CHAPTER VIII. THE ELIZABETHAN TAVERNS
The London taverns were the clubs of London's literary men, and in Shakespeare's time the most famous houses were "The Mermaid" in Bread Street, "The Boar's Head" in Eastcheap, "The Devil" at Temple Bar, "The Falcon," "The Tabard," "The George," and some few others, situated on the south side of the river. In the days when he lived by the river-side at Southwark, Shakespeare would have counted among the members of his tavern club Edmund Spenser, Beaumont, Fletcher, and Ben Jonson, "rare Ben Jonson," who wrote of his great rival, "I loved the man, and do honour his memory on this side idolatry as much as any"; tribute over which the mind loves to linger. Fuller tells of the contests of wit that used to ensue when Shakespeare and Ben Jonson met, "which two I beheld like a great Spanish galleon and an English man-of-war. Master Jonson, like the former, was built far higher in learning, solid, but slow in his performances; Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about and take advantage of all winds by the quickness of his wit and invention." We see in this simile that the lesson of the Spanish Armada had not been forgotten, and that its appearance was still vividly present in men's minds.
Although the taverns were open to all comers, it was easy for small companies of men, banded together by common interests and devoted to similar aims, to keep aloof from casual patrons. Strangers who had no literary interests would not find any excuse for intrusion, and the landlord, proud of the special patronage of those who claimed respect outside the tavern, would doubtless grant them such privileges as the house afforded. At a time when the news of the day was brought to the taverns, while men of affairs and those who had some locus standi at Court did not disdain the attractions of a favoured house, there must have been a certain high standard of conversation, and many a friendly battle of wits. The ready tongue and fluent pen might make a mark in the tavern and all London hear of it. Ben Jonson established the Apollo room at the "Devil Tavern" by Temple Bar and drew up his famous "Convivial Laws," which, while granting admittance to "learned, urbane merry goodfellows" and "choice women," forbade horseplay, and concluded "focus perennis esto."
Sir Walter Raleigh founded a club at the "Mermaid Tavern," where, in addition to Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, together with many other dramatists of note, spent their leisure hours. In Southwark the "Tabard Inn" enjoyed the fame conferred upon it by Geoffrey Chaucer, as well as the additional honour of his patronage, before Shakespeare arrived. "The Bell," "The George," and "The White Hart" were among the "Tabard's" leading competitors; it is likely that the poet knew them all. We have no record that he spent too much time in taverns, as poor Ben Jonson did; but he knew them well enough to enter into the spirit of those who served and those who gave orders, those who paid promptly, and those who could say with Ancient Pistol, "Base is the slave that pays."
Some of Shakespeare's biographers, who, because of their own virtues, would abolish cakes and ale and forbid ginger to be hot in the mouth, resent the mere suggestion that Shakespeare used the taverns as his contemporaries did. There is no reason to suppose that he misused them after the fashion of Robert Greene, Marlowe, and Ben Jonson, but at the same time the temperance advocate will need to go very carefully through plays and poems if he is searching for praise of water as opposed to wine. The power of the Puritan was rising in Shakespeare's time, but the Puritans did not number the poet among their supporters. A certain spirit of conviviality marked the Elizabethan age, which enjoyed, among other advantages, the benefit of wine and spirits that had not been systematically adulterated. Then again, no playwright could remain wholly indifferent to the taverns, for it was in the yards of the inns that the drama was first nourished. The inn yard was to some extent the forerunner of the theatre. When the companies left London in the summer and went on tour, they found no small part of their audience in the country hostelries. The place of the tavern in literary history has not yet been written. From the "Tabard" of Chaucer to the "Mermaid" of Shakespeare, through the coffee-houses of a later date, to the "Bohemia" of Soho, where the free-lances of literature meet to-day, there is a thread of connection well worth examining.
Our ubiquitous press tends to restrict the feast of reason and the flow of soul; men do not care to express themselves too freely, or the cleverest may wake one morning to find he has made some silent auditor famous. A very notorious case of this kind occurred in the last decade of the nineteenth century. But in Shakespeare's time wit seemed to receive its guinea stamp from the tavern, and we have the records of many men to show that when Shakespeare was one of the company the audience had good reason to be content. There are many tributes to the standard of the conversation. Beaumont, the dramatist, Francis Meres, the clergyman schoolmaster, Richard Barnfield, the poet, Michael Drayton, the intimate friend, all testify on behalf of Shakespeare; and there are many others who must have seen and heard him. The attraction of the tavern must have been increased to a great extent when their patrons stood a chance of catching the crumbs that fell from the wit's table. "To give you total reckoning of it," says Erle, "it is the busy man's recreation, the idle man's business, the melancholy man's sanctuary, the stranger's welcome, the inns a court man's entertainment, the scholar's kindness, and the citizen's courtesy. It is the study of sparkling wits, and a cup of canary their book, whence we leave them."
All have passed—the spacious taverns, those who served, and those who patronised them have gone, never to return. Where great writers and poets assembled and marked the arrival of travellers from the country, and listened to stories of "nine men in buckram," where the horseman saw to the ease of his weary nag before his own, we see crowded thoroughfares in which the pulse of traffic beats furiously for six long days out of seven. Of the many changes London has known in the three centuries that have passed since Shakespeare's time few have been more drastic. Perhaps the Great Fire destroyed many of the taverns; the growth of commerce and the coming of new means of locomotion did the rest. Only in old prints may we find some pleasing recollection of red-tiled or thatched houses with half timber and half plaster walls, their ingle nooks, dormer windows, or many gables. Here the men to whom we still pay tribute spent their hours of ease, unconscious that their lightest words would be sought for eagerly in generations to come—and be sought in vain. But the knowledge that the old houses had their being, and that the great poets of the Elizabethan era frequented them, hallows many a dusty, dingy street in the city's by-ways now given over to feverish activity from dawn to dusk, and to silence from dusk to dawn.