Shakespeare, frost fairs and climate change

The weather has always been a topic of conversation in England.

The Little Ice Age occurred between about 1300 and 1870, when Europe and North America experienced much colder winters than those of the preceding or following centuries. It had two phases. The first began around 1300 and continued until the late 1400s. That was followed by a slightly warmer period in the 1500s, after which things cooled down again.

From 1400 to the removal of the medieval London Bridge in 1835, there were 24 winters during which the River Thames froze over at London. The Thames had solidified several times during the 16th century – King Henry VIII travelled from Whitehall to Greenwich by sleigh along the river in 1536 and Queen Elizabeth I took to the ice during 1564 to practice archery. Small boys played football on the river.

Great-Frost-1608In some winters between the 17th century and early 19th century, frost fairs were held on the River Thames. In that period, it was wider, slower, shallower, and impeded by Old London Bridge. The first recorded frost fair was during the winter of 1607-8 and it is likely that William Shakespeare saw it, since he was living in London at the time. During December the ice was firm enough to allow people to walk between Southwark and Old St Paul’s, but it was not until January when the ice became really thick that people started setting up stalls on it. There were football pitches, bowling matches, fruit-sellers, shoemakers, barbers and even a pub or two.

In the early 19th century, food and drink were a major draw. The highlight was roast ox, which would have taken over 24 hours to cook over a fire. A single animal would have fed 800 people. Mutton was also served – sliced and in mince pies. Tea, coffee, and hot chocolate were sold, and alcohol was also available. Ginger bread vendors sold cups of gin, of which there was a particularly strong version called Old Tom, apparently slightly sweeter than London Dry and which was described as being “incredibly ardent”.

Thomas-Wyck-1640By 1592 William Shakespeare, aged 28, was established as both an actor and dramatist. He is mentioned that same year as a man of the theatre by the poet and dramatist Robert Greene (England’s first “celebrity author”), whose Groats-Worth of Witte, bought with a million of Repentance referred to him as an “upstart crow beautified with our feathers” who “is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”

In 1594 extremely bad weather was experienced in England from March onward, continuing (possibly with a brief respite in August) until the end of the year and followed by poor, wet summers in 1595 and 1596. Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream during these years, probably in 1595. In Act 2 Scene 1, there is a long passage beginning “These are the forgeries of jealousy” describing the effects of climate disruption, attributed in the play to the feud between Titania and Oberon:

“The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set…”

Shakespeare borrowed the image of Hiems as an old man with a “snowy frozen crown” from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Titania could be speaking about today’s perplexity in the face of the unpredictability of climate change. The lines culminate in the ironic observation that:

“… the spring, the summer,
The chiding autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world
By their increase, now knows not which is which.”


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