Shakespeare’s life during his professional years was lived in two places, probably equally. His theatre work was in London but he was often with his family in Stratford, where he also attended to his business interests. He accumulated a property portfolio in both places while participating in the management of several theatres and acting companies in London. Shakespeare’s ‘London years’ are generally considered to be from around 1585 to around 1612.
It seems that Shakespeare lived a simple life in London. While he owned at least one house there he did not maintain a London household but lived in lodgings with landlords and other lodgers. He was always within walking distance of the theatre zone so we can imagine him walking to work every day.
As he walked through London he would have been surrounded by scenes more like we would see in an Indian city today than anything we would find in England or America. The dirty, narrow streets were crowded, noisy and busy, with every imaginable trade going on. Prostitutes and pimps hovered, cockfighting beckoned passersby, beggars begged and thieves practiced their arts, from pickpocketing to mugging. Cats, dogs, pigs, goats, horses, and sheep wandered about or stretched out in the sun. Churches, houses, stables workshops, inns, stalls, and theatres were crammed together and human and animal waste lay in the streets.
In a pamphlet, “The Seven Deadly Sins of London”, the playwright Thomas Dekker, wrote: “Carts and coaches make such a thundering din as if the world ran on wheels; at every corner men, women, and children meet in such shoals that posts are set up to strengthen the houses lest with jostling with one another they should shoulder them down. Besides, hammers are beating in one place, tubs hooping in another, pots clinking in a third, water-tankards running at tilt in a fourth… Tradesmen, as if they were dancing galliards are lusty at legs and never stand still.”
Shakespeare moved around quite a bit in London. We know that in 1593 he was living in Bishopsgate because court records show that he owed taxes there at that time. By 1599 he had moved across the river to the Liberty of the Clink on Bankside on property owned by the Bishop of Winchester’s estate, where the Globe Theatre was built. By 1604 he had moved back to the city, to rented lodgings in the house of Christopher Mountjoy on the corner of Monkwell and Silver Street in Cripplegate, not far from St Paul’s. (Read more on where Shakespeare lived in London.)
Shakespeare probably lived quite a full social life in London. Some of his plays include London pub scenes, notably Henry IV Part 1, which is almost entirely set in a Fleet Street pub. His depiction of life in such places rings true, strongly suggesting that Shakespeare was very familiar with pub life. On the other hand, he was also a visitor at the royal palace as some of his plays were performed in front of the king, and, although this is a huge assumption, it is likely that he attended the performances and may even have performed in them.
Any notion of Shakespeare as the lonely, isolated genius scratching away night and day, writing his great plays and poems in solitude, must be dismissed because it is as far from the truth as it could be. It is clear that he was always surrounded by people – friends, business associates, actors and other writers. He made several close friends while in London, mainly writers, and he kept in contact with them when he retired to Stratford. In fact, there are reports that Michael Drayton and Ben Johnson visited Shakespeare a week before he died and spent the evening eating and drinking together.
Shakespeare worked very hard at his trade while in London, producing plays at unbelievable speed. He was a big box-office success and came to be one of the most famous names in the theatre – in fact, when Shakespeare died his estate was substantial. In modern terms he would have been a multi-millionaire. After sweating at the grindstone at his trade in London, living in digs, in his retirement in Stratford he lived out the rest of his life as a gentleman in a big house with servants and all the modern conveniences.