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.