Last month the Royal Shakespeare Company visited the Museum of London to research for our production of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 and 2. We were at the beginning of our rehearsal process for the plays and as we analysed the text in the room we noticed how specific Shakespeare was being in his depiction of everyday life in Elizabethan London. As with the famous writer’s adage, ‘write what you know’, we could tell that in writing the tavern scenes Shakespeare was doing just that.
Artistic Director for the RSC and director of Henry IV part 1 and 2 Greg Doran thought it would be a great idea for us to explore these references further and the offer of a private show and behind the scenes tour from the Museum of London was an ideal opportunity to aid our understanding of the world Shakespeare was writing about.
Roy Stephenson, Head of Archaeological Collections and Archive and curator Meriel Jeater greeted us bright and early to allow us to see the specific artefacts to Tudor London before the public opening time. From the washed up relics from the Thames to the maps of London we were already getting a feel for how busy and active London must have been during that time. Seeing the maps gave us a real sense of how London (a city condensed into a fraction of what we know today) was a bustling and productive place where everyone was working and living on top of each other. For me I really began to imagine the noise and how similar in volume it must be to what we know now. You can almost see Shakespeare, who lived for many years in the thick of this energy, trying to shut out this noise in order to write.
As part of our behind the scenes tour of the museum costume curator Beatrice Behlen and medieval curator Jackie Keily had prepared a display of clothes that had been preserved from the period; amongst the selected items on display where hats, purses, leather jerkins and some intricately detailed embroidery. The workmanship in these items was incredible and the needle work in the night gowns was particularly impressive. Seeing such craft in the clothes brought something in the play very much to life. Shakespeare writes about the whole spectrum of society – from the drawers in the tavern to the Lords that stand by the King. The night shirt we saw was clearly bound for a person of wealth and status, but also lovingly made by someone who worked hard at a trade. In Henry IV Shakespeare writes about both of the people behind a garment like the night shirt and remarkably manages to understand and empathise with their contrasting lives.
Our final trip of the day was a private view of objects that had been discovered from the Elizabethan period organised by curator Meriel Jeater. Objects included daggers, leather bottles from taverns and tooth picks – apparently the people of London made a real effort with hygiene! We learnt about the level of violence on the street and that it was very probable that the majority of Londoners carried knives. We had an insight into the amount of foreign trade that was happening in the city and that taverns were also used as lodgings for these foreign tradesmen. It was also fun to learn about the origin of common phrases like ‘being on tenterhooks’ being a reference to a method of drying out large pieces of cloth along the rivers of London.
What we were seeing and handling as a company during the day were things that Shakespeare was writing about in the plays and very quickly these references that for the past week had seemed alien and peculiar now seemed very tangible and real. The value of this trip has been incredibly noticeable since our return to the rehearsal room. All members of the company not only have a direct reference to the object that Shakespeare writes about but we now also have a much more vivid sense of the world of Henry IV.
Owen Horsley, Assistant Director of Henry IV