'Tis a mad world at Hoxton’: Leisure, License and Local History in The Tempest

Submitting Institution

St Mary's University, Twickenham

Unit of Assessment

English Language and Literature

Summary Impact Type


Research Subject Area(s)

Language, Communication and Culture: Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies

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Summary of the impact

The impact described here concerns the history of Hoxton, London, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, especially in relation to Shakespeare's The Tempest and the anonymous poem Pimlyco, or Run Red Cap`Tis a mad world at Hogsdon. As outlined below, the project adds to the cultural capital of this inner-city area of London, and gives one of Shakespeare's most famous plays `back' to the inhabitants of the city where it originated.

Underpinning research

The content of the underpinning research is contained in Peter Howell's essay `Tis a mad world at Hoxton: Leisure, License and the Exoticism of Suburban Space in Jacobean London' (Literary London, Autumn 2013), and in his scholarly edition of the poem Pimlyco (www.otranto.co.uk/index.php/publication/view/52). As part of a wider project on the history of Shoreditch and its environs, the research was undertaken by Peter Howell, a Lecturer in English, during the period 2010-2012. The essay demonstrates that a significant source for Shakespeare's The Tempest is this long, anonymous poem published in 1609, written in praise of a tavern and its ale, called `The Pimlyco' or `Pimlico', in Hoxton, northeast of the City of London. This poem construes this then-suburb as an island, and in so doing borrows a great deal from those stories of the New World written about the Roanoke expeditions in the 1580s, and the Jamestown expeditions of 1607-8. The essay claims that Shakespeare's conception of an enchanted island that has been colonised, and where inhabitants change their personalities temporarily, but that is nonetheless located in the Old World, is in part taken from this poem. There are also a number of textual and extra-textual features that link this poem, and the tavern in Hoxton that it concerns, to Shakespeare's play. These links solve the central problem of postcolonial readings of The Tempest: why is a play about the New World set very specifically in the Old? Shakespeare already had a precedent for this in the Pimlyco poem. The claims of this research also imply that The Tempest has a more local referent than has usually been said; as well as thematisation of the `big' ideas of colonisation, dispossession, creativity and forgiveness, it also depicts practices of transformational licence to be found in the suburbs of early modern London.

References to the research

Peter Howell (ed.), Pimlyco; or Run Cap — `Tis a Mad World at Hogsdon (2013)

Peter Howell, ` " 'Tis a mad world at Hoxton": Leisure, Licence and the Exoticism of Suburban Space in Jacobean London' in The Literary London Journal, 10:2 (Autumn 2013),

Details of the impact

The research was disseminated in two main ways, each having its own distinctive but complementary impact:

1. Shakespeare in Hackney; or, `Tis a mad world at Hoxton, by Peter Howell and Matthew Hahn (Drama St Mary's), dir. Matthew Hahn, starring Jack Klaff.

This is a redacted and dramatised version of the poem, produced in collaboration with the Theatre Arts team of St. Mary's University College. It was premiered on 23 May 2013 at Hoxton Hall, a theatre in Hoxton, London, close to the location of the Pimlyco tavern in the early 1600s, and was followed by a lecture by Peter Howell on the poem, the local history of the area and its relevance to The Tempest. A recording of the performance is available at www.otranto.co.uk/index.php/pages/index/pimlyco-13. A total of 78 people bought tickets for the performance, and they were asked to fill in a questionnaire concerning attitudes to Hoxton, and attitudes to Shakespeare. 25 completed questionnaires were received (the questionnaire can be found at the end of this section), a summary of which follows:

  • 24 of the 25 respondents lived at least three miles from Hoxton; 5 of the respondents came to Hoxton `between 1 and 5 times per year' or more often, and the rest had `hardly ever' or `never' been to Hoxton. As such, there is evidence that the performance drew an audience into an area with which they were not previously familiar.
  • Respondents were asked to write up to four words to sum up the reputation of Hoxton, and up to four words to sum up their own opinion of it, having seen the show. Many predictable responses came up in both categories — `grungy', `edgy', `up-and-coming', but some transformative effects were evident:
How often in Hoxton Reputation wn Opinion
Hardly ever White poverty enclave Less isolated than that
Never Didn't know where it was Very Londonish
Never Village atmosphere? Interesting: more exploration req.
Hardly ever Trendy Neighbourhood
Hardly ever 0 Interesting
Never Never heard of it (before) Now very interesting

There is evidence, then, of an increase in curiosity about Hoxton and in its cultural capital.

  • The respondents were quite knowledgeable about Shakespeare, with all but two having either read or seen at least `11-20' plays in the past ten years. 16 had studied his work at university level, with all the rest having studied it either to GCSE or A-Level (or equivalents).
  • There were not many answers to question 13 (the `open' question), possibly because the optional nature of it was emphasised in order not to lead respondents too much, but below are some of the responses received, indicating that the performance encouraged the audience to re-evaluate perceptions of Shakespeare and his work:
    `An excellent exposition of the context of Shakespeare's writings'
    `It brought home for me the creative atmosphere Shakespeare was working in — I didn't really know anything about his influences and other contemporary writers'
    `It has enlivened again my interest in Shakespeare'
    `Interesting to hear possibilities of where Shakespeare drew his ideas from and also the idea of an island as a space inland!'
    `Emphasised how his work is rooted in London/English society'

2. Text of Pimlyco; or Run Red Cap — `Tis a mad world at Hogsdon and related discussions on www.otranto.co.uk

Following the performance of the poem, the text of the original pamphlet, together with recordings of the performance and an academic paper on the poem, were made available online in an innovative new format for the interactive publication of academic texts created by St Mary's scholars: www.otranto.co.uk. After the paper was published by the journal Literary London, it was taken down from the otranto site, but for the three months it was on there (June-August 2013) it attracted a high standard of discussion, particularly on the nature of the poem's relationship to The Tempest. Discussion of the text of Pimlyco itself can be viewed at http://www.otranto.co.uk/index.php/publication/view/52. At the time of writing this site is still an on-going project, but it raises the possibility of increased interaction with community and non-specialist readers interested in the local history of east London, and in Shakespeare.

Sources to corroborate the impact

Creative Co-ordinator at Hoxton Hall, Hoxton St., London N1

Questionnaire responses held by Peter Howell (available on request)