In my previous blogs on walking, I’ve looked at pedestrianism in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, examining the text through the lens of late 19th century figure of the flaneur; I’ve explored walking in Jane Eyre and its association with windows and thresholds; more recently, I wrote a series of blogs on the various forms of walking in Frankenstein. In this blog, I turn my attention to the act of walking in Shakespeare’s plays. I will get on to Macbeth in the next post, but first some background.
In a recent blog I argued that literary and visual texts provide us with a continuum of walking that shifts between a mode of observation on the one hand, and one of felt, sensory experience on the other. In cinema, for example, walking provides a connecting thread between scenes; or it can allow contemplative moments where character and spectator can become absorbed in the landscape. In literature, we can think about a continuum of walking which shifts from, at the one end, walks that act as a vehicle for characters to narrate their thoughts, observe settings or converse with others; and at the other end, walks that foreground the sensory experience, the physical act of mobility and the effect that walking has on the body and the mind. However, when looking at Shakespeare’s plays, we are faced with the problem of narration and the fact that interpretation of the play is ‘owned’ by the director and the actors.
In a stage play, walking is a constant, with actors using the theatrical space to deliver their lines and react to other characters and situations. The mise-en-scene and the characters’ movement about the stage, as well as the proxemics of space, provide a way of reading drama that is unavailable to readers of the playscript. The renowned director Peter Brooks said that we can “take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” The very act of walking therefore triggers a semiotic response.
When we’re reading Shakespeare’s plays, however, we notice something lacking that we might find in more modern plays. And that is stage directions. Shakespeare’s texts mostly lack the explicit direction to character (it’s mainly entrances and exits, ‘he dies’ etc.) which can support the dialogue. Whilst this can be liberating, providing ample freedom for directors to interpret the text in ways which can transcend time, fashion, and even genre, if we want to look at a specific action such as walking, unless we’re watching the play, then we have no context. Of course, this is the paradox: treating plays like the written text removes the performative foundations on which it is built; however, we are told that we must study Shakespeare as his language is rich with poetic, symbolic, and philosophical meaning. In the end, we have the text, so we must, like all good English scholars, go to the text itself rather than directors’ interpretations.
Enter the Shakespeare concordance.
This wonderful resource is a treasure trove for language-hunters. You can find it here: https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/ and it provides a searchable database across all Shakespeare’s texts. Just pop in your word and wait for the results. So, I searched for ‘walk’ and its variants. Here are some of the results:
- ‘walk’ occurs 127 times in 137 speeches within 37 works
- ‘walked’ occurs 10 times in 10 speeches within 9 works
- ‘walking’ occurs 15 times in 15 speeches within 11 works
- ‘walks’ occurs 28 times in 28 speeches within 19 works
Then of course there are the synonyms:
- ‘tread’ occurs 45 times in 45 speeches within 24 works.
- ‘steps’ occurs 30 times in 30 speeches within 21 works (all of which relate to its reference to the mode of walking rather than the architectural feature)
- ‘stride’ occurs 6 times in 6 speeches within 5 works.
- ‘strides’ occurs 3 times in 3 speeches within 3 works.
- ‘pace’ occurs 34 times in 32 speeches within 22 works (problematic, as some of these refer to speed rather than a synonym for walking)
- and poor old ‘amble’ occurs once in 1 speech within 1 work
The sinister act of walking!
It would be a mammoth task to locate each word within the context of the play and examine its true intent, but there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between the act of walking and dirty deeds in Shakespeare’s work.
It is often aligned with secrecy, spying, or evil and sinister acts. Henry V walks in disguise “from watch to watch” to gauge the temperature of his men before Agincourt linking walking to covert surveillance operations! At the other end of the scale, in the Rape of Lucrece, Tarquin walks about Lucrece’s bed, “rolling his greedy eyeballs in his head.”
Walking can lead to death. In Hamlet, Polonius informs Claudius and Ophelia that the young prince often walks ‘four hours’ in the lobby, but when Polonius attempts to use this knowledge to eavesdrop on Hamlet, he is killed. Othello declares that it will do him “good to walk”, and yet it does Desdemona no good at all because when he returns, he kills her.
In many of Shakespeare’s plays, walking is the preferred mode of spectral practice: there is the ghost of Hamlet’s father “doom’d for a certain term to walk the night”; In Julius Caesar, Brutus opines “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet/Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords/In our own proper entrails.”
Elsewhere, walking is a veil for inner tensions, anxieties and angst: for example, in Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio tells Lord and Lady Capulet that he has seen Romeo out “early walking” with “troubled mind”. Okay, there are countless examples in which walking is a balm for troubled minds, just as it is a simple means of communicating news, instructions in addition to vows of love. But there is no doubt that there is a link between walking and transgression. This got me thinking. What is it that’s in the Elizabethan/Jacobean water that imbues this very simple, everyday act with sinister undertones? So, I did a bit of research.
You ratcatcher, will you walk?
Walking gets a bad rap in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. Urban walking would have been an intensely sensory experience, filled with the scent of sewage, the perils of refuse and replete with numerous other perils that would have been concomitant with the hustle and bustle of emerging modernisation, transport and economies. Pedestrianism had its own social classification, with those of a lower class obliged to ‘give the walk’, that is, walk closer to the street, to provide a physical screen to shield their social superiors from the smells and splashes of whatever ran down the gutters. Indeed, the everyday act of walking would have been the province of the poor as they undertook their daily tasks, whilst horseback would have been the preferred mode of mobility for the more affluent members of society for whom walking was a pleasurable pastime, as Ferdinand in Love’s Labours Lost states: “I did commend the black-oppressing humour to the most wholesome physic of thy health-giving air; and, as I am a gentleman, betook myself to walk.”
In addition to walking being another means by which the lower classes were reminded of their inferiority, it was also aligned with activities which were, in themselves, a threat to property and social stability. The mention of walking would have conjured up associations of vagrancy, vagabondage, and other criminal activities: the term “nightwalker” was used to describe a vagrant or criminal found on the streets, whilst walking that was associated with vagrancy led to banishment or corporal punishment. An Elizabethan proclamation for example, stated that:
“any rogue, vagabond or sturdy beggar who shall be taken begging, wandering or misordering themselves . . . should be openly whipped and sent from parish to parish . . . the next straight way to the parish where he was born . . . and if the same not be known, then to the parish where he or she had last dwelt by the space of a whole year . . . or if it be not known where he or she was born or last dwelt, then to the parish through which he or she last passed without punishment”
Later on, in 1606, it was proclaimed that all “idle persons and masterless men depart and avoid themselves from the city of London . . . and from thence to repair to the Counties and places where they were borne, and there to tary and abide in some lawfull worke.”
Walking was also associated with secrecy and deception: “staying in one place for too long threatened the vagabond’s anonymity”, and there were the “walking morts”, beggar women professing to be widows of men who have met their misfortune at sea or in battle or some such pitiable circumstance. This connection between walking and secrecy was also evident in accounts of the supernatural. Robert Burton in ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ refers to the “walking devils” who wait by the side of the highway to frighten men and horse alike, and in his Daeomonologie, James VI warns us against the porosity of evil, the ways in which the devil walks amongst society and his ability to infiltrate idle minds and brains:
He prepares the way by feeding them craftily in their humour, and filling them further and further with despaire, while he finde the time proper to discouer himself vnto them. At which time, either vpon their walking solitarie in the fields, or else lying pansing in their bed; but always without the company of any other, he either by a voice, or in likenesse of a man inquires of them, what troubles them.
Of course, every school pupil knows about the connection between King James, witchcraft and Macbeth, but it seems that in this, perhaps more than any of Shakespeare’s plays, walking is an explicitly sinister practice, so it’s time to turn to the play-text and examine some of the instances of pedestrian paranoia.
In the next blog, we’ll have a look at what the act of walking in Macbeth tells us about the play.