Stephanie Appleton is a doctoral researcher in History at Birmingham. Her blog today offers us a fascinating insight into the neighbourly habits of Shakespeare’s time.
Nowadays we take for granted our right to privacy within our own homes. If we’re having a bad day we can shut ourselves away in our bedrooms for some peace and quiet, and most of us find it highly annoying to be disturbed by the sound of our neighbours arguing or playing loud music. Those living in blocks of flats or Victorian terraced houses will no doubt have experienced this ‘noise pollution’ at some time or another.
But while we may tolerate these noisy interludes to a certain extent, we do not expect to have to deal with neighbours or indeed other family members actively prying into our personal spaces. We have the sound, solid construction of our bricks-and-mortar modern houses to thank for that, but in Shakespeare’s lifetime, when most ordinary houses were made of wattle and daub, things could be very different. Wattle and daub consisted of strips of wood woven into a timber frame, which was then daubed over (i.e. sealed) with a mixture of wet soil, animal dung and straw which then dried and set. You can see an example of wattle and daub construction on your next visit to Shakespeare’s Birthplace, where a piece of the original sixteenth-century fabric of the building has been preserved behind a glass panel in the Birthroom. A natural consequence of this style of construction was that holes occasionally appeared between houses as the materials began to deteriorate over time, making for some interesting interactions between neighbours!
Surviving court records give us some fascinating, and often entertaining, accounts of these neighbourly conflicts. In one case from Canterbury a man evicted a tenant from his lodgings because ‘he was a bad neighbor [sic] and would ever be harkening and looking through holes in the walls to hear and see what he [ … ] did in his house’, demonstrating that even though these holes may have been fairly commonplace, it was nevertheless assumed that people would have the decency not to use them. In a case from the Worcester church court, whose jurisdiction covered Stratford-upon-Avon for two years out of every three, the flimsy partitions between houses helped to reveal an illicit affair: one deponent from Kidderminster testified that a woman came running to his house to tell him that ‘There is one hunter within neyghboure grace[’s house] … that hath her vpp agaynst the bed and made the bed crakel and the Curtins gingle … she heard them there beinge but on[e] particion betwixt them, but her boye looked throwe the wyndowe and sawe them in this manner…’.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595), one of Shakespeare’s most enduringly popular plays, the Mechanicals’ play stages the scene in which the lovers Pyramus and Thisby communicate through a chink in a wall:
SNOUT: In this same interlude it doth befall
That I, one Snout by name, present a wall;
And such a wall, as I would have you think,
That had in it a crannied hole or chink,
Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisby,
Did whisper often very secretly. (5.1. 154 - 159, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Yet as we have seen, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this chink was not simply a clever dramatic device employed for the purposes of moving the story along: the people of Shakespeare’s England often had to contend with prying invasions of privacy which we today would find completely unacceptable.
 From Lena Cowen Orlin, Locating Privacy in Tudor England (Oxford, 2007), pp. 173 – 174.
 WRO 794.052 vol. 8.