Robin Hood legend 'sexed up for London'

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The legend of Robin Hood as a noble outlaw was created for aspirational middle-class Londoners, according to new research.

Until the late 1500s the Sherwood Forest outlaw had appeared in ballads as a yeoman brigand, a working-class hero fighting for social justice. But since 1598 he has been seen as a nobleman exiled to the forest because of dirty tricks by evil barons.

New research shows that between 1598 and 1601, this newly ennobled Robin appeared in five plays, as well as presiding in spirit over Shakespeare's As You Like It.

One theory for his rise in status is that the 1590s had been a bad year for the establishment. There had been rebellions over land enclosure and there were fears of riots. The last thing the establishment needed was glorification of a working-class hero fighting land-grabbing barons.

So Robin was given a title and, in effect, made part of the establishment.

But the new research, to be published in the journal English Literary Renaissance, offers another reason for the change. Professor Meredith Skura says London theatre audiences developed an appetite for a new kind of hero, someone who belonged to a higher class.

"The traditional Robin Hood was no longer viable on the stage in London,'' he says. "The noble outlaw triumphing over the sheriff had been a countryman's dream. But London merchants dreamed not only about triumphing over superiors, but also about moving up to join them.''