- Shakespeare in Praise of Mediocrity
In 1595, the year Shakespeare first appears as a householder in parish subsidy rolls, food was in short supply in London. Apprentices, the very large community of young men who were serving seven year indentures that might lead toward citizenship and independent participation in trade, were hungry. Three hundred of them arrogated the magisterial functions of the marketplace, setting their own just price for butter in Southwark on market day. Another sixty to eighty apprentices confiscated mackerel from fishwives who had bought up all of the market stock. It was claimed that eighteen hundred apprentices protested the whipping of the butter rioters by pulling down pillories in Cheapside and at Leadenhall, and by setting up gallows outside Lord Mayor John Spencer’s house. More rioting followed on Tower Hill and eventually five apprentices were arraigned, then hanged, drawn, and quartered. These citizens-in-the making expected city elites to respond to their needs, even when harvest failures, demographic changes, inflation, and falling wages were fraying the social fabric of London. And more often than not, the city’s aldermen recognized riot as a negotiating strategy, as petitioning in strength and deed designed to remind magistrates of their duties.
More often than not, but not always. One or another party might for a variety of reasons choose to abrogate the implicit social contract. Take Lord Mayor Spencer, commonly known as “rich Spencer.” An extraordinarily successful merchant, he made his fortune in overseas trade with Spain, Turkey, and Venice. In 1591, he and two other merchants were accused of engrossing the whole trade with Tripoli. In 1599, he was at odds with London’s aldermen about renovations at his estate [End Page 192] which would have diverted water intended to supply the poor at St. Bartholomew’s. At the time of his death he appears to have been worth in excess of £500,000—a simply staggering sum. He won a measure of infamy for not leaving even a token bequest to the poor. As Sir Thomas Tresham noted, Spencer was a “sparer, not a spender.”
Historians who have looked closely at the London riots of June 1595 have concluded that the severity of the crisis was in large part due not to systemic failings, but to the personal shortcomings of the mean-minded, avaricious, and possibly corrupt Lord Mayor Spencer. Not prone to conciliation, Spencer was said to have punished seven where the Lord Chamberlain or Council had punished two. On June 6th, he insisted that a silk weaver and citizen who criticized his mayoralty be incarcerated at Bedlam—two or three hundred apprentices rescued the weaver. So it is no surprise that in mid-June, after a series of food riots, apprentices talked of killing Spencer and put up a gallows outside his door. As Ian W. Archer puts it, “the mediatorial position of the elite was under severe strain in 1595 because the lord mayor himself had become an object of apprentice grievances.” The city’s moderately flexible administrative structure along with its elites’ grudging toleration of negotiation were subverted by Spencer’s intransigence, what in the Repertories of the Court of Aldermen is called his “doggedness.”
Most Londoners seemed to assume that at least a modicum of sociability could prevail, that more often than not, they could negotiate their way through crises. But sometimes riot was not so much a petition as it was what E. P. Thompson dismissed as “spasmodic.” And sometimes intransigent governors turned their backs on reciprocity. In 1595, Spencer was criticized for his failure to take appropriate action to remedy the dearth of victuals and for condoning civic officials’ negligence.
It is, then, my sense that early modern Londoners were a sociable lot and that their default setting was to negotiate. As Coriolanus’s Third Citizen says to the play’s eponymous protagonist, “You must think, if we give you anything, we hope to gain by you” (2.3.70–71). A few lines [End Page 193] later, when it dawns on this citizen that Coriolanus does not subscribe to an ethos of quid pro quo, he remarks that “this is something odd” (2.3...