In June 1595, around 1,000 apprentices took part in a riot on Tower Hill in London. The rioters were mostly very poor and they were protesting about the appalling social conditions of 1590s London. Their grievances included the scarcity and rising cost of food, the greed of the mayor and of other wealthy citizens, and the mistreatment of other apprentices who had been punished harshly for smaller demonstrations earlier in the month. The riot on Tower Hill was the largest uprising in the City of London in nearly 80 years, and was unusual in its direct criticism of the elite. Five of the rioters were convicted of treason and were hanged, drawn and quartered on Tower Hill.

The woodcut illustration on the title page of this pamphlet records the gruesome fate of the convicted protesters and emphasises the military strength of the authorities. The pamphlet itself, which purports to be written by a student and sometime apprentice from London, urges calm and obedience from his fellow apprentices.

Shakespeare and the Tower Hill riot

It is against this backdrop of harsh living conditions, civil unrest and outbreaks of violence in London that Shakespeare was writing his early plays. These include Romeo and Juliet – possibly written in the same year as the riot – a play whose characters brawl and duel in the streets.