Transcript - Shakespeare's Restless World - Programme 8

City Life, Urban Strife: A Cap for an Apprentice

One of the things we all struggle to learn in German, French or most European languages, is that there are two ways of saying 'you'. There's a friendly, informal one, and a formal respectful one: 'Du' and 'Sie'. 'Tu' and 'vous'. English in Shakespeare's day had exactly the same. It's a distinction we've now completely lost but as an Elizabethan you established your social relationship to the person you were speaking to by using either a respectful 'you' or a familiar 'thou': So a young man would call his girlfriend 'thou' but her mother 'you'.

'Then mother you are willing

your daughter I shall have:

And Susan thou art welcome

Ile keepe thee fine and brave.'

'In Shakespeare's day you wouldn't use the word 'you' in all circumstances. If you were speaking to somebody of a higher social station, you would address them as 'you' and generally when you were speaking to somebody of a lower station you would address them as 'thee'. One of the things that we have really lost is that sensitivity to how that works.'

Like the 'you' and `thee' that James Shapiro is talking about there, all little indicators of social difference quickly become incomprehensible. If, for instance, a theatre director today put a middle-aged man on stage wearing low-slung jeans, everybody in the audience would know it was both inappropriate and funny. In 50 years time they probably won't understand it at all and the object I'm looking at now carries just such a social meaning, self-evident to an Elizabethan, hard for us to read today. It's an English woollen cap of the 16th century, a sort of flat chocolatey brown beret, and it was found about 150 years ago at Moorfields in London. It was probably worn by a young man.

Picking it up here at the British Museum, I can see that its wool has been closely knitted and felted and it's got a pleasing lived-in look. Lying here on the table it looks as if the teenager who might have worn it has just tossed it down as he came into the room.

Textiles don't, on the whole, survive well. They are key pieces of evidence about the past that we often can't experience, but a number of English caps like this one have made it through the centuries - and that gives us an indication that in Shakespeare's England there were thousands like this one.

Our hat unlocks a whole language of social difference and a whole structure of social control, both expressed through clothes and sometimes enforced by law. A Parliamentary statute of 1571 stipulated that every male over the age of six had to wear a woollen cap like this one on Sundays and holidays. The law was a shrewd device for supporting the English wool industry, but it was also designed to reinforce social divisions by making them visible.

It was not in fact every boy and man that had to wear a cap, noblemen and gentlemen wore hats instead. The 'capped' were the lower echelons of society and for them, not wearing the cap was breaking the law. Shakespeare's Uncle Henry, not quite grand enough to qualify as a gentleman, was fined for not wearing his woollen cap. Everybody in Shakespeare's audience took all this for granted and everybody in this society wore a hat as a badge of social identity. Not to, would suggest that something was seriously amiss.

Ophelia: My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,

Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced,

No hat upon his head . . .

(Hamlet 2.1.77-79)

As soon as Ophelia sees that Hamlet is hatless, both she and the audience are persuaded that he's probably mad, or at least very stressed.

Not that Prince Hamlet would be wearing a woollen cap like ours, of course. Our cap is what in Love's Labour's Lost is called a 'plain statute cap' and it would have been worn by craftsmen and journeyman, servants and apprentices. It was found in the middle of the 19th Century here, in Moorfields.

Apprenticeship was a standard part of Elizabethan life. You became an apprentice around the age of 14 and an apprenticeship normally lasted about 7 years. In Shakespeare's London there might have been as many as 20,000 apprentices, roughly 10% of the city's population.

Shakespearian apprentices were not the downtrodden proletariat of a Victorian factory or a Dickensian workhouse. In fact, they often had a great deal of freedom. They were part of their masters' household, they would one day be masters themselves, and a fair percentage of them would wind up marrying their masters' daughters. They would probably be wearing woollen caps like the one we've been looking at, but they might well be wearing them with a fair bit of swagger. Needless to say their masters' complained endlessly about their idleness. Here is a master carpenter of around 1600 grousing about his apprentice:

'[He] will work nyver but ly drinking at the ale house & romes to playes all the day longe, & at night when he comes home . . . he will climb over the bricke walles & throwe downe the windowe & come in soe that theare is no body that can rule him . . . I would be very fayne rid of him'

It wasn't just the carpenter's apprentice who roamed to plays all the day long. Shakespeare's audiences included apprentices from every trade. They stood for a penny in the pit, but they might also accompany their master or mistress to the balcony. Masters often sent an apprentice to escort their wives to the playhouse, as in this saucy anecdote from Henry Peacham's The Art of Living in London:

'A tradesman's wife . . . desired him he would give her leave to go see a play . . . He bade her take his apprentice along with her and go, but especially to have a care of her purse. . . When the play was done, [she] returned to her husband and told him she had lost her purse! . . . Quoth her husband, 'Where did you put it?' 'Under my petticoat between that and my smock.' 'What, (quoth he) did you feel no body's hand there?' 'Yes (quoth she), I felt one's hand there, but I did not think he had come for that.'

The theatre was an environment where your mistress wasn't the only one likely to get into a bit of mischief. James Shapiro of Columbia University:

'Lots of people imagine that like Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare and his contemporaries married at 14 or 15. They did not marry until their mid-twenties and they didn't marry until their mid twenties because they were apprenticed from their mid-teens until their early twenties in a trade or profession. So that you have a lot of young men who are sexually mature, ready to drink, carouse and who are working long hours and ready to relax a little bit when they are out with a crowd and it is really an age group as much as anything else.'

Lads out on the town were bound to get into trouble, and they did. They often went wild on Shrove Tuesday when the festivities were a last chance for apprentices to let off steam before the glum privations of Lent. Sometimes, after a bit of drink, they even trashed the theatre if they didn't like the programme.

Looking at our cap more closely, I can see that this might not have been our apprentice's ordinary cap. Under the brim there are three lines of brown silk stitches running all the way around the cap that must have been used to hold a silk ribbon, and indeed, looking with a magnifying glass, I can see there are still a few shreds of fine silk attached. When the king in Hamlet calls Laertes' skill with a rapier 'a very riband in the cap of youth', this stylish silk ribbon, the high point of urban teenage chic, is what he is picturing. This velvety brown cap is not grand enough to be a master's cap but it does look like an apprentice's very best cap, his out on-the-town cap, one that he might wear to a special event or perhaps to the theatre, sporting his silk ribbon. If you were an actor looking out from the stage around 1600 you would probably have seen a sea of flat caps like this one, many of them worn by apprentices standing in the open air at the Globe or the Rose.

During the 1590s a series of bad harvests led to demonstrations across the country about food prices, demonstrations which frequently ran out of control.

Shakespeare depicts just such a moment in Coriolanus; the people are hungry and they are being whipped up to anger against the man blamed for the food shortage:

First Citizen: You are all resolved rather to die than to famish?

All: Resolved, resolved.

First Citizen: First, you know Caius Coriolanus is chief enemy to the people?

All: We know't, we know't.

First Citizen: Let us kill him, and we'll have corn at our own price. Is't a verdict?

All: No more talking on't. Let it be done. Away, away!

(Coriolanus 1.1.4-12)

All this would have struck a chord with the audience. But apprentices in the pit would surely not have cheered with so much gusto at the later speech by Coriolanus' friend Menenius, who must have been speaking directly to them, pointing down at them in their caps.

Menenius: 'You are they

That made the air unwholesome when you cast

Your stinking greasy caps in hooting

At Coriolanus' exile.'

(Coriolanus 4.6.131-4)

The hooting at Coriolanus' exile, the threat to Rome's very existence, goes far beyond a boisterous Shrove Tuesday. There's a sense of real menace here, and Menenius, for all his condescension, has identified a danger in the cap-wearing crowd that greatly preoccupied the English possessing class. These apprentices could, in certain circumstances, turn into a violent, dangerous mob. Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro explains what this tossing of caps in the air meant and why Menenius so disliked it:

'It could be an expression of let's throw the social order over, let's have regime change. There is a way in which the symbol of these caps tossed in the air suggested a bit of anarchy at that moment and which way it would go is unclear. In plays like Coriolanus where Shakespeare actually writes a stage direction, 'everybody tosses their caps in the air', that signified a kind of threatening, rebellious, popular force that kings and theatre owners, I suppose, should reckon with.'

In London, just as in Coriolanus' Rome, cap-wearing mobs were always a potentially frightening force. Between 1603 and 1642 there were 24 major disturbances on Shrove Tuesday, that's an average of one serious riot every two years. Designed as emblems of social control the woollen caps could become signs of real rebellious menace, a bit like hoodies today. Shakespeare's crowd in Coriolanus is remarkable not just for its escalating violence, but because those holiday caps also work as a kind of gang uniform. James Shapiro again:

'It is a way of signifying a kind of collective identity, a bunch of young men who are rowdy or potentially easy to stir up, and I think Shakespeare loves that energy. You see crowds like that in Julius Caesar and in Coriolanus. It is threatening and it is unpredictable and it is not to say that, you know, Shakespeare doesn't call the mob a 'mob', he never uses that word. I don't think he thinks of these young men, gathered together throwing their caps in the air, as either good or bad in and of themselves. They are just this energetic group of people who can shift the political terrain at any point or be manipulated into that.'

But those who controlled the political terrain were always in a position to fight back. In 1595 apprentices rioted here at Tower Hill. It was a time of poor harvests and famine and what began as a protest against rising food prices, ended with martial law being declared.

Ten years on, the opening scene of Coriolanus dramatises exactly this sort of riot among those wanting cheap corn. Everyone in Shakespeare's audience would have known how frightening such riots could be. They would also know how dangerous they were for the apprentices themselves. Five of those who rioted in 1595 were executed on the scaffold.

In the next programme we will be looking at other ways the establishment found to control an unruly world: not statutes about clothing, but the power of magic.

Shakespeare quotations are taken from:

Hamlet (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN: 978-0-141-01307-7

Coriolanus (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01649-8