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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Great Frost Fair and Shakespeare

A Great Frost began in London on 5 December 1607 and lasted until 14 February.

The River Thames froze over, and was so solid frozen that people could cross the river on foot!

There had been several other frosts like this, during the Little Ice Age (from about 1350 to 1850) including one on Christmas day 1564 that was so remarkable that the Queen herself took to the ice, and was said to have practiced her archery on the Thames!

London merchants celebrated this event by covering the river and hawking their goods, selling food and drink, and anything else they could manage -- and drawing crowds who were eager to go where they had never thought it possible to go.

It was so successful and so many people came to the river, that it became known as the very first Frost Fair.

These would continue for the next two centuries -- the last Frost Fair was in 1814. Who knows, maybe we will see another in our lifetimes.

Frost Fair of 1683-4

Frost Fair of 1683-4

Frost Fair of 1814

Frost Fair of 1814, with Old London Bridge in the background

The December 1564 frost had been only months after Shakespeare was born, and while I doubt he saw it, he must have known about it.

When the Great Frost of 1608 occurred, I think he must have wanted to walk on the river, and I'm sure he delighted in it!

I wouldn't be surprised if he took his business to the river -- while I doubt that the King's Men would perform an entire play, I would think that they might go to the river to perform scenes, or at least drum up business, and distribute handbills.

It must have been quite an experience for playgoers to cross the river by foot to go to Southwark and see a play at the Globe, or other theatres. And I imagine that the wherry-boatmen were pulling their hair out, what with the loss of business!

Finally, I have often thought when Shakespeare's wife Anne, and their daughters Judith and Susanna might have gone into London to visit him.

Perhaps they never did. But if they did, when and why?

I like to think that Anne might have come down to London for a play or two, especially in the beginning as he is becoming famous.

She might have wanted to see the coronation of King James in 1603 with her husband, now a King's Man.

I think the Great Frost of 1608 would be one of those times in which Shakespeare would invite his wife to come to London -- and marvel at one of the most spectacular sights she would ever see.


David B. Schajer

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