The Gull's Hornbook Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Thomas Dekker, poet, playwright, pamphleteer, and moralist was one of the more prolific writers of the English Renaissance. While several of his plays, particularly THE SHOEMAKERS HOLIDAY, and several of his lyric poems are still widely known, his other writings are for the most part unread today. THE GULL’S HORNBOOK is an exception. This delightfully ironic satire on the young men about town in Dekker’s London has always been found to be well worth reading. As a valuable source of information on the customs and manners of the day, not the least interesting aspect of the pamphlet is the view it gives us of the behavior of certain parts of the audience in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater.

While the material of the piece is essentially Dekker’s observations and experience, its basic plan, especially in the first chapters, was drawn from the GROBIANUS of Frederick Dedekind (c. 1525-1598). Dedekind was a German who wrote satiric Latin verse and his GROBIANUS, first published on the Continent in two books in 1549, and in revised and enlarged form in three books in 1552, was a popular satire on boorish behavior. The technique of the author was to address the foolish lout Grobianus and advise him, under the guise of giving him advice on elegant behavior, in such a way as to cause him to increase his offensiveness and make him even more of a fool. More popular on the Continent than in England, the book was nevertheless translated by “R. F.” into English in 1605 (four years before Dekker’s HORNBOOK appeared), under the title THE SCHOOLE OF SLOVENRIE: OR, CATO TURND WRONG SIDE OUTWARD. In Dekker’s preface “To the Reader” in THE GULL’S HORNBOOK, we learn that he knew the Latin work and that his book has a “relish of Grobianisme, and tastes very strongly of it in the beginning: the reason thereof is, that, having translated many Bookes of that into English Verse, and not greatly liking the Subject, I altered the Shape, and of a Dutchman fashioned a mere Englishman.”

The title of Dekker’s work explains its nature: “gull” was an Elizabethan slang term meaning fool or one who may easily be made a fool; and a “hornbook” was a kind of elementary teaching device, usually a sheet of parchment with the alphabet written on it and mounted on a small board with a handle so that a child could hold it before him; the parchment was protected by a thin, transparent sheet of horn. The hornbook, then, was a child’s primer, and THE GULL’S HORNBOOK is Dekker’s primer for fools, in this case fops and gallants.

The book is made up of a prologue and eight short chapters. In the prologue, after announcing that “I sing (like the cuckoo in June) to be laugh at,” Dekker rushes on to insult “you that have authority under the broad seale of mouldy custom to be called the ’gentle audience.’” He points out that those who read his book are fools with no claim to critical judgment, and he announces he cannot be touched by their scorn. Further, he is determined to sing his cuckoo song to them whether they like it or not: “I will saile boldly and desperately alongst the shore of the Isle of Guls; and in defiance of those terrible blockhouses . . . make true discovery of their wild (yet habitable) Country.” His position established, Dekker ends the prologue with a wild invocation to his “courageous muse”; and to Simplicity who was “first, fairest, and chiefest chamber-maide that our great-grandame Eve entertained into service”; Silvanus, who first taught “Carters to weare hob-nailes”; Bacchus and his “moist mystery”; Comus, clerk of “Gluttonies kitchen”; Tobacco, “setter-up of rotten-lunged chimneysweepers”; and Rusticity, “Schoolmistres of fooles.”

Chapter One is actually a continuation of the prologue, in which Dekker identifies his point of departure: “Good cloathes are the embroidred trappings of pride, and good cheere the very eringoroote of gluttony.” Praising the fig leaf simplicity of dress in Adam’s time, Dekker declares that “Fashions then was counted a disease, and horses died of it.” As for the “diet of that Saturnian age, it was like their attire, homely.” But in this age he found diet rich, vast, and corrupt. The breath of the age “stinks like the mouthes of chambermaids of feeding on so many sweet meats.” Dekker claims...

(The entire section is 1802 words.)