Shakespeare Walks!

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It is said that “when he walks,” Coriolanus “moves like an engine, and the ground shrinks”. I have always loved that apt figure of speech, describing a man so warrior-like that, when he treads the ground trembles. It is a ‘perambulatory detail’ that otherwise easily could be lost in a play with countless figures detailing the unflappability of its title character, Caius Martius Coriolanus.

Recently, I have been thinking a great deal about walking – not so much about the complex symbiosis required between the nervous and muscular systems in taking one mere stride along the pavement, but (being a dutiful student of British drama) more so about how walking was perceived in Shakespeare’s England.

Thinking about when and why characters walk on the stage in Shakespeare’s plays – whether indicated in dialogue or by authorial/editorial stage directions – is surprisingly nourishing food-for-thought. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father, for instance, is said to be “doomed for a certain term to walk the night,” similarly to the “foul fiend Flibbertigibbet” mentioned by Edgar in King Lear who “begins at curfew and walks till the first cock”. Elsewhere, “’[t]will do me good to walk,” says Othello as he contemplates Desdemona’s ostensible infidelity, and later, just before smothering her, he “walk[s] by” in order to give his wife a chance to pray before her imminent death. Moreover, in response to his daughters’ cruelty, Lear questions whether or not he is even recognizable as king and father, and uses his gait as a marker of recognition: “Does Lear walk thus?” It is a simple action that conveys myriad meanings: a punishment in the case of old Hamlet’s ghost, a reflective condition for Othello, an identifiable characteristic for Lear.

Off the stage, walking in Shakespeare’s England was unavoidable when it came to travel. In a compelling portion of his new biography of Ben Jonson, Ian Donaldson sheds new light on a journey that Ben Jonson took in the summer of 1618 “that took him out of London along the Great North Road, up into the Midlands and northern parts of the kingdom, and thence into Scotland; and eventually, by stages, almost a year later, home again to London” – the same journey (it should be noted) that James I would have taken a year prior in 1617. Jonson’s journey must have been harrowing for a man near 20 stone (280 pounds) to have to brave the variety of terrain that Britain has to offer. That journey perhaps paled in comparison, though, to William Camden’s epic inter-county walk which took him all over England, zigzagging from place to place, studying geography, topography, and the folklore of the ancient British writers, like Geoffrey of Monmouth. Further, famously, Will Kemp, after leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, undertook what we might today call a publicity stunt, morris dancing his was from London to Norwich. The details of Kemp’s journey would later be published in a pamphlet entitled The Nine Days’ Wonder. Walking, it would seem, was a form of entertainment, study, business, and travel.

At the beginning of last month, a few friends and I undertook a journey of our own, which similarly to Kemp, lasted nine days. It was a journey of 146 miles from Shakespeare’s birthplace to The Rose Theatre on the Southbank of London (You might now begin to see why walking has been so prominently on my mind!). Each night of the walk (or rather, as many nights as we could without falling asleep), my friends and I read excerpts of literature from the Anglo-Saxon period to the early-17th century, all having to do with long journeys: the Exeter book’s poem, ‘The Wanderer’, bits from Chaucer’s General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales; selections from Kemp’s Nine Days’ Wonder, Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller, and Thomas Coryate’s Crudities. The curated selection of readings offered a nice way of placing ourselves within the long-standing tradition of walking through the shires of England.

I’m not sure if there is a book in the study of walking in Shakespeare’s England, but there is certainly a PhD thesis in there somewhere. I might encourage someone to take up that project someday! I would also suggest that the next time you come across a character who is said to walk on or off the stage, to think a bit deeper about the implications of that seemingly inconsequential act.

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Matt Kubus is a doctoral researcher and tutor at The Shakespeare Institute, specialising in dramatic bibliography and the textual editing of Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline drama. He is an active member of the SBT's authorship campaign with a forthcoming chapter in the Cambridge University Press volume on Shakespeare Authorship co-edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells.
  • Julian Dutton

    Thank you for this fascinating blog. I thought I would let you know that I have just published a study of Shakespeare’s journey through England on his annual (or bi-annual) commute from London to Stratford. “Shakespeare’s Journey Home: a Traveller’s Guide through Elizabethan England” by Julian Dutton. It retraces the playwright’s trip from his lodgings in Bishopsgate to Stratford-on-Avon. It recreates every street, building, village, inn, and town he would have passed in the 1590’s. Admittedly I have studied his journey as it had been undertaken on horseback rather than on foot, but the state of Elizabethan roads were such that riding was not that much quicker than walking! The aim of the book is to bring to life the England he would have known, and studies of the parish registers of each locality he passed through has revealed family names of people that found their way into his plays. Initially a kindle e-book, the work will be available as a printed book in 8 weeks.

  • Duncan

    Did the Shakespeare’s Way in 2009 and often found myself singing Autolycus’s song from The Winter’s Tale:

    Jog on, jog on, the foot-path way,

    And merrily hent the stile-a:

    A merry heart goes all the day,

    Your sad tires in a mile-a.

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