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Nina Levine, Practicing the City
by Will Humphries

Levine, Nina. Practicing the City: Early Modern London on Stage. Fordham UP, 2016. viii + 200 pp. ISBN: 978-0823267866. $85.00 cloth. 

Nina Levine’s Practicing the City: Early Modern London on Stage explores a pivotal moment in the transformation of England’s capital during the closing decade of the sixteenth century and the opening decade of the seventeenth. An explosion in London’s population (doubling in twenty years to around 200,000 by 1600) was largely driven by a steady flow of continental migrants and supported by economic growth made possible through the increasing availability of credit. This undoubtedly had a dislocating effect on many of the city’s residents, as evidenced by a growing tension between the English citizens and their “stranger” counterparts. In his more than twenty-year-old study of this period, Literature and Culture on Early Modern London, Lawrence Manley identified this moment as vital in initiating the replacement of Medieval feudalism with Early Modern capitalistic practices—a process that London’s vibrant literary scene helped to articulate.[1] Nina Levine’s Practicing the City explores this literary articulation by examining four dramatic works that become, it is suggested, an important part of this “new urban poetics” (2).

It is Levine’s contention that the theatre allowed the city’s population to “experiment in the complex reciprocity of new modes of urban belonging” (4). These “new modes” become the historical bases for her four chapters, with the two central chapters, largely concerned with the effects of continental migration, bookended by chapters loosely examining the city’s economic development. Chapter One places the Henry IV plays in a context of an extended credit economy and explores the “traffic between past and present, and between the stage and contemporary London” (24). Chapter Two maps urban protest in the context of “collective association” (51), reading Sir Thomas More both for its topical interest in migrant tensions as well as its complex co-authorship. Chapter Three examines foreign-language learning as a means of confronting “the problems of the alien presence in early modern London” (107) alongside a reading of William Haughton’s comedy Englishmen for My Money. Finally, Chapter Four focuses on “the stage’s engagement with new forms of urban time” (109) by exploring the “rhythms of commerce” (122) in Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s The Roaring Girl.

Levine chooses this twenty-year period not only for its rich literature but also for its significant place in London’s history. In keeping with Manley’s earlier assessment, Levine seems to identify something particularly important in this moment of the city’s historical narrative. Nevertheless, having established her work’s interest in this transformative moment in the capital’s history, Levine insists that “local perceptions of metropolitan London were hardly monolithic” (5) in the late sixteenth century and praises the “microhistories of the everyday practices of ordinary Londoners” (5) found in the works of historians Julia Merritt and Keith Wrightson amongst others.[2] While this “microhistorical” approach is often fascinating, particularly in Chapter Three’s examination of the French-language teacher Claudius Hollybrand, Levine never quite establishes in which historical camp she resides. The tension between monolith and microhistory in Practicing the City consequently problematizes her readings of the plays. When the monolith looms too large in a chapter, Levine’s choice of a single accompanying play runs the risk of appearing arbitrary; when the microhistory digs too deep, Levine’s reading of the associated play is often in danger of seeming disconnected from any sense of a larger argument.

Levine’s uneasy relationship with whether it is possible to talk about a singular “history” of the city means that the four chapters never quite coalesce around a single argumentative position. This disparate approach may be, in part, a consequence of Levine’s decision to draw together for the opening half of the book two articles that were first published in 2000 and 2007 respectively.[3] Modeling two chapters on material previously published in articles (and writing the others in a similar style), produces chapters that feel sufficient and self-contained but reduces the possibility of finding common currency between them. As a result, Levine misses interesting opportunities to extend her readings across chapters—her analysis of urban time in Chapter Four makes little of the fact that the credit economy, explored in Chapter One, relied entirely upon time to make its returns. Her focus instead on the plague mortality bills (110-121), while fascinating in and of itself, appears entirely disconnected from her choice of play, The Roaring Girl.

Reading the chapters separately offers differing though individually intriguing conclusions. Chapter One’s interest in the credit economy extends to a complementary examination of Early Modern developments in contract law. Levine is right to point to the seminal Slade’s Case (1596-1602) as a judgment that helped to redefine the spoken word, shifting promises from “a moral to a legal sphere” (42). John Popham’s judgment in Slade’s Case found that a promise of payment made orally, and in lieu of a written contract, still constituted a binding legal agreement and failure to uphold the promise constituted a breach of contract. Reading this in the context of the Henry IV plays, as Levine does, sadly belies the historical chronology—the plays are typically thought to have been written before 1599 (three years before Popham’s famous judgment). Nevertheless, the case itself may well feature elsewhere in Shakespeare’s work. I would argue that the discontinuity between Timon of Athens and his friends’ conception of reciprocal friendship in Timon of Athens may well be informed by a pre- and post-Slade’s Case understanding of oral contract—with Timon mistakenly believing that the rules of assumpsit apply in Ancient Greece and that his earlier generosity constituted a legally binding contract that should (but ultimately does not) result in reciprocated kindness.

Chapter Three similarly presents a fascinating context to its reading of Englishmen for My Money by charting the development of the French-language textbook of Claudius Hollybrand, The French Schoolmaster. After noting the social unrest of the 1590s, precipitated by growing migration from the continent, Levine’s treatment of the “vogue for foreign language study” (86) reveals one of the complex contradictions that marked the city at this time. In relating this “linguistic marketplace” (84) to William Haughton’s Englishmen for My Money, Levine suggests that the play is more complex than simply a comedy trading in xenophobic stereotypes. While we should not underestimate the comic value that the play clearly intends to achieve through its mockery of foreign-sounding English (e.g. Mathea parodies her French suitor with his own broken words: “My Frenchman comes upon me with the ‘sa, sa, sa. | Sweet madam pardone moy I pra.’” [II.iii.19-20]), Levine is correct to notice that the three “English” daughters of the play are actually half-Italian. Their father’s own half-way status as a denizen of the city (neither citizen or stranger) means that onerous inheritance proscriptions would have been placed on his daughters. As such, despite the mocking treatment of their foreign suitors, and their ultimate preference for English ones, the daughters would have been considered by some Early Modern Londoners to be foreign themselves. The ability to identify English and non-English residents of the city through spoken language (and particularly accent) is shown to be both comical and complicated in the play—while the growth of foreign-language textbooks assisted those who wished to achieve the same abroad.

Practicing the City sparkles in its treatment of London’s social history but is never quite able to capture the same brilliance in Levine’s readings of the accompanying plays. Too often the dramatic criticism feels like an afterthought and the plays, treated in isolation, become disconnected from the wider theatrical developments of the period. The chapters are not sufficiently connected to demonstrate that this specific set of plays offers a unique insight into the theatre’s “responses to the unprecedented urbanization” (3) of the period; however, in reading the chapters separately, one certainly gets a sense of the “multiplicity of urban experiences” (9) both on and particularly off the stage. 

William J. Humphries
University of Oxford

[1] Lawrence Manley, Literature and Culture in Early Modern London, Cambridge UP, 1995, pp. 15-16.

[2] J. F. Merritt, The Social World of Early Modern Westminster, Manchester UP, 2004, and Keith Wrightson, “The Politics of the Parish in Early Modern England,” The Experience of Authority in Early Modern England, edited by Paul Griffiths, Adam Fox, and Steve Hindle, St. Martin’s Press, 1996, pp. 10-46.

[3] Nina Levine, “Extending Credit in the Henry IV Plays,” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 4, Winter 2000, pp. 403-31, and Nina Levine, “Citizens’ Games: Differentiating Collaboration and Sir Thomas More,” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 1, Spring 2007, pp. 31-64.


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Cite as:

Will Humphries, "Nina Levine, Practicing the City," Spenser Review 46.2.11 (Fall 2016). Accessed September 24th, 2018.
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