Last Updated September 6, 2023.
This play by Thomas Dekker takes place in London during a period of war between England and France during the reign of Henry V, though it was written around 1600. The play contains several subplots that occur simultaneously, yet the stories come together by the end. The young male lead character, Rowland Lacy, has an officer’s commission and will soon leave for France. He is in no hurry to leave, however, because his primary concern is to marry the lovely Rose Otley. Both their families have raised objections, and Rowland's uncle, Sir Hugh Lacy, is pressing for Rowland to leave and lead an army in France. He imagines that in his absence, he will forget the girl. Rose’s father, the Lord Mayor of London, thinks Rowland is entirely unsuitable for a husband because he has too many bad habits, like drinking and gambling. The couple would be bridging a class divide in their marriage, too. Rowland has a serious side, however, and has even learned a trade—that of a shoemaker—while traveling in Europe. He hatches the plot of pretending to be a shoemaker, using the name Hans Muelter, and gets hired as a journeyman in the shop of Simon Eyre.
Much of the action concerns Hans's (Rowland’s) efforts to win Rose’s hand. However, there is a serious side as well, because Rafe Damport (sometimes called Ralph)—another journeyman with Eyre—does have to ship out, leaving his lovely new wife, Jane, behind. Otley selects a man named Hammond as a likely choice for a son-in-law, and Hammond pursues Rose with this newfound permission. Rose spurns his advances. Hammond turns out to be a thorough villain: taking a fancy to Jane Damport, he convinces her that her husband has died in France. He refuses to leave her side until she swears that if she remarries after her husband’s false death, she will marry him. Eventually, she agrees to marry him, but then her husband returns. Rafe has been injured in the war. He seeks Jane out in London and discovers that Hammond has fooled Jane. The shoemakers craft a plan to interrupt their wedding and reunite Rafe and Jane.
All this time, Rose and Rowland have been seeing each other in plain sight—with the help of Rose’s servant, Sybil. Meanwhile, Rowland has made a business deal with a German seaman and trader he knows, which results in a huge windfall for Eyre. With a little encouragement from his workers and wife, Eyre gets involved in politics and manages to replace Otley as Lord Mayor. Lincoln and Otley discover that Rose and Hans (who they now suspect to Rowland) are to be wed, yet are led to believe that Jane and Hammond are the couple in disguise. They end up crashing the wrong wedding. Someone informs them that Rose and Rowland have been married, and all the while the shoemakers rejoice at having united the correct couples. Eyre uses his influence to smooth things over between Sir Hugh and Sir Roger, and Rowland can go back to being himself. Jane and Rafe have worked things out, too, so the right couples end up together in the end.