I took a walk one cool October morning in the Southwark (pronounced Sutthick) section of London, an area that had once been the district of “brothels, bawds and bards.” Here in the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First, theater, bear baiting, prostitution and other interesting recreations took place; here were the pubs and the Clink, the notorious prison from which subsequent jails took their name. I passed an actual wall of the actual Clink, passed the ground level bars from where the incarcerated would thrust their arms and hands at passersby. Prisoners were not fed, and had to beg friends and family to pass food through the bars. It doesn’t take much to imagine oneself in that time. I would have been bringing food to my brother, Danny, a red-headed Irishman who would surely have been up to no good in Elizabethan England. But how to distinguish Danny’s hand from all the others? We would have worked out a code–crossed fingers or something. And it would have been smart to bring food for everybody, so my brother wouldn’t have to fight to keep his.
This is how you amuse yourself strolling these historic streets. The weather’s perfectly encouraging. I peeked into an open doorway, entered an empty room. There was a giant hole in the floor, surrounded by strings of orange lights. I went to the hole and looked down into the motionless green water of the Thames. Someone came up behind me. “Yes, that’s the river,” she said. “Do you know what they found down there?”
I said I imagined gold, or jewels, some kind of sunken treasure, and she said with a smile that that was the general response of Americans. And it was a treasure they had found. It was the old Rose Theater. “You’re kidding,” I said. “They found the Rose? Shakespeare? Marlow?” I added the names to let her know that despite our gold-crazed imaginations, Americans knew who had written for the Rose. She led me into another room and told the story. This site had been slated for development—a high-rise office building. Workers began turning the earth and odd objects popped up. A almost intact money-pot, for example. It was an earthenware Elizabethan pot with a slit in it. It was used to collect pennies from “groundlings” who would pay to stand and watch the play. If people could afford it they could put another penny in another pot and buy the right to be seated. When the play was done and the audience gone, the pots were broken open. After the discovery of these particular money-pot remnants preservationists swooped over the site. The development was halted.
The woman showed me copies of another discovery—there was gold after all–a gold ring engraved with these words, in French: “Pences Povr Moye DV—(Remember me, God willing).” I bought one. I wonder how that person in the late 1500’s felt after losing that ring at the Rose Theater. He or she couldn’t know that five-hundred years later an American would buy a copy of it for twenty pounds, couldn’t know that its discovery would help launch a London preservationist movement to resurrect the old theater.
The recovery of the Rose is a story of values. Historians and an informed public fueled the campaign to preserve the site. The office high-rise was finally resumed, but only over the top of the revived theater, which is preserved beneath. Notably, this has been called “one of the weirdest sights in London.” But never mind that it’s weird; what matters is that the Rose is there, alive again, and flourishing. The woman who sold me the ring was a young Shakespearean actor. She said Titus Adronicus was performed here. Titus Adronicus was Shakespeare’s Jaws, an early, gory thriller crafted to titillate the groundlings.
Returning to our VRBO I wandered back in time. My family traced our DNA though National Geographic and learned our genetic roots are deeply embedded in Ireland and along the coast of England. Might an ancestor have come to the Rose Theater? Maybe. She would have been a groundling for sure, but happy to pay her penny to see a show. She was likely a mother of a batch of children because large families bettered your odds of offspring surviving plagues and living to adulthood. My ancestor would have brought her children to the theatre, maybe after taking them to hand lunch down to their uncle in the Clink. She would not have let them watch bear baiting, no matter how they clamored. I’m as sure of this as I am that there were Roman mothers who forbade their young to watch lions eating people. But she would have loved the plays. And as she listened she might have heard something extraordinary in young Shakespeare’s offerings. Plays weren’t published for common reading then, but a couple of his long narrative poems had become popular. She would not have been able to read them because women of her class were largely illiterate. But her sons would have attended the excellent Elizabethan free grammar schools for boys, and maybe they could have read them to her. Or maybe her brother, released from the clink, and provided hefty cups of good ale, would have read Venus and Adonis aloud to his female kin.
These are the small journeys imagination takes when you visit a truly world class city that loves its past and fights to preserve its neighborhoods.