Shakespeare's London, By Stephen Porter


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Displaying an unexpected kinship with Mark Steel's taxi driver, John Donne ironically advised in 1607, "Come to London, plaguy London, a place full of danger and vanity and vice."

This vivid tour d'horizon vividly supports Donne's outburst in every respect. In 1603, 20 percent of Londoners died of the plague. No wonder Shakespeare wrote of "pestilence, where death is sure."

As for danger, we learn that a "mortal wound above his right eye" was exceptional only due to the fame of Christopher Marlowe. Concerning vanity, one visitor noted that English women "do not hesitate to wear velvet... whilst at home they do not have a piece of dry bread".

Exploring vice, a report concluded that London was "the very sincke of sin". How things have changed.