespeare was listed as both a taxpayer and a tax-evader during his time living there.

What ties the two writers together within East London so aptly is the recent discovery that Shoreditch was home to the first playhouse. Referred to as The Curtain Theatre, it debuted many of Shakespeare’s plays such as Romeo and Juliet (c.1594), The Merchant of Venice (c.1596) and Henry V (c.1599). Archaeologists of the Museum of London (MOLA) discovered this historic find under Shoreditch turf a decade ago, revealing it to be the second oldest playhouse in London. (Michael Boyd, director of the Royal Shakespeare Company was so excited by the discovery, he went so far as to say he looked “forward to touching the mud and stone”.) It was built in 1576, in the area known as “the suburbs of sin”, thus coined after the Mayor of London’s decree banning any theatrical performances in the city. This decree was passed to minimise the spread of plague in crowded places, and to appease affluent locals who wanted to remain distant from rowdy theatre-goers.

The Curtain was helmed by the actor and theatre manager, James Burbage. Though it is understood that Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, only moved into the theatre in the 1590s, The Curtain is widely regarded as the most successful of London’s playhouses within this era. Unlike its predecessor, The Red Lion, which acted merely as a receiving house for touring theatre companies, the Curtain Theatre accepted long-term engagements, in effect having its own repertory company. As the first modern theatre, a new tradition was born, and Elizabethan plays had their very own stage to deliver entertainment to the masses. As a pioneering, thriving hub and home to experimental arts, 16th century East London and 21st century East London share the same ethos: one of innovation and underground culture.

To this day, the spoken word scene in East London is alive and well. Just as Elizabethan actors performed their soliloquies and sonnets in the East End, present day spoken word poets flock to East London to perform at our capital’s most boisterous poetry nights: Spoken Word London in Stoke Newington, Jawdance in Shoreditch, and Hammer and Tongue in Hackney to name just a few. In fact, anyone can travel to the East and experience the authentic Shakespearean tradition of listening to performances of poetry and getting drunk on a weeknight. Budding poets have been drawn here across classes, genres and eras. Perhaps it’s the environment that makes stars out of them. Or perhaps it’s something in the water…

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