Today (November 1) in London History – what’s in a name?

The first recorded performance of Shakespeare’s great tragedy Othello took place at Whitehall Palace on November 1, 1604. This Today in London History podcast tells the



London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

November 1st. I’m going to improvise with this one. The guiding – the Londoning – equivalent of what a jazz musician does.

I’m going to improv because – well, because I want to. But also because of the subject of this one and the fit with my academic background. 

When I guide the Legal London walk I stress right at the outset that unlike some of my fellow London Walks guides, I’m not a barrister or a solicitor – not a lawyer – I make no claim whatsoever to professional expertise in the law – by profession I was a television journalist and by academic background, a literary historian. And indeed – in my spare time from the newsroom – I managed somehow to squeeze in 33 years of summer school lecturing at a university here in London. I taught Shakespeare to undergraduates. And for a couple of years, the History of London.

And, so, yes, this one dovetails very nicely with that academic background of mine. It’s about Shakespeare. Well, about a Shakespeare play that I must have taught in at least a dozen of those summer schools.

No, not Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. Othello. 

Now our event takes place at Whitehall Palace.

Whitehall Palace on November 1st, 1604.

It’s the first known performance – a command performance – of that great tragedy, of Othello.

In the title role, Richard Burbage. One of Shakespeare’s closest associates and his partner in their many theatre activities.

And into the bargain – the first great actor of the English theatre. Well, that point is debatable. Some people would say no, the first great actor was Edward Alleyn. 

And now, let the improv-ing begin.

I make a big deal on some of my walks about the importance of names – London place names. I’ve been known to say that London is probably the most mysterious and secretive of western cities. It’s not an easy place to figure out. And over the course of the half-century I’ve been here I’ve worked hard at trying to figure this place out. Over those five decades I’ve found, stumbled on, uncovered about fifteen keys that help to unlock this place. And I think primus inter pares of those keys – names. London place names are very often an x-ray of the past. You can get an idea of the DNA of a neighbourhood by paying attention to its place names. 

Well, same goes for Shakespeare. Names are extremely important in Shakespeare. 

And it’s not just the meaning of certain names. It’s also the sound of names. With great poetry sense and sound elide. You can talk about the sound of sense. And reverse that: the sense of sound.

So let’s look at the three big names in Othello. Othello himself, the great general, the outsider, he’s a Moor. His beautiful – and completely innocent – young Venetian wife Desdemona. And Iago – arguably the evilest character in all of Shakespeare. He’s Othello’s “ancient” – that was the name of a military rank. We might ensign today. Or Master Sergeant. 

Now take those first two names – Othello and Desdemona – just considered purely as sound, those are beautiful names. They are very pleasing to the ear. They’re beautiful sounds.

But Iago. All those vowels twisted together and that gutteral g. Considered purely as a sound, that name doesn’t make easy listening. Those vowels are so twisted together they’re practically screeching. Agony and rage and hatred, that’s the sense of that sound. 

And of course that’s what Iago’s like. He’s like his name. All twisted up, full of rage.

And you can apply that same “listen test” to the name Desdemona. It’s a very beautiful sound. And sure enough, she’s like her name. She’s as lovely as her name.

As is Othello – until Iago drips his poison into him.

Now as you all know, Desdemona is completely innocent. Iago manages to persuade Othello that she’s been unfaithful to him, with his lieutenant, Cassio. Othello kills her. And then, when it’s brought home to him that she’s innocent – that Iago’s fed him lie after lie, set the green-eyed monster loose to prey on him, put him in a red rage, he kills himself.

Now let’s go to Spain for a minute.

To the 9th century. The badly outnumbered Spanish are fighting a pivotal battle with the Moors. The battle of Clavijo.  And then suddenly there, on the battlefield, is the patron saint of Spain – St James. He appears as a warrior on his white horse with a white banner. He rallies the outnumbered Spanish. Inspires them. Leads them to a tremendous victory. The battlefield is strewn with Muslim dead. Some 5,000 of them. St. James comes to be known as the slayer of the Moors. In Spanish, Matamoros.

Now let’s take the final step. The Spanish don’t use the English pronunciation of the name St. James. The Spanish pronounce that name: Santiago. Santiago. The slayer of the Moors.

Crack that name open. Sant Iago.

The slayer of the Moors.

Iago. The slayer of the Moor. The Moor named Othello. 

The sound of sense, the sense of sound. You see how important names are in Shakespeare.

And let me improv just a little more.

I’ve seen the play many times. The best performance – the most memorable performance – was given by the late Sir Antony Sher. How he’s missed. I saw it five times.

It was great moment after great moment. I’ll cite just one. Toward the end of the play Iago has an interview of sorts with his wife Emelia. She’s Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting. The encounter takes place in Desdemona’s boudoir. After their exchange of words Emelia leaves. Leave her husband, Iago, there in Desdemona’s boudoir. He gets up, he goes over to the wardrobe, he opens, he pulls out one of Desdemona’s stockings. Gives it a sniff. Does the same thing with another piece of her intimate apparel, her underwear.

It was just a piece of stage business. But a stunning piece of stage business. Those 20 seconds – him reaching for her underwear – sniffing it – you knew how utterly vile – stop at nothing – this man is. In that bit of stage business we saw into – deep into – what passed for his soul. What we saw there couldn’t have been uglier. 

Ok, a Today in London recommendation: I think a visit to the Banqueting House. It came along just fifteen years or so after the King’s Men performed Othello at Whitehall Palace. It was – and is – an extremely important building. Architecturally it was to early 17th-century London what the Gherkin was to early 21st-century London. It changed everything.

Historically it’s hugely important. Because it was on a platform just outside the Banqueting House that Charles I was executed. And of course it’s the one piece that survived the terrible December 1698 fire that did for the rest of the Whitehall Palace compound. 

And finally dramatic entertainments were held there. They called them masques. A masque was a dramatic art form that combined music, dancing, singing and acting, within an elaborate stage design. So a visit there is a very good fit with the occasion I’ve singled out for this Today in London History podcast.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *