Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1802

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...

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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 that while purging the world will be a labor more difficult than the cleansing of Augeas’ stable, he is the “madcap that will do it.” “Draw neere, therefore,” he says, “all you that love to walk upon single and simple soules,” and learn from me.

In Chapter Two he lays down his first rule for those who wish to be gallants and actors on the stage of the world: stay in the largest and softest bed until noon, sleep until you hear your belly grumble. Be warned about physicians who recommend less sleep; they want to tire you so that you will fall ill and be forced to pay their fees. Sleep is a wonderful thing shared by emperor and beggar, and, among other things it makes us thrifty: we save the cost of breakfast and we don’t wear out our clothes. When you wake, be bad tempered and speak to no one; loll about in bed awhile; and then walk about in your room naked for a time. Nakedness is man’s best and natural state. Therefore, when you go out, put on no clothes at all, or put them on carelessly: one is more free when his clothes hang loose. “What man would not gladly see a beautifull woman naked . . . and even highly lift her up for being so? Shall wee then abhorre that in our selves, which we admire and hold to be so excellent in others?”

But problems may arise, points out the author in Chapter Three. The day may be cold. If so, jump from bed, seize your clothes in your arms, and rush into the chimney room and push your way through the crowd about the fireplace so that you may toast yourself to a sweat before you dress. Since this is done for the sake of your health and life, you may safely boast that you live by the sweat of your brow. When you do dress, wear your clothing in such a way that all men will point at you and, thus, make you famous. Also, let your hair grow thick and bushy “lest those sixe-footed creatures that breede in it, and are Tenants to that crowne-land of thine, bee hunted to death by every base barbarous Barber; and so that delicate, and tickling pleasure of scratching, be utterly taken from thee.” Further, “Long haire will make thee look dreadfully to thine enemies, and manly to thy friends. It is, in peace, an ornament; in warre, a strong helmet. It blunts the edge of a sword, and deads the leaden thump of a bullet. In winter, it is a warme night-cap; in sommer, a cooling fan of feathers.”

After discussing what is required of the proper gallant when he walks abroad in public in Paul’s Walks (Chapter Four), and how he should behave in an inn at dinner (Chapter Five), Dekker gives us a detailed description of how he should conduct himself at a playhouse (Chapter Six). “The theatre is your Poets Royal Exchange, upon which their Muses, (yt are now turnd to Merchants,) meeting, barter away that light commodity of words for a lighter ware then words, Plaudites. . . . Plaiers are their Factors, who put away the stuffe, and make the best of it they possibly can (as indeed tis their parts so to doe).” The theater is the place where all kinds and classes of men gather; therefore, it is the best place for the gallant to be seen. On entering, he should walk up and sit on the stage itself where he may arrange himself to show off his clothes and elegant figure, and where he may direct and comment aloud on scenes and the development of the play. Everyone in the theater will look at him and his name will be on everyone’s lips: this is fame. “It shall crowne you with rich commendation, to laugh alowd in the middest of the most serious and saddest scenes of the terriblest Tragedy, and to let that clapper (your tongue) be tost so high, that all the house may ring of it . . . for by talking and laughing (like a ploughman in a Morris) you heap Pelion upon Ossa, glory upon glory. As first, all the eyes in the galleries will leave walking after the Players, and onely follow you: the simplest dolt in the house snatches up your name, and, when he meetes you in the streetes, or that you fall into his hands in the middle of a Watch, his word shall be taken for you: heele cry ’Hees such a gallant,’ and you passe.” The gallant should arrive at the theater in great and loud style and should take his place on the stage only when the play is about to begin. “Before the Play begins, fall to cardes . . . throw the cards (having first torne foure of five of them) round aout the Stage, just upon the third sound [of the trumpet announcing the prologue], as though you had lost.” And if the poet is a fellow who has epigrammed the gallant or flirted with his mistress, he should stand up in the middle of the play, yawning; greet all his acquaintances aloud, and lead as many as he can off the stage, and be gone.

After the play, the gallant should go to the tavern (Chapter Seven). Having selected the most fashionable place, he should go there and become familiar with the staff, calling all by their first names. He need not worry about money, but put on a good show. Finally, as the gallant’s day ends and he leaves the tavern, he should beware of the watch (Chapter Eight). If he is too poor to afford serving men, he should cry aloud in anger, every time he meets someone in the street, that his servants have abandoned him, or else hire one of the tavern boys to light him home. If he should run into the watch, have the boy address him as “Sir,” and if the watch accosts him, the gallant should answer their challenge with a jest that they may think him of a proud and aggressive spirit and fear to arrest him; or better, pretend that he is a Dutchman or a Frenchman and cannot understand their language. If the gallant lives far from the tavern, he should spend the night with his mistress and lie to her about money.

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