Bear Baiting and Gaming Houses: Entertainment in Shakespeare's London

Shakespeare’s London was a vibrant city full of many entertainments. The growing merchant and trade class had disposable income that they were eager to spend around town. This in turn created new opportunities for the arts. As these new entertainments popped up, however, they occasionally ran afoul of the legal and moral authorities of the city.

William Shakespeare timed his arrival in London perfectly. The playhouse and theaters of London began to spring up in the late 16th century. Before this time, plays and performances would be put on in the homes of aristocrats, but now London had truly public stages. This allowed for a more expansive audience for the shows. The authorities in the city were concerned about the large number of people that could attend open air playhouse like The Globe. They worried about crime- “cutpurses, cozeners and pilferers, who under colour of hearing plays, devised ungodly conspiracies”. But they were also concerned about the spread of disease during times of plague (we go into this more in the section on theaters and the plague). Realizing the popularity of theater, government officials and the monarchy both sought to control the messages in the plays, rather than suppressing theaters entirely.

The other entertainments that began to pop up in the city would be familiar to us today. Bowling alleys became very popular. People would also go to gaming houses, which we could compare to our modern casinos. Alehouses were also popular gathering spots, and the walls would be covered with broadsides featuring songs that people could join in for a singalong. There were also parades and street festivals similar to the ones we have today. Other entertainments, such as bear baiting, thankfully have fallen out of favor in England. But Londoners in Shakespeare's time loved action and excitement in their entertainments, just like many of us do today. Shakespeare was aware of this, and made sure his plays could thrill his audiences as well.


Image Courtsey of The British Library

Source: "Life in Tudor London" Stephen Porter, History Extra (BBC)

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