Shakespeare and Walking

When we think of William Shakespeare and walking, we often think of walking tours to see sites from his life and work. Indeed, tourism and visits to Stratford-upon-Avon and its buildings, as well as to sites in London associated with Shakespeare, began in earnest in the nineteenth century and continue today. In this the year of the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, walking to places in London and Stratford-upon-Avon - as he is likely to have once done - help to celebrate his contributions. But it is also interesting to examine another aspect of walking in the context of Shakespeare. This blog post will look at Shakespeare and the word "walk" in its variety of uses, moving beyond the act of commemorating the Bard in present day. This post seeks to examine how the meaning of the "walking" was fluid in Shakespeare’s plays, taking on nearly as many definitions as are in the Oxford English Dictionary, which number 26. Ignoring OED definition 25, which pertains to baseball, we can look at how Shakespeare took advantage of the different meanings in his work.

Walking, as we now most frequently use the verb, refers to perambulating and moving from place to place. Shakespeare, too, wrote his characters as doing so. In Comedy of Errors (1.2.22-3), Antipholus of Syracuse invites a merchant to "walk with me about the town, And then go to my inn and dine with me?". Beyond just perambulating, walking by characters in Shakespeare’s plays frequently included discourse, so characters walked and talked. In Much Ado About Nothing (1.2.9-11), Antonio tells Leonato: "The prince and Count Claudio, walking in a thick-pleached alley in mine orchard, were thus much overheard by a man of mine". This orchard was apparently a good location for walking and talking, as in a later scene, Hero speaks again of walking in the orchard while conversing (3.1.5). These meanings are not distant from our own uses, but as we walk on, "walking" takes on slightly different usages and meanings. For example, at least once, the exchange could go beyond talking and walking and become something more violent, as in Romeo and Juliet (3.1.76), when Mercutio says to Tybalt: "Tybalt, you ratcatcher, will you walk?"

A well-known use of walking in Shakespeare’s plays relates to his ghostly characters. Indeed, ghosts walk in Shakespeare’s plays, giving the act of walking overtones of haunting. The Oxford English Dictionary specifically refers to walking as the movement of ghosts and spectres with a special mention of dead persons who return as ghosts, and this is a meaning of which Shakespeare fully took advantage in several of his plays. Brutus fears that Caesar's ghost walks the battlefield, turning "our swords In our own proper entrails" in Julius Caesar (5.3.106-7). Macduff rouses the castle in Macbeth (2.3.91) with the cry "As from your graves rise up and walk like sprites". In Hamlet (1.1.150), Horatio calls out to Shakespeare's most famous ghost, "you spirits oft walk in death". A scene later, Horatio reports to Hamlet of the ghost that it:

Appears before them, and with solemn march
Goes slow and stately by them. Thrice he walked
By their oppressed and fear-surprisèd eyes.

Walking as freedom of movement was another use in Shakespeare’s plays, with characters moving in protest, as in Julius Caesar (1.1.1-5), where Flavius addresses a Roman crowd whom he feels should at work:

Hence! Home, you idle creatures get you home!
Is this a holiday? What! know you not,
Being mechanical, you ought not walk
Upon a laboring day without the sign
Of your profession? -Speak, what trade art thou?

We are all advised now that walking is good for us, both physically and mentally. Shakespeare seems to have known this fact more than four hundred years ago and walking took on the meaning of turning something over in one’s mind or overcoming troubling thoughts in several plays. Prospero in The Tempest sought comfort in walking thus:

Sir, I am vexed.
Bear with my weakness. My old brain is troubled.
Be not disturbed with my infirmity.
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose. A turn or two I'll walk,
To still my beating mind.

Othello also sought relief from his worry in walking after Lodovico asked him to ‘trouble yourself no further’, saying "O, pardon me, 'twill do me good to walk" in Othello (4.3.2). Worry drove Lady Macbeth to walk, but offered no relief, as discussed between her doctor and gentlewoman (5.1.12-3). As with Lady Macbeth, Benvolio found that "[a] troubled mind drove me to walk abroad", in Romeo and Juliet (1.1.123). Some of Shakespeare's characters realised, too, that walking was good not just for mental health, as when Ferdinand says, "I did commend the black oppressing humor to the most wholesome physic of thy health-giving air; and, as I am a gentleman, betook myself to walk" in Love's Labour's Lost (1.1.236-8).

Perhaps the most famous use of "walking" by Shakespeare refers to a shadow in Macbeth (5.5.26-31), spoken by Macbeth upon discovering the death of his wife:

Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

We can question the meaning of walking in this case, wondering if it refers to the act of moving or haunting or even both. There is evidence that all of the plays mentioned in this post were performed in London, many at the Globe, some at court, the Curtain or the Blackfriars. In essence, Shakespeare's characters were walking through London in their various ways.

Blog post details

  • 7 Jul 2016

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