La Petite Morton July 13, 2012 at 12:00 am
“The girls down by the hanging fields.” Bit of an odd line, isn’t it?
Well, Dear Reader, a few years back, I read Stephen Greenblatt’s exceptionally vivid Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. Greenblatt is something of a superstar of the academy and was one of the founders of New Historicism, a lit-crit theory that my professors (this is back when I had them, which is a long time ago) viewed with either howling hate or a devotion that you’d normally associate with the weeping icons of the Virgin Mary.
Will in the World is a great piece of work, cleanly delineating Shakespeare life against a finely-rendered portrait of the Elizabethan world. If you’re into that sort of thing, Dear Reader, then it’s a book I certainly commend to your attention.
But what does that have to with “the girls down by the hanging fields?” I’m getting there, just hold on. So! In Will in the World, Greenblatt spends some time writing about the Tyburn region in London, which was notorious as the locale where enemies of the Crown were publicly executed—”Hanged By the Neck Until You Be Dead,” that sort of thing, all very grim.
Now historically—as I’m sure you’re aware—public executions were all the rage for the poor, the broken-down, the disposed—which is to say anyone in England who wasn’t lucky enough to be born into the peerage. The public hangings attracted huge crowds (SDCC-level crowds) and when there’s crowds, (again, like SDCC) there’s people hawking stuff—food, clothing, metalwork, clay pots (maybe comics, who knows?) and, of course, sex. Tyburn, besides being a killing field, was also something of a red-light district, with prostitutes aplenty amidst all the “nature, red in tooth and claw.”
Greenblatt believe that Shakespeare was well-acquainted with both the hanging fields and their associated tradeswomen and for me, that particular detail always stuck out—that strange melding of sex and death cutting through the city like a current. Maybe there French are on to something when they talk about “la petite mort.”
Which is all to say, it’s something I’ve wanted to use in a project in a while—even as just a line of dialogue!
Enjoy yourself this weekend, Dear Reader, and do something outlandish and embarrassing.