Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432
In Table Talk for February 17, 1833, Coleridge wrote that he enjoyed THE BEGGARS’ BUSH so heartily that he could read the play “from morning to night.” He exclaimed: “How sylvan and sunshiny it is!” Certainly, for its idealized scenes of sylvan escapism and rustic good fellowship the play may be compared to AS YOU LIKE IT. Gerrard, like the banished Duke in Shakespeare’s comedy, makes the best of his lot as king of the beggars, surrounds himself with jovial outcasts, and eventually triumphs over the courtiers who have usurped his rightful place. Yet the audience comes to understand that Gerrard’s return to civilization—to the intrigues of court—is a cause for some sentimental regret: the simpler life of the beggars was, after all, free and joyous. For another Shakespearean parallel, Florez, Gerrard’s son and the true Earl of Flanders, resembles Antonio in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. The character of the resolute, “spruce” merchant of Bruges must have pleased the middle-class shopkeepers in the audience as much as the low-comedy beggars delighted the groundlings in the pit.
THE BEGGARS’ BUSH is also interesting because it anticipates, in many ways, John Gay’s THE BEGGAR’S OPERA, which was produced about a hundred years later. Both plays deal with people outside the law; both are light and bawdy; both have simple, vigorous diction. Unlike the Fletcher-Massinger play, however, THE BEGGAR’S OPERA is a musical piece with social and literary satire. Nevertheless, there is a lyrical quality (including several songs) in the earlier play, and Fletcher and Massinger point some lines of social comment: for a society to function as a unit, the proper hierarchy must be maintained. Even the beggars, who do not abide by the law, have their own hierarchy which parallels that of society at large. And compared to Peachum and his gang, the beggars’ crimes are small indeed, especially when we consider the genuine good humor, warmth, and even generosity they display.
The same qualities are to be found in the main character, Florez. From the first to the final act we see him as a selfless, understanding person, one who saves a pirate’s life because “want / Of what he could not live without compell’d him / To that he did . . . .” Florez also finds it in his heart to spare Wolfort, whom Vandunke would have hanged, although Florez does banish the usurper from his kingdom. In the end, both the societal and the individual means are restored, and the beggars prepare to establish a new “Bush” in England, where they hope to continue their idyllic life.
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