The Mermaid Tavern
was a tavern
in London during the Elizabethan era
, located east of St. Paul's Cathedral
on the corner of Friday Street and Bread Street. It was the site of the so-called Friday Street Club (the Tavern's entrance was on Friday Street). The Club, meeting monthly, was allegedly founded by Sir Walter Raleigh
in 1603, and included some of the Elizabethan era's leading literary figures, among them Ben Jonson
, John Donne
, John Fletcher
and Francis Beaumont
, Thomas Coryat
, John Selden
, Robert Bruce Cotton
, Richard Carew
, and others—including, perhaps, William Shakespeare
According to legend, Shakespeare and Jonson had battle-of-wits debates in which they discussed politics, religion, and literature. Shakespeare, though not as learned as Jonson, often won these debates because Jonson was more ponderous, going off on tangents that did not pertain to the topic at hand.
How much of the legend is true is an open question. There is an extended reference to the Tavern and its witty conversation in Master Francis Beaumont's Letter to Ben Jonson. Coryat's letters also refer to the Tavern, and mention Jonson, Donne, Cotton, Inigo Jones, and Hugh Holland—though Coryat was intimate with this group apparently from 1611 on.
Shakespeare certainly had a connection with the tavern, through its landlord, William Johnson. When Shakespeare bought the Blackfriars gatehouse on March 10, 1613, Johnson was listed as a trustee for the mortgage. Hugh Holland, mentioned in Coryat's letters, composed one for the commendatory poems prefacing the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays (1623).
Two hundred years after Shakespeare (or more specifically, in early February 1819), John Keats composed a poem on the legend, Lines on the Mermaid Tavern—26 lines of verse that open and close with the following couplets:
- Souls of poets dead and gone,
- What Elysium have ye known,
- Happy field or mossy cavern,
- Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?
In his 1908 Prophets, Priests and Kings (p. 323), A. G. Gardiner turned to these "intellectual revels" at the Mermaid Tavern to express the independent genius of his friend G. K. Chesterton:
- Time and place are accidents: he is elemental and primitive. He is not of our time, but of all times. One imagines him wrestling with the giant Skrymir and drinking deep draughts from the horn of Thor, or exchanging jests with Falstaff at the Boar's Head in Eastcheap, or joining in the intellectual revels at the Mermaid Tavern, or meeting Johnson foot to foot and dealing blow for mighty blow. With Rabelais he rioted, and Don Quixote and Sancho were his "vera brithers." One seems to see him coming down from the twilight of fable, through the centuries, calling wherever there is good company, and welcome wherever he calls, for he brings no cult of the time or pedantry of the schools with him.
- Halliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964. Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.
- Johnson, George William. Memoirs of John Selden and Notices of the Political Contest During His Time. London, Orr and Smith, 1835; reprint, The Lawbook Exchange, 2005.
- Palmer, Alan and Veronica, eds. Who's Who in Shakespeare's England. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1981.