Cities in late Shakespeare

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No walls are set about this city … Introduction It might seem difficult or unusual to try to understand Shakespeare's later plays in relation to cities. True, the period 1608 to 1613 is bookended by dramas staging cities in fascinating ways: Coriolanus and Henry VIII. But as we navigate the landscapes of Shakespeare's works and collaborations in this period, these appear exceptional. Because, of course, the landscapes of most of those works and collaborations look to be that of romance: often pastoral or maritime (or both), and a long way from cities. For innovative and robust takes on life in London under James I, perhaps other dramatists are more useful. In 1609, audiences could compare The Winter's Tale with Ben Jonson's Epicene, a play busy with the sounds and sites of the city, where London itself becomes a figure who has 'stained … burnt … dropped' and 'dashed' characters' clothes and possessions (3.2.58-67). By 1614, the distinctions were obvious enough for Jonson to use Bartholomew Fair to lambast Shakespeare's 'Tales, Tempests, and such like drolleries', as opposed to his own formally proper, vivid and vital cityscapes (Induction, 115-16). The differences Jonson identified made sense, even before these later plays. Shakespeare's cities were always dislocated in time and space from the contemporary urban context that he and his peers occupied. As genres like city comedy burgeoned, such differences appeared more obvious. With their topographical precision, dense intrigues, materialistic urges and witty youths, city comedies excluded 'material appropriate to romance, fairy-tale, sentimental legend'. Despite the popularity of Shakespeare's later plays, perhaps he had no place in this new, urban theatrical order. In other words, Shakespeare was out-of-date (or just 'late', perhaps), because he did not follow the fashion for urban realism based on classical models.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLate Shakespeare, 1608-1613
EditorsAnthony J. Power, Rory Loughnane
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781139060189
ISBN (Print)9781107016194
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2012


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