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Thomas Dekker 1572-1632

English dramalist and essayist.

A prolific author, Dekker wrote, alone or in collaboration, over forty plays, of which seventeen survive. His best-known dramas include The Shoemaker's Holiday,Old Fortunatus,The Honest Whore, and The Witch of Edmonton. He is also noted for having produced numerous pamphlets, such...

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Thomas Dekker 1572-1632

English dramalist and essayist.

A prolific author, Dekker wrote, alone or in collaboration, over forty plays, of which seventeen survive. His best-known dramas include The Shoemaker's Holiday, Old Fortunatus, The Honest Whore, and The Witch of Edmonton. He is also noted for having produced numerous pamphlets, such as The Wonderful Yeare, The Belman of London, Lanthorne and Candle-Light, and A Rod for Run-Awayes, which provide detailed pictures of the life of Elizabethan and Jacobean London. Admired in his own time for his writings in both comic and tragic veins, Dekker's reputation fell greatly during the eighteenth century but has been rehabilitated by a number of twentieth-century critics who praise Dekker for his romanticism, his ethical concerns, and his considerable, if sometimes uneven, craftsmanship in both drama and prose.

Biographical Information

Dekker was born in London, possibly to a Dutch family, as scholars deduce from both his surname and his evident familiarity with Dutch language in The Shoemaker's Holiday and other works. Nothing is known of his life until the 1590s, when his name began appearing in theatrical documents. A 1594 entry in The Stationer's Register—a record of works licensed for publication—lists a “Tho: Decker” as the author of a drama entitled The Jew of Venice, a work that no longer survives. The next evidence of Dekker's activities dates from 1597, when theater manager Philip Henslowe recorded in his professional diary the hiring of Dekker to write and adapt plays for his company, the Lord Admiral's Men. Subsequent entries in Henslowe's diary indicate that during his tenure with the Lord Admiral's Men, Dekker had a hand in the composition or revision of dozens of plays, at times working with as many as three or four other writers. In the opening years of the seventeenth century, Dekker became involved in “the War of the Theaters,” a literary quarrel in which Ben Jonson ridiculed both Dekker and John Marston in several plays, most notably Poetaster (1601). Dekker responded by mocking Jonson in Satiro-Mastix. Or The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet. Dekker wrote steadily for Henslowe until 1603, when the death of Elizabeth I, followed shortly by an outbreak of the plague, resulted in the closing of London's theaters. For the time deprived of the means to support himself by playwriting, Dekker turned to composing prose pamphlets. The epidemic prompted Dekker to publish The Wonderful Yeare, a collection of anecdotes, religious meditations, and lamentations for those who died. Surprisingly, in 1604 Dekker was jointly commissioned with Jonson to compose the pageant celebrating the coronation of James I. The two writers remained antipathetic to one another, however, and each published separately his share in the pageant, which was titled The Magnificent Entertainment. With the reopening of the theaters Dekker returned to drama, writing both parts of The Honest Whore in 1604-05. About two years later Dekker appears to have stopped writing for the stage, and for the next five years he concentrated exclusively on producing pamphlets. He returned to playwriting in 1611, but this activity was soon terminated as he was imprisoned for debt. He was, however, able to continue composing pamphlets, and he published several while in prison. After his release in 1619, Dekker worked with Samuel Rowley, John Ford, and others, creating such works as The Virgin Martir and The Witch of Edmonton. Dekker died sometime around 1632.

Major Works

As a result of the varied conditions and diverse genres in which Dekker wrote, scholars find that his work as a whole is hard to characterize. One of his hallmarks, however, is comic, often raucous, banter. Even his religious play The Virgin Martir includes bawdy dialogue, which is given to the pagan antagonists of the title character Dorothea, contrasting their sensuality with her sanctity. Dekker is also often credited with a profound sensitivity to the plight of the poor, the laboring classes, and, particularly, the victims of persecution. Several critics have pointed out that the speeches of jailed prostitutes in Part Two of The Honest Whore indict society's indifference to poor women as a major cause of prostitution. In addition, Mother Sawyer, the eponymous witch of Edmonton, is sympathetically portrayed, making a pact with the devil only in response to her neighbors' cruel taunts regarding her ugliness and poverty. The Shoemaker's Holiday, perhaps Dekker's most popular work, is commonly regarded as a celebration of working-class life. This comedy depicting the rise of Simon Eyre to the position of Lord Mayor offers several portraits of honorable tradespeople and laborers. Dekker's compassion for the poor and suffering is also reflected in his pamphlets; for example, The Wonderful Yeare castigates those of his contemporaries who, fearing contagion, refused to nurse or comfort victims of the plague.

Critical Reception

Appraisals of Dekker's works have varied widely over the years. While in the seventeenth century Jonson satirized him as “Demetrius Fannius,” an impoverished and incompetent “dresser of plays” in Poetaster, William Fennor praised Dekker as “the true heire of Appolo” in his The Comptor's Commonwealth (1617), and Edward Phillips lauded him as “a high-flier in wit” in his Theatrum poetarum anglicanorum (1675). In the eighteenth century Dekker was generally held in low esteem. For instance, Charles Dibdin, writing in 1795, censured the structure of Dekker's plays and maintained that it was “very probable that [Dekker] could not have been half so well respected as he was,” were it not for his famous rivalry with Jonson. Subsequent critics frequently charged Dekker's plays with poor construction, though his reputation rose again in the early nineteenth century, when critics such as William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb praised him for the imaginative situations and believable characterizations in his dramas. Both Lamb and Hazlitt expressed admiration for Dekker's lyrical qualities, as did many later critics. In the Victorian period a number of writers lauded Dekker's compassion for the lower classes while condemning his coarse language and sexual humor. Early twentieth-century opinion continued to reproach Dekker's dramatic technique and considered the quality of his verse uneven and generally inferior to that of his prose.

Significantly, many critics now judge one of Dekker's greatest strengths to be his versatile prose style, which, as demonstrated in his pamphlets as well as his plays, is capable of both dignified formality and lively colloquialism. Recent commentary has increasingly examined Dekker's drama in the context of his overall literary output, with many critics finding a consistent moral view expressed throughout his work. Other modern scholars have challenged the notion that Dekker's plays are poorly integrated, citing thematic patterns, unified plots, consistency of characterization, and other evidence of Dekker's craftsmanship. With such studies has come a heightened appreciation of Dekker as an artist who, as Larry S. Champion has asserted, “genuinely deserves a considerably higher place in the development and maturation of Elizabethan-Jacobean-Caroline drama than most previous critics have been willing to acknowledge.”

Principal Works

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The Jew of Venice 1594?

Black Bateman of the North, Part 1 [with Henry Chettle, Michael Drayton, and Robert Wilson] 1598

The Civil Wars of France 3 parts [with Drayton] 1598

Conan, Prince of Cornwall [with Drayton] 1598

Earle Godwin and His Sons 2 parts [with Chettle, Drayton, and Wilson] 1598

The Famous Wars of Henry I and the Prince of Wales [with Chettle and Drayton; also known as The Welshman's Prize] 1598

Hannibal and Hermes [with Chettle, Drayton, and Wilson] 1598

The Mad Man's Morris [with Drayton and Wilson] 1598

Phaeton 1598

Pierce of Winchester [with Drayton and Wilson] 1598

The Triangle (or Triplicity) of Cuckholds 1598

Worse Afeard than Hurt [with Drayton] 1598

Agamemnon [with Chettle; possibly the same play as Orestes' Furies] 1599

Page of Plymouth [with Ben Jonson] 1599

The Pleasant Comedie of Old Fortunatas 1599

The Shoemaker's Holiday. Or The Gentle Craft. With the Life of Simon Eyre, Shoomaker, and Lord Maior of London 1599

The Stepmother's Tragedy [with Chettle] 1599

The Tragedy of Robert II, King of Scots [with Chettle, Jonson, and Marston] 1599

Troilus and Cressida [with Chettle] 1599

Fair Constance of Rome, Part 1 [with Drayton, Wilson, Anthony Munday, and Richard Hathaway] 1600

Fortune's Tennis 1600

The Golden Ass, or Cupid and Psyche [with Chettle and John Day] 1600

Lust's Dominion, or The Lascivious Queen [with Marston, Day, and William Haughton; possibly the same play as The Spanish Moor's Tragedy] 1600

The Pleasant Comodie of Patient Grissill [with Chettle and Haughton] 1600

The Seven Wise Masters [with Chettle, Day, and Haughton] 1600

Satiro-Mastix. Or The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet 1601

Sebastian, King of Portugal [with Chettle] 1601

Blurt, Master Constable. Or The Spaniard's Night-Walke 1601-02

Ceasar's Fall [with Drayton, Munday, Middleton, and John Webster; also known as Two Shapes] 1602

Christmas Comes but Once a Year [with Chettle, Heywood, and Webster] 1602

Jephthah [with Munday] 1602

A Medicine for a Curst Wife 1602

The Famous History of Sir T. Wyat. With the Coronation of Queen Mary [with Webster, Chettle, Heywood, and Wentworth Smith; possibly the same play as Lady Jane] 1602

The Honest Whore, with, the Humours of the Patient Man, and the Longing Wife [with Thomas Middleton] 1604

West-ward Hoe [with Webster] 1604

The Second Part of The Honest Whore, With the Humours of the Patient Man, the Impatient Wife 1604-05

North-ward Hoe [with Webster] 1605

The Whore of Babylon 1605-06

The Roaring Girle, or Moll Cut-purse [with Middleton] 1611

If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil Is in It 1611

Guy of Warwick [with Day] 1620

The Virgin Martir, A Tragedie [with Philip Massinger] 1620

A Tragi-Comedy: Called, Match Mee in London 1621?

The Witch of Edmonton, A known true Story. Composed into a Tragi-Comedy By divers well-esteemed Poets [with William Rowley and John Ford] 1621

The Noble Spanish Soldier. Or, A Contract Broken, Justly Reveng'd. A Tragedy. [with Day] c. 1622

The Wonder of a Kingdom [with Day] c. 1623

The Bristow Merchant [with Ford] 1624

The Fairy Knight [with Ford] 1624

The Late Murder of the Son upon the Mother [with Ford, Rowley, and Webster] 1624

The Sun's Darling: A Moral Masque [with Ford] 1624

The Magnificent Entertainment: Given to King James upon His Passage through London 1604

Troia-Nova Triumphans. London Triumphing, or, The Solemne, Receiving of Sir J. Sinerton After Taking the Oath of Maioralty 1612

Lord Mayor's pageant 1627

Britannia's Honor: Brightly Shining in Severall Magnificent Shewes or Pageants, to Celebrate R. Deane, at His Inauguration into the Majoralty of London, October the 29th. 1628 1628

London's Tempe, or the Feild of Happines. To Celebrate J. Campebell, at His Inauguration into the Maioralty of London, the 29 of October, 1629 1629

1603. The Wonderfull Yeare. Wherein Is Shewed the Picture of London, Lying Sicke of the Plague 1603

The Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinarie: or The Walkes in Powles, 1604

Newes from Graves-End: Sent to Nobody 1604

The Double PP. A Papist in Armes. Encountered by the Protestant. A Jesuite Marching before Them 1606

Jests to Make You Merie: With the Conjuring Up of Cock Watt [with George Wilkins] 1607

Newes from Hell; Brought by the Divells Carrier 1606; enlarged as A Knights Conjuring. Done in Earnest: Discovered in Jest, 1607

The Seven Deadly Sinnes of London: Drawne in Seven Severall Coaches, Through the Citie Bringing the Plague with Them 1606

The Belman of London: Bringing to Light the Most Notorious Villanies Now Practised in the Kingdome 1608

The Dead Tearme. Or Westminsters Complaint for Long Vacations and Short Termes 1608

Lanthorne and Candle-light. Or the Bell-mans Second Nights Walke 1608; amended edition, 1609; enlarged as O per se o, or a new crier of Lanthorne and Candle-Light, 1612; enlarged again as Villanies Discovered by Lanthorne and Candle-Light, 1616; enlarged again, 1620; enlarged again as English Villanies, 1632

Foure Birds of Noahs Arke 1609

The Guls Horne-Booke 1609

The Ravens Almanacke Foretelling of a Plague, Famine, and Civill Warre 1609

Worke for Armorours: or, The Peace Is Broken 1609

The Artillery Garden 1616

Dekker His Dreame. In Which, the Great Volumes of Heaven and Hell to Him Were Opened 1620

A Rod for Run-Awayes. Gods Tokens, of His Feareful Judgements, upon This City 1625

London Looke Backe, at That Yeare of Yeares 1625 1628

Warres, Warres, Warres 1628

The Blacke Rod: and the White Rod 1630

Penny-Wise Pound Foolish or, a Bristow Diamond, Set in Two Rings, and Both Crack'd 1631

Normand Berlin (essay date 1966)

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SOURCE: “Thomas Dekker: A Partial Reappraisal,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. VI, No. 2, Spring 1966, pp. 263-77.

[In the following essay, Berlin contends that Dekker's works demonstrate that the playwright is “genuinely moral and often angry,” adding: “When he can draw clear moral lines, solidified by a love for the class which originally drew these lines, he presents aesthetically satisfying drama.”]

Compared to other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, Thomas Dekker has received little critical attention in recent years. It seems that the last word has been said about this profilic dramatist. All the clichés describing him are known and generally accepted by students of the drama. He has become a stereotype—the gentle, tolerant, lovable “moral sloven” who had his hand in too many plays, who occasionally sang a sweet song, who could at times present lively characters. Having been fixed in a formulated phrase, having been pinned, one can hardly see him wriggling on the critical wall. The purpose here is not to demonstrate the falsity of the stereotype, which often hits the truth, but to investigate Dekker's particular qualities of mind and art that produced such a stereotype, and to indicate that Dekker is more angry and more morally earnest than is commonly recognized. The fact is that the epithet “gentle” describes only one side of Dekker's character, and the condemnation of Dekker as a “moral sloven,” although basically correct, needs discussion. For Dekker is essentially a stern moralist. Demonstrating this does not make him a better dramatist, but it will set the record straight.

Because M. C. Bradbrook accepts and forcefully transmits the Dekker stereotype in her Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy, her clear views can represent the usual reaction to Dekker.1 Bradbrook finds that Dekker's plays “have moments of tenderness, gleams of pathos, but the general effect is too often amorphous and blurred” (p. 121). She mentions his virtues of “sympathy, tolerance and spontaneity” (p. 122). She states that “Dekker writes at his best when he collaborates with someone who will stiffen the plot and provide him with clear outlines of character upon which he can impress his own lyric tenderness or gaiety” (p. 125). She alludes to his “incorrigible cheerfulness and unteachable simplicity” (p. 131). And she judges that “Dekker, in his easy pity and boundless tolerance, appears something of a moral sloven” (p. 125). Much of his writing, however, seems to belie each of these statements. The general effect of many of his plays, in and out of collaboration, is not blurred. His tolerance is not boundless, nor is his pity easy.

His three rogue pamphlets—The Belman of London, Lanthorne and Candle-Light, and O per se O—are perhaps the best place to begin a discussion of the “other” Dekker, for they not only display his anger but they also clearly present the clue to understanding Dekker's entire literary output. Most of the material in the rogue pamphlets is plagiarized from Thomas Harman and Robert Greene, but the pamphlets indicate an attitude toward the underworld which is far more condemnatory than any of his contemporaries. He emphasizes that the members of the underworld, whether they be wandering rogues or city sharpers, are “professed foes to the Republic, to honesty, to civility, and to all humanity.” They are “savages,” “monsters,” “ugly … in shape and divelish in conditions,” “Wilde and Barbarous Rebels … in open armes against the Tranquility of the Weale publique.” Their only cure is the gallows. To Dekker the underworld is a hell on earth, a source of disorder and confusion in the commonwealth. He is vehement in his denunciation of the underworld, strong in his hatred of the underworld—and always moral. No rogue in a Dekker pamphlet is allowed to repent, although repentance was a common practice in rogue literature. Dekker's anger and hatred stem from the important fact that thecitizens of London and England were the victims of the city and country thieves. It is his love for the citizens that puts him closer to the official enemies of the underworld than to the rogue pamphleteers. Whereas Greene, a Bohemian, can see the charm as well as the harm of the underworld, Dekker, a member of the bourgeoisie and a lover of the citizen class, can see only the harm. His love for the citizen world not only makes Dekker an angry man in behalf of the citizens, but is the most revealing focus for understanding his moral bias. His is the traditional strict morality of the middle-class which at times strongly suggests Puritan fervor.

The Shoemakers' Holiday is Dekker's most popular play and is the source for most of the epithets describing him. In it he displays in dramatic action his love for the citizens. Forgiveness and love and patriotism and pride in work are part of the play's atmosphere. Whether these qualities represent the citizen world as Dekker sees it or whether they are idealized—it is often difficult to make this kind of distinction in Dekker's plays—they still point to Dekker's moral seriousness. This play alone seems to justify the belief that the writer himself is “cheery, friendly, lovable.”2 “Nothing is purposed but mirth,” says Dekker, and mirth is what he gives his audience. The joy in life is the keynote of the play, a joy only hinted at in Dekker's other plays. Dekker presents no elements to destroy this joy. The Ralph-Jane story is presented with a sweet kind of sadness, the audience knowing that Jane will always be true to her husband. Jane's display of loyalty for Ralph is unquestionably a Dekkerian ideal for citizen conduct, against which the behavior of citizens' wives of other plays must be measured. Once Lacy becomes an apprentice of Simon Eyre, the audience has no fear that Lacy will get his Rose. An apprentice of Simon Eyre must be happy! A reader of all of Dekker's plays can discern why this is the healthiest and liveliest—Dekker is portraying the people, the world, he loves most, and he is dealing with them exclusively. (The King is absorbed in the Eyre atmosphere and Lacy becomes a shoemaker's apprentice.) The air is clean. The characters are clean. The craftsman-citizen world is clean. But Shoemakers' Holiday is only one of seventeen plays that have survived from the forty-two that Dekker wrote. One should not derive all of a playwright's characteristics from a single play.

The Honest Whore3 presents a less cheery Dekker whose tolerance displays specific bounds. The conversion of a whore, an Elizabethan commonplace in drama and pamphlet, is the play's main concern. Greene had successfully treated the subject in his “The Conversion of an English Courtezan,” a first-person narrative about a girl turned wanton, her whorish affairs, and her final conversion. The conversion of this whore is caused by an honest clothier who reminds her that God is forever watching the world and that whores are eternally damned. She is affected by his talk, gives up whoredom, marries the clothier, and lives happily ever after. The conversion of Dekker's whore, Bellafront, is also caused by the speech of the man she loves, but the resemblance ends there, for Bellafront does not marry the man she loves and lives happily never after. Dekker's idea of conversion is far different from Greene's; it forcefully demonstrates Dekker's strong moral bias.

In the beginning of Act II, scene 1, Bellafront is a popular courtesan. At the end of the scene she has become the Honest Whore. That such a sudden conversion is believable is a credit to Dekker's ability to characterize. That the conversion occurs in the second act of a play that will discuss this conversion for eight more acts is an indication of Dekker's purpose. The converted harlots in other plays of the Elizabethan period and in Dekker's later plays announce their conversion in Act V; the play then ends and all's well. The conversion of Bellafront is the beginning—it sets off a chain of miseries which Bellafront must suffer. She must pay for the sins she committed in the underworld she rejects. Dekker is too stern a moralist, at least at the writing of this play, to allow for an easy conversion. Dekker, unlike the other rogue pamphleteers, never mentions conversion in his angry exposés of the underworld. This play, coming before the pamphlets, suggests why—the road to cleanliness and moral health is a treacherous one; only the most enduring can traverse it.

Bellafront is an experienced, witty prostitute, who is able to handle men with the assurance of a Meretrix. Her wordplay with her servant Roger, “a panderly Six-penny Rascall,” her talk with the gallants who visit her, and her anger toward Matheo all display a woman set in the ways of harlotry. When she speaks with Hippolito, however, the soft side of her nature becomes evident. She sincerely desires to be loved by one man.

O my Stars!
Had I but met with one kind gentleman,
That would have purchacde sin alone, to himselfe,
For his owne private use, although scarce proper:
Indifferent hansome: meetly legd and thyed:
And my allowance reasonable—yfaith,
According to my body—by my troth,
I would have bin as true unto his pleasures,
Yea, and as loyall to his afternoones,
As ever a poore gentlewoman could be.


She sees Hippolito as that potential lover. He, aided by his speech against harlotry, causes her to resolve to turn “pure honest.” In Hippolito's tirade Dekker is able to present his own hatred for the whore. The speech is too long to quote in full; these excerpts will indicate the gentle Dekker's venom:

You have no soule,
That makes you wey so light: heavens treasure bought it,
And halfe a crowne hath sold it; for your body,
Its like the common shoare, that still receives
All the townes filth. The sin of many men
Is within you, and thus much I suppose,
That if all your committers stood in ranke,
Theide make a lane, (in which your shame might dwell)
And with their spaces reach from hence to hell.
Nay, shall I urge it more, there has bene knowne,
As many by one harlot, maym'd and dismembered,
As would ha stuft an Hospitall: this I might
Apply to you, and perhaps do you right:
O y'are as base as any beast that beares,
Your body is ee'ne hirde, and so are theirs.
Me thinks a toad is happier than a whore,
That with one poison swells, with thousands more,
The other stocks her veines: harlot? fie! fie,
You are the miserablest Creatures breathing,
The very slaves of nature.
Oh you have damnation without pleasure for it!
Such is the state of Harlots. To conclude,
When you are old, and can well paynt no more,
You turne Bawd, and are then worse then before:
Make use of this: farewell.

(II.i.322-36, 360-64, 419-23)

The whore, for Dekker, is a damned filthy beast, with disease in every vein, and a menace to all who have contact with her. Despite the vehemence of this speech, Bellafront's first attempt at self-examination, when Hippolito leaves, brings forth this question:

Yet why should sweet Hipolito shun mine eyes:
For whose true love I would become pure-honest,
Hate the worlds mixtures, and the smiles of gold:
Am I not fayre? Why should he flye me then?


The harlot is not so affected by the subject matter and tone of the tirade as by Hippolito's reaction to her, personally. Bellafront, reviewing the words of Hippolito in her mind, seems to discover that her harlotry is the cause for Hippolito's disgust.

Hipolito hath spyed some ugly blemish,
Eclipsing all my beauties: I am foule:
Harlot! I, that's the spot that taynts my soule.


Her vanity is a strong part of her nature and love is the impulse for her conversion. With this slight touch Dekker demonstrates his ability to present an essentially truthful depiction of character. Bellafront, now aware of her tainted soul, attempts to stab herself, but is stopped by Hippolito. She resolves to win love in some way, and ends the scene with these words: “Would all the Whores were as honest now, as I.” The rest of Part I and all of Part II demonstrate the truth of this assertion.

From this point on Dekker is able to use Bellafront as his mouthpiece of morality. From her lips comes his invective against sin, whores, bawds, panders, and whoremongering gallants. This speech, chastising her bawd, Mistress Fingerlock, is typical of her new morality and emphasizes that she is a forceful enemy of sin.

Hence, thou our sexes monster, poysonous Bawd,
Lusts Factor, and damnations Orator,
Gossip of hell, were all the Harlots sinnes
Which the whole world conteynes, numbred together,
Thine far exceeds them all; of all the creatures
That ever were created, thou art basest:
What serpent would beguile thee of thy Office?
It is detestable: for thou liv'st
Upon the dregs of Harlots, guard'st the dore,
Whilst couples goe to dauncing: O course devill!
Thou art the bastards curse, thou brandst his birth,
The lechers French disease; for thou dry-suckst him:
The Harlots poyson, and thine owne confusion.


Indeed, Bellafront has performed, as Matheo states, “one of Hercules labours”—a whore has turned honest.

Bellafront attempts by stratagems to win Hippolito, and when the play ends in Bethlem Monasterie, she even feigns madness, but to no avail. Hippolito has his Infelice; Bellafront accepts Matheo, the man that turned her whore, who claims that he has been “Cony-catcht, guld.” Part I ends. Bellafront's conversion has not been too difficult—she is abused by the bawd, pander, gallants, and her future husband; she loses the one man she loves; she accepts the unscrupulous Matheo for her husband. Dekker must write another play to test the sincerity of her conversion.

In Part II Bellafront suffers with a worthless husband who dices, whores, and cheats. He forces Bellafront to beg for him. Her gown is taken from her back to be pawned. She is threatened with physical violence. Matheo even asks her to turn whore again because he needs the money. Bellafront, in misery, exclaims: “A thousand sorrowes strike / At one poore heart.” Her situation is wretched. Orlando Friscobaldo's appearance causes her additional anguish, for she must keep her husband and father at peace with one another. Then a new temptation, the greatest of all, arises to test her honesty. Hippolito has become a “muttonmonger” and wishes to seduce Bellafront. He argues for harlotry, just as he argues against it in Part I. The man who caused her to convert, her savior, is now her tempter. But she resists and presents a speech against harlotry equal in moral fervor to his former speech. In short, Dekker makes her new way of life a continuous trial, a trial which ennobles her nature, a trial in many ways similar to the trial of the legendary whore, Thais, who also turned honest and had to suffer greatly before she gained Paradise. However, Dekker's whore remains, at the end of the play, with her worthless husband, and Dekker gives no indication that Matheo will ever change. No relief of her misery is in sight.

Dekker puts his main character through the miseries of a hell on earth. His treatment of Bellafront is influenced by his strict and severe morality. He makes the audience feel genuine sympathy for Bellafront's suffering, but the audience at the same time realizes that her being sinned against has been caused by her sinning. In the course of the two Parts of The Honest Whore Bellafront takes on the characteristics of a Jane. Her citizen virtues, especially her conjugal loyalty, make her a heroine, but her trials are not part of a holiday atmosphere. The misery of Bellafront seems everlasting.

Bellafront's acquisition of citizen virtues points to the importance of the play's subplot, which deals with the clean and healthy citizen world, represented by Candido and his circle. Candido is “a grave citizen” and the “mirror of patience.” He is “so milde, so affable, so suffering, that nothing indeede can moove him.” His wife Viola cannot endure his patience and tries in many ways to vex him—but she cannot. The gallants visit his shop, also attempting to vex him—but they cannot. Viola, as a last manuever, calls in officers to carry Candido to the madhouse—but even in the madhouse, where the complications of Part I are resolved, Candido remains patient. It is in the madhouse that Candido presents his famous speech, in which the sentiments expressed seem very close to Dekker's heart and which has helped to propagate the image of Dekker as the gentle man.

Patience my Lord; why tis the soule of peace:
Of all the vertues tis neerst kin to heaven.
It makes men looke like Gods; the best of men
That ere wore earth about him, was a sufferer,
A soft, meeke, patient, humble, tranquill spirit,
The first true Gentleman that ever breathd;
The stock of Patience then cannot be poore,
All it desires it has; what Monarch more?


The Duke, at the end of Part I, praises Candido's patience and says that Candido “shall teach our court to shine.” In Part II Candido continues to display his patience. This time he has a new wife, who at first is strong-minded but learns to submit to her husband. The gallants again try to ruffle Candido, and again they are thwarted. When he goes to Matheo's house to see some pieces of lawn he finds that he is in the company of a bawd and pander and that the pieces of lawn are stolen goods. He is apprehended by officers and taken to Bridewell, where the plots of Part II are resolved. Candido again receives the praise of the Duke.

Thou hast taught the Citty patience, now our Court
Shall be thy Spheare, where from thy good report,
Rumours this truth unto the world shall sing,
A Patient man's a Pattern for a King.


The Candido story is the source of most of the play's humor. But it cannot be dismissed merely as a piece of merriment. Candido is, essentially, a Dekker hero. He is the representative of the citizen world, the world to which Dekker is most attached. He displays the qualities of industriousness, generosity, and patience. He is comically patient, to be sure, but Dekker forgets the comedy when Candido presents his speech on Patience and when the Duke considers him “a Patterne for a King.” It is the very quality of patience that Bellafront displays in both parts of The Honest Whore. She, however, is heroic in her patience. Candido's comment that “the best of men … was a sufferer” applies to Bellafront almost as much as it does to Jesus. Jesus suffered for the sins of the world; Bellafront suffers for her own sins as a member of the underworld. The Honest Whore is basically a dramatic study of patience. To dismiss the Candido story with a chuckle is to neglect a significant element in this study.5

The Candido subplot clearly demonstrates how stern a moralist Dekker is, how important it is for his beloved citizen world to isolate itself from the corruption of the underworld. In Part I, the citizen world and the underworld make no contact. In Part II, they meet twice, with interesting results. Carolo, a courtier, gives the bawd and pander money to arrange a meeting between Candido's wife and himself. When the pander Bots presents Carolo's proposition to the bride, she emphatically scorns him, calls him “an arrant knave,” and leaves his company. The virtuous wife of the citizen Candido utterly rejects the underworld's representative. Just as the play contains a parallel between the patience of Candido and the patience of Bellafront, so too it contains a parallel between the virtue of Candido's wife and the virtue of Bellafront—both cannot be seduced, both display conjugal loyalty, like Jane in Shoemakers' Holiday. Candido's bride and the honest whore are one in faithfulness, with Bellafront having the harder trial because she loved her seducer and because her husband is worthless. Bellafront, once a member of the underworld, in her moral recovery gathers to herself qualities of the citizen world.

The second meeting between the two worlds occurs when Candido goes to Matheo's house to see the pieces of lawn. The bawd and pander are there. Candido, not knowing Mistress Horseleech is a bawd, is introduced to her. She politely kisses him, which causes him to mutter, “Sh'as a breath stinkes worse then fifty Polecats. Sir, a word, is she a Lady?” He is able to smell her bawdiness. When he is told that she is a bawd he is ready to leave the house, but is forced to drink healths to her, which thoroughly disgusts him. The aversion of Dekker's citizen to a representative of the underworld is strikingly evident throughout the scene. The two worlds meet, but the citizen world is repelled.

The Honest Whore, Dekker's most conscientious effort, belies not only many of the clichés about Dekker's personality and moral fiber, but also many critical objections to his faulty dramaturgy.6 He has complete control of his material. Bellafront's story directly affects the Hippolito-Infelice story. One need only mention that the courtier Matheo is married to the converted whore, that the gallants were customers of Bellafront, that Bellafront helps to resolve the Hippolito-Infelice plot. The play's underplot, concerning the trials of the patient Candido, throws a revealing light on the main plot. In The Honest Whore the strictness of Dekker's morality seems to dictate a strictness in handling his material. Dekker acquired, at the writing of this play, Candido's patience.

When he put The Honest Whore behind him, Dekker left with it his strict adherence to a citizen morality. In Westward Ho and Northward Ho, both collaborations with Webster and both acted before private-theater audiences, the morality is easy. The plot of Westward Ho, like that of Northward Ho, deals with the intrigue between gallants and citizens' wives, helped along by the underworld. The underworld, represented by Birdlime, a disgusting bawd, and Luce, an experienced prostitute, provides Dekker with the moral norm for a mildly satiric attack on the citizens, which indicates nothing less than a changed concept of his much-loved bourgeoisie. The three citizens, Honeysuckle, Tenterhook, and Wafer, are customers of Luce, who runs a thriving trade with the help of Birdlime. That they are patrons of an underworld character, one who displays all of the traditional distasteful characteristics of the whore, indicates that Dekker is tampering with the citizen virtues he holds so high. Candido was repelled by the underworld; the citizens in this play wish to embrace it. The stern morality of The Honest Whore is slackening. In presenting the citizens' wives, Dekker neglects the moral values of The Honest Whore. Throughout the play there are surprising parallels between the bawd, the whore, and the citizens' wives. They all are coarse, but they will not endure coarseness in others. They all affect virtue. They all chastise tobacco-smoking and drunkenness. They all are immoral—the whore and bawd play with men for pay, the wives play with gallants for merriment. Whereas in The Honest Whore Bellafront took on the qualities of the play's citizen world, thereby demonstrating a true conversion, in this play the citizen world acquires the qualities of the underworld. This is seen even in the most fleeting lines. Mistress Wafer tells Mistress Tenterhook that she wishes her “the fortune to change thy name often.” Her reason: “For theeves and widdowes love to shift many names,and make sweet use of it so.” When Justiniano tells his wife that she was lucky to have received the jewels from the lecherous Earl, he exclaims: “Was it ever heard that such tyrings, were brought away from a Lord by any wench but thee Moll, without paying, unlesse the wench connycatcht him?” (IV.ii. 190-92). The methods of the underworld are not unknown or repugnant to these citizens.

That citizens visit the house of a whore and that the wives of citizens imitate whores and bawds indicates a decided slackening of the moral pattern found in The Honest Whore. It is true that at the play's end the wives display a change of attitude. They cheat the gallants—“They shall know that Cittizens wives have wit enough to out strip twenty such gulls.” The wives are merry and wanton, but “pure about the heart.” Dekker's love of the bourgeoisie still seems to emerge, but the stern moralist has been corrupted. His late plays, especially Virgin Martyr and Match Me in London, indicate that Dekker's basic citizen morality did not change. One must, therefore, look for other causes for his reversal of the traditional morality. Any or all of three causes are probable—the nature of the audience, Dekker's own hack tendencies, his collaboration with Webster.

Alfred Harbage has The Honest Whore and the Ho plays specifically in mind when he states that “the same authors who wrote amiably of commercialized vice for Paul's provide exposés and denunciations for the Fortune.”7 To please was Dekker's constant aim. His desire to entertain the audience at Paul's who would enjoy a satiric attack on the bourgeoisie and whose moral standards were less exacting than those of the middle class caused Dekker to compromise his moral position.

In addition, his collaboration with Webster may have affected his outlook in the Ho plays. Scholars dealing with this collaboration agree that Dekker was the “guiding spirit” in both Westward Ho and Northward Ho.8 There is little doubt that Dekker wrote most of each play. But the exact nature of any collaboration cannot be demonstrated, even though a battery of valid tests can assign particular scenes to one dramatist or the other. Although it is logical to assume that Dekker, the older, more experienced, dramatist, influenced Webster, the apprentice, it is possible that the younger Webster gave the satiric impulse to a hack dramatist whose practice it was to compromise in matters of theater. This is in the realm of speculation, not specifically demonstrable, but it is useful in helping to explain Dekker's changed concept of the bourgeoisie. Dekker's attitude often depends upon his collaborator's attitude, as his later collaborations clearly indicate.

Northward Ho conforms to the new moral pattern set up in Westward Ho. In it the vociferous and experienced whore Doll Hornet is placed on the road of respectability. Dekker uses a typical Middleton trick of marrying his whore off to an unsympathetic character. He did this in The Honest Whore but the difference here indicates a shifting morality. Bellafront's marriage to Matheo was presented as a punishment for the whore, whereas Doll's marriage to Fetherstone is punishment for Fetherstone who marries her thinking she is a rich ward. Doll vows faithfulness to Fetherstone, who reconciles himself to his fate. Doll's conversion is easy. When one considers that the same dramatist who presented Bellafront presented Doll Hornet, only one conclusion can be drawn—Dekker's basically stern morality could be compromised under specific theatrical conditions.

Northward Ho, like The Honest Whore, has a scene in Bedlam, where a mad bawd is one of the inmates. She loves aqua vitae, swears by her virginity, and denies ever being in Bridewell. She is, in short, one of Dekker's traditionally disgusting bawds. Her appearance is very brief, but it serves to indicate a less healthy citizen class than appeared in The Honest Whore and Shoemakers' Holiday, for she voices her preference for “your London Prentice” and “taylors” as customers. The citizen-bawd relationship sheds a disparaging light on the citizens, with the underworld once again providing the moral norm for a satiric thrust. The citizen world in Northward Ho has no “hero” like Candido and no outstanding virtues. The citizens still remain Dekker's favorites: “Sfoote ther's neare a Gentleman of them all shall gull a Citizen, and thinke to go scot-free.” But his treatment of them has significantly changed. In the Ho plays one witnesses a clear breakdown of a traditional stern morality—a striking example of expediency undermining genuine belief.

The Honest Whore and the Ho plays present the two poles of Dekker's morality. His other plays find their places within this wide moral range. The morality of The Roaring Girl is close to the Ho plays. In it the character of Mary Frith, a notorious thief, is completely whitewashed.9 Whereas in The Honest Whore the underworld was the object of Dekker's abuse, here it is romanticized. But many of his other plays, both early and late, are closer to the moral stance of The Honest Whore. In the romantic morality tale Old Fortunatus virtue and vice are clearly marked, as they are in The Whore of Babylon, in which Dekker ostensibly attacks Roman Catholicism. Patient Grissil,10 where, as in The Honest Whore, the patience of a sympathetic character is tested, also clings to a strict citizen morality. If This Be Not a Good Play, The Devil Is In It clearly distinguishes between dark and light, between the hellish activities of a Barterville and the purity of the Sub-Prior, who Candido-like must hold his ears when whores sing. In the late tragicomedy Match Me in London Dekker deals with intrigue between court and citizens, as he did in the Ho plays, but here the citizens emerge completely clean. These plays testify to Dekker's basic moral bias, as does The Virgin Martyr, in which the severe morality of The Honest Whore is intesified—because, one must suspect, Dekker was working with Massinger, a collaborator whose moral position is close to his own. Forgiveness of sin was possible for a suffering Bellafront, and was implied in the easy conversion of a Doll Hornet, but Hircius and Spungius, a whoremonger and drunkard, are forcefully thrown outside the pale of Christianity.

A reading of all his plays indicates that Dekker was genuinely moral and often angry. When he displays his love for the citizen world, he is the gentle and tolerant Dekker—but he can also be the angry and intolerant Dekker of the rogue pamphlets, The Honest Whore, and The Virgin Martyr. When his morality is easy, as in the Ho plays, he may be called a “moral sloven”—but the phrase, although it points to a correct evaluation of the easily-corrupted Dekker, too strongly undermines a basically severe moralist. That this strict morality is, indeed, basic can be seen when one examines his dramaturgy. When his stern morality is translated directly into dramatic action Dekker presents his most effective drama. In Shoemakers' Holiday, where the citizen world is filled with merriment and moral health, one finds Dekker's most coherent plotting. The Honest Whore, where a converted harlot must suffer, where a Candido must avoid a bawd like the plague, presents his most carefully worked-out plot. When Dekker works against his geniune moral beliefs he becomes an awkward craftsman. When he can draw clear moral lines, solidified by a love for the class which originally drew these lines, he presents aesthetically satisfying drama. For Dekker a quality of mind seems to indicate a quality of dramaturgy.

The most valid cliché concerning Dekker is that he was a Henslowe hack. Discussing him in connection with his collaborators, confronting him in the light of scholarship concerning the nature of the audience, seeing him as a traditional middle-class moralist corrupted by the pressures of daily living, is a surer guide to Dekker's quality as man and artist than the epithets of gentle and cheery. Ben Jonson comes closest to the truth, perhaps, when in Poetaster he has Demetrius (Dekker) referred to as a “dresser of plays about the town.”


  1. Here are some similar reactions by other scholars. a) “Dekker loves them [his fellow men], and smiles at their foibles with a large tolerance of the true humanist,” J. S. P. Tatlock and R. G. Martin, Representative English Plays (New York, 1938), p. 120. b) “… a romantic at heart, he tempered his comment on life with a kindly humor.” T. M. Parrot and R. H. Ball, A Short View of Elizabethan Drama (New York, 1943), p. 114. c) “To the mental energy and literary facility of Defoe, he added the genial kindliness and the happy heart of Goldsmith.” Concise Cambridge History of English Literature (Cambridge, 1944), p. 304. d) “… a sentimentally optimistic view of human nature.” David Daiches, A Critical History of English Literature (New York, 1960), p. 327.

  2. Tatlock and Martin, p. 121.

  3. Part 1 of The Honest Whore is essentially Dekker's. Although Middleton may have written one or two scenes, his “part in the play seems to have been relatively minor” (Bowers, II, 14). Dekker's name alone appears on the title page. Part 2 is definitely Dekker's unassisted work.

  4. The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers (Cambridge, 1955-1961). All quotations are taken from this edition.

  5. Gamaliel Bradford would not even dismiss it with a chuckle; he considers the underplot “exceedingly dull.” “The Women of Dekker,” Sewanee Review, XXXIII (1925), 290.

  6. A. H. Bullen asserts that Dekker “usually showed a reckless indifference in the management of his plot,” Elizabethans (London, 1925), p. 77.

    Swinburne writes of Dekker's “besetting sin of laxity, his want of seriousness and steadiness, his idle, shambling, shifty way of writing,” Age of Shakespeare (New York, 1908), p. 67.

    F. E. Pierce calls Dekker “one of the most careless writers of a careless age,” The Collaboration of Webster and Dekker (New York, 1909), p. 3.

    Ellis-Fermor says that he is “unconscious of art,” Jacobean Drama (London, 1953), p. 118.

  7. Alfred Harbage, Shakespeare and The Rival Traditions (New York, 1952), p. 196.

  8. The quote is from Pierce, p. 131. Investigations by the following demonstrate that the Ho plays are essentially Dekker's.

    E. E. Stoll, John Webster (Boston, 1905).

    Mary Hunt, Thomas Dekker (New York, 1911).

    Rupert Brooke, John Webster and the Elizabethan Drama (London, 1917).

  9. The Roaring Girl is a collaboration with Middleton. Which of the collaborators initially conceived the idea of making a heroine out of a famous cutpurse is, of course, difficult to ascertain and has produced differing scholarly opinions. Middleton's words in the Epistle to the Reader—“'tis the excellency of a Writer to leave things better than he finds 'em”—seem to indicate that the charitable view of Moll originated with him, but both dramatists obviously accept the new Moll and defend her throughout the play. Dekker's attitude seems once again to be caught from his collaborator.

  10. Dekker wrote Patient Grissil in collaboration with Henry Chettle and William Haughton. The basic Grissil story and the subplot, dealing with Sir Owen apMeredith, are probably Dekker's.

George R. Price (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 20269

SOURCE: “Dekker's Drama: Independent Work,” in Thomas Dekker, Twayne Publishers, 1969, pp. 34-83.

[In the essay below, Price surveys the eight surviving plays that Dekker wrote without a collaborator. The critic argues that these were effective pieces that pleased their Elizabethan audiences.]

More than with most dramatists of the English Renaissance, it is necessary to begin a consideration of Dekker's plays with a reminder of how thoroughly this playwright is sustained by the native dramatic tradition. The Shoemaker's Holiday (1599), the most familiar of his works to twentieth-century readers, may be somewhat misleading in this respect; for, despite its romantic love-theme, this comedy is likely to be regarded as marking an advance in realism in its depiction of bourgeois life. Actually, the advance was being made, then and in the next decade, by Ben Jonson and such younger satiric dramatists as Marston and Middleton. In contrast, The Shoemaker's Holiday and Dekker's better plays continued throughout his career to rely on the conventions and devices which he had learned in the early 1590's; and these have little affinity with tragic or satiric realism. Although partitioning the English dramatic tradition into morality, romantic, comic, and chronicle elements may seem at first a needless, pedantic method (so closely are the conventions woven together), such division may nevertheless prove helpful as a preliminary analysis leading to a critical appraisal of the plays.

A word of caution, however, needs to be spoken. “Naïve and preposterous” is likely to be our judgment about any play such as Patient Grissil in which a medieval saint's legend and the taming-of-the-shrew theme are so oddly mingled. But so to dismiss the play is really to reveal our own unfamiliarity with the conventions Dekker has employed. Rather, our judgment should estimate primarily the truth inherent in the author's structure of values. Of course, the dramatist makes his statement by fusing story, verbal symbols and connotations, theatrical devices, and modes of acting; and his skill in combining these media determines the force of his utterance. However, in the Elizabethan age the media themselves had either originated in, or for generations been associated with, the philosophic and religious beliefs which the dramatist and his audience held in common. As readers, we must understand the full significance of the conventions if we are to gauge the playwright's success. An obvious example of traditional significance is the flat characterization, derived from morality plays and interludes, which Jonson, for instance, relied on to express moral truth in Volpone.

If this conception is true, and if Dekker seems to have handled the conventional elements effectively for the Elizabethan audience, our response to the archaic means he used is less important than the effect he produced. And this effect we must keep in mind. The stamina undoubtedly felt in many of Dekker's plays grows out of his command of conventions which are now foreign. The charge of “carelessness” too often laid on him by critics arises partly from their failing to recognize his full reliance on dramatic and histrionic tradition.


“'Tis out of Fashion to bring a Divell upon the Stage,” Dekker remarked in his tract News from Hell (1606). But some two years later, in If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil Is in It, he not only brought devils on stage, but represented damned souls tormented in Hell-fire. The explicit purpose of such a spectacle in If This Be Not a Good Play will be discussed later in this chapter; at this point we may pause only to note that Dekker did not exploit the mere fireworks of Medieval drama in other plays that have survived. But so consistently did he utilize elements of the mystery, morality, and interlude traditions that his plays demonstrate better than any other dramatist's the continuity of Medieval and Renaissance drama. What is more important, we are led to the conclusion that his fidelity to these conventions was caused not by his clinging to familiar ways indolently or unthinkingly, but by his conviction that the conventions most forcefully served to express the basic truths of life. The same belief prompted Thomas Heywood's complaint against the narrowed scope of Stuart drama.1

Therefore, in spite of the fact that Dekker's reliance on ancient conventions may sometimes appear routine and not very significant (as, for instance, his use of doggerel verse for a moralizing summary in Part II of The Honest Whore), we must keep in mind the original potency of the tradition. The audience in the public theaters of 1600 included a considerable number of people who had also, some years earlier, witnessed performances of mystery plays at Coventry, Chester, Kendal, or elsewhere; and, no doubt, nearly all of the audience had attended moralities and interludes.2 To them, the conventions of religious drama were vital and significant, not amusing archaisms. The universally important contest of God with Satan for the soul of man gave to native dramatic tradition an impact we can scarcely imagine. Because Dekker, as man and as dramatist, grew up in what we may call “the last era of the Medieval drama” and believed the doctrine which that drama aimed to teach, he naturally utilized its resources as fully as possible. In doing so, of course, he also obeyed the Classical maxim to mingle the useful with the delightful.

As a result, Dekker's plays furnish the historian of drama with examples of more than twenty ancient conventions of theme, characterization, and theatrical devices.

I list the more important themes with the name of one play in which each theme occurs: the saint's legend (The Virgin Martyr); the testing of heroic virtue (Patient Grissil); the detection of evil counselors of the prince (Patient Grissil); the victory of patience over persecution (Part II of The Honest Whore); social satire in the Medieval tradition (The Whore of Babylon); and the peasantry used to voice justice and truth (Sir Thomas Wyatt).

Among conventions of characterization are the shrewish wife as comic figure (Part I of The Honest Whore); the Judas-like betrayer of his master (Sir Thomas Wyatt); personified ideas, such as Time, in conjunction with historical persons and events (The Whore of Babylon); personifications of moral forces, good or evil (The Virgin Martyr); persons who signify classes, not individuals (If This Be Not a Good Play); human persons who embody a single virtue or vice, each receiving his proper reward (The Wonder of a Kingdom); “depersonalization,” that is, temporary abandonment of a character's individuality permitting him to voice a point of view more eloquently (The Witch of Edmonton); and the introduction of superhuman beings (The Virgin Martyr).

Finally, among theatrical and stage devices: formal debate between two moral points of view, with implicit appeal to the audience for decision (Part II of The Honest Whore); a scene of moral judgment to end the play, that is, a trial (Old Fortunatus); the formalizing of a motif, as in a dance of courtesans, for temptation (If This Be Not a Good Play); or as in a shift to contrasting expression, the use of archaic verse to utter forgiveness for the prodigal or to summarize the moral (Part II of The Honest Whore); showing executions on stage (Old Fortunatus); and the use of symbolic properties like the Mountain of Truth or the Tree of Vice (The Whore of Babylon).

The preceding features, which we may inclusively call “morality” conventions, have been named first because their moral implications were important to Dekker. However, it is clear that, both historically and in Dekker's drama, these conventions were adapted to general utility in chronicle play, comedy, and romance. An obvious example is the shrewish wife Viola, in Part I of The Honest Whore. No doubt she is a descendant of Noah's wife in the mystery plays. But Plautine comedy also presented the Elizabethans with the type of the tyrannical wife; and it is reasonable to suppose that sheer truth regarding actual English life helped to create the characters of the shrews in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy. In summary, the “morality” conventions are to be understood as employed by Dekker whenever they are appropriate in any of the genres, and the following discussion does not repeat them.

Chronicles, or history plays, constitute a large proportion of the drama of the 1590's; and Henslowe's Diary indicates that Dekker wrote a good many of them. But of all this work we have only the garbled text of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1602?), said by its publisher to be a collaboration between Dekker and John Webster. Wyatt may be a combination of Parts I and II of Lady Jane, mentioned by Henslowe in 1602, or of parts of these plays. To the extent that it is by Dekker, as yet very hard to determine, it shows his use of a well-established theme of chronicle drama: a simplified, idealized, patriotic character opposed tragically by a group of ambitious, factious lords. The patriot is a staunch defender of Tudor ideas of sovereignty, including those of primogeniture and divine right. As defender of political truth, Wyatt is of the same type as Woodstock, hero of the anonymous play called by that name, and of Gaunt, in Shakespeare's Richard II.

As is often true in chronicles, the other characters in Wyatt fall into groups, chiefly the pair of ambitious nobles, Northumberland and Suffolk, supporters of Lady Jane as successor to Henry VIII, and the larger, rival faction which supports Princess Mary. In quality the members of the factions need not be, and are not, sharply distinguished from each other. Other political elements of the realm are represented by such groups of anonymous characters as soldiers and peasants. Like the gardeners in Richard II, the countrymen in Wyatt, when most significant (II.1), speak with the voice of Res Publica in the interludes; but they are otherwise just choric representatives of the masses, or “common conditions.” Besides disorder, another aspect of the evil of civil conflict—the suffering visited on the whole nation—is expressed through choric laments by groups of noblewomen. Some of these conventions occur also in other Dekker plays.

In his handling of the comic elements of drama, Dekker is equally dependent on convention. Unquestionably he had a lively sense of the droll and ludicrous in human behavior. Yet with the possible exception of Thomas Heywood, no dramatist approaching Dekker's stature draws more often on the armory of standard comic types and devices which were familiar in the public theaters of the 1580's and 1590's. Five of these traditional resources may be grouped under the heading of stock characters: the loyal, but saucy, servingman, usually labelled the “Clown,” a mischief-loving young fellow or a satiric old one, disrespectful to his master, but tolerated by him (Match Me in London); the absurd foreigner—vaunting, cowardly Spaniard, lewd Frenchman, crude Irish footman, avaricious Dutchman, or touchy Welshman—caricatured in temperament and manners, but ridiculous chiefly because of his dialect (Satiromastix); the female bawd who speaks lewd double entendres (Match Me in London); the pert page (Match Me in London); and the witty young lady-in-waiting (Patient Grissil).

Whether caricatures of fops, upstart gallants, and fantastic courtiers are cited as exemplifying stock characterization or satiric themes is unimportant; in any case, Dekker introduces these comic persons, frequently making them victims of the lady-in-waiting's repartee, which, it should be said, scores more points by well-tried puns and open ridicule than by wit (Patient Grissil). For more biting satire, however, Dekker also sets the impudent servingman against the fops (Match Me in London). All readers of Shoemaker's Holiday remember that Dekker relishes heavy repetition of absurd phrases (“prince am I none, yet am I nobly born”), a device that is the “humor” reduced to its simplest form. Occasionally, he also introduces the mock prophecy (The Whore of Babylon) and the dialogue with Echo (If This Be Not a Good Play).

Lastly, the conventions of romantic drama which Dekker uses are very numerous. He dramatizes folktale themes: the peasant girl and her royal lover (Patient Grissil); the persecuted but forgiving wife (If This Be Not a Good Play); long separation of parents and children (Patient Grissil); love at first sight (Blurt, Master Constable); the testing of lovers' faith in each other (Satiromastix); and the selfish ambition of fathers that destroys their children (Sir Thomas Wyatt). Among romantic characters we find the rejected lover who makes a vow of celibacy (Shoemaker's Holiday); in a different mood, the witty lady-in-waiting also does so (Patient Grissil). The villain in these plays, whether he is a revenger, a lustful king, or a tyrannical father, is converted to benevolence for the denouement (Match Me in London). His accomplice is also discovered to be a good man at the end (Part I of The Honest Whore). Characters are utilized for rather incongruous functions, becoming expositors, intriguers, or benefactors, according to the needs of major and minor plots (Part II of The Honest Whore). These manipulations of character might, of course, be properly placed in the category of devices.

There are many other conventional devices to be noted. Obviously, disguise is extremely common (Shoemaker's Holiday). For surprise or irony Dekker frequently relies on the administering of a sleeping potion (Satiromastix). Among the threats to the happiness of the lovers is droit du seigneur (Satiromastix). The happy ending of their trials is signalized by several marriages, a feast, and a dance (Satiromastix). Magic appears in various forms (If This Be Not a Good Play), including witchcraft (The Witch of Edmonton). At times, mythical beings and spirits intervene in the action (The Virgin Martyr). Music is the cause or symbol of supernatural influence (Old Fortunatus) and also increases pathos (Patient Grissil). Passages of lyricism in the dialogue, written in the strains of Ovidian or Petrarchan verse, also heighten the sentiment (Old Fortunatus). On a lower level of dramaturgy, we find the familiar expedients of Elizabethan construction: great lapses of time (Patient Grissil); frequent shifts of scene (Old Fortunatus); and the use of the chorus—that is, prologue (Old Fortunatus) and the dumbshow (The Whore of Babylon), a device to which Dekker clings throughout his career.

The preceding lists are certainly incomplete. They will be supplemented by mention of Dekker's more artistic uses of traditional technique in the discussion of individual plays in this and in the next chapter. The intention of these analyses is to establish Dekker's major plays in their genres, then to evaluate them in broader critical fashion. The major independent plays I take to be these seven, in chronological order: Old Fortunatus; The Shoemaker's Holiday; Satiromastix; Part II of The Honest Whore; The Whore of Babylon; If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil Is in It; and Match Me in London. Although Thomas Middleton collaborated with Dekker in Part I of The Honest Whore, Dekker's share is both large and characteristic; and Part II's development of the situations and characters of Part I practically requires that the earlier play be considered first.


Without question, Old Fortunatus, as we now have it, was written by Dekker as a parable for the moral instruction of the audience at Queen Elizabeth's court. The evidence leading to this conclusion lies in the dramatist's adaptation of the story, as well as in Henslowe's record of the steps in the composition of the play. But because the tale of Fortunatus is no longer so familiar as it once was, references to it will be more intelligible if we first review Dekker's version in the play.

The story is of the goddess Fortune's dealing with a poor man and his two sons, Ampedo and Andelocia. Finding Fortunatus asleep in a wood in Cyprus, the goddess awakens him and offers a choice of gifts—strength, health, beauty, long life, riches, or wisdom. When Fortunatus chooses riches, Fortune gives him a magic purse, always laden with ten gold pieces. Of course, it immediately enriches the father and his two sons, enabling Fortunatus to travel about the world. Meanwhile, we watch a scene in which Virtue and Vice plant trees while Fortune looks on, indifferent as to which tree flourishes. The fame of Fortunatus's wealth runs everywhere; in Babylon, the Sultan plots to discover the magic source of his visitor's gold. Fortunatus, who escapes this peril by pretending to be unaware, innocently borrows the Suntan's magic wishing hat and wishes himself at home again.

When Fortune warns him of his imminent death, Fortunatus pleads with her to exchange the purse for the gift of wisdom for his sons; she refuses. The father leaves purse and hat to be used by both sons for their common benefit. He is scarcely cold, however, before the wastrel younger son, Andelocia, forces his brother to divide the use of the prizes year by year. Taking the purse, Andelocia goes to England with the Prince of Cyprus who intends to woo Agripyne, daughter of King Athelstane. The King, intrigued by Andelocia's flaunted riches, tells Agripyne to pretend love for Andelocia, then steal the purse. By giving the youth a sleeping potion, Agripyne succeeds. Andelocia returns to Cyprus, steals the wishing hat from Ampedo, cheats some Italian jewelers of their gems, and returns to England, disguised as a jewel merchant. While bargaining with Agripyne about his wares, he suddenly clasps her and takes her to a wilderness; there he threatens to abandon her unless she will promise to marry him. As she seems fainting from thirst, Andelocia climbs an apple tree (in reality, Vice's) to pick some luscious fruit. When Agripyne complains of the hot sun, he throws her his wishing hat. Unaware of its power, she wishes she were in England and is presently snatched away—with the hat.

Meantime, Vice's apples have grown horns on Andelocia's head. Fortune comes to him, bringing with her Vice and Virtue. The contending goddesses offer him the fruits of their trees; but having been enlightened by Fortune about the cause of his horns, Andelocia repents his bad life and chooses Virtue's apples. His horns fall off. During this time, King Athelstane in England promises to marry his daughter to the Prince of Cyprus. Now Andelocia, still lusting for the purse and hat, comes back disguised as an Irish costermonger and sells Vice's apples to Agripyne and to two foolish courtiers; they all grow horns after eating the fruit. The Prince of Cyprus renounces his claims to a horned princess. Disguised anew, this time as a French doctor, Andelocia gives the courtiers a pill to remove the horns; instead of helping Agripyne, he snatches up the wishing hat and carries the princess off to Ampedo's house in England. Ampedo has come there in hopes of turning Andelocia from his prodigal life. After Andelocia has finally obtained the magic purse from Agripyne he sends her, eating an apple of Virtue to remove her horns, to find her way back to court.

His malice unsatisfied, Andelocia returns to court, preparing to enjoy more trickery. Ampedo is meanwhile unable to dissuade him from his course and burns the wishing hat. Ampedo is seized by the de-horned courtiers who, in the belief that he has the magic purse, put him in the stocks in order to extort gold from him; there he dies of grief. When Andelocia falls into their hands, he loses his purse to them, is also stocked, and then is hanged. The play ends with a short trial scene in which Vice, Virtue, and Fortune claim sovereignty over Athelstane and his court. But Vice ultimately flees, and Fortune kneels to Queen Elizabeth, the ruler of destiny, in whom Virtue finds the embodiment of herself.

This detailed summary enables us to see how Dekker shaped his source-material with a moral purpose; his play is not merely a naïve rehandling of a naïve folktale. A brief review of the relations of Dekker's plot to the work which was probably his immediate source3—the German Volksbuch “Of Fortunatus and His Purse and Wishing-Hat” (first published in 1509)—reveals some significant changes. The folktale moves slowly but clearly and presents the careers of the father and sons in sequence, so that a dramatist who planned to make two plays would have found a convenient dividing point at Fortunatus's death. However, Dekker produces a considerable overlap of the two parts; Fortunatus's death and bequeathing of the purse and hat come at the end of Act II. Contemporary readers of the Volksbuch probably enjoyed the story of Fortunatus's career chiefly because of the inserted episodes of murder, theft, and lust. Dekker has omitted nearly all of this material; in fact, he adapts only two events (both necessary to prepare for Andelocia's adventures): the father's encounter with the goddess Fortune and his theft of the Sultan's wishing hat. A chorus before Act II summarizes a few of Fortunatus's actions between these two episodes.

For the remaining three acts, Dekker adapts many, but not all, of Andelocia's exploits in relation to Agripyne; the chorus that precedes Act IV is an awkward device to weave in the omitted events necessary to understand the following scene. But more important than Dekker's struggle to dramatize the loose episodes in the Volksbuch is the change in tone at which he aimed. Partly through additional action, partly through lamentation, comment, and homily, Dekker emphasizes waste more than the other forms of vice in the careers of Fortunatus and Adelocia. The evil of prodigality, however, is a theme completely absent from the Volksbuch.

The process of Dekker's composition of the play could give further indications of his purpose. However, the obscurity in the theatrical origins of Old Fortunatus has caused problems for the historian of drama which are the most numerous among all Dekker's works. Certainly the play as we have it is Dekker's recasting and amplification of an older one, now lost, called by Henslowe The First Part of Fortunatus (February 3, 1596). But “First Part” implies a second part, either then existing or soon to be written, unless Henslowe's title, rather unusually, echoes the title of a lost book of the legend.4 We know of no Second Part; for, when Henslowe first mentions Dekker's name in connection with the play on November 9, 1599, while recording a payment of forty shillings, he speaks of The Whole History of Fortunatus. Naturally, in the light of these two recorded titles, scholars have supposed that a Second Part may have been projected which was to deal with the adventures of Fortunatus's two sons, but that Dekker spontaneously, or at the actors' suggestion, decided to combine the father's and sons' adventures in one play, The Whole History of Fortunatus. On the other hand, it has been denied that Dekker wrote The First Part, but it has been accepted without question that he wrote The Whole History.

Dekker obviously eliminated some episodes used in The First Part of Fortunatus, yet his recasting created an unusually long play. It was finally completed by November 30, 1599, when Dekker was paid six pounds for it.5 The next day, however, Henslowe began a new series of payments to Dekker for the altering of The Whole History of Fortunatus “for the Court,” as he says a few days later. The play was produced before Queen Elizabeth on December 27, 1599. There had hardly been time for a performance on the stage of the Rose Theater. And it is remarkable that the play is not mentioned again by Henslowe, and that Old Fortunatus in His New Livery was entered in the Stationers' Register on February 20, 1600, and published in that year “as it was played before the Queen's Majesty this Christmas.”6 In the quarto are printed two prologues by Dekker, one of them (like the epilogue) designed especially for the performance at court.

From the preceding data we can see that the play as we have it was in existence only about eight weeks before Dekker or the actors sold it to the publisher, the manuscript being probably in Dekker's own hand. This very early sale and the lack of further reference by Henslowe7 do not prove conclusively that the play in its full length was not produced publicly again, but they definitely lead to that inference. If produced, Old Fortunatus was perhaps cut down to more normal length and made less expensive (in December the actors had borrowed ten pounds from Henslowe to buy “things” for the performance).

In spite of the many uncertainties in the history just given, the evidence surely justifies our conclusion that Old Fortunatus is one of Dekker's ambitious plays, one worked on seriously and intended for a sophisticated audience. The importance of this conclusion is not lessened by our uncertainty about whether Dekker wrote The First Part of Fortunatus in 1595, then four years later decided to amalgamate it and the remainder of the Volksbuch material in one play, or whether in 1599 he combined two existent plays. We are sure that in 1599 he joined certain episodes from The First Part of Fortunatus with some of Andelocia's adventures. And we can be almost equally sure that Henslowe's second series of large payments was for the composition of a substantial revision of the new play, specifically the incorporation into it of the morality element—the contest between Fortune, Vice, and Virtue—rather than simply for a contribution of a Prologue and an Epilogue for the court.8 Then we make the valid inference that Dekker, having learned that The Whole History of Fortunatus was intended for performance at the court, deliberately attempted to add moral gravity to the fantastic story. He expected to have at court a more thoughtful and critical audience than that of the Rose Theater.

Although C. H. Herford's analysis of the changes that Dekker made in the fable of the Volksbuch is complete enough,9 his evaluation of the changes must be amended. He says that Dekker altered the character of Fortune from a fond, pampering mother (as in the source) to a stern, judicial goddess who disapproves and punishes Fortunatus's bad choice of riches. But it is not essentially the choice of riches that she condemns; it is his abuse of riches, his improvidence: “Thou hast eaten metals, and abusde my giftes, / Hast plaid the Ruffian, wasted that in ryots, / Which as a blessing I bestowed on thee” (II.2.235-37).

Second, Andelocia is displayed as the prodigal son, and his brother Ampedo, a virtuous, prudent youth, is the foil to him; whereas in the Volksbuch, Andelocia is envied as the lucky hero up to the last episode. Though Herford does not note the fact, the theme of evil prodigality is a favorite with Dekker throughout his life; he dwells on it in both plays and tracts. The contrast between Andelocia and Ampedo, therefore, is a parable; it is a quite definite moral preachment for Elizabeth's courtiers. Third, there is the rivalry of Fortune, Vice, and Virtue. Herford believes that, in the play as first planned, Fortune was shown as “the supreme arbiter of the world … in no hostile relation to moral good … at least tolerant of virtue.”10 Yet for purposes of compliment to Queen Elizabeth, Virtue has been personified; and her supremacy over Fortune must be shown. Hence, says Herford, a seeming incoherence of ideas exists in the play.

We cannot deny that for the modern reader the Fortune-Virtue relation has an effect of incoherence; but it is likely that the Elizabethan audience saw little or no inconsistency. In the first place, the figure of Fortune is introduced as the capricious “Queene of chaunce” who thrusts pain or pleasure on men without regard to merit, seating base cowards in honor's chair, putting an idiot's cap on virtue's head. In this view of her actions, a man's vice or virtue is quite irrelevant, because her tumbling a prince from his throne is only a more spectacular instance of caprice and not really different from a beggar's finding money in the street. Now, it is important also to see that her enjoyment of her sport is increased by her awareness of the irony in her frustrating human expectations based on merit. As a dramatic person, Fortune must be satiric, or she is little more than an annoyance.

Dekker relies on this trait of her character (I.1.65-129) and then uses a development of it which is less obvious. Fortune's sportiveness is combined with scorn for the fools who think vice can bring them lasting pleasure, as she likewise shows her contempt for fools who think virtue will bring them protection. In Act IV (1.111-227) she is presiding over a contest between Virtue and Vice for the devotion of Andelocia. It is fully consistent with her satiric attitude (“Sing and amongst your Songs, mix bitter scorne” [117]) for her to identify Vice to Andelocia as the cause of the horns he now wears and of future evils, to identify Virtue in her fool's costume, to call Andelocia “fool,” and to tell him how his trial will be continued. In no way does she control his choices, although she can alter his situation in a moment. She remains entirely unpredictable, and the prodigal is entirely responsible for his moral decisions.

True, in the finale (V.2), Fortune seems momentarily severe and judicial, even angry (lines 206-223). But she performs, in fact, no judicial acts; she resigns the punishment of the evil courtiers, Longaville and Montrose, to Athelstane as she has resigned the punishment of Athelstane and Agripyne because Virtue pardoned them (224). Her acts, therefore, always remain devoid of moral quality. But as Fortune has been the major diety of the play, she is given a brief passage of solemn prophecy to speak about England's future wealth (259-60); then (her irony now being dropped) she relapses completely into the basic element of her character—blind capriciousness11—and she stupidly supposes that Vice is more esteemed than Virtue. She tries to refer the decision of this question to the audience, but Virtue appeals to the Queen, her own embodiment. Vice flees, and Fortune makes herself the slave of Elizabeth.

For a Renaissance audience familiar with the abundant literature and iconography of the goddess, nothing in Dekker's representation of her is inconsistent with the final triumph of Virtue over Vice or with the traditional indifference of Fortune to moral quality in human beings. The only distinct change in her at any time is the omission of her satiric scorn in the last scene.

I have dwelt upon this aspect of the play as the most important, for it is the element most demonstrative of Dekker's serious theme, as it is also the most spectacular feature. Herford and others speak of the Fortune-Vice-Virtue episodes as masque elements, implying, perhaps, frivolity of purpose in them, a “frigid and artificial allegory.”12 But certainly in purpose and probably in dramatic effect the Fortune episodes exemplify what is essentially a surviving morality play, despite the exaggeration of spectacle and the omission of theological ideas. The episodes serve to introduce and deepen the evil of a specific vice, waste.

Indeed, as Dekker sees the legend, it provides two prodigals: old Fortunatus and Andelocia. We meet Fortunatus when he is old but still a fool (so Echo describes him), one who has lost his way in the forest of the world, but who yet wishes he had a little more virtue. Involuntary fasting has made him chaste, and poverty has made him patient—“marie[,] I haue praied little, and that makes mee [that] I still [always] daunce. …” (I.1.18-19). Rejecting wisdom and other good gifts, he chooses riches, and Fortune scorns him: “Farewel, vaine couetous foole, thou wilt repent” (I.1.308).

Likewise, Andelocia, the true son of his father, rants against the inequality in the world: “Art not thou mad, to see money on Goldsmithes stalles, and none in our purses?” Ampedo speaks the proper answer:

But fooles haue alwaies this loose garment wore,
Being poore themselues, they wish all others poore …
Fie, brother Andelocia, hate this madnes,
Turne your eyes inward, and behold your soule,
That wants more than your body: burnish that
With glittering Vertue: and make Ideots grieue
To see your beautious mind in wisedome shine,
As you at their rich pouertie repine.

(I.2.99-100, 125-132)

But his remonstrance has no effect. After death, Fortunatus's body is carried away by satyrs, the slaves of Fortune, to a pagan burial; yet the warning given to his sons by his unhappy death is promptly flouted by Andelocia, who “in wildness tottre[s] out his youth” (IV.1.106). Dekker tries to focus the whole lesson where Fortune introduces Andelocia to Virtue and Vice in person (IV.1). Andelocia chooses Virtue. But he relapses at once into his former folly (V.2.50-61), and his end is hanging, though with time allowed for repentance:

Vertue, forgiue me, for I haue transgrest
Against thy lawes, my vowes are quite forgot …
Riches and knowledge are two gifts diuine.
They that abuse them both as I haue done,
To shame, to beggerie, to hell must runne.

(V.2.170-71, 173-75)

Although Andelocia's end is predictable, we are surprised to see Ampedo, so often the voice of caution, dying miserably in the stocks. However, Virtue explains that he also was a fool:

… Those that (like him) doe muffle
Vertue in clouds, and care not how shee shine,
Ile make their glorie like to his decline:
He made no vse of me, but like a miser,
Lockt vp his wealth in rustie barres of sloth …
So perish they that so keepe vertue poore.

(V.2.272-76, 279)

Indirectly addressing the noble audience, Virtue means that, possessed of the means to do good to the needy (the magic purse and hat), Ampedo did nothing. In short, his sin was sloth.

Old Fortunatus, then, is insistently a morality play. But it is the morality, or the interlude, in an awkward stage of change. Its elements are not fully harmonized. Charles Lamb eloquently praises the poetry of Orleans's romantic speeches; but this charm is too slight to count for much. What count are the moral preachments just analyzed, the scenes of spectacle (Fortune treading on kings as she mounts her throne; magical disappearances with the wishing hat), the intrigue at Athelstane's court, and the comedy. Irrespressible Shadow's clownage, Andelocia disguised as an Irish costermonger, the Soldan of Babylon being cozened of his wishing hat, Agripyne and her suitors wearing horns—these comic devices loudly compete with the morality play. The trouble is that they do not blend with it. Dekker's genuine earnestness in Old Fortunatus is partly frustrated by his employment of conventional elements of comedy and spectacle. However, the play has much more depth than has usually been found in it.


The exuberant fun of The Shoemaker's Holiday, which has resulted in its distinction of being one of the few Elizabethan comedies—other than Shakespeare's or Jonson's—which are frequently revived in this century, leads some critics to the conclusion that it is Dekker's masterpiece. Acknowledging the play's vitality, we gain little by quibbling about the term “masterpiece”; but to label The Shoemaker's Holiday “Dekker's best romantic comedy” is certainly more exact. In none of his other surving plays does he mingle conventional comic and love-story elements so adroitly. However, to view the play as a masterpiece of realism or even as making a genuine innovation in any kind of realism is an error.

Before considering Dekker's use of romantic legend we should summarize the action of the comedy. When Rowland Lacy, prodigal nephew and heir of the Earl of Lincoln, finds himself penniless in Germany, he learns the trade of the shoemaker. After he has made his way back to London and has restored himself to his uncle's favor, he falls in love with Rose, daughter of a wealthy citizen, Sir Roger Otley, the Lord Mayor. Both his uncle and her father resolutely oppose the match as being against the interest of both families. A further complication is the English King's war against France (which king and which campaign Dekker leaves vague).13 The Earl procures a colonelcy for Rowland; Sir Roger impresses certain tradesmen for the ranks, especially Ralph, journeyman to the master shoemaker, Simon Eyre. Ralph parts sadly from his wife Jane, the maidservant to Eyre's wife Margery.

Although the Lord Mayor has taken pains to sequester his daughter at his country home in Oldford, Rose is able to learn of Lacy's movements by sending her waiting-woman Sybil to the musters near London. Some weeks later, Lacy secretly returns from France, puts on the disguise of a Dutch shoemaker, and takes service with Eyre, replacing Ralph. Besides the fact that Lacy risks death for having deserted treasonably, Rose herself is imperilled by her father's decision to marry her to Hammon. Hammon, a citizen, has fallen in love with Rose when he encountered her near Oldford where he was hunting. However, she firmly refuses this match; Hammon, for his part, will not consent to Sir Roger's coercing his daughter into the marriage.

Meantime, Lacy helps Eyre, his master, to buy a cargo from a Dutch skipper and thus to profit greatly. Soon Eyre is elected Lord Mayor and is handsomely entertained by Otley at Oldford. Among Eyre's men on this occasion is Lacy, and Rose recognizes him. Later she summons Lacy to fit her with shoes, and thus they are able to plan elopement, with the aid of Sybil.

In the interim, the campaign in France has been suspended, and Ralph returns, crippled, to London. But he finds that Jane has left Eyre's house, driven away by Mistress Eyre's scolding. Jane has opened her own seamstress shop (unknown to Ralph) where Hammon has discovered and wooed her. When he declares that Ralph is dead, she reluctantly agrees to marry Hammon. However, when Hammon's servant brings Ralph a loveknot shoe and orders him to make a new pair for a wedding, Ralph recognizes Jane's shoe. His fellows in Eyre's shop rally to help him intercept the procession on the way to church and to claim Jane for his wife.

Firke, one of Ralph's co-workers, delivers Rose's show at Oldford. There he is questioned by Sir Roger who has learned that Lacy is hiding in London. At this moment, word is brought that Rose has eloped with Hans the shoemaker; and the Earl of Lincoln, who has come to inquire about his nephew from Otley, surmises that it is Lacy in disguise. However, Firke misinforms the two old men about the church where the lovers are to be married. Lacy, who has revealed himself to Eyre and induced the master and his wife to be witnesses, is married to Rose at the Savoy while the two guardians are waiting for them at St. Faith's.

Although the Earl and Lord Mayor plead to the King for a separation of the lovers, Eyre's good humor and shrewdness win the day for Lacy and Rose. The King refuses to annul the marriage; instead, he restores Lacy's honor by knighting him (thus he also increases the Earl's honor). The guardians are reconciled to the marriage, and the play ends festively with the King's consent for his prentices to eat at Eyre's banquet.

In this well-written play Dekker has used imaginatively elements from three legends in Thomas Deloney's The Gentle Craft, Part I, a book published apparently at the end of 1597, though no copies of the first edition have survived. The three tales include two vulgarized Medieval saints' legends: that of St. Hugh's love for St. Winifred, perhaps to be called a tragedy because of their martyrdom, and that of St. Crispine's love for St. Ursula, which ends happily with their marriage. The third legend is the career of Simon Eyre, historically a woolen-draper but made a shoemaker by Deloney—a desirable change because both Hugh and Crispine disguised themselves as shoemakers, and because the book is addressed to the “Professors of the Gentle [‘noble'] Craft; of what degree soeuer.”

Actually, Dekker utilizes only three story elements from the saints' lives: that Hugh and Crispine are princes; that they disguise as shoemakers; and that Crispine courts Ursula while fitting her. But the dramatist makes frequent humorous allusion to other details of their legends. On the other hand, he appropriates most of Deloney's legend of Simon Eyre, omitting only a fabliau concerning Eyre's housemaid (not Jane); yet from that he borrows the name, but not the character, of Hans the Dutchman. It is noteworthy that in Deloney's account, Eyre, although he has a quiet sense of humor, is a much soberer and more dignified person than in the play. This difference fully demonstrates Dekker's genius for characterization. He has kept the virtues of the original Eyre—industry and kindliness—and has rounded the character by adding tenderness for “my sweete lady Madgy,” volubility, robustious humor, and, above all, an awareness of his own absurdities: “… Feare nothing Rose, let them al say what they can, [sings] dainty come thou to me: laughest thou?” (V.1.8-9). As a recent critic says, Eyre is a “shrewd exploiter of his own eccentricities.”14

The careful structure of the play deserves a word of praise. As counterpoint to the evil of two ambitious old men's planning marriages of advantage for their children and thus thwarting the natural love between pure, devoted young folk, Dekker introduces the pathos of a young couple of the lower class separated by the crisis of war and reunited only after near tragedy. Besides these thematic parallels of love, youth, and fidelity, Dekker takes other pains to unify the two plots. The two male lovers are both shoemakers, one pretended, the other true; the French war threatens Lacy's love affair, but actually separates Ralph from Jane; and the same unwelcome wooer attempts to win, first Rose, then Jane. Firke, the journeyman shoemaker, a much transformed clever servant from Roman comedy, by a neat deception both frustrates the domineering fathers and simultaneously restores forlorn Jane to her faithful husband. And, very obviously, Simon Eyre assists this unification because his benevolence includes Lacy and Rose; his shop is a center of the action; and his shrewd exuberance wins his acceptance by all of society from King to prentices.

This structural unity is supported by deft transitions of feeling as episode follows episode, without the heavy exploitation of a particular theatrical scene by which Dekker sometimes offends us in other plays. Firke's and Sybil's coarse humor (half of it depending on by-play); the ironic vanity of Margery and the cunning of Simon; moments of pathetic separation and recognition; high hopes of lovers; exultation in successful disguise and deception: suspense for the outcome of a ruse or of the King's intervention; and songs, dances, and crowd scenes—all these are woven by Dekker into supremely good theater.

The realism of Shoemaker's Holiday, as I have said, is mainly of a traditional kind, like the romantic elements. It is true, of course, that the earlier popular comedy more often represents the absurdities, including the dialect, of rustic and village types like those in William Stevenson's Gammer Gurton's Needle (circa 1553), whereas the milieu in Shoemaker's Holiday is chiefly that of the city craftsmen. But the transition to London life was a natural one and may even be said to have been anticipated in George a Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield (possibly by Robert Greene, 1588), The Weakest Goeth to the Wall,15 and probably in other plays. In George a Greene the pugnacious shoemakers of Bedford hob-nob and drink with King Edward; in The Weakest Goeth to the Wall a humorous botcher who carries his tools onto the stage (like Eyre's men) figures importantly in the play. Dekker's own advance upon earlier comic realism appears in only two aspects of Shoemaker's Holiday. He paints a single genre picture of the rising of a shopkeeper's household at dawn (I.4), a scene which dwells humorously on the master's futile efforts to get his wife, maids, and benchmen at work before seven. Dekker also shows us, perhaps more believably than ever before, the kind of shrewdness and independence of character, in both Eyre and Sir Roger Otley, which enabled the craftsmen to rise into the merchant class and then to enter the aristocracy. To recall the Dick Whittington legend and Deloney's stories helps to correct any misconception that Dekker was the first to record this breaking of social crust; much rather, we ought simply say that his depiction of its is quite plausible. He was far less interested than Deloney in the maneuvers by which Eyre founded his fortune; and, as for the values which usually motivate such men, if Jonson's and Massinger's plays are compared with Shoemaker's Holiday, Dekker reveals no important general truth. Instead, he merely shows us a very likable fellow who profits from a stroke of luck.

To find in Shoemaker's Holiday any deep social truth or vision of Elizabethan society is, I think, to see both the play and the society in a sentimental mood. The genuine realism present in the play (beyond that discussed above) is simply the psychological truth which Shakespeare and other masters have trained us to expect in nearly all drama. At times Dekker achieves it. Among such passages is the one16 where Ralph returns from France to Eyre's shop and weeps from fatigue and grief while callous Mistress Eyre shamefacedly admits that she scolded Jane out of her service (III.2); and almost equally good is the one (IV.3) in which Hammon convinces Jane that Ralph has died in the war. These indeed do have universal appeal and show Dekker at his best. Such poignancy is not found in all scenes of Shoemaker's Holiday; but, where it is absent, Dekker is still the master showman and satisfies us with his skillful use of conventions.


In Chapter 1 a brief account was given of the War of the Theaters between Ben Jonson and the poetasters (as he described most of the other playwrights) and, in particular, John Marston and Dekker. Doubtless, Jonson labored hard to make Poetaster caustic enough to humiliate and frighten into silence all his enemies, including dramatists, actors, and critics. In fact, even today Poetaster raises laughter in many scenes and constantly draws admiration for its pungent style. In the days when all its allusions to personalities were clear, it must have been hilariously amusing to the audience at the Blackfriars. But while Jonson was still composing it—a process that took fifteen weeks, as the prologue tells—he learned that his enemies were preparing a counterblast. Jonson's reference to the fact in Poetaster, III. 4.352, indicates that he thought Marston was the leader.

However, the play that appeared alternately at the Globe and at the Paul's Boys' theater was Satiromastix, a work in which it is very difficult to find traces of Marston's style, but in which Dekker's style and technique are apparent almost everywhere. In the entry in the Stationers' Register and on the title page of the first edition only Dekker's name is mentioned. It is true that the epistle “To the World,” which is unsigned but which Dekker certainly wrote, states, “Horace [Jonson] hal'd his Poetasters to the Barre, the Poetasters untruss'd Horace …” Yet nine lines below we find, “I meete one [critic who blames me] … for that in untrussing Horace, I did onely whip his fortunes, and conditions of life, where the more noble Reprehension had bin of his mindes Deformitie. …” Throughout the remaining thirty lines of the epistle the pronoun I is used in every line, with no mention of Marston. In other collaborations, however, Dekker usually gives credit quite carefully to his partner if there is opportunity to do so. Therefore, it is sensible to conclude that the mention of the untrussing quoted above simply refers to the action in the play (V.2.227-32), not to the composition of the play. Professor Bowers has shown that the manuscript which Dekker himself (as it seems) delivered to the publisher was a fair copy of Dekker's earlier draft and was possibly in his own hand, for his spellings are abundant throughout. Moreover, the dramatist read the quarto during or after the printing and furnished an errata list which was issued with the edition. From all this evidence we ought to infer that Marston's contribution to the play can hardly have been more than some general suggestions about the action as well as about the method of lampooning Horace most effectively.

Considering the result of Dekker's effort, Jonson would have been expected to say that Marston probably preferred to let Dekker take full credit. In fact, however, Jonson affected great disdain and withdrew from strife against “bare and beggarly conceits”; and Dekker's epistle “To the World” is written with the gaiety of complete triumph. It is appropriate to analyze those qualities of Satiromastix which discouraged Jonson from further combat, as well as those which aroused his contempt.

The main plot, set in the court of King William Rufus near the end of the eleventh century, is a very simple one, a tragic situation that is quickly resolved; it is easily completed in five scenes (I.1, II.1, III.2, V.1, and V.2) of only moderate length in a play that is longer than the average. Sir Walter Terrill, a courtier, marries Cælestine, daughter of Sir Quintilian Short-hose, apparently a rich merchant. The King, who has been invited to the wedding festivity, becomes infatuated with the bride's beauty and dares Sir Walter to show his faith in her purity by sending her to court that night, ostensibly to display her loveliness for a day or so to the nobility. Despite his anguish, Terrill is compelled by pride and honor to swear an oath that he will send her. After the King has gone, the young couple and the father lament this outcome, but Terrill cannot break his word. However, Sir Quintilian finds the ultimate preservative of his daughter's virtue—death by poison. Cælestine drinks the potion and seems to die at once, as Terrill agonizes. That night her body, seated in a chair, is brought by a group of maskers to the King's presence chamber. The King, who has been expecting treacherously to enjoy droit du seigneur, unmasks the bride and is aghast to find her dead. When Terrill denounces him as a tyrant, the King repents his evil and acknowledges his guilt. Thereupon, Cælestine revives from the sleeping potion, and the King restores her to Terrill.

It would be unjust to say that the handling of the conflict between love and honor, initiated by the King's dare, typically reveals Dekker's failure as a tragedian. We have too little of his tragedy left us by which to judge. His early tragedies, for which Francis Meres praised him, are lost, and the only surviving later one, The Witch of Edmonton, is a collaboration. But it is true that Dekker's handling of Terrill's dilemma is characteristic of his method in romance and tragicomedy. Although Satiromastix evolved into a lampoon, the Terrill-Cælestine plot was undoubtedly designed originally as tragicomedy.

Yet the situation consists of very tragic elements: the lovers, yearning for each other, are tortured by the code of honor which demands that Terrill manifest his trust in his bride and his King, thus delaying the consummation of their marriage and, far worse, threatening to desecrate their love and honor. Dekker does not falsify or obscure any of these elements; to do so would have been to frustrate his own intent by robbing his scenes of full impact. In order to control the audience's response to the tragic situation, however, he employs two conventions: First, the play begins and is maintained in the mood of broad comedy, with the result that the pseudo-tragic situation just escapes being submerged by farce and bawdy humor; second, the familiar device of a sleeping potion is signalled for the audience by Sir Quintilian's demeanor—he smiles as Terrill weeps over Cælestine's unconscious body:

Terrill. I had a constant wife, Ile tell the King;
Vntill the King—what dost thou smile? art thou
A Father?
Sir Quintilian. Yea, smiles on my cheekes arise,
To see how sweetly a true virgin dyes.

Before Terrill can protest further, the maskers enter to carry Cælestine to court. It is notable that the resolution follows at once; there is no comic interruption. The rapidity of the action in these climactic scenes must also be credited to Dekker's tact in handling the theme. It should probably be added that the ceremonies which precede the unmasking of the dead Cælestine contribute to esthetic distancing of the lovers' ordeal and so obviate any tragic pain in the audience's feeling.

The worst charge that criticism can bring against Satiromastix is the painful artificiality of the dialogue among Terrill, Cælestine, and her father as they lament their disastrous situation (II.1, III.2). Their speeches are woven mostly of empty conceits, silly word-play, commonplace rhetorical patterns and figures; the rhymed couplets are vapid. This inexcusable lapse in style was probably caused by Dekker's haste and by his shift of purpose from tragicomedy to satire.

Whether or not we credit Dekker with skill in the management of the main plot, it is surely plausible to think that he kept that plot to the brevity and simplicity of its original conception because of the overgrown comic actions which came to occupy about four-fifths of the play. Perhaps the comic plot was also planned more simply at first. It presents the farcical wooing of foolish Widow Miniver by two suitors: hairy Sir Vaughan ap Rees, a peppery Welsh knight with a ridiculous dialect, and bald Sir Adam Prickshaft, whose name contributes much bawdy allusion. Probably in Dekker's first plan a third suitor, a rascally soldier, rivaled the other two; and he may have been replaced by Captain Tucca, a boisterous, lewd bully with an amusing vocabulary. Tucca was first introduced by Jonson in Poetaster; Dekker has taken him over with no change except an increase of his villainy and fantastic scurrility. The rivalry of these three to win the widow proceeds through absurd trickery and a travesty of poetic contests to an undeserved success for Tucca.

More amusing than Tucca, however, are three other characters borrowed from Poetaster; Dekker keeps their original identities but changes the characters to sharpen his ridicule. Horace is Jonson; Crispinus, Marston; and Demetrius Fannius, Dekker himself. Naturally, Crispinus and Demetrius emerge fair-minded moderate men, poets concerned only with defending their reputations from Horace's persistent vilification. Dekker provides Horace with a moronic admirer, Asinius Bubo, whose historical identity has not been decided. These pseudo-Roman characters are intruded into the tragicomedy in several ways: Horace is employed by Terrill to furnish nuptial songs for the wedding festivity; Crispinus and Demetrius are included in Terrill's wedding party and have, between them, a total of three short lines in two scenes (probably the poets have been substituted for two Norman gentlemen of the court); Horace writes libels, for pay, against Sir Vaughan ap Rees's rivals and, for malice, bitter epigrams against Captain Tucca; Sir Vaughan hires Horace to write an ode in praise of hair, and Sir Adam employs Crispinus to recite a versified paradox in praise of baldness—all as strategy in wooing Widow Miniver.

Finally, Horace and Asinius are arraigned before the King in the last scene, as guilty of “… bitter Satirisme, of Arrogance, / Of Selfe-loue, of Detraction, of a blacke / And stinking Insolence. …” (V.2.220-222). The satyr suits which the two are wearing are untrussed and pulled off over their heads; then they are crowned with nettles. In Poetaster, Jonson provided an excellent satiric climax with the forcing of an emetic on Crispinus to make him vomit up his crudities of poetic diction. Dekker's scene of the untrussing, although less pungent satire, no doubt raised as loud a laughter.

It is not hard to see why Jonson gave up the contest after the production of Satiromastix. If the audiences at the private theaters had been polled, they would doubtless have voted Poetaster the better play, which it surely is. But Dekker had proved himself quite clever enough to defeat his adversary with the techniques of dramatic caricature—with Jonson's own weapons, in fact. Jonson's aggressive individualism made him a very broad target, and Dekker took full advantage of the fact. Jonson's physique—his red, pockmarked face, thin beard, staring eyes, hollow cheeks, shapeless nose, loud voice, “mountain belly”—are the constant objects of Tucca's malice; and they were probably simulated by the actor playing Horace. Jonson's picturesque history as bricklayer, homicide, jailbird, converted Papist, and itinerant actor dismissed from his company for lack of talent—all are flung at him repeatedly. (We should remember that Jonson's ridicule of Marston's red hair and Dekker's threadbare cloak partly explains and justifies Dekker's venom.) However, more important are Jonson's personality traits shown in action. Horace is exposed as a vain, short-tempered, repetitious, costive rhymester, a railer, a slanderer, a liar, and a coward. His toadyism toward noblemen and his cheating of gull-gallants are admitted even by himself.

Since all these traits had at least a semblance of truth, the remarkable fullness of the portrait must have been relished by many in the audience. Perhaps of equal enjoyment was Dekker's irony in using Jonson's own inventions, especially Horace and Tucca, in drawing the caricature. To relish the irony fully, one would first have to attend Poetaster at the Blackfriars and then, a few nights later, Satiromastix at Paul's. When Jonson learned that Tucca, whom he had created as a lampoon on an actual boisterous soldier, Captain Hannam, had been turned by Dekker into a lewd abuser of Jonson, he must have seen the futility of any more skirmishes against the poetasters.

Dekker's success in answering caricature with lampoon naturally invites a further comparison of the two plays in terms of their purpose and achievement. In Poetaster, Jonson strove for a characteristically high goal and by characteristically high means. We must agree with Professor Talbert that the play “is primarily a dramatic defense of poetry.” More specifically, its discloses the evils that beset artists, the relations of princes and courtiers to poets, and the high functions of poets in human culture. Its method (not essentially a dramatic one) is “running the gamut of the barbarians,” that is, ridiculing successively the various enemies of literary art.17 Among these, of course, are poetasters; thus, incidentally, Marston and Dekker can be exposed to ridicule. (Doubtless, Jonson elaborated this feature of his plan beyond what strict proportion allowed.) Hence, Poetaster stands as an ars poetica, a work of literary doctrine, but one adapted for the stage. Its purpose is basically serious; its mode—satire—Jonson was striving with erudition and independence to adapt to theatrical form; its style is witty and eloquent. Despite these impressive claims, Poetaster has to be judged by the criterion of vitality in the theater. In this respect it is weaker, for it is thin in plot, though amusing in its episodes; and it is overly long in some speeches and in its totality.

Satiromastix obviously does not have equal merits as literature. A common—and stupid—criticism points out the violation of decorum in putting “Roman” characters into a Medieval story; in reality, Horace is no more a Roman than Sir Quintilian Shorthose is a Norman. Dekker has merely extended the principle used by Jonson in Poetaster (and by most other Elizabethan dramatists) of dramatizing contemporary manners and attitudes in an antique setting. If all the names in Satiromastix were clearly Norman, nothing in the play would be changed (except to weaken the effect of borrowing from Poetaster). Actually to be considered, rather, are the incongruities of tone or dramatic method that vitiate the play. From this point of view we must blame Dekker, in the first place, for the discord between the serious and the comic plots, which seem to be quite devoid of thematic relation to each other. Secondly, Dekker has elaborated the comic theme of Widow Miniver and her suitors to such a degree that the serious action ceases to count much in our imaginations or in the meaning of the play. Thirdly, in the comic plot Dekker has relied too heavily on conventionally crude dialect and farcically shallow characterization.

Yet, without regard to its success as a lampoon of Jonson, Dekker's portrait of Horace must be judged a remarkable comic characterization; and Tucca and Bubo are certainly comparable, if not equal, to Shakespeare's Pistol and Aguecheek. Perhaps no more can be claimed for the farce of Miniver's suitors than that it probably did not bore the audience at Paul's for whom it was written. In other words, like the rest of the play, it is good theater. We have to grant that Satiromastix is a potpourri not well blended; yet is not a contemptible work. And it served its original purpose extraordinarily well.


Doubtless under the influence of Jonson's Every Man in His Humour and Every Man Out of His Humour, as well as of Marston's and Middleton's early “city comedies” and the vogue of formal satire from 1597 to 1600, Dekker, in two plays now called The Honest Whore,18 tried to combine realistic depiction of London life with his accustomed morality and romance. Part I is, indeed, a collaboration with Middleton, a realist by temperament. His contribution (unusually limited in number of lines)19 consists mainly of the shopkeeper scenes, in which the patience, or “humour,” of Candido the linendraper is severely tested by his wife and by a crew of idle gallants. Despite the farcical humor of these episodes, Candido's triumphant virtue is eulogized and therefore truly constitutes part of Dekker's morality pattern, which is seen more plainly in the major action: the conversion of Bellafront from whoredom to chastity. Yet, as a dramatist trained in the practices of the early 1590's, Dekker could not let these morality elements compose the whole substance; accordingly, he frames them in a romantic love story. Characteristically, he subordinates realism of social manners to morality, humor, and romance.

The romantic plot has as its basis a familiar situation: the hostility of two noble families imperils the happiness of two lovers, their offspring. Gasparo, Duke of Milan, seeks to terminate the love affair of his daughter Infelice with Hippolito (whose family is not named); he arranges to have Dr. Benedict give the girl a sleeping potion; when it takes effect, the Duke announces that his daughter has died. After a public funeral procession which is interrupted by Hippolito's frantic demand for possession of the body and by his accusation of murder against the Duke, Infelice awakens in her bed chamber and is told that Hippolito is dead. She is taken to Bergamo for seclusion. The Duke now suggests to his accomplice that Hippolito should be poisoned; but although he seems to consent promptly (I.3.99), Dr. Benedict secretly initiates the moves that will frustrate the Duke by communicating the truth to the lovers, first, by a letter to Infelice and, secondly, by a talk with Hippolito.

The audience, however, cannot immediately see this apparent reversal of Dr. Benedict's character because three acts of the play intervene before his communications are made (IV.4). Meanwhile, the romance is suspended, and the other plots occupy the stage. When, at last, Hippolito learns from Dr. Benedict that Infelice is alive, the romance moves swiftly to its end. Aided by the physician, the lovers meet at Bethlehem Monastery, seven miles from Milan, where Friar Anselmo agrees to marry them in the evening; afterwards, they may escape under cover of darkness. But the gabbling tongue of Matheo, Hippolito's friend, has already given news of the plan to a courtier, who, in turn, has told it to the Duke. Another of Hippolito's friends brings word of the Duke's pursuit. The wedding is quickly performed. Although Bellafront does prevent the lovers from escaping in disguise as friars and does expose them, the Duke soon resigns himself to the marriage, for he has had no antipathy to Hippolito as a man.

The morality plot is more important than the romance, both in its very essence and in the amount of action given to it. Matheo, a dissolute gallant, has taken as his mistress the courtesan Bellafront; but she falls in love with Hippolito when Matheo brings his friend for a casual visit. Later, she privately avows her love to Hippolito, expecting his ready acquiescence in her passion; Hippolito, instead, replies with a lengthy diatribe about the odious character and fate of a whore. After he has gone, Bellafront is overcome with shame and love. She prepares to kill herself with the dagger which Hippolito accidentally left behind. But he returns for the weapon and prevents her suicide.

Repenting her evil life, Bellafront discharges her bawd and pimp and then rebuffs the group of gallants who frequent her lodging. However, her plea to Matheo that he marry her and restore her honor (he was her original seducer) is in vain. Although her renewed plea for Hippolito's love is equally fruitless, still her visit to his apartment enables her to overhear his appointment to meet Dr. Benedict. By some means, presumably from Matheo, Bellafront learns of the rendezvous at Bethlehem. There, after gaining entrance as a mad woman, she finds the Duke in a pliant mood and appeals to him for justice against Matheo. The Duke orders the wastrel to marry her, and the betrothal takes place as part of the play's resolution.

The comic plot exhibits the patience of the merchant Candido. The efforts of Viola, his perverse wife, to vex him seem to have no motive other than a sense of inferiority brought on by his self-control. Her envy is seconded by the mischief of a group of idle gallants. The action is dispersed throughout the play, mostly in Acts I, III, and IV, and consists of a series of tricks played on the imperturbable, but not stupid, merchant. Finally, soon after Viola has had him carried off to Bethlehem as a madman, she repents this trick and her envy. The Duke's sudden journey to the monastery causes her to follow in order to obtain Candido's release.

From these summaries it is apparent that the structure of Part I is less unified than that of The Shoemaker's Holiday. Two rather mechanical devices serve to tie the three actions together. The first of these is Hippolito's friendship with Matheo, which has no foundation in the men's qualities but is invented for economy: to allow Hippolito to function in both romantic and morality plots. Of course, this same function is performed by the group of gallants who serve as tormentors of Candido in the comic plot and as companions (in fact, one of them acts as informant) of the Duke in the love plot. The second device is Dekker's gathering of all the characters at Bethlehem Monastery, which, rather surprisingly, also houses Bedlam Hospital. Setting the denouement in Bedlam permits Dekker to entertain his audience with a show of madmen, which has but little relation to his drama. The gathering itself, however, once the lovers have circumvented the hostile father, facilitates the resolution. The Duke, in a rather sketchy judicial scene, deals out rewards to Bellafront and Candido.

Viewed as a structural device, Dr. Benedict's duplicity in his relations with Duke Gasparo is a little less mechanical. Benedict at first seems the ordinary tool-villain of Italianate melodrama (I.3); later scenes, however, lead to a different interpretation. We discover that he has always been the friend of the lovers; his offer to poison Hippolito (I.3.96-97) is only a ruse by which he may meet the young man, conceal him, and bring about the wedding. Far from acting the villain or the pretentious quack (conventional object of satire), Benedict functions like the kindly friar in other romantic comedies, especially Lawrence (in Romeo and Juliet) who is also learned in physic. In Act I, Benedict indicates by intonation and facial expression his secret horror of Gasparo's command to poison Hippolito; we note “although the fact [‘deed’] be fowle” (I.3.99). Even before falsely reporting Hippolito's death to Gasparo, Benedict has written the whole truth to Infelice and summoned her to Bethlehem to meet her lover (IV.4.94-97). His long delay in revealing the truth to Hippolito has resulted from being “chambred vp, / To stop discouery” (IV.4.82-83). His false report to the Duke of Hippolito's death has no plot function other than to revive the tension which has grown weak because of two and one-half acts devoted to the morality and comic actions. Gasparo is thus again shown to be a treacherous tyrant.

In summary, the audience's interpretation of the Physician's function in the play depends on the actor's skill in revealing his duplicity by conventional inflections, looks, and gestures more than on symbolism of costume or on the pattern of action, although the pattern is discernible after Benedict's introductory scene. After he has informed Hippolito of the plan for the secret wedding, Dr. Benedict disappears from the play. Friar Anselmo substitutes for him in Act V, and perhaps the same actor played both parts.

Although the artificiality of the plot devices used by Dekker in this play would be far less noticeable in the theater than it is to a reader, the dramatist is undeniably less skillful than in The Shoemaker's Holiday in applying technique to his purposes, particularly in the device of Hippolito's and Matheo's friendship. This tie seems especially implausible because the moral worlds of the romance and the morality plots are not assimilated (Part II is much better unified in this respect). Furthermore, if we take realism to mean the dramatist's representation of the drives and tensions of normal life and not just fidelity to language and social manners, we must say about Part I of The Honest Whore, as about Shoemaker's Holiday, that Dekker has subordinated realism to other purposes. When we look, for instance, at the only episode (II.1) which achieves notable satiric force—the scene where Bellafront makes her toilet and then entertains the gallants—we admire the vivid depiction in the first 230 lines and then its sequel—Hippolito's eloquent invective against whoredom. Jonson could not have improved either part. Underlying the whole scene, however, is a double motif that Jonson would have avoided: Bellafront instantaneously falls in love with Hippolito and, as a result of this emotional impetus, is changed at once from a frivolous, coarsened woman to a repentant sinner. Dekker's keen observation and brilliant style become the vehicles of familiar conventions of romance.

Although the scene displays great mastery of dramatic effects and truth to human feeling, at the end of it, beyond question, carnal love really dominates Bellafront: “Not speake to me! not looke! not bid farewell! / Hated! this must not be, some meanes Ile try. / Would all Whores were as honest now, as I” (II.1.454-56). Therefore, we have to deny Dekker credit for the deepest ethical feeling or psychological intuition. The same confusion of motives holds in Bellafront's remaining scenes and is even accentuated by less satisfactory theatrical conventions: the disguise of a page boy, the pretended madness, and the hackneyed recovery of Bellafront's virtue by a forced marriage to Matheo, her first seducer. She must be married, for this is a comedy.20

In spite of these reservations about the limited realism of Part I, the play is impressive for its scenes of pathos and poetry. Not much below Dekker's finest work, it apparently succeded well on stage and was printed in four editions before 1616.

There is unanimity that Part II of The Honest Whore is wholly Dekker's, and the very general opinion is that this play is one of his best. Naturally seeking to repeat a successful formula, he offers the same principal characters—Bellafront, Hippolito, Matheo, and Infelice—as well as another testing of Candido, a fifth act enlivened by the humors of Bridewell (instead of Bedlam), and a reversal of the original moral situation. The reversal is the one to which Somerset Maugham devotes ponderous irony in Rain: the converted courtesan is pursued by the man who has won her back to virtue. But Dekker, never a cynic, has too deep a faith in human nature for an ironic ending. He is intent now on a domestic comedy (rather than a romantic one); but it must be moral. The action, however, is not simple but quite complicated.

After Matheo has been imprisoned for killing his opponent in a duel, Bellafront comes to Hippolito who is now happily married to Infelice. She brings Matheo's plea for help in getting a pardon. Hippolito, who promises to intercede with Duke Gasparo, is captivated by Bellafront's beauty. Later he meets her father, Orlando Friscobaldo, who has tried to cast her off and forget her because of her disgraceful life. Although Friscobaldo tells Hippolito that he will not help Bellafront, afterwards, disguised as a servant, he goes to Matheo's house. He arrives just after Matheo, released from jail by Hippolito's intervention, has been joyfully welcomed by Bellafront. She pleads with her husband to amend his life, but he is eager to return to his cronies. Friscobaldo, who offers to become Matheo's servant, is hired under the name of Pacheco.

Hippolito has tried to corrupt Bellafront's virtue with gifts; in particular, he bribes Pacheco to give her a purse full of gold. But Bellafront returns all the gifts to Hippolito through Friscobaldo. When Friscobaldo comes to Hippolito's house and delivers the gifts to Infelice, he thereby reveals that her husband is pursuing Bellafront. Later, Infelice cleverly draws from Hippolito a confession of his intended adultery. Ignoring his remorse, she indignantly denounces him. In his resentment he resolves to continue to woo Bellafront.

Matheo has meanwhile gambled away every penny he owns, even his sword and cloak. He comes home and urges Bellafront to go into the streets to sell her body. She refuses, and Matheo strips off her gown and sends Friscobaldo to pawn it, leaving Bellafront standing in her petticoat. When Matheo's friend, the courtier Lodovico, visits them, he gives Matheo one of his own suits. Friscobaldo's indignation has reached such a pitch that he goes home, puts on his own garments, and returns to Matheo's place as his father to berate the couple, especially Matheo. In Lodovico's fine clothing, Matheo has the effrontery to return Friscobaldo equal abuse. The father refuses to lend them money, leaves Matheo's house, resumes his servant's dress, and returns as Pacheco.

Matheo now tells him of a plan to rob old Friscobaldo. Left alone, Bellafront receives a visit from Hippolito, and the two engage in a formal argument on whoredom. Bellafront ends it by running away, but Hippolito continues in his determination to win her.

Friscobaldo reveals his identity to Duke Gasparo as well as a plan for arresting Matheo for robbery. The Duke supplements this plot by ordering the arrest of all prostitutes in Milan and their confinement in Bridewell. By this means he hopes to shame Hippolito out of his attachment to Bellafront. At a gathering of gallants and panders in Matheo's house (to which the innocent merchant Candido has also been invited), sergeants of the law arrest Matheo, Bellafront, Candido, and the panders and take them all to Bridewell. When the Duke, Infelice, Hippolito, and their retinue pay a visit to Bridewell, Bellafront pleads with the Duke for Matheo's pardon. Matheo admits to the robbery of Friscobaldo, but charges his wife with being both his accomplice and the whore of Hippolito. Infelice corroborates the second accusation. Hippolito furiously proclaims Bellafront's purity. At this point Pacheco-Friscobaldo removes his disguise. Matheo and Hippolito are overwhelmed with shame and confess their guilt. At Bellafront's renewed plea, Friscobaldo and the Duke pardon Matheo. Friscobaldo takes Matheo and Bellafront to live in his own house. Hippolito and Infelice are reconciled.

At the beginning of the minor plot we learn that the patient linen-draper, Candido, has lost his first wife and has just married for a second time. When his bride displays her temper at the wedding feast, the gallants, led by Lodovico, propose to teach Candido how to discipline a new wife. Disguised as a prentice, Lodovico induces Candido and his wife to duel with yardsticks; but she quickly submits to her husband. Thereafter, two other gullings of Candido follow; the second involves Candido's arrest for receiving stolen goods, a disgrace which he endures with patience and from which he is exonerated in Bridewell. The comic scenes are less ironically amusing than those in Part I.

Although Part II is crammed with intrigue, it is much more highly unified in theme than Part I. Part II is a successful blend of motifs from saints' legends and from Prodigal Son interludes of the earlier sixteenth century. Professor Michael Manheim's illuminating article on the themes of this play (see note 18 above) gives a persuasive demonstration of Dekker's artistry in the blending of all the elements of the work, including both the rather obscure one in which Hippolito dismisses the poor scholar (I.1) and the Bridewell scenes (V.2). Bellafront must resist Hippolito's seduction, patiently endure Matheo's cruelty, and strive to win him to an honest life by her devotion. Her ordeal is, in considerable part, a new version of the legend of Thais who, following her conversion from a life of lustfulness to one of purity, has to endure a severe test of her virtue.

Bellafront's tempter, Hippolito, parallels other representatives of the Prodigal Son in several plays of about the year 1600—Young Flowerdale, for example, in the anonymous London Prodigal (published 1605). However, Dekker has greatly modified the character-type by making Hippolito older and happily married; and his reform is not accomplished by the intervention of his own disguised father. Furthermore, there are no palliating circumstances for his lust. He is tested, and his vice is exposed, first by Infelice, then more decisively by Friscobaldo, who thereby reforms him. In fact, Friscobaldo is the agent, the disguised father, who puts Bellafront, Matheo, and Hippolito to the test and thereby both glorifies Bellafront's fortitude and reveals the corruption of the two men.

Purity and fortitude against temptation are not the same virtue as patience, which Bellafront also possesses to the highest degree, and which is Candido's strength. Bellafront is reminiscent, therefore, of Griselda as well as of Thais. In respect to patience, the other wronged wife, Infelice,21 becomes a foil to Bellafront by her lack of sufferance. When, by a clever ruse, she has led Hippolito to confess his infidelity, her wrath simply provokes an answering anger in him and a fresh resolve to possess Bellafront. Thus Infelice's impatience is punished.

The moral lesson receives even more enforcement, however. The Candido plot, in two actions, dramatizes, first, the shopkeeper's very quick taming of his shrew, his new wife, who kneels and says submissively, “… I disdaine / The wife that is her husbands Soueraigne” (II.2.108-109). Secondly, his sublime patience is demonstrated in Bridewell through the trickery of the gallants. A medieval expression of the moral lesson of the Thais theme is a formal debate of over 130 lines (IV.1.256-394) between Bellafront and Hippolito on whoredom. Professor Manheim points out that this highly rhetorical argument is a reversal of the positions of the two contestants in Part I and gives the rhetorical victory to the woman. In Part I, Bellafront, in lustful passion, spoke the sophistries which truth, in Hippolito's person, refuted with indignant sincerity. In Part II, Hippolito, appealing directly to the audience for a verdict, states his case first and plays the role of lustful Fallacy; then Truth movingly confutes him.

Bellafront's virtue conquers at last, but does not triumph directly over Matheo's vice. As in life, virtue triumphs by drawing on the aid of friends—her father and the Duke. Friscobaldo's intrigue finally brings Matheo to shame and repentance.22 By testing Bellafront's firmness, then, Friscobaldo plays a more important part in the dramatization of the theme than at first appears. Hazlitt and others have fervently praised the character of Friscobaldo as one of Dekker's best creations. Undoubtedly he is, but readers who are inclined to unsparing realism may consider the execrable Matheo a finer masterpiece of truth. After he has lost hat, cloak, and rapier at dice, Matheo returns home and tries to drive Bellafront into the streets to sell herself: “Must haue money, must haue some, must haue a Cloake, and Rapier, and things: will you goe set your limetwigs, and get me some birds, some money? … Must haue cash and pictures: doe ye heare, (frailty)?” (III.2.27-32). But when she refuses to go, Matheo begins to strip off her clothing in order to pawn it.

Unable to endure his daughter's degradation, Friscobaldo removes his disguise as servant, enters in his own person, and vilifies Matheo as a thief, cheater, and whoremonger, only to hear himself labeled an ass, churl, and mangy mule. In the course of this abusive exchange, Matheo asides to Bellafront: “Kneele, and get money of him. … Hang upon him … follow close … to him” (IV.1.120, 123-24). A little later, however, and strangely, Matheo's pride causes him to choke on learning that the roast of mutton he is relishing was given by a charitable neighbor! Scenes III.2 and IV.1 are genre pictures of sordid life unequalled in Elizabethan drama, not excepting Shakespeare's. The whole play shows signs of great care on Dekker's part. We can only wish he had sacrificed some of the didactic theatricalism of the Bridewell scenes for more of Matheo in action.


In publishing The Whore of Babylon in 1607, Dekker was clearly offering his politico-religious allegory with pride and confidence to his countrymen.23 Although the theme of the play is the preservation of Elizabeth from assassination and of England from the Armada—events which had taken place more than nineteen years before—Dekker does not refer to any anachronism in the subject-matter for two probable reasons: His devotion to Elizabeth had not changed since his youth, and he was confident that the intense national emotion consequent on the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot was like his own and would applaud his patriotic poem. With respect to the Spenserian theme of England's destiny, Dekker is offering in drama a counterpart to The Faerie Queene. The opening sentence of Lectori has an obvious Spenserian phrasing: “The Generall scope of this Drammatical Poem, is to set forth (in Tropicall and shadowed collours) the Greatnes, Magnanimity, Constancy, Clemency, and the other incomparable Heroical vertues of our late Queene.”

To be precise, the play is a political and religious allegory of England's former escape from peril, a figuring forth of the malignancy of England's secular enemies, Spain and Catholicism. For several reasons the Gunpowder Plot itself would not serve as a basis for a poem: its circumstances were too confused, and James I was not entirely English! But, from a perspective of seventeen years (to the time of the Plot), a Protestant Englishman could see infallibly the hand of Providence in the course of events in the 1580's. Dekker had probably long meditated on the dramatization of the theme. Spenser was above challenge in the epic, but a worthy poetic drama on England's greatest trial had never appeared.

Neither Dekker's aspiration nor its result is ridiculous. In 1606 the majority of Londoners, if not of all Englishmen, must have shared his belief that God had again intervened directly to save England; he quite truly expressed their feelings about the dangers from Spain and Catholicism. Eighteen years later the failure of the negotiations for the marriage of Prince Charles to the Infanta provoked an outburst of the same feeling and force; and Middleton, borrowing here and there from Dekker's play, wrote for the King's Men one of the most successful political satires ever staged in England, A Game at Chesse (1624). Both the parallels and the contrasts between the two plays are interesting. We note in particular that Middleton boldly ventures to represent the events of recent months in Spain; Dekker's reference to the Gunpowder Plot is only by implication. His choice of the Armada-peril for his theme may have been a mistake because of the distance in time and the lack of correspondence of details with the events of the Plot. Whatever the reason, there is no record of any notable success for The Whore of Babylon. Dekker, perhaps rationalizing, complains of the “bad handling” which the Prince's Men gave his play at the Fortune Theater.24

In summary, the action of the play appears disjointed because the theme is exemplified in two dramatic modes: a pageant-like series of events which were rather remotely connected, historically and chronologically, and a number of interspersed imaginary and allegorical episodes. After a dumb show has represented the death of Queen Mary, the accession of Titania (Elizabeth), and the conversion of Fairie Land (England) to true religion, the Empress of Babylon (the Roman Church) incites her sons, the hierarchy, to send priests for the purpose of causing confusion in England. Moreover, the monarchs of Spain, France, and the Holy Roman Empire come to Fairie Land to propose marriage with Titania. She refuses them and jeers at their indignation.

Threatening vengeance, the King of France and the Emperor depart, but Satyrane, the King of Spain, stays in the hope of spreading poisonous doctrine, “suck[ing] allegiance from the common breast.” Titania's wise counselors prepare for both insurrection within and invasion from without. Danger from within takes the form of two ambitious men, Paridel (Dr. Parry) and Campeius (Edmund Campion). But their malice meets with clemency, not death, from the Queen; they are banished. Appropriately, the Hollanders and the Prince of Portugal come to her for protection and receive it.

At a great council in Babylon (Spain), the Empress, the King of France, and the Emperor determine to assassinate Titania. For this purpose they employ Campeius and Dr. Ropus (Lopez), who have been seduced from their loyalty to Fairie Land by the King of Spain. The two renegades are sent to Fairie Land. Meantime, the council members agree to make an irresistible attack with Spain's immense sea power. Paridel, who has come under the sway of the Jesuits in Rome, is also despatched to Fairie Land.

Titania is unwillingly forced to condemn Mary, Queen of Scots, to death; but by words alone she overawes a lesser enemy, an assassin, and he flees from her unguarded presence. Dr. Ropus's poison plot and Paridell's dealing with Babylon are discovered, but Titania takes no vengeance. Meanwhile, the Armada has been launched from Babylon. When Paridel decides to kill the Queen one of his kinsmen reveals the plan to her courtiers, and before Paridel can muster courage to slay her, even though she is alone, he is apprehended.

Titania and her advisers make preparations for defense against the Armada. However, we learn of the disastrous defeat from the anguished cries of the three kings who witness it from afar (they are on stage). Titania is with her army in camp at Tilbury where Florimell (the Earl of Leicester) brings her news of the victory. Meanwhile, in Babylon, the Empress, hearing of the disaster, rages against the kings. The Emperor defies her, but France and Spain submit to her tyranny. Thus it ends.

The allegorical figures in The Whore of Babylon are Time (the father of Truth), Truth, Falsehood, and Plain Dealing. In addition to the initial dumbshow mentioned above, there are three others. In one we see the King of Spain's frustrated attempt to cast a fatal spell on Titania. In another the Empress of Babylon shows her satanic pride as she rides the seven-headed beast. In the last dumbshow Falsehood tries to penetrate Fairie Land with her crew of priests and traitors, such as Edmund Campion. Falsehood's disguise as Truth is exposed, and during this disclosure we learn that Plain Dealing has formerly (in the Middle Ages) mistaken Falsehood for Truth and has been her follower. Enlightened now, Plain Dealing follows Time and Truth as they pursue Falsehood with intent to denounce her. By this allegory Dekker wishes to transfer the medieval peasant, as spokesman of complaint or satire against social evils, into the contemporary world of Protestant England. Accordingly, Plain Dealing's most important dramatic function is to inform Titania of abuses which she is unable to observe because of her protected position—for instance, corruption among the clergy. The only characteristic element of comedy in this play appears in the contrast between Plain Dealing's blunt manner and Titania's gracious, serious bearing and language.

Dekker's intention—to manifest God's providential care for England and true religion through the creation and defense of Queen Elizabeth—is, of course, one of instruction. If that thesis and nothing more were demonstrated, the result might be simply reassurance or complacency for the audience. Although the play does not preach the moral conclusion, Dekker certainly intended that this moral be drawn: kings, lords, and commons, all alike, must hold God's favor by reforming abuses in the commonwealth and seeking justice and other virtues in Church and State. This theme is also present in one of his plague pamphlets which will be discussed in a later chapter.

Because the total import of the play is of such gravity, the dramatist was required to find the most direct, the clearest, and the most meaningful mode of instruction known to him. Dekker accordingly turned back to the traditional genres of the chronicle play and the interlude, each recognized as charged with meaning, the one with patriotism, the other with moral truth. In post-Reformation days the genres had even been combined, as in the plays of John Bale and Sir David Lindsay. But there were no recent Elizabethan examples of such fusion for Dekker to imitate, and we should allow him the measure of originality he claims in his Prologue, that his “Muse / (Thats thus inspir'de) a Nouell path does tread. …” (22-23). Ignoring the “thin vailes” of poetic fiction which cover the identities of persons, we find that essentially The Whore of Babylon presents history with the freedom and forthright moral purpose of the chronicle-interlude.

The fiction, however, is an important component of the work, for it controls the tone of the play. Although Dekker does not use the term “allegory,” his expression “Tropicall and shadowed collours” reveals his conception of his “Drammaticall Poem” (Lectori, 1-2). Transparent as the veil of the fiction was meant to be, the allegory makes more appropriate Dekker's use of such familiar medieval devices as long speeches of narrative and doctrine, groups of generalized characters to represent powers and forces (cardinals, kings, priests, and soldiers), and personified abstractions (Time, Truth, Plain Dealing). Although dumbshows were largely of Italian Renaissance origin, they and such theatrical spectacles as processions and councils were also appropriate to allegorical plays; and they have their counterparts in literary allegory from Piers Plowman to The Faerie Queene. Of course, Dekker actually borrows some details from Spenser's poem and attempts by doing so to increase the grandeur of his theme and style, to make his drama and Spenser's epic twin triumphs of English poetry and patriotism.

Among the borrowings are these: England imaged as a fairy land; the gathering of the knights at Titania's court; the frustrating of a conjuror's attempted enchantment of the Queen; Falsehood masquerading as Truth; and the names “Paridel” and “Satyrane,” though the persons have nothing in common with Spenser's. (Incidentally, Dekker uses no archaism of language.) But the pervasive influence of Spenser is shown in Dekker's endeavor to idealize both Elizabeth's character and the glories of England in her reign. Undoubtedly his attitude was common; we find the philosophical courtier, Fulke Greville, expressing it in his life of Sir Philip Sidney (circa 1610). Therefore, Dekker was not naïve in his feeling, whatever may be our judgment of his accomplishment in The Whore of Babylon.

Despite the timely patriotic fervor of The Whore of Babylon and its eloquent verse, the audience may have found its dramaturgy too old-fashioned. Tastes in drama were changing, and the causes of change probably lay in both social and literary movements. Among the latter were the vogue of formal satire in verse and of melancholy in society and in literature, the revival of revenge tragedy and of character-writing, and especially the trend toward satiric realism which Jonson's experimental comedies had launched in English drama. Whatever the relative importance of these developments, they either corresponded to or caused changes which we can observe, around 1600, in the plays written for the public theaters by such dramatists as Thomas Heywood, John Webster, Shakespeare, and Dekker himself. A tendency was growing toward social realism, toward Italianate tragedy, and toward romance dominated either by tragic feeling or by deeper psychological interest than had prevailed before. Accompanying a sharpened concentration on human personality was a gradual abandonment of didacticism by means of personified abstractions, overt conflict of good with evil, and loose, episodic structure, as in Old Fortunatus. True, we must guard against exaggerating the rapidity of the change, for the era of the clown, the dumbshow, and the generalized character extended well beyond 1600, as Shakespeare's Cymbeline reminds us. However, the theme, and especially the technique, of The Whore of Babylon must have appeared somewhat archaic to the audience at the Fortune.

In addition, a degree of ambiguity in the play's appeal may have helped to dampen the audience's response. At least to a twentieth-century reader, the alternation of two feelings—indignation against the venality, ambition, and disloyalty of wretches like Campion and Parry along with contempt for their baseness—makes a rather incoherent emotional pattern. Furthermore, since the virtue of Titania and her counselors and warriors is unconquerable when supported by Heaven's favor, then fear of Babylon is superfluous.

To reason in this way, however, leads us to ignore the anxiety created by the Gunpowder Plot, a fear for which the play is meant as an antidote; and we overlook the exultation generated by victory over the plotters and the renewed interest in the subject of political assassination. It should be noted also that The Whore of Babylon, through Plain Dealing's words, attacks evils in contemporary England: vices rampant in London; indolence among the clergy; licentious satire in drama; avarice among lawyers; and graft in the army. Hence, although the play capitalizes to a degree on the public's emotion at the moment, the dramatist does not fail to indicate the serious lessons to be drawn from his picture of England protected by divine intervention.

Certainly the poor reception of the play cannot be charged to any lack of attention on Dekker's part. He has surely used the techniques of earlier Elizabethan drama with as much skill as Thomas Kyd or Robert Greene could have shown at their best. And he has evidently devoted great care to the eloquent verse; in fact, nothing that he has left us is better than many of the poetic passages in The Whore of Babylon. The Empress of Babylon begins an address to her Council:

When those Cælestial bodies that doe moue,
Within the sacred Spheres of Princes bosomes
Goe out of order, tis as if yon Regiment,
Weare all in vp-roare; heauen should then be vext,
Me thinkes such indignation should resemble,
Dreadfull eclypses, that portend dire plagues
To nations, fall to Empires, death to Kings,
To Citties deuastation, to the world,
That vniuersall hot calamitie
Of the last horror.


(It seems that the young Milton may have included this play in his reading.)

Again, in Act V, Scene 2, Florimel describes the preparations against the Armada in a style that may be compared with familiar passages in Shakespeare's Henry V:

Your goodly ships beare the most royall freight,
That the world owes (true hearts:) their wombes are ful,
Of noble spirits, each man in his face
Shewes a Kings daunting looke, the souldiers stand
So thickly on the decke, so brauely plum'd,
(The Silken streamers wauing or'e their heades)
That (seeing them) you would judge twere Pentecost
And that the iollie youngsters of your townes,
Had flockt togither in gay multitudes,
For May-games, and for summer merriments,
They looke so cheerely: In such little roome
So many Faieries neuer dwelt at once,
Neuer so many men were borne so soone. … 



I have noted in Chapter 1 that an interval of about four years, apparently devoted to writing tracts, falls between 1606 and 1610, when, to judge by topical allusions in it, Dekker composed If This Be Not a Good Play.25 After it had been rejected by the Prince's Men at the Fortune, the play was performed by the Queen's Men (formerly the Earl of Worcester's Men, to whom Henslowe gave financial aid). It played at the Red Bull where, traditionally, popular drama prevailed. The refusal by the Prince's company, probably served to complete Dekker's embitterment which began with what he felt was that company's failure with The Whore of Babylon.

However, the old-fashioned theme and manner of the play perhaps explain the rejection by the Prince's Men. Discarding altogether the technique developed by Jonson and Middleton for depicting life and manners with pungent realism, Dekker employs a folk tale not merely for explicit moral purposes, but very much in the fashion of a moral interlude of a half-century before; and once again he calls on the traditional stage conventions and devices for spectacle.

The Danish and German tale of Friar Ruus (or Rausch) had been available in English since 1568, but in a form crudely altered from the primitive version. However, as C. H. Herford observes, Dekker returned “by sheer dramatic instinct to the original legend, in the face of every version of it which he can possibly have known.”26 That is to say, Dekker rejected the picture of a corrupt monastery and restored the orderly house described in the primitive form of the legend in order to provide a greater challenge to the devil. In fact, although the friars are the object of much of the comedy, their superior, Clement, is a saint; the worst among them can be charged only with stupidity and callousness; and the portrayal of monasticism is free of the contemptuous malice that usually inspires such Elizabethan references to convents as those in the anonymous play The Merry Devil of Edmonton and in Middleton's A Game at Chesse. Compared to financier Bartervile, the friars in If This Be Not a Good Play appear virtuous.

Stated more precisely, Dekker's plan is to show three spheres of human life beset by the power of evil: the court; the Church; and the merchant class. Dekker intends a satire on contemporary life and if his view is not so wide as Jonathan Swift's, it is surely broad enough for a play. It is somewhat medieval in its method. After a superb first scene which presents a conclave in Hell, Satan despatches three devils, one to King Alphonso's court, a second to the priory, and a third to a financier. The success of these three tempters, of course, provides the fundamental satiric comment. At court, Bohor destroys Alphonso's idealism with no loss of time and with little trouble; in the priory, Rush has but limited success and corrupts only a few friars (the play reveals that religion suffers far more from men than from devils); but, in the counting house, Lurchall is at first overmatched by the ingenuity and unscrupulousness of a Machiavellian atheist who believes only in “nature.” At the end Lurchall manages to trick the merchant into damnation. Because Dekker intends this drama to be a comedy, in the medieval as well as in the Elizabethan sense, its result must not be cynicism or utter pessimism. Corrupt King Alphonso is saved, therefore, by the humility, constancy, and love of his betrothed wife Ermenhild (still another patient Griselda); and the friary is preserved from destruction by Clement's courage and fortitude.27

Two great evils of contemporary England have been illustrated for a courtly or a general audience: the power of greedy counselors at court and the ruthless avarice among the merchant class. But the monarch (in the person of King Alphonso) has also been reproached. Instead of serving as the fountainhead of justice, he has protected the monopolists and has neglected soldiers, scholars, and sailors, the defenders of civilization. The nation may readily take a lesson from Dekker's moral poem, for so he regards it.28

Surely no play in the canon is more characteristic of Dekker's mind than this one. As Herford says:

With no other help than his sound playwright's instincts, and without a suspicion of its immense potentialities, he had stumbled upon the very idea afterwards carried out in Goethe's Faust—the recasting of an old devil-story in terms of modern society. … Unhappily, however, Decker was, after all, little more than a hack with ideas.29

Herford's conclusion, however, is quite unfair, whatever defects of art If This Be Not a Good Play possesses, for Dekker, could scarcely think otherwise than as a man of the sixteenth century. He was as incapable of Machiavelli's cynicism (in Belphegor) as of Goethe's egoism; for, as a Christian, he had to look at society as one who believes in sin, individual responsibility, and grace. In the tracts which he had been writing before If This Be Not a Good Play—such as The Seven Deadly Sins of London, A Knight's Conjuring, and Work for Armorers—he had exposed and satirized social evils of many kinds; and that concentration had been preparation for the play. Whereas our own tendency in this century has been to criticize Dekker for his blindness to society's responsibility for these evils, our more recent emphasis on the need for commitment now makes Dekker's attitude more acceptable.

The epilogue of this play (incorporated as V.4) may be regarded as an adequate summation of Dekker's view of the corruption in English society and, substantially, in all human society. When Dekker gives us his version of the Inferno, the walls of Hell open up. Seen in the flames are, first, Guy Faux and Ravaillac, traitors to their kings and countries, and themselves victims of Catholicism's malignancy; next appears a prodigal, a typical courtier who in one year “spent on whores, fooles and slaues, / An Armies maintenance”; then an extortionate merchant; finally, a Puritan, a black, shrunken soul, the betrayer of the English Church, the raiser of such a hellish uproar that Satan cannot make himself heard. Treason, waste, cruelty, and heresy are the cardinal sins. They are four, not seven; and the emphasis on treason as the most heinous shows a disappointing Elizabethan bias. Nevertheless, the scene and the whole play are rooted in medieval philosophy handed down through morality play, homily, and satire.

Compared with Old Fortunatus, Dekker's If This Be Not a Good Play would be difficult to revive today in the spirit in which it was written, not because it is more serious than his Old Fortunatus, but because its fundamental dramatic irony is a mode from which Dekker could never draw a flow of witty humor. A hasty reader may say that Dekker's use of the Belphegor theme degenerates into platitude or that its irony is lost in mere spectacle. Although unfair, that judgment would have some truth in it. Perhaps the only notable success of Dekker's irony is Lurchall's first frustration in handling Bartervile, the Machiavellian usurer. Dekker lacked the capacity to sustain the tone of that encounter, yet he had chosen a theme which required a strong gift for irony. To his credit, he refrained from supplying,30 in place of ironic wit, buffoonery by Rush among the friars, as his source and as Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus had prompted him to do. Even Scumbroth, the comic cook, is a restrained example of Dekker's usual clown. However, an unresolved tension between the expectations raised by the ironic situation and by Dekker's failure to satisfy them is the weakness of the play. The characters of devils impersonating men create but little satiric humor. At times the essential irony seems almost forgotten.


Although chronology has been of merely general relevance in our discussion thus far, the plays (except Old Fortunatus) have been considered in the order of their composition; and we have now arrived at about the year 1611. Match Me in London, the drama to which I now turn, was probably written between 1620 and 1623 soon after Dekker's release from debtors' prison.31 This work also represents, no doubt, a number of lost plays composed during the period from 1610 to 1620 during which John Fletcher's prestige was growing in the London theaters. It is also true that out of approximately six surviving plays ascribed to Dekker and written after 1619, only Match Me in London is his alone, as the title page and the dedication reveal. Although some of the collaborations are better dramas, the inclusion of Match Me in London in this account is justified because it reveals Dekker's individual accommodation to the prevailing tendency in later Stuart drama.

Considering the variety of the plays that may reliably be attributed to Fletcher, it is rash to suggest by a formula the qualities that are common to all of them. However, Fletcher's constant use of piquant themes and his skillful technique hit the taste of the élite Jacobean audience so well that many of his competitors, including Philip Massinger, Thomas Middleton, and John Ford, were impelled to change their practice and imitate him, and so to enlighten us as to his originality. We may say, then, that Fletcherian tragicomedies commonly offer a complicated intrigue in the setting of a remote court; the motives of passionate love, devoted friendship, and sacred honor clash, and the conflict produces agonies among the courtiers and sovereigns who are the chief persons. The king is often a tyrant; yet absolute submission to his adulterous or jealous will is the law of his society, and it is usually rendered. The fascination of incest, seduction, or sadism may be strongly introduced in the play, but the action normally moves to a happy ending by means of discoveries at the denouement both of unknown relationships and of disguised persons, as well as by abrupt changes of character from evil to good.

Some of these elements can be seen in a résumé of Match Me in London. In Seville, the lustful King of Spain falls in love with Tormiella, a shopkeeper's wife. After he has failed to win her by secret intrigue, he forces her to come to court as a lady-in-waiting to his virtuous queen.32 No persuasion or threats can shake Tormiella's devotion to her husband, Cordolente, however, and she remains chaste (although the audience is misled for a while on this point).33 By a ruse, the queen tricks the king into revealing his love for Tormiella and then angrily rebukes him, but in vain. He furthers his tyrannical passion by plotting to have the queen charged with adultery. He succeeds, then orders a physician to kill both the queen and Tormiella's husband.

But Doctor Lupo is a disguised revenger named Luke Gazetto. A rejected suitor of Tormiella, he has followed her and Cordolente to Seville from Cordoba, whence they had fled after their elopement and secret marriage. Lupo, who has been biding his time, weaves an involved intrigue at the climax of which Cordolente, deprived of his wife, will be duped into stabbing Tormiella in the church while she is being married to the king. When this moment arrives, however, Cordolente recoils from desecrating the holy place with murder. Tormiella falls into his arms. A terrifying burst of thunder and lightning drives the royal party from the church before the marriage can take place. Following her talk with Cordolente, Tormiella is now able to inform the king of Lupo's villainy. From the doctor the king learns that the queen still lives; he repents and gladly reunites Tormiella and Cordolente.

Although the main plot is more complex than the preceding summary indicates, Dekker has added to it a political intrigue which is intended to stress the motif of personal honor clashing with loyalty to the sovereign. Valasco, the Admiral of Spain and the father of the wronged queen, has to repulse the treacherous maneuvers of Prince John, the king's ambitious brother and an enemy of Valasco as well. Valasco frustrates the Prince by threats, challenges, and shrewd countermoves. This minor plot is so devoid of action and relies so much on conventions of motive and situation that only careful reflection enables the modern reader to see its tensions. Nevertheless, both major and minor plots evidently dramatize the Fletcherian theme of a passion-ridden king who tyrannizes over subjects who may not resist his divinely given authority.

However, Dekker has modified many elements of his Jacobean play in an Elizabethan fashion. Tormiella, although of noble parentage, is a shopkeeper's wife and a faithful one; she resembles Jane, of The Shoemaker's Holiday, rather than the unnumbered lewd citizenesses of Jacobean comedy. Cordolente employs Bilbo, a voluble, comic servant of the same species as Shadow and Firke, though more subdued. Bilbo and a foolish courtier engage in a satirical debate on the vices of the court compared with those of the city. A number of scenes take place in Cordolente's shop, although it is true that they lack the realism introduced in The Honest Whore. After Tormiella has been carried off to the court, Cordolente, in disguise, identifies himself to his wife when he visits her to fit her with a pair of shoes—a device repeated from The Shoemaker's Holiday. Although the unhappy Queen of Spain is much more energetic than patient Grissil and Infelice, she is yet another example of the chaste, long-suffering wives whom Dekker admires. And, finally, the intricate plot, full of purposed seductions and murders, ends with only one death, that of one of the queen's servants. The king, Prince John, and Lupo repent; the queen, Valasco, Tormiella, and Cordolente forgive them. This conclusion in universal goodwill, appropriate for the romantic comedies of the 1590's, has not been well prepared for by humor of character or situation or by romantic sentiment. But, as we have said, the incongruity is usual in tragicomedy and is worth noting in Match Me in London only because the whole play lacks the geniality characteristic of Dekker.

Furthermore, Match Me in London lacks the strong moralism of Dekker's earlier plays as well as their implicit or expressed social criticism. It lacks also their patriotic feeling, warm sentiment, relish for absurdity of character, and passages of deep psychological realism. However, although this play may rightly be described as Dekker's attempt to please new tastes in drama which he did not really share, Match Me, like his earlier plays, displays his mastery of stagecraft. We may take for example an episode in Act II, Scene 4, which I have cited in a preceding paragraph—Tormiella's being taken to court. She enters the stage from Cordolente's house masked among a group of masked courtiers, men and women. She says only “Farewell!” to her husband who is standing aside with her father. Neither of them recognizes her. She goes off to court. When Cordolente and her father receive no response to their call for Tormiella, they enter the house and find her missing. The audience readily accepts this episode, including its brutal separation of young husband and wife, only because (1) it recognizes Tormiella when she detaches herself momentarily from the group for the farewell, though by convention her mask remains impenetrable for her husband and father; (2) the convention of drama is of absolute submission to the king's will, no matter how immoral; and (3) while the king, her would-be seducer, has already shown signs of remorse, Tormiella has shown signs of unyielding resistance to him. Her fidelity to Cordolente remains above question. Their separation, therefore, is not really tragic.

The frequent criticism that Dekker is weak in the construction of his plays may sometimes based on such scenes as the above from Match Me in London in which he relies quite successfuly on the conventions of his theater, although partly to the mystification of the modern reader. In fact, with regard to his technique, Professor Harbage suggests that Dekker's practiced hand was the constructive one in several collaborated plays of high merit, such as The Witch of Edmonton.34 The present chapter, it is hoped, may have produced evidence to support that view against the older, too offhand judment that Dekker was either ignorant of dramatic art or disgracefully negligent of it—“shiftless and careless” in Swinburne's words—or “haphazard,” unable to “devise perspectives of artifice,” as Miss Bradbrook says.35 Although no one will claim great merit for Match Me in London, an imitative play contrived by a weary veteran, it does show, like its predecessors, Dekker's mastery of dramatic technique.

We have completed our survey of the seven plays which scholars are almost unanimous in believing to be entirely Dekker's. They are the survivors of a large output, perhaps thirty-five or forty plays; for the fragmentary state of dramatic records permits only a guess as to how many Dekker wrote unaided. But we may probably assume, and validly, that these seven surviving plays are numerous and varied enough to represent Dekker's achievement fairly.


  1. “The Prologue,” A Challenge for Beauty, The Dramatic Works of Thomas Heywood, V (London, 1874, 4-5.

  2. Although papal excommunication of Queen Elizabeth in 1570 marks the beginning of suppression of the medieval cycles and other religious drama, Phillip Stubbes, in The Anatomie of Abuses, 1583, speaks of mysteries as still being produced. The passage is quoted in E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford, 1923), IV, 222.

  3. C. H. Herford, Studies in the Literary Relations of England and Germany in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, 1886), pp. 210, 405-06. The earliest Dutch translation held by the British Museum is dated 1631. Its title page says it is De achte mael herdruckt, but whether the seven previous printings were in Dutch is uncertain. Probably more German versions than Dutch translations had been published by 1596. [Mary L. Hunt, in Thomas Dekker (New York, 1911), p. 34, suggests] that Dekker went to the Netherlands in his youth and there read a German version.

  4. But the Volksbuch of 1509, apparently the first edition, was not divided into parts, and I have not seen any record of later publication in parts. The first known English translation was entered in the Stationers' Register as The History of Fortunatus on June 22, 1615. Edward Arber, A Transcript of the Registers of the Stationers of London; 1554-1640 A.D., III (London, 1876), 568.

  5. The “31 of November,” says Henslowe.

  6. Professor Fredson Bowers has found a cancellation in the quarto which suggests that possibly two thirds of the edition had been sold by mid-February, 1601. “Essex's Rebellion and Dekker's Old Fortunatus,Review of English Studies, III (1952), 365-366.

  7. At the end of 1597 Henslowe stops recording the names of plays when entering his share of the proceeds from productions. But he refers to plays by name in other connections, for instance, payments to dramatists and purchases of costumes and properties.

  8. This is also Professor Bowers's opinion, [The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, I-IV (Cambridge, 1953-1961), I, 107]. Henslowe's phrases are “for the altering of the book” and “for the end of Fortunatus for the Court.” [R. K. Foakes and R. T. Rickert, Henslowe's Diary (Cambridge, 1961), pp. 127, 128].

  9. Herford, Studies, pp. 215-18.

  10. Herford, Studies, p. 216.

  11. She has to be told why Ampedo was punished (it was for sloth), lines 275-76.

  12. Herford, Studies, pp. 217-18.

  13. L. M. Manheim, “The King in The Shoemaker's Holiday,Notes and Queries, CCII (1957), 432-33.

  14. Alfred Harbage, “The Mystery of Perkin Warbeck,” in Studies in the English Renaissance Drama, ed. by Josephine W. Bennett, Oscar Cargill, and Vernon Hall (New York, 1959), p. 137.

  15. Although The Weakest was published in 1600, other evidence suggests, without proving, a considerably earlier date of composition than that of Shoemaker's Holiday. In The Weakest I cannot find any real evidence of Dekker's authorship; but Miss Hunt thinks he revised it (pp. 42-5).

  16. It is well praised by Una M. Ellis-Fermor, The Jacobean Drama (London, 1947), p. 124.

  17. E. W. Talbert, “The Purpose and Technique of Jonson's Poetaster,Studies in Philology, XLII (1945), 226, 251-252.

  18. Dekker and Middleton's original title, judging by Henslowe's entry in his Diary before March 14, 1604, and by the entry in the Stationers' Register on November 9, 1604, was The Humors of the Patient Man, the Longing Wife, and the Honest Whore. Later Dekker decided to title the play The Converted Courtesan, which is the running title of the corrected edition. Meantime, however, the first edition had appeared as The Honest Whore, with the Humors, etc.; and, because of the popularity of Part I, this title was also used for Part II. On the appropriateness of The Converted Courtesan as the title, see Michael Manheim's excellent article, “The Thematic Structure of Dekker's 2 Honest Whore,Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, V (1965), 363-81.

  19. After studying the texts of a number of Middleton's plays, and having twice made an analysis of the bibliographical and stylistic evidence both in Part I of The Honest Whore and in The Roaring Girl, I find that to the former play Middleton contributed between seven and eight hundred lines. His undoubted scenes are I.5, III.1, and III.3. Of very doubtful authorship are IV.2 and IV.3. However, it is apparent that Middleton is chiefly responsible for the scenes of the testing of Candido. Although Professor Bowers does not make a conjecture on the matter, I believe that the printer's copy was entirely in Dekker's handwriting; but if this is true, the fact would not preclude the presence of traces of Middleton's spelling and punctuation in the manuscript.

  20. Furthermore, Middleton's contribution (especially I.5 and III.1), which is indeed more realistic than the rest of the play, is not impressively so, for it consists of ironic farce and attributes to Candido's wife a motive for her shrewishness (resentment) which is simpler than the perversity which Dekker suggested in I.4.

  21. In the verse of Part I this quadrisyllable several times appears as “Infaeliche,” presumably an Anglicized spelling of the Italian pronunciation.

  22. The long show of Bridewell birds which follows Matheo's confession, “and I am now his Patient,” V.2.192, allows ample time for him to show his change of heart by caressing Bellafront, though he does not speak.

  23. The title page bears his name correctly spelled and a Latin motto, Vexat Censura Columbas; he supplies a full apparatus of Drammatis Personae, epistle Lectori, and theater Prologue; and the text of the play was in his own handwriting. He made some revisions for publication.

  24. Lectori, line 39. See also Chapter 1.

  25. The wording of the first clause in the title is that found in the head title and head lines of the quarto and is, therefore, probably Dekker's own. The title page has If It Be Not Good, etc., no doubt a printer's alteration.

  26. Herford, Studies, p. 302.

  27. The priory has been penetrated by avaricious Bartervile in disguise as a friar and has been handed over by corrupted Alphonso to a courtier. It surely represents ecclesiastical institutions or the English Church in general. “Woe to these dayes, / When to raise Vpstarts, the poor CHVRCH decays,” III.3.122-123.

  28. See the dedication to the Queen's Men and the Prologue, which proudly asks the audience, “Lend not [the poet] hands for Pittie, but for Merit,” 45. In the Epilogue, “Much Labour, Art, and Wit, make vp a Play,” 7.

  29. Herford, Studies, p. 317.

  30. The Prologue to If This Be Not is Dekker's finest expression of his aims as a dramatist. I have discussed its chief ideas in the first section of Chapter 6.

  31. Match Me in London was licensed for production by Sir Henry Herbert on August 21, 1623, as an “old play” formerly allowed by Sir George Buc. But the quoted phrase is one Herbert used for any play formerly licensed, whether recently or not; and Buc was still licensing in 1622. The title page of the first edition (1631) says the play was first produced at the Red Bull Theatre and later at the Phoenix. Dekker wrote for the Queen's Men about 1611 and for the Revels Company in 1619-1622—both of them occupants of the Red Bull. Professor G. E. Bentley favors the earlier date, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage, I (Oxford, 1941), 185, note 5. But Dekker's dedication to Carlell in 1631 says nothing of any revision, which one would expect for the Phoenix production of a play from 1611 (the Phoenix opened in 1617). Therefore, I believe that Match Me was originally played about 1620 by the Revels Company at the Red Bull and, after that company's extinction in 1622, by the Lady Elizabeth's at the Phoenix and by their successors, Queen Henrietta's Company. See Gerald Eades Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage, I (Oxford, 1956), pp. 165-69, 182-87, 219.

    The difficulty in dating Match Me is typical of a number of Dekker's plays.

  32. See IV.1.14-15; but the arrival of a party of ladies-in-waiting, II. 4.48, surely implies a royal command.

  33. See III.3.44-47. The ambiguity is typical of tragicomedy.

  34. Harbage, “Mystery of Perkin Warbeck,” pp. 130-131, 137.

  35. A. C. Swinburne, “Thomas Dekker,” The Nineteenth Century, XXI (1887), 102; M. C. Bradbrook, The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy (London, 1955), p. 121.

In 1630 was also published Part II of The Honest Whore, which in 1608 had been entered in the Register to Thomas Man, but without payment of fee, and which was now re-entered without transfer from Man to Nathaniel Butter, the publisher. Dekker's name is correctly spelled on the title page, but there is no Latin motto. The printer's copy appears to have been Dekker's autograph. It is doubtful whether Dekker sold two different manuscripts of the play to Man and to Butter or whether the actors sold the “foul papers” of the play to Butter.

Suzanne Blow (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10480

SOURCE: “Persuasion and Drama,” in Rhetoric in the Plays of Thomas Dekker, Institut für Englishe Sprach und Literatur, 1972, pp. 28-65.

[In the following chapter from her study of the elements of formal rhetoric in Dekker's works, Blow identifies the rhetorical devices used for persuasion and argumentation.]

Except for prologues, aside, and the like, every speech in a play is directed at a dual audience: the theatre audience and the character or characters to whom it is addressed in dramatic context. When Dekker intended a speech to achieve a persuasive purpose within his story framework, he customarily exployed rhetorical figures and principles decorously selected to fit the character of the speaker and the dramatic situation. In regard to the theatre audience, he skillfully utilized the persuasive devices of rhetoric to move the spectators to sympathize with or react against certain characters or themes. In a very basic sense, Dekker used the techniques of the logic of probability—rhetoric—to establish dramatic probability.

Of course the principles of persuasion and the techniques of applying them, which were classified, analyzed, and illustrated in Renaissance handbooks of rhetoric, are principles that are still used and that still work. The traditional art of rhetoric, as Dekker and other Renaissance writers had learned it, merely put at their disposal more tested techniques and forms than anyone would be likely to work out on his own.

Examination of some of the persuasive figures that occur in Dekker's plays should yield some insight into his mode of creating the effects he sought. Henry Peacham's Garden of Eloquence serves as the principal source of rhetorical theory in defining and explaining the devices of persuasion, because it is the most inclusive and most readily applicable Renaissance figurative handbook. The material in stylistic manuals such as Peacham's is organized, … under the two main divisions of tropes and schemes. Peacham distinguished between them in this way: “The difference between the Trope and the Scheme is this, that in the Trope there is a chaunge of signification, but not in the Scheme.”1 The category of schemes is again divided into two parts: patterns of words and patterns of thought; as Cicero explained, “The figure suggested by the words disappears if one alters the words, but that of the thoughts remains whatever words one chooses to employ.”2 The persuasive devices we are concerned with in Dekker's dramas find their expression in stylistic theory for the most part among the schemes of thought. Many of these schemes seem quite far removed from what is conceived of today as “figures of speech,” for in the guise of figures they embody some of the same techniques of persuasion which Aristotle and Cicero taught in the non-stylistic parts of rhetoric.

To begin with, shall be considered Dekker's use of some figures that concern the defensive strategy of argumentation—countering or refuting an opponent's arguments and meeting his objections. Ancient rhetoricians had long insisted on the psychological truth that strict logic is not necessarily the most persuasive form of argument in most human situations;3 consequently, we find that some of the well-known fallacies of logic were incorporated into rhetoric as devices of refutation because of their convincing effect.

The rhetorical counterpart of evading an issue, or answering irrelevantly, Apoplanesis, is one such figure. “The speaker leadeth away the mind of the hearer from the matter propounded or question in hand.” Choice of this method, if detected, could reveal to an opponent the lack of a reply; but if Apoplanesis is successfully carried out, the hearer “shall quight forget the question, and think himself fully satisfyed, when in deede there is nothing answered.”4 Dekker employed this figure for comic effect in The Shoemaker's Holiday. In response to the questioning of Lincoln and the Lord Mayor about the whereabouts of Lacy and Rose, who had eloped, Firke (one of Simon Eyre's journeymen) attempted to distract their attention by giving irrelevant replies.

Where is my Nephew married?
Is he married? God give him joy, I am glad of it: they have a fine day, and the signe is in a good planet, Mars in Venus.
L. Ma.
Villaine, thou toldst me that my daughter Rose, This morning should be married at Saint Faithes, We have watcht there these three houres at the least, Yet see we no such thing.
Truly I am sorie for't, a Bride's a prettie thing.

(V, ii, 102-109)

Since Firke and fellow-journeyman, Hodge, were only executing a delaying maneuver for the already safely married couple, the comic obviousness of the device served as humorous method of mocking Lincoln and the Lord Mayor.

Using an opponent's own accusations against him, which according to the rules of logic comprises the ad hominem or tu quoque fallacy, is nevertheless one of the most convincing defensive procedures in rhetoric, since it throws the attacker into personal confusion and can distract him from his strongest points. Peacham called this technique Metastasis, turning the objections on the objector.5 Dekker exploited to the fullest extent the dramatic potential of Metastasis in The Honest Whore, Part II when Infaelice used this device to confront her husband Hippolito with evidence of his attempted affair with Bellafront. First she made a false confession that she had been unfaithful to him with his footman, thereby provoking from him an outburst of rage:

A Harlot to my slave? the act is base,
Common, but foule, so shall not thy disgrace:
Could not I feed your appetite? Oh women
You were created Angels, pure and faire;
But since the first fell, tempting Devils you are,
You ha been too much downe already, rise.
Ile with no Strumpets breath be poysoned.

(III, i, 159-168)

Then, displaying some intercepted love tokens intended for Bellafront, Infaelice paraphrased the very words of his condemnation.

                                                   … the act is base
Common, but foule, so shall not your disgrace:
Could not I feed your appetite? Oh Men,
You were created Angels, pure and faire,
But since the first fell, worse than Devils you are.
You should our shields be, but you prove our rods.
Were there no Men, Women might live like gods.
Guilty my Lord?


Of course Hippolito had no alternative but to confess.

Yes, guilty my good lady.
Nay, you may laugh, but henceforth shun my bed, with no whores leavings Ile be poysoned.


Hippolito would not have seemed nearly so deflated had his wife added only a flat accusation to her proof. Through her neat verbal trick Infaelice also managed to arouse his suspicion against his messenger and real ally, Bryan the Irish footman. Thus the plot was advanced, the lady's wit applauded, and an important aspect of her husband's basic character revealed in his quick acceptance of defeat. It was necessary for Dekker to present Hippolito as a not wholly unsympathetic character at this point in order to prepare the audience to accept the sincerity of his change of heart at the end of the play, though of course primary sympathy goes to Infaelice in this scene.

Reductio ad absurdam, an effective and acceptable dialectical method of refuting objections, is achieved by demonstrating through cause and effect that the inevitable consequences of an act or idea will be ridiculous. The rhetorical arguments designed to produce the same effect, Apodioxis and Diasyrmus, do not depend on showing logical consequences; instead they make an opponent's objections seem absurd by scoffing, or as Peacham explains it “by some ridiculous example, to which the adversaries objection or argument is compared whereby it is either made ridiculous, or at least much disgraced.”6 Immediately following the death of Fortunatus, in Old Fortunatus, Andelocia met his brother Ampedo's objections about breaking their father's will with both scorn and a ridiculous example.

Will you then violate our Fathers Will? 
A puritane? Keepe a dead mans Will? Indeed in the old time, when men were buried in soft Church-yardes, that their Ghosts might rise, it was good: but brother, now they are imprisoned in strong Brick and Marble, they are fast; feare not: away, away, these are fooleries, gulleries, trumperies.

(Old Fortunatus, II, ii, 372-377)

Andelocia's willingness to use such a device on this occasion is a key to his reckless, headstrong character, and in terms of plot his impious attitude foreshadows his evil destiny.

Rhetoric taught that Antipophora, the defensive tactic of granting concessions and then minimizing their importance by the addition of some mitigating reason, was appropriate for countering an opponent's strongest arguments or objections.7 Having made wealth his choice from among Dame Fortune's gifts, Fortunatus conceded that he might be vulnerable to an early death, but he rationalized,

How quickly? If I die to morrow, ile be merrie today: if next day, ile be merrie to morrow. …

(I, i, 315-316)

This carpe diem philosophy which he expressed as a compensation for short life established the frantic mood which pervaded all his succeeding actions. With the same device, but in a contrasting attitude, Bellafront conceded that she had been a whore, but on the strength of a long reformation, pleaded for the forgiveness of her father, Orlando.

Those flames (like lightning flashes) are so spent
The heate no more remaines, then where ships went,
Or where birds cut the aire, the print remaines.

(The Honest Whore, Part II, IV, i, 54-6)

Unknown to Bellafront, her father (who had been secretly helping her since early in the play, in the disguise of Matheo's servant Pachecho) had already forgiven her and was feigning his anger in this scene. Consequently, Bellafront's speech served only to reveal the calm self-possession and humility of her character in contrast to the hot-headed pride of Matheo, who within a few lines showed Orlando the door: “If you come to bark at her, because shee's a poore rogue; look you, here's a fine path, sir, and there, theres the doore” (75-6).

Antipophora is a disarmingly persuasive figure, since it impresses the hearer with the honesty and courage of the speaker. Fortunatus, faced with possible death, and Bellafront, faced with a disgraceful past, both conceded to a harsh reality and thus gained the admiration of the audience, which would then be favorably disposed to accept whatever extenuation was offered. It is a device Dekker used in both instances to make his audience sympathetic with something ordinarily undesirable: Fortunatus's motive for wanting riches above wisdom and Bellafront's history of prostitution.

The next group of figures is based on the persuasive device of implication, which Quintilian called Emphasis8 and Peacham, Collectio.9 Apparently these techniques arose from the assumption that the hearer is more likely to accept a conclusion or be impressed with an idea, regardless of inherent validity, if he has carried out part of the reasoning process himself. A logical step omitted by the speaker assumes a convincing and emphatic aspect when supplied by the audience; furthermore the speaker is relieved of the burden of any kind of proof. Besides its persuasive value, implication also yields the pleasure of discovery to the hearer.

Even an implication that is very readily grasped produces some of these effects, although it may be just a form of circumlocution or euphemism. In The Shoemaker's Holiday, Hodge's argument for releasing his fellow-journeyman Rafe from military draft is phrased to question Lacy's authority while avoiding open insult, “Why then you were as good be a corporall as a colonel, if you cannot discharge one good fellow” (I, i, 148-149). Fortunatus's euphemistic description of death, when he is debating between the gifts of power and wealth, betrays his own ominous dread, “And though mine arme should conquer twentie worlds, there's a leane fellow beates all conquerors” (Old Fortunatus, I, i, 269-270).

In the final prison scene of The Honest Whore, Part II, Candido, the patient linen draper, who has been accused of receiving stolen goods from Matheo, combined the techniques of concession and implication in his response to the Duke's charge.

                                                  So they doe say, my Lord,
Yet bought I them upon a Gentlemans word,
And I imagine now, as I thought then,
That there be Theeves, but no Theeves Gentlemen.

(V, ii, 206-209)

The implied appeal to the Duke's prejudices was quite open; nevertheless it helped effect Candido's release. Dekker could not have picked a more appropriate appeal for Candido, whose shrewd tactfulness had been so frequently shown to contribute to his success as a merchant.

Noema is a type of Collectio said to require either long consideration or sharp wit on the part of the audience.10 In the opening scene of Satiromastix, two ladies had beer strewing flowers about in preparation for Sir Walter Terrell's wedding, and the bride's father told them,

O well done wenches, well done, well done, you have covered all the stony way to church with flowers, 'tis well, 'tis well, ther's an Embleame too, to be made out of these flowers and stones.

(I, i, 60-63)

The theatre audience was expected to follow the implication, but, within the story framework, the two women were not. Thus Dekker adapted this persuasive device to the purpose of entertaining and flattering the minds of his spectators.

According to Peacham the use of Noema “serveth onely to conceale the sense from the common capacitie of the hearers: and to make it private to the wiser sort”; therefore he warned that it ought to be used “verie seldome, and then not without great cause, considering the deepe obscuritie of it.”11 Actually the emblem of the stony road to matrimony is not deeply obscure at all except to the hearers in the play. Because there is little time for long consideration of a specific figure by the audience during a performance, Peacham's caution about Noema particularly applied to drama, and Dekker rarely used the device.

But Mycterismus, a jest that depends upon implication and is “yet not so privy that it may not be well perceived,”12 occurs more frequently in his plays, especially in witty exchanges between high-ranking persons. Beraldo, in The Honest Whore, Part II, was discussing with Lodovico, another courtier, the second marriage of Candido, who had gained his fame as “the patient man” for his endurance of his wife's fierce tongue.

I wonder, that being so stung with a Waspe before, he dares venture again to come about the eaves amongst Bees.
Oh 'tis rare sucking a sweet Hony-combe.

Although Dekker generally employed this figure for wit, Peacham described its main function as a method of rebuke just short of sarcasm: “The use thereof differeth not much from the use of Sarcasmus, … The chiefe use of this figure serveth to represse pride, rebuke folly, and taunt vice: and may be likened to a blacke frost, which is wont to nip a man by the nose, before he can discerne it with his eye.”13Mycterismus would seem to be the specific type of implication employed by Candido in his speech to the Duke about “no Theeves Gentlemen.” Peacham classified the device as a trope rather than a scheme; however it provokes the same type of mental response as other figures of implication. Of course hyperbole (including understatement) which we will consider later works on the same principle.

The contrary of implication, retraction of something already spoken, was another mode of persuasion taught by the rhetoricians. One commonly used device derived from this technique was called Correctio, “a figure which taketh away that that is said, and putteth a more meet word in the place … Paul to the Romans: By what law of workes, nay, by what law of faith.” Peacham added the caution, “it behoveth that the latter wordes be mightier then the former.”14 By this figure Firke announced Simon Eyre's election to the office of sheriff: “My maister is chosen, my master is called, nay condemned by the crie of the countrie to be sheriffe of the Citie” (The Shoemaker's Holiday, III, ii, 106-108). In the prison scene of The Honest Whore, when Mistress Horsleach denied that she had ever been a procuress, “I am known for a motherly honest woman, and no Bawd” (V, ii, 371-372), one of her fellow prisoners, Catryne Bountinall, used Correctio in expressing indignant disbelief:

Honest Mistris Horsleach, is this World, a World to keepe Bawds and Whores honest? How many times hast thou given Gentlemen a quart of wine in a gallon pot? how many twelve-penny Fees, nay two shilling Fees, nay, when any Embassadours ha been here, how many halfe crowne Fees hast thou taken?

(V, ii, 376-381)

Essentially, Correctio was a method of emphasizing important words. Dekker seems to have used it here as a means, also, for directing a mounting emphasis in the actor's delivery of the lines.

Fallacious arguments, concession, implication, and retraction were some of the basic methods of rhetorical argumentation. Dekker employed them, as we have seen, in exactly the type of dramatic situation where formal proof was either unavailable, undesirable, or inadequate. Candido, for example, had no alternative but to rely on a verbal trick to persuade the Duke of his innocence, because Dekker had provided him with no witness or other material evidence. Although Infaelice had in her possession an intercepted letter and a jewel sent to Bellafront, her verbally turning the tables on Hippolito created a much more satisfying scene than simply confronting him would have, because his guilt was brought home to him in his own mind before he could have a chance to offer any extenuation.

An appeal to the hearer's wit is implicit in most of the foregoing modes of persuasion, and in figures derived from them, such as Noema and Mycterismus. Some of the persuasive devices of rhetoric, however, relied on moving an audience through dramatic or fictional techniques which attempted to convince the hearer directly through his emotions or imagination without recourse to a reasoning process. Even in their original oratorical setting, these were rated by rhetoricians among the most effective methods of argumentative strategy.

Hypothetical dialogue and personification are two devices which require some degree of dramatic characterization by the speaker regardless of the type of discourse in which they occur. Dialogue or Sermocinatio is defined as assigning to some person language which conforms to his character;15 if the speaker adds imitation of gesture and manner of speech the device is called Mimesis.16 In an oration, hypothetical dialogue is essentially a short dramatic insert given for the purpose of gaining realism and vitality. Dekker used the figure in The Honest Whore, Part II to enliven Catryna Bountinall's denunciation of Mistress Horsleach's partner Bots as a pander. Bots had staked his claim to innocence on the gamble that none of the whores in Bridewell prison would reveal his identity, but when Catryna not only spoke to him but mimicked his typical utterances, his case was lost.

How long is't since you held the doore for me, and cried too't agen, no body comes, yee Rogue you?

(V, ii, 403-05)

Here Dialogue seems such a natural part of this speech that without further evidence one would hesitate to call it a conscious rhetorical device. However its function in convicting Bots and the previous use of Collectio by the same speaker seem to provide sufficient justification.

Ad Herennium defined personification as representing an absent person as present or making a mute or formless thing talk.17 Fraunce's definition was similar,18 but Peacham broadened the term, which the Elizabethans called Prosopopoeia, to include assigning life to dumb things in any way.19 Like other images used in persuasion, it can convey a value judgment directly to the hearer's imagination with no pause necessary for justification or explanation; the hearer then accepts or rejects the judgment on an an intuitive rather than a rational basis. In The Shoemaker's Holiday, Lincoln's personification of Lacy's love for Rose conveys his evaluation of the whole affair:

That old dog Love that fawnd upon him so,
Love to that puling girle, his faire cheek't Rose
… hath distracted him.

(II, iv, 38-40)

The persuasive function of personification is especially prominent in Old Fortunatus. Fortunatus himself used the device in convincing his sons that traveling abroad would yield more pleasure than staying in their own country.

                    When in the warmth of mine owne countries armes
We yawn'd like sluggards, when this small Horizon
Imprison'd up my body, then mine eyes
Worshipt these clouds as brightest.

(III, ii, 164-67)

In one of the scenes at the English court, Galloway tried by means of an image personifying derision to induce the love-melancholy Orleans to stop his foolish moping for Agripyne.

Ile gaze on heaven if Agripyne be there:
If not: Fa, La, la, Sol, la, &c.
 O, call this madness in, see from the windows
Of every eye Derision thrusts out cheekes,
Wrinkled with Idiot laughter.

(III, i, 28-30)

Both Fortunatus's image of sleeping in his country's arms and Galloway's of Derision's laughing, idiot face convey implicit value-judgments which demand intuitive or emotional rather than rational evaluation.

When Vice, in one of the play's Masque-like scenes, had planted a “faire tree of Gold with apples on it” to allure mortals; and Virtue, only a tree “with greene and withered leaves mingled together, and little fruit on it” (I, iii, stage directions), Fortune used a personification of autumn and another of the world in trying to sway Virtue to put up a better front.

Poore Vertue, Fortune grieves to see thy lookes
Want cunning to intice: Why hang these leaves,
As loose as Autumnes haire (which every wind,
In mockerie blowes from his rotten browes?) …
On Crutches went this world but yester-day,
Now it lies bed-rid, and is growne so old,
That its growne young; for tis a child againe,
A childish soule it hath, tis a meere foole:
And fooles and children are well pleasde with toyes:
Then Vertue, by a golden face like Vice.

(I, iii, 46-69)

These two personifications are the key persuasive points of Fortune's speech: the first opens the argument; the second provides the basis of the plea for action—“buy a golden face.” Here we see Dekker throwing his persuasive imagery on the side of wealth and pleasure in Old Fortunatus; Virtue's reply is only a truism, singularly lacking in eloquent appeal, “Virtue abhorres to weare a borrowed face” (I, iii,74).

On the side of Virtue, Ampedo does employ a personification of the “strumpet world” in defending his Puritanical ways to Andelocia:

I am not enamoured of this painted Idoll
This strumpet world; for her most beautious lookes
Are poysned baits, hung upon golden hookes.
When fooles doe swim in wealth, her Cynthian beames
Will wantonly daunce on the silver streames:
But when this squinteide age sees vertue poore,
And by a little sparke sits shivering,
Begging at all, reliev'd at no mans doore,
She smiles on her (as the Sunne shines on fire)
To kill that little heate, and with her frowne
Is proud, that she can treade poore vertue downe:
Therefore her wrinckled brow makes not mine sowre,
Her gifts are toyes, and I deride her power.

(I, ii, 49-61)

But compared to Fortune's image, Ampedo's seems bombastic and long-winded, especially since Dekker has Andelocia and the servant Shadow thoroughly squelch his argument.

'Tis not the crab-tree fac'd world neither that makes mine sowre.
Her gifts toyes: wel brother vertue, we have let slip the ripe plucking of those toyes so long, that wee florish like Apple trees in September, (which having the falling sicknes) beare neither fruit nor leaves.

(I, ii, 62-7)

Shadow, maintaining the figure, implies the potent argument of hunger, while Andelocia by the device of Metastasis, turns Ampedo's own words and image against him. In a final example, the personification of “wet eide Care” is the basis for Fortunatus's rationalization of the first part of Fortune's prophecy to him: “goe dwell with cares and quickly die” (I, i, 312).

Fortunat. But now goe dwell with cares and quickly die? … Where dwels care. Hum ha, in what house dwels care, that I may choose an honester neighbor? In princes courts? No. Among faire Ladies, neither, theres no care dwels with them: but care how to be most gallant. Among gallants then? Fie, fie, no: care is afraid sure of a guilt Rapier, the sent of Muske is her poison, Tobacco choakes her, rich attire presseth her to death. Princes, faire Ladies and gallants, have amongst you then, for this wet eide wench Care dwelles with wretches: they are wretches that feele want, I shall feele none if I be never poore, therefore care I cashiere you my companie.

(I, i, 314-25)

No one knows better than Fortunatus that care dwells with wretches; therefore the psychological validity of the fallacious argument is to him unassailable.

Peacham commented that Prosopopoeia was a figure common to oratory and poetry, and made special reference to its persuasive value: “This figure is an apt forme of speech to complaine, to accuse, to reprehend, to confirm, and to commend.”20 So frequent use of the figure for persuasion in Old Fortunatus implies that Dekker was consciously exploiting its rhetorical function. In other instances he seems to use it solely for the pleasure of the poetic effect. Agripyne personifies the Thames as a part of an epic simile describing her experience of being carried through the air by the power of the wishing hat:

… for as I oft have seene
(When angrie Thamesis hath curld her lockes,)
A whirle-wind come, and from her frizeld browes,
Snatch up a handful of those sweatie pearles,
That stoode upon her forhead, which awhile,
Being by the boystrous wind hung in the ayre,
At length hath flung them downe and raizd a storme.
Even with such furie was I wherryed up,
And by such force held prisoner in the cloudes,
And throwne by such a tempest downe againe.

(IV, ii, 8-17)

Firke's enthusiastic personification of the various foodstuffs with which Simon Eyre feasted the apprentices of London represents a comic adaptation of the figure:

O Hodge, O my brethren! theres cheere for the heavens, venson pasties walke up and down piping hot, like sergeants, beefe and brewesse comes marching in drie fattes, fritters and pancakes comes trowling in in wheele barrowes, hennes and orenges hopping in porters baskets, colloppes and egges in scuttles, and tartes and custardes comes quavering in in mault shovels.

(The Shoemaker's Holiday, V, ii, 188-194)

The variety of purposes and of imagery evident in Dekker's manipulation of this one figure provides impressive evidence of his imaginative and stylistic versatility.

As imitation of dialogue and personification require some dramatization on the part of a speaker, so the creation of a vivid descriptive passage belongs first of all to the realm of fiction. Cicero explained the oratorical function of description in his De Inventione.21

By a vivid verbal picture the event is brought before the eyes of the audience, so that they will think that they too would have done the same if they had been confronted with the same situation and the same cause for action at the same time.

By this definition we see that the persuasive purpose of Descriptio was to create a feeling of empathy for the speaker or his cause. The sub-division and ramification that the device underwent in Renaissance rhetoric books indicates that it held a position of considerable importance during Dekker's life-time. The general term Descriptio included word-portraits of a person, a thing, an event, a place, an imaginary place, and a particular time.22 Examples of such set descriptions (essential to the repertoire of a dramatist writing for the bare Elizabethan stage) abound in Renaissance writing. Edgar's imaginary word picture of the cliffs of Dover in King Lear (IV, iv, 112-124) is one outstanding instance.

In Dekker's use of Descriptio its rhetorical function of creating empathy seems primary on many occasions. Fortunatus's account of the three days that he has wandered lost in the forest predisposes the audience to empathize with the speaker's fatigue and despair. It is one of Dekker's most effective portraits of time—Chronographia.

                    In this wood
With wearie sorrow have I wandered
And three times seene the sweating Sun take rest,
And three times franticke Cynthia naked ride,
About the rustie high-waies of the skies
Stucke full of burning Starres, which lent her light
To court her Negro paramour grim night.

(I, i, 152-58)

The creation of empathy for Fortunatus is essential at this point in the play, in order that the audience will be fully prepared to understand the old man's choice of wealth above all other gifts. Another vivid visualization of time occurs in Dekker's prologue to The Whore of Babylon; his intention is to arouse in the minds of his audience their memeries of the years of Elizabeth's reign and to establish a mutual nostalgic feeling for that period between himself and his spectators.

But as in Lantskip, Townes and Woods appeare
Small a farre off, yet to the Optick sence,
The mind shewes them as great as those more neere;
So, winged Time that long agoe flew hence
You must fetch back, with all those golden yeares
He stole, and here imagine still hee stands,
Thrusting his silver locke into your hands.
There hold it but two howres, it shall from Graves
Raise up the dead.


To be sure, both of these time portraits serve an expository purpose, but the creation of empathy seems an equally positive intention of the author. Bellafront's vivid description of how a prostitute feels upon meeting “a faire yong modest Damsell” in a public place comprises the final point upon which she rests her case in her defensive argument with Hippolito; it is one of the most decidedly persuasive uses of the figure in Dekker's plays.

Nothing did make me, when I loved them (Harlots) best
To loath them more then this: when in the street
A faire yong modest Damsell I did meet,
She seem'd to all a Dove (when I pass'd by)
And I (to all) a Raven: every eye
That followed her, went with a bashful glance:
At me, each bold and jeering countenance
Darted forth scorne. …
For (as if Heaven had set strange markes on Whores,
Because they should be pointing stocks to man)
Dress up in civilest shape a Curtizan,
Let her walke Saint-like, notelesse, and unknowne,
Yet she's betraid by some trick of her owne.

(IV, i, 369-85)

Just as Cicero instructed, Bellafront's purpose was to bring such a striking verbal picture before Hippolito's eyes that he could imaginatively experience for himself her former guilty feelings and would then be convinced that if he were confronted with the same situation his stand would be the same as hers.

Dekker's preface to the readers in The Whore of Babylon contains strong evidence that he thoroughly knew and consciously employed the standard rhetorical instructions concerning Descriptio. His analogy to painting—color, proportion, life-like representation—could have been taken directly from the Garden of Eloquence. Dekker describes his purpose,

The Generall scope of this Dramatical Poem, is to set forth (in Tropicall and shadowed collours) the Greatnes, Magnanimity, Constancy, Clemency, and the other incomparable Heroical vertues of our late Queene. … Wherein if according to the dignity of the Subject, I have not given it Lustre, and (to use the Painters rhetorick) doe so faile in my Depthes and Heightnings, that it is not to the life, let this excuse me. …

(Lectori, 1-10)

Compare Peacham's analogy:

By this exornation the Orator imitateth the cunning painter which doth not onely draw the true proportion of thinges, but also bestoweth naturall colours in their proper places … for hence it is, that by true proportion and due coloure, cunning and curious Images are made so like to the persons which they present, that they do not onely make a lively show of life, but also by outward countenance of the inward spirits and affection.23

The Honest Whore, Part II yields another direct reference to word painting in Orlando's description to Hippolito of a happy man:

Ile give you (my lord) the true picture of a happy man; I was turning leaves over this morning, and found it, an excellent Italian Painter drew it. If I have it in the right colours, Ile bestow it on your Lordship …

He that makes gold his wife, but not his whore, He that at noone-day walkes by a prison doore, He that 'ith Sunne is neither beame nor moate, He that's not mad after a Petticoate, … He that counts Youth his Sword, and Age his Staffe, He whose right hand carves his owne Epitaph, He that upon his death-bead is a Swan, And dead, no Crow, he is a happy man.

(I, ii, 49-65)

In adapting this device to Bellafront's sententious old father, Dekker demonstrated again his skill in subordinating rhetorical forms to the need for consistency in characterization.

An abrupt shift in attitude or point of view—such as apostrophe, license of speech, and interrogation require—is, in an oratorical setting, a dramatic device designed to sway the audience with the element of surprise and to prevent monotony. Fraunce defined apostrophe as turning a speech away to someone for whom it was not first prepared,24 and mentioned that the figure included poetic invocations. Dekker did not make extensive use of apostrophe for persuasion, although it was the device in Old Fortunatus with which Orleans concluded the debate with Galloway mentioned earlier; if Agripyne cannot be his he vows to love nothing but deformity,

Now Agripyne's not mine, I vow to be
In love with nothing but deformitie.
O faire Deformitie, I muse all eyes
Are not enamord of thee: thou didst never
Murder mens hearts, or let them pine like wax,
Melting against the Sunne of destinie.

(III, i, 67-72)

In The Honest Whore, Part II, a moving and realistic use of apostrophe occurs in a soliloquy by Orlando Friscobaldo upon receiving from Hippolito news of Bellafront's poverty. After pretending a hard-hearted indifference to his disowned daughter while Hippolito was present, Orlando's true feelings burst out in a brief apostrophe to her as soon as he is alone.

And fare you well sir, goe thy waies, we have few Lords of thy making, that love wenches for their honesty; Las my Girle! art thou poor? poverty dwells next doore to despaire, there's but a wall betweene them. … Ile to her, yet she shall not know me.

(I, ii, 167-171)

Since this is the first knowledge the audience receives that Orlando is not the unforgiving ogre he seems, the sudden shift of speech, “Las my Girle! art thou poor?” creates, in relation to the development of the plot, very much the same effect of sharp dramatic surprise ideally sought as the rhetorical function of the figure in an oration.

Licentia, adopting an attitude of frankness of speech before those who should be reverenced or feared,25 requires a sudden emotional shift on the part of the speaker. In the plot of Satiromastix, which revolves around the king's efforts to seduce Walter Terrell's bride Caelestine, the bridegroom's license of speech before the king shows a reversal of his previously weak character. Caelestine's father had given her a drug to make her appear dead so that she would not be dishonored by King William, who had bullied Terrell into bringing her untouched to court the first night of her marriage. Believing that the potion was deadly, Terrell finally spoke out.

I blush not King
To call thee Tyrant: death hath set my face
And made my bloud bold.

(V, ii, 63-65)

The persuasive power of this speech, in addition to the fact of Caelestine's apparent death, is shown to be the cause of the King's recognition of his own guilt.

Doe not confound me quite; for mine owne guilt,
Speakes more within me, then thy tongue containes;
Thy sorrow is my shame.

(V, ii, 84-86)

Licentia is one of several recurring devices Dekker uses to characterize Simon Eyre in The Shoemaker's Holiday. In his conversation with the king, who has come to dine with him, Eyre couteously asks permission to use license of speech.

I would be sory at my soule, that my boldness should offend my king.
Nay, I pray thee good lord Mayor, be even as merry
As if thou wert among thy shoomakers.
It does me good to see thee in this humour.

(V, v, 10-14)

Permission granted, Eyre's mood shifts suddenly from deference to familiar gaity.

Eyre. Saist thou me so my sweete Dioclesian? Then hump, Prince am I none, yet am I princely borne, by the Lord of Ludgate my Liege, Ile be as merrie as a pie.

(V, v, 15-17)

Dekker, always consistent in his portrayal of the good-natured shoemaker, applies here the suggestion from Ad Herennium that the pungency of Licentia should perhaps be mitigated by praise or pretense, that is by remonstrating with the hearers as they wish to be remonstrated with.26 It is more than appropriate that in this play marked by a democratic social philosophy Eyre, too, should be the recipient of Licentia from a subordinate. On numerous occasions his journeyman Firke speaks out boldly and frankly to him and to his wife, for example, in response to Eyre's boisterous arousal of the household, cited earlier:

Firke. O master, ist you that speake bandog and bedlam this morning, I was in a dreame, and muzed what madde man was got into the street so earlie, have you drunke this morning that your throate is so cleere?

(I, iv, 9-12)

In an oration, interrogation requires a dramatic shift to the second person viewpoint: the speaker, abandoning an impersonal tone, suddenly directs questions specifically to the audience. Peacham classified and described five different kinds of interrogations: Erotema, strongly affirming or denying something by asking a question; Pysma, using many questions in one place to confuse an opponent; Aporia, showing doubt about when to begin or what to say; Hipophora, answering one's own question, and Anacaenous, asking counsel of adversaries or deliberating with judges.27

Dekker wove a doubly comic twist into one occasion when Erotema was used to affirm strongly the questioned truth of an assertion made by Firke. Lincoln and the Lord Mayor, suspecting Lacy's disguise as the Dutch shoemaker Hans, had bribed Firke to tell when and where Rose and Hans were to be married. With elaborate precautions of secrecy and hesitation about taking the money, Firke confided that the wedding was scheduled for the very next morning. Asked if he was certain of his information, the journeyman affirmed his knowledge with an indignant outburst of questions.

Firke. Am I sure that Paules steeple is a handfull higher then London stone? or that the pissing conduit leakes nothing but pure mother Bunch? am I sure I am lustie Firke, Gods nailes doe you thinke I am so base to gull you?

(IV, iv, 109-12)

But his strong protests, which convinced the questioners, affirmed a lie: he gulled them of their bribe money by sending them to the wrong church to stop the wrong marriage.

Another use of interrogation in deception occurs in The Honest Whore, Part II when, in response to Bellafront's plea that she had no further acquaintance with prostitution, her father Orlando concealed his true feelings by attempting to confuse the issue with many questions—Pysma.

Orl. No acquaintance with it? what maintains thee then? any Rents coming in, any Stocke going, any Plough jogging, any Ships sailing? Hast thou any Wares to turne so much as to get a single penny by?

(IV, i, 62-5)

Then he answered the last question himself (Hipophora) with an insinuation.

Yes, thou hast a Ware to sell.


In the final scene of the play, after Bellafront, in prison and on trial before the Duke, had faced a nearly overwhelming accumulation of evidence against her, Dekker assigned her the figure Anacaenous, asking counsel of her adversaries. Her own husband had accused her of both being a whore and colluding with him in theft; Infaelice had produced Hippolito's letter and jewel, and only Hippolito had spoken in her defense:

Against that black-mouthed Devill, against Letters and Gold,
And against a jealous Wife I doe uphold
Thus farre her reputation, I could sooner
Shake the Appenines, and crumble Rockes to dust,
Then (tho Joves showre rayned downe) tempt her to lust.
What shall I say? (Anacaenous)

(V, ii, 173-77)

Hippolito's device is a persuasive comparison, a figure of amplification to be discussed shortly. The simple pathos of Bellafront's question moved her disguised father to reveal himself immediately and repudiate the accusations against her.

In the perennial debate between Andelocia and Ampedo in Old Fortunatus is found another example of Pysma, the attempt to overwhelm an opponent with many questions. Andelocia, defending his pleasure goal, seems confident that this interrogation will overcome his brother's objections.

Andel. Away with your purtie, brother, y'are an Asse, why doth this purse spit out gold but to be spent? why lives a man in this world, to dwell in the Suburbs of it, as you doe? Away forren simplicitie, away: are not eyes made to see faire Ladies? hearts to love them? tongues to court them, and hands to feele them? Out you Stocke, you stone, you log end: Are not legs made to daunce, and shall mine limp up and downe the world after your cloth-stockin-heeles?

(V, ii, 50-7)

If Andelocia is really trying to convince Ampedo, he has violated the first principles of persuasion by alienating his audience. More likely, Dekker is presenting an internal conflict here: Andelocia's arguments are to reassure himself.

Of course these are only a few of the occasions when Dekker incorporated interrogation for persuasion into his plays. It is noteworthy that he did not ordinarily use it to convey strong arguments, but more frequently to multiply words when the audience would know that the speaker lacked reasons. We may infer that this is one of the figures which probably connoted insincerity to him and perhaps to his spectators.

According to the Ciceronian doctrine of invention amplification, arousing the sentiments and emotions of the hearers in connection with the human implications of the proof advanced, was the last step necessary for the persuasive presentation of any subject.28 The devices based on dramatic emotional appeal, which we have been discussing, bear a close relation to this part of rhetoric. Quintilian stated these four modes of amplification: by overstatement as saying that a man who was beaten was murdered; by argumentation, reaching not only the highest point, but sometimes even beyond it through climactic arrangement; by comparison, seeking to elevate the subject by raising something lower; and by reasoning, through which “one thing is magnified in order that another may be corroborated.”29 It will be apparent that amplification is a very broad classification incorporating many figures from various categories; according to Peacham, “amplification is called by the name of a figure, yet as a generall of many specials.”30 The distinguishing characteristic of amplification is the purpose of making a thing seem greater or less than it is through emotional appeal. The emotional orientation of the figure is indicated by Peacham's description:

For being well furnished with skill and habite of this figure, he the orator may prevaile much in drawing the minds of his hearers to his owne will and affection: he may winde them from their former opinions, and quite alter the former state of their mindes, he may move them to be of his side, to hold with him, to be led by him, as to mourne or to marvel, to love or to hate, to be pleased or to be angry, to favour, to desire or to be satisfied, to feare or to hope, to envy, to abhore, to pittie, to rejoyce, to be ashamed, to repent and finally to be subject to the power of his speech wither soever it tendeth.31

Taken in its broadest meaning amplification might include the whole art of rhetoric; therefore we shall consider it in its narrowest application and discuss here those figures which depend most directly on emotional appeal.

Amplification, by the way, is one of the rhetorical devices Dekker mentions specifically in his plays. The reference occurs in a speech by Shadow, the servant of Fortunatus and his sons, who like the shoemaker Firke is characterized by a delight in word play.

… age is like love, it cannot be hid. 
Or like Gun-powder a fire, or like a fool, or like a young novice new come to his lands; for all these will shew of what house they come: now sir, you may amplifie.

(II, ii, 118-21)

Syngnome, by which the speaker grants pardon and forgiveness to an adversary who has done him much wrong, is an amplifying figure typical of those intended to evoke sympathy.32 Dekker applies it extensively in The Honest Whore, Part II to move his audience to sympathize with his much wronged heroine, Bellafront. Her culminating speech of forgiveness comes after her husband, determined she will be executed with him, falsely accuses her of causing him to commit theft.

 She set the robbery, I perform'd it; she spur'd me on, I gallop'd away. …
My Lords, (fellow give me speech) if my poore life
May ransome thine, I yeeld it to the law.
Thou hurt'st thy soul (yet wipest off no offense)
By casting blots upon my Innocence.

(V, ii, 122-28)

Dekker again uses Syngnome in Satiromastix to draw sympathy to the side of the poetasters. Speaking for them, Captain Tucca, having bitterly denounced Horace (Ben Jonson) for breaking oaths made in print to himself, to Crispinius (Marston), and to Demetrius Fannius (Dekker), suddenly demonstrates a forgiving spirit to Horace, “But come, lend mee thy hand, thou and I hance forth will be Alexander and Lodwicke, the Gemini, sworne brothers” (IV, ii, 106-08). Assigning to the poetasters rhetorical figures which are specifically designed to create an impression of benevolent rationality in contrast to the irrationally spiteful speeches given to Horace is one of Dekker's chief devices for accenting the theme of this satirical play.

His close familiarity with the rhetorical principles governing the use of Philophronesis (another quite open form of emotional appeal) can be observed in The Whore of Babylon. By this device a speaker facing powerful opposition resorts to “gentle speech, faire promises, and humble submission to mitigate the rage and cruelty of his adversary,” but Peacham adds the warning, “the counterfeit submission of hypocrites is opposed to the true use of this figure.”33 Here is the speech in which the Empress of Babylon advises the kings of Spain, Italy, and France to employ Philophronesis in winning England back to Catholicism:

Empr. Draw all you faces sweetly, let your browes
Be sleekd, your cheeks in dimples, give out smiles,
Your voyces string with silver, wooe (like lovers)
Sweare you have hils of pearle: shew her the world
And say she shall have all, so shee will kneele
And doe us reverence: but if she grow nice
Dissemble, flatter, stoop to licke the dust
She goes upon, and (like to serpents) creepe
Upon your bellies in humilitie;
And beg she would but with us joyne a league,
To wed her land to ours.

(I, i, 101-20)

Astonishingly, her advice follows the very same order as Peacham's: first, gentle speech, “your voices string with silver, wooe (like lovers)”; next, fair promises, “shew her the world / And say shee shall have all”; and finally, humble submission, “creepe upon your bellies in humilitie.” Furthermore, it is obvious that this last is to be “the counterfeit submission of hypocrites” which Peacham warned against.

The figures of exclamation, even more numerous than those of interrogation, are among the means by which a speaker stirred by vehement emotion attempts to move his hearers to feel the same. These figures include outcries, curses, prayers, exhortations, commendations, thanks, blessings, complaints, predictions, oaths, laments, provocations, and expressions of joy or hatred.34 Aristotle called exclamation the last refuge of argument: a method a speaker should resort to if he can defend his cause neither through equity (“Justice that goes beyond the written law”) nor by excuse and extenuation.35 This is only the familiar principle of trying to conceal a weak argument with a strong voice. Nevertheless, Peacham classified and described twenty-four different figures of exclamation in an attempt to include all the methods of uttering “vehement affections in vehement formes.”36

Matheo, in The Honest Whore, Part II, is of all Dekker's characters the one who most frequently and typically used exclamations for persuasion. It is appropriate that he should employ this last resort in argument, since he is portrayed always in some stage of desperation and since most of his actions could hardly be rationally defended or even extenuated. In one memorable scene, Matheo, who had lost in a dice game all his own money, his cloak, his rapier, and twenty pounds given to him for safe-keeping by his servant Pachecho (Orlando in disguise), was reduced to taking off the very gown Bellafront was wearing in order to obtain some money by pawning it. Pachecho, hoping to produce some twinge of conscience, attempted to dissuade Matheo by suggesting that he use the twenty pounds instead; ironically, Matheo responded with a protest of constancy, an exclamation called Eustathis.

Why, pray sir, employ some of that money you have of mine.
Thine? Ile starve first, Ile beg first; when I touch a penny of that let these fingers ends rot.

(III, ii, 46-8)

The illustration of Eustathia which Peacham cited from Tertullian will corroborate this identification of Matheo's protest.

Let Lions clawes teare out our bowels, let the Gibbet hang us, let the fire consume us, let the sword cut us asunder, let wild beasts tread us under their feet: yet we Christians are by praier prepared to abide all paine and torments.37

The dramatic function of the figure in this scene is to provoke from the audience an outraged response to Matheo's unscrupulous villainy. Later Matheo employed the same kind of protest in refusing to listen to an accusation of theft.

Stand forth and heare your accusation.
Ile heare none: I flie hie in that: rather than Kites shall seize upon me, and picke out mine eyes to my face, Ile strick my tallon thorow mine owne heart first, and spit my blood in theirs.

(V, ii, 90-2)

“Imprecatio … a forme of speech by which the Orator detesteth and curseth some person or thing, for the evils which they bring with them”38 was another type of exclamation favored by Matheo. Upon receiving the money for his wife's pawned dress, he pronounced a Dantean curse upon pawnbrokers: “An evill conscience gnaw them all, moths and plagues hang upon their lowsie wardrobs” (III, ii, 125-26). Bellafront's father, Orlando, was a favorite object of his imprecations: “Pox rot out his old stinking garbage” (II, i, 132); “This is your Father, your dam'd—confusion light upon all the generation of you” (IV, i, 156-57); “A plague choake him, and gnaw him to the bare bones” (IV, i, 179). These exclamations were of considerable importance in the revelation of Matheo's character, since they provided dramatic expression for his total lack of self-discipline and his envious, malcontented disposition.

As stated before, the persuasive function of the figures of amplification is to make a thing seem greater or less than it really is. The figure called Incrementum achieves this purpose through a climactic word arrangement “which by degrees ascendeth to the top of some thing or rather above the top.”39 Quintilian considered this technique as one of the four major modes of amplification; he suggested as an example: “it is an offence to bind a Roman citizen, a crime to scourge him, almost treason to put him to death, what to crucify him?”40Incrementum is another device which achieves its effectiveness through implication—that the thing being amplified is great or insignificant almost beyond the power of language to express. Paridell's kinsman, in The Whore of Babylon, met the learned doctor's arguments for killing the queen with a brief Incrementum condemning the baseness of the proposed assassination: “for what can be the close / But death, dishonour; yea damnation / To an act so base?” (V, i, 22-4). Simon Eyre employed the device to amplify his self-confidence in response to his wife's caution about the King's visit:

Good my Lord have a care what you speake to his grace.
… Sim Eyre knowes how to speake to a Pope, to Sultan Soliman, to Tamburlaine and he were here: and shal I melt? Shal I droope before my Soveraigne?

(V, iv, 51-4)

Earlier in the same scene, in Eyre's instructions to the shoemakers about serving the drinks at his feast for the London apprentices, we find him using the figure to amplify his bounteous hospitality, “let wine be plentiful as beer, and beere as water” (V, iv, 8).

Of all the rhetorical devices of persuasion found in his plays, Dekker seemed to consider the most potent the use of comparison to augment or diminish the value of a thing. The general figure for this kind of amplification was called, simply, Comparatio, which Peacham described as the comparison of less to greater in augmenting, greater to less in diminishing.41 Like personification, comparison functions in persuasion by modifying the subjective evaluations of the hearer. In one way it can be the most subtle of persuasive techniques, since it operates largely outside the hearer's conscious judgment; in another, it depends on the most direct appeal, since the comparison works immediately on the emotions, prejudices, and sentimental associations of the hearer. On almost every occasion when Dekker used argumentation as a vital plot element, some type of comparison is found to be a key persuasive figure.

Although various other devices are used, comparisons form the body of both Hippolito's debate with Bellafront and her defense. Moving from less to greater, Hippolito compares a harlot's beauty to a peacock and her freedom to the sun:

As Junoes proud bird spreads the fairest taile,
So does a Strumpet hoist the loftiest saile.
She's no mans slave; (men are her slaves) her eye
Moves not on wheeles screwd up with Jealowsie.
She (Horst, or Coacht) does merry journeys make,
Free as the Sunne in his gilt Zodiake:
As bravely does she shine, as fast she's driven,
But staies not long in any house of Heaven,
But shifts from Signe, to Signe: her amorous prizes
More rich being when she's downe, then when she rizes.

(IV, i, 275-284)

How is this strong persuasion? Hippolito had clearly said he intended to beat down her chastity “with the power of Argument … By force of strong persuasion” (IV, i, 249-252), and here we have only argument by analogy, from a logical viewpoint one of the weakest and least valid kinds of proof. The strength of these comparisons is entirely psychological; the intention is to substitute the connotations of the color and beauty of the peacock and the gold grandeur of the sun for the cheap, tawdry associations Bellafront feels for her former profession. There is also, in the peacock and sun images, an inherent appeal to pride in order to combat any of her anxieties that degradation might accompany her yielding. Furthermore, the beauty, wealth, and pride Hippolito is trying to associate with the harlot's life is the exact opposite of the position of subservience, poverty, and abuse Bellafront holds as Matheo's faithful wife.

In combating his argument, Bellafront depends largely on a series of diminishing comparisons, from greater to less, designed to demolish the romantic aura Hippolito's language had cast around the prostitute.

                                                   … nay she's common:
Common? as spotted Leopard, whom for sport
Men hunt, to get the flesh, but care not for't
… so men love water,
It serves to wash their hands, but (being once foule)
The water downe is powred, cast out of doores,
And even of such base use doe men make whores.
A Harlot (like a Hen) more sweetnes reapes,
To picke men one by one up, then in heapes:
Yet all feeds but confounding. Say you should taste me,
I serve but for the time, and when the day
Of warre is done, am casheerd out of pay:
If like lame Soldiers I could beg, that's all,
And there's lusts Rendez-vous, an Hospitall.

(IV, i, 310-28)

Dirty water, inedible meat, a lowly hen, an old lame soldier—all represent a reduction of Hippolito's glamorous imagery to the worthless and commonplace; and the noble Lord himself, by implication, is reduced to the value of a mere grain of chicken-feed! Later in the debate and nearer her conclusion, Bellafront attempts to convey her remembered uneasy associations of guilt and fear with her former trade through another series of comparisons.

My bed seem'd like a Cabin hung in Hell,
The Bawde Hells Porter, and the lickorish wine
The Pander fetch'd was like an easie Fine,
For which, me thought I leas'd away my soule,
And oftentimes (even in my quaffing bowle)
Thus said I to my selfe, I am a whore.

(IV, i, 356-61)

Bellafront's emotions are the real battleground of this debate; the challenge to Hippolito is to cast a spell of words over her unpleasant memories. From a rhetorical point of view, we might say that he lost because he attacked the wrong emotional problem. In trying to substitute grandeur and pride for poverty and degradation, he overlooked the chief cause of her resolute stand, her feelings of guilty shame.

In Satiromastix augmenting and diminishing comparisons are the principal weapons in a quadrangle of persuasion involving King William, Sir Walter Terrell, Caelestine, and her father, Sir Quintilian. First, the king employs an augmenting comparison that appeals to Terrell's pride in persuading him to bring his bride to court.

I wod but turne this spheare,
Of Ladies eyes, and place it in the Court
Where thy faire Bride should for the Zodiacke shine,
And every Lady else sit for a signe.
But all thy thoughts are yellow, thy sweet bloud
Rebels, th'art jealous Wat; thus with proude revels
To emmulate the masking firmament,
Where Starres dance in the silver Hall of heaven.

(II, i, 185-92)

King William conceals his true intentions by dazzling comparisons which delude Terrell and bring about his consent after other methods of persuasion have failed. Then Caelestine attempts to persuade Terrell to break his promise to the king by comparisons meant to diminish the value of oaths.

An oath? why, what's an oath? tis but the smoake,
Of flame and bloud; the blister of the spirit,
Which rizeth from the Steame of rage, the bubble
That shootes up to the tongue, and scaldes the voice.

(V, i, 32-5)

Intended to produce scorn for the worthlessness of his oath, Caelestine's comparisons imply, without her intending it, too much insult to Terrell's character to be persuasive. His self-esteem and judgment challenged, he simply counters with augmenting comparisons.

An oath? why tis the trafficke of the soule,
'Tis law within a man; the seale of faith,
The bond of every conscience.

(V, i, 40-2)

But Sir Quintilian manages by a very vivid diminishing comparison to convince Terrell it would be better for Caelestine to die than to lose her chastity, even to a king.

Sir Quin.
Immagine her the cup of thy moist life
What man would pledge a King in his owne wife?
She dyes: that sentence poisons her.

(V, i, 129-31)

There are numerous other occasions in Dekker's plays when persuasion by this type of amplification is shown as the direct or indirect cause of action. In a final example, from Match Me in London, when the Queen, convinced Tormiella has become her husband's mistress, locks the young girl in a room and threatens to kill her, Tormiella begins her dissuading speech with a comparison amplifying her own helplessness.

The Court to me is an inchanted tower
Wherein I'me lockt by force, and bound by spels,
A Heaven to some, to me ten thousand Hels.

(III, iii, 25-8)

Although the potential murderess is not totally convinced by this figure alone, it does stop her immediate intention long enough for Tormiella to add enough other arguments to change the Queen's mind. The figure which finally persuades the jealous woman, by the way, is another emotional appeal which has already been pointed out as one of Matheo's favorite exclamations, Eustathia, the protestation of constancy.

If ever I have wrong'd your royall bed
In act, in thought, nayle me for ever fast,
To scape this Tyger of the Kings fierce lust
I will doe any thing, I will speake treason
Or Drinke a Cup of Poyson, which may blast
My inticing face, and make it leprous foule:
Ruine you all this, so you keepe up my Soule;
That's all the wealth I care for.
I have now
No hart left to kill thee, rise.

(III, iii, 44-52)

Tormiella's speeches here provide a classic example of rhetorical persuasion, which alters emotions (the queen is moved from wrath to sympathy) and produces, or, in this instance, prevents an act. That the queen did not reach intellectual certainty is demonstrated later in the play when her suspicions crop up again, but she is sufficiently moved to change her plan of action on the probability that Tormiella may be innocent.

Reviewing the occurrences of rhetorical persuasion in Dekker's plays, one finds some strong cumulative evidence to verify the thesis that he consciously adapted rhetorical figures to his dramatic purposes. Specifically, there are the direct references to amplification and word painting which have been noted, and the close parallel in The Whore of Babylon to Peacham's instructions about the use of Philophronesis.

One sees, also, Dekker's versatility and sense of dramatic fitness revealed in his successful adaptations of these persuasive devices to the purposes of plot development, comic effects, and characterization. He seems to have achieved particular mastery of their use in characterization through modifying them to suit the particular speaker, or typifying certain characters by recurring devices (Simon Eyre and Matheo, for example), or employing them as a method of bringing to expression the subjective feelings of a character (most clearly seen in the monologues of Old Fortunatus).


  1. Henry Peacham, The Garden of Eloquence (London, 1577), D1r.

  2. De Oratore iii. 200.

  3. Aristotle Rh. i. 1. 11-12.

  4. Peacham, p. 117.

  5. Ibid., p. 181.

  6. Peacham, pp. 39-40.

  7. Peacham, p. 170.

  8. Inst. ix. ii. 64.

  9. Peacham, 1577, H2r.

  10. Peacham, p. 180.

  11. Peacham, p. 181.

  12. Ibid., p. 38.

  13. Peacham, p. 39.

  14. Ibid., p. 172.

  15. Ad Herennium iv. 65, 66.

  16. Peacham, p. 138.

  17. iv. 66.

  18. Abraham Fraunce, The Arcadian Rhetorike (London: Thomas Orwin, 1592), I, 31.

  19. Peacham, p. 136.

  20. Peacham, p. 137.

  21. i, 26.

  22. Peacham, pp. 134-43.

  23. Peacham, p. 134.

  24. Fraunce, Arcadian Rhetorike, I, 30.

  25. Ad Herennium, iv. 48-50.

  26. Ad Herennium iv. 48-50.

  27. Peacham, pp. 105-110.

  28. Howell, pp. 71-2.

  29. Inst., viii. 4. 1-15.

  30. Peacham, p. 21.

  31. Peacham, p. 21.

  32. Peacham, p. 98.

  33. Peacham, p. 96.

  34. Peacham, pp. 62-84.

  35. Rh. i. 13. 26,27.

  36. Peacham, p. 62.

  37. Ibid., p. 69.

  38. Peacham, p. 64.

  39. Ibid., p. 169.

  40. Inst. viii, xxx. 4. 3-4.

  41. Peacham, p. 156.

James H. Conover (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12665

SOURCE: “The Shoemakers' Holiday, or the Gentle Craft,” in Thomas Dekker: An Analysis of Dramatic Structure, Mouton, 1969, pp. 18-50.

[In the essay below, Conover analyzes the various plots of The Shoemaker's Holiday, concluding that “the individual actions [of the play] are well articulated and … skillful devices have been employed to link the various actions and characters in a meaningful, coherent whole.”]

If a critic were attempting to develop the thesis that Dekker's skills and techniques gradually developed over a period of years that critic would face great difficulties with The Shoemakers' Holiday, or The Gentle Craft. Although it is the earliest of Dekker's extant plays, it is very nearly the best of the whole body of work. As will be seen, the playwright has taken three contrasting sets of incidents and has interwoven them to produce an almost inseparable whole.

This play, like Old Fortunatus and If It Be Not Good, is in part based upon a known source. It is a commonplace that Elizabethan dramatists—even the greatest—drew regularly upon both dramatic and non-dramatic literature for plot ideas. When such a source is known or suspected then it is profitable to investigate the playwright's use of the earlier work. It has been generally accepted that Shoemaker's Holiday is based upon Thomas Deloney's prose narrative, The Gentle Craft, which apparently was first registered in 1597,1 although the earliest edition now in existence is dated 1637.2 This work is made up of three tales concerning, respectively, Saint Hugh, Crispin and Crispianus, and Simon Eyre. The three tales all involve shoemakers but are not related in any other way. For his play Dekker selected incidents and characters from the second and third stories, and recombined them to produce what is in all respects an entirely new work. The procedure was not that of translating a narrative work directly into dramatic form, but of selection, combination, and expansion or compression. Only a few incidents, for example, are taken from the second tale, and those used are divided among several characters in the Dekker play. In the Deloney story two brothers who are princes are forced to hide, disguising themselves as shoemakers. One meets, woos, and secretly marries a princess. The other is called into the army and so distinguishes himself that eventually he can reveal his and his brother's identity. Dekker uses the disguise situation and the war context; he transforms the warrior prince into Rafe, a real, not pretended, shoemaker who is impressed and wounded in battle. In the Deloney story the disguises are assumed to save the lives of the princes, and the prince meets his wife-to-be after assuming the disguise; in the play, however, the disguise is employed by Lacy in order to further a love affair already in progress. Deloney's tale about Simon Eyre begins with Eyre as a youth and goes into considerable detail regarding the device by which the shoemaker makes his fortune. The story also includes a fairly elaborate minor action concerning a competition for the hand of a servant girl in the Eyre household. Dekker's play begins quite late in Eyre's career and only sketchily recounts the shoemaker's rise to fame. The servant girl in the narrative becomes Jane in the play and the competition for her hand is between a lowly shoemaker and a man of rank. As will be seen, Dekker's changes are extensive. Most significant is the way in which Deloney's entirely separate tales are fused into one play. The changes in social rank are also significant. Deloney's two young princes become in the play a noble and a shoemaker who are contrasted. The lower-class suitors for the maid become in the play a noble suitor and a shoemaker suitor. The importance of these competitions and contrasts between social rank will become more apparent in the detailed discussion of the play.


I.i The Earl of Lincoln and Sir Otley, Lord Mayor of London, discuss the romance between the Earl's nephew, Lacy, and Otley's daughter, Rose. The two men voice to one another their mutual objections to the union, and reveal in asides other objections not so mutual. To separate the couple, Otley has sent Rose out of London to his country estate where Lacy cannot visit undetected, and Lincoln has secured from the King an army command for Lacy in the wars in France. Lacy and his cousin enter, and the older men wish them good fortune in the wars and exit. Lacy, however, arranges to have his cousin take over the army command until he, Lacy, can once more meet with Rose.

I.ii Rose, in the country, sends her servant to London for news of Lacy.

I.iii Lacy has discovered that Otley has “secrety conueyd my Rose from London” (I.iii.15), and he has disguised himself as a shoemaker to hide the fact that he is not with the army. In a soliloquy he expresses his hope to be employed in the shop of Simon Eyre.

I.iv These hopes are fulfilled in this scene when Lacy, now known as Hans, is hired as a journeyman shoemaker.3

II.i Hammon, a gentleman hunter, is told that the deer he is chasing has entered Otley's estate.

II.ii Instead of the deer, however, Hammon encounters Rose. He is immediately smitten with her, and Otley welcomes the hunter as a possible rival for the absent Lacy. Although the indications are that Rose will remain faithful to Lacy, this new complication—a Paris for Juliet—is left unresolved at the end of the scene, providing a small amount of suspense.

II.iv Up to this point Lincoln, Lacy's uncle, and Otley, Rose's father, have assumed that Lacy is in France, but Lincoln's spy (introduced as such in the first scene of the play) returns with news of Lacy's absence from the army. Lincoln now begins a search for Lacy.

III.i The plot then returns to the Hammon complication. Rose, in her father's presence, refuses Hammon's suit. According to custom, however, Otley has the power to force his daughter to marry, but Hammon, a gentle gentleman, refuses Otley's offer, and this complication is removed from the plot. But Otley's anger and suspicions make him include Rose in the party to celebrate Eyre's appointment as Sheriff.

III.iii As his contribution to the celebration, Simon Eyre brings his journeymen shoemakers who perform a dance. Among the group is the disguised Lacy. He is spied out by Rose (but not, of course, by Otley) who then schemes with her maid to arrange a private meeting with Lacy.

IV.i The scheme becomes apparent in this scene. Sybil, the maid, appears in Eyre's shop and specifically designates Hans (Lacy) to be sent to fit Rose with shoes.

IV.iii Alone together at last Rose and Lacy plan to elope that night, but two elements of suspense are introduced into the scene: Otley enters, and Lacy's disguise is consequently put to a close test; and, Lincoln's imminent arrival is announced. As Otley goes to meet Lincoln the two lovers decide to run off immediately.

IV.iv As Otley and Lincoln confer they are brought the news that Rose has run off with Hans, the shoemaker. Lincoln quickly deduces that Hans and Lacy are one person, but the threat to find the couple and prohibit the marriage is forestalled by a fellow shoemaker who gives Lincoln and Otley false information concerning the time and whereabouts of the wedding.4

V.i Rose and Lacy are next seen in Eyre's shop as he sends them off to be married. They fear some kind of danger but Eyre, now Lord Mayor of London, promises his protection. Although not stated, the fear is of the King's anger over Lacy's desertion from the French wars.

V.ii The two disapproving relatives arrive at the wrong wedding, and after discovering the ruse, they set out to tell the King that Lacy has been a traitor so that the King will punish Lacy and divorce the couple.

V.iv Successfully wedded, Lacy and Rose return once more to Simon Eyre, who is preparing to entertain the King, and Lacy specifically asks him to intercede with the King on their behalf.

V.v Soon after the King pardons Lacy, Lincoln and Otley arrive and accuse Lacy of traitorous desertion, but the King has already pardoned that. Otley, however, demands as a father's right that the couple be separated. The King complies by divorcing them, but immediately declares them remarried. He stops Lincoln's objection to differences in social rank by reminding him that Lacy “stooped” to be a shoemaker, and quiets Otley's ambitions by knighting Lacy.

This first plot to make an appearance in the play involves a fairly simple and traditional situation in which a hoped-for marriage is temporarily thwarted. The point of attack is rather late, in that the couple has already met, fallen in love, apparently resolved to marry, and been faced with some complications. In a sense Dekker here departs from traditional Elizabethan practices. Madeleine Doran summarizes the differences of point of attack in classical and Elizabethan drama:

The plot of a classical play typically begins in media res and follows the “artificial” order; the plot of an Elizabethan play normally follows the “natural” or historical order of events.5

She goes on to say.

Elizabethan drama … generally begins at the beginning and proceeds straight through in chronological order until the end. This means that the motivation of action is within rather than precedent to the action of the play.6

Because here these events have taken place prior to the opening of the play, Dekker can emphasize the effect of separation of the lovers by keeping them apart for much of the play. They do not see one another, in fact, until the play is half completed. The audience first sees, not one of the lovers, but the uncle and the father, who represent the primary obstacle the lovers must overcome in order to marry. Rose and Lacy have, in a sense, three objectives: they must meet once more to plan an elopement; they must marry; and, finally, they must secure approval of their marriage. The approval is necessary both for custom's sake and in order to gain their rightful inheritances. These elements of approval are not developed to any great extent in the play but they are implicit in the situation.

All of the necessary exposition is handled in this first scene: the two young people love one another and wish to marry; their elders have taken action to prevent the union; and Lacy has been a shoemaker on the continent, a fact introduced by Lacy's uncle as an example of his wasteful and irresponsible nature, Lincoln's ostensible objection to the marriage.

Since the point of attack is late, the plot moves forward quickly at the outset as Lacy easily disposes of the first bar to their marriage, his service in France. This action, however, is the basis for the later complication, potential trouble with the King. Otley's action of hiding Rose outside of London puts her in the path of Hammon and a new complication is thus introduced. To a certain extent this breaks up what could be an overly-regular and too-smooth plot action, but it is disposed of through Rose's refusal and Hammon's gentlemanly unwillingness to force himself on Rose. Ironically, Otley's reaction to Rose's refusal serves to bring the two lovers together.

The scene (III.iii) in which Rose and Lacy are brought together for the first time in the play, is the crisis or turning point in the action of the plot. Crisis is used here to refer to Bradley's “critical point”.

There is therefore felt to be a critical point in the action which proves also to be a turning point. It is critical sometimes in the sense that until it is reached, the conflict is not, so to speak, clenched; one of the two sets of forces might subside, or a reconciliation might somehow be effected; while, as soon as it is reached, we feel this can no longer be.7

The later scene when the lovers meet alone, are almost discovered by Otley and Lincoln, and run away together is exciting and dramatically effective, but it provides ironic incident rather than complication or change, and follows inevitably from the earlier scene. The attempt by Otley and Lincoln to stop the wedding itself is defeated from the outset, and thus is neither critical nor suspenseful, because they possess false information. The lovers' central problem has been to overcome the hindrances put in the way of their reunion, and, once they manage to meet, the rest must follow.

The incidents or choices made by characters at the crisis produce or cause what Bradley as well as Freytag called the “catastrophe”, referring to the final situation, the circumstances to which the action resolves at the end. Freytag described catastrophe as “the closing action … [that] the ancient stage called the exodus”. He later noted that it “contains … the necessary consequences of the action and the characters [and that] the whole construction points toward the end. …”8 Since both writers were primarily concerned with tragic drama the word catastrophe was particularly appropriate, but it is less so for non-tragic plays. Consequently, the word climax is here employed to refer to the final situation in a play or action of a play.

The climax of this plot, the scene with the four principals and the King, brings all together for the first time. The King functions obviously in the role of a deus ex machina, who answers all objections and solves all problems. Although his presence and actions are fairly well motivated by Simon Eyre, the King is not as adroit an example of the deus ex machina device as those to be found in Honest Whore II and If It Be Not Good. The audience is prepared for his presence, but he is something of an intrusion at the end of the play, and he is by no means so thoroughly involved with the action as are his counterparts in the plays mentioned. He is—God-like—above the action. The King, as knotcutter, goes a bit beyond his traditional role; he could have merely made pronouncements and ended it there, but the scene is made more effective by his maneuverings. He allows the charges of “traitor” to begin and Lacy to be seized even though pardon has been given. Instead of refusing to divorce the couple, he first does so, then remarries them, and finally skillfully answers the objections of both Lincoln and Otley. All of these actions in the scene produced a kind of artificial, though effective, suspense and complication. Artificial, that is, in the sense that a serious ending would completely deny the mood and expectations so thoroughly established. And the King does at the end what he had planned to do throughout the scene.

Actually, it is Simon Eyre's presence that promises a happy resolution. If there was ever a character in drama with whom it would be impossible to associate tragic or serious outcomes, it is Simon. As will be seen, everything he touches turns to success and laughter. His promise of protection for Rose and Lacy is certain to be upheld. His function here, as will be demonstrated, is similar to that of Orlando Friscobaldo in Honest Whore II.

Other than the deus ex machina device which resolves it, the plot is tightly knit and well motivated in a cause and effect pattern. Fortuitous events play no part in the working out of the problems, and since the motivation for each scene is to be found in the action of earlier scenes the events appear to be in a necessary and natural order. The only situation not prepared for in the play is the appearance of Firk, Lacy's clownish fellow shoemaker, in IV.iv at Otley's home, shortly after Rose and Lacy flee. His story and false account of the time and place of the wedding permits the ceremony to take place unmolested. He says that he has come to fit Rose with some shoes, but that was the reason Lacy had been summoned. Obviously Lacy has sent him to put them off the scent and that is the meaning of Firk's aside, “It is that Hauns [Lacy], Ile so gull these diggers” (IV.iv.82-3), and his later statement that “I came hither of purpose with shooes to sir Rogers worship, whilst Rose his daughter be coniecatcht by Hauns” (IV.iv.145-46).

The final area of investigation concerning this action involves potential, but undramatized situations implicit in the story. The potential does not refer to the source; it has already been noted that Dekker has made radical departures from the source, omitting a number of incidents to be found there.9 Potential here refers to situations which are either implied by the action of the play or are related but not dramatized.

Most of the potential events of the story are dramatized, excepting those which occurred before the play opened—the initial meetings of Rose and Lacy, Otley's decision to separate the pair by sending Rose out of London, and Lincoln's similar decision concerning the army command for Lacy. From that point to the end little is omitted; perhaps the only incidents not dramatized are Lacy's discovery of Rose's absence, described by Lacy in I.iii, the wedding that takes place “off-stage” between V.i and V.ii, and the appeal to the King by Lacy and Eyre that precedes the last scene of the play. Otley revealed the fact that Rose had been sent out of London in his first conversation with Lincoln, so there would be little to gain by dramatizing Lacy's discovery of the fact. The wedding ceremony would require at least one new character, and the dramatization of it might produce a stronger climactic effect than is desirable prior to the true climax in the last scene. If it were a strong scene it would symbolize a culmination of the lovers' quest, an effect better saved for the last scene. The third omitted situation—the pleas to the King—would necessarily involve a recapitulation of many of the events known to the audience. Though such summaries at the end of a play have been effective at times, the practice is perhaps best avoided.


This plot also concerns a relatively simple love story; only five scenes of the play are devoted to it. A married couple is separated by war and eventually reunited after some near-tragic occurrences. The forces at work here are not so traditional as those of the first plot, and the couple themselves are unconventional. The standard complication of parental disapproval is an important element in the Lacy-Rose plot; the elders' objections to youths' desires and the son's and daughter's successful struggle with the father have been dramatic staples since the Greek drama. These conflicts within the family unit have provided much of the material for both serious and comic literature. In this second plot, however, the lovers are in effect separated by social forces, first war and then class distinctions. The two people are, moreover, both members of the working class, and shoemakers and seamstresses had not often been the principals in a dramatic tale, much less a romantic and serious love story.

I.i Unlike Rose and Lacy, Rafe and Jane are first seen together, and are then not united until the last scene concerned with their action. Prior to the opening of the play the newly married Rafe has been impressed for the army. Simon Eyre Rafe's employer, asks the commanding officer (Lacy) to discharge Rafe instead of taking him to France. The grounds are, as a fellow shoemaker says, “you doe more than you can answere, to press a man within a yeare and a day of his marriage” (I.i.149-50). Lacy regretfully refuses, however, and Rafe, in a very touching speech, asks Simon to be Jane's protector. As a parting gift, Rafe presents Jane with a pair of shoes he has made for her.

II.ii Some time later Rafe returns to Eyre's shop, apparently released from the army because of an injured leg; but he is met with the news that Jane has disappeared after some disagreement with Dame Eyre. Nothing explicit has prepared for this eventuality, unless the forbodings of the first scene and Dame Eyre's character can be made to account for it. So the situation is now reversed; Rafe has returned, but Jane is gone.

III.iv Jane, now working as a seamstress, is being courted by a gentleman, Hammon. She is touched by his sincerity, and when her refusal because of Rafe is countered by Hammon's information that Rafe is dead she tells him, “If euer I wed man it shall be you” (III.iv. 122). The complication here is two-fold; Jane believes Rafe is dead, and her suitor is a man of much higher social position with its consequent power and influence.

IV.ii The shoes which Rafe left with Jane provide the solution to a least part of the problem. Jane has apparently accepted Hammon's proposal. Hammond sends the old shoes to Eyre's shop so that a new pair of their size can be made for the wedding. The classical tokens of recognition reveal to Rafe the whereabouts of his Cinderella, and he plans to claim his wife from Hammon with the aid of his fellow shoemakers.

V.ii This scene dramatizes the rescue of Jane by Rafe and the shoemakers. After a verbal skirmish between the shoemakers and Hammon's supporters Jane is given a choice between the two men, and Hammon offers Rafe twenty pounds to give up his claim; but neither answer is really in doubt and Hammon magnanimously makes a gift of the money.

Like the Rose-Lacy action this plot begins at a critical point, the imminent separation of husband and wife. There is no leisurely development of character or earlier events; the couple is immediately thrust into the problem, and they begin to attempt its solution. While the army complication was immediately solved, apparently, in the other plot, here it prevails. Nor is it ever solved by the characters themselves, but runs its own course, outside the play, until Rafe is wounded.

Although there is considerable action in this brief plot, the two central characters are for the most part passive, somewhat at the mercy of the social forces mentioned above and of other characters. Most of the pleading for Rafe in the first scene comes from Eyre and the other shoemakers; Jane is put out of the household; Rafe does plan the shoemakers' interference with the wedding, but the other shoemakers actually conduct the affair.

The action has its crisis in Hammon's revelation to Jane that Rafe has been killed. It is ironic in the sense that while this news “frees” Jane for Hammon, and thus would seem to separate the couple, it also provides the means for their ultimate reunion. Conceivably the lame Rafe might not have found Jane had she continued as a seamstress, but the imminent wedding provides the occasion for the recognition of the pair of shoes.

The climax, of course, is in the decisions by Jane and Rafe to remain together despite Hammon's blandishments. As mentioned above neither answer is really in doubt, but the conflict between the shoemakers and the servants provides excitement. Rafe's last words on the matter—

Sirrah Hammon, Hammon, dost thou thinke a Shoe-maker is so base, to bee a bawde to his owne wife for commoditie, take thy golde, choake with it, were I not lame, I would make thee eate thy words.


—could bring cheers from an audience of ’prentices. As Simon Eyre and the King were agents who contributed to the climax of the Rose-Lacy plot, the shoemakers, particularly Hodge and Firk, are instrumental in the climax of this plot. Their force, indeed almost a mob, provides the necessary support for Rafe's claim. They, in fact, voice his claim for him, functioning as junior editions of Simon Eyre. If this plot can be in part interpreted in social terms, this opposition of the mob of shoemakers to the group of the gentleman's household effectively presents the social conflict visually. The shoemakers triumph here, then again in opposition to Otley and Lincoln, and finally, gathering forces all along, they march off to their celebration to the sound of the pancake bell.

The degree to which the events of the plot are effectively articulated has already been touched upon. The least skillful link has to do with the surprising information that Jane no longer lives with the Eyres; most skillful is the Rafe's “death”-Jane's wedding-Jane's shoes-Jane's rescue sequence. Chance, however, plays a large, if not unreasonable, part in the plot, particularly in two instances: Hammon's possession of a casualty list and the fact that Jane's shoes are brought to Rafe himself. That Rafe is mistakenly listed among those considered dead is not in itself surprising since he was seriously wounded, and in a positive sense these elements of chance emphasize the passivity of the two characters, part of this plot's contribution to the total play to be discussed below. At one point Dekker seems to be aware of the amount of chance involved. After Rafe has been given the order to make shoes for the bride-to-be he says, “By this shoe said he, how am I amasde / At this strange accident?” (IV.ii.30-1).

The arrangement of the incidents seems to be purposeful, and not overly complex. The sequence employs a cause and effect pattern, with a single exception—scenes III.ii and III.iv could be reversed. That is, with slight modifications to explain her absence from the shoemaker's household, Jane's scene with Hammon could precede Rafe's homecoming. This change would lessen the present weakness noted above of lack of preparation for Dame Eyre's statement to Rafe that Jane is gone. But it would have several negative effects; first, and least important, it would break up the rather neat arrangement of scenes whereby the two are together in the first and last scenes and alternate—Rafe, Jane, Rafe—in the middle three scenes. More significant, however, would be the change in the emotional tone in the scene in which Jane is told that Rafe has been killed. The scene would be at once highly pathetic, since the viewer would take the casualty list as fact, and melodramatic, since the basis for the emotional reactions would later prove to be false. The intensity of emotions would not be in keeping with the comic tone of the play as a whole. With Rafe's lameness Dekker already skirts the line, and an apparently real death would indeed violate the balance of the play. Since, by the arrangement of the scenes, the audience knows the report to be untrue, it can react sympathetically to Jane's sorrow, but continue to hope for their eventual meeting. Moreover, the charges of chance brought above would pale in the face of such another element of surprise as suggested. To first kill off Rafe and then explain his death away as a battlefield mistake would be a much less desirable arrangement of scenes. Dekker has made the wise choice of suspense over surprise.

The plot is simple and straightforward, progressing from separation to reunion. If it had been more fully dramatized, showing Rafe's attempts to get home, for example, it would have had the effect of two parts; that is, his success in reaching London would have been an early and false climax, since the return to Eyre's shop and reunion with Jane appear to be synonymous.

Certainly, more could have been made of the plot; in addition to the scenes in France suggested above, two others are specifically described in the play itself. Jane and Dame Eyre, at some point between I.i and III.ii, argued and Jane was either put out of the house or left. Halstead notes the omission of this scene with apparent regret and suggests that it might have been a way to break the long hiatus in the plot.10 Its inclusion would have eliminated the gap, but it would have had a negative effect on the characters of Eyre and his wife. Rafe had asked Simon Eyre in I.i to care for Jane in his absence, and his failure to do so cannot be emphasized without seriously undercutting audience regard for Eyre. This, for example, is why Dame Eyre, rather than Simon, gives the bad news to Rafe, who is then packed off to eat and rest so that he is not allowed (by the playwright) to confront Simon Eyre as he enters. Furthermore, the omitted scene must have put most of the blame on Dame Eyre, if dramatized, in order to support Jane's character. Jane, as part of a romantic and pathetic story, cannot appear in the role of a scolding fishwife without considerable harm to our later sympathy for her. Dame Eyre's snobbish and social climbing ways are seen in the play only in comic terms. If the other side of the coin is displayed in a scene in which she lords it over poor Jane, a change of tone is introduced that must affect the whole Simon Eyre story, and as her husband, Simon Eyre himself. The fact that the scene is related rather than dramatized gives it much less emphasis and impact, and permits Dame Eyre to put at least part of the blame on Jane, still without hurting Jane's character. The viewer can smilingly say to himself, “Oh, yes, Dame Eyre, I'm sure you suffered terribly from wicked Jane.” But he must smile.

The other scene referred to, but omitted in the play, is one in which Rafe fits Jane with the new shoes ordered by Hammon's servant. Rafe describes this situation at some length, and it is used to confirm the fact that it is indeed Jane who is about to marry Hammon. It is easy to understand why Dekker did not include the scene, but difficult to know why it is mentioned at all. Showing the couple together before the rescue would make the rescue itself anti-climactic, and would unnecessarily emphasize the unlikely fact that Jane does not recognize her husband. The latter would not, to be sure, be surprising in Elizabethan drama. But there is no need for the reference; the shoes are sufficient identification. The description does provide another element of pathos, and perhaps it was for this reason that it was included.

One incident is implied by the general situation but not specifically described in the dialogue. That is, at the end of III.iv Jane sends Hammon off with the promise that, “If euer I wed man it shall be you” (III.iv.122). But Dekker omits the scene in which Jane actually accepts Hammon's proposal. The reasons for the omission are perhaps obvious. The speech quoted gives sufficient indication of what is to happen, and Jane is not subjected to a direct acceptance of a proposal so soon after her husband's death. Such a scene would also be something of a repetition of the original proposal scene, and thus extraneous.

Such a “fleshing out” would not be consistent with what might be considered an important and meritorius characteristic of the plot—its economy. The five scenes simply and quickly tell the whole story: departure for war, return from war and loss of wife; news of “death”; discovery of the shoes; and rescue and reunion. The effect is of speed and intensity; nothing is wasted. Each scene depicts an important and necessary incident. Alone this method for this plot would probably be too abrupt; its function within the complete play will be discussed later.


The plot to be considered finally is that concerned with Simon Eyre, if a plot it can be called in any traditional sense of that term. Simply stated, the scenes depict history's easiest success story, a rise from craftsman to Lord Mayor of London, with a related increase of personal wealth and influence.

There are no true complications in the path of this progress, and very little of what is normally termed dramatic action, although a number of scenes in the total play are devoted to Eyre and his shop. Describing romantic comedy, C. F. T. Brooke notes that this type of play frequently lacks “the fundamental dramatic conflict which forms regularly the backbone both of comedy and tragedy. …”11 Harbage points to this lack when he expresses his amazement that Shoemakers' Holiday has the “power to sustain interest with a pennyworth of evil for a pound of good”.12

Since Simon Eyre is something of an historical character it can be argued that his ultimate achievement was known from the outset to the original London audiences, and that this expectation softens the surprise, or rather astonishment, at his meteoric rise. The character in the play certainly has not stated or implied ambitions. On the other hand, that he feels no limitations is apparent in the refrain that he repeats with variations, “prince am I none, yet am I noblie born” (II.iii.42).

The small amount of exposition needed for this plot is actually established in the first scene of the Rafe-Jane plot. Dekker simply and naturally has Simon introduce himself, family, and journeymen to Lacy in preparation for asking for Rafe's release from impressment. Enough is said in the scene to establish firmly Eyre's character.

I.iv The first scene actually devoted to Simon Eyre himself is the one in which the shoemaker shop is established as a locale and in which Lacy (Hans) is hired. Although the action is a necessary part of the Lacy-Rose plot it is also functional here.13

II.iii Lacy introduces the “skipper” of a ship to Eyre and also loans Eyre enough money for a down-payment on the valuable cargo. The original proposals of the business deal have taken place prior to the scene, and only the closing of the deal is dramatized. Eyre has been made an alderman of London sometime prior to the scene. The two elements of Eyre's rise—financial and political—are not at this point related, but are jointed by proximity. Once again, after a disagreement with Dame Eyre, the journeymen threaten to quit but are pacified by Simon.

III.i The next brief scene concerned with this plot is interlaced with one that is primarily concerned with the Rose-Lacy plot. The two elements mentioned above are joined as Otley (current Lord Mayor) reveals himself as Eyre's partner in the ship's cargo transaction which has yielded considerable profit. As a kind of reward he tells Eyre that he hopes to have him made Sheriff that very day.

III.ii The shoemakers and Simon's wife await the news of the hoped-for appointment, and Dekker indulges in some mild satire on Dame Eyre as a bourgeois nouveau riche. Eyre enters with the chain of office, and all prepare to dine with Otley to celebrate the new position.

III.iii Nothing happens in this scene to further the action. Otley and the Eyres dine together and are entertained with a dance by the shoemakers. Although this takes up most of the scene it should perhaps be considered part of the Rose-Lacy plot.

IV.i Scene III.ii anticipated the celebration, scene III.iii depicted it, and this scene is largely retrospect discussion of it by the journeymen. In passing, they mention the ill-health of several other aldermen, whose deaths would make Simon the Lord Mayor of London.

V.i Eyre next appears as Lord Mayor; and once again the action itself has taken place off-stage. Here he promises to protect Lacy and Rose, and begins preparation for the Shrove Tuesday pancake feast that is to occupy the rest of the play. At this point Eyre has achieved his complete personal success, and what follows could be considered anticlimactic if the plot is viewed solely as his success story.

V.iii The King is seen enroute to Eyre's celebration where he expects to be amused by Simon's “woonted merriment …” (V.iii.15).

V.iv Eyre directs the turmoil of the feast in which a “hundred tables wil not feast the fourth part of” the apprentices of London (V.iv.11-12). He reassures Lacy that he will intercede for him with the King.

V.v. Simon has done so, and this scene begins with the King pardoning Lacy. After the Rose-Lacy action is completed the celebration continues. “Mad Simon” entertains the King and persuades him to grant marketing privileges to shoemakers in the newly constructed Leadenhall.

Unlike the other two plots whose points of attack were relatively late in their actions, this one begins quite early, though not so early as the source. Each achievement—alderman, wealth, sheriff, mayor, and founder of the marketing customs and Pancake Day—is within the play. It is, as noted by Alexis Lange, almost epic in nature, certainly biographical.14

As a separate action it is highly episodic, and abrupt in its forward movement. It is even difficult to apply traditional plot-descriptive terms to the action. But part of the difficulty arises from the consideration of the plot as biographical, as being centrally concerned with a single man. In those terms the climax of the plot should be at the point at which Eyre becomes Lord Mayor, a scene not even dramatized. Actually the climax, though closely related to Simon Eyre, is in the establishment of the traditions of Shrove Tuesday and the use of Leadenhall, things Eyre did as Lord Mayor which had lasting public effect; the climax is not the personal achievement of an individual. The rank of Lord Mayor is, then, merely the final step toward the actual climax of the action.

Working backwards from this climax to the critical point in the action is somewhat easier. The only actions taken by Eyre which could be said to influence the outcome of this plot are the hiring of Lacy and the purchase of the ship's cargo. It is the second of these that actually provides the momentum which carries Eyre to the point at which he can institute the traditions.

Apart from the crisis-climax relationship, the arrangement of incidents is purely chronological. A chain reaction results in the outcome, but the later incidents all refer to the first two. Each event can come only after the preceding one, but it does not occur because of this preceding one; there is one cause and a series of related effects.

That is not to say that the plot consists of a series of surprises. The brief scene at Otley's house (III.i) prepares for the promotion to sheriff. Similarly, the journeymen shoemakers prepare us for the possibility that Eyre may become Lord Mayor by discussing the other aldermen, and Lacy tells Rose that Eyre can protect them because he is now Lord Mayor.

The opportune deaths of the senior aldermen, which permit Eyre to attain his highest rank, do seem to constitute a gross element of luck in the plot. Realistically the situation might have occurred, and indeed Simon Eyre probably did “work his way up” in this fashion. Actually the objections to this final movement in his progress are objections to the timing of the deaths rather than to the deaths themselves. In studying this action apart from the total play there appears to be no realistic time lapse; now Eyre is Sheriff with seven aldermen between him and mayoralty, and instantly he is Lord Mayor and seven aldermen are dead. But the seven loom larger in analysis then they do in the context of the play. It must be remembered that none are characters in the play; they don't even have names. Their deaths are not mourned or regretted onstage or in the audience because in the context of the play they are not even human beings, but are nameless and actionless. The problem will be further softened when the plot is studied in relationship to the rest of the play.

Because of the wide span of the plot a few pertinent scenes have been omitted. It was noted earlier that Dekker has not dramatized the initial offer by Lacy to aid Eyre in the purchase of the ship's cargo. The scene (II.iii) begins after most of the arrangements have been made. A recent writer describes the business deal as a “sharp practice of which the modern equivalent would be obtaining credit by false trade references. …”15 L. C. Knights comments on this description:

Certainly the bargain by which Eyre gains ‘full three thousand pound’ is not very reputable, but there is no need to make much of it, or to connect it, as Dr. Robertson does, with ‘the wave of speculation’ which was then affecting all classes. Dekker merely intends to show that fortune is on the side of the good-hearted tradesman; it is characteristic that he slurs over the issues without thinking very hard about them.16

The prose source for the play does describe this business deal in more detail than the play, and includes an element of deception that can be described as “sharp practice”. The simplest description of the situation in the play, however, is that Eyre borrows money from Lacy to make an investment that later turns out to be profitable. By eliminating the “shady” details Dekker has not slurred “over the issues”, but has created a new and honorable situation. Knights's slighting remark would be justified if Dekker had included the deception and had continued to portray Eyre in a complimentary fashion. Thus Knights is guilty of judging both Dekker and Eyre in terms of the prose source rather than the play itself. It would seem, as a matter of fact, that Dekker did think about the issues involved. In the prose source Dame Eyre advises her husband:

Be not known that you bargain for your own self, but tell him that you do it in behalf of one of the chief aldermen in the city.17

This subterfuge is to hide the fact that Eyre cannot pay the balance of the sale price until he sells part of the cargo. Later in the source Simon actually disguises himself as a rich man. Dekker not only eliminates all of the damning details, he also makes Eyre a genuine alderman, who quite rightfully dresses himself in his gown of office to receive the ship's captain. Dekker, then, consciously purifies the character of the man he is displaying as a model of the rising middle class.

A potential scene in which Eyre becomes Lord Mayor and tells his household of it or celebrates it is also absent from the play. There are several reasons for this omission. First, the scene would be a repetition in kind of the scenes concerning the promotion to Sheriff; secondly, occurring so late in the action, it would harm the effect of the last scenes of the play by providing two climaxes, one for his personal triumph and one for his public deeds.

All of these omissions, however, point to a rather peculiar aspect of the Simon Eyre action. There is a great deal of off-stage incident; there is also much amusing and energetic discussion onstage; but there is very little dramatized action directly related to the Eyre action. The great events in Simon's life—the acquisition of wealth, the attainment of the civic offices, and the construction of Leadenhall—are talked about, before and after the fact, but none are dramatized. Dekker very severely restricts the locale to the shoemaker shop where none of these incidents can take place, and whenever Simon leaves the shop he is accompanied by the troop of journeymen and apprentices. The effect of this technique is to emphasize the locale and the group. Simon is important as a character, but the whole group of shoemakers (including Simon, Rafe, and Lacy) is equally important to the meanings in the play.


The tendency of Elizabethan playwrights to compose plays with multiple plots has generated a good deal of critical comment. It is no longer fashionable to criticize a play solely on the grounds that it encompasses several actions, but a discussion and evaluation of the nature and effects of such richness is still valid. Bradbrook defends sub-plots as follows:

It is true that the Elizabethans sometimes built a play from two quite unconnected stories, but this happens far less frequently than it is usual to suppose. For the subplot was contrasted and not interwoven with the main action: it reflected upon it, either as a criticism or a contrast, or a parallel illustration of the same moral worked out in another manner, a kind of echo or metaphor of the tragedy.18

She is, of course, speaking of tragedy here, and this fact no doubt explains the apparent disapproval of “interwoven” plots—that is, comedy or farce is not to be too closely related to the tragic action. It is assumed that Bradbook does not object to interwoven plots when they are of similar mood. The two actions in King Lear, for example, are interwoven in the sense that characters freely cross from one action to the other. In addition, the actions are interdependent; Edmund's early triumph over Edgar puts the bastard son in a position to later order Cordelia's death. Interdependent and interwoven actions may thus serve to unify a play. But the implied problem with tragedy is the effect of the mixture of moods within a play, and, as a matter of fact, Bradbrook goes on to discuss this problem in The Changeling and other plays. This problem can also present itself in essentially non-tragic dramas into which plots with serious moods are introduced.

When the three plots of Shoemakers' Holiday are combined to make the total play there are a variety of inter-reactions, which produce changes in the nature and effect of the individual plots. All three plots, for example, are alike in their simplicity, their concentration on skeletal story. But the result of their combination is one of richness, variety, and even complexity; so much so that a modern reviewer has complained of its “baffling complexities of plot and subplot. …”19 The Eyre plot moves forward smoothly, without complication. The other two plots, with their minor turns and hesitancies, provide the necessary dramatic conflict. That is not to say that the other plots exist in the play merely to make the Simon Eyre story theatrical. As will be seen, they have a more important function as well.

One of the most important effects of the combination is in the play's time scheme. Mable Buland, in a study of Elizabethan playwrights' use of time, comments that in the play “Dekker has produced an effect of greater cohesion than properly belongs” to it.20 The objection implied is that the three plots cannot begin at the same time and end together if any attention is paid to a realistic calendar of events. But they do seem to, and this is due to the way in which they are joined. The principal culprit is the Eyre plot. As noted above, the plot out of context seems abrupt, the rise too rapid—and on a calendar it is. When scenes from the other two plots are interlaced with it, however, it seems as if there is a sufficient time lapse. Note particularly the time between the promotion to Sheriff and Eyre's next appearance as Lord Mayor. Simon is last onstage at Otley's home in III.iii; although his shoemakers are seen and he is mentioned frequently, he as a character does not reappear again until the first scene of the last act. Dramatically he has been gone a long time—sufficient time, in fact, to make his new position as Lord Mayor acceptable despite the seven aldermen.

A similar effect appears in the Rafe-Jane plot. It was noted that the first two scenes of this plot concerned Rafe's departure and his return, an almost ludicrous juxtaposition. In the complete story, however, the two scenes are separated by eight scenes of the two other plots. So many scenes intrude that the character is practically forgotten and his return at this point gives the effect of a considerable time lapse, which serves its own and the Eyre plot purposes. If, of course, Rafe's character or the plot situation had been more complex, making greater demands on the memory, this break would cause confusion, but the only things the audience needs to recall are Rafe's marriage to Jane, his gift of the shoes, and the fact that he has been in the army.

Separated, the three stories seem to have quite different and sometimes conflicting emotional tones or atmospheres. Rafe and Jane's story—with its overtones of war, Rafe's wound, and apparent death—is pathetic and, alone, almost somber. That of Rose and Lacy is a mixture in itself; there are elements of the romance combined with intrigue comedy, in which disguise and mistaken identity are employed. Simon Eyre's plot is part history, part comedy in city manners, described by Hazelton Spencer as “depicted with a gusto so nearly Chaucerian that the combination is irresistible”.21 The atmosphere of this last plot permeates the play as a whole, but enough of the romantic and pathetic moods survive in combination with the robust earthiness to produce an impression of completeness or depth of view. As Shakespeare, in the three Henry VI plays, developed a composite picture of chaos on three levels of English society—the army, the nobility, and the commonalty—Dekker here succeeds in producing a realistic spectrum of emotional tone. The variety of tone, and more particularly the scope of society depicted in the play are characteristic of Dekker. As will be seen, the same effects are also present in such plays as Honest Whore II and If It Be Not Good. It is the shoemaker milieu that predominates here, however, and despite the fact that the Eyre plot comprises a minority of the total play, Simon “is the comic center and the realistic center of the play”.22 The Eyre action dominates first through the strength of the scenes themselves and the dynamism of Eyre's personality, and secondly through the fact that the two other plots with operate partly within the shoemaker locale.

Furthermore, both the Lacy-Rose and the Rafe-Jane actions are actually modified in tone through contact with the shoemakers. A certain coldness that results in part from the fact that Rose and Lacy are not allowed courtship scenes, and from the intrigue comedy elements, is lessened by Lacy's associations with the shoemakers. More particularly, one scene in the Rafe-Jane action is strongly affected. Alone, Rafe's return wounded from the wars and his loss of Jane are too pathetic in relation to the total tone of the play. But he returns to the vitality of Eyre's shop, and his scene is preceded by the light satire on Dame Eyre's vanity and followed by Simon's triumphant return as Sheriff. In the midst of this his sorrow cannot dominate. In this context fears of real tragedy are impossible.


Dekker employs a series of devices to achieve unity in the play. The first of these involves parallels or direct comparisons of characters in separate actions. The most comprehensive of these similarities comes in part from the source of the play—that is, the occupation of shoemaker. Within the general classification there are variations; Eyre is the shopowner, Rafe is a journeyman, and Lacy, of course, is only an imitation shoemaker. As will be seen in later chapters Dekker makes frequent use of disguise as a plot device. Bradbrook notes that “Disguises generally mean a drop in social status, …”23 and here as elsewhere the playwright conforms to that pattern. The only exception in the plays to be studied is Gazetto in Match Me in London. As a shoemaker Lacy is protected from the spying eyes of his adversaries and he is free to move about in London. On this score the device is merely a plot expedient, but in this play there is something more than the easy assumption of another identity. Lacy did work as a shoemaker on the continent and he does so again here on Tower Street. His ability to pass as a craftsman is demonstrated among others of the craft; he is accepted by them and not just by Otley and Lincoln. This acceptance plays an important part in his action. He ultimately wins the King's pardon and intercession on two counts: as a lover, and as someone who has actually worked at this happy craft. His character has somehow improved through these associations. Even Otley, early in the play, considers this fact to be to Lacy's betterment. He says in an aside, “And yet your cosen Rowland might do well / Now he hath learn'd an occupation” (I.i.42-3). To work at a trade, in this play as well as in others written by Dekker, is a kind of virtue in itself, a mark of merit.

Rafe, too, benefits by his associations with the shoemakers. In his troubles with Hammon his fellows “rally round”, demonstrating a comradery and a group loyalty. There is a clear consciousness of class, with attendant antagonisms to other groups. Firk, for example, takes a positive delight in gulling Otley and Lincoln as he sends them off to the wrong wedding. Firk functions here in a manner not unlike that of the intrigue slave in Roman comedy, enjoying every moment of his wit; but he aids a fellow artisan rather than a profligate young master. The scene is replete with references to the trade: “… my profession is the Gentle Craft” (IV.iv.90-1), “no, shal I proue Iudas to Hans? No, shall I crie treason to my corporation” (IV.iv.96-7), and “ha, ha, heres no craft in the Gentle Craft” (IV.iv,144-45). A similar group spirit appears in the scene in which the shoemakers rescue Jane from Hammon and his followers. Hodge opens the scene with a speech to his troop of journeymen:

My masters, as we are the braue bloods of the shooemakers, heires apparant to saint Hugh, and perpetuall benefactors to all good fellowes, thou shalt haue no wrong: were Hammon a king of spades he should not delue in thy close without thy sufferaunce. …


A few moments later he faces down Hammon's followers with, “My maisters and gentlemen, neuer draw your bird spittes, shoemakers are steele to the backe, men euery inch of them, al spirite” (V.ii.30-2).

A great part of this spirit emanates from Simon Eyre himself. In the first scene of the play, finding that the officers will not relent and cancel Rafe's impressment, he recommends Rafe to them with comparisons to Hector, Hercules, and Prince Arthur, among others, and urges Rafe to

fight for the honour of the Gentle Craft, for the gentlemen Shoomakers, the couragious Cordwainers, the flower of saint Martins, the mad knaues of Bedlem, Fleetstreete, Towerstreete, and white Chappell, cracke me the crownes of the French knaues, a poxe on them, cracke them, fight, by the lord of Ludgate, fight my fine boy!

(I.i. 211-16)

Throughout the play Eyre repeats his refrain, noted above, in which he distinguishes between nobility of rank and the true nobility of those born to be shoemakers.

Almost all of these references throughout the play refer specifically to the shoemaker trade, but at one point the idea is extended to include all tradespeople. When Otley complains that Rose is interested only in courtiers, Eyre advises her:

a Courtier, wash, go by, stand not vppon pisherie pasherie: those silken fellowes are but painted Images, outsides, outsides Rose, their inner linings are torne: no my fine mouse, marry me with a Gentleman Grocer like my Lord Maior your Father, a Grocer is a sweet trade, Plums, Plums: had I a sonne or Daughter should marrie out of the generation and bloud of the shoe-makers, he should packe: what, the Gentle trade is a liuing for a man through Europe, through the world.


The second parallel between characters in separate plots unites Rafe and Lacy even more closely—that is, their secondary occupation as soldiers. They are both, in the fashion suitable to their social class, impressed for the army. Lacy, of course, is to be Rafe's superior officer, but the army duty produces similar problems for the two men—separation from wife or sweetheart. Incidentally, a further link is provided by the fact that the official who impressed Rafe and the other Londoners is the Lord Mayor, Rose's father and Lacy's antagonist. The war or soldier element is something more than a device to link plots, however. A definite contrast is set up by the playwright in the characters' reactions to the situation and the effect the situation has upon the two characters. Certainly it is not accidental that the incident in which Lacy is told he must assume his army command is immediately followed by that in which Rafe, too, is ordered in, ironically by Lacy. Lacy, the gentleman and officer, has made arrangements (at this point only temporary) to avoid his service in order to seek out his sweetheart, yet it is he who tells Rafe that he must serve and be separated from his wife. The juxtaposition of these two scenes from the two plots seems to be intended to comment upon the unwarranted advantages of the privileged class. Rafe is a passive element in the situation, while Lacy can manipulate events to his advantage. Rafe, too, is depicted later as suffering the real effects of war as he returns wounded, while Lacy is knighted to redeem the honor he lost in France by not being there. The foot soldier is maimed and the officer is titled.

The final common “occupation” to be found in the play is the Civic officer, the position of Lord Mayor of London which is held first by Otley and later, of course, by Simon Eyre. The only recognition of Otley's tenure of office, however, is in the statement mentioned above in which he is responsible for the impressment, and in the scene in which he tells Eyre he hopes to have him made sheriff.

A variation of this pattern of parallel occupations is the way in which Hodge and Firk act as minor Simon Eyres. When Eyre becomes sheriff he deeds his shop to Hodge, and Firk moves up to Hodge's position of foreman; success for Simon Eyre is reflected within the ranks of the shoemakers. More significantly, however, the shoemakers (Eyre, Hodge, and Firk) function in similar ways in the two other plots of the play. Apart from the business transaction of the ship's cargo and his acceptance of the civic promotions, Eyre acts in the play primarily for others. He tries to aid Rafe at the outset, helps his employees, provides the feast for the apprentices, gains market advantages for shoemakers, builds Leadenhall, and contributes to the solution of Lacy's problems. In a limited fashion Firk and Hodge do the same thing. Firk tricks Otley and Lincoln, which allows Lacy and Rose to be married; and Firk and Hodge together are the principal agents in Jane's rescue from Hammon.

Perhaps the most important device by which Dekker unites the three plots is the participation of characters in several actions of the play. Several of these have already been noted. Simon Eyre acts in the Rafe-Jane plot at the outset and later becomes an important character in the Lacy-Rose plot. The action that Eyre takes in favor of Lacy in his problem with the King is motivated in part by the aid Lacy gave to Eyre in the ship's cargo transaction. In a sense Lacy's aid helped make Eyre sufficiently influential to aid Lacy. It is somewhat ironic that the money loaned by Lacy to Simon was originally given to Lacy by Lincoln and Otley. These “twenty Portugese” allow Eyre to make the down-payment on the cargo, which Otley later shares. Otley's investment is greater than his proportionate returns, and Simon Eyre is an early example of a businessman profiting with borrowed money.

Hammon also participates in two actions, functioning almost identically in both. As a suitor for Rose he threatens to make the separation of Rose and Lacy permanent. Later the planned wedding with Jane threatens to do the same thing to Jane and Rafe.

Finally there is Otley, who serves as an important character in the Rose-Lacy action as her father and a principal obstacle in the path of their marriage. In the Eyre plot he is the Lord Mayor and partner who promotes Simon Eyre to the position of Sheriff; and he is the Mayor who impresses Rafe and later mistakes Jane and Rafe for his own daughter and son-in-law.

These character cross-pollinations serve the play in a fashion besides the linking of one plot to another. They tend to give a broader view of all the characters because they are portrayed in a variety of activities. Otley is seen not only in his principal role as father-objector, but also as a business man, as host to the Eyre family. Fortunately for himself and the play, Lacy becomes something more than the young man who deserts his army to search for his sweetheart. He becomes a useful member of an admirable group of men, enjoying their beer and aiding a most likeable fellow, Simon Eyre, in his rise to fame and fortune. Hammon alone is merely functional; but perhaps more interest in him would produce concern for his successive failures in his search for a wife. As a matter of fact, Harbage says that Hammon “lingers in our minds as a plaintive and appealing figure; we hope that he found a heart-free maiden at last”.24 The character's forlorn exit is, however, immediately followed by the entrance of Lincoln and Otley, and audience sympathy for Hammon should be quickly changed to glee at the upsetting of these nobles.

Dekker also relates the separate actions by including incidents from two actions within one scene unit so that one plot blends into another. Partly because of the characters common to several plots, Dekker is able to present two actions simultaneously, or at least successively. This is a common practice for the last scene of a multiple plot play, but here the technique is brought near to a maximum effectiveness throughout the play. All in all eight scene units of the play include incidents of more than one plot. This number does not include those scenes (I.iii-iv; II.i-ii; IV.i-ii; and IV.iii-vi) between which the break appears to be primarily editorial rather than dramatic. A few examples will illustrate the technique.

The long, continuous, first scene includes incidents of two plots and introduces the characters of the third plot. Here the characters who appear in two actions link the incidents like a chain. Lincoln and Otley talk; Lacy and his cousin Askew join the discussion; the first two depart, and in a short while the Eyre group enters to talk to Lacy and Askew; finally these two leave and the Eyre group remains to bid farewell to Rafe.

Another scene, III.iii, employs a different technique. The party given by Otley is ostensibly to honor Simon Eyre as Sheriff, and as such contributes to Eyre's plot. But Eyre's contribution to the celebration, the dance of the shoemakers, provides the occasion for Lacy to find Rose, and for her to recognize him. One incident, then, contributes to two plots.

A final example of scenes with two actions is V.ii, in which yet another variation is employed. Here, the two actions are not simultaneous, but successive and parallel. The wedding party, consisting of Hammond and the masked Jane, is accosted by Rafe and the shoemakers. After the debate the “attackers” are triumphant and Hammon leaves the field, and the “new” couple, Rafe and Jane, remain. At this point another group of “attackers” arrives, Lincoln, Otley, and their supporters, who think the couple to be Rose and Lacy. After a short parody of the first discussion the couple is unmasked and these “attackers” are in a sense repulsed.

The cohesive devices discussed thus far might be subject to criticism because most of them are just that—devices. They display a high degree of skill in plotting, in manipulation of several intrigues, but they remain within the limited realm of technique. Unless a reason exists for uniting these apparently disparate actions the play is only an enjoyable exercise in technique. Reasons do exist, however, on a thematic level.

The Rafe-Jane story is essentially one of the triumph of love over social obstacles. The original separation is brought about by the wars with France, and although there seems to be some regulation prohibiting the impressment of a newly married man, Rafe, totally without influence or social position, is subject to the commands of those above him. That it is his position in society that forces him to serve is made quite clear in the play by the direct comparison of his plight with Lacy's solution of the same problem. Despite Lacy's promise to look after him—“Thou shalt not want, as I am a gentleman” (I.i.177)—Rafe's name appears on the casualty lists and he returns to London on crutches. Despite Simon Eyre's silent promise to care for Jane—“But gentle maister and my louing dame, / As you haue alwaies beene a friend to me, / So in my absence thinke vpon my wife” (I.i.199-201)—she is cast out of Eyre's household. Contrasted to the real pain they suffer are the more traditional romantic difficulties of Rose and Lacy, to whom they are linked by the simultaneously sympathetic and affluent Hammon. Jane, believing Rafe to be dead, is in no position to deny the urgings of Hammon. To refuse would be folly. Hammon specifically acknowledges their difference of position; “Thy wealth I know is little, my desires / Thirst not for gold” (III.iv.53-4), he says to Jane. Later he attempts to buy her from Rafe. But with the aid of the shoemakers Rafe overcomes these obstacles, and Jane, given a choice between the two men, states her feelings in very specific terms, “Thou art my husband and these humble weedes / Makes thee more beautiful than all his wealth” (V.ii.55-6).

Although Lacy serves as a social contrast to Rafe, he too has problems which stem from differences in social rank. Lincoln and Otley, again and again, state their objections in these terms. Lincoln is most to the point in the last scene of the play when he objects to the King, “Her bloud is too too base” (V.v.101-02). Otley is at once more ambiguous and more realistic. To Lincoln he says, “Too meane is my poore girle for his high birth” (I.i.11), but to Eyre he reveals a prejudice against courtiers and a preference for the moneyed middle class—“There came of late, / A proper Gentleman of faire reuenewes, / Whom gladly I would call sonne in law” (III.iii.32-4). Clearly, to be of the working class is not enough, for when he is told that Rose has eloped he responds, “A fleming butter boxe, a shoomaker / Will she forget her birth? Requite my care / With such ingratitude?” (IV.iv.42-4). But the two young people do succeed in marrying, and the King speaks the central idea of this action, “Dost thou not know, that loue repects no bloud? / Cares not for difference of birth or state” (V.v.104-05).

This theme is a sub-division of the theme of the play as a whole. It is not only love that does not respect birth or state, but also success in general. Achievement, promotion, advancement of all kinds are pictured in the play. For several of the characters in the play Simon Eyre is instrumental to success. At one point, when Dame Eyre herself scolds the journeymen, Simon reminds her, “haue not I tane you from selling tripes in Eastcheape, and set you in my shop, and made you haile fellowe with Simon Eyre, the shoomaker?” (II.iii.60-2). Her reactions to success become a matter for satire. When Eyre sets out to buy the ship's cargo she has a premonition, “I do feele honour creepe vpon me, and which is more, a certaine rising in my flesh, but let that passe” (II.iii.133-35). And when Eyre becomes Sheriff her first concern is for suitable clothes—new shoes, farthingales, French hoods and periwigs. She takes on airs, asking Hans, “Hans pray thee tie my shooe” (III.ii.25), and passing out three penny gratuities to the workmen.

The shoemakers, too, rise up the social scale; Hodge takes over Eyre's shop and Firk becomes foreman. Eyre tells them that opportunity is open to all, that “you shall liue to be Sheriues of London” (III.ii.137-38). They take his counsel to heart, and after the celebration at Otley's home Hodge spurs his workmen with, “plie your worke to day, we loytred yesterday, to it pell mel, that we may liue to be Lord Maiors, or Aldermen at least” (IV.i.2-4).

Simon Eyre is, of course, the central example of the opportunities for success. As he rises from shoemaker to Alderman, rich man, Sheriff, and Lord Mayor he sings out his refrain “Prince am I none, yet am I princely born” on every occasion. Stoll, referring to the repeated description of “honest” Iago, says, “This various and appropriate repetition is both a simplifying and a unifying device. …”25 Eyre's refrain performs a similar function in this play.

Although one writer, concerned perhaps by the lack of complication in the Eyre action, maintains that the “main plot has to do with the love of young Lacy and the mayor's daughter”,26 most critics consider the Eyre action to be central in the play.27 Some have gone to far as to suggest that the other plots were added for mere variety's sake28 or to strengthen an otherwise weak story. But if the Eyre action is indeed the main one, the structure of the play is not typical. Normally a play with several plots contains one plot that is obviously major and one or two others that are just as obviously subordinate to the first. To these plots the term “sub-plot” has been assigned. Sub-plots are usually physically subordinate as well. That is, less time and fewer lines are devoted to them than to the main plot. But here, the Lacy-Rose plot is developed in more detail than the Eyre plot, which in turn is not much “longer” than the action concerned with Rafe and Jane.29 While the term sub-plot could be applied to the Rafe-Jane action, it does not seem suitable for the Lacy-Rose action. More important than these quantitative arguments is the tightly interwoven effect revealed by the description and discussion in the preceding pages. The play is, as Creizenach says, one in which the actions are woven “closely and artistically together”30 They are woven so closely and are so mutually relevant that the structure is very nearly unique. The terms “main plot” and “sub-plot” just do not apply to this masterfully constructed drama.

Rather superficially, some critics have considered the play to have a number of structural weaknesses: the multiplicity of apparently diverse actions; the simplicity of forward movement of the individual actions; the lack of real complication or conflict; and the contradictory time scheme and opportune deaths of the seven aldermen.

It has been demonstrated here, however, that the individual actions are well articulated and that skillful devices have been employed to link the various actions and characters in a meaningful, coherent whole. In addition, the playwright seems to have been aware of the problems concerning the aldermen and time scheme, and has softened or disguised the problems somewhat. The other alleged weaknesses are in fact less weak than unique. Some of the structural procedures are unorthodox, outside of accepted practice, but they are both functional and highly effective in the play. Simplicity and multiplicity serve to further the basic meanings of the play—the exciting opportunities that were open to all irrespective of rank in this buoyant view of Elizabethan society. The result is a play that Fluchère properly calls “la comédie la plus entraînante de cette époque. …”31


  1. A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London; 1554-1640 A.D., ed. Edward Arber (London, 1876), III, 29.

  2. Wilfrid J. Halliday (ed.), Deloney's Gentle Craft (Oxford, 1928), p. 7. This work is bound with separate pagination after Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday, ed. J. R. Sutherland (Oxford, 1928).

  3. Although the two scenes (I.iii and I.iv) are separated in Bowers' edition, the effect in the theatre would be one of conjunction. Lacy says “Here in Towerstreete, with Ayre the shooe-maker, / Meane I a while to worke. …” (I.iii.19-20). Four lines later he exits, and the stage is indeed empty, but Eyre immediately enters from his shop. The action, therefore, is continuous. Thirty-five lines later Lacy enters and is subsequently hired.

  4. Once more two separate scenes (IV.iii and IV.iv) are indicated by Bowers, although the action is continuous. Otley leaves the “room” to go to receive Lincoln; Rose and Lacy decide and then run off; and Otley and Lincoln re-enter.

  5. Madeleine Doran, Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama (Madison, 1954), p. 259.

  6. Ibid., p. 260.

  7. Andrew Cecil Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (New York, 1949), p. 51.

  8. Gustav Freytag, Technique of the Drama, trans. E. J. MacEwan (Chicago, 1904), pp. 137 and 139.

  9. In Deloney's narrative, for example, the lovers are reconciled to the girl's father by means of their child, the result of their secret marriage.

  10. William L. Halstead, “Thomas Dekker's Early Work for the Theatre” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California, 1937), pp. 102-04.

  11. Charles Frederick Tucker Brooke, The Tudor Drama (Cambridge, Mass., 1911), p. 281.

  12. Alfred Harbage, Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions (New York, 1952), p. 174.

  13. Actually this is all that happens in the scene to serve the plot itself, but a certain amount of secondary complication is introduced that runs throughout the play. Both Eyre and his wife hesitate to hire the itinerant shoemaker, but the two journeymen insist, threatening to quit themselves if Eyre does not hire extra help. It is, perhaps, too much to suggest this as one of the earliest recorded instances of labor-management problems. The bickering between the journeymen and Dame Eyre occurs several times throughout the play as a minor conflict.

  14. “Critical Essay”, The Later Contemporaries of Shakespeare, Vol. III of Representative English Comedies, ed. Charles Mills Gayley (New York, 1914), 6.

  15. Hector M. Robertson, Aspects of the Rise of Economic Individualism (Cambridge, Eng., 1933), pp. 190-191.

  16. Lionel Charles Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (New York, 1936), p. 237.

  17. Halliday, p. 65.

  18. Muriel C. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge, Eng., 1957), p. 46.

  19. John Mason Brown, Two on the Aisle (New York, 1938), p. 202.

  20. Mable Buland, The Presentation of Time in the Elizabethan Drama (= Yale Studies in English, Vol. XLIV) (New York, 1912), 163.

  21. Elizabethan Plays (Boston, 1933), p. 632.

  22. John B. Moore, The Comic and the Realistic in English Drama (Chicago, 1925), p. 179.

  23. Muriel Clara Bradbrook, “Shakespeare and the Use of Disguise”, Essays in Criticism, II (April, 1952), 162.

  24. Rival Traditions, p. 175.

  25. Elmer Edgar Stoll, Shakespeare and Other Masters (Cambridge, Mass., 1940), p. 45.

  26. Benjamin Brawley, A Short History of the English Drama (New York, 1921), p. 103.

  27. Cf. Jones-Davies, I, 128; and Charles Frederick Tucker Brooke and Nathaniel Burton Paradise (eds.), English Drama, 1580-1642 (New York, 1933), p. 264.

  28. Thomas Marc Parrott and Robert Hamilton Ball, A Short View of Elizabethan Drama (New York, 1943), p. 108.

  29. Gayley, p. 6.

  30. Wilhelm Creizenach, The English Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, trans. Cecile Hugon (Philadelphia, 1916), p. 256.

  31. Henri Fluchère, “Thomas Dekker et le Drame Bourgeois”, Cahiers du Sud, XX (June, 1933), 195.

Peggy Faye Shirley (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5791

SOURCE: “Dekker's Use of Serious Elements in Comedy: The Shoemaker’s Holiday,” in Serious and Tragic Elements in the Comedy of Thomas Dekker, Institut für Englishe Sprach und Literatur, 1975, pp. 12-36.

[In the following essay, Shirley explores Dekker's mixture of gravity and levity in his depiction of situations and characters in The Shoemaker's Holiday.]

Fredson Bowers notes in connection with The Shoemakers' Holiday, “On 15 July 1599 Henslowe had advanced £3 towards buying the book from Dekker, but the first recorded performance is that at court on 1 January 1600”;1 the first quarto, not listed in the Stationers' Register, is dated 1600. The quarto copy, Professor Bowers points out, did not carry the dramatist's name on the title-page; the Dekker critic feels, however, that the information from Henslowe's diary and internal evidence from the play itself form a sufficient basis for attributing the play solely to Dekker, and he draws from his own previous study2 which concluded that an attempt to establish a theory of collaboration with Robert Wilson in the writing of this play was based on a forgery by J. Payne Collier.3

Professor Bowers' edition of Dekker's drama includes the short introductory piece addressed to all who follow the shoemaker's trade that refers to the presentation of the play before Elizabeth on New Year's Day in 1600. What is, perhaps, Dekker's first comment on the nature of comedy is contained in this foreword:

… I present you here with a merrie conceited Comedie. … Take all in good worth that is well intended, for nothing is purposed but mirth, mirth lengthneth long life. …4

This purpose is, in fact, what Dekker ultimately achieves in The Shoemakers's Holiday, for the overall effect of the play is one of pleasure, good fun, a sense of well-being in seeing everything work out satisfactorily. This predominant tone is interrupted in a few places where Dekker, in order to remind his audience that reality involves moments of sensations other than pleasure, introduces scenes of sober weight. Even in these cases, however, Dekker makes his point and then uses some comic situations to return his spectators to the light-hearted mood he intends for them to enjoy.

The foreword of the play is succeeded by two songs presented in Professor Bowers' edition before the text of the play;5 no evidence within the text itself points out the place in which each should properly appear.6 Of these two, the first “Three-mans Song” presents the traditional picture of the young man who, even as he begs his love to listen while he tells of his love for her, suspects that she may prove unfaithful; the second song is a drinking song. The two are brought into this discussion because the use of such songs is often included in studies of the elements referred to as comic devices.7

After the central problem of the play—the love of Lacy and Rose for one another and the opposition of each one's family to the marriage—has been presented, the reader is introduced to a group of characters whose antics supply much of the play's buffoonery. Simon Eyre—the head of this group and the man whose promotions to sheriff and, finally, to Lord Mayor connect him with the characters of nobler rank in more than a proprietor-clientéle relationship—performs the necessary introduction of his cohorts. As he presents a petition to Lacy and Askew, he says

… I am Simon Eyre, the mad Shoomaker of Towerstreete, this wench with the mealy mouth that will neuer tire, is my wife I can tel you, heres Hodge my man, and my foreman, heres Firke my fine firking iourneyman, and this is blubbered Iane, al we come to be suters for this honest Rafe. …8

These figures, although they sometimes serve as foils to draw attention to events among the gentry or to emphasize them, are individually important to the action of the play. The traits mentioned in the descriptive epithets of Eyre's introduction become more pronounced in the characters's personalities as the play advances; often it is the emphasis on or exaggeration of these very traits that makes the figures comical.

With the petition for his dismissal from military service denied, Rafe finds he must leave his newly wed Jane; the stage is, thus, prepared for their parting. The event should normally be a solemn affair—Jane may never see her husband again, and they have been married only a brief time. Yet Rafe's parting gift—not a ring, a jewel, or a kerchief, but a pair of shoes with Jane's name printed on them—is so out of order as far as romantic tradition is concerned that the scene is laughable rather than saddening. The audience is accustomed to a lover's farewell request that his beloved often take out the blade or jewel he has given her at parting and that she think about him as she turns over in her hands the object involved; to such an audience the request by Rafe that Jane think of him every morning as she pulls on the shoes he presents to her is indecorous enough to make the occasion considerably less than heart-rending. Dekker has, thus, taken a potentially grave situation and, by means of indecorum, caused his audience to accept it as a comic affair.

A new scene follows this incident, and it begins with the introduction of Rose, Lacy's beloved. She weaves a garland of flowers for him, lamenting her father's protective measures which have separated her from her sweetheart. The audience follows her speech, but before the despair of her situation can take effect on her listeners, her maid Sybil comes in and disrupts whatever empathy may have been building. Again, then, a potentially sober incident has been directed toward a comic resolution—in this case by means of the presentation of the flippant Sybil. This young woman is a carefree individual; she is interested in her mistress's welfare, but she is more interested in the prizes she gets as rewards for running errands. Somehow seriousness never touches Sybil; she continues to function on the surface, and her shallow attitude keeps the gravity of Rose's situation from touching the audience. This discussion of Sybil's frivolous manner, however, is not intended to imply that without her presence Rose's speech would work an Aristotelian catharsis of pity; Rose has a problem, yes, but her speech grows more and more hyperbolic until it becomes artificial. She ends with these lines springing from the recognized melancholic lover tradition:

… wretched I
Will sit and sigh for his [Lacy's] lost companie.

(I, ii, 63-4)

The audience realizes her grief is overdone and, thus, does not become caught up in the kind of vicarious despair that viewers of a tragic situation often, at least temporarily, experience during the unfolding of a drama. The prevailing comic mood therefore triumphs again, or at least it fails to yield to a real display of despair where Rose's plight is concerned.

Disguise is an agent frequently used in comedy, and it is responsible for a large number of the amusing situations in Dekker's Shoemakers' Holiday. Lacy cannot openly woo Rose for two reasons: (1) there is opposition to his courtship of a girl from a lower social class, and (2) he has been given a commission in the king's army and is, therefore, supposed to be in France. Not to be thwarted in his pursuit of Rose, however, the young nobleman dons the guise of a shoemaker and plans to become an apprentice to Simon Eyre. In explaining his disguise to the audience, Dekker's character finds an opportunity to employ the twofold purpose of comedy mentioned by Sir Philip Sidney9 and reiterated later by John Dennis10—to “instruct” as well as to “delight.” Lacy addresses love and expresses the following philosophical argument:

O loue, how powerfull art thou, that canst change
High birth to barenesse, and a noble mind,
To the meane semblance of a shooemaker?

(I, iii, 10-2)

This address is part of a speech similar to the one by Rose mentioned earlier. Lacy's distress over the opposition to his courting and marrying Rose is offset, too, by the entrance of blustering comic figures. This time it is the banter among Simon Eyre and his crew, following immediately upon Lacy's exit from stage, that keeps the audience from dwelling on any mournful tone connected with the injustice of Lacy's separation from Rose.

In the midst of the clamor that is supposedly the normal state around Eyre's shop, Lacy enters in his shoemaker's garb. He calls himself Hans and speaks a Dutch dialect that adds to the humor of his character for these reasons: (1) it is a garbled imitation of the dialect it represents; and (2) Simon's hands do not understand the foreign speech, and they comment on the language among themselves.11

The next incident that adds material to the comic structure of the play is found in a scene with Rose; Sybil; Hammon, “… a proper gentleman, a citizen by birth …” (II, ii, 58-59); and his brother-in-law Warner. The two men have come onto the grounds of Old Ford, the estate where Rose has been confined, to search for a deer they have sighted. The whole scene is line after line of witty repartée loaded with puns and fired back and forth as Hammon and Warner shift the object of their pursuit from the deer to Rose and Sybil. The men are serious in their attempts to woo the ladies, but Rose and Sybil thwart them at every turn with joking or sarcasm. The following lines of dialogue exemplify the verbal attack Hammon and Warner have to endure:

Came not a bucke this way?
No, but two Does.

(II, ii, 13)

Which way [did the deer flee] my sugar-candie, can you shew?
Come vp good honnisops, vpon some, no.

(II, ii, 26-27)

A deere, more deere is found within this place.
But not the deere (sir) which you had in chace.

(II, ii, 30-31)

What kind of hart is that (deere hart) you seeke?
A hart, deare hart.

(II, ii, 37-38)

To loose your heart, it's possible you can?
My heart is lost.
Alacke good gentleman.
This poore lost hart would I wish you might find.
You by such lucke might proue your hart a hind.
Why Lucke had hornes, so haue I heard some say.
Now God and't be his wil send Luck into your way.

(II, ii, 39-44)

The audience here feels some sympathy for Hammon because he is ignorant of his position as the butt of Rose's pointed remarks. The sympathy, however, is not allowed to run to any depth because the listeners know that Rose belongs to Lacy. They know, therefore, that her apparently inhumanly apathetic treatment of Hammon does not make her a cold, scheming woman; she is capable of love, and she loyally bears that love for no one but Lacy. Hammon himself cannot be taken too seriously, either, because having failed to win Rose, he is going to turn his mind quickly toward the pursuit of Jane; later when he is faced with the fact that Jane has a live husband whom she loves, he will try to buy her from that husband. Members of the audience, then, having no sincerity of character before them that is worthy of their sympathy are able to join in the lightheartedness that is the prevailing quality of the drama.

Another reason for the audience's not dwelling on Hammon's plight is that immediately following the scene of the verbal battle, there is a scene at Eyre's shop involving the witty characters Firke and Hodge; these two, having been bested by their master's wife, are threatening to leave the business. They have used this threat before—to persuade Eyre to employ Hans as an apprentice—and the picture here, as in the first case, is almost that of two spoiled children who are going to run away from home unless their father does whatever is necessary to comfort them. Of course the spectators are going to enjoy this situation, particularly when the swaggering Eyre does take it upon himself to smooth out things for his apprentices.

Hammon, in the time lapse since he was last seen, has come to the point where he must declare his love for Rose openly. He tells her straightforwardly that he loves her—“… dearer than my heart …” (III, i, 11)—but her reaction is the same verbal parrying to which he was subjected in their first encounter with each other. Rose's father offers to force his daughter to accept the proposal, but Hammon rejects the prospect of “enforced love” (III, i, 50). As previously mentioned, he announces that he will direct his attention in the future to another:

There is a wench keepes shop in the old change,
To her will I, it is not wealth I seeke,
I haue enough, and wil preferre her loue
Before the world. …

(III, i, 51-54)

The next set of circumstances that allows the audience to enjoy the spirit of comedy is that connected with the preparation of the Eyre household to accept a change in social status—Simon is about to be appointed “Shiriffe,” (III, ii, 15) and his wife especially is concerned about the adjustments she feels she must make in order to fill the position of an official's wife. When sophisticated terms such as “compendious” and “tedious” (III, ii, 8) creep into her previously vulgar—often bawdy—speech, the shoemakers are quick to note the change. Firke, for example, comments on the incongruity between her new speech pattern and her natural manner:

O rare, your excellence is full of eloquence, how like a new carte wheele my dame speakes, and she lookes like an old musty ale-bottle going to scalding.

(III, ii, 9-11)

In addition to her speech, her clothes and hair style become objects of conversation; she wants to be sure that these aspects of her appearance, too, suit her advanced social rank. Firke and Hodge continue to tease her, but she misses the point of the remarks leveled at her vanity. Some of these remarks are spoken in “Asides,” but some of the failure to comprehend is the result of ignorance on her part, a factor that adds to the humor.

The comic principle at work here is that which involves pretense, the act of assuming an appearance different from the one that belongs to the individual naturally. Spectators laugh as they watch Margery attempt to “be what she is not” because her pose is so strikingly artificial, so affected in its manner. The people around her know her so well that such marked deviation in her behavior lets them know what she is doing. They laugh because they realize that she is performing, acting out a role. The members of the audience laugh for two reasons: (1) they, too, see Margery acting and are amused at the incongruity of her behavior with her birth; and (2) they hear and understand the remarks of Firke and Hodge, and they laugh because the import of the wit does not touch Margery (because of her mental obtuseness or because of her desire to ignore the barbs which would point out the foolishness of her pretension).

In a later scene, a gathering at the Lord Mayor's estate, Margery approaches her husband with her philosophy of behavior dictated by social status. Simon's answer—a clear statement of his negative opinion regarding acting unnaturally among his associates—is included in the following passage from the scene:

L. Ma.
Now by my troth Ile tel thee maister Eyre,
It does me good and al my breatheren,
That such a madcap fellow as thy selfe
Is entred into our societie.
I but my Lord, hee must learne nowe to putte on grauitie.
Peace Maggy, a fig for grauitie, when I go to
Guildhal in my scarlet gowne, Ile look as
demurely as a saint, and speake as grauely as
a Iustice of a peace, but now I am here at old
Foord, at my good Lord Maiors house, let it
go by, vanish Maggy, Ile be merrie, away
with flip flap, these fooleries, these
gulleries: what hunnie: prince am I none,
yet am I princly borne. …

(III, iii, 7-17)

Simon Eyre has some definite ideas about the manner in which he is to bear himself while he is performing the duties of his new office. He is not, however, going to allow the behavior thus defined to take the place of his normal patterns of conduct among his friends. Margery attempts to play the role of Lord Mayor's wife among her familiars, and she is made to look foolish because of her behavior. Simon Eyre wants to be no other when he is with those who expect him to be Simon Eyre; he reserves his official bearing for those situations in which he is expected to present a dignified appearance.

The entrance of Rafe, lamed from some military encounter, adds an element to the play that, considered in itself, is serious. Here Dekker is using one of the themes about which he personally seems to have had strong sentiments—the plight of the neglected soldier. Rafe comes in, and his crippled state becomes the object of various jokes and puns. The laughter is there, but it is not really the same kind of lighthearted, enjoyable laughter as that connected with the squabbles among Eyre's apprentices. From passages in some of Dekker's other plays,12 it is apparent that Rafe is only one of many soldiers who were returning from war injured—in a number of cases too crippled to work. Rafe is fortunate; his wound, even compounded by the misery of finding that no one knows where his wife Jane has gone, will not lead him to have to beg for a living. Since he is a shoemaker by trade, he works with his hands; the leg wound that would cost many their jobs does not put Rafe out of work. The audience attending this play would be familiar with the many soldiers who depended on society for their existence. These spectators would laugh warmheartedly with the character in the play because he is the victor, not the object of despair in the situation; nevertheless, they would not fail to catch Dekker's reference to a condition that was a very real problem to many.

What the dramatist has done in this scene is to introduce into his comedy a sobering reminder of actuality; he handles the event in such a manner, however, that the confrontation with reality does not spoil the comic atmosphere that the play has created for the audience to enjoy.

In the time intervening since his last appearance, Hammon has sought Jane and has found her. Dekker reintroduces him in soliloquy, and Hammon tells the audience that he has wooed the seamstress three times and has been refused all three times. In the traditional pain of unsuccessful courtship, he mourns:

… I am infortunate,
I stil loue one, yet no body loues me, …

(III, iv, 6-7)

Hammon then confronts Jane a fourth time and pleads again for her love. Their conversation is not a series of witty exchanges as was the dialogue between Hammon and Rose or Warner and Sybil. Jane is sincere in her speech with the ridiculously lovesick figure,13 but love for her own husband keeps her from entertaining any thoughts of yielding to Hammon's plea.

On hearing that Jane's husband was among those sent to France, Hammon produces a letter which lists Rafe as one of those soldiers killed in military service there. Jane grieves realistically for her supposedly dead husband; except that the audience has already seen Rafe alive and back in Eyre's service, this scene would breed tragic feeling in the audience that would endanger the accomplishment of the play's purpose in which “nothing is purposed but mirth.” Hammon, in determined pursuit, adds to her misery by continuing to plague her with protestations of his love. Actually, his proposals of marriage now become even more pressing than they have been previously; believing Rafe dead, Hammon thinks that there is absolutely no reason why Jane should not marry him. Jane repeatedly begs Hammon to cease his continual proposals, but he does not give in until he gets what he considers at least a faint glimmer of acceptance. Jane remarks:

                              Nay, for Gods loue peace,
My sorrowes by your presence more increase,
Not that you thus are present, but al griefe
Desires to be alone, therefore in briefe
Thus much I say, and saying bid adew,
If euer I wed man it shall be you.

(III, iv, 117-22)

When Jane does decide to marry Hammon, the prospective bridegroom sends a servant to Eyre's shop with one of Jane's shoes to be used as a measure in making her a new pair. The shoe falls, of course, into Rafe's hands, and he recognizes it as one of those he gave to his wife when he left her to go to France. The tradition mentioned in the discussion of their parting is, thus, picked up again as the parting token is used to identify and locate a lost lover. Here, as before, the use of the shoe to remind one of his beloved is amusing rather than touching. Somehow the picture of Rafe, clutching Jane's shoe and mourning over the fact that the wife he has lost is about to be married to someone else, is too outlandish to move the audience to pity. Thus Dekker once more uses a case of indecorum to turn a potentially sober situation into a comic scene.

Lacy, dressed as Hans the shoemaker, is able to see Rose on the pretense of fitting her with shoes. His disguise creates situations of comic irony, for his identity is known only to himself and to Rose; ignorance on the part of Rose's father, especially, makes possible some highly amusing speeches.

Firke, the apprentice whose clowning has been observed previously to some extent, is responsible for the comic turn taken by events which, otherwise, may have led to a tragic conclusion. A spy has revealed that Lacy is still in England rather than in France; as a result of his uncle's fervent search for him, Lacy and Rose make plans to be married as soon as possible. Firke implies that their marriage is forthcoming in the company of Lacy's uncle, Lincolne, and the Lord Mayor, but he purposely sends the searchers to the wrong church so that the wedding interrupted by them is that of Hammon and Jane rather than that of Lacy and Rose.

Before Lincolne and the Lord Mayor appear at the church where Hammon and Jane are to be married, Eyre's apprentices, intent on helping Rafe regain his wife, arrive there. Hodge reveals Rafe's presence to Jane, and she leaves Hammon's side immediately and goes to embrace her husband. At this point Hammon tries to buy Jane from Rafe, but Rafe tells Hammon in strong terms that gold will not separate him from his wife. Hammon, thwarted again in his pursuit of a wife, vows never to marry and leaves the stage.

The Lord Mayor and Lincolne, bent on stopping the wedding of Lacy and Rose, enter next. Thinking they have found the two for whom they have been searching, they approach Rafe and Jane, both of whom are masked. With the identities of these two characters concealed, Dekker allows Lincolne and the Lord Mayor to make fools of themselves; themselves the object of comic irony, they ignorantly make speeches about the blindness of those they assume are underneath the masks. As the realization that they have been made to look ridiculous by Firke's trick settles onto the Lord Mayor and Lincolne, a messenger brings word that the king is that day dining with Simon Eyre; the defeated but persistent pair head for the newly appointed Lord Mayor's house to plead with their ruler to dissolve the marriage of Lacy and Rose, for the news of that couple's wedding has been brought by the same messenger who has spoken of the king's whereabouts.

The king, a just man, does not want to separate Lacy and Rose. After some joking and sporting with Simon Eyre, he turns to the two young lovers; and, to please Lincolne and the former Lord Mayor, he declares the couple divorced. If the play had ended at this point, the comic atmosphere that has prevailed throughout the drama would have been strikingly disrupted. The king, however, decrees that the two whom he has separated are now rejoined as husband and wife. Tragedy has been averted—to the dismay of those characters who did not look for such an outcome.

With the marriages thus satisfactorily established, the play can be brought to a close. The king enjoys a banquet at Simon Eyre's home, but his eyes are on the upcoming war with France:

Come Lordes, a while lets reuel it at home,
When all our sports, and banquetings are done,
Warres must right wrongs which Frenchmen haue begun.

(V, v, 189-91)

The play ends, then, with marriages and a banquet, two of the devices which, according to Northrop Frye, are traditional ways of closing a comedy.14 The subject of war mentioned in the last line of the play serves as a realistic touch, a reminder to the characters that their merrymaking is not all that there is to life.

In this review of the essential events and situations that comprise The Shoemakers' Holiday, the following elements have been seen to perpetrate comedy:


Unexpected substitution that violates the general nature of tradition keeps a potentially moving scene from being touching.


Closely related to indecorum, incongruity of speech, dress, manner, or action is comical to an audience who knows the true nature of the individual concerned and can see the discrepancy. Walter Kerr devotes an entire chapter of his book on dramatic theory to a discussion of elements that are funny because they violate the expected or natural pattern.15


Speeches which contain extreme amplification of sentiment tend to amuse the audience rather than to stir them emotionally.


Lack of self-knowledge or knowledge of surrounding situations—in those cases where such a lack breeds no harm—causes spectators to smile indulgently from their “if-only-you-knew” stance. Henri Bergson brings out this idea in his statement, “… a comic character is generally comic in proportion to his ignorance of himself.”16 In tragedy this ignorance and the recognition that is its resolution17 add to the tragic nature of the hero involved because of the regrettable acts that frequently spring from such lack of knowledge. In comedy, however, the greatest injuries suffered seem to be those that are concerned with wounded vanity.18 Though this element is also common in tragedy—referred to then as hubris—there is a difference in its presentation in comedy. The comedy involves no malice, no irreversible misfortune, while the tragedy gives place to violence and incidents that bring irremediable harm—even death—to characters. This concept of the difference between the comic and tragic handling of pride is one possible amplification of Frye's statement, “Comedy is designed not to condemn evil, but to ridicule a lack of self-knowledge.”19 Comic ignorance does not give rise to serious injury; it does permit ridicule, but not to the point of being malicious. Most recognition that occurs in connection with a demonstration of ignorance in comedy brings a sheepish admission of a foolish position, not an awareness of guilt for some heinous act.

Disguise, Mask, Pretense

These three agents make possible comic irony or the comedy whose existence springs from situations whose characters and conditions are not what they seem to be. These various means of role-playing are inseparably related to some of the abstract elements already listed. Pretense, for example, tends to spawn some form of incongruity. Disguise always plays upon someone's ignorance; the result is generally irony, dramatic or verbal, amusing in a comic framework but often soberly pointed in tragedy.

Comic characters

The use of good-natured characters who are always finding subjects for sport—either among their peers or in another social group—keeps an audience in a comic mood. Dekker's play presents several successful comic characters, chief among whom is Simon Eyre.

In addition to these elements Thomas Dekker changes the course of potentially grave situations and shapes them into circumstances suitable to comedy. Northrop Frye, who sees all drama in terms of an ultimate resolution (a cycle of struggle, death, and rebirth)20 would hail Dekker's work because it illustrates a principle important to Frye: “… comedy contains a potential tragedy within itself.”21 There are three major examples of this approach to tragedy and reversal from it in The Shoemakers' Holiday:

(1) The first of these is the return of Rafe, wounded, from his war experience. As the previous discussion of his predicament has pointed out, Dekker uses Rafe to represent the wounded soldier of the era, a man frequently condemned to a life as a beggar. Rafe escapes that condemnation by assuming an air of acceptance regarding his lameness; rather than giving in to despair, he goes back to work as a shoemaker. Because he assumes mastery of the situation instead of allowing the situation to master him and dictate to him an existence of miserable self-pity, Rafe does not become a tragic figure. His potentially tragic circumstances work out happily under Dekker's hand; the result is that the members of the audience, through Rafe's lameness, are forced to stop in the midst of their hearty enjoyment long enough to remember that the darker aspect of reality is still a factor with which they must contend. Rafe's personal victory over the circumstances, however, makes the sobering moment fit acceptably within the comic framework. This incident is definitely the most notable of the serious elements involved in the play.

(2) Jane's sincere grief for her supposedly dead husband would give rise to a tragic turn of mind except for Dekker's arrangement of the scene. Although the news seems to be true to Jane, the audience know that Rafe is still alive; they have witnessed his return a few scenes earlier. Thus they can watch as Jane demonstrates her grief and yet not become involved, for they have knowledge of the situation that Jane does not have.

(3) The third situation with tones of potential tragedy is that of the love affair between Lacy and Rose. By means of Lacy's disguise and Firke's trickery, the couple manages to circumvent the family obstacles to their marriage. When the kinsmen find that they have been outwitted, they take the case to the king and ask him to dissolve the marriage. For a moment the audience is left open-mouthed; the play is a comedy, and the viewers expect it to end in marriage—yet before their eyes the sovereign humors the petitioners and decrees that the marriage between Lacy and Rose is dissolved. Dekker, however, does not leave his audience to wonder long; he has the king immediately declare the two lovers reunited in marriage. Whatever anxiety may have been developing is, thus, quickly dispelled; the potential tragedy of separation has been averted, and the comedy thus ends with the expected happy resolution.22


  1. Fredson Bowers, “Textual Introduction” to Thomas Dekker's The Shoemakers' Holiday, in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. by Fredson Bowers (4 vols. Cambridge: University Press, 1962), I, 9.

  2. Fredson Bowers, “Thomas Dekker, Robert Wilson, and The Shoemakers' Holiday,Modern Language Notes, LXIV (December, 1949), 517-19.

  3. Bowers, “Textual Introduction,” p. 9.

  4. Thomas Dekker, foreword to his Shoemakers' Holiday, in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. by Fredson Bowers (4 vols. Cambridge: University Press, 1962), I, 19.

  5. Thomas Dekker, “The first Three-mans Song” and “The second Three-mans Song,” in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. by Fredson Bowers (4 vols. Cambridge: University Press, (1962), I, 20-1.

  6. Bowers, “Textual Introduction,” p. 9.

  7. Kenneth Muir, ed., Elizabethan Lyrics: A Critical Anthology (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1958), pp. 31-2.

  8. Thomas Dekker, The Shoemakers' Holiday, in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. by Fredson Bowers, Vol. 1 (4 vols. Cambridge: University Press, 1962), I, i, 127-31. All further references to this work are from this edition and are cited in the text.

  9. Sir Philip Sidney, An Apologie for Poetrie, ed. by J. Churton Collins (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), p. 55.

  10. John Dennis, “A Large Account of the Taste in Poetry, and the Causes of the Degeneracy of It,” in The Critical Works of John Dennis, ed. by Edward Niles Hooker (2 vols. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1967), I, 284.

  11. This same kind of play on dialect may be seen in Firke's conversation regarding the captain of the Dutch vessel (II, iii, 115-132).

  12. Thomas Dekker, If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil Is In It (I, ii, 123-136) and The Pleasant Comedie of Old Fortunatus (I, i, 116-119).

  13. In the throes of lovers' melancholy, Hammon states his plea for Jane's love and makes the traditional declaration that his life depends on her acceptance of him:

    Say, iudge, what is thy sentence, life, or death?
    Mercie or crueltie lies in thy breath.

    (III, iv, 56-7)

    It is interesting to note the similarity of this plea to that addressed to Queen Elizabeth by Dekker regarding the importance of her favor toward the drama:

    … your celestiall breath
    Must send vs life, or sentence vs to death.

    (Prologue, 17-8)

  14. Northrop Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” in Comedy: Plays, Theory, and Criticism, ed. by Marvin Felheim (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1962), p. 237.

  15. Walter Kerr, “The Comic Incongruity,” in Tragedy and Comedy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), pp. 144-65.

  16. Henri Bergson, Laughter, trans. by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1924), p. 29.

  17. Aristotle, The Poetics, trans. by S. H. Batcher in The Great Critics: An Anthology of Literary Criticism, ed. by James Harry Smith and Edd Winfield Parks (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1967), p. 39.

  18. Susanne K. Langer expresses an idea similar to this one in the following excerpt from her work Feeling and Form:

    In comedy, therefore, there is a general trivialization of the human battle. Its dangers are not real disasters, but embarrassment and loss of face.

    Susanne K. Langer, “The Great Dramatic Forms: The Comic Rhythm,” from Feeling and Form, in Comedy: Plays, Theory, and Criticism, ed. by Marvin Felheim (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1962), p. 252.

  19. Frye, p. 237.

  20. Ibid., p. 238.

  21. Ibid., p. 239.

  22. Robert Adger Law has written a study comparing Dekker's Lacy and Rose to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The critic omits one important parallel, however: the one that shows the two playwrights taking similar circumstances and working them out to suit their respective themes—Dekker comically and Shakespeare tragically.

    Robert Adger Law, “The Shoemakers' Holiday and Romeo and Juliet,Studies in Philology, XXI (April, 1924), 356-61.

David Scott Kastan (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5017

SOURCE: “Workshop and/as Playhouse: Comedy and Commerce in The Shoemaker's Holiday,” in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXXIV, No. 3, Summer 1987, pp. 324-37.

[In the essay below, Kastan maintains that The Shoemaker's Holiday is “a realistic portrait only of Elizabethan middle-class dreams—a fantasy of class fulfillment that would erase the tensions and contradictions created by the nascent capitalism of the late sixteenth-century.”]

Nothing is proposed but mirth,” Thomas Dekker assures his readers in the dedicatory epistle to The Shoemaker's Holiday. “I present you here with a merry conceited comedy,” he says, a play that had recently been acted before the Queen, that ever enthusiastic though hyper-sensitive theatre-goer, whose pleasure Dekker presents as evidence of the innocence of his offering: “the mirth and pleasant matter by her Highness graciously accepted, being indeed no way offensive.”

Certainly critics have generally taken Dekker at his word. We are told again and again that the play is “indeed no way offensive,” a triumph of middle-class vitality and generosity.1 Its moral anomalies, if acknowledged at all, are subordinated to the genial energies of the exuberant Simon Eyre and his shoemakers. “In The Shoemaker's Holiday,” writes Joel Kaplan, “faith is encouraged in the energy of a madcap lord of mirth who can wonderfully and magically revitalize a commonwealth.”2

But, of course, anomalies do exist: class antagonisms between Lincoln and the Lord Mayor frame the action; Rafe comes back wounded from the war in France, while the aristocratic Lacy deserts yet is eventually knighted; and Eyre's fortune is made in a sharp business practice in which at very least he is guilty of impersonating a city official. But we are never asked to dwell on these discords. The romantic logic of the plot overwhelms the social and economic tensions that are revealed: Rafe and Jane are reunited, Lacy and Rose are wed, and class conflicts dissolve in the harmonies celebrated and confirmed in the Shrove Tuesday banquet at Leadenhall.

Though critics have often mistaken its vitality for verisimilitude, certainly the play cannot be understood as a realistic portrait of Elizabethan middle-class life. It is a realistic portrait only of Elizabethan middle-class dreams—a fantasy of class fulfillment that would erase the tensions and contradictions created by the nascent capitalism of the late sixteenth-century. The comic form offers itself as an ideological resolution to the social problems the play engages. Social dislocations are rationalized and contained in a reassuring vision of coherence and community.

When, for example, Lacy enters disguised as Hans, looking for work as a shoemaker, Eyre dismisses him: “let him pass, let him vanish! We have a journeyman enow” (I.v.50-1). But the shoemakers themselves insist that he be taken on: “hire him, good master, that I may learn some gibble-gabble,” says the irrepressible Firk, “twill make us work the faster” (I.v.47-9); and Hodge threatens to quit: “if such a man as he cannot find work, Hodge is not for you” (I.v.60-1). In the face of the wishes of his men Eyre relents: “By the Lord of Ludgate, I love my men as my life. … Hodge, if he want work I'll hire him” (I.v.69-71).

In reality, relations between English craftsmen and immigrant workers were hardly so supportive. Early in the century, antagonism toward alien workers erupted in the Evil May Day riots of 1517. Later, a formal complaint was registered in 1571 against immigrants, asserting that “the custome of the citty, and Acts of Councell in the citty are that no man being a stranger to the liberties of the city shall use by handicraftes within the cittie.” The complaint asked that existing legislation be enforced to enjoin alien workers from practicing “any manuall trade within this kingdome except they were brought uppe seven yeares apprentices to the trade according to that statute,” and added smugly, “which none or very fewe of them have beene.”3 In 1593, officers of the Cordwainers' Company undertook unauthorized “searches” of the precinct of St. Martin's le Grand, where foreign workers had established themselves. The inhabitants protested to Lord Burghley; “Burghley's lawyers,” however, as Valerie Pearl writes, “upheld the right of the Livery Company to enter the liberty ‘and search alone,’ but they replied in diplomatic tones: it would be convenient for the officer of the liberty to accompany the ‘search’ and this could be obtained by writing to the Lord Mayor.”4 In 1593 and 1595 there was rioting as anxieties about foreign workers worsened in the face of the disastrously sharp rise in rents and food prices which left perhaps half the population of urban laborers, according to one estimate, living “in direst poverty and squalor, on the edge of destitution and starvation.”5 Such economic conditions were unlikely to breed enthusiasm for the “new come in” Dutch shoemakers, whose number by 1599, the year of Dekker's play, had swelled to 131, well over a quarter of the total number paying the required quarterage to the Cordwainers' Company, and about the same number as the Company's 152 yeomen.6

Dekker, however, idealizes the actual atomization of the culture in a fantasy of social cohesion and respect. He knew the realities of urban poverty (having himself been jailed for debt in 1598) and the increasing inability of the city or state to conceive effective schemes of relief.7 The guild structure that once served to unite craftsmen in a fraternity devoted to the welfare and security of its membership became increasingly hierarchical and entrepreneurial, converting work from a system of solidarity to a system of exchange. In The Seven Deadly Sins of London (1606), Dekker complains that the guilds “that were ordained to be communities, had lost their first privilege, and were now turned monopolies,”8 structures no longer of communal association but of commercial advantage.

Historical tensions that did exist are effectively erased by the play, though the erasure cannot go unnoticed by an audience in 1599 who lived the social formations that Dekker idealizes. If this is a fantasy it knows itself as such, and therefore cannot help reveal the contradictions it apparently would repress, transforming its discontinuities into a fiction of social and economic harmony. For example, Eyre makes his fortune by buying the cargo of a ship owner who “dares not show his head” (II.iii.17) in London. Eyre exploits the disadvantage of the shipowner to become a “huge gainer” (II.iii.21) in a triumph of capitalist enterprise which permits enormous profit and negligible risk. It is the dream of the Renaissance profiteer, like Sir Lionel Cranfield who, in 1607, wrote to Sir Arthur Ingram: “One rule I desire may be observed between you and me, which is that neither of us seek to advance our estates by the other's loss, but that we may join faithfully to raise our fortunes by such casualties as this stirring age shall afford.”9 Eyre raises his fortune by one such casualty.

The play, however, refuses to engage any moral concern that the episode might elicit. Eyre's social ambitions (clear in Deloney's Gentle Craft, where Eyre says: “Beleeue me, wife … I was studying how to make my selfe Lord Maior and thee a Lady”10) are here successfully deflected onto Margery. Even Eyre's appearance to the captain dressed as an alderman, with “a seal ring” and in “a guarded gown and a damask cassock” (II.iii.103-04), is presented not as cunning hypocrisy but as proleptic propriety: as Hodge says, “now you look like yourself, master” (II.iii.112).

Dekker's strategy of idealization becomes still clearer when we examine the purchase itself. Eyre obtains a cargo of “sugar, civet, almonds, cambric, and a towsand towsand tings” (II.iii.129-30), as the Dutch skipper says. These “tings,” however, are precisely the luxuries that both English moralists and economists decried. The moralists were dismayed by “our present riot and luxury in diet and apparell,”11 in the words of the Berkeley's historian, John Smyth; and the economists were disturbed by the outflow of capital, which might have revitalized the English economy, in the pursuit of unnecessary imports. Thus the Elizabethan merchant Gerrard de Malynes, in The Canker of England's Commonwealth (1601), lamented the “ouerbalancing of forraine commodities with our home commodities, which to supply or counteruaile draweth away our treasure and readie monie, to the great losse of the commonweale”:

our merchants, perceiuing a small gaine and sometimes none at all to be had vpon our home commodities, do buy and seek their gaines vpon forraine commodities … wherein although they may be gainers, yet the Realme generally beareth the losse, and they feed still vpon their mothers belly.12

“To export things of necessity,” similarly complained Thomas Fuller some forty years later, “and to bring in foreign needless toys, makes a rich merchant and a poor kingdom.”13

Dekker's play, however, offers us a rich merchant and a rich kingdom, joyfully dispelling whatever fears might attach themselves to Eyre's speculation. Firk immediately domesticates the purchase, defusing the moralists' worry about luxury: “O sweet master! O sweet wares: prunes, almonds, sugar-candy, carrot-roots, turnips!” (II.iii.132-33). And the improbably “good copen” (II.iii.5), the extraordinary bargain that Eyre achieves, minimizes the expenditure of “readie monie” that mercantilists feared. Dekker's audience is left free to enjoy Eyre's success, untroubled by the anxieties that actual speculation in 1599 might be expected to arouse in a society increasingly aware of its economic instability and its heterogeneous elements and interests.

Dekker confronts the increasingly complex social and economic organization of pre-industrialized England but converts it into a comforting fiction of reciprocity and respect. Even the availability of the Dutch cargo is determined by an emotional rather than an economic bond: Hodge reports that the Dutch skipper, “for the love he bears to Hans, offers my master a bargain in the commodities” (II.iii.18-9). The skipper's “love” is presented as the necessary precondition of Eyre's profit. Significantly, Hammon's unsuitability for success in the comic world is finally revealed as he reverses the terms of this exchange, conceiving of profit as predominant over love: “here in fair gold / Is twenty pounds,” he tells Rafe; “I'll give it for thy Jane” (V.ii.78-9). His offer literalizes Jane's fear that “many … make it even a very trade to woo” (IV.i.64). But Rafe, of course, refuses: “dost thou think a Shoemaker is so base to be a bawd to his own wife for commodity?” (V.ii.84-5).

The reconfirmation of Rafe and Jane's marriage asserts the power of love over hostile social and economic forces that threaten to divide and degrade, and their love is affecting precisely because it succeeds in the face of such powerful threats. The blocking action is not primarily the suit of Hammon but a society in which Jane can actually be lost in the burgeoning urban density of London and Rafe apparently killed—though in fact only wounded—in a war in which the poor serve unwillingly and anonymously. The report of an English victory in France announces that

Twelve thousand of the Frenchmen that day died,
Four thousand English, and no man of name
But Captain Hyam and young Ardington.

“Two gallant gentlemen,” laments Lincoln; “I knew them well” (II.iv.8-11). But four thousand Englishmen without name, like Rafe, lie dead in France unremarked.

Impressment and casualty reports would not be matters of indifference to the Rose Theatre audience in 1599. For three years, beginning in 1596, the number of impressed soldiers had begun to increase dramatically as the Irish situation worsened demanding reinforcements and reports reached England of renewed Spanish invasion plans.14 By the summer of 1599 the fear of an imminent Spanish attack grew acute. On August 1, John Chamberlain wrote from London to Dudley Carleton in Ostend:

the alarme whereof begins to ringe in our eares here at home [is] as shrill as in your beseiged towne: for upon what groundes or goode intelligence I know not but we are all in a hurle as though the ennemie were at our doores. The Quenes shippes are all making redy, but this towne is commaunded to furnish 16 of theyre best ships to defend the river and 10000 men, whereof 6000 to be trayned presently and every man els to have his armes redy.15

But Rafe's safe return, after he has been reported dead, is a welcome fantasy of wish-fulfillment for a nation wearied and worried by war. Even his wound, if it testifies to the real dangers of combat, accommodates Dekker's strategy of idealization, for it serves to prove the ability of “the gentle craft” to protect and provide for its practitioners. “Now I want limbs to get wheron to feed,” Rafe cries; but Hodge will have none of his self-pity: “Hast thou not hands, man? Thou shall never see a shoemaker want bread, though he have three fingers on a hand” (III.ii.78-80). Still able to function as a shoemaker, Rafe can make a living and make a life in a community of concern, and when Jane is found and recommits herself to him, her love confirms his place in the comic world and the irrelevance of his wound.

The reaffirmation of Rafe and Jane's marriage redeems the alienation of working-class lives, discharging the threats of social disintegration and neutralizing the temptations of materialism. Denying Hammon's suit, Jane turns to Rafe:

Thou art my husband, and these humble weeds
Makes thee more beautiful than all his wealth.
Therefore I will but put off his attire,
Returning it to the owner's hand.


But the play reveals an ambivalent fascination with money and property. The shoemakers insist that she not return what she has been given. “Not a rag, Jane,” declares Hodge: “The law's on our side: he that sows in another man's ground forfeits his harvest” (V.ii.63-4). And similarly, after Rafe indignantly rejects Hammon's offer of money for Jane, Hammon presents it as a gift: “in lieu of that great wrong I offered thy Jane / To Jane and thee I give that twenty pound” (V.ii.91-2). Jane gets to keep the rich clothing Hammon gives her, and Rafe gets the twenty pounds he rejects; improbably, choice in this world does not involve loss.

Such denial is Dekker's characteristic strategy of “resolving” social contradiction. On two other occasions money is offered in exchange for the betrayal of loyalties: on each, integrity is powerfully asserted but again no one is forced to suffer its consequences. At the beginning of the play, Otley and his “brethren” give Lacy twenty pounds, nominally to “approve our loves / We bear unto my Lord, your uncle here” (I.i.67-8); Lincoln, however, understands the real function of the gift:

To approve your loves to me? No, subtlety!
Nephew, that twenty pound he doth bestow
For joy to rid you from his daughter Rose.


Like Hammon's offer, also of “twenty pound,” Otley's assumes that emotions can be purchased or compensated in a commercial exchange. But in the wish-fulfilling logic of the play, Otley's challenge to the emotional authenticity of the relationship he opposes, like Hammon's, turns a would-be purchase price into a gift; and Lacy, like Rafe, gets to keep the twenty pound (which he gives to Askew) and stay with the woman he loves.

Again, in Act IV, Otley tries to buy a betrayal, offering Firk an angel to tell him where Lacy, disguised as Hans, has gone. Firk replies indignantly:

No point! Shall I betray my brother? No! Shall I prove
Judas to Hans? No! Shall I cry treason to my
corporation? No! I shall be firked and yerked then. But
give me your money: your angel shall tell you.


Firk takes the money, but does not betray either his “brother” or his “corporation”; he sends Otley to St. Faith's Church where Hammon hopes to wed Jane: “Sir Roger Otley will find my fellow lame Ralph's wife going to marry a gentleman, and then he'll stop her instead of his daughter. O brave, there will be fine tickling sport!” (IV.v.151-54).

In both plots, economic relations would distort and degrade human relationships. Dekker, however, resolves the love plots happily, overcoming the threatened alienation that money would effect—but not by repudiating it in a romantic fantasy of emotional authenticity existing beyond the reach of, and validated by its opposition to, economic realities, but even more improbably: in a romantic fantasy of emotional authenticity that need not repudiate it, indeed that need not address the issue of alienation at all. This is a world in which characters may have their cake and eat it too: they are permitted both to express their integrity and to enjoy that with which they have been tempted.

If the wish-fulfilling operations of the text validate this moral sleight-of-hand, they perform a similar operation in social terms. The formal ratification of the two marriages apparently at once repudiates and recuperates a social stratification whose moral inadequacy is revealed by its hostility to love. The love of Rafe and Jane succeeds in the face of a world which restricts working-class freedom and assails its integrity, and Lacy and Rose overcome class antagonisms and deficiencies, triumphing over aristocratic condescension and bourgeois acquisitiveness. But both relationships finally confirm traditional social hierarchy; the marriage of Rafe and Jane ratifies working-class commonality, and, while the marriage of Lacy and Rose presents itself as a successful adaptation to new social configurations, it too is revealed to be a more conservative gesture than at first appears. The King upbraids Lincoln who has opposed the marriage of his noble son with the middle-class Rose:

Dost thou not know that love respects no blood,
Cares not for difference of birth or state?
The maid is young, well-born, fair, virtuous,
A worthy bride for any gentleman.


The King appeals to love and merit to counter Lincoln's corrosive class-consciousness. “The royal confirmation of the marriage of Rose and Lacy,” signals, as the editors of the Revels edition assert, “the final overthrow of class division,”16 but five lines later almost unnoticed the King firmly reestablishes the very social distinctions that he has just denied, as he knights Lacy:

As for the honor which he lost in France,
Thus I redeem it: Lacy, kneel thee down!
Arise, Sir Rowland Lacy! Tell me now,
Tell me in earnest, Otley, canst thou chide,
Seeing thy Rose a lady and a bride.


Love, perhaps, “cares not for difference of birth or state,” but obviously the King, Lincoln, and Otley all do. The comic ending does not subvert social distinctions but reinforces them. Bourgeois desire is gratified by claiming rather than cancelling aristocratic privilege.

Again Dekker has it both ways: middle class desire for social mobility and aristocratic insistence upon social stratification are both accommodated, as when the King releases Eyre from obedience to courtly protocol: “good Lord Mayor, be even as merry / As if thou wert among thy shoemakers” (V.v.13-4). In the presence of the King, Eyre is free to behave as if he were among his shoemakers but simultaneously reminded that he is not. The social and ideological contradiction thus becomes itself the term of its resolution, but such resolution can not be other than imaginary.

But the play, after all, is The Shoemaker's Holiday, and arguments about the placement of the title's apostrophe seem to miss the central point. The issue is not primarily whether the title refers to a holiday declared for the shoemakers (in which case the title is The Shoemakers' Holiday) or a holiday declared by Simon Eyre for all the apprentices of London (in which case the title is The Shoemaker's Holiday). Fredson Bowers, in the Cambridge Dekker, argues for the former, the Revels editors, Smallwood and Wells, for the latter, but the action of the play itself—and not merely the Shrove Tuesday feast that ends it—is, as I have been arguing, the holiday—a holiday from the historical world of social contradiction and consequence, as the tensions produced by the social realignments of the late sixteenth-century are wonderfully resolved in the communal, festive marketplace.

Indeed even the holiday is presented as holiday. The Shrove Tuesday celebration, which Hodge happily predicts “shall continue for ever” (V.ii.213), did continue but not always as a joyful celebration of social coherence and community. John Taylor, the water-poet, describes the Shrove Tuesday that Dekker's audience would have known: “in the morning, the whole kingdome is in quiet, but by that time the clocke strikes eleven, which (by the helpe of a knavish Sexton) is commonly before nine, then there is a bell rung, called The Pancake Bell, the sound whereof makes thousands of people distracted, and forgetfull eyther of manners or humanitie.”17 The holiday was regularly marred by the riots of disgruntled apprentices, who, in 1617,

to the nomber of 3 or 4000 committed extreame insolencies; part of this nomber, taking their course for Wapping, did there pull downe to the grownd 4 houses, spoiled all the goods therein, defaced many others, & a Justice of the Peace coming to appease them, while he was reading a Proclamacion, had his head broken with a brick batt. Th' other part, making for Drury Lane, where lately a newe playhouse is erected, they besett the house round, broke in, wounded divers of the players, broke open their trunckes, & whatt apparrell, bookes, or other things they found, they burnt & cutt in peeces; & not content herewith, gott on the top of the house, & untiled it, & had not the Justices of Peace & Sherife levied an aide, & hindred their purpose, they would have laid that house likewise even with the grownd. In this skyrmishe one prentise was slaine, being shott throughe the head with a pistoll, & many other of their fellowes were sore hurt, & such of them as are taken his Majestie hath commaunded shal be executed for example sake.18

In actuality, Shrove Tuesday became an occasion for the release of social tension, but in the play what is released is only fellowship and cheer.

As critical response to the play attests, Dekker has fashioned an almost irresistible image of social unity, successfully neutralizing the disintegrative threat of the emerging capitalism and civilizing its dynamism. History is turned into holiday, its tensions refused rather than refuted, recast into an ameliorative fantasy. The play's unnamed King, who should be the aloof and ineffective Henry VI who ruled in 1445 when the historical Simon Eyre was appointed Lord Mayor, is idealized as Henry V, who mingles comfortably with his subjects and promises victories in France.19 But the impossibility of positively identifying Dekker's king points to the fact that he is less historical than romantic, a comforting portrait of royal benevolence to guarantee the middle-class energies that are articulated.

The play's prologue spoken before the Queen at court on New Year's Day in 1600, however, suggests a more problematic relation of subject and sovereign. The actors are the Queen's “meanest vassals” who stand before her as “wretches in a storm,” fearful and impotent, dependent upon her favor:

O grant, bright mirror of true chastity,
From those life-breathing stars, your sun-like eyes,
One gracious smile: for your celestial breath
Must send us life, or sentence us to death.


If this is conventional flattery of Elizabeth, it is disturbing to discover its echo in Hammon's appeal to Jane: “Say, judge, what is thy sentence? Life or death? / Mercy or cruelty lies in thy breath” (III.iv.55-6). In Hammon's mouth the assertion of weakness blatantly functions as a strategy of manipulation; his conventional petrarchanism articulates and mediates the asymmetry of desire. In the players' prologue, Elizabeth's power is acknowledged and flattered, revealing anxieties produced by an asymmetry of power and belying the play's idealization of the relations betwen the monarch and his subjects.

In the play, the King's naming of Leadenhall ratifies Eyre's bourgeois energies and establishes the marketplace as both source and symbol of England's health and strength. Its potentially anarchic vitality is effectively contained by collective and patriotic loyalties. But Dekker's strategies of idealization are too blatant to function successfully as instruments of legitimation and social mystification. They declare themselves too openly as wish-fulfillments, and are at odds even with the conditions of their theatrical presentation.

Like the marketplace, the theatre was originally a space for the expression of communal energies but in the late sixteenth-century it too became an essentially commercial arena. “Man in business,” wrote John Hall, lamenting the new, alienating commercial realities, “is but a Theatricall person”20; but the reality of the Renaissance stage was that theatrical persons were men in business. “The theatre is your poets' Royal Exchange,” writes Dekker in The Gull's Horn-Book, “upon which their muses—that are now turned to merchants—meeting, barter away that light commodity of words for a lighter ware than words—plaudits and the breath of that great beast which like the threatenings of two cowards, vanish all into air.”21 Dekker's metaphor reflects the existing economic relation of the acting companies and their audiences. An actor might imagine himself an artist whose aristocratic patronage, however complex that relationship was, at least freed him from the commercial logic of exchange, but, as an observer noted in 1615, “howsoever hee pretends to have a royall Master or Mistress, his wages and dependance prove him to be the servant of the people.”22

And the situation of the playwright was worse still, servant not merely of the audience but also of the acting company that purchased his script. Though praised by Francis Meres in 1598 as one of England's best playwrights, Dekker lived marginally in the London slums—at least when he was not in the London jails for debt, as he was for seven years. The enormous theatrical profits, that made Shakespeare, Alleyn, and Burbage rich, were made by sharers in the acting companies, not by their playwrights. “With mouthing words that better wits have framed,” wrote the Cambridge authors of the Parnassus plays, “They purchase land, and now Esquiers are made” (2 Return from Parnassus, 1927-28). The playwrights, however, were poorly paid piece-workers. A play might command six pounds. Dekker received only three for The Shoemaker's Holiday, and in 1598 he was paid by Henslowe a total of thirty pounds for his work on sixteen plays. Art became a commodity to be bought cheap and resold for profits that never reached its maker.

The play—any play—was, then, part of a complex set of social and economic relations that exploited some and enriched (a few) others. The theatre might present itself as a green world of fantasy that audiences enter, like Rosalind and Orlando, to be free of the tensions of the real world, but in fact, like the green worlds of Shakespeare's comedies, the restraints and contradictions of the real world are merely disguised rather than discharged. “O happy work” (IV.i.14), Hammon gushes, watching Jane sew in the seamster's shop, but, though Dekker idealizes work in The Shoemaker's Holiday, the idealization takes place in a commercial theatrical environment that itself exposes the fantasy. The reality is that, for Dekker, the play is work, as for his characters work is play. The Shoemaker's Holiday presents commerce as comedy, converting the work place into a play space, but it does so in a playhouse that is fundamentally a workshop where such idealization can be no more and no less than a utopian compensation for the alienation and fragmentation of Dekker's London.23


  1. See, for example, Patricia Thompson, “The Old Way and the New Way in Dekker and Massinger,” MLR 51 (1956), 168-78; H. E. Toliver, “The Shoemaker's Holiday: Theme and Image,” Boston University Studies in English, 5 (1961), 208-18; Joel H. Kaplan, “Virtue's Holiday: Thomas Dekker and Simon Eyre,” Renaissance Drama 2 (1969) 103-22. Peter Mortenson, “The Economics of Joy in The Shoemakers' Holiday,SEL 16 (1976), 241-52, has offered a counter-argument, focusing on the play's commercial ethos: “Dekker creates a grim world and encourages us to pretend that it is a green one” (252). See also the provocative essay of Lawrence Venuti, “Transformation of City Comedy: A Symptomatic Reading,” Assays 3 (1985): 99-134, which recognizes the “darker side” of the comedy as well as the “implausible resolutions” that conclude it.

  2. Kaplan, 117.

  3. Tudor Economic Documents, eds. R. H. Tawney and Eileen Power (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1924), 309-10.

  4. Valerie Pearl, London and the Outbreak of the Puritan Revolution (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 25.

  5. Peter H. Ramsey, ed., The Price Revolution in Sixteenth-Century England (London: Methuen, 1971), 14-5.

  6. George Unwin, The Gilds and Companies of London (1908; rpt. London: Frank Cass, 1963), 250.

  7. See Penry Williams, The Tudor Regime (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 175-215; and Paul Slack, “Poverty and Social Regulation in Elizabethan England,” The Reign of Elizabeth I, ed. Christopher Haigh (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1985), 221-42.

  8. The Non-Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Alexander B. Grosart (London: The Huth Library, 1889), 2, 174.

  9. Quoted in E. Lipson, The Economic History of England (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1931), 3, 357.

  10. The Works of Thomas Deloney, ed. Francis Oscar Mann (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912), 112.

  11. Quoted in L. C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (London: Chatto & Windus, 1937), 120.

  12. In Tudor Economic Documents, 3, 395, 394.

  13. Thomas Fuller, The Holy State (1642, facs. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1938), 2, 113.

  14. Lindsay Boynton, The Elizabethan Militia, 1558-1638 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967), 198-206.

  15. The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. Norman Egbert McLure, (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1939) 1, 78.

  16. R. L. Smallwood and Stanley Wells (eds.), The Shoemaker's Holiday (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1929), 42.

  17. John Taylor, Jack a Lent, His Beginning and Entertainment (London, 1630), 12.

  18. Quoted in G. E. Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 6, 54.

  19. See W. K. Chandler, “The Source of the Characters in The Shoemaker's Holiday,MP 27 (1929), 175-82; and Michael Manheim, “The King in Dekker's The Shoemakers' Holiday,N & Q, (new series) 4 (1957): 432.

  20. John Hall, The Advancement of Learning (1649), ed. A. K. Croston (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1953), 37.

  21. Thomas Dekker: Selected Prose Writings, ed. E. D. Pendry, (London: Edward Arnold, 1968), 98.

  22. Quoted in The Elizabethan Stage, ed. E. K. Chambers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 4, 256.

  23. I would like to thank various friends and colleagues who have contributed to the development of this essay, especially Daniel Karlin, Claire McEachern, Peter Stallybrass, and Albert Wertheim, who allowed me to present a version of the essay at a session arranged by the Drama Division of the MLA in December of 1985.

Martha Straznicky (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6572

SOURCE: “The End(s) of Discord in The Shoemaker's Holiday,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring 1996, pp. 357-72.

[In this essay, Straznicky asserts that The Shoemaker's Holiday “enacts an imaginary appropriation of civic authority and commercial wealth by a group of industrial laborers for whom both privileges were largely a matter of fantasy.”]

The Shoemaker's Holiday (1599) is one of only three Elizabethan comedies named after specific festive occasions.1 While most critics have duly noted the importance of the festival to the play's structural and thematic design, their accounts employ a vague and moralistic vocabulary that is strangely out of keeping with the concrete, even materialistic language of the play itself. Michael Manheim, for example, sees the Guildhall feast as a “victory for the forces of humility and good will,” and Arthur Kinney calls it “the still centre where passion and reason are themselves advanced, but made one and inseparable.”2 Even critics such as Peter Mortenson and David Scott Kastan, who have usefully situated the play within the complex network of social, political, and economic conditions in which it was written and performed, view the play's holiday as a simple generic trick, a shrewd deployment of the ideology of comedy to resolve the discordant labor relations and commercial practices of Elizabethan London that lie behind the play. Kastan, for example, describes “a holiday from the historical world of social contradiction and consequence, as the tensions produced by the social realignments of the late sixteenth-century are wonderfully resolved in the communal, festive marketplace.”3 Viewing the play's festivity as nothing more than the properly triumphant conclusion to economic discord, however, obscures the way in which the holiday itself is vitally engaged in the delineation and management of political and economic tensions. In other words, the end or resolution of discord in The Shoemaker's Holiday may embody rather than eliminate the conflicts that shape the play. By bringing to bear on Thomas Dekker's mythical feast the social function of corresponding Elizabethan festivals and thus reinvesting it with a historical register, the following discussion aims to show that The Shoemaker's Holiday purposely conserves a state of discord, and that the ends of such discord are in fact vital to the artisans' ideological, albeit imaginary, victory.

The Shoemaker's Holiday conflates two annual celebrations that would have been deeply familiar to Dekker's London audiences: Shrove Tuesday and Accession Day. Observed on the Tuesday immediately preceding Lent, Shrove Tuesday was a day of feasting and carousing during which legal strictures were loosened and normative social relations suspended. The privileges of festivity on Shrove Tuesday, however, were not equally distributed: the surviving records of Shrove Tuesday customs reveal that youth groups, specifically apprentices, were singularly empowered on this holiday.4 Enacting a mock jurisdiction over what appear to be traditional morals, London apprentices raided brothels and carted prostitutes through the streets, stormed and vandalized theaters, carried out skimmingtons, and tortured performing animals. In François Laroque's view, the holiday's discriminatory customs seem to have a “penitential, sacrificial character,” and Keith Thomas has suggested that they performed a “safety-valve” function for a segment of the population that was actively oppressed throughout the early modern period.5 The inversion of normative age/youth relations on Shrove Tuesday, and the enforcement by the rioting youth of what are essentially conservative community values, render these festivities fundamentally double-edged: they cement a potentially rebellious group solidarity at the same time as they reinforce communally defined boundaries of acceptable personal behavior and professional occupation. Dekker's version of Shrove Tuesday, I will go on to argue, appropriates this very duality to inscribe moral boundaries between a variety of competing commercial practices, and, in so doing, to reinforce the collective identities of his audiences.

While explicit allusions to Shrove Tuesday dominate the concluding scene of The Shoemaker's Holiday, Dekker also expands the festival mood into a nationalist celebration of the monarch: the day is identified as “Saint Hugh's Holiday,” and the king is assured that “Sim Eyre and my brethren the Gentlemen Shoemakers shall set your sweet Majesty's image cheek by jowl by Saint Hugh.”6 L. D. Timms has recently suggested that for an Elizabethan audience this additional layer of festivity would have been understood as an allusion to Elizabeth's Accession Day (17 November), an annual celebration of monarch, state, and religion which, by 1599, was a familiar feature of the urban festive calendar.7 Although its precise origins are recorded only in anecdote and conjecture, Accession Day eventually became a crucial component of Elizabethan national political culture, commemorating as it did the divinely ordained conquest of Protestantism over papacy and replacing the coincident Catholic feast of Saint Hugh of Lincoln in the old ecclesiastical calendar.8 While the court glittered with spectacular tilts and entertainments, London's streets filled with bell-ringing, parishioners dutifully attended propagandist sermons, then celebrated with feasting, dance, torch-lit processions, and bonfires.9 Unlike Shrove Tuesday, Accession Day was primarily a political festival, imposed from the top down, and designed to evoke in English subjects a sense of unique national and religious identity. Like Shrove Tuesday, however, Accession Day had a prescribed target of derision at whose expense the celebrating took place: specifically the Pope and, more generally, Roman Catholicism. While a few Catholic polemicists were predictably outraged at what they perceived to be idolatrous festivities, the only sizable opposition to the Protestant supplanting came from radical reformers dismayed by the transformation of the monarch into a hagiographical icon.10 In general Accession Day was remarkably successful as a propagandist instrument, most likely because it fulfilled the psychic needs of a population whose festive traditions had been eroded by the Reformation.11 In The Shoemaker's Holiday, Accession Day is repeatedly called to mind in the many allusions to Saint Hugh (also, conveniently, the patron saint of shoemakers), in addition to the explicit celebration of the monarch in the final scene. The politics and cultural conflicts embodied in Accession Day, however, are not nearly as close to the surface of the play as are those of Shrove Tuesday, perhaps because the cultural meaning of Accession Day is secure enough for Dekker's audiences to serve as bedrock upon which the play's more contentious commercial relations could be framed.12

The adjustment Dekker makes in representing Shrove Tuesday and Accession Day festivities points up the inherent ambiguity that anthropologists and literary critics have ascribed to festival, and particularly to the forms of symbolic inversion that characteristically appear in Elizabethan comedy.13 As Peter Stallybrass rightly claims, “The meaning of such inversions is not, of course, a given. If they could, indeed, be read as impossibilia, farcical and implausible aberrations which reaffirm through antithesis the norm, they could equally be mobilized within a revolutionary iconography.”14 Furthermore, as Stallybrass also goes on to show, the familiar dichotomy of dominant/oppressed, which frequently serves as the basis for analyzing the politics of festivity, fails to account for the appropriation of festivity by groups that are neither strictly ruling nor strictly ruled, and whose members do not define themselves in specifically political or class terms. Festivity, then, is neither the sanctioned and ultimately harmless rite proposed by the “safety-valve” theory, nor the populist, antiauthoritarian liberation suggested by Mikhail Bakhtin.15 Nor is it somewhere between the two, for a dualistic framework fails to capture the range of functions festivity performs within and among social groups. Festivity, however entrenched it may appear to be in a particular cultural tradition, is always available for appropriation to any group capable of mobilizing its resources.

One such mobilization is dramatized in The Shoemaker's Holiday. As in the contemporary historical analogues to Dekker's holiday, the shoemakers' celebration of group solidarity is concomitantly a triumph over persons and practices that have been positioned beyond what may be called the “festive boundary,” a permeable yet clearly demarcated line separating that which is being celebrated from that which threatens the celebration. While critics usually commend the space within Dekker's festive boundary for being remarkably capacious and democratic, there are three clearly marked outsiders—Hammon, Oatley, and Lincoln—whose interests are not so much excluded as assimilated by the celebrants. The terms in which this boundary is framed, the precise criteria for inclusion and exclusion, and the seeming transformation of pre-festive discord into harmonious celebration reveal more about the play's stake in contemporary cultural conflicts than previous criticism has allowed.

The outsider whose role in the play's moral economy is both best and worst understood is Sir Hugh Lacy, Earl of Lincoln. Because he so obviously represents the conventional paternal opposition to youth and love, and because his opposition is fueled by clear-cut classist principles, Lincoln has received unduly brief critical notice. Most often, he is paired with Oatley as the embodiment of a class prejudice that Simon Eyre's new social order is committed to eliminating. For Joel H. Kaplan, Lincoln represents “false politeness” and “quiet hypocrisy”; for Manheim, he is “concerned only with ‘outsides,’ little with what a person really is,” and for Kastan, he is an emblem of “aristocratic condescension.”16 Useful as these views are in revealing the importance of class struggle in the play, their terms of reference fail to explain the reestablishment of social hierarchy under the aegis of the new Lord Mayor. Put differently, while Lincoln is demonized for insisting on class difference as a reasonable criterion of suitability for marriage, that very same class difference organizes social relations during the play's holiday: the king tries to stave off Lincoln's objections to an interclass marriage by pointing out that Rose is “well born”; Lacy is knighted to make the marriage more palatable to Oatley; and the king briefly withdraws into a private conversation not with the artisanal Lord Mayor but with the peer Lincoln. What the play's festival seems to celebrate, then, is not the eradication of class difference but the inclusion of socially and politically disadvantaged groups within a newly expanded notion of nobility. Progressive as this might be, it is not the conclusion one might anticipate in view of the different successes of Lincoln and the coalition of his opponents.

There may be a more compelling reason why Lincoln is so comfortably positioned beyond the festive boundary. Dekker's allusions to Accession Day in the play's final scene remind us that there is at least some anti-Catholic strain to the celebrations, and for his first audiences “Sir Hugh Lacy, Earl of Lincoln” would almost certainly have called to mind the Catholic saint whose feast day had been supplanted by the Protestant queen. In churchwardens' records for local observances of Accession Day, “Saint Hugh's Day” appears to have been used as a tag for the new holiday throughout the Elizabethan period, and Lincoln College, Oxford, a known Catholic stronghold early in Elizabeth's reign, reportedly inaugurated the Accession Day bell-ringing custom.17 Furthermore, as Julia Gasper argues, for an Elizabethan audience the war in the play would most likely have called to mind Essex's Irish campaign of the previous year, and perhaps even the earlier English expedition of 1591-92 against the Catholic League in France, both contemporary campaigns on behalf of the Protestant cause.18 Insofar, then, as the names “Hugh” and “Lincoln” may have been associated with Catholicism, the earl's defeat at play's end may be not so much a matter of class prejudice as a piece of subtle politico-religious propaganda reflecting a militant Protestantism, a position consistent with Dekker's other surviving work.19

The festive boundary in the play, however, is not as firm on this point as one might expect. First, Lincoln's association with Saint Hugh is not nearly as prominent a reminder of the old hagiographical material as are the constant allusions to the patron saint of shoemakers, something that is almost inevitable, given Dekker's choice of source.20 In writing about a shoemaker, Dekker is able to grace the material success of a master craftsman (and budding commercial entrepreneur) with the divine sanction ascribed to the old saint's martyrdom at the hands of religious persecutors. This appropriation of Catholic hagiography is most evident in the career of Lacy, whose resemblance to his uncle in both nomenclature and status is the second seeming permutation of the play's festive boundary.21 Well before Lacy has transformed himself into the Dutch immigrant worker Hans, we learn from his bemused uncle that the spendthrift's grand tour of the Continent culminated in apprenticeship to a shoemaker in Wittenberg, a geographical invention of Dekker's that once again points to a religio-political subtext in the play. As a shoemaker, Lacy/Hans is under the protection of Saint Hugh; however, as a Dutch shoemaker trained in the cradle of the Reformation, and as a shoemaker persecuted by a “papist” uncle, Lacy/Hans is a Protestant revision of Catholic hagiographical material. In terms of the play's religio-political slant, then, the festive boundary separating Lacy and the shoemakers from Lincoln appears permeable enough to allow certain of the powers of Catholic hagiography to be redefined as properly Protestant at the same time as Catholicism itself is successfully othered.22

Such a complex textual maneuver, however, would seem to be unwarranted by the social and economic status of Catholics in Dekker's London, who were by all accounts demographically insignificant and in no way a segregated group. Like other urban centers in Reformation Europe, London turned Protestant quickly, largely because governmental controls were both more visible and more powerful in the country's capital, and together with East Anglia it consequently posts the smallest Catholic populations in the country.23 And while committees were set up to investigate Catholic prisoners, and searches of Catholic properties were carried out on a regular basis throughout the 1580s and 1590s, Catholics were never deemed a serious political threat.24 In fact, the government appears to have found periodic imprisonment and economic controls to be sufficient means of restraining potential subversiveness. The economic controls in particular also impoverished many wealthy Catholics, so that by the late-Elizabethan period the economic status of even the most affluent among them was minor. In short, Catholics in late-Elizabethan London were an “insignificant minority.”25

The cultural work of the anti-Catholic dimension of Dekker's festive boundary would thus seem to be more in the manner of simple reinforcement, perhaps even intensification, of the audience's firmly held views than an active negotiation of current social conflicts. It is also true, however, that the Catholic-Protestant conflict in the play is inextricable from the commercial and class conflicts with which the play is most importantly engaged. Lacy not only outwits his uncle, but he also and simultaneously outwits his future father-in-law, Oatley, whose economic position as a commercial capitalist also plants him, albeit less firmly, beyond Dekker's festive boundary. By placing Lincoln and Oatley in allied opposition to the play's dominant comic drive, Dekker appears to be cementing anti-Catholic and anti-commercial sentiments. It may be, then, that the uncontested anti-Catholicism of the play's festival mood provides a foundation for the more pressing controversy surrounding commercial activity.

That controversy is represented most unproblematically in the eventual defeat of Oatley's preferred son-in-law, Hammon—importantly, the only character who does not participate in the Shoemaker's Holiday. Hammon's dramatic function appears to be little more than to provide an ethical contrast to the play's romantic figures, but the terms in which he operates and in which he is described clearly mark him as a contrast also to the industrial laborers in the play. Although we first meet him hunting, a sport Dekker's audiences would see as aristocratic leisure,26 and although he initially plays Petrarchan lover to Rose, he soon settles into the commercial discourse with which he claims to be most comfortable and which is his dominant register throughout the play, wooing as he does the impoverished and distraught Jane in absurd monetary terms. Significantly, Hammon tries to lure Jane away from her shop, and when she objects that “I cannot live by keeping holiday” (xii.31), he promises to pay her for the day's lost income. This incident is in keeping with the play's many other characterizations of Hammon: although Oatley favors him because he is a “citizen by birth” and “fairly allied” (vi.61), it is clear that “fair revenues” are Hammon's major recommendation (xi.34). We also learn that he lives in Watling Street, an area of London noted by Stow for its concentration of wealthy drapers.27 And Hammon's spirits are buoyed throughout the play, even when faced with the successive losses of Rose and Jane, by confidence in his independent wealth. However ill-defined Hammon's finances may be, and however nebulous the source of his wealth, he is unequivocally marked as a rich citizen whose manners and habits are entirely alien to the world of manual labor.

On both counts, Hammon is fair prey for the shoemakers in the play, and it is fitting that he is the chief target of the Shrove Tuesday rioting at play's end. In Elizabethan London, Shrove Tuesday celebrations frequently bordered on the violent, as the numerous records of vandalism and physical assault on these occasions attest, and in a number of cases they actually broke out into full-scale riot.28 Dekker's apprentices are similarly aggressive: they are equipped “all with cudgels, or such weapons” as they prepare to reclaim Jane for Ralph, and Hodge's repeated attempts to restrain them hint at their underlying brutality (xviii.s.d.). Although the incident never breaks out into physical fighting, the continual presence of a group of armed and hyped-up young men does imbue the scene with the violence characteristic of contemporary Shrove Tuesday festivities. Rather than using their power against prostitutes or actors, however, these apprentices target Hammon, and they appear to do so strictly on account of his conspicuous wealth.29 In effect, this Shrove Tuesday attack punishes the nonlaboring commercial or mercantile capitalist and restores to his proper social position the injured and disadvantaged laborer. It is an exchange Hammon himself sportively notes: “Farewell, good fellows of the Gentle Trade, / Your morning's mirth my mourning day hath made.” The “mirth” in this scene, then, is doing more than celebrating the solidarity of apprentices or reuniting a married couple; it more importantly firms up—and moralizes—a distinction between occupational practices that in fact constituted the chief industrial controvery in early modern London.30

One sign of an emerging capitalist economy in Dekker's time was the increasing importance of a new capitalist function: the commercial trader.31 The commercial trader, or entrepreneurial middleman, was not directly involved in the production of goods but took on the distributive aspect of manufacture, buying completed goods from the craftsmen and selling them at a profit to a variety of markets. The success of the commercial trader in disrupting the traditional operation of the trade guilds is clear in the number of economic disputes that arose between the distributive and productive sectors, a far larger proportion of conflicts than any that arose among members of individual guilds or among the guilds themselves.32 As George Unwin explains, all these disputes arose from the fact “that the craftsman was no longer in direct contact with the consumer, but was dependent on the capital of the middleman, whether as trader or as a direct employer, to find a market for his wares or his work.”33 This new economic division between production and trade was also reflected in the urban geography, with merchants making up about 28٪ of occupations within the city walls, particularly in the wealthy central parishes, and only 8٪ in extramural suburbs.34 Similarly, the production of goods was concentrated in the eastern and southern neighborhoods of London, accounting in those districts for some 70٪ of occupations, with a much smaller proportion of manufacturing employment within the city center, roughly 53٪.35 What these figures indicate is that while about three-fifths of London's occupations continued to be in the production of goods, the wealth—judging by the distribution of occupations in the city's more affluent neighborhoods—was restricted to a minority mercantile class.36 This unequal distribution of power and affluence predictably created occupational rivalries.

The triumph of the laboring shoemakers over Hammon in The Shoemaker's Holiday may well be an imaginary resolution of one such rivalry. A related case is the outwitting of Sir Roger Oatley, but in this instance Dekker's festival humor participates in political as well as economic controversy. Although Oatley's chief narrative role in the play is simply to obstruct his daughter's romance, Dekker's changes to his source material suggest that he had more in mind when he created Oatley than fulfilling a generic requirement. Oatley's counterpart in Deloney is an emperor, and the change in political status to Lord Mayor renders Oatley's otherwise conventional family troubles decidedly topical. The year before Dekker's play was staged, a former Lord Mayor of London, the fabulously wealthy Sir John Spencer, found himself in circumstances closely resembling those represented in the play.37 His daughter Elizabeth—who reputedly carried a £40,000 dowry—was being sought in marriage by William, second Lord Compton, one of the most improvident courtiers of the time.38 Spencer was strongly opposed to the match, evidently on the grounds of Compton's desperate financial straits, but Compton's court connections proved literally to out-class the power of Spencer's money. Elizabeth was removed from her father's care following allegations that he had abused her, and in 1599 Spencer was briefly imprisoned in the Fleet.39 At the time Dekker was writing his play, the affair was yet unsettled, but the terms of the conflict were evidently timely enough for dramatic service.

What is at issue in both fictional and historical accounts is the social mobility that was occasioned, among other things, by the development of a capitalist economy. While successful commercial entrepreneurs such as Spencer, who had amassed an estimated fortune of between £500,000 and £800,000 in overseas and domestic trade,40 were able to buy their way into the upper orders, many members of the landed aristocracy were forced by their own lack of capital funds to sell off ancestral estates or borrow heavily from London's money merchants, thus conspicously sliding down the social ladder. A customary way of avoiding the embarrassment of debt was, in Lawrence Stone's terms, for the aristocracy periodically to arrange a “transfusion of mercantile blood—and mercantile money” through marriage.41 Compton's suit for Elizabeth appears to be a case in point, although Dekker's revision of the incident diplomatically under-plays the issue of Lacy's dire finances.

Oatley's opposition to his daughter's marriage to Lacy is, in historical context, perfectly legitimate: there is every reason to believe that Lacy is nothing more than a spendthrift fortune-hunting prodigal. What is interesting, however, is that Dekker chooses to align the audience's sympathy not with the soon-to-be-robbed citizen but rather with the improvident aristocrat. In order to understand this particular piece of poetic justice, it is important to recall that Spencer was quite likely the most unpopular Lord Mayor in living memory. Both during and after his tenure, Spencer was known for three things: spectacular wealth, stinginess, and harassment of apprentices. His term in office appears to have been a particularly difficult one, coinciding with a severe food shortage and the notorious food riots of 1595. It was in other respects also a time of popular unrest, and Spencer's attempts to curb the instigators, largely the city's apprentices, were met with outright defiance and an attempted assassination.42 Further to his discredit for the Rose audience, Spencer was one of the more vocal of antitheatrical civic authorities. He wrote at least two lengthy letters to Lord Burghley and the Privy Council insisting that the public performance of plays be suppressed.43 In both letters, his campaign against the city's youth resurfaces in his charge that dramatic representations of “profane fables, Lascivious matters, cozonning devizes, & other vnseemly & scurrilous behaviours” are the chief cause of the “disorders & lewd demeanors wch appeer of late in young people of all degrees,” and that the venue itself provides a dangerous opportunity for their unsupervised congregation. More specifically, Spencer actually insists that “the late stirr & mutinous attempt of those fiew apprentices and other servants” was directly “infected” by the theaters.44 If Dekker's Rose audience did recognize Spencer in the habit of Oatley, then his defeat at the hands of the young Lacy and the apprentice shoemakers would have been a moment of communal triumph indeed.

And yet The Shoemaker's Holiday seems more to preserve than to dissolve the discordant political and economic conditions that pit apprentices against civic authorities and artisans against commercial capitalists: just as the defeat of Lincoln is the precondition for an imaginary assimilation of nobility and hagiography by the shoemakers, so the defeat of Oatley facilitates the transfer of his two key qualities, civic authority and wealth, to the shoemaker Simon Eyre. The making of Eyre's fortune has elicited a considerable amount of commentary. For most critics, Eyre's capitalist venture is one of the play's more cynical moments in which the otherwise sympathetic master craftsman resorts to deceit and debt in order to take advantage of a massive commercial opportunity.45 There is no way to exonerate Eyre from these charges. What this incident reveals, surprisingly, is that the making of wealth by duplicitous means, and by means of commercial rather than industrial capital, is not unequivocally a moral perversion. What the play appears to be doing is condemning some and condoning other commercial enterprises, and making the distinction in terms of generosity since the main difference between Spencer and Eyre is in the disposal of their wealth: “Let your fellow prentices want no cheer. Let wine be plentiful as beer, and beer as water. Hang these penny-pinching fathers, that cram wealth in innocent lamb-skins” (xx.8-11).46 There is also a large measure of reciprocity associated with Eyre's new wealth: his ability to capitalize on the Dutch cargo is made possible only by Hans's loan, and that loan is clearly figured as a reward for hiring the alien laborer.47 Similarly, Eyre's acquisition of wealth and rise in social status include—rather than exclude—his fellow craftsmen (as the perpetually ill-provided Hodge rejoices in “Let's feed and be fat with my lord's bounty” (xviii.205), and it is clear that the apprentices in particular view their new holiday and the privileges it grants them as direct legacies of Eyre's commercial success. In other words, while Eyre's mercantile venture bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Spencer's financial dealings, the new Lord Mayor's unhesitating extension of the benefits of his wealth to all shoemakers renders the manner of acquisition not only acceptable but worthy of celebration.48 The festival in The Shoemaker's Holiday thus enacts an imaginary appropriation of civic authority and commercial wealth by a group of industrial laborers for whom both privileges were largely a matter of fantasy.

That the play's concluding festival may have worked as fantasy for Dekker's first audiences leads to the question of how play text and performance context intersect. Because the historical record for the early modern period is notoriously thin on matters of theatrical reception, critics interested in the cultural work of drama rely primarily on textual and intertextual evidence alone. But the little information we do have about the make up of audiences at the various theaters and the stage success of particular plays can certainly provide us with some understanding of a play's engagement with contemporary controversies, particularly if the play is local and topical in orientation and if its generic structure prompts the dramatist to distinguish in some way between rewards and punishments. The Shoemaker's Holiday is a particularly rich case in point: its festive conclusion invites the audience to share in the shoemakers' triumphant appropriation of commercial and political power, thus not only reinforcing but also reinventing the interests of the apprentices and industrial capitalists among them.49 Interestingly, following its Rose debut, The Shoemaker's Holiday was also performed and apparently well received at court on New Year's Day, 1600. Even though the court spectators differed radically from those who saw the play in Southwark, the end of discord represented in the festival also served as a redefinition of contemporary economic controversies in favor of the audience. The queen and courtiers who applauded The Shoemaker's Holiday likely did so because its resolution affirmed their own anti-commercial sentiment at the same time as it renewed the viability of nobilitas.50 What this alignment of apparently dichotomous class sympathies reveals is the social and economic pressure being exerted by commercial capitalists in early modern London. Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday, both in text and performance context, may accordingly be understood as a mobilization of the power of traditional festivals to conduct controversy in such a way as to reinforce the shared economic and political interests of an industry and court that were slowly being displaced by new capitalist practices. The king's confident claim that “love ends all discord” is thus little more than a romantic mask for the economic and political terms in which the ends of discord in The Shoemaker's Holiday are in fact defined and achieved.


  1. The other two plays are William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1600-02) and George Chapman's May-Day (1602-04).

  2. Michael Manheim, “The Construction of The Shoemakers' Holiday,SEL 10, 2 (Spring 1970): 315-23, 323; Arthur Kinney, “Thomas Dekker's Twelfth Night,” UTQ 41, 1 (1971): 63-73, 64.

  3. David Scott Kastan, “Workshop and/as Playhouse: Comedy and Commerce in The Shoemaker's Holiday,SP 84, 3 (1987): 324-37, 333. See also Peter Mortenson, “The Economics of Joy in The Shoemakers' Holiday,SEL 16, 2 (Spring 1976): 241-52, 248.

  4. For a description of Shrove Tuesday customs in Elizabethan London, see François Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage, trans. Janet Lloyd (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 96-103, and David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989), pp. 18-9.

  5. Laroque, p. 101; Keith Thomas, “Age and Authority in Early Modern England,” PBA 62 (1976): 205-48, 219.

  6. Thomas Dekker, The Shoemaker's Holiday, ed. R. L. Smallwood and Stanley Wells (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1979), xviii.225 and xxi.6-8. All subsequent references to Dekker are to this Revels edition.

  7. L. D. Timms, “Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday and Elizabeth's Accession Day,” N&Q n.s. 32, 1 (1985): 58.

  8. Cressy gives an account of the alternative explanations for the origin of Accession Day on pp. 51-3; see also Roy Strong, “The Popular Celebration of the Accession Day of Queen Elizabeth I,” JWCI 21, 1-2 (1958): 86-103, 87-8.

  9. Strong, pp. 91-100.

  10. Strong, p. 100.

  11. Cressy, p. 50; Strong, p. 91.

  12. The conflation in the play of holidays celebrating the power of both state and local community would seem to suggest that at least some festive forms of plebeian culture in early modern England were not structured, as Michael Bristol has argued, in opposition to the “dominant and privileged elites” (Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England [New York: Routledge, 1985], p. 72). Rather, The Shoemaker's Holiday reveals a unification of political interests between apparently dichotomous social groups when a newly empowered sector—the commercial elite—begins to threaten traditional communal life. For Bristol's views on the agonistic nature of plebeian festivals, see pp. 72-88 and 197-213.

  13. For studies of symbolic inversion in The Shoemaker's Holiday see Kinney and Eril Barnett Hughes, “The Tradition of the Fool in Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday,Arkansas Philological Association Publications 8, 2 (1982): 6-10.

  14. Peter Stallybrass, “The World Turned Upside Down: Inversion, Gender and the State,” in The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Valerie Wayne (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), pp. 201-20, 204.

  15. The safety-valve theory of inversion, in which temporary inversion of norms is permitted by a society's dominant group in order to release social tensions, was proposed by Max Gluckman, Custom and Conflict in Africa (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966) in contrast, Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1968), argues that symbolic inversion is essentially a transgressive unsettling of norms and regulations. A general overview of theories of festivity may be found in Bristol, pp. 26-39.

  16. Joel H. Kaplan, “Virtue's Holiday: Thomas Dekker and Simon Eyre,” RenD n.s. 2 (1969): 103-22, 110; Manheim, p. 317; Kastan, p. 332.

  17. A particularly good example of the conflation of the two feasts is an entry for bell-ringing at Bishop's Stortford in Hertfordshire, where expenses are recorded in 1575 for “bred, drinck, and cheese for Ringing on St. Hewes daye in reioysing of the queenes prosperous Ragne” (quoted by Strong, p. 89; for other examples, see Strong, pp. 89-91). Strong also relates this anecdote: “Annually on the 17 November the college inmates enjoyed a ‘gaudy day’ in honour of their patron St. Hugh. It so happened about the year 1570 that some of the revellers went to the church of All Hallows to ring the bells for exercise. This resulted in the descent of the mayor, who charged them with popery for ringing a dirge for Queen Mary, to which one had the wit to reply that on the contrary it was for joy at the present Queen's accession. At this the mayor departed and ordered as many of the city's bells as possible to be rung in the Queen's honour” (p. 88).

  18. Julia Gasper, The Dragon and the Dove: The Plays of Thomas Dekker (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 16. In this context, it may be fitting that Lincoln's commitment to the war effort is little more than a smoke screen for his desire to protect the Lacy family name from contamination by the citizen class.

  19. Gasper, pp. 16-43.

  20. Dekker's principal source is Thomas Deloney's The Gentle Craft, particularly the second and third stories of part 1. For a discussion of the relationship between the two works, see Smallwood and Wells, pp. 17-26.

  21. Lacy's fortunes are, of course, modeled in large part on the legend of St. Hugh found in the first four chapters of The Gentle Craft. See Francis Oscar Mann, ed., The Works of Thomas Deloney (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912), pp. 73-89.

  22. Significantly, much of the late 1590s repertoire of the Henslowe companies, for which Dekker wrote The Shoemaker's Holiday, reveals the political influence of Lord Howard of Effingham, the Lord Admiral, in its expressly Protestant values. See Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987), p. 148.

  23. William Raleigh Trimble, The Catholic Laity in Elizabethan England 1559-1603 (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1964), p. 214; Edward Norman, Roman Catholicism in England from the Elizabethan Accession to the Second Vatican Council (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), p. 32. At the same time, however, the wealthiest Catholics were also to be found in these areas. See Trimble, p. 180.

  24. Trimble, p. 150.

  25. Quoted in Jeremy Boulton, Neighbourhood and Society: A London Suburb in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987), p. 284.

  26. Keith Thomas, “Work and Leisure in Pre-Industrial Society,” Past and Present 29 (1964): 50-66, 57.

  27. Smallwood and Wells, xiv.23-4 n.

  28. Laroque, p. 101.

  29. Julia Gasper usefully suggests that the name Hammon could be meant to recall “Mammon,” although she interprets the character's commercialism in religious rather than economic terms. See pp. 32-5.

  30. The less than innocent “mirth” of this scene may also caution us not to take at face value Dekker's claim in the dedicatory epistle that “nothing is purposed but mirth” (Epistle, line 20).

  31. George Unwin, Industrial Organization in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904), p. 73.

  32. Unwin, Industrial Organization, p. 122; George Unwin, The Gilds and Companies of London (1908; rprt. London: Frank Cass, 1963), p. 251.

  33. Unwin, Gilds and Companies, p. 251.

  34. A. L. Beier, “Engine of Manufacture: The Trades of London,” in London, 1500-1700: The Making of the Metropolis, ed. A. L. Beier and Roger Finlay (London: Longman, 1986), pp. 141-67, 153.

  35. Ibid.

  36. For a graphic representation of this distribution, see Figure 3, “London commerce and industry described by Stow,” in M. J. Power, “John Stow and His London,” Journal of Historical Geography 11, 1 (1985): 1-20, 9.

  37. This connection was first suggested by David Novarr, “Dekker's Gentle Craft and the Lord Mayor of London,” MP 57, 4 (1960): 233-9.

  38. Lawrence Stone, “The Peer and the Alderman's Daughter,” History Today 11, 1 (1961): 48-55, 51.

  39. Stone, p. 51; DNB, s.v. “Spencer, John.”

  40. DNB.

  41. Stone, p. 48.

  42. For a socio-historical analysis of these events, see Ian Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 1-9.

  43. Both letters are printed in E. K. Chambers and W. W. Greg, eds., “Dramatic Records of the City of London: The Remembrancia,” in The Malone Society's Collections, Part I (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1907), pp. 74-8.

  44. Chambers and Greg, p. 77.

  45. See for example Kaplan, p. 104; Kinney, p. 68; and Mortenson, p. 247.

  46. Bristol discusses a related example of the way that ideals of traditional hospitality served to unite civic and plebeian interests in the policies developed around the celebration of Lent (pp. 80-5).

  47. This is one of the play's most obvious bits of fictionalizing. Dutch immigrant laborers were in historical fact the target of allegations and attacks by Elizabethan tradesmen, although their numbers in no way rendered them a serious threat to the English labor force (Unwin, Gilds and Companies, pp. 246-51; see also Kaplan who discusses the matter of immigrant laborers in his reading of the play, pp. 325-6). Julia Gasper has recently suggested that Dekker's fairly easy positioning of the Dutch immigrant within an English household indicates that the play is more pro-Protestant than anti-immigrant (pp. 18-20).

  48. Elizabethan ideals of civic office appear to inform this revision of the Lord Mayor's function. Ian Archer quotes Recorder Croke on the benefits of having the government of London run by its own freemen: it is “an incouragement to the one to governe well, a provocation to the other to obey well, the bond of love & societie knitting both together, banishing discord, the poison of all commen weales” (pp. 50-1). In reality, artisans and city elites were bound only by a rhetoric of reciprocal rights and obligations. On occasion, however, the outright violation of this nonverbal contract did incite popular unrest, as in the riots of 1595. Archer ascribes these riots specifically to “the personal failings of Mayor Spencer [who] was criticized for corruption in allowing the sale of offices, for failing to consult with his colleagues, for keeping too loose a rein on city administration, and for insatiable avarice” (p. 56). With respect to both generosity and reciprocity, Simon Eyre rightly supersedes Oatley/Spencer. The more general conflict between guild values and bourgeois values that is characteristic of the moral landscape of early industrial societies may also lie behind this fictional succession. On the moral culture of the guilds, see Antony Black, Guilds and Civil Society in European Political Thought from the Twelfth Century to the Present (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984). I thank an anonymous SEL reader for this reference.

  49. The play's occupational and political sympathies appear to favor the interests of only one segment of the audience generally thought to have attended the Rose theater: “Courtiers, the ‘clamorous fry' of law students, citizens, whores, porters and menservants all went to the Rose, Theatre and Curtain” (Gurr, p. 133). On the other hand, very few of these groups—with the possible exception of some citizens—would have objected strenuously to the subject matter and poetic justice of The Shoemaker's Holiday. As Gurr speculates, some playgoers were clearly excluded from the amphitheater repertoirs of the late 1590s, for the reopening of the hall playhouses in 1599 and 1600 was evidently intended to serve a new clientele of affluent merchants and professionals who would come to dominate this venue in the early seventeenth century. One has a difficult time imagining that The Shoemaker's Holiday would be well received by these audiences.

  50. By 1599 both monarch and courtiers were well aware of their own increasing dependence on London's commercial capitalists. According to Robert Ashton, John Spencer was “[p]erhaps the most prominent of all lenders to the courtly world of fashion of his day” (The City and the Court, 1603-1643 [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979], p. 40). On the financial relationship between the aristocracy and London's money merchants, see also Ashton's The Crown and the Money Market, 1603-1640 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960).

George E. Thornton (essay date 1955)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6290

SOURCE: “The Social and Moral Philosophy of Thomas Dekker,” in Emporia State Research Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, December 1955, pp. 1-36.

[In the following excerpt, Thornton evaluates the relative virtue and integrity of the various strata of society depicted in The Honest Whore.]

But gentlemen, I must disarme you then,
There are of mad-men, as there are of tame,
All humourd not alike: we have here some,
So apish and phantasticke, play with a feather,
And tho twould grieve a soule to see Gods image
So blemisht and defac'd, yet doe they act
Such anticke and such pretty lunacies,
That spite of Sorrow they will make you smile:
Others agen we have like hungry Lions,
Fierce as the wilde Bulls, untameable as flies,
And these have oftentimes from strangers sides
Snatcht rapiers suddenly, and done much harme,
Whom if you'l see, you must be weaponlesse.

The Honest Whore, I (1604)

In discussing the plots of [The Honest Whore], I & II,1 it is expedient to combine the two as one drama, since one is, actually, the sequel to the other. The plots are succinctly put forth in the original titles accorded the two plays. The 1604 edition of HW, I is described as “A Booke called The humours of the patient man, The longinge wyfe and the honest whore.”2 The 1630 edition of HW, II is entitled: “The Second Part of the Honest Whore, with the Humours of the Patient Man, the Impatient Wife: the Honest Whore perswaded by strong Arguments to turne Curtizan againe: her braue refuting those Arguments. And, lastly, the Comicall Passages of an Italian Bridewell, where the Scaene ends.”3

The first plot of importance to HW, I & II concerns the efforts to marry of the royal lovers, Infelice and Count Hippolito, in spite of the objections of the girl's father, Duke Gasparo Trebazzi, ruler of Milan. In a scene at once reminiscent of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the Duke drugs his daughter and convinces Hippolito that she is dead; however, with the assistance of the court physician and a priest from Bedlam, the two lovers successfully thwart the Duke.

The second major plot concerns Candido, a patient linen draper, whose wife, Viola, spends most of her time attempting to provoke him to impatience. In her efforts she receives assistance from her brother, Fustigo, and from the gallants, Castruchio, Sinezi, Pioratto, and Fluello. Candido, however, survives the many trials put upon him and is patiently triumphant at the conclusions to both plays.

The third plot is the main one. It is the story of Bellafront, the titular character herself, who is reviled by Count Hippolito for her immorality. Realizing her depravity, she tries to return to respectable womanhood and is successful. However, on all sides, her moral redemption is combatted by her former associates. She achieves her triumph single-handedly through much suffering, so that she is recognized as a truly moral person at the conclusion of HW, II.

The lowest social level in both dramas is represented by the prostitute, the pander, and the bawd. These people are Bellafront, the prostitute; Roger, her servant and pander; and Mistress Fingerlock, a bawd. At the conclusion to HW, II, Dekker takes them to Bridewell and tries them for social indiscretion. In addition, the Bridewell scene introduces a collection of prostitutes with whom Dekker has not been concerned in either drama prior to this time—Mistress Horseleech, Dorothea Target, Penelope Whorehound, and Catherine Bountinall. Although he certainly considered these individuals to be beyond the conventional code of social morality, he does represent them as highly respected members of their own chosen profession; i.e., he permits them loyally to support professional standards of their own. For example, one may observe Roger, Bellafront's servant, pursuing his work as pander in much the same way as an honest merchant might display his merchandise. Roger is proud, indeed, to be a member of Bellafront's establishment, for he respects her as the most successful woman of her station in all Milan. When she chides him for his monetary interests, naming him a “… slaue to sixpence, base metalled villain …” he is very indignant, for he considers himself a pander only to quality: “Sixpence? nay, that's not so: I never tooke under two shillings four-pence: I hope I know my fee.” Dekker shows that Roger is proud of his position, that he is a man who takes pride in conducting his affairs with a respect for the ethics of his profession. At the same time, it is made clear that Roger, like any “honest” merchant, feels free to cheat if it be to his advantage. Here, one is reminded of Dekker's criticism of business standards in The Seuen Deadly Sinnes of London: while tradesmen were seen to use false weights and measures, Roger is now seen to water down the ale for Bellafront's customers and to forget, frequently, to return their change. Bellafront knows him and accuses him of lying to gentlemen customers, but he has a ready reply to her accusations:

If it be my vocation to swear, every man in vocation: I hope my betters swear and dam themselves, and why should not I?4

Dekker was intrigued by the theory that, on society's lowest level, there is an open imitation of the sins of those who reside on society's higher levels. It is clear that the prostitutes imitate their betters in dress. In the Bridewell scene, again, a jailer explains that the prostitute's custom of dressing elaborately rests in her attempt to pass herself off as one of her more respectable sisters. She may dress lavishly, in one instance, like the ladies of gallants, since extravagance in clothing is fashionable. Later, she may affect the dress of the more humble, respectable woman of the merchant class. It is obvious that the philosophical jailer understands this vanity:

No, my good Lord, that's onely but the vaile
To her loose body, I haue seene her here
In gayer Masking Suits, as seuerall Sawces
Giue one Dish seuerall Tastes, so change of Habits
In Whores is a bewitching Art: to day
She's all in colours to besot Gallants,
Then in modest blacke, to catch the Cittizen,
And this from their Examinations drawne,
Now shall you see a Monster both in shape
And nature quite from these, that sheds no teare,
Nor yet is nice, 'tis a plaine ramping Beare,
Many such Whales are cast vpon this Shore.(5)

Both the jailer and Dekker admit that the citizenry of Milan (London) is easily duped into believing that outward appearance suggests a genuine quality to things. On the other hand, if Penelope Whorehound can be believed, she does not have the vice of debts:

… art in for debt?
No—is my Iudge, sir, I am in for no debts, I payd my Taylor for this Gowne, the last fiue shillings a weeke that was behind, yesterday.(6)

Dekker, one remembers, had previously chastised London citizens in The Seuen Deadly Sinnes of London for purchasing frivolous things and thereby running into debt for vanity's sake; so that, actually, in the light of this knowledge, Mistress Whorehound shows a moral superiority to the gallants, for she believes in paying her way. She is an ethical member of an illicit profession! Dekker seems reluctant to suggest that this kind of a woman is ashamed of her profession; rather, he would permit her to think of herself as a member of a very essential institution. She seems instinctively to recognize that there is a double standard to her society, and she cannot be surprised, therefore, to learn that gallants who engage her services privately will castigate her publicly or even take pleasure in witnessing the cruel punishments which society metes out to those of her profession. Indeed, the gallants who had been engaging in friendly, if bawdy, conversation in Bellafront's establishment flock to Bridewell to watch the wretched prostitutes as they are humiliated and punished. Although Dekker strengthens this theory as he works his way through all three levels of his society, it is strongest in his treatment of the gallant. He extends his sympathy, however, to the prostitutes when they are caught up by justice. Catherine Bountinall, for example, chides a fellow sister who wishes to deny her trade to escape punishment:

Mary foh, honest? burnt at fourteene, seuen times whipt, sixe times carted, nine times duck'd, search'd by some hundred and fifty Constables, and yet you are honest? Honest Mistris Horsleach, is this World, a World to keep Bawds and Whores honest? How many times hast thou giuen Gentlemen a quart of wine in a gallon pot? how many twelue-penny Fees, nay two shillings Fees, nay, when any Embassadours ha beene heere, how many halfe crowne Fees hast thou taken? how many Carriers hast thou bribed for Country Wenches? how often haue I rinst your lungs in Aqua vitae, and yet you are honest?7

Catherine's contempt for the society which punishes her is scathing, and Dekker admires the woman for her courage and honesty, even if her morals, from society's viewpoint, leave much to be desired. She respects no one, it is true; when she is told that the Duke is present and that she should modify her language, she is even contemptuous of him and faces her punishment with strong heart:

If the Deuill were here, I care not: set forward, yee Rogues, and giue attendance to your places, let Bawds and Whore be sad, for Ile sing and the Deuill were a dying.8

At the conclusion to HW, II, these women are convicted and sent off to beat hemp, the Duke himself directing the force of the law against the profession, obviously hoping thereby to purge Milan of its ills:

Panders and Whores
Are Citty-plagues, which being kept aliue,
Nothing that lookes like goodnes ere can thriue.(9)

To Dekker, the prostitute is a product of the social contradictions of her society. Her establishment is a haven wherein gallants repair to drink, smoke, and swagger to their heart's content. It is an establishment with an atmosphere which the gallant's more conventional realm does not provide, in return for which, however, the woman is rewarded with the contempt of her society and with a gallant's renunciation when brought to justice. Ironically, this justice, while openly punishing her, secretly encourages her practice. Catherine Bountinall and Dekker are aware of the hypocrisy inherent in this social attitude, and neither is reticent to exclaim against it. The prostitute exists for man's candlelight hours (The Seuen Deadly Sinnes of London); she cannot be acknowledged by the light of day.

Dekker is next concerned with the servant-apprentice class. His major contention is that most of the servants and all of the apprentices are eager to improve themselves socially, yet are rarely interested in working diligently to achieve their ambitions. They, too, imitate the superficial qualities which they discern in their betters. Candido's apprentices, for example, appreciate him more for his material success than for his goodly patience. Indeed, they assist his wife and the fun-loving gallants to deprive their master of that one virtue which makes him distinctive and valuable to society. George, for instance, seems to exemplify the worst qualities of the entire apprentice class. He is lazy, rude, and familiar with his customers. Candido unmasks him in HW, I when he sees him serving three gallant customers:

I pray come neare, y'are very welcome gallants,
Pray pardon my mans rudeness, for I feare me
He's talkt above a Prentise with you. … (10)

Hippolito's servant betrays a similar kind of rudeness to his superiors. Ushering Bellafront into Hippolito's study, he annoys the Count, who becomes remonstrative:

Thou slave, thou hast let in the devil.
Lord blesse us, where? hee's not cloven my Lord that I can see: besides the divell goes more like a Gentleman than a Page, good my Lord Boon couragio.
Thou hast let in a woman, in mans shape. And thou art damn't for't.
Not damn'd I hope for putting in a woman to a Lord.(11)

In addition to emphasizing the servant's rudeness to the master, these lines serve further to illustrate his contempt for the whole nobility. Servants were frequently made to act the pander to their masters; this servant, therefore, can not understand his being berated for performing an act that ordinarily falls to the lot of a member of his station. Thus, he is similar to Candido's George in his ability to exchange repartee with his master. One recalls that, when George was demonstrating his master's fabrics to three gallants, the ensuing conversation concerning the quality of the material in question was laced with double entendre of obscene overtones. Dekker makes it clear, however, that the gallants provoked this verbal duel, so that it becomes their example which George is following. Although the gallants are fingering a bolt of cloth (appropriately called she) which George has shown them, they are in reality looking upon Candido's wife during the entire conversation:

What, and is this she saist thou?
I, and the purest she that ever you fingered since you were a gentleman: looke how even she is, looke how cleane she is, ha, as even as the brow of Cinthia, and as cleane as your sonnes and heires when they ha spent all.(12)

At the same time, George has a contempt for the gallants similar to that of Hippolito's servant for the nobility.

A different breed of servant, however, is introduced in HW, II, offering an interesting contrast to George and Hippolito's man. Bryan, Hippolito's groom and the character in question, is devoted to his master. Unfortunately, his lack of knowledge of the English language (he is Irish) is forever plunging him into serious trouble. Although he worships his master, his actions always end unhappily. For example, Infelice falsely “confesses” to Hippolito an affair with the unfortunate Bryan, when she learns that Hippolito himself has made advances to Bellafront. The Count believes her and, in a rage, beats the hapless man, who, throughout the struggle, does not know what he has done:

 Prate not, but get thee gone, I shall send else.
 I, doe predy, I had rather haue thee make a scabbard of my guts, and let out all de Irish puddings in my poore belly, den to be a false knaue to de I faat, I will neuer see dyne own sweet face more. A mawhid deer a gra, fare de well, fare de well, I wil goe steale Cowes agen in Ireland.(13)

Bryan is the only member of the serving-class to retain an old-fashioned virtue of duty and loyalty to master. It is curious that Dekker should have made this loyal servant an Irishman, for it was customary in this time to express a contempt for the Irish. Undoubtedly, there is some ridicule intended. Perhaps, he was suggesting that the less sophisticated country of Ireland still held reverence for humble virtue. If so, Ireland can produce loyal but incompetent servants, if nothing else. Bryan, too, is further annoyed by gallants who make him the butt of their nefarious jokes. They are a strange breed to him, for he does not understand them at all. Perhaps, it is for this reason that he does not attempt to imitate them. Consequently, he has a degree of virility that is lacking in Dekker's other servant-apprentice characterizations.

Dekker has so far concluded that the serving-class in his England possesses little humility. Like their superiors, they are arrogant, crude, and irresponsible. They have little respect for their masters, and all show a tendency to imitate the superficial qualities of the gallant. The one exception is Bryan, who is actually abused when he tries to perform his duties. Though he is stupid and has none of George's wit, he does have a few virtues of the true servant. He is one of the ironies of the author's social world.

Dekker next investigates the merchant group. Candido, the patient linen draper, is a personification of the author's “virtuous people,” and will be observed in greater detail later. He should be dealt with at this time only as he affects others within his own class. Viola, Candido's wife, however, represents Dekker's pattern for this class. As the wife of the great patient man, she has reason to appreciate him the most; yet she tries constantly to undermine that virtue which makes him outstanding. She lays elaborate plans to provoke his temper. She would have him to be like other women's husbands, and she is frustrated when his patience cannot be shaken:

… he loues no frets, and is so free from anger that many times I am ready to bite off my tongue, because it wants that vertue which all womens tongues have (to anger their husbands) Brother mine can by no thunder, turne him into a sharpnesse.14

Viola's “brother mine” is very much like her with respect to his superficial qualities. Fustigo is without ambition to achieve success through hard work, yet he wants success. He is arrogant, vain, extravagant, and lethargic. His personality is made up of the worst features of the gallants whom he imitates. He has had, at one time in his life, a slight education. He mentions Albertus Magnus and Aristotle upon occasion, but his basic stupidity is revealed at every turn. Viola, of course, has no difficulty in enlisting his aid. In return, she agrees to give him “… a great horseman's French feather. He knows what is fashionable! Viola, actually, affords one the most lucid description of her brother when she offers him the feather:

O, by any means, to shew your light head, else your hat will sit like a coxcombe: to be briefe, you must be in all points a most terrible wide-mouth'd swaggerer.15

Obviously, the role she desires him to play demands that he be himself.

Fustigo's pretentious behavior is patterned after that of the gallants in whom he envies luxurious living and ease. In all respects, Fustigo is the gull, or his prototype, the kind of person whom Dekker feigns to advise in The Gvls Horn-Booke. He is without virtue. He is superficially personified. He wants to be a gentleman, but he is convinced, at the same time, that to be a gentleman he must have sufficient money to afford the best tailor. In his simple thought, the proof of a gentleman lies in the cut of a coat and the whiteness of linen. It is clear to him that the gentleman's delicate comportment, his fastidious toilet, and his clever repartee make him successful with the ladies and the envy of all. Moreover, his gentleman does not toil, yet he reaps abundantly. One can imagine his horror when Viola once told him that he was brother-in-law to a linen draper! Dekker makes a neat contrast of Fustigo and Candido. The latter is the epitome of that success which may be attained to by a man of perseverance and industry. The former represents the degree to which the virtues of the middle class man can be perverted when he disregards place and imitates the most foolish of his superiors.

In Matheo, Dekker proposes an intermediary between the merchant and the gallant. Matheo, Bellafront's original seducer, was a member of the merchant class; however, when he first appears early in HW, I, Dekker would seem to place him next to Hippolito in social importance. Nevertheless, one suspects that Matheo has not long been a member of this class, for the Duke tells him that he plays the gentleman well and engages him in the plot to subdue the distracted Hippolito. Matheo, as well, fears that his new, exalted position in society may be endangered if Hippolito persists in antagonizing the Duke. He agrees, therefore, to assist the Duke, and in the lines which follow his decision, Dekker clearly shows Matheo's social position as he expresses deep fear for his “new Blacke cloakes.” Eventually, Dekker will reveal Matheo as the most depraved character in the drama, for he is one individual who is thoroughly without scruple. He will do anything to further his ambitions,—to live in ease and to bask in luxury. Nor can he understand Hippolito's grief for Infelice, thought dead, for it is his contention that one woman will serve as well as another. When Hippolito, overcome with tragedy speaks of sorrow, Matheo unburdens himself of a contempt for all womankind:

… sfoote women when they are alive are but dead commodities, for you shall have one woman lie upon many mens hands.16

When Hippolito insists that he shall never again look upon another woman, Matheo, in turn, vows that he will take his friend to a brothel within the next few days:

If you have this strange monster, Honestie, in your belly, why so Jigmakers and Chroniclers shall picke something out of you: but and I smell not you and a bawdy house out within these ten daies, let my nose be as big as an English bag-pudding: Ile follow your Lordship though it be to the place aforenamed.17

Consequently, when next seen, Matheo has been successful in bringing Hippolito to the house of Bellafront. Matheo is very much at home in this environment, and, true to his own pattern, he expresses friendly contempt for Bellafront, a contempt which he displays for all women. It must flatter his ego to think that he originally had discovered the most attractive courtesan in all Milan! Furthermore, he appears to have a sinister power which he exercises over people. He was successful, at first, in seducing Bellafront, taking her from a good home and a kind and loving father. And he was successful, secondly, in bringing Hippolito, against the latter's wishes, to Bellafront's establishment. Hippolito, however, is most uncomfortable in the company of Bellafront, and the riotous behavior of Matheo and his friends only intensifies his grief. But Matheo pays him no need, for he is not one to waste sympathy on his fellow man.

Later, when Bellafront decides to abandon prostitution and announces her intentions to Matheo in the presence of the gallants, he believes that she is amusing herself at the expense of all present; he feels that she has invented the story for the purpose of being alone with him. That a person might wish self-redemption is a thought which never occurs to him! When the gallants subsequently leave, he congratulates her for what he calls her “gulling” of them:

Ha, ha, thou dost gull em so rarely, so naturally: if I did not thinke thou hadst beene in earnest: thou art a sweete Rogue for't yfaith.18

This deep, sadistic pleasure which Matheo derives from a manipulation of people causes him to appreciate what he believes to be a similar trait in Bellafront. He shows more appreciation, indeed, for her in this one scene than he has before or ever will, but his amusement is shortlived. When she tells him that she hates him worst of all—“you were the first to giue me money for my soul”—, his rage is uncontrollable, and he releases his venom: “Is't possible to be impossible! … for a harlot to turn honest is one of Hercules labours. …” When she demands that he marry her, he replies that he will be “burnt first!” Dekker says that Matheo depends upon the naivete and honesty of other men whose traits enable him to victimize them; however, in the Bedlam scene of HW, I, he completes this characterization in the episode in which the Duke orders Matheo to marry Bellafront, an action for which he had previously said he would rather be “burnt.” Matheo, back against the wall, complains:

Cony-catcht, guld … 
Plague found you for't, tis well.
The Cockolds stampe goes currant in all nations.(19)

At last, the past master of the art of gulling falls victim to his own devices. He is now the gull gulled, as it were, another of Dekker's ironies.

Dekker's gallants in HW, I & II are superficialities. They possess the immorality of which he spoke so vehemently in The Seuen Deadly Sinnes of London. They are rich, idle, frivolous, lecherous, dissembling, and cruel. They have provided the pattern which directly influences every class beneath them, and they are one of the forces contributing to the innocuous behavior of most of the dramatis personae. The apprentices imitate their clever but immodest conceits. Almost all of the characters imitate their idle qualities, apprentices and serving-men even neglecting their work because they think the gallants' easy lives to be fashionable. They are cruel to the prostitute, as are all other “respectable” classes in the dramas. Their consummate selfishness is the pattern for Fustigo and Matheo. Fustigo, in fact, is made thoroughly useless to his society because of his aping of gallant mannerisms, and Matheo represents the values of the gallant when carried to a natural and pernicious conclusion. Although these gallants possess few individual qualities of distinction, they are people who are admired by the majority of the characters in Dekker's works. The gentle class, which has been the core of medieval society, is shown through the gallant to be on the threshold of a complete degeneration. In short, the gallant and his standards are society as Dekker conceives of it in these two plays.

The loftiest social class in HW, I & II is represented by Count Hippolito, Infelice, his wife, and her father, Gasparo Trebazzi, ruler of Milan. The whole of society in these two plays rises or falls with the royal class. Hence, this class and Dekker's understanding of it are most essential to the development of his social and moral philosophy. Infelice, daughter to the Duke and member of the royal family of Milan, is an egotistical, strong-minded young woman who will not permit her desires to be frustrated. To the modern reader, the fact that she disobeyed her father and married the man of her choice does not seem amiss. However, to the Elizabethan and to the conservative Elizabethan like Dekker, Infelice's action would seem to be that of a willful and spoiled child of an ever-indulgent father. Dekker is calling attention, undoubtedly, to the fact that one whose duty it was to rule Milan and to disseminate justice and equity to all could not control his own daughter. Indeed, Infelice was very much the daughter of Trebazzi. He, too, was self-willed, self-indulgent. He was a man enraged when his will was defied, and he could commit a murder with no moral compunction. But it was only natural, therefore, during this episode that the Duke put the affairs of state from his mind and concentrate wholly upon his pressing family problems. However, as head of state, he was supposed to be an example to all. Dekker calls specific attention to this neglect of duty, yet the Duke was no more neglectful of his duties than were the lowliest citizens of Milan. Certainly, his own gallants at court were the products of his inability to teach by precept and example. The Duke was not playing the part to which God elected him; Dekker was a staunch believer in the divine rights of kingship which emphasized the importance of good example to one's subjects. Consequently, when Infelice pleads with the Duke to save her marriage from the threat of Bellafront, he decides to purge Milan of prostitution. He was not actually concerned with the act of stamping out an evil; such an idea was entirely contrary to his pronouncements. He was, first and last, interested in resolving his daughter's marital problem. One need only observe his subsequent proclamation to discern a lack of sincerity. The core of the man's whole social and moral philosophy is contained in the expression, “Nothing that lookes like goodnes ere can thriue.”20 How it probably concerned him greatly that his son-in-law's interest in Bellafront's charms could not “look like goodnes” to the state! However, that Bellafront was a good and moral woman was proved to the satisfaction of Orlando Friscibaldo, a man whom the Duke admired and respected. It is pertinent to realize that the Duke eventually explains his son-in-law's aberration in this way:

… for to turne a Harlot
Honest, it must be by strong Antidots,
'Tis rare, as to see Panthers change their spots.
And when she's once a Starre (fixed) and shines bright,
Tho 'twere impiety then to dim her light,
Because we see such Tapers seldome burne.
Yet 'tis the pride and glory of some men,
To change her to a blazing Starre agen,
And it may be, Hippolito does no more.
It cannot be, but y'are acquainted all
With that same madnesse of our Sonne-in-law,
That dotes so on a Curtizan.(21)

To Dekker, the Duke's statement must have smacked of sacrilege.

The madman who speaks in the Bedlam scene of HW, I analyzes the social conditions of Milan and seems to be Dekker's mouthpiece for warning to all England. The scene is the one in which the madman has confused the Duke with his own son. He holds the Duke's hand and notices that the fingernails are long:

Such nailes had my second boy: kneele downe thou varlet, and aske thy father blessing: Such nailes had my middelmost son, and I made him a Promoter: and he scrapt, and scrapt, til he got the divel and all: but he scrapt thus and thus and thus and it went under his legs, till at length a companie of kites, taking him for carrion, swept up all, all, all, all, all, all, all. If you love your lives, looke to your selves: see, see, see, see, the Turkes Gallies are fighting with my ships, Bownce goes the guns: ooh! cry the men: romble, romble goe the waters: Alas, there; tis sunke, tis sunke: I am undone, I am undone, you are the damn'd Pirates have undone me: you are by the Lord, you are, you are, stop'em, you are.22

Dekker's meaning is unmistakable. The state is ruled by a fool who keeps company with “kites,” and, as a result, the ship of state is unmanned when the enemy attacks. The Duke, upon deciding to rid the city of prostitutes, continues the image:

Ile try all Phisicke, and this Med'cine first:
I haue directed Warrants strong and peremptory
(To purge our Citty Millan, and to cure
The outward Parts, the Suburbes) for the attaching
Of all those women, who (like gold) want waight,
Citties (like Ships) should haue no idle fraight.(23)

Earlier in The Seuen Deadly Sinnes of London Dekker had expressed his opinion that the plague was a visitation from God—it was a divine warning. Here, again, he seems to be saying, through his ship image, that the state is in danger of a new divine intervention, since London is so wasted.

The lasting impression of HW, I & II is that of Dekker's concern for individual and social morality. He believes that state inferior whose inhabitants are not virtuous; therefore, a state which is not good must be made good, else a vengeful God will destroy it. He believes further that this God, because He knows that man is weak, has given man examples of strongly moral people to emulate and from whom to learn virtue for himself. The whole class structure of these plays shows an interdependency of one class upon another, a kind of social chain of being, crowned by the ruling classes with the ruler himself ordained by God. Dekker concludes that it is God's wish that this ruler be a good and virtuous man. If he be not so by nature, says Dekker, he can learn to be so through study of a virtuous man. Now, Dekker's philosophy permits of two kinds of virtue. One man is virtuous by nature. He has a natural affinity for goodness. It does not require much struggle for him to remain good. He merely has to defend his virtue from attacks of the stupid, who cannot recognize virtue when they see it and consequently try to destroy it. There is a second kind of virtue, however, which is probably the greater of the two in Dekker's thinking, since it is achieved only through great moral struggle. It achieves strength through sin; it suffers the agony of the tormented but receives a final purity only after moving dangerously near to eternal damnation. Candido possesses Dekker's first kind of virtue—a virtue which Milton would call blank. Bellafront possesses the second kind, a tested virtue. And there is a third person, Orlando Friscobaldo, who typifies that which can be learned from observation of the virtuous man. He is capable of learning, and, what is more, capable of accepting the truth, even when it contradicts the fashions of the times. True, he is motivated by love for his daughter, but when she tells him she is no longer a prostitute, he pretends not to believe her. He even denies her. Later, he resolves to test her, and when he muses aloud, one is permitted to understand his true character:

Las my Girle! art thou poore? pouerty dwells next doore to despaire, there's but a wall betweene them; despaire is one of hells Catch-powles; and lest that Deuill arrest her, Ile to her. … Yes, I will victuall the Campe for her. … 24

With Bellafront's moral redemption, Orlando Friscobaldo's life is complete.

Dekker's HW, I & II are experiments in the negative presentation of moral virtue, in which are depicted various levels of morality, or the lack of it, which exist in mankind from the lowest state of society to the highest. At the very bottom of the scale of being there is a complete amorality, a total lack of understanding for much which is moral. At the top of the scale, there exist three characters who typify moral qualities. Although these three possess virtue, they differ in their kinds of morality and in the ways they have succeeded in achieving it. It would seem, therefore, to be Dekker's theory that few people have a knowledge or appreciation of virtue, insofar as most of the action in these two dramas is concerned with the attempts of those who represent the ungainly majority to deprive those who represent the virtuous minority of their virtue. That many of the scenes dealing with attempted seduction are laden with crude humor does not lessen the very serious intent of Dekker, but only veils it. Dekker would seem to have one think that virtue is rare, that the vulgar, the stupid, and the shallow are either oblivious to it or work consciously against it. The clever character becomes vain and frivolous in close analysis; the dull one becomes ambitious, yet lethargic, highly desirous of that which is sham and ephemeral. Dekker's evaluation of mankind is not pleasant, necessitating that he conceal such human spiritual weakness in clever comic exterior; the arrangement of his acts, by which two seemingly dissimilar plots dovetail and compliment each other, prevents Dekker's message from having a very direct contact with the audience. Indeed, upon cursory reading, the continuity of these acts seems haphazard, even to the point of being unplanned. It is only later that one realizes that Dekker has, perhaps, gulled his reader. The true message of HW, I & II is a hidden one, although there are visible signposts everywhere along the way. Out of these dramas has come Dekker's picture of social degredation. Always the moralist, he is understandably shocked by conditions as he finds them. At the same time, fortunately, he is also enough of a realist, a trait possibly derived from his pamphleteering days, to face up strongly to the situation in the interests of faithful reproduction. Although HW, I & II do not sustain his annoyance with the new order as he has shown it in his pamphlets, the dramas do reveal, often with a surprising subtlety, the whole complex social order of the London which Dekker knew.


  1. There is a textual problem of dates, here. Dekker's HW, I was published in 1604; his HW, II, in 1630. It has long been assumed that the first play was also written around 1604; however, there is still speculation concerning the date of composition for the sequel. Although a quarter of a century had lapsed between publications of these two plays, Hunt contends that there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the second play was written shortly after the first (Mary Leland Hunt, Thomas Dekker, p. 94). On the other hand, there is the theory that the second play shows a greater maturity than the first, a theory which immediately suggests that HW, II may have been written on or about the date of its accepted publication date (Thomas Dekker, edited by Ernest Rhys, p. xxix). Henslowe mentions having made payment for HW, I to Dekker and Middleton between 1 January 1604 and 14 March 1604 (E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, III, p. 295), and he records its acting by the Prince's Men soon afterwards. Middleton's share in the composition of HW, I is also a matter for disagreement. There is no doubt, however, that Middleton collaborated with Dekker, but it is difficult to single out those portions of the drama which belong to Middleton and those which belong to Dekker. Some critics contend that Middleton's contribution was negligible, consigning the major portions of the drama to Dekker (Thomas Dekker, edited by Ernest Rhys, p. xxx). However, Hunt finds evidence of Middleton's hand in HW, II (op. cit, p. 94).

  2. . … p. 294.

  3. Loc. cit.

  4. Thomas Dekker, The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, II, p. 49.

  5. Ibid., p. 178.

  6. Ibid., p. 177.

  7. Ibid., p. 179.

  8. Ibid., p. 181.

  9. Ibid., pp. 181-82.

  10. Ibid., p. 19.

  11. Ibid., p. 58.

  12. Ibid., p. 18.

  13. Ibid., p. 132.

  14. Ibid., p. 10.

  15. Ibid., p. 11.

  16. Ibid., p. 6.

  17. Ibid., p. 7.

  18. Ibid., p. 53.

  19. Ibid., p. 159.

  20. Ibid., p. 182.

  21. Ibid., pp. 156-57.

  22. Ibid., pp. 81-82.

  23. Ibid., p. 158.

  24. Ibid., p. 107.

Larry S. Champion (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6548

SOURCE: “The Early Years—Romantic Comedy, Satire,” in Thomas Dekker and the Traditions of English Drama, Peter Lang, 1985, pp. 11-53.

[In the excerpt below, Champion analyzes the construction of the two parts of The Honest Whore. He judges Part II a masterpiece, comparing its structure to that of “Shakespeare's most effective comedies.”]

Whatever the critical complaints about parts of the canon, Dekker's work at its rare best ranks, as A. H. Bullen has observed, “with the masterpieces of the Elizabethan drama.”1 And in any description of those moments, the two parts of The Honest Whore invariably place high on the list.2 Yet, a comparison of these plays—like that of Westward Ho and Northward Ho—reveals significantly different levels of craftsmanship and, at the same time, provides clear evidence why Part II is one of his greatest works.3 In both plays the attempt (as in Shakespeare's problem comedies) is to create, not the stylized, one-dimensional puppet of situation comedy, but rather a more complex character who is forced to confront a viable force of evil and to make ethical and moral decisions and who—in the course of the action—experiences a credible and genuine development. In these stage worlds the power of evil is real; and the characters, struggling on the fringe of comedy, must cope with the actual consequences of crime and sin.4

Such characters obviously create problems for the dramatist who desires to maintain a firm comic perspective for the spectator rather than see his narrative turn to melodrama or tragicomedy. Since the spectators' involvement with physical action does not extend beyond the superficial laughter that a humorous situation arouses, the playwright—to the extent that he can maintain such a perspective—has no difficulty in achieving a comic tone for “flat” characters who make no ethical decisions. On the other hand, with greater character complexity, the spectator is easily provoked into emotional identification with character and situation, and his comic perspective is blurred. Regardless of how the Renaissance comic form took shape, whether primarily from “Saturnalian release” or from “Terentian intrigue,” the dramatic experience which is to divert rather than to distress is possible only so long as the spectator is either emotionally detached from the characters or, if emotionally involved, in possession of such knowledge or provoked into such a mood as to be assured of a happy end accomplished by means which only temporarily appear unpleasant.

In Part I the structure is loose and the effect disorderly. With the spectators' perspective at times unguided and consequently blurred and with critical character inconsistencies, the action at several points degenerates into sheer melodrama. In Part II the structure is firm, the comic perspective carefully controlled throughout; the result is a stage world in which, from a position of knowledgeable security, the spectators observe the development of characters obsessed with greed and lust but ultimately purged and presumably restored to a richer life through the power and grace of selfless love.

In Part I, more specifically, the comic perspective is maintained with only partial success; it depends to a large extent on a farcical secondary plot that involves six of the twelve scenes in Acts I-IV, before the plots merge in the final act. These scenes (second, fourth, fifth, seventh, tenth, eleventh) Dekker interweaves presumably to block the spectators' emotional involvement with a main plot dealing with unrequited love and apparent death. Candido, a linen draper, is depicted as a veritable “(mirror of patience) … [in whom one may] sooner raise a spleene in an Angell, than rough humour” (I.iv.15, 23-4). Equally stylized is his wife Viola, who is convinced that her husband, unless he can be goaded into a fit of passion, “haz not all things belonging to a man” (I.ii.58-9). Her philosophy in a nutshell is that “[w]omen must haue their longings, or they die” (136).

This rather ingenious variation of the battle of the sexes, in effect, sets humor against humor.5 Through mockery and ridicule (in I.v as rakish courtiers enter his shop demanding a “pennyworth of lawne” cut from the very center of a seventeen-yard piece), through apparent cuckoldry (in III.i as Viola encourages her brother to take outlandish liberties with her in order to rouse her husband's jealousy), through physical abuse (in IV.iii as Candido is mistaken for George, his apprentice, and soundly cuffed by two “bravos”), and through mental abuse (in IV.iii as his wife's charges of insanity precipitate his detention at Bedlam), Candido perseveres in his incredible patience. Viola, instead, is the one to crack, admitting her shrewishness and swearing to “vex [his] spirit no more” (V.ii.479) as she petitions the Duke to release her husband from the asylum. Obviously this entire action must be played broadly, else the spectators would understandably begin to question not only Viola's motivation in her determination to infuriate her husband but also Candido's willingness to be mocked and bludgeoned in the name of a patience that by any realistic standard smells either of cowardice or of stupidity. But, played farcically, the one-dimensional characters provide a degree of comic distancing for the main plot; the linen-draper, in fact, survives the role as comic butt to emerge at the end of the play as a kind of middle-class hero who delivers an encomium on the virtues of patience as the “soule of peace” (489), the “perpetuall prisoners liberty” (500), the “bond-slaues freedom” (501), the “beggers Musick” (504), the “sap of blisse” (506). Above all, he observes—in a line calculated to sharpen the comic perspective during the sentimental fifth-act reconciliations—it is the “hunny gainst a waspish wife” (509). The bemused Duke can only admit that “[s]o calme a spirit is worth a golden Mine,” even as he quips that “Twere sinne all women should such husbands haue, / For euery man must then be his wiues slaue” (515, 512-13).

Along with the interlaced double-plot, the elaborate artifice of Act V is apparently devised to reinforce the comic perspective during the final moments of the play. This action is replete with madhouse scenes (comic at least to the seventeenth-century audience), disguise, mistaken identity, plots and counterplots: Hippolito's disguise as he steals forth to Bethlem Monastery to wed Infelice, the Duke's disguise as a country gentleman to prevent the nuptials, the discovery of the Duke's plans by the lovers, their posthaste wedding and disguise as friars, and the reconciliation of Trebatzi and his son-in-law effected by Friar Anselmo.

Despite these comic devices the spectator in Part I does not, for the great bulk of the plot, observe the action from a vantage of superior knowledgeability. He is not led to anticipate a pattern of action which provides the emotional assurance of comedy at the same time it sustains the absorbing interest of narrative, and consequently there are several points at which the comic perspective is blurred. Indeed, the dominant tone at the outset of the play is far from comic—a macabre funeral procession for the fair Infelice who has “died” suddenly and mysteriously, a distraught lover who bursts upon the mourners with charges that the father is a “murderer” who has “kill'd her by [his] crueltie” (I.i.35), and the sorrowing father who—lashing out with equal vehemence—commands that, if Hippolito “proceede to vexe vs, your swordes / Seeke out his bowells” (15-6). The imagery further underscores the tragic tone of the scene. Infelice is one whose cheeks are “roses Withered” (23), her eyes a “paire of starres … Darkened and dim” (24-5), the “riuers / That fed her veines with warme and crimson streames, / Frozen and dried vp” (25-7). “[B]eautie [is] but a coarse” (55); “Queenes bodies are but trunckes to put in wormes / That now must feast with her, were euen bespoke, / And solemnely inuited like strange guests” (103-05). All of this, the spectators must accept as straightforward exposition as they tend to develop a sympathetic rapport with the aggrieved young lover. Understandably, then, they feel themselves to be the victims of an emotional trick when, well into the action—two full scenes later, they discover to their amazement that Infelice, far from dead, is herself the victim of a family fued and of her father's determination to bar her romantic interest in Hippolito. He swears to “starue her on the Appenine” (I.iii.25) before he will permit the marriage; and, informing her that Hippolito is dead, he sends her to Bergamo where “[i]n a most wholesome aire” (76) she shall “[c]ast off this sorrow” (81). Publicly lamenting his previous sharpness toward Hippolito and his family, he secretly commands Doctor Benedict to murder the innocent lad: “Performe it; Ile create thee halfe mine heire” (98).6

Even though the events of these two scenes (I.i; I.iii) have eroded a firm perspective, the viewers—once the truth is revealed—are now at least in possession of sufficient information to observe the near tragic events from a vantage of comedy. Yet, a few scenes later Dekker and Middleton employ another narrative trick which further confuses the audience. In IV.iv the doctor reports that Hippolito is dead (poisoned when drinking a “health … [t]o Infaelices sweete departed soule” [8]) and urges Duke Trebatzi “to bury deepe, / This bloudy act of mine” (30-1). Again, since the spectator has no reason whatsoever to assume that this event has not actually occurred, the comic perspective is destroyed. And, again, the spectator is understandably troubled and far from emotionally satisfied to learn later that Dr. Benedict has been lying, that Hippolito is alive and healthy, and that the doctor—now bitter at the peremptory treatment he has received from the Duke—will reveal all to the youth and will aid him in rescuing and wedding Infelice.

A further difficulty concerning the perspective of the main plot involves the title character Bellafront, a notorious woman of the behind-door trade. It is difficult not to view her “conversion” as stylized; her alteration in the scope of a single scene from a practicing prostitute, bandying words of the trade with her servant Roger and with several of her best customers, to a repentant (“honest”) whore replete with sermonettes, tears, and a dagger with which to end her shame is so shockingly sudden as to be comic—much like Valentine's conversion to love in The Two Gentlemen of Verona or Berowne's shift from anti-lover to Petrarchan doter in Love's Labor's Lost.7 As if to emphasize the stylized quality of the action, the playwrights make no attempt to dramatize any credible motivation; we simply view the whore in one line, the penitent in another and all for the sake of the heart—Bellafront's true love at first sight of Hippolito—a stock motif in English romantic comedy since the work of the University Wits.

Once the spectator has accepted Bellafront as a stylized character, however, and has in this fashion blocked himself from emotional involvement with her, he is confronted with three consecutive scenes (III.ii, III.iii, IV.i) which appear designed to convince him post hoc of the sincerity of her conversion. She is berated in succession by her servant Roger and her confidante Mistress Fingerlock, who comprehend only the money lost as a result of the sea change; by her customers, who take obvious delight in mocking her new posture; by Matheo, who first was responsible for her sexual promiscuity and who laughs outright at her suggestion that he marry her and make her honest (“How, marry with a Punck, a Cockatrice, a Harlot? mary foh, Ile be burnt thorow the nose first” [III.iii.116-17]); and by Hippolito, who spurns her for violating his devotional to Infelice and flatly rejects her proffered love. Apparently broken at this point, Bellafront moans in soliloquy that she

                              must therefore fly,
From this vndoing Cittie, and with teares,
Wash off all anger from my fathers brow.


These scenes, apparently calculated to evoke sympathy for the long-suffering regenerate, result in a richer and more complex characterization than the spectator has been led to expect from the stylized conversion earlier.

For this very reason the inconsistency in Bellafront's remaining appearances is all the more disturbing. Since her father is never mentioned after the short reference cited above, it is possible that Dekker, already planning a sequel, was providing a connecting link. But, in any event, there is no reason to believe that she is lying in her pronouncement. Indeed, the convention of the soliloquy assumes just the reverse. Yet we see her next, not at her father's home, but as a patient in Bethlem, and only later do we realize that her insanity is merely a pose. Moreover, the audience is totally unaware of her decision to forget her passionate love for Hippolito and to pursue her honor above her romance in the stratagem by which she gains Matheo as a husband. No doubt the spectator must overcome a momentary tendency to sympathize with Matheo as a victim in a ploy from which there is no honorable escape, much like the momentary tendency to sympathize with Bertram against Helena in All's Well That Ends Well. Forced to admit the truth of the “lunatic's” claim that he has rifled her most precious jewel and forced by the Duke to agree to marry her if and when she ever recovers her wits, Matheo is astounded as she calmly announces:

                                                            Matheo thou art mine,
I am not mad, but put on this disguise,
Onely for you my Lord.


Certainly, the spectator—provoked alternately to laughter, tears, and disdain for the “honest whore”—is justified in feeling some degree of emotional dislocation.

In short, the viewer is at times totally unprepared for the direction of the narrative; uninformed as on several occasions he faces what he can only presume to be tragic events of an irrevocable nature and confused at times by inconsistencies in character, he is practiced upon just as much as certain characters in the plot. The main plot, frankly melodramatic as a result of this lack of comic control, falls short of truly effective comedy.

In sharp contrast, the action of Part II, written entirely by Dekker, is firmly controlled, the structure similar to that of Shakespeare's most effective comedies. Of primary significance is Orlando Friscobaldo, Bellafront's father, who functions directly as a comic pointer, visibly controlling the various complications and providing through his actions and his comments a sufficiently comic view for the spectator to rest secure that an impenetrable circle of wit has exorcised any dangers of permanent consequence. As a result, the audience achieves a knowledgeable perspective through which it can anticipate a solution to the serious problems of the narrative and an outcome mutually pleasant to each of the principals. In his benevolent practice upon Bellafront, Hippolito, and Matheo, Friscobaldo is joined by Duke Gasparo Trebatzi, whose power is responsible for the final solutions. Dekker introduces, as an additional comic device, Bryan, an Irish footman whose zany activities provide moments of boisterous physical action and whose fractured punctuation—like that of Dr. Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor—produces numerous bawdy doubles entendres. Finally, Dekker sharpens the comic perspective through a subplot featuring the further experiences of Candido the patient linen-draper.

This subplot, more specifically, is made to serve directly the larger design of the drama. Instead of, as in Part I, a narrative strand which involves eight of the fourteen scenes (six exclusively)—to all intents and purposes a double plot with separate complications and resolutions—this material involves only five of thirteen scenes (four exclusively) and, without an independent line of action, assumes its importance from its relationship, both thematic and structural, to the major action.8 Lodovico's disguise as Candido's apprentice, for example, and his practice upon the new bride parodically parallel the action of the main plot, in which a benevolent practicer will likewise control the action in order to bring correction, adjustment, and eventual reconciliation. The moment the wife kneels in willing submission to her husband, Lodovico (who has coached the patient man in the art of masculine supremacy) removes his disguise with the quip: “I taught him to take thee downe: I hope thou canst take him downe without teaching” (II.ii.126-27). This action (I.iii; II.ii) does, of course, provide broad physical comedy; but, more importantly, with the main plot disguise established in the immediately preceding scene in Act I, and with the first significant activities of the practicer as a servant in his daughter's household occurring between the two farcical scenes, Dekker has obviously constructed the incident as a broadly comic parallel to the more complex issues of the main plot.

The two remaining incidents of the subplot share a similar relationship to the principal action. In III.iii Carolo and Lodovico, determined to cuckold the “patient Linnen Draper” (19) and flout his “fine yong smug Mistris” (20), seek the services of Mistress Horseleech and Bots, who are themselves out to procure fresh ammunition for their behind-door trade. Acting as a pander, Bots whisks the bemused wife aside and prattles on about a “waiting Gentlewoman of my Ladies” who wishes to see her; rebuffed on those grounds he admits in the same breath that the “naked truth is: my Lady hath a yong Knight, her sonne, who loues you” (III.iii.53-4). Although he fails again to arouse either the wife's interest or lust, he maintains his dishonest poise as he informs Carolo to name the afternoon and “she'll meet him at her Garden house” (66). While nothing ever comes of this incident—except Bot's comic punishment in the final act—it is inserted between two moments in which Bellafront faces the temptation to revert to whoredom: in III.ii to satisfy her despairing husband and in III.iv to satisfy the passionate wooer on whom she herself earlier doted. Like the earlier scenes this subplot action is significant only in context as a boisterous parallel to bolster the spectator's comic perspective on the main plot.

Finally, Candido's arrest for possession of stolen goods parallels the arrests of Matheo and Bellafront. Innocently drawn to Matheo's house to purchase certain linens from Matheo, Candido finds himself in the middle of a wild party of gallants who plan to have a “good fit of mirth” (IV.iii.19) by forcing him to drink, dance, and sing bawdy songs. Appalled by the liquor which is forced upon him and by the kiss which Mistress Horseleech bestows (the bawd whose “breath stinkes worse than fifty Polecats” [79]), the flustered linen-draper can muster no defense when the Constable bursts upon the scene with a warrant to “search for such stolne Ware” (170) and proceeds to arrest him (“Why sir? what house I pray? … Is't so? thankes, sir: I'm gone. … Indeed! … Me, sir, for what? … Must I so? … Ile send for Bayle. … To Bridewell to?” [165 et passim]). He is then forgotten at Bridewell until Orlando's practice has been fully exploited upon the main characters, after which he is rescued by the Duke and praised for his patience:

                                                            these greene yong wits
(We see by Circumstance) this plot hath laid,
Still to prouoke thy patience, which they finde
A wall of Brasse, no Armour's like the minde. … 
A Patient man's a Patterne for a King.

(V.ii.490-93, 497)

Through the farcical misfortunes of Candido, then, Dekker sharpens the comic tone and blocks the spectators' emotional involvement at a point when the imprisonment of the major characters and the subsequent general reconciliation might otherwise blur the comic perspective. As in the best of Shakespeare's subplots, this material consists of comically stylized characters and of anecdotal incidents arranged and developed to parallel the events of the main plot and thus to strengthen the perspective through which the spectators realize the fuller comic possibilities of the entire play.

The more important structural device, as we have noted, is the function of Orlando Friscobaldo as the major comic pointer.9 Introduced as an Old Master Merrythought spawning words as he sketches the character of a happy and carefree man (“After this Picture (my Lord) doe I striue to haue my face drawne: For I am not couetous, am not in debt, sit neither at the Dukes side, nor lie at his feete” [I.ii.67-9]), Orlando publicly proclaims his total alienation from his daughter. He immediately informs the audience, however, in a brief soliloquy that his concern is real, that he will “to her, yet she shall not know me: she shall drinke of my wealth, as beggers doe of running water, freely, yet neuer know from what Fountaines head it flowes” (171-73). Presenting himself as Pacheco (who, he avers, last served Orlando Friscobaldo), he seeks service with Matheo, and by slanderous remarks against his previous master he ironically provokes Bellafront to defend her father. The spectator, realizing that each is sincerely concerned for the other, begins to anticipate that their reconciliation will form a part of the general resolution. In his new position Pacheco observes the purse, ring, and letter by which the Duke's son tempts his daughter, and in another soliloquy he expresses his delight that she refuses to receive the bribe:

                                                            [H]old out still, wench.
All are not Bawds (I see now) that keepe doores,
Nor all good wenches that are markt for Whores.


The disguised father begins his direct manipulation of the action Act III as he attempts to protect Bellafront from both Hippolito and Matheo. For one thing, he moves to block Hippolito's access to his daughter. Under the ploy that his mistress' lands are being encircled by a designing neighbor and that she needs the Duke's protection, he gains an audience with Infelice. When she requests a survey of the land, he gives her instead the letter, purse, and ring—evidence of her husband's infidelity. In this manner he hopes, though without success, to stifle Hippolito's lust through Infelice's indignation. For another, he offers money secretly to Bellafront, assuring the spectators a few moments later that, despite Matheo's treatment of his wife, no harm will come to her: “Ile giue him hooke and line, a little more for all this” (III.ii.160). In Act IV Orlando moves directly against the degenerate husband. First, the father (without disguise) visits Matheo and berates him fiercely for his profligacy. Mocking his request for funds when he is so stupid as to “flie high” in an expensive gown he cannot afford in order to “keep the fashion” (i.8) with the “best ranke of gallants” (9) and openly branding him a “Thiefe, … a Cheater, Whoremonger, a Pot-hunter, a Borrower, a Begger” (91-2), Orlando forces his son-in-law to hear the truth and warns him of his impending arrest for the robbery of two peddlers (actually Orlando's servants disguised and planted for this purpose). Second, returning in the disguise of Pacheco, he literally saves his daughter from being beaten by the infuriated husband, proclaiming, as the cowardly assailant raises a stool to strike her: “Zownds, doe but touch one haire of her, and Ile so quilt your cap with old iron, that your coxcombe shall ake the worse these seuen yeeres for't” (190-92). Feigning reconciliation a short time later, Pacheco agrees to help Matheo rob his father-in-law, thereby setting the stage for the trap to be sprung upon the young rake.

Since the moment for judgment upon Bellafront, Matheo, and Hippolito requires more authority than Orlando possesses as an ordinary citizen of Milan, his practice in the final stages of the action is combined with the Duke's power. Informed of the entire situation, Trebatzi agrees not to reveal the plot. He then orders the arrest of all prostitutes past and present (a stratagem to get Bellafront in prison and lure Hippolito there to “saue” her) and the arrest of Matheo (on the charge of the previously designed robbery of the two peddlers). At Bridewell each character will more fully reveal his true nature. The dastardly Matheo will refuse to accept the responsibility for his own degeneracy by claiming not only that his wife planned the robbery but also that he caught her in bed with Hippolito; the saintly Bellafront will offer to sacrifice herself for the sake of one who does not deserve her devotion; the repentant Hippolito, whose nobler nature is again stirred, will defend Bellafront's honesty even though to do so is to expose publicly the nature of his own previous lust.

Set in Bridewell (as Part I in Bedlam), the fifth act again creates a heightened fictional tone as the action operates on multiple levels of awareness, all of which the spectator views from a position of omniscience.10 Orlando, still disguised as Pacheco, stands trial with Matheo for robbery of the two peddlers, actually his own servants. Meanwhile Infelice observes unseen as Hippolito, impelled by lust, rushes to Bellafront. Then, in rapid succession the disguises are peeled away: Infelice steps forward to accuse her guilty husband; Orlando removes his disguise and stands as irrefutable evidence before his guilty son-in-law and his innocent daughter; and Duke Trebatzi reveals the full extent of his role and in like fashion stands before his guilty son-in-law. Acknowledging that he is “here to saue right, and to driue wrong hence” (V.ii.202), the Duke suggests the therapeutic value of the entire ruse in proclaiming Orlando “the true Phisician” (191). Both Hippolito, who admits that his cheek blushes at the ill, and Matheo, who declares himself the “Phisician's” “Patient” (192), are presumably transformed as they face the inescapable truth and stand fully revealed both to themselves and to the surrounding characters.11 Only the final judgments remain when Bellafront will plead again for her husband, Matheo will be forgiven his faults, and the father will be reconciled with both his “honest” daughter and her mate.

From first to last, then, Orlando's comic spirit hovers over the main plot. Moreover, more systematically than in Part I, minor characters are utilized to sharpen the comic tone throughout the play. Bryan, the Irish footman, for example, appears in three scenes. In I.i he contributes to the comic perspective through the doubles entendres resulting from his difficulties with pronunciation (15-6, 20-1, 179-81). In III.i he provides comic insurance as Infelice reveals to Hippolito her knowledge of his sexual improprieties. In and out of the action like a comically victimized jack-in-the-box, a scapegoat for both the husband and the wife, he helps to prevent the spectators from becoming emotionally involved in a scene with all the narrative earmarks of tragedy. Finally, in III.iii Bryan, playing the part of a gallant, is set upon Candido to tear his fabric and test his patience. Mistress Horseleech and Bots are similar characters. This unwholesome pair furnish further bawdry in III.iii (in which they describe the various “Dishes” offered in their establishment [9-18] and attempt to cuckold Candido) and in IV.iii (in which the befuddled Candido finds himself kissing the bawd and, at Bots' insistence, “pledg[ing] this health … to my Mistris, a whore” [93-4]). Finally, in V.ii Dekker—amidst the sensational exposures and reconciliations—maintains an effective comic tone through these “two dishes of stew'd prunes” who remain comic butts throughout the scene. Arrested and dragged on stage, Bots swears that he is no pander, but a soldier who has seen “hottest Seruices in the Low-countries” (227), who was wounded “at the Groyne” (228), at Cleuland” (cleft-land), and “in Gelderland” (231). His pose is shattered, however, as Mistress Horseleech (paraded across the stage with her associates Dorothea Target, Penelope Whorehound, and Catherina Bountinall—like the Bedlamites in Part I) exposes his guilt by recognizing his “sweet face” (400) even though his head is covered in an attempt to conceal his identity.

While Orlando dispenses grace and mercy to those whom he has shocked into repentance, the Duke pronounces sentence upon the pander as the “basest” of all offenders. This incident—in which Bots' corruption is revealed, despite his disguise—becomes a kind of comic inversion of the situation of the main plot—in which a disguise is employed to expose the corrupt and the hypocritical in Matheo and Hippolito.

In sum, the force of evil is viable and active in Part II, and the characters are involved in decisions and problems replete with tragic potential. Even so, through the major comic controller, an effectively contrived subplot, and minor farcical characters who bolster the perspective at potentially critical moments, the spectator is constantly reminded not only that a benevolent authority stands behind the action to prevent disaster from striking but also that this power is directing the action to a conclusion both pleasant and beneficial. The result, like Northward Ho, is one of those rare occasions on which a sequel surpasses the original in structural excellence and dramatic effectiveness. In effect, Dekker in Part II retains both the principal characters and the juxtaposition of the farcical with the serio-comic. But he abandons the loose intrigue structure and brings into comic focus a complex and powerful human relationship not unlike those of Shakespeare's later comedies. The evil in man's nature prompts a character to action by which he loses his self-respect and his public reputation. In time, however, such a character, exposed to love in its finest hour—a love which yearns to give and forgive while asking nothing in return—stands fully revealed both to himself and to others. Through this self-knowledge and his subsequent regeneration, he is resorbed into a normal society, and the spectators have reason to assume that he will lead a fuller life as a result of his experience.

Just what spurred Dekker to write the sequel we cannot, of course, precisely determine. Perhaps for some reason he was specifically commissioned to continue the story; perhaps the success of Part I provided economic stimulation; perhaps he was called upon to produce a play on short notice and grabbed at the material freshest in his mind; perhaps the narrative possibilities haunted him as he considered the abrupt conclusion in which Bellafront (quite out of character) tricked Matheo for the sake of an honor which could hardly be regained through a marriage in name only to the first of her many bed partners; perhaps he was struck by the likelihood of disharmony between two intense young lovers, who loved each other passionately despite the insurmountable barriers of family and fate and who now—marriage consummated—suddenly find all opposition gone and adventure past;12 perhaps the dramatic possibilities haunted him as he envisioned the more effective comedy which could result from a plot firmly structured to maintain the comic perspective throughout.13

In any event, given the similarities between Measure For Measure and 2 The Honest Whore,14 one of the fascinating possibilities concerns the continuing artistic interaction between Dekker and Shakespeare. Both plays depict a young woman willing to strain the quality of mercy in begging for a man who has grossly wronged her. Both involve a young man of political position whose reputation is sorely tarnished by hypocrisy and moral degeneracy but who is ultimately regenerated through the forgiving grace of love. Both also involve a betrothal or marriage temporarily estranged by a man whose venture into crime threatens literally to destroy him. Even more significant are the structural similarities. Both comedies depict a benevolent figure of power and authority who in disguise manipulates the action, as a veritable deus ex machina, in order to send several individuals through a series of moral tests and thereby provide the therapy by which to nourish, in the woman, the forgiving grace of selfless love and, in the men, the shame and repentance that will save them from themselves as well as from the law. Both, moreover, utilize a subplot featuring a prostitute and pander which sardonically parodies the principal action.

Although many Elizabethan comic plots share at least some of these features, it strains probability to assume that this particular relationship is merely coincidental. Not one of the points of similarity concerning character, narrative, or structure is found in 1 The Honest Whore. Certainly the evidence suggests that in writing Part II Dekker was directly influenced by Shakespeare's play, of which the first recorded performance is December 26, 1604. Dekker and Middleton completed Part I early in 1604, Dekker alone Part II in 1605.15 Through Measure For Measure he apparently realized the greater comic possibilities in the material and was encouraged to create the sequel. Orlando, in fact, is a more firmly conceived comic pointer than Vincentio, though Shakespeare's character is admittedly more profound. In any case, Dekker in Part II has produced a play excellent in structure and firm in characterization; more important, whether “in response to his own maturing genius,”16 the fashion of the Jacobean age, or the hand of a master craftsman, he has achieved one of his finest and most substantial works through this comic vision of the transforming power of human love.


  1. “Thomas Dekker,” DNB (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1917), V, 750.

  2. The “exception to all the generalizations about Dekker's faulty craftsmanship” (Normand Berlin, The Base String: The Underworld in Elizabethan Drama [Cranberry, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1967], p. 12), The Honest Whore achieves a great “degree of unity and harmony in conception and construction” (A. C. Swinburne, The Age of Shakespeare [London: Chatto and Windus, 1908], p. 73). The two parts “form Dekker’s most ambitious and sustained effort” (Mary Leland Hunt, Thomas Dekker: A Study [New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1911], 94), his “most carefully worked out plot” and his most “aesthetically satisfying drama” (Berlin, “Thomas Dekker: A Partial Reappraisal,” SEL, 6 [1966], 277).

  3. The Honest Whore, Part II, is “Dekker's masterpiece” (Hazelton Spencer, ed., Elizabethan Plays [Boston: Heath, 1933], p. 668), his “finest achievement” (W. W. Greg, as cited without documentation by Peter Ure in “Patient Madmen and Honest Whore: The Middleton-Dekker Oxymoron,” Essays and Studies [London: Arnold, 1966], p. 18), in which we see a “lightning-like revelation of the recesses of the human soul” (Gamaliel Bradford, “The Women of Dekker,” Sewanee Review, 33 [1925], 290). A masterfully unified play (Michael Manheim, “The Thematic Structure of Dekker's 2 Honest Whore,SEL, 5 [1965], 372), it reveals a “great mastery of … truth to human feeling (George R. Price, Thomas Dekker [New York: Twayne, 1969], 64). treated with “high seriousness, … vigor of characterization, and … noble poetry” (Hunt, p. 92). It is the rare critic who asserts that “the Second Part falls below the first” (Thomas Marc Parrott and Robert H. Ball, A Short View of Elizabethan Drama [New York: Scribner's, 1943], 111) or that it adds little to our knowledge of Dekker” (Arthur Brown, “Citizen Comedy and Domestic Drama,” in Jacobean Theatre, ed. J. R. Brown and B. Harris [London: Arnold, 1960], 72.

  4. The general tone of both plays, “sexy, urban, problematical” (Ure, Essays and Studies, p. 18), was shaped in part from a group of plays popular in the first decade of the century, “comedies … concerned chiefly with contrasting seeming and actual virtue, chiefly in sexual matters” (Manheim, SEL, 372). See also Hunt, p. 92 ff.; and Sidney R. Homan, Jr., “Shakespeare and Dekker as Keys to Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore,SEL, 7 (1967), 269-76.

  5. “A Patient Grizzle out of petticoats, or a Petruchio reversed” (William Hazlitt, The Complete Works, ed. P. P. Howe [London: Secker, 1931], VI, 239), Candido provides the “farcical humor” (Price, p. 60). While Manheim (SEL, 372) sees no valid connection with the major action, Harry Keyishian (“Dekker's Whore and Marston's Courtesan,ELN, 4 [1967], 264) views the “advocates of self-control [Hippolito and Candido]” as the heroes of the play; and, to Ure (Essays and Studies, p. 27), the converted shrew of the Candido scenes matches the converted courtesan of the Bellafront scenes. Ronald J. Palumbo points out that the parallel between the two is developed early in 1 The Honest Whore as a contrast between a trade leading to social order with one leading to social disorder (“Trade and Custom in 1 The Honest Whore,AN&Q, 15 [1976], 34-5).

  6. Certainly Price (p. 63) assumes more than the context of the scene will allow in his assertion that the spectator would receive assurance and comfort from the “intonation and facial expression” by which Benedict would signal “his secret horror of Gasparo's command to poison Hippolito.” For an altogether different view, see A. L. Kistner and M. K. Kistner, “1 Honest Whore: A Comedy of Blood,” HAB, 23, No. 4 (1972), 23-7.

  7. Brown (pp. 70-1) notes that Dekker's tongue may have been straying to the middle of his cheek when, in the heat of Bellafront's “tear-jerker confession,” he has her refer to Hippolito (her new love) as “meetly legd and thyed” (II.i.271).

  8. Ure (Essays and Studies, pp. 29-30) deplores the change in Candido as botch-work. To the contrary, Manheim (SEL, p. 372) argues strongly for a close unity between main plot and subplot; Candido's taming his shrewish wife is the comic reversal of the Matheo-Bellafront action; so also the humiliation that Candido endures parallels that which Bellafront endures. Berlin (SEL, p. 271) suggests further a parallel between Bellafront's virtue and that of Candido's wife when propositioned by Bots.

  9. Various critics, while not concerned with structure as such, have noted Friscobaldo's essential function. A “Simon Eyre grown old” (Parrott and Ball, p. 111), he is “the disguised father, who puts Bellafront, Matheo, and Hippolito to the test and thereby glorifies Bellafront's fortitude and reveals the corruption of the two men” (Price, pp. 67-8). “Among the great characters of English comedy” (Hunt, p. 98), “unforgettable” (Hazlitt, p.235), a “protector” and “perpetrator of tests” (Manheim (SEL, p. 366), he “controls the action and creates the emergency that enlightens Hippolito” (Keyishian, p. 265).

  10. While Hunt (pp. 100-01) describes the Bridewell scene as merely “an appeal to the gallery,” both Price and Manheim see a more significant purpose. “The long show of Bridewell birds which follows Matheo's confession … allows ample time for him to show his change of heart by caressing Bellafront, though he does not speak” (Price, p. 164 n). The scenes, according to Manheim (SEL, p. 381), serve—especially through Dorothea Target—to “recall Bellafront as she first appeared in Part I and thereby to contrast with Bellafront as she now appears.” See also Charlotte Spivack, “Bedlam and Bridewell: Ironic Design in The Honest Whore,Komos, 3 (1973), 10-6.

  11. “Matheo and Hippolito are overwhelmed with shame and guilt” (Price, p. 66). Nimitz (p. 129) sees Matheo as a figure of “noteworthy” development, and Hunt (p. 99) quite correctly observes that Dekker does not disturb the integrity of the character with a long and maudlin repentance.

  12. Berlin (SEL, p. 269) conjectures that Dekker had to write another play “to test the sincerity of her [Bellafront's] conversion.”

  13. Part II is conceded to be Dekker's unassisted work, whereas Part I is a product of collaboration, however slight Middleton's contributions (See Fredson Bowers, The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, 4 Vols. [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1953-1961], III, 133). Schoenbaum's argument that Middleton had no hand in Part I (“Middleton's Share in The Honest Whore,N&Q, 197 [1952], 3-4) is not generally accepted.

  14. F. C. Fleay first noted s similarity in the plays in his observation that both Measure For Measure and 2 The Honest Whore employ a contemporaneous statute “closing the suburb houses” (A Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama [London: Reeves and Turner, 1891], I, 132). More recently, Ure (Essays and Studies, pp. 36-7) has written that Friscobaldo “conducts an experiment, not always an openly benevolent one, much like the Duke in Measure For Measure.

  15. Part I can be dated with certainty, and it is generally assumed that Part II followed soon thereafter, probably in 1605. See Jones-Davies, II, 369-71; Bowers, II, 3, 133; G. E. Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage (Oxford: Clarendon, 1956), III, 243; W. Bridges-Adams, The Irresistible Theatre (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1957), p. 248.

  16. Spencer, p. 668.

Viviana Comensoli (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6197

SOURCE: “Gender and Eloquence in Dekker's The Honest Whore, Part II,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. XV, No. 3, September 1989, pp. 249-62.

[In this essay, Comensoli argues that in the second part of The Honest Whore, “Dekker has included women in the Renaissance dictum that the practice of eloquence is ‘the practice of power’.”]

In Part I of The Honest Whore (1604), which Dekker co-authored with Middleton, the courtesan Bellafront tries to seduce the Count Hippolito, whose oration on the evils of her trade converts her to virtue (II.i.321-456).1 Hardin Craig has noted that Hippolito's formal diatribe, which effects Bellafront's conversion, “is in the form of the forensic declamations” written by young men “in schools and universities” during the sixteenth century: “The force of persuasion establishes remorse of conscience in her [Bellafront's] heart by presenting to her a true picture of her trade, and her conversion follows as a matter of necessity.”2 Taking Craig's observation one step further, we note that Hippolito's declamation contains three elements which are traditionally associated with forensic rhetoric: the first is persuasion through judgement of former action, in this case the evil of Bellafront's trade (lines 326-423); the second is epideictic function, or the praise of virtue and the blame of vice, which informs all invective; and the third is deliberative function, or the consideration of a future course of action, namely Bellafront's perseverance in virtue (lines 425-56).3 Ostensibly, at least, the play supports the traditional psychological function of rhetoric as “reformative or reclamatory.”4 Caxton, for one, in his translation of Miroir du Monde (1480) ascribes to the orator the ethical duty to “knowe the right and the wronge; ffor to doo wronge to another, who so doth it is loste and dampned, and for to doo right and reson to euery man, he is saued and geteth the loue of God his creatour.”5 Lawrence Andrewe's expanded version of Caxton's translation further defines rhetoric as “a scyence to cause another man by speche or by wrytynge to beleue or to do that thynge whyche thou woldest haue hym for to do.”6 Henry Peacham, writing in 1593, praises in similar fashion the figures of rhetoric as “martiall instruments both of defence & invasion” which permit us to “defend ourselves,invade our enemies, revenge our wrongs, ayd the weake, deliver the simple from dangers, conserve true religion, & confute idolatry.”7 A warning sounded in many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century treatises on rhetorical and ethical practice “is that men will fall into vice without the good offices of the orator.”8

Harry Keyishian, who finds the conversion scene in The Honest Whore, Part I strongly “sentimental,” voices a common response when he writes that in the success of “the earnest, rational, puritanical Hippolito” who “not only resists temptation but converts his tempter … Dekker gives victory to traditional morality.”9 Yet, while Hippolito himself claims his intention has been to persuade Bellafront “mildly” and “not without sense or reason” (II.i.317), a number of ambiguities suggest the dramatists' uneasiness with forensic oratory as a universal form of persuasion. Throughout the play, Hippolito is frequently subject to sudden fits of melancholy as he mourns over the supposed death of his lover. Hippolito, observes a courtier moments prior to Bellafront's conversion, “betraies his youth too grosly to that tyrant melancholy” (II,i.204), a “disease” which Hippolito himself admits has made him “sicke” of love (IV.iv.103-04). At other times Hippolito is portrayed in a hot distemper, a condition which affects him as he enters Bellafront's home (II.i.244-48). The sensation of heat, according to medieval and Renaissance physiology, if caused by humoral imbalance, was a symptom of madness, which in turn was considered a “punishment for moral corruption.”10 Indeed, Hippolito's diatribe attests to a corrupt rational faculty. His invective is based on Christian ascetic morality, but it is expressed with a new virulence. The prostitute's body is compared to a sewer that “receiues / All the townes filth” (II.i.325-26), and to a plague that has “maym'd and dismembred” as many men “As would ha stuft an Hospitall” (lines 332-33). The images of excrement and mutilation combine with a bewildering array of images of voluptuousness, disease, and death, in keeping with the extreme cynicism and fearfulness associated with melancholia:

O y'are as base as any beast that beares,
Your body is ee'ne hirde, and so are theirs.
.....A harlot is like Dunkirke, true to none,
Swallowes both English, Spanish, fulsome Dutch,
Blacke-beard Italian, last of all the French,
And he sticks to you faith: giues you your diet,
Brings you acquainted, first with monsier Doctor,
And then you know what followes. … 
Me thinks a toad is happier then a whore,
That with one poison swells, with thousands more
The other stocks her veines. … 


Hippolito's invective overstrains the epideictic function of praise and blame; his language debases and degrades its objects, stripping Bellafront of her humanity.

Another major complication surrounding Bellafront's conversion is that her transition to virtue has been incited by an erotic attraction to her reformer. This ironic twist, together with Bellafront's highly stylized repentance-speech, renders suspect her reformation:

                                                            Eyther loue me,
Or cleaue my bosome on thy Rapiers poynt:
Yet doe not neyther; for thou then destroyst
That which I loue thee for (thy vertues) here, here,
Th'art crueller, and kilst me with disdayne:
To die so, sheds no bloud, yet tis worse payne.
Exit Hipolito.
Not speake to me! not looke! not bid farewell
Hated! this must not be, some means Ile try.
Would all Whores were as honest now, as I.


The contradictory messages the spectator receives in Part I of the play give way to a more controlled comic plot in Part II (c. 1605-07), where Hippolito's moral backsliding and rhetorical limitations are confirmed, and where Dekker more forcefully and consistently questions the power of purely persuasive rhetoric to influence behaviour. Concomitant with this critique is the challenge at the heart of the play to another traditional assumption, namely that the practice of eloquence is the exclusive province of male virtue.


In Part II Bellafront is the patient wife of the spendthrift Matheo, who urges her to return to prostitution to cadge money. To intensify Bellafront's misery, Hippolito (who is married to the Duke's daughter Infelice) is now clearly lusting after Bellafront. A Jacobean audience familiar with the popular motif of the wife's temptation in domestic comedy would expect Bellafront to reject her suitor with piety and humility, and to follow up the rejection with a series of platitudes on the need for constancy in marriage and on the wife's duty to submit to her husband's will. Dekker, however, avoids the stock speeches of the patient wife, subjecting Hippolito both to Bellafront's eloquent resistance of the Count's advances and to Infelice's trenchant critique of the myth of the male's natural superiority. Both women defeat Hippolito in debate, even though his formal training in forensic oratory gives him a clear advantage.11

The play's analogues are a group of domestic comedies which were performed in the public theatres between 1600 and 1608. The chief dramatic paradigm is the testing of the wife's patience within a turbulent marriage. Michael Manheim observes that “a number of these comedies are built around a juxtaposition of tests, in which hypocrisy and deceit are revealed and condemned while virtue and patience are glorified.”12 The testing motif is a major structure in Thomas Heywood's How a man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad (c. 1601-02) and in the anonymous Fair Maid of Bristow (c. 1603-04) and The London Prodigal (1604). The heroine is always an abused and patient wife whose trials move the plot forward. The husband-hero is a wastrel and a profligate whose backsliding precipitates his near-demise. Sometimes another principal character is a young man who is lusting after the heroine: “All three of these character types are tested: the youth by his lust, the husband by his bad luck, and the wife by the abuses of her husband on the one hand and the advances of the youth on the other.”13 Only the heroine is morally equipped to pass the trials. In the dénouement, following the husband's and the youth's repentance, she meekly receives public commendation, and the play ends with a series of hortatory speeches on the necessity of wifely patience and modesty. Thus in How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad Mistress Arthur is subjected to the cruelty of her husband, who poisons her in order to please his whore. After being rescued by Anselm, the lusty but sympathetic youth who offers to marry her and alleviate her suffering, the wife modestly rejects his advances with mundane speeches in praise of fortitude and perseverance. She never relies on eloquence as a weapon. In all of these comedies, characterization is subordinated to the didacticism of the conductbooks and other writings on domestic behaviour. As Peter Ure suggests, the “ethical basis” of most domestic comedies is “the doctrine, reiterated everywhere in the treatises, that the wife should win her mate with mildness.”14 Once the husband's reformation is secured, he must learn to command his household wisely and mercifully, although his success depends largely on his wife's virtue. How a Man May Choose, for example, ends with the reformed prodigal's advice to would-be husbands on how to choose between a good and a bad wife: “A good wife,” we learn, will quietly “do her husband's will,” endure provocation, and “conceal / Her husband's dangers,” whereas “a bad wife” will neglect her “home” and be “cross, spiteful and madding.”15

The homiletic basis of the genre is the conventional Renaissance notion that man perfects his virtue through command and eloquence, whereas woman perfects hers through obedience and silence. The notion evolved out of two major traditions: the Greek, which considered women naturally passive, and the patristic, which urged that women be silent as a consequence of Eve's glibness, which was responsible for the fall. “You are the one who opened the door to the Devil,” wrote Tertullian of woman, “you are the one who persuaded him whom the Devil was not strong enough to attack”; “unable to remain silent,” Eve made Adam “the carrier of that which she had imbibed from the Evil One.”16 From the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century the resistance to women practising eloquence was widespread. Francis Barbaro, for one, claimed that “By silence, indeed, women achieve the fame of eloquence.”17 The Aristotelian philosopher Francesco Robortello urged woman to submit her will to that of her husband on the basis of her moral weakness, which stemmed from faulty reasoning powers.18 Virtue, we are frequently reminded in philosophical discourses, originally meant the quality of manliness, vir meaning man. For the traveller Thomas Coryat, who in 1608 warned his fellow-Englishmen of the dangers of the “elegant … Rhetoricall tongue” of Venetian courtesans,19 men's virtue is threatened by female eloquence, for “to encounter a ‘public woman’ is to risk the casuistries of a previously masculine discourse.”20 As Margaret King, Ian Maclean, and Lisa Jardine have demonstrated, English and continental humanists also upheld social demarcations between men and women, despite their recommendations that women, who were considered morally equal to men, should be learned.21 Moral philosophers such as Erasmus, Agrippa, and Vives, while viewing male and female virtue as identical, and while allowing for women to be educated, nevertheless affirmed the orthodox view of woman's natural tendency toward silence and humility, and of man's duty to command eloquently. The educator Leonardo Bruni urged women to study the liberal arts, but warned that “Rhetoric in all its forms,—public discussion, forensic argument, logical fence, …—lies absolutely outside the province of woman.”22 Similarly, Neoplatonic works such as Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (1528) and Nicholas Faret's L'honnête homme (1630), which propose identical capacities for virtue in men and women, insist that women's domestic function requires them to practise certain virtues not required in men, that is, modesty and silence, releasing them from the need to cultivate virtues which relate especially to men's role in the household, namely courage and eloquence. “This strategy of argument,” suggests Maclean, “may reflect … no more than lip-service to the enhancement of the status of woman, and conservatism for its own sake, perhaps justified by a fear of the effects of social change.”23

Dekker's rescue of the patient wife from a reductive dramatic tradition is the major achievement of The Honest Whore, Part II. Although the main plot, like its analogues, focuses on the plight of the wife, and ultimately upholds the virtue of patience—“Women,” declares Bellafront at the end of the play, “shall learne of me, / To loue their husbands in greatest misery” (v.ii.468-69)—the action builds on a series of complications that displace orthodox structures and themes. In the Hippolito-Infelice action, marital conflict is resolved not through the wife's meekness but through the boldness of her language. In the Bellafront plot, the tests of the wife become the trials of a converted whore, who passes them with the aid of eloquence and courage as she struggles against economic destitution and social mistrust.


The issue of the wife's behaviour is thrown into relief in the confrontation scene between Hippolito and Infelice, who has learned of the count's desire for the former courtesan. Throughout the episode, Infelice capably directs the subject-matter and tenor of the conversation. Relying on reason and rhetorical virtuosity, she ultimately succeeds in exposing Hippolito's transgression by means of a riddle. “Expressing conflict between poser and solver,” writes Linda Woodbridge, “riddles are often associated with women as with other classes not in authority—riddlers have power to make even an authority-figure look foolish.”24 As “a natural tool for combat between the sexes,” the riddle frequently “occurs as a marriage test.”25 Infelice's verbal weapon is a complex form of the riddle known as emblematic vision, a type of metaphor which depends on “descriptive containment … [whereby] the subject is not described but circumscribed … [through] a circle of words drawn around it,” and which is “closely related to … the parable.”26 The central image in Infelice's riddle is the clock, through which Hippolito is gradually forced to equate the absence of synchronism with discord in marriage (III.i.107-15). As the riddle increases in subtlety, Infelice displays an agile and inventive mind:

Hip. Why, Infelice, what should make you sad?
Inf. Nothing my lord, but my false watch, pray tell me,
You see, my clocke, or yours is out of frame,
Must we vpon the Workeman lay the blame,
Or on our selues that keep them?


Refusing to yield to her husband's blandishments, and to the socially sanctioned role of silence, Infelice startles Hippolito with a bold parody of his former diatribe against women as the downfall of men. Hippolito's apostrophe

                                                            oh women
You were created Angels, pure and faire;
But since the first fell, tempting Deuils you are,
You should be mens blisse, but you proue their rods:
Were there no Women, men might liue like gods … 


is matched by Infelice's equally forceful injunction, through which she exposes his bombast and secures his admission of guilt:

Inf.                                                            Oh Men,
You were created Angels, pure and faire,
But since the first fell, worse then Deuils you are.
You should our shields be, but you proue our rods.
Were there no Men, Women might liue like gods.
Guilty my Lord?
Hip. Yes, guilty my good Lady.


Rather than forgive her husband, Infelice commands him from her—“Nay, you may laugh, but henceforth shun my bed” (III.i.193)—challenging both his intellectual and sexual dominance.

Infelice's exhortations, her parody of Hippolito's language, and her complaint about the treachery of men render her outspoken and wilful. Dekker, moreover, never subordinates Infelice's behaviour to a more conventional ideal.27 Throughout the play she insists on her need for self-expression in marriage, firmly rejecting the role of passive suffering. The latitude Dekker allows the aristocrat Infelice, whose rhetorical skills contrast sharply with the pious verse expected of patient wives in domestic comedies, can be partly attributed to verisimilitude with respect to class. A few women, notably rulers and others of aristocratic descent, were in principle allowed to cultivate eloquence in the public theatres, particularly in tragedy. Cinthio Giraldi, the sixteenth-century critic and playwright, observed that it was common theatrical practice for young ladies to be humble and for matrons to be not only decorous but servile as well: no woman of humble birth should exhibit wit, but aristocratic women, who were considered more knowledgeable and not strictly bound by domestic duties, were permitted to show more intelligence than their less sophisticated counterparts.28 In order to find other female characters on the English stage who unequivocally challenge the dictum of silence we must therefore go beyond the confines of domestic comedy, although most of these plays are written after The Honest Whore, Part II. Normally, with the exception of Webster's Vittoria Corombona and to a lesser extent the Duchess of Malfi, such characters are not, as Infelice is not, the central figures of the play. Their function, like Infelice's, is to expose the transgressions of a male who is usually central to the action: cases in point are Tamyra and Charlotte in The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, Castabella in The Atheist's Tragedy, Marina in Pericles, and Hermione in The Winter's Tale.29 Even in an earlier play such as As You Like It, where an assertive female has the leading role, a strong ambiguity surrounds Rosalind's verbal dexterity, which she practises in male disguise. Dekker's portrayal of female sagacity therefore breaks completely with the general rule of decorum when he makes Bellafront, a former prostitute from the ranks of the Jacobean underworld and the main character in the play, Infelice's intellectual equal. Dekker's interest in portraying intelligent, articulate females seems to have influenced later domestic plays, among them Nathan Field's Amends for Ladies (1610) and John Ford's The Broken Heart (1633), both of which include strong female leads. This interest is also sustained in the collaborations in which Dekker's was likely the controlling hand, namely the Ho plays (1605-07), The Roaring Girl (c. 1608-11), and The Witch of Edmonton (1621).


On the one hand, the Bellafront-Hippolito debate is rhetorically familiar in that it defends the ethical value of constancy in marriage. Michael Manheim has noted that through Hippolito's “specious” attempts to corrupt Bellafront, Dekker “is showing that lust and adultery cannot logically be defended”; Manheim's claim, however, that “Bellafront's victory is not surprising”30 is not borne out by the dramatic and philosophical traditions which the play modifies. The unconventional appeal of the verbal conflict lies in the tension between Hippolito's rhetorical initiative, which is opportunistic and exploitative because it is ill-motivated,31 and Bellafront's, which, although it does not rely on specialist knowledge, is rational, imaginative, and well-motivated.

Appealing to the support of the men in the audience (IV.i.256-59), Hippolito vainly asserts that he will seduce Bellafront “with the power of Argument” (line 249). While his proposal that prostitutes have more freedom than other women is rhetorically embellished through figures and hypotheses, it is nevertheless based on faulty logic,32 as Bellafront's taunt implies:

                                                            If all the threds
Of Harlots lyues be fine as you would make them,
Why doe not you perswade your wife turne whore,
And all Dames else to fall before that sin?


Hippolito's unsuccessful strategy in conquering Bellafront “By force of strong perswasion” (line 252) confirms Dekker's doubts about persuasion as a moral construct in itself, a view consistent with his treatment of rhetoric in his prose pamphlets. These rely substantially on the method of Peter Ramus, for whom logic alone is capable of discovering truth, while persuasion “belong[s] to rhetoric and [is] merely decorative and ornamental.”33 Persuasion, according to a late sixteenth-century Ramian treatise, is the “arte of speaking finely,”34 and can be employed only after a premise has been logically proposed. For the Spanish logician Juan Huarte, who like Dekker supports natural ability in learning and speaking, refinement of speech does not in itself promote true eloquence, which is governed by understanding.35 Dekker's portrayal of an orator's use of persuasion to exploit and manipulate behaviour links him to a small group of English-Renaissance writers and commentators, including Shakespeare and Sidney, who could admit that if rhetoric could move the will to virtue it could also “enforce an evil cause, and impugne a good one.”36

Hippolito's faulty reasoning thus cannot win over his opponent. But while Bellafront is not permitted to yield to her suitor, Dekker does not restrict her intellectual horizon. Bellafront's rejection of Hippolito is dramatically unorthodox not only because it claims for her a heretofore male prerogative, but also because it lends psychological depth to her character, an element conspicuously lacking in the play's analogues. The first half of her argument conforms in tone to a forensic oration. Bellafront's language is formal and logical as she marshals evidence from Biblical history and Common Law to uphold the sanctity of monogamy (IV.i.301-08). Her claim that in the city of London “one woman” is now “shared betweene three hundred” (309-10) leads to a lengthy deliberation on the evils of prostitution, only ostensibly imitating Hippolito's declamation in Part I:

Common? as spotted Leopards, whom for sport
Men hunt, to get the flesh, but care not for't.
So spread they Nets of gold, and tune their Calls,
To inchaunt silly women to take falls:
.....                                                            men loue water,
It serues to wash their hands, but (being once foule)
The water downe is powred, cast out of doores,
And euen of such base vse doe men make whores.


Like Hippolito's invective, Bellafront's relies on “mundane imagery—animals and sewage disposal,”37 however, a significant shift in focus renders Bellafront's oration more vital. Whereas Hippolito portrayed men as completely at the mercy of the whore's “prettie Art” and “cunning net” (Part I, II.i.279), her “tycing” charms (282) “hook[ing] in a kind gentleman” only to leave him pox-ridden (305-08), Bellafront offers a more authentic picture of her former trade in which poor and naïve young women are easy prey to a depraved libertine attitude. As she calmly and logically develops her points, the argument becomes a strategic indictment of a money economy which exploits women and sex:

                                                            Say you should taste me,
I serue but for the time, and when the day
Of warre is done, am casheerd out of pay:
If like lame Soldiers I could beg, that's all,
And there's lusts Rendez-vous, an Hospitall.
Who then would be a mans slaue, a mans woman?
She's halfe staru'd the first day that feeds in Common.


In the second half of the argument Bellafront unifies the disputation with subjective content, appealing to the spectator's understanding. Here Bellafront achieves eloquence through natural ability, highlighting the complexity of her experience.

Like an ill husband (tho I knew the same,
To be my vndoing) followed I that game.
Oh when the worke of Lust had earn'd my bread,
To taste it, how I trembled, lest each bit,
Ere it went downe, should choake me (chewing it).
My bed seem'd like a Cabin hung in Hell,
The Bawde Hells Porter, and the lickorish wine
The Pander fetch'd, was like an easie Fine,
For which, me thought I leas'd away my soule,
And oftentimes (euen in my quaffing bowle)
Thus said I to my selfe, I am a whore,
And haue drunke downe thus much confusion more.


The exemplum is an evocative description of the psychological effects of prostitution. In isolation these twelve lines, with their terse phrasing and gnomic tone, constitute an epigram. “What distinguishes, not simply the epigram, but profundity itself from platitude,” observes Northrop Frye, “is very frequently rhetorical wit” employed in a verbal strategy which, unlike purely “persuasive rhetoric,” seeks the fusion of “emotion and intellect.”38 In the final couplet there is a powerful moment of self-confrontation as Bellafront's burdened spirit is revealed in the spondaic rhythms of her verse: “And háue drúnke dówne th˘s múch c˘nfús˘on móre.” The term “confusion” signifies both moral and psychological stasis: its ethical denotation is the discomfiture of moral purpose; in Renaissance psychology, the term also refers to “mental perturbation or agitation such as prevents the full command of the faculties” (OED), a predisposition to madness.39

Bellafront's reformation, moreover, has not been portrayed schematically. A number of critics have noted that during another trial of Bellafront's patience, in which her husband orders her to pawn everything, including her gown, Bellafront's rebuke of Matheo flouts the convention urging wives to submit humbly and serenely to their husbands' will:40

Thou art a Gamester, prethee throw at all,
Set all vpon one cast, we kneele and pray,
And struggle for life, yet must be cast away.
Meet misery quickly then, split all, sell all,
And when thou hast sold all, spend it, but I beseech thee
Build not thy mind on me to coyne thee more. … 


While Bellafront's suffering is consistent with the humanist view of patience and endurance as the area where female virtue equalled that of men, she shares with Infelice a bold disregard for the ethic of silent submission, altering the paradigm of eloquence and courage as male virtues.


In the subplot, orthodox schemes are further undermined through parody and farce. The hero of the subplot is Candido, the patient linendraper who in The Honest Whore, Part I was married to the shrew Viola. In Part II Viola has died, and we meet the linendraper on the day of his wedding to a new wife whom Dekker never names (she is merely called “Bride” throughout the play). The wedding scene is interposed between Act I, scene i, which establishes the Hippolito-Infelice conflict, and Act II, scene i, which introduces the Bellafront-Matheo action. The wedding is celebrated amid abundant food and drink, contrasting sharply with the abject poverty of Bellafront's household and the domestic conflicts of the main plot. However, the festivity is suddenly interrupted when the Bride cuffs a servant for serving her sack instead of claret. Candido hurriedly makes excuses for her, and she leaves the celebration in anger. Candido's marital difficulties serve throughout as “a broadly comic parallel to the more complex issues of the main plot.”41 The testing pattern in the subplot, for instance, directly echoes the testing of patience in the main plot; more importantly, it parodies conventional formulas for a happy marriage. The courtier Lodovico, who secretly sets out to cuckold the linendraper's wife, pretends to be a concerned friend who desires to coach Candido in taming his rebellious wife.

Lod. This wench (your new wife) will take you downe in your wedding shooes, vnlesse you hang her vp in her wedding garters.

Can. How, hang her in her garters?

Lod. Will you be a tame Pidgeon still? shall your backe be like a Tortoys shell, to let Carts goe ouer it, yet not to breake? This Shee-cat will haue more liues then your last Pusse had, and will scratch worse, and mouze you worse: looke toot.


Lodovico's barnyard imagery—“the Hen shall not ouercrow the Cocke” (120-21)—and his advice to the linendraper to “Sweare, swagger, brawle, fling; for fighting it's no matter, we ha had knocking Pusses enow already” (109-11) underscore a primitive attitude toward sexual conflict, which is never disputed by the linendraper. Lodovico's crude invectives against women and his claim that wives must be forcefully commanded by their husbands because “a woman was made of the rib of a man, and that rib was crooked” (111-12) mimic the traditional theological and scholastic view of woman's imperfection, a view severely undercut by the qualifications in the main plot.

Because Candido must uphold his reputation as a model of patience, he agrees to be coached by Lodovico “In any thing that's ciuill, honest, and iust” (I.iii.116). Convinced by Lodovico's promise that the coaching will be in jest, Candido agrees to master his wife, although his eagerness for the game undermines his concern with civility: “A curst Cowes milke I ha drunke once before, / And ‘twas so ranke in taste, Ile drinke no more. / Wife, Ile tame you” (II.ii.72-4). Alexander Leggatt has observed that the battle between Candido and his wife “is conducted on the level of slapstick, with symbolic overtones: they prepare to fence, he with a yard and she with an ell. ‘Yard’ being a common term for the male sex organ, its use here suggests an elemental sexual conflict.”42 The comic theatricality of the testing leads to an equally absurd conclusion in which the couple is reconciled when the wife kneels in willing submission to her husband, promising to be forever patient and silent only if he will master her (II.ii.104-15). Only after the Bride has learned the lesson of humility does Candido reveal to her Lodovico's true identity, admitting his anger was in jest. Ironically, aggression, not patience, has brought about the reconciliation. Candido has learned that women desire their husbands to exert their dominance, but farce and parody have exposed the folly of the platitude.

The farcical behaviour of husband and wife in the subplot is thus counter-pointed by the resolutions of the main plot, where Bellafront's eloquence and frankness are as admirable as her patience, and where Infelice's virtues include a strong will and independence of mind. Through these complications Dekker has included women in the Renaissance dictum that the practice of eloquence is “the practice of power.”43


  1. The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1953-61), 2. Further references to Parts I and II of the play will be to this edition.

  2. Hardin Craig, The Enchanted Glass: The Renaissance Mind in Literature (1935; rpt. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1952), p. 175.

  3. For a comprehensive account of the features of forensic rhetoric and its development in England, see Richard J. Schoeck, “Lawyers and Rhetoric in Sixteenth-Century England,” in Renaissance Eloquence: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Renaissance Rhetoric, ed. James J. Murphy (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: Univ. of California Press, 1983), pp. 274-91.

  4. Brian Vickers, “‘The Power of Persuasion’: Images of the Orator, Elyot to Shakespeare,” in Renaissance Eloquence, pp. 411-35; p. 420.

  5. Caxton's Mirrour of the World, ed. O. L. Prior, EETS, OS 90 (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1913), p. 36.

  6. The Arte or Crafte of Rhethoryke (1524), ed. F. I. Carpenter (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1899), p. 26.

  7. The Garden of Eloquence, ed. W. G. Crane (Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1954), sig. ABivr.

  8. Vickers, p. 420.

  9. Harry Keyishian, “Dekker's Whore and Marston's Courtesan,English Language Notes, 4 (1967), 262, 264. Mary Leland Hunt, in Thomas Dekker: A Study (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1911), p. 97, praises the dramatic impact of Bellafront's conversion as “a slow process involving the horror of past vileness, the anguish of rejected love, and continued hunger, blows, and abuse.” Similarly, for Anne M. Haselkorn, in Prostitution in Elizabethan and Jacobean Comedy (New York: Whitson, 1983), the conversion is “very gradual and realistic” (p. 118), Dekker's “Puritan morality” requiring “that the sinner must suffer in order to achieve purification and true redemption” (p. 125). Alfred Harbage, in Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions (New York: Macmillan, 1952), considers the play “a tract against prostitution” (p. 197).

  10. Lillian Feder, Madness in Literature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980), p. 101. See also Michael MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 182-83.

  11. Dekker's accomplishment in portraying Bellafront's defeat of Hippolito in debate has been noted by Madeleine Doran, in Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama (Madison, Wis.: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1954), p. 222; M.-T. Jones-Davies, in Un Peintre de la Vie Londonienne: Thomas Dekker, 2 vols. (Paris: Didier, 1958), 2, 198-99; Michael Manheim, in “The Thematic Structure of Dekker's 2 Honest Whore,Studies in English Literature, 5 (1965), 378; and Anne M. Haselkorn, Prostitution in Elizabethan and Jacobean Comedy, pp. 126-27. However, none of these critics locates the play's rhetorical innovations within the broader philosophical context of classical or Renaissance notions of male and female eloquence.

  12. Manheim, “The Thematic Structure of Dekker's 2 Honest Whore,” 365.

  13. Manheim, 365.

  14. “Marriage and the Domestic Drama in Heywood and Ford,” English Studies, 32 (1951), 202. See also Andrew Clark, Domestic Drama: A Survey of the Origins, Antecedents and Nature of the Domestic Play in England, 1500-1640, 2 vols. (Salzburg: Universität Salzburg, 1975), 2, 251.

  15. Thomas Heywood, How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad, in Robert Dodsley, A Select Collection of Old English Plays, 4th edn., ed. W. Carew Hazlitt, 14 vols. (1874-1876; rpt. New York and London: Blom, 1964), 9, 96.

  16. Disciplinary, Moral and Ascetical Works, trans. Rudolph Arbesmann, Sister Emily Joseph Daly, and Edwin A. Quain (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1959), pp. 118, 200. For a detailed discussion of misogyny in patristic teachings see Marina Warner, “Second Eve,” in her Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York: Knopf, 1976), ch. 4.

  17. “On Wifely Duties,” in The Earthly Republic, ed. B. Kohl and R. Witt (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1978), p. 206.

  18. In libro politicos. Aristotelis disputatio (Venice, 1552), p. 175.

  19. Coryat's Crudities (1611; rpt. Glasgow: James MacLehose, 1905), 1, 405; cited in Ann Rosalind Jones, “City Women and Their Audiences: Louise Labe and Veronica Franco,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 304.

  20. Ann Rosalind Jones, p. 304.

  21. Margaret L. King, “Book-Lined Cells: Women and Humanism in the Early Italian Renaissance,” in Beyond Their Sex: Learned Women of the European Past, ed. Patricia H. Labalme (New York and London: New York Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 66-90; Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman: A Study in the Fortunes of Scholasticism and Medical Science in European Intellectual Life (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), ch. 4; Lisa Jardine, “‘O decus Italiae virgo’ or, The Myth of the Learned Lady in the Renaissance,” The Historical Journal, 28 (1985), 799-819.

  22. De Studiis et Literis, in William Harrison Woodward, Vittorino da Feltre and Other Humanist Educators: Essays and Versions (1897; rpt., ed. Eugene F. Rice, Jr., New York: Teachers College, Columbia Univ., 1963), pp. 119-33; p. 126.

  23. The Renaissance Notion of Woman, p. 56.

  24. Linda Woodbridge, “Black and White and Red All Over: The Sonnet Mistress Amongst the Ndembu,” Renaissance Quarterly, 40 (Summer, 1987), 285.

  25. Woodbridge, 285.

  26. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1957; rpt. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), p. 300.

  27. Dekker's “feminist statement,” writes Anne Parten of Infelice's speech in III.i.186-90, “is allowed to stand uncorrected” (“Masculine Adultery and Feminine Rejoinders in Shakespeare, Dekker and Sharpham,” Mosaic, 17, I [Winter 1984], 13).

  28. Cinthio Giraldi, Discorsi intorno al comporre de i romanzi, delle comedie, e delle tragedie (Venice, 1549), pp. 259-63; 271-76; cited in Doran, Endeavors of Art, p. 221.

  29. Simon Shepherd, in Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1981), p. 112, notes that “in the case of female avengers” the women express “doctrines that were supposedly anathema to the assumed orthodoxy of patience,” but the reason the dramatists do not temper these characters' outspokenness is that “they are not in the central focus” of the action.

  30. “The Thematic Structure of Dekker's 2 Honest Whore,” 378.

  31. On the problem of rhetorical presentation which is opportunistic and which therefore subverts the ideal ethical function of rhetoric as the unveiling of truth, see Lisa Jardine, Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse (London and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 15-6.

  32. Manheim, 377.

  33. Peter C. Schwartz, “Ramus and Dekker: The Influence of Ramian Logic and Method on the Form and Content of Seventeenth-Century Pamphlet Literature,” diss., Bowling Green, 1978, p. 38.

  34. Dudley Fenner, The Artes of Logike and Rhethorike (Middleburg, 1584), sig. Dlv; cited in Schwartz, p. 38.

  35. Examen de Ingenios: The Examination of Men's Wits (1594), trans. Richard Carew, ed. Carmen Rodgers (Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints, 1959), p. 13; cited in Don Abbott, “La Retórica y el Renacimiento: An Overview of Spanish Theory,” in James J. Murphy, ed., Renaissance Eloquence, pp. 95-104; pp. 98-9.

  36. Vickers, “‘The Power of Persuasion’: Images of the Orator, Elyot to Shakespeare,” p. 421. “Where the theorists stress the power of rhetoric to reclaim men from evil to good,” writes Vickers (p. 423), they are silent about “its relation to, or propensity to be used by, evil” (p. 421).

  37. Manheim, 378.

  38. Anatomy of Criticism, p. 329.

  39. See Lillian Feder, Madness in Literature, p. 103.

  40. See Manheim, 369-70; M.-T. Jones-Davies, Un Peintre de la Vie Londonienne, 2, 198-99; and G. Nageswara Rao, The Domestic Drama (Tirupati: Sri Venkateswara Univ. Press [1978?]), ch. 1.

  41. Larry S. Champion, Thomas Dekker and the Traditions of English Drama (New York: Peter Lang, 1985), p. 47. Like many commentators, Champion considers the Candido action dramatically significant only insofar as it “sharpens the comic tone” of the play: “this material consists of comically stylized characters and of anecdotal incidents arranged and developed to parallel the events of the main plot and thus to strengthen the perspective through which the spectators realize the fuller comic possibilities of the entire play” (p. 48). For Manheim, Candido's role as “the ‘patient husband’ who finally subdues a shrewish wife … is little more than a comic reversal of the Matheo-Bellafront action” (p. 372, n. 5).

  42. Alexander Leggatt, Citizen Comedy in the Age of Shakespeare (Toronto and Buffalo: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1973), p. 92.

  43. Nancy Struever, “Lorenzo Valla: Humanist Rhetoric and the Critique of the Classical Languages of Morality,” in James J. Murphy, ed., Renaissance Eloquence, pp. 191-206; p. 204.

Mary Beth Rose (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10060

SOURCE: “Women in Men's Clothing: Apparel and Social Stability in The Roaring Girl,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 14, No. 3, Autumn 1984, pp. 367-91.

[In the essay below, Rose argues that The Roaring Girl, with its depiction of the cross-dressing Moll Frith, presents “an image of Jacobean society as unable to absorb one of its most vital and complex creations into the existing social and sexual hierarchies.”]

The central figure in Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker's city comedy The Roaring Girl (c. 1608-1611) is a woman named Moll Frith, whose distinguishing feature is that she walks around Jacobean London dressed in male clothing.1 It should be stressed that Moll is not in disguise: she is neither a disguised player, a man pretending to be a woman; nor is she a disguised character, whose role requires a woman pretending to be a man. Unlike the disguised heroines of romantic comedy, Moll seeks not to conceal her sexual identity, but rather to display it. Although certain of the Dramatis Personae in The Roaring Girl occasionally fail to recognize her immediately, the fact that Moll is a woman is well known to every character in the play. She simply presents herself in society as a woman wearing men's clothes. Demanding merely by her presence that people reconcile her apparent sexual contradictions, she arouses unspeakable social and sexual anxieties in the established society of the play. Indeed Middleton and Dekker create Moll as the fulcrum of The Roaring Girl, and the other characters' reactions to her tend to define them as social and moral beings. As a result, society's effort to assess the identity of this female figure in male attire becomes the central dramatic and symbolic issue of the play.

Recognizing the title figure's assumption of male attire as the symbolic focus of social and moral concern in The Roaring Girl allows us to connect the play with the intense, often bitterly funny debate about women wearing men's clothes that was taking place in contemporary moral and religious writing, and which came to a head in 1620 with a pair of pamphlets entitled, respectively, Hic Mulier: Or, The Man-Woman, and Haec-Vir: Or The Womanish-Man.2 Indeed the figure of the female in male apparel emerges from the documents of this controversy much as Moll Frith does from the text of The Roaring Girl: an embodiment of female independence boldly challenging established social and sexual values and, by the fact of her existence, requiring evaluation and response. Although historians of Renaissance conduct literature as well as more recent literary critics have discussed the Hic Mulier / Haec-Vir controversy,3 no attempt has been made to view The Roaring Girl, with its “man-woman” heroine, in the context of this debate. Both because the controversial issue involved has an ongoing importance in Renaissance England and because I am not seeking to establish a direct influence between documents and play, the small chronological discrepancy between the performance and publication of The Roaring Girl (c. 1608-1611) and the high point of the debate (1620) is not relevant to my purposes here; rather I am interested in exploring the fact that the figure of the female in male attire is portrayed in both dramatic and social contexts with simultaneous admiration, desire, abhorrence, and fear. The following essay attempts to demonstrate the ways in which parallel treatments of women in men's clothing in the drama and the debate illuminate this phenomenon of fashion as the focus of considerable moral and social anxiety aroused by changing sexual values in Jacobean England; and to show that, taken together, artistic representation and social commentary suggest a deep cultural ambivalence in the British Renaissance about female independence and equality between the sexes.


Elizabethan and Jacobean sermons and conduct books continually castigate the fickleness of fashion and the vanity of sumptuous apparel. To cite one very typical example, the writer of the sermon “Against Excess of Apparel” in Homilies Appointed to be Read in the Time of Queen Elizabeth sees the English preoccupation with the novelties of fashion as a futile expenditure of energy, indicating an endlessly detrimental spiritual restlessness: “We are never contented, and therefore we prosper not.”4 Furthermore the conservative spirit frequently links propriety of dress with the coherence of society and views as a threat to social stability the tendency of the pretentious or the newly prosperous to dress so elegantly that it was becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish among social classes by the varied attire of their members.5 Along with the upwardly mobile and the fop, women were singled out as creators of chaos for seeking to seduce men other than their husbands by wearing enticing clothes and for being generally disobedient, disrespectful, shallow, demonic, and extravagant in their preoccupation with fashion.6

From these characteristic themes the phenomenon of women dressing in male clothing begins gradually to assume a distinct identity as a separate issue; or, more accurately, as an issue that, in its symbolic significance, articulates a variety of social and moral concerns. The few available references to the phenomenon in the 1500s are largely parenthetical. In the early part of the sixteenth century, the idea of women wearing men's clothes apparently seemed too appalling even to be feared. Ever zealous of female virtue, John Louis Vives, for example, issues an ultimatum on the subject in Instruction of a Christian Woman (c. 1529) only as a last line in his chapter on feminine dress, a mere after-thought to the more important prohibitions against brazenness and extravagance in female attire. Citing Deuteronomy 22.5, he writes, “A woman shall use no mannes raymente, elles lette hir thinke she hath the mans stomacke, but take hede to the woordes of our Lorde: sayinge, a woman shall not put on mans apparell: for so to do is abhominable afore God. But I truste no woman will do it, excepte she be paste both honestee and shame.”7 Vives' confidence in womanly docility was, however, misplaced. In George Gascoigne's satire The Steele Glas (1576), complaints about women in male attire, although still relegated to the status of an epilogue, are nevertheless becoming decidedly more pointed and vociferous:

“What be they? women? masking in mens weedes?
With dutchkin dublets, … and with Jerkins jaggde?
With high copt hattes and fethers flaunt a flaunt?
They be so sure even Wo to Men in dede.”(8)

The astonished despair of female modesty expressed in Gascoigne's mournful pun takes the form of accusations of sexual and, by clear inference, social, moral, and cosmic perversion in the rhetoric of Phillip Stubbes. Writing in 1583, in the midst of a general denunciation of the apparel of both sexes, Stubbes mentions women with “dublets and Jerkins as men have heer, buttoned up the brest, and made with wings, welts, and pinions on the shoulder points, as mans apparel is.”9 Stubbes lucidly states his indignant alarm at the possibility of not being able to distinguish between the sexes: “Our Apparell was given us as a signe distinctive to discern betwixt sex and sex, and therefore one to weare the Apparel of another sex is to … adulterate the veritie of his owne kinde. Wherefore these Women may not improperly be called Hermaphroditi, that is, Monsters of bothe kindes, half women, half men.”10

While Stubbes' rhetoric is always colorfully extravagant, the topic of women in male attire continued to elicit highly emotional reactions at a growing rate, particularly in the second decade of the seventeenth century when, amidst a marked increase in satiric attacks upon women in general, references to the “monstrous … Woman of the Masculine Gender” multiplied notably.11 As Louis B. Wright has demonstrated, this expansion in both the volume and hostility of satire against women represented the misogynistic, ultra-conservative voice in the lively debate about woman's nature, behavior, and role that was taking place in the moral and religious writing of the early decades of the century.12 According to Wright and other critics, the content of this conduct literature can be distinguished roughly along class lines: where “learned and courtly” works tended to discuss women in the abstract and spiritualized terms of neoplatonic philosophy, middle-class tracts disputed more practical and social issues, such as the appropriateness of female apparel.13 While the documents in the controversy surrounding women in male attire indicate that both upper- and middle-class females followed the fashion, they are much too partisan and factually imprecise to convey the actual extent to which the style was adopted.14

Nevertheless by 1620 the phenomenon of women in men's clothing had become prominent enough to evoke an outraged protest from King James, recorded in a letter of J. Chamberlain to Sir D. Carleton, dated January 15, 1620:

Yesterday the bishop of London called together all his clergie about this towne, and told them he had expressed commandment from the King to will them to inveigh vehemently against the insolencie of our women, and theyre wearing of brode brimed hats, pointed dublets, theyre haire cut short or shorne, and some of them stilettoes or poinards, and such other trinckets of like moment; adding that if pulpit admonitions will not reform them he would proceed by another course; the truth is the world is very much out of order.

On February 12, Chamberlain adds the following: “Our pulpits ring continually of the insolence and impudence of women, and to helpe the matter forward the players have likewise taken them to taske, and so to the ballades and ballad-singers, so that they can come nowhere but theyre eares tingle; and if all this will not serve, the King threatens to fall upon theyre husbands, parents, or frends that have or shold have power over them, and make them pay for it.”15 The King's protest amounted to a declaration of war. While undoubtedly resulting in part from James' considerable misogyny,16 the actions following his protest also revealed that, among all the satiric targets on the subject of female fashion, women in men's clothing had assumed threatening enough proportions in the conservative mind to be singled out in a conscientious and thorough attempt to eliminate the style from social life. In February, 1620 the pamphlets Hic Mulier, which represented the conservative viewpoint, and Haec-Vir, which defended the practice of women wearing male attire, appeared. Because the pamphlets are anonymous, it is impossible to link their opinions to the gender of their author or authors. More importantly, the subject of the unconventional “man-woman” had evolved into a full-fledged debate, in which conservative and liberal positions are clearly and elaborately defined.

Wright believes the hostile conservative response to women in men's clothing was a defensive reaction against an increasingly successful demand both for moral and spiritual equality between the sexes and for greater social freedom for women: freedom, for example, from confinement to the home, from the double standard of sexual morality, from wife-beating and from forced marriage. “The average [i.e., middle-class] woman,” Wright concludes, “was becoming articulate in her own defense and … was demanding social independence unknown in previous generations.”17 According to Wright, the female adoption of male apparel aggressively and visibly dramatized a bid for social independence, which comprised a largely successful and coherent challenge to existing sexual values that is reflected in Haec-Vir, a pamphlet Wright believes to be “the Areopagitica of the London woman, a woman who had attained greater freedom than any of her predecessors or than any of her European contemporaries.”18 It is true that the challenge that women in male attire presented to the existing imbalance of power between the sexes can be discerned in the vindictive bitterness of the opposition to the androgynous style. Yet Linda T. Fitz has recently provided a useful and fascinating corrective to the hopeful interpretation of the extent and coherence of Jacobean feminism advanced by Wright and critics like Juliet Dusinberre by stressing the restrictiveness, rather than the liberating potential, of middle-class conduct literature. In her discussion of the controversy surrounding women in men's clothing, Fitz points out some serious oversights in Wright's optimistic view of the Hic Mulier/Haec-Vir debate; nevertheless Fitz ends by conceding that “Wright is quite justified in his … assessment” of a resounding victory for female freedom articulated in this controversy.19 My own analysis of the debate suggests an attitude toward the Hic Mulier phenomenon and the sexual freedom it represented which is more complex than either Wright perceives or Fitz explores, an attitude that both acknowledges injustice and fears change, that wants sexual freedom yet perceives its attainment as conflicting with an equally desirable social stability.


After an introductory lament that “since the daies of Adam women were never so Masculine” (sig. A3), the pamphlet Hic Mulier or The Man-Woman begins by propounding a familiar Renaissance ideal of woman as chaste, maternal, compassionate, discreet, and obedient, a model of behavior and sentiment from which the notorious “man-woman” is believed to depart “with a deformitie never before dream'd of” (sig. A3v).20 In contrast to this modestly attired paragon, the Hic Mulier figure, sporting a “cloudy Ruffianly broad-brim'd Hatte, and wanton Feather … the loose, lascivious civill embracement of a French doublet … most ruffianly short lockes … for Needles, Swords … and for Prayer bookes, bawdy Jigs” is “not halfe man, halfe woman … but all Odyous, all Divell” (sigs. A4-A4v). In elaborating the polemical intention of this pamphlet—to eliminate the heinous fashion by demonizing its proponents—the author builds a case around two major arguments.

As might be expected, the first group of arguments centers on the dangerous sexual chaos which the author assumes will result from the breakdown of rigid gender distinctions symbolized by the “man-woman's” attire. The writer perceives in Hic Mulier's choice of male clothes unconventional sexual behavior; therefore she automatically becomes a whore, who inspires by her lewd example a pernicious illicit sexuality in others. As implied in the description of her “loose, lascivious civil embracement of a French doublet, being all unbutton'd to entice” (sig. A4v), she will allow, even invite, “a shameless libertie to every loose passion” (sig. C2). Despite—indeed because of—her mannishness, then, Hic Mulier displays and encourages a free-floating sexuality, a possibility which the author views as socially destabilizing and therefore disastrous, “most pernicious to the common-wealth” (sig. C2). As we will see, this interesting association between socially threatening female sexiness and the breakdown of polarized gender identities and sexual roles becomes very important in The Roaring Girl. The fear seems to be that without rigidly assigned, gender-linked roles and behavior, legitimate, faithful erotic relations between the sexes will become impossible and the integrity of the family will consequently disintegrate: “they [i.e., the “men-women”] are neither men, nor women, but just good for nothing … they care not into what dangers they plunge either their Fortunes or Reputations, the disgrace of the whole Sexe, or the blot and obloquy of their private Families” (sigs. B2, C2).

However ominous, the unleashing of Eros and the breakdown of sexual polarization do not preoccupy the author as much as do questions of social status and hierarchy. The implied norm behind the satire in the pamphlet is a stable society which derives its coherence from the strict preservation of such essential distinctions as class, fortune, and rank. Not only do women in men's clothing come from various classes in society; they also have the unfortunate habit of dressing alike, obscuring not only the clarity of their gender, but the badge of their social status as well, and thereby endangering critically the predictable orderliness of social relations. To convey the seriousness of this offense, the author employs the rhetorical device of associating the hated style by turns with decaying aristocrats and gentry (“the adulterate branches of rich stocks” [sig. B1]), women of base birth (“stinking vapours drawne from dunghils” [sig. B1]), females of the upper classes “knowne great” (“no more shall their greatness or wealth save them from one particle of disgrace” [sigs. B1v, B2v]), and middle-class wives (tailors have “metamorphosed more modest old garments … for the use of Freemens wives than hath been worne in Court, Suburbs, or Countrey” [sig. C1v]), all of which leads to the indignant outburst: “It is an infection that emulates the plague, and throwes itselfe amongst women of all degrees … Shall we all be co-heires of one honor, one estate, and one habit?” (sigs. B1v, B4v). Like death and disease, then, the female in male attire serves as a leveler; and, just as such issues as the inflated sale of honors by the Crown seemed to the conservative mind to be undermining social coherence by threatening the traditional prestige of inherited nobility, so the phenomenon of women of different social positions dressing in similar male clothing appeared intolerably chaotic. As Fitz has shown, English Renaissance women, particularly in the middle classes, used their apparel as a showpiece to advertise the prosperity of their fathers and husbands.21 That women should perversely refuse, by donning look-alike male clothes, to serve their crucial function as bearers of social class status and distinction is the issue that arouses the author's most vindictive antipathy: “Let … the powerfull Statute of apparell but lift up his Battle-Axe, so as every one may bee knowne by the true badge of their bloud, or Fortune: and then these Chymera's of deformitie will bee sent backe to hell, and there burne to Cynders in the flames of their owne malice” (sig. C1v).

The pamphlet Hic Mulier ends with an invective against all social change (sig. C3). Given the hectic violence of this author's conservatism, it is not surprising that the rebuttal in the pamphlet Haec-Vir: Or The Womanish-Man, which appeared seven days later, would dwell on the folly of thoughtlessly adhering to social custom. Interestingly, the Haec-Vir pamphlet ignores the issue of whether women of different social categories dressing alike as men disrupt the alignment of social classes; instead the second pamphlet argues solely in terms of gender and sexual roles. Rather than appearing as the product of a single mind, Haec-Vir is presented as a dialogue between two characters, the Hic Mulier and the Haec-Vir figures, suggesting by its very form and by the introduction of a new figure, the womanish man, to whom I will return, a greater openness to discussion and to cooperation between the sexes. The irrationality of the author of the first pamphlet is also clarified and undercut at the beginning of the second when the two figures conduct a witty exchange about their mutual inability to identify one another's gender. Thus a tolerant and urbane tone is set in which Hic Mulier (now a sympathetic figure) can defend her behavior.

Hic Mulier's defense elaborates in positive terms the fact that her attire symbolizes a demand for recognition of spiritual and moral equality between the sexes, a recognition which she regards as her birthright: “We are free-borne as Men, have as free election, and as free spirits, we are compounded of like parts, and may with like liberty make benefit of our Creations” (sig. B3). Consequently she counters Haec-Vir's charge that assuming male apparel makes her a mere slave to the novelties of fashion both by defining her outfit as symbolizing her freedom of choice and by redefining slavery as Haec-Vir's mindless submission to the tyranny of pointless custom, “for then custome, nothing is more absurd, nothing more foolish” (sig. B2). The customs she resents as most false and destructive to female freedom and equality are those gender-linked stereotypes which constrain female behavior to compliance, subordination, pathos, and passivity:

But you say wee are barbarous and shameless and cast off all softness, to runne wilde through a wildernesse of opinions. In this you expresse more cruelty then in all the rest, because I stand not with my hands on my belly like a baby at Bartholomew Fayre … that am not dumbe when wantons court mee, as if Asse-like I were ready for all burthens, or because I weepe not when injury gripes me, like a woorried Deere in the fangs of many Curres: am I therefore barbarous or shamelesse?

(sig. B3)

I stand not with my hands on my belly like a baby at Bartholomew Fayre … as if Asse-like I were ready for all burthens.Hic Mulier argues that to reduce woman to the position of static icon, allegedly “so much better in that she is something purer” (sig. B1v) than man, is actually to infantilize and dehumanize her by denying her full participation in adult reality, which she optimistically defines as a world of creative movement and change, in which man can “alter, frame, and fashion, according as his will and delight shall rule him” (sig. B1v). This conception, which locates adult reality in the creative opportunities provided by public life, recognizes that women are unjustly confined by tradition to perpetual fantasy and immaturity. It therefore forms the most strikingly modern of Hic Mulier's arguments.

The eloquence and clarity with which these convictions are expressed make the retrenchment that occurs in the pamphlet's conclusion all the more startling. Having established herself as the rational contender in the debate, the “man-woman” suddenly withdraws before the irrational onslaught of Haec-Vir, the womanish man who ignores her arguments, rather than systematically rebutting them. Suddenly the focus shifts to the way that Haec-Vir (who, it has been suggested, represents the homosexuality of the Jacobean court)22 has relinquished his manhood and become a fop, aberrant male behavior which is now viewed as the sole reason for the existence of the notorious “man-woman.” In an astonishing abandonment of her considerable powers of logic, Hic Mulier nostalgically evokes chivalric gallantry, recalling the bygone days when men were men:

Hence we have preserved (though to our owne shames) those manly things which you have forsaken, which would you againe accept, and restore to us the Blushes we lay'd by, when first wee put on your Masculine garments; doubt not but chaste thoughts and bashfulnesse will againe dwell in us … then will we love and serve you; then will we heare and obey you; then will wee like rich Jewels hang at your eares to take our Instructions.

(sigs. C2v, C3v)

It is a bargain, an offer he can't refuse; the dialogue concludes with Haec-Vir having the last word, just as he had had the first, and the entire phenomenon of women in men's clothing is rationalized, not as an attempt to achieve unrealized social freedom for women, but rather to return society to the idealized sexual norm of gender polarization and male dominance. As in King James' protest and the end of the Hic Mulier pamphlet, responsibility for the unconventional style of female dress, now recognized by all as deformed, is seen to rest with men because power does.23

Although the concluding section of the Haec-Vir pamphlet articulates this drastic shift in perspective, it is nevertheless short, and it fails to cancel or even to qualify the dominant logic of Hic Mulier's stirring defense of her freedom, a speech which remains the focus of the second pamphlet. We are therefore left with a disjunction between the stubbornly rebellious, salient content of the second pamphlet and the conservative structure of the debate as a whole. On the one hand, the dominant content of the Haec-Vir pamphlet convincingly challenges the justice and reality of the existing sexual power structure by enumerating the illusory, sentimental, and destructive premises on which it is based. On the other, the form of the debate as a whole perpetuates the status quo by attempting to absorb this cogent demand for change into a larger movement of re-aligning the established society into conformity with an old ideal, a rhetorical endeavor that does not, however, entirely succeed in quelling the vigor of the opposition. As a result of this disjunction between content and form, female independence and equality between the sexes are depicted in the debate as desirable and just, but also as impossible for a hierarchical society to absorb without unacceptable disruption.


A pronounced ambivalence toward sexual equality as represented by the Hic Mulier figure is discernible in the Hic Mulier/Haec-Vir debate, then, and this attitude can be viewed in aesthetic terms as a disjunction between content and form. In The Roaring Girl a similar dislocation between thematic content and dramatic form can be perceived in the representation of the title character, Moll Frith, a point to which I will return. Middleton and Dekker modeled their unusual central figure after a real-life “roaring girl,” popularly known in Jacobean London as “Moll Cutpurse.” As this name implies, the real Moll was an underworld figure, notorious as a thief, whore, brawler, and bawd. Much of the reliable evidence we have about her exists in the court records made after her several arrests for offenses that included a scandalous appearance at the Fortune Theater, where she “sat there upon the stage in the publique viewe of all the people there p[rese]nte in mans apparrell & playd upon her lute & sange a songe.”24 Most of the existing criticism of The Roaring Girl attempts to date the play with reference to this incident.25

Whatever the precise connections between the events in the life of the actual Mary Frith and the performance and publication of The Roaring Girl, the court records show that the playwrights drew heavily on the habits and physical appearance of the real-life Moll, with her brawling, singing, and smoking, her lute, her boots, her sword, and, above all, her breeches; as has been suggested, it is also probable that Middleton and Dekker were attempting to benefit from the au courant notoriety of the actual Moll in the timing of their play.26 Nevertheless in his address to the reader attached to the 1611 quarto, Middleton takes pains to distinguish the created character from the real person, hinting that the play will present an idealized interpretation of this odd figure: “'Tis the excellency of a writer to leave things better than he finds 'em.”27 In fact the playwrights maintain an ambivalent attitude toward the outlaw status of their central character, in whom courageous moral and sexual principles combine with a marginal social identity, both of which are symbolized in the play by her male attire.

The address to the reader and ensuing prologue clarify the controversial nature of the title character and emphasize the importance of assessing her identity:

                                        Thus her character lies—
Yet what need characters, when to give a guess
Is better than the person to express?
But would you know who 'tis? Would you hear her name?
She's called mad Moll; her life our acts proclaim.

(Prologue, 26-30)

In their introduction of Moll Frith, the playwrights evoke themes identical to those surrounding the Hic Mulier figure in the Hic Mulier/Haec-Vir debate. First, they associate Moll's male apparel with erotic appeal and illicit sexuality.

For venery, you shall find enough for sixpence, but well couched and you mark it; for Venus being a woman passes through the play in doublet and breeches; a brave disguise and a safe one, if the statute untie not her codpiece point.

(“To the Comic Play-Readers”)

Secondly, as in the debate, erotic questions are less preoccupying than social ones: the entire prologue attempts to assign Moll a specific class and rank, “to know what girl this roaring girl should be / For of that tribe are many” (Prologue, 15-6). While the dramatists assure us that their Moll is neither criminal, brawler, whore, nor city wife, the question of her actual social status is left unanswered. As the action unfolds, the playwrights' vision of the controversial “roaring girl's” exact position in the Jacobean social hierarchy gradually assumes its distinct and complicated shape; and other characters are defined as social and moral beings according to their responses to her.

The play has a traditional New Comedy plot in which a young man, Sebastian Wengrave, outwits his snobbish, greedy father, Sir Alexander Wengrave, who has threatened to disinherit Sebastian if he marries the woman he loves, all because of her relatively meager dowry. The subplot involves a theme equally characteristic of the Jacobean dramatic satirist: the attempt of lazy, poor, arrogant, upper-class “gallants” to cheat and seduce the wives of middle-class shopkeepers. Like the prologue and the Hic Mulier/Haec-Vir debate, the main plot stresses social issues while the secondary plot focuses on erotic complications. The conservative faction in the play is most strikingly represented by the father, Sir Alexander, and the lecherous, misogynistic gallant, Laxton, both of whose negative attitudes toward Moll resemble those of the author of the Hic Mulier pamphlet toward women in men's clothing.

Moll enters the play for the first time during the subplot, as Laxton and his cohorts are busily seeking to form illicit liaisons with shopkeepers' wives, chuckling privately over their erotic cunning and prowess. In this Renaissance equivalent of the locker room, Moll, who will smoke and swear, is greeted enthusiastically by the men, although with considerably less relish by the women, one of whom screams, “Get you from my shop!” (2.1.248). Both men and women, however, associate her mannishness with deformed and illicit sexuality:

Mrs. G.Some will not stick to say she is a man, and
some, both man and woman.
Lax.That were excellent: she might first cuckold
the husband, and then make him do as much for the wife.


Like the author of the Hic Mulier pamphlet, Laxton finds this mannish woman sexy (“Heart, I would give but too much money to be nibbling with that wench”) (2.1.193-94); he also automatically assumes from her unconventional sexual behavior that she is a whore: “I'll lay hard siege to her; money is that aqua fortis that eats into many a maidenhead; where the walls are flesh and blood, I'll ever pierce through with a golden augur” (2.1.203-05). Complacently, Laxton secures an assignation with Moll, to which he travels overcome with self-pleasure and a thrilling sense of his own power in arranging a forbidden encounter.

Laxton is unpleasantly surprised. In his confrontation with Moll, which takes the appropriate form of a duel, Moll emerges as a defiant champion of female freedom from male sexual dominion, a role symbolized by her male attire. When Laxton arrives on the scene searching for a woman in a “shag ruff, a frieze jerkin, a short sword, and a safeguard [i.e., a petticoat]” (3.1.34-35), Moll appears instead in male clothes, the significance of which she underscores: when Laxton, who takes a few moments to recognize her, remarks, “I'll swear I knew thee not,” Moll replies meaningfully, “I'll swear you did not; but you shall know me now.” Laxton, who is not at all clever, mistakes this response for an erotic overture: “No, not here; we shall be spied” (3.1.58-61). Discarding subtlety as hopeless, Moll beats up Laxton while delivering a stirring oration on the sexual injustices suffered by women at the hands of arrogant, slanderous men:

Thou'rt one of those
That thinks each woman thy fond flexible whore … 
How many of our sex, by such as thou,
Have their good thoughts paid with a blasted name
That never deserved loosely … 
There is no mercy in't.


Furthermore, Moll attributes female sexual vulnerability specifically to the superior social power of male seducers, which she defies:

In thee I defy all men, their worst hates
And their best flatteries, all their golden witchcrafts,
With which they entangle the poor spirits of fools,
Distressed needle-women and tradefallen wives;
Fish that must needs bite, or themselves be bitten.
Such hungry things as these may soon be took
With a worm fastened on a golden hook.
Those are the lecher's food, his prey; he watches
For quarreling wedlocks and poor shifting sisters.


Finally, she does not simply dwell on female victimization, but asserts positively the capacity of women for full sexual responsibility, authority, and independence:

I scorn to prostitute myself to a man,
I that can prostitute a man to me … 
She that has wit and spirit,
May scorn to live beholding to her body for meat;
Or for apparel, like your common dame,
That makes shame get her clothes to cover shame.


Like the sympathetic Hic Mulier figure in the debate, Moll takes upon herself the defense of all women. Indeed Laxton's attempted violation of Moll's chastity connects her with, rather than distinguishes her from, the shopkeepers' wives, most of whom are willingly engaged in sexual collusion with the gallants when the play begins. As a result, we perceive that the “man-clothed” Moll,28 the notorious roaring girl and Hic Mulier, is actually a sexual innocent compared to the conventional middle-class wives. More important than the wives' hypocrisy, however, is their eventual reform; at the end of the play they see through the schemes of their would-be seducers and choose to reject them in favor of their husbands just as Moll's defeat of Laxton has portended that they would. The seducing gallants who represent illicit sexuality therefore turn out not to constitute a real threat to the social order at all. Moll herself recognizes this fact immediately: “Oh, the gallants of these times are shallow lechers … 'Tis impossible to know what woman is throughly honest, because she's ne'er throughly tried” (2.1.336-40).

As Moll's defeat of Laxton makes clear, free-floating, amoral eros is stripped of its socially destructive power when women decide to take responsibility for themselves. The aborted sexual encounter between Moll and Laxton also dramatizes the specious logic involved in connecting Moll's unconventional male attire automatically with whorish behavior. In their depiction of Laxton's complacence, the playwrights clearly associate lechery and misogyny with obtuse, unobservant social conformity.29 As we have seen, the idea of mindlessly adhering to social custom is the principal target of the sympathetic Hic Mulier figure when she defends her freedom in the debate. In The Roaring Girl this theme is amplified in the main plot through the representation of the censorious attitudes and actions which Sir Alexander Wengrave takes toward Moll Frith.

In his self-righteousness, self-deception, and self-pity, Sir Alexander is all self, incapable of distinguishing his emotional attachments from virtue. Proud of what he thinks is his shrewd observation of social life, trying to conform to a preconceived ideal, he continually misapprehends the realities which confront him. Sebastian recognizes that his father's vulnerability to the opinion of others exceeds even his greed, and he forms a plan to gain both his inheritance and his true love, Mary Fitzallard, by telling his father that he plans to marry Moll Frith, the outrageous roaring girl who fights, smokes, swears, and wears men's clothes. Like Laxton, Sir Alexander assumes from Moll's masculine attire that she is both a whore and a thief, who can be entrapped into stealing money, exposed, and safely removed from the proximity of his son. Like Laxton, he fails repeatedly in his assaults on her integrity.

Sir Alexander inveighs against Moll as a monster (1.2.130-36; 2.2.81-83), a siren (2.1.219-20), a thief (1.2.175; 4.1.201-06; 2.2.139), and a whore (1.2.137; 2.2.160). One funny scene shows him spying on her, appalled as her tailor fits her for breeches. Like the conservative author of the Hic Mulier pamphlet, Sir Alexander perceives in Moll's male clothing a symbol not only of perverse sexuality, but also of the inevitable disintegration of stable marital relations: “Hoyda, breeches? What, will he marry a monster with two trinkets [i.e., testicles]? What age is this? If the wife go in breeches, the man must wear long coats, like a fool.” (2.2.81-84). At the end of the play, before a nearly-reformed Sir Alexander has discovered his son's true marital intentions, Moll's urbane teasing exposes his desire to maintain rigid gender roles as a regressive anxiety:

Moll: (referring to herself) Methinks you should be proud of such a daughter,
As good a man as your son … 
You do not know what benefits I bring with me;
No cheat dares work upon you with thumb or knife,
While you've a roaring girl to your son's wife.


More than any of the specific evils he attributes to her, Sir Alexander fears Moll's conspicuousness, her unconventionality, her social aberrance; the sheer embarrassment of having such a daughter-in-law is equivalent to ruin. “Why wouldst thou fain marry to be pointed at?” he asks his son. “Why, as good marry a beacon on a hill, / Which all the country fix their eyes upon, / As her thy folly dotes on” (2.2.142-46). It is Sir Alexander's shallow, malicious willingness to accept received opinion without observing for himself, his bourgeois horror of nonconformity, that moves Sebastian to a rousing defense of Moll, the clearest articulation of her honesty in the play:

He hates unworthily that by rote contemns … 
                                                  Here's her worst,
Sh'as a bold spirit that mingles with mankind,
But nothing else comes near it; and often times
Through her apparel somewhat shames her birth;
But she is loose in nothing but in mirth.
Would all Molls were no worse!


And it is precisely this thoughtless social conformity, dramatized by his malignant intolerance of Moll, that Sir Alexander abjures at the end, thereby making possible the formation of a new comic society which will be both flexible and just:

Forgive me; now I cast the world's eyes from me,
And look upon thee [i.e., Moll] freely with mine own … 
I'll never more
Condemn by common voice, for that's the whore,
That deceives man's opinion, mocks his trust,
Cozens his love, and makes his heart unjust.


In “The Place of Laughter in Tudor and Stuart England,” Keith Thomas analyzes the ways in which comedy conservatively affirms the status quo by revealing, mocking, and containing social tensions; yet, Thomas points out, “There was also a current of radical, critical laughter which, instead of reinforcing accepted norms, sought to give the world a nudge in a new direction.”30 Given the heavy emphasis which the majority of English Renaissance society placed on gender-polarized sexual decorum and subdued, modest female behavior, it is evident that, with their idealized comic portrait of the Hic Mulier figure Moll Frith, Dekker and Middleton were joining those who, like the author of the Haec-Vir pamphlet, were beginning to call for greater freedom for women and equality between the sexes. As we have seen, serious opposition to Moll is represented in the play as mindless conformity. Not only do the playwrights decline to link Moll's freewheeling, immodest habits and appearance with perverse or dishonest behavior, but they also give her ample opportunity to acquit herself from her reputation as a criminal (5.1.323-73). Furthermore, Dekker and Middleton portray as noble Moll's integrity in refusing Sebastian Wengrave's proposal of marriage, made before she knows it is only a sham to deceive his father. Like the sympathetic, eloquent Hic Mulier figure, Moll refuses the conventional subordination required of a wife:

I have no humor to marry … I have the head now of myself, and am man enough for a woman. Marriage is but a chopping and changing, where a maiden loses one head, and has a worse i' th' place.


Moll's virginity represents the particular condition of independence which Carolyn Heilbrun defines as “that fierce autonomy which separates the individual from the literal history of his sexual acts”:31 “Base is that mind that kneels unto her body … / My spirit shall be mistress of this house / As long as I have time in't” (3.1.149-52).

How far does The Roaring Girl go in its sympathetic imaginative vision of sexual nonconformity, female independence, and equality between the sexes, all conditions embodied in the title character? Clearly Laxton's humorous stupidity and Sir Alexander's petty malice are no match for Moll's integrity, vitality, intelligence, and courage. Yet a more subtle counter-movement in the play resists the absorption of Moll into the tolerant new society which forms in the final scene.

Far from direct disapproval, this strand of qualified feeling can be discerned as an ambiguous undercurrent in the primarily positive attitude with which Moll is regarded by Sebastian and his fiancée, Mary Fitzallard, the couple whose relationship and opinions represent the desirable social norm in the play. For example, when Sebastian reveals to Mary his scheme of pretending to court Moll, he describes the roaring girl as “a creature / so strange in quality” (1.1.100-01) that Mary could not possibly doubt his love. As noted, Sebastian provides the major defense of Moll in the play; but the defense, while eloquent and just, is delivered to his father in the course of a deception and is couched entirely in terms of existing standards of sexual decorum, the basis of which Sebastian never questions: “and oftentimes / Through her apparel [she] somewhat shames her birth; / But she is loose in nothing but in mirth” (2.2.183-85). Is Sebastian referring to Moll's gender, social status, or both in his reference to her birth? This point is never clarified, nor is the rather odd remark which Mary makes when Sebastian introduces her to Moll:

Seb.This is the roaring wench must do us good.
Mary.No poison, sir, but serves us for some use;
Which is confirmed in her.


Furthermore, Moll herself seems to acquiesce in the view which regards her as aberrant, thereby indirectly affirming existing sexual values: when Sebastian proposes to her she responds, “A wife you know ought to be obedient, but I fear me I am too headstrong to obey … You see sir, I speak against myself” (2.2.40-41, 62). These and similar remarks are too infrequent and undeveloped to undercut the predominant theme of approval and admiration which surrounds Moll in the play; but they do qualify the potential for any radical change in sexual values implicit in the full social acceptance of Moll Frith.

The play makes clear that, if the stifling, malignant conformity which unjustly opposes Moll is one thing, incorporation of her into society is quite another. Full social acceptance is no more the destiny of the Hic Mulier figure in this play, no matter how benevolent, than it is the fate of the sympathetic Hic Mulier in the debate, no matter how reasonable, eloquent, or bold. Earlier I observed that the playwrights' ambivalence toward Moll can be discerned as a disjunction between thematic content and dramatic form. While the dominant content of The Roaring Girl elicits but does not clarify this issue, formal analysis makes its subtlety more readily perceptible. A brief discussion of the function of disguise in the play should help to clarify the point.

Although Moll Frith wears male clothing, she makes no attempt to conceal her identity and all the other characters know she is a woman: in short, she is not in disguise. When used simply to denote a costume, worn in a play or festival for example, “disguise” could be used as a morally neutral term in Jacobean England. But discussions of apparel in the moral and religious literature more often use “disguise” as an inclusive censorious term meaning, roughly, “deformity of nature” and comprehending in the range of disapproval not only the player, but the fop, dandy, overdressed woman and, of course, the Hic Mulier.32 According to this conservative mentality, the roaring girl would be in “disguise”; but, as we have seen, the play rejects precisely this negative interpretation of Moll's apparel. More illuminating for present purposes is a brief comparison between Moll and the disguised heroines of Shakespearean romantic comedy.

In contrast to Moll, who insists on being recognized as a woman, heroines like Rosalind and Viola seek to conceal their identities and to protect themselves by masquerading as men. Modern criticism has been particularly adept at recognizing the symbolic, structural, and psychological functions of these romantic disguises. On the psychological level, the male disguise allows the Shakespearean heroine the social freedom to extend her personality and expand her identity by exploring the possibilities inherent in male sexual roles.33 This opportunity for heightened awareness and personal growth incorporates into the desirable comic society formed at the end of the play an androgynous vision, recently defined as “a psychic striving for an ideal state of personal wholeness, a microcosmic attempt to imitate a mythic macrocosm,” in which “being a human being entails more than one's sex identification and attendant gender development”34

The romantic comic form, however, represents neither a mythical nor a revolutionary society, but a renewed traditional society, whose stability and coherence is symbolized by marriage and is based on the maintenance of traditional sexual roles.35 It is the temporary nature of the heroine's male disguise which contains the formal solution to the potential psychological and social problems it raises: that is, the heroine gladly sheds her disguise with its accompanying freedoms at the end of the play, in order to accept the customary social role of wife, thereby allowing the play's androgynous vision to remain spiritual and symbolic without awakening the audience's dissatisfaction or desire for social change.36 Northrop Frye has shown that the resolution of comedy, which is usually erotic, is often brought about by a bisexual Eros figure who, like Puck, “is in himself sexually self-contained, being in a sense both male and female, and needing no expression of love beyond himself.” In Shakespeare's later comedies, this structural role is taken over by the disguised female; but when the Eros figure is no longer supernatural, “his” character must break down, as Viola's does into Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night, or be superseded, as Rosalind's is, by the figure of Hymen in As You Like It.37 As another critic puts it, “The temporary nature of the male disguise is of course essential, since the very nature of Shakespearean comedy is to affirm that disruption is temporary, that what has been turned topsy-turvy will be restored.”38

Like Shakespearean comedy, The Roaring Girl concludes festively with the re-formation of a flexible and tolerant society, whose stability and integration are symbolized in marriage. But in The Roaring Girl the functions performed by the disguised heroine in Shakespeare are structurally divided and displaced. Moll clearly answers to much of Frye's analysis of the comic Eros figure: first, with her self-imposed virginity, refusal to marry, and men's clothes, she is “in a sense both male and female” and needs “no expression of love beyond [her]self”; secondly, it is she who brings about the benevolent and satisfactory resolution of the action when she actively helps Sebastian to gain Mary. Sebastian recognizes her function as the play's Eros figure when he says, “Twixt lovers' hearts she's a fit instrument / And has the art to help them to their own” (2.2.204-05). In Frye's terms, Moll is a figure in whom Eros “is a condition, not a desire.”39 But unlike Puck, Moll is not supernatural; she is human and will not disappear from social life. She is neither on an odyssey toward sexual and social integration, as Rosalind and Viola are, nor can she be said to grow psychologically, happily internalizing the discovery of love and freedom in the way that they do. She has no intention of marrying, no intention of relinquishing either her outfit or the unconventional principles and behavior it represents. She therefore assumes the social and psychological freedom of the traditional disguised heroine without providing the corresponding reassurance implicit in that heroine's eventual erotic transformation. These functions are instead displaced onto Mary Fitzallard, who, disguised as a page, joyously sheds the disguise to take her place as Sebastian's wife in the final scene. Moll,on the other hand, having served as the instrument who brings about the happy ending, is nevertheless excluded from the renewed comic society of married couples which forms on the stage at the end of the play. Sir Alexander makes this clear when he defines the new society by addressing “You kind gentlewomen, whose sparkling presence / Are glories set in marriage, beams of society / For all your loves give luster to my joys” (5.2.260-62). The playwrights conclude The Roaring Girl with an epilogue in which they emphasize the strangeness of the fictional, and the criminality of the real, Moll Frith.

In a sense the dramatists call attention to both a structural and social ambiguity in the world of the play by refusing to conflate Moll and Mary into a single figure.40 By excluding Moll from the traditional, rejuvenated society demanded by the comic form, Middleton and Dekker never quite succeed in separating her from her outlaw status, despite the approval and admiration with which her integrity, courage, and freedom are depicted in the play. It is true that Moll herself displays nothing but a benign indifference toward acceptance by established society: “I pursue no pity; / Follow the law and you can cuck me, spare not; / Hang up my viol by me, and I care not.” (5.2.253-55). Moll's good-natured indifference allows the predominant tone of the ending of the play to remain festive. Yet her definition of herself as anti-social (5.1.362-63) and her exclusion by others combine to render unsettling the fact that her sexual independence has left her isolated from the very social structure which her courage and vitality have done so much to enliven and renew. The question of her social identity, raised at the beginning of the play, therefore remains unresolved at the end. It is because she has helped to create a society from which she is both excluded and excludes herself that Moll's status remains unclear; insofar as it is ambiguous, marginal, and problematic, Moll's social identity can be seen as a metaphor for the changing condition of women in early modern England.


Both The Roaring Girl and the Hic Mulier/Haec-Vir debate represent the figure of the woman in men's clothing as the symbolic focus of concern about sexual freedom and equality in Jacobean society. Each text depicts this unconventional figure as attractive and virtuous, while those who regard her as socially and sexually disruptive are represented in contrast as hostile, anxious, and self-deceived. When confronting the irrationality of her enemies, the Hic Mulier figure emerges as the voice of reason and common sense. In both play and debate it is she who possesses imagination, insight, and courage; it is she who embodies the promise of freedom and even of happiness. Nevertheless this hopeful, likeable figure fails in each context to gain full social acceptance; not only is she excluded by others, but she herself acquiesces in her own defeat: in the debate she retreats completely, surrendering to the very values she had arisen to oppose; in the play she remains pleasantly isolated from society, a loveable outlaw whose eccentricity insures that she will not constitute a social threat. But while these formal resolutions of debate and play are both agreeably festive in tone, neither effort to adhere to the comic purpose of reconciling social tensions is entirely convincing. The powerfully rendered figure of Hic Mulier continues in each case to tower over the less compelling society that endeavors unsuccessfully to absorb her; viewed in terms of aesthetic logic, the Hic Mulier figure becomes content that cannot (illogically) be contained by form.

With their similarly ambivalent visions of Hic Mulier and Moll Frith as necessary but disruptive, benevolent but anti-social, both the debate and the play present an image of Jacobean society as unable to absorb one of its most vital and complex creations into the existing social and sexual hierarchies. The mixed approval and exclusion of the Hic Mulier figure evident in artistic representation and social commentary indicate a simultaneous search for and rejection of greater flexibility in sexual values. The parallel treatments of the controversy surrounding women in men's clothing in the dramatic and moral literature therefore combine to illuminate a particularly heightened time of groping for resolutions: in both The Roaring Girl and the Hic Mulier/Haec-Vir debate, the moral ambiguity and social challenge of sexual identity and equality as they were perceived in Renaissance England stand sharply before us.


  1. I would like to acknowledge my gratitude to the Monticello College Foundation and The Newberry Library, whose generous support made possible the research for this essay.

  2. The full names of these colorful pamphlets are as follows: Hic Mulier: Or, The Man-Woman: Being a Medicine to cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine-Feminines of our Times and Haec-Vir: Or The Womanish-Man: Being an Answer to a late Booke intituled Hic-Mulier. All citations from the pamphlets are taken from the edition published by The Rota at the University of Exeter, 1973.

  3. See Louis B. Wright, Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1935), pp. 494-97; Carroll Camden, The Elizabethan Woman (New York, 1952), pp. 263-67; Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London, 1975), pp. 231-71; Linda T. Fitz, “What Says the Married Woman: Marriage Theory and Feminism in the English Renaissance,” Mosaic, 13 (Winter, 1980), 1-22; and Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana, 1984), pp. 139-51.

  4. Quoted from Certain Sermons or Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches in the Time of Queen Elizabeth (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1908), p. 327.

  5. See, for example, “Against Excess of Apparel” in Homilies; Thomas Nashe, Christs Teares over Jerusalem, 1593, in John Dover Wilson, Life in Shakespeare's England (Cambridge, 1920), p. 125; and Phillip Stubbes, Anatomy of Abuses, 1583, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall, The New Shakespeare Society (London, 1877-1879), pp. 33-4.

  6. See, for example, William Harrison, Description of England, 1587 in Wilson, pp. 124-25. Cf. Wright, p. 493; Camden, pp. 257-67; and Fitz.

  7. John Louis Vives, “Of raiments,” in Instruction of a Christian Woman, trans. Richard Hyrde (1557), Book II, Chap. VIII. Deuteronomy 22.5 reads: “The Woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.”

  8. George Gascoigne, The Steele Glas, 1576, in ed. Edward Arber, English Reprints, V (London, 1868), pp. 82-3.

  9. Stubbes, p. 73.

  10. Stubbes, p. 73. Cf. Harrison, in Wilson, pp. 124-25.

  11. Henry Fitzgeffrey, Notes from Black-fryers, 1617. Cited by Wright, p. 492. See Wright, pp. 483-94 for other references to the “man-woman,” including Barnabe Rich, in The Honestie of this Age (1614); Alexander Niccoles, in A Discourse of Marriage And Wiving (ed. of 1620); and Thomas Adams, in Mystical Bedlam (1615).

  12. Wright, p. 490. Anger against women reached its zenith in Joseph Swetnam's misogynistic tract, The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and unconstant Women (1615), which had ten printings by 1634 and inspired several responses (see Wright, pp. 486-93), including a stage-play, Swetnam, the Woman-hater, Arraigned by Women, (1620).

  13. Wright, p. 507 and Fitz, pp. 2-3.

  14. Along with the numerous isolated references to the Hic Mulier phenomenon cited in Wright, these documents include the Hic Mulier and Haec-Vir pamphlets, noted above, and another pamphlet, Mulde Sacke: Or The Apologie of Hic Mulier: To the late Declamation against her (1620). By referring to the Hic Mulier phenomenon as a “transvestite movement,” or even as a “rough-and-ready unisex movement” (p. 15), Fitz implies more coherence and range to the fashion than these pamphlets can document. Cf. Woodbridge, pp. 139-51.

  15. Edward Phillips Statham, A Jacobean Letter-Writer: The Life and Times of John Chamberlain (London, 1920), pp. 182-83.

  16. We should not, I think, take for granted that misogynistic and feminist attitudes can be aligned neatly with gender in the Renaissance. The relative paucity of literature in the early 1600s in which women are clearly speaking for themselves makes specifically female attitudes extremely difficult to distinguish and assess. Resolving the problem of the correlation between gender and attitude is not, however, prerequisite to the present analysis, which seeks to compare the sexual values clearly articulated in the Hic Mulier/Haec-Vir debate with the artistic conception of a Hic Mulier figure in The Roaring Girl.

  17. Wright, p. 490.

  18. Wright, p. 497.

  19. Fitz, pp. 16-17. Fitz, for example, sees as unfortunate the argument in Haec-Vir (sig. C2v) that it is a law of nature that differences between the sexes be preserved by designated dress and behavior. She also remarks that “Renaissance women so far accepted the masculine rules of the game that they felt they had to adopt the clothing and external attributes of the male sex in order to be ‘free.’ This was true in drama as in life: witness the transvestite heroines of Shakespeare's romantic comedies.” See also Woodbridge, pp. 148-49.

  20. See Suzanne W. Hull, Chaste Silent & Obedient: English Books for Women 1475-1640 (San Marino, Cal, 1982). Hull provides an ample bibliography of documents that articulate the Renaissance ideal of womanhood.

  21. Fitz, pp. 9-10. Also see Wright, pp. 490-91. See also Dusinberre, pp. 234-35.

  22. Dusinberre, pp. 234-35, 239.

  23. See Hic Mulier (sig. C2v): “To you … that are Fathers, Husbands, or Sustainers of these new Hermaphrodites, belongs the cure of this Impostume; it is you that give fuell to the flames of their wilde indiscretion.” Cf. J. Chamberlain, in Statham, pp. 182-83: “A tax upon unruly female relatives! … the King threatens to fall upon theyre husbands, parents or frends that have or shold have power over them, and make them pay for it.”

  24. Cited in P.A. Mulholland, “The Date of The Roaring Girl,” Review of English Studies, 28 (1977), 22, 30-31. See also Andor Gomme, Introd., The Roaring Girl, by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, (London, 1976), pp. xiii-xix, and Margaret Dowling, “A Note on Moll Cutpurse—‘The Roaring Girl,’” Review of English Studies, 10 (1934), 67-71. There is a pamphlet called The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith, published in 1662, but it is not thought to be reliable. For a review of the play's dramatic and non-dramatic sources, as well as references to the real Moll Frith, see Gomme, pp. xiii-xix, and Mulholland, pp. 18-31.

  25. Mulholland, pp. 18-31, is the most recent example. Gomme, pp. xiii-xix, also sums up the attempts to date the play.

  26. Mulholland, 18-9. As Mulholland observes (pp. 20-1), the Consistory of London Correction Book record concerning Mary Frith, which he cites at length on pp. 30-1, provides an extraordinary account both of the actual Moll and of the vehement opposition in Jacobean society to women wearing male attire, which is one offense of hers that is reiterated in the Correction Book entry.

  27. Thomas Middleton, “To the Comic Play-Readers, Venery and Laughter,” in Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton, The Roaring Girl. All citations from the play are taken from Drama of the English Renaissance, eds. Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin (New York, 1976), II, 334-38.

  28. The phrase is from Fitz, p. 16.

  29. Laxton expresses his general view of women in 3.2.266-69: “That wile / By which the serpent did the first woman beguile / Did ever since all women's bosoms fill; / You're apple-eaters all, deceivers still.”

  30. Keith Thomas, “The Place of Laughter in Tudor and Stuart England,” Times Literary Supplement (January 21, 1977), 78.

  31. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (New York, 1973), p. 39.

  32. See, for example, Hic Mulier, sig. C3: “Doe you make it the utter losse of your favour and bounty to have brought into your Family, any new fashion or disguise, that might either deforme Nature, or bee an injury to modestie.” Cf. Harrison, in Wilson, p. 123: “You shall not see any so disguised as are my countrymen of England,” and Nashe, in Wilson, p. 125: “England, the players' stage of gorgeous attire, the ape of all nations' superfluities, the continual masquer in outlandish habiliments, great plenty-scanting calamities art thou to await, for wanton disguising thyself against kind; and digressing from the plainness of thy ancestors.”

  33. See Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London, 1974), p. 202; Helen Gardner, “As You Like It,” in Modern Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Alvin B. Kernan (New York, 1970), pp. 199, 202; Helene Moglen, “Disguise and Development: The Self and Society in Twelfth Night,Literature and Psychology, 23 (1973), 13-9; and Dusinberre, p. 257.

  34. Robert Kimbrough, “Androgyny Seen Through Shakespeare's Disguise,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 33 (Spring, 1982), 20, 19. Cf. Margaret Boerner Beckman, “The Figure of Rosalind in As You Like It,Shakespeare Quarterly, 29 (Winter, 1978), 44-51.

  35. Cf. Gardner, pp. 190-203 and Northrop Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” in ed. Kernan, pp. 165-73.

  36. Cf. C.L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton, N.J., 1959), pp. 245-47; Leggatt, p. 211; F. H. Mares, “Viola and other Transvestist Heroines in Shakespeare's Comedies,” in ed. B. A. W. Jackson, Stratford Papers on Shakespeare (McMaster University Library Press, 1969 for 1965-1967), pp. 96-109; and Nancy K. Hayles, “Sexual Disguise in As You Like It and Twelfth Night,Shakespeare Survey, 32 (1979), 63-72.

  37. Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective (New York, 1965), pp. 82-83.

  38. Clara Claiborne Park, “As We Like It: How a Girl Can be Smart and Still Popular,” in The Woman's Part, eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana, Ill., 1980), p. 108.

  39. Frye, p. 83.

  40. See Gomme, p. xxiii, who points out that Mary and Moll have the same name, and that Moll “impersonates” Mary in the final scene “in order to complete the trick which secures Mary's happiness.”

Viviana Comensoli (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7260

SOURCE: “Play-making, Domestic Conduct, and the Multiple Plot in The Roaring Girl,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring 1987, pp. 249-66.

[In the following essay, Comensoli contends that the three plots of The Roaring Girl together “convey the concern at the heart of the play with the degeneration of marriage and the family, a tension sustained in the antithesis between the household (consistently portrayed as the seat of spiritual and emotional stasis and confinement) and the city (the hub of multifariousness and freedom).”]


Moll Cutpurse, the central character of Dekker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl (c. 1608-1611), is based on the notorious roarerMary Frith who frequented the Fortune Theater in man's apparel. Mary was described by a contemporary as “a very Tomrig or Rumpscuttle” who “sported only in boys' play and pastime,” scorned girlish endeavors such as “sewing or stitching,” and showed “rude inclinations.”1 While Moll Cutpurse does many of the things her real-life counterpart did—she wears men's clothes, carries a weapon, and mixes in taverns with members of the underworld—she also punishes lecherous gallants through her skillful sword-fighting and promotes the love-marriage of Mary Fitzallard and Sebastian Wengrave. T. S. Eliot was the first to praise The Roaring Girl as “one comedy which more than any other Elizabethan comedy realizes a free and noble womanhood,” an achievement compensating for the play's rough plotting: “we read with toil through a mass of cheap conventional intrigue, and suddenly realize that we are … observing a real and unique human being.”2 Since Eliot's assessment the citizen-plot, with its commonplace motif of lusty gallants chasing citizen wives, has been largely viewed as a ponderous distraction from Moll's fascinating duality. Cyrus Hoy, for one, expresses a common sentiment when he laments the conventional comedy in the play, “with its seemingly compliant citizens' wives and the impecunious gallants who would like to seduce or live off them,” but praises “the bold and often brilliantly original” portrait of Moll.3 The Royal Shakespeare Company's 1983 production of the play, the first major production since the play's première at the Fortune,4 portrayed Moll as a commendable virago but tampered considerably with the other plots in order to bring Moll's role into sharp focus.5

The few critics who have commented on the play's structural merits have stressed the orthodox design of the comic action and its progression toward a society renewed by married love. In 1970 David Holmes referred to the play as a “nexus of plots with a common motif,” namely “the dignity of marriage.”6 More recently, some attention has been paid to the Sebastian Wengrave-Mary Fitzallard action in connection with Moll's role in bringing about the young lovers' marriage. Patrick Cheney, analyzing Moll's dual identity, links the marriage to Moll's symbolic function: because Moll “combines in her person both feminine and masculine traits, and uses her remarkable powers to unite other couples in love,” she is suggestive of Renaissance representations of the hermaphrodite-figure, “a supreme symbol of two souls becoming one—particularly within the context of married love.”7 For Larry Champion, the play is “a complex pattern of schemes and counter-schemes” set in motion by Sebastian, whose feigned passion for Moll Cutpurse prompts his father to agree to his son's marriage to Mary Fitzallard, just as in the citizen-plot the gallants “set their practice upon the citizen-wives.”8 The plots are “effectively interwoven” to sustain a comic perspective and “a continuing assurance of the ultimate success of love and right reason” leading to “a happy ending.”9 Mary Beth Rose, in her analysis of the play in the context of the Hic Mulier/Haec-Vir controversy, acknowledges a certain amount of ambiguity in the dramatic portrayal of Moll, but also stresses the conventional nature of the comic ending.10 Despite the pamphlet's late date, Moll is considered a direct dramatic parallel of the transvestite in Hic Mulier, where “the figure of the female in male attire” inspires “simultaneous admiration, desire, abhorrence, and fear.”11 While we detect authorial sympathy with “sexual non-conformity, female independence, and equality between the sexes,” the play, argues Rose, ultimately resists Moll's integration into society: “having served as the instrument who brings about the happy ending,” Moll “is nevertheless excluded from the renewed comic society of married couples which forms on the stage at the end of the play.”12 The “desirable social norm in the play” is thus not Moll's transvestism but the conservative “relationship and opinions” of Sebastian and Mary.13 A full evaluation of Moll's relation to the multiple plot, I propose, must accommodate two significant qualifications: 1) while Moll does assist in ushering in the typical comic ending, she unequivocally renounces for herself the conventional values embodied by Mary and Sebastian, a choice which the audience is invited to condone; 2) although Moll and her roarer-companions reject conventional behavior, they are never excluded from the reformed society sketched in the denouement; instead, their presence during the final two scenes provides a compelling alternative to the ideal marriage. Moreover, the idealistic conclusion of the Sebastian-Mary action must be considered in relation to the dramatists' cynical treatment of marriage in the citizen-plot and its realistic treatment of conjugal malaise. Both Moll's misogamy and the citizens' domestic conflicts counterpoint the Sebastian-Mary action, indicating that the ideal marriage is a possibility not wholly realized, even in a transformed society.

Taken together, the three plots convey the concern at the heart of the play with the degeneration of marriage and the family, a tension sustained in the antithesis between the household (consistently portrayed as the seat of spiritual and emotional stasis and confinement) and the city (the hub of multifariousness and freedom). The multiple-plot structure is thus loosely unified through the careful arrangement of setting, so that altogether six scenes are set within various households and five in the city streets and fields around London. The world of the money-hungry social climbers and of the sycophantic gallants and self-satisfied citizens is ruled by the single pursuit of materialistic values. These characters are invariably either in their shops (notably architectural extensions of their homes) where they accumulate wealth, or at home where deception and bawdy innuendo underscore the deterioration of domestic life. The younger generation, represented by Sebastian Wengrave and Mary Fitzallard on the one hand, and by Moll Cutpurse and her roarer-companion Jack Dapper on the other, is removed from the world of the elders. Prior to their marriage, Mary and Sebastian are associated neither with the domestic sphere nor with the city, but stand apart in their idealism. For Moll and Jack, both the world of the elders and the idealism of Mary and Sebastian represent denial and limitation. Neither Moll nor Jack has or wants a home; their space is the street, the world of thieves, beggars, and drifters. Moll's contradictory behavior attests to the play's central paradox in that the resolution upholds both the ritualized cleansing of the domus through Mary and Sebastian's love-marriage and the roarers' rejection of that sphere in favor of the polymorphism of the city.

In the shift from one perspective to another, the spectator participates in a process of creating a multifaceted society as varied and paradoxical as the play. The tension agrees with the dramatists' idea of playmaking as a protean activity. Fashionable plays, argues Middleton in his address “To the Comicke Play-readers, Venery, and Laughter”14 which prefaces the quarto, cater to popular taste: likening “The fashion of play-making” to “the alteration in apparell” (lines 1-2), Middleton observes that the time now being one “of sprucenes,” plays are fashioned after the folly of “our Garments, single plots, quaint conceits, letcherous iests, drest vp in hanging sleeues” (lines 6-8). Middleton advises the audience that the play he and Dekker have written goes beyond popular fashion in denying easy solutions, a sentiment echoed in the Prologue, where we are cautioned against coming to the theater expecting to view a polished work, “a booke, / Compos'd to all perfections” (lines 2-3), which will gratify our preconceived notions of experience:

                                                            each one comes
And brings a play in's head with him: vp he summes,
What he would of a Roaring Girle haue writ;
If that he findes not here, he mewes at it.

(lines 3-6)

Whereas fashionable plays are neatly packaged, closed systems, The Roaring Girl is methectic and open-ended, its emphasis on multiplicity and variability challenging the audience's complacency.


The play opens upon a typical conflict in city comedy; the father, Sir Alexander Wengrave, is determined to impede his son's marriage for reasons which are purely materialistic and self-serving. A recently-dubbed knight, Wengrave scorns Sebastian's love for Mary Fitzallard, whose dowry of five thousand marks renders her “but a beggars heire” (I.i.82). While the expository details are set forth Wengrave's house forms an obtrusive setting. The direct alignment of the two scenes comprising Act I draws our attention to the house's subdivisions, a fairly recent architectural phenomenon. During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, subdivided homes became indicative of status among the gentry and yeomanry.15 This development corresponded to the increase in domestic comfort, as evidenced by improved methods of construction favoring well-lit open spaces and terraces16 and generating a variety of household effects including upholstered furniture, chairs, draw tables, and beds with decorated frames. The new emphasis on domestic comfort represented “an important move towards the notion of individuality and sexual privacy.”17 The design of the Wengrave household confirms Wengrave's successful climb to the landed gentry, while his status-seeking is the focus of the play's sharpest satirical attack. Scene i, where the disguised Mary Fitzallard secretly visits Sebastian, is set in the foyer, situated near the “hall” or servants' quarter (I.i.16) and the “buttry” (line 21). In scene ii we enter “Th'inner roome” (I.ii.6) of the house where Wengrave is hosting a dinner party. Proud of his possessions, Wengrave subjects his guests (and the audience) to an extensive and disquieting tour of each room. We are led from the separate dining area which, ironically, is “too close” (line 6), to the cooler “Parlour” (line 7). From there, we proceed to the “galleries” in the center of the house (line 14) where a grotesque mosaic covers the walls, intensifying the claustrophobic atmosphere—“Within one square a thousand heads are laid / So close, that all of heads, the roome seems made” (I.ii.19-20)—and where the trompe-l'oeil effect of the floor waving “to and fro, / … like a floating Iland” (lines 30-31) projects an image of a world distorted by illusion.

As the dinner-party scene unfolds, the household is depicted essentially as an extension of a money economy. The adulteration of the once sacred bond between host and guest, for instance, is underscored by Wengrave's calculating advice to Greenwit upon learning of the young man's desire to leave sooner than decorum permits: “Your loue sir, has already giuen me some time, / And if you please to trust my age with more, / It shall pay double interest: Good sir stay” (I.ii.36-8). Wengrave's metaphor from commerce is a signal to the young man of the ethic that now rules the host-guest relationship, the guest's function being to defer to the host's pride and social status in exchange for patronage. As Wengrave dispenses wine during post-dinner formalities and grandly displays the furniture, which “Cost many a faire gray groat ere it came here” (line 12), his makeshift hospitality and the guests' hypocrisy are revealed through a series of double-entendres and vicious sexual innuendoes:

Alex. Pray make that stoole your pearch, good
Maister Goshawke.
Gosh. I stoope to your lure sir.
.....Alex.furnish maister Laxton
With what he wants (a stone) a stoole I would say,
A stoole.
Lax. I had rather stand sir.


The image of the household as the center of concupiscence links the Wengrave action and the citizen-plot where feeding, bawdy word-play, and sexual inadequacy form a complex configuration. Wengrave's feast is directly mirrored by the citizens' equally disquieting dinner party (III.ii). The scene opens upon a domestic squabble between the hosts, Prudence and Master Gallipot, disrupting the festive mood. Prudence enters “as from supper, her husband after her” (s.d.), and inveighs against Gallipot's uxorious behavior. On the surface the exchange is farcical, but broad comedy is restrained by the urgency of the language which alerts us to the couple's emotional and sexual dissatisfaction. Prudence is angry because her husband dotes on her as an infant dotes on its mother: “I thinke the baby would haue a teate it kyes so, pray be not so fond of me, … I'me vext at you to see how like a calfe you come bleating after me” (III.ii.2-5). The source of Prudence's frustration is Gallipot's refusal to “vp and ride” (line 9), provoking her lusty pursuit of the gallant Laxton.18 The couple's conjugal problems are coherently sketched through an extended pattern of food imagery. Gallipot, whose virility is dubious—“Vp and ride, nay my pretty Pru, thats farre from my thought, ducke” (lines 10-1)—importunes his termagant wife to behave more decorously toward their guests, and attempts to appease her through proverbial food lore: “thy minde is nibbling at something, whats ist, what lyes vpon thy Stomach?” (lines 11-2). Suspecting that Prudence may have a lover, Gallipot articulates his suspicion through another barrage of food imagery: “I smel a goose, a couple of capons, and a gammon of bacon from her mother out of the country” (lines 70-1). Throughout the exchange Gallipot's need for oral gratification is strongly implied.19 His inability to distinguish between feeding and love, his persistent whining—“the baby would haue a teate it kyes so”20—and his dependence on non-sexual contact are the source of Prudence's strongest reproach: “your loue is all words; giue mee deeds, I cannot abide a man thats too fond ouer me, so cookish; thou dost not know how to handle a woman in her kind” (lines 22-4).

The scene culminates in Prudence and Laxton's jest, whereby the gallant poses as the wife's original suitor who has come to reclaim her. Gallipot's uneasiness over having to relinquish his source of gratification to a rival, a prospect which he equates with being deprived of a choice dish of food, is an aggressive, infantile response—“Haue you [Laxton] so beggarly an appetite / When I vpon a dainty dish haue fed / To dine vpon my scraps, my leauings? ha sir?” (III.ii.229-31). When alone with Prudence, Gallipot is passive and obsequious, but to his rival and to society at large he appears sexually potent, a lie which he fosters through bawdy metaphors: “pray sir [Laxton] weare not her, for shee's a garment / So fitting for my body, I'me loath / Another should put it on, you will vndoe both” (lines 234-36). The uneasy tone is sustained in the reconciliation scene (IV.ii) where Gallipot forgives Laxton because the gallant has not actually seduced the wife, but does not offer to forgive Prudence (IV.ii.318-20). Audiences at the Fortune Theater could compare Gallipot's behavior with that of Master Frankford, the husband-hero of Heywood's domestic tragedy A Woman Killed With Kindness (c. 1603), which Christianized the revenge ethic in its sympathetic portrayal of a husband who forgives rather than condemns his wife's adultery. Whereas Frankford's sacrifice preserves the conjugal ideal, Gallipot's bombast during the reconciliation scene points not only to moral lassitude but also to the continuation of conjugal strife. That the marriage will never be free of conflict is confirmed by Gallipot's bold invitation of the gallant to dinner, in which he chastises Prudence with a derogatory epithet, masking once again his sexual inadequacy: “Wee'll crowne our table with it [Laxton's jest]: wife brag no more, / Of holding out: who most brags is most whore” (lines 323-24).

The unsettling tone of the Prudence-Gallipot action is only partly attenuated by the more whitewashed marriage of Master and Mistress Openwork. The central concern in the Openwork action is the husband's exposure of Goshawk's lechery: Openwork dupes the gallant by pretending that Mistress Openwork's shrewishness has led him to keep a whore in the suburbs (II.i.272-76). Openwork's test of his wife's fidelity, which she in turn requites with a feigned desire for Goshawk, is therefore only a pretense to dupe the gallant and to teach him to “deale vpon mens wiues no more” (IV.ii.216). Once the gallant has learned the valuable lesson, the action concludes with Openwork's invitation of Goshawk to dinner, paralleling Gallipot's forgiveness of Laxton:

Maist. Open. Make my house yours sir still.
Maist. Open.I say you shall:
Seeing (thus besieg'd) it holds out, 'twill neuer fall.

(lines 217-19)

Ostensibly preserved is the general rule of decorum in the public theaters requiring gallants who attempt the seduction of citizen-wives to “come off badly.”21 That Gallipot's “virtue” remains questionable, however, has been established by his response to Laxton's and Prudence's jest. A moral ambiguity also qualifies Openwork's behavior. Goshawk's admission of guilt prompts Openwork to muse on the world's imperfection—“On fairest cheeks, wife nothing is perfect borne. / … What's this whole world but a gilt rotten pill?” / … The world can hardly yeeld a perfect friend” (IV.ii.204-13). The remark undercuts not only the confident tone of Openwork's offer of his house to the gallant, but also the promise of social stability brought about by his hospitality.22

From the point of view of citizen comedy, perhaps the most disturbing element of the resolution of the citizen-plot concerns the problem of Prudence Gallipot's lascivious behavior. Unlike Mistress Openwork's feigned passion for Goshawk, Prudence's desire for Laxton is never uncovered as a pretense. In Act II we learn that the affair is not consummated because the gallant has no intention of seducing the wife (II.i.114-23); he merely desires Gallipot's money, which he lavishes on other women. While Mistress Openwork comes to appreciate her husband's virtue, Prudence merely informs us that she is “ridd” of Laxton (IV.ii.40). We are given no firm indication that she unequivocally yields to Gallipot's apparent virtue.23 Prudence's unrepentant desire is a rare occurrence in a comedy performed in the public theater where citizen-wives were not portrayed as adulterous.24


The disturbed, unregenerate world of the citizens and the landed gentry is juxtaposed with the stable, more innocent world of the young lovers, Mary and Sebastian. Their world is suffused with an aura of sacredness manifested chiefly in their dialogue which teems with devotional imagery. The couple's secret betrothal is not a grotesque extension of eating, nor is it founded on sexual appetite; instead, it is, in Mary's words, a union sanctioned by heaven: “in one knot / Haue both our hands byt'h hands of heauen bene tyed” (I.i.68-9). For Mary, matrimony is “a bond fast sealed, with solemne oathes, / Subscribed vnto … with your soule: / Deliuered as your deed in sight of heauen” (lines 51-3). Mary distinguishes between love which is “wouen sleightly” (line 29) and a nobler love which is “truely bred ith the soule” (line 31). The denouement, where Mary and Sebastian reiterate their marriage vows with the blessing of their elders and of society at large, reinforces the idea of marriage as the field where one ought to practise virtue. Indeed, the language in this scene is so transformed that it becomes epideictic. In tone and structure the final one hundred lines of the play recall the celebration of marriage in epithalamic verse. Mary, dressed as a “Bride,” is brought in “twixt two noble friends” (V.ii.168), and the wedding is celebrated by all of society: the guests include lords, gentlemen, ladies, citizens and their wives, and the roarers Moll Cutpurse and Trapdoor. Having abandoned his “wilfull rashnesse” (line 193) the reformed Wengrave, like the epithalamist, “call[s] into being the ideal event which the wedding must be, the ideal as defined partly by the convention, partly by the particular society, partly by the poet.”25 Repenting his former blindness, Wengrave extols the wedding as a sacred occasion (lines 173-74) and invokes heaven's blessing of the couple (line 202). He also articulates the epithalamist's conventional praise of the bride's virtue and beauty (lines 189-95), and the familiar wish for offspring and material prosperity: “the best ioyes, / That can in worldly shapes to man betide, / Are fertill lands, and a faire fruitfull Bride” (lines 202-04). The scene ends with Wengrave's injunction, “as I am, so all goe pleas'd away” (line 266), echoing the epithalamist's command to break off the revelry so that the bedding of the couple may take place.

The stylized epithalamic cadences of the final scene enhance the conventional nature of Mary and Sebastian's union which represents the renewal, typical of New-Comic endings, of a society made barren by its obsession with mercantile values. However, before he can enjoy the benefits of his new life, Sebastian, like the prodigals of New Comedy, asks and receives his father's forgiveness for the sorrow he has caused him (V.ii.170-73).26 Paradoxically, the strongly idealistic nature of Mary and Sebastian's marriage is tempered by the Moll Cutpurse-Jack Dapper action, where language creates a radically different kind of personal and social transformation.


The central ambiguity of the multiple plot hinges on the contradictions embodied in Moll Cutpurse, who aids Sebastian in securing his father's approval of his marriage while asserting that she herself would never agree to marry (V.ii.214). Moll's rejection of marriage derives in part from the Christian ascetic tradition. In her refusal to submit not only to men but to her own physical nature, Moll associates independence with physical denial:

shee that has wit, and spirit,
May scorne to liue beholding to her body for meate,
Or for apparell like your common dame,
That makes shame get her cloathes, to couer shame.


Moll expresses the traditional dichotomy between body and spirit, rejecting altogether the world of desire where identity is governed by “apparell” and where marriage is not the union of opposites but the handmaiden of lust:

Base is that minde, that kneels vnto her body,
As if a husband stood in awe on's wife,
My spirit shall be Mistresse of this house,
As long as I haue time in't.

(lines 137-40)

Elsewhere, however, Moll confesses to Sebastian that she has renounced marriage and the pleasures of the flesh for more practical, self-serving reasons: “I haue no humor to marry, I loue to lye aboth sides ath bed my selfe; and againe ath'other side; a wife you know ought to be obedient, but I feare me I am too headstrong to obey, therefore Ile nere go about it” (II.ii.35-8). Moll rejects marriage because it denies a woman freedom to act as she pleases in the world: “I haue the head now of my selfe, and am man enough for a woman, marriage is but a chopping and changing, where a maiden looses one head, and has a worse ith place” (lines 40-3). Moll, whose sense of self is highly individualized, views marriage as a threat to a woman's identity, marriage being the exchange of one “head” for another in that a wife replaces her maidenhead (a symbol, to Moll, of independence) with the sovereignty of her husband.

At the same time that Moll chooses independence for herself, she is aware of the loss which her renunciation necessitates. As she plays on the viol for Sebastian, Moll sings of her dream at the core of which is a subtle tension between denial and desire. The first part of the dream concerns a woman who delights in “unwomanly” pastimes such as squandering money and mixing with vulgar company:

I dreame there is a Mistresse,
.....Shee sayes shee went to'th Bursse for patternes,
                              You shall finde her at Saint Katherns,
And comes home with neuer a penny.


The woman in the dream, like Moll herself, does not buy “patternes” to sew dresses, sewing being the quintessential stereotypical occupation of women; instead, she prefers to carouse in “Saint Katherns,” the dockside district in London's east end, which was “notorious for its brewhouses and taverns.”27 In the second part of the dream Moll describes the sexual adventures of an adulterous woman (lines 109-19), a fantasy which gives Moll pleasure, although she is careful to distinguish between her dream-life and reality: “Hang vp the viall now sir: all this while I was in a dreame; one shall lie rudely then, but being awake, I keepe my legges together” (lines 122-24). Moll's dream suggests we are viewing neither a symbol of virtue nor the two-dimensional virago of the Hic Mulier pamphlet, but a complex individual whose dream/song embodies the self's ambiguous relationship to the world. Through her transvestism, Moll has adopted the more forceful male role in order to escape subordination, although she has done so by sacrificing her sexual longing, a compromise which her dream brings into relief.28 Yet the loss for Moll is preferable to a life of wifely submission. Proud of her independence, Moll cannot tolerate the subjugation which marriage entails, a loss which, by implication, will follow even Mary Fitzallard's entrance into the domus.

Moll's fullness and complexity are expressed through her adaptability: she is at home both in the world of “the Temple” (III.i.164) and amid thieves and prostitutes in Chicke Lane (line 167). Her duality encompasses both her proficiency as a musician (an accomplishment which a Renaissance audience would appreciate as indicative of harmony, refinement, and felicity) and her mastery of a different kind of “music,” namely thieves' cant (V.i). Throughout the play the dramatists underscore Moll's protean nature, which cannot be understood by those whose understanding is weak or who conceive of the world two-dimensionally. Moll's strangeness is disturbing and everywhere draws mistrust. To those who fear her, she is “madde Moll” (Prologue, line 30; I.i.94), a despised “flesh fly,” a “scuruy woman” (I.ii.127-28), and “some Monster” (line 138). To Moll's fellow-roarer, Trapdoor, Moll's identity is confusing and unpredictable: “I like you the worse because you shift your lodging so often” (III.i.168). Even the truth-obsessed Mistress Openwork denies Moll her “house and shop” (II.i.211) on the basis of Moll's outrageous appearance.

Moll's boldly unconventional nature corresponds to the play's identity as a work of art. Just as in Moll's world clothes often make the person, play-making, we noted in Middleton's address to the audience, is frequently only a matter of catering to the current fashion. The Roaring Girl counters the popular trend not only because the play frustrates expectation but also because it is subject to censorship for defying a law which upholds the sanctity of appearance: “For Venus being a woman passes through the play in doublet and breeches, a braue disguise and a safe one, if the Statute vnty not her cod-peice point” (“To the Comicke Play-readers,” lines 13-5). The statute in question is the law forbidding women to wear male dress, which arose from “the controversy then raging over women's role and rights, their wearing men's hats or masculine dress … be[ing] one of the signs of moral degeneration.”29 The purpose of art, argues Middleton, is to expose truth, even if it might not always be “fit for the Times, and the Tearmers” (line 8). Moll is never forced to renounce her choices in order to gratify what Middleton considers the unreasonable expectations of certain spectators among the large citizen audiences who frequented the Fortune playhouse. At the same time, the play's favorable portrayal of a strongly independent woman points to the dramatists' awareness of an increasingly assertive audience of city women who, as the hic mulier controversy attests, were demanding and gradually “getting more freedom.”30

In the final scene Moll indirectly flouts Mary and Sebastian's wedding by prophesying she will marry only when society undergoes a seemingly impossible reformation that would see, among other things, “Honesty and truth vnslandred, / Woman man'd, but neuer pandred,” and “Cheaters booted, but not coacht” (V.ii.219-21). Lord Noland's alarmed reply—“This sounds like domes-day” (line 225)—is countered by Moll with a disturbing quip: “Then were marriage best, / For if I should repent, I were soone at rest” (lines 126-27). Moll's misogamy provides a powerful alternative to the veneration of marriage and procreation that informs the epithalamic ending.


Dekker and Middleton's provocation of the audience, together with their opposition to unjust authority, is underscored by Moll's participation in the Jack Dapper action. That Jack functions dramatically as Moll's double is suggested by Moll's street name, “Iack” (V.ii.97-98; lines 212, 215). A profligate and a spendthrift who lives on credit, Jack Dapper lavishes his money on tobacco and wine, and associates with prostitutes and catamites (III.iii.55-64). His father Davy Dapper, who is resolved to punish Jack's profligate ways, orders his arrest and detention in Bridewell, the notorious house of correction. The farcical overtones of the arrest, however, block the audience's sympathy for the father. The search for Jack is carried out amid absurd hunting cries and references to the quest for game (lines 158-91), and is headed by Sergeant Curtilax, a blusterer whose primitive understanding renders him a disturbing defender of the law: “all that liue in the world, are but great fish and little fish, and feede vpon one another” (lines 134-35). Moll's intervention prevents the arrest. Moll forcibly rescues Jack from the sergeant's custody (lines 200-10), an offense which under Jacobean law was “very serious”31 in that it could lead to a long imprisonment. In the aftermath, neither Moll nor Jack repents the crime; instead, Moll describes her part as her “perfect one good worke to day” (line 212). The next time we see Moll and Jack together is during the long canting episode in the final act where they mingle freely among cutpurses and delight in their knowledge of the underworld.32

The canting scene, which is interposed between the resolution of the citizen-plot (IV.ii) and the glorious epithalamic ending (V.ii), is crucial to the play's thematic and structural design.33 As a prelude to the canting, Moll and her fellow-roarers join with Jack Dapper in deriding his father's unsuccessful attempt to have him imprisoned. In direct counterpoint to Sebastian's request for his own father's forgiveness (V.ii.170-72), Jack renounces repentance, declaring that not even prison would reform him: “as though a Counter, which is a parke, in which all the wilde beasts of the Citty run head by head could tame mee” (V.i.40-1). The rowdy tone of the celebration also contrasts sharply with that of the wedding feast that transpires in Wengrave's household. The roarers will celebrate Jack's freedom by carousing in the London streets and taverns, and by feasting at “Pimlico … that nappy land of spice-cakes” (lines 49-50), described elsewhere in Dekker as a mad world frequented by revellers and crammed with “Bawdy houses.”34 The audience, moreover, is coaxed into assenting to the roarers' adventure through Lord Noland's participation in the action. A strictly sympathetic character from the upper ranks of society, Lord Noland eagerly follows the roarers, inviting his friends to join in the celebration: “Heeres such a merry ging, I could find in my heart to saile to the worlds end with such company, come Gentlemen let's on” (V.i.51-2). After the roarers flaunt their skills in the obscurities of thieves' cant, Moll engages Tearcat in a boisterous drinking song for which they receive “two shillings sixe pence” (line 220) from Lord Noland and his friends:

Moll. Come you rogue sing with me.
A gage of ben Rom-house
In a bousing ken of Rom-vile.
T. Cat. Is Benar then a Caster,
Pecke, penman, lap or popler,
Which we mill in deuse a vile.
Both. Oh I wud lib all the lightmans.
Oh I woud lib all the darkemans,
By the sollamon, vnder the Ruffemans.
By the sollamon in the Hartmans.
T. Cat. And scoure the Quire cramp ring,
And couch till a pallyard docked my dell,
So my bousy nab might skew rome bouse well.


The final refrain, “Auast to the pad, let vs bing, / Auast to the pad, let vs bing” (lines 208-209), which translates “Away to the highway, let us go,”35 asserts Moll and Tearcat's loyalty to the open streets. In Moll's subsequent paraphrase of the song (lines 235-40), which amounts to “let's drink and be merry,” we learn that we have been listening to an ode to freedom. The inscrutable nature of the argot, together with its rough and spirited cadences, balances the stylized verse in the epithalamic conclusion, bestowing on the roarers' language a similar power to please the audience.

The Moll Cutpurse-Jack Dapper action is never subordinated to the Mary-Sebastian plot. Instead, the play interweaves a pattern of divergent meanings, suspending and resuspending a firm resolution until all the characters are reunited in the final scene where society is recreated as a network of disparate structures. Central to the process of renewal is the sympathetic presentation, in the popular theater, of a heroine's desire for self-realization. The Roaring Girl exposes the folly of popular opinion, including in this case secular law, by demonstrating that Moll's disguise is a “safe one” (“To the Comic Play-Readers,” line 14), that is, “morally sound and mentally sane” (OED). Thus by the end of the play, both Alexander Wengrave and the audience are capable of judging Moll according to her worth, realizing that the “common voyce” is the real “whore,” in that it “deceiues mans opinion; mockes his trust, / Cozens his loue, and makes his heart vniust” (V.ii.248-50). While the play's epithalamic ending calls attention to the possibility of regeneration through marriage, Moll and the roarers' affirmation of another “order” upholds a strikingly different set of values, fulfilling the play's promise of complexity and multiplicity.


  1. Letter from John Chamberlain to Dudley Carleton, 11 February 1612; quoted in A. H. Bullen, ed., The Works of Thomas Middleton, 8 vols. (London: J.C. Nimmo, 1885), 4:4.

  2. T. S. Eliot, Elizabethan Essays (New York: Haskell House, 1964), pp. 100, 89.

  3. Cyrus Hoy, Introductions, Notes, and Commentaries to texts in “The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker,” Edited by Fredson Bowers, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), 3:9. Norman A. Brittin also praises Moll as “an upright, goodhearted girl of great size and strength who, like a questing knight, helps her friends and whose bad reputation is undeserved,” but ignores the function of the citizen-plot (Thomas Middleton [New York: Twayne, 1972], p. 77).

  4. The play has been performed infrequently. P. Mulholland, in “Let her roar again: The Roaring Girl Revived,” RORD 18 (1985):15-27, notes that since 1951, the date of “the earliest modern production on record” (p. 15), there have been six stage productions, of which the Royal Shakespeare Company's is the “most important” (p. 19), and one radio adaptation. See also Marilyn Roberts, “A Preliminary Check-List of Productions of Thomas Middleton's Plays,” RORD 18 (1985):37-61; 52-3.

  5. To “make the play ‘slightly more deft,”’ the director Barry Kyle “altered the order of some scenes in Act 1 and shifted the last half of Act 4 to the middle of Act 5” (Francesca Simon, “The Honest Cutpurse at the Play: Francesca Simon talks to Barry Kyle about the RSC's Roaring Girl starring Helen Mirren,” The Sunday Times, 24 April 1983, p. 42e). The “effect,” wrote one reviewer, was a strong emphasis on Moll, while the rest of the action tended toward “vertical tourism” (Irving Wardle, “Distant Echo of Jacobean Mirth,” The London Times, 27 April 1983, p. 14). Another reviewer praised Helen Mirren's spirited portrayal of Moll, but complained of loss of “audience involvement” as a result of Kyle's “cut[ting] and patch[ing],” which made for “three or four plots awkwardly interwined” (Russell Taylor, in Drama: The Quarterly Theatre Review [Autumn 1983]:40-1; 40).

  6. David M. Holmes, The Art of Thomas Middleton: A Critical Study (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 102, 107.

  7. Patrick Cheney, “Moll Cutpurse as Hermaphrodite in Dekker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl,Ren&R n.s. 7 (May 1983):124, 125.

  8. Larry S. Champion, Thomas Dekker and the Traditions of English Drama (New York: Peter Lang, 1985), p. 82.

  9. Champion, p. 85.

  10. Mary Beth Rose, “Women in Men's Clothing: Apparel and Social Stability in The Roaring Girl,ELR 14 (Autumn 1984): 367-91. The literary and social contexts of the controversy over the issue of women in men's apparel, which “came to a head in 1620 with a pair of pamphlets entitled, respectively, Hic Mulier: Or, The Man-Woman, and Haec-Vir: Or the Womanish-Man” (Rose, pp. 367-88), are fully explored in Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984), passim. For my argument concerning the dramatic complexity and attractiveness of the central character of The Roaring Girl, I am indebted to Woodbridge's observation that the play not only “gives favorable treatment to a man-clothed virago” (p. 250), but also “paints an intriguing portrait of modern assertive women” (p. 262).

  11. Rose, p. 368.

  12. Rose, p. 389.

  13. Rose, p. 385.

  14. The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1953-1961), 3:11. Subsequent references to the play will be to this edition.

  15. Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden from History: 300 Years of Women's Oppression and the Fight Against It, 2nd edn. (London: Pluto Press, 1974), p. 3.

  16. Michel Grivelet, Thomas Heywood et le Drame Domestique Elizabéthain (Paris: Librairie Marcel Didier, 1957), pp. 19-20. See also Marjorie Quennell and C. H. B. Quennell, A History of Everyday Things in England: 1500-1799, 5th edn., vol. 2 of A History of Everyday Things in England, 4 vols. (London: Batsford, 1960), chs. 1 and 2; and W. G. Hoskins, “The Rebuilding of Rural England, 1570-1640,” in Provincial England: Essays in Social and Economic History (London and New York: Macmillan and St. Martin's Press, 1963), pp. 131-48.

  17. Rowbotham, p. 3.

  18. Andor Gomme, ed., The Roaring Girl (London and New York: Benn and Norton, 1976), p. 64, n. 9, observes that “‘Ride’ was Standard English for sexual intercourse,” and suggests that Mistress Gallipot might be “picking up a sexual suggestion in her husband's last word [‘come’] and possibly ‘hony’.”

  19. Understood psychoanalytically, Gallipot's excessive passivity, his dependence on non-sexual affection, and his delight in infantile behavior are manifestations of an oral compulsion. “Because the oral phase occupies the earliest period when self and object are still not clearly differentiated,” writes Norman N. Holland, the phase “establish[es] … our abilities to do nothing, to be passive” (The Dynamics of Literary Response [New York: Oxford Univ. Press], 1968, p. 36).

  20. The term “kyes,” as used by Prudence Gallipot, indicates “baby-talk”: in talking to her husband, she uses the language of nursemaids (Gomme, p. 63, n. 3). In this case, notes Gomme, “Master Gallipot is the baby.”

  21. Alexander Leggatt, Citizen Comedy in the Age of Shakespeare (Toronto and Buffalo: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1973), p. 135.

  22. Critics tend to ignore the ambiguities of the reconciliation scene in the citizen-plot. For Larry Champion, “The feast that follows is … a commonplace symbol of reconciliation and social harmony throughout Renaissance comedy” (Thomas Dekker and the Traditions of English Drama, p. 84). Andor Gomme views the reconciliation as part of the play's broader message that “deception and scheming” are “found everywhere and can always be unmasked by plain dealing” (“Introduction,” The Roaring Girl, p. xxiv). Patrick Cheney writes that “the primary aim” of the citizen-plot “is to reunite the wives with their husbands; and the secondary aim is to expose the gallants for men of lust, and then to incorporate them as friends to the married couples” (“Moll Cutpurse as Hermaphrodite in Dekker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl,” p. 128). Similarly, Mary Beth Rose suggests that the scene restores marital harmony, mitigating the “illicit sexuality” represented by “the seducing gallants, who … herefore turn out not to constitute a real threat to the social order at all” (“Women in Men's Clothing: Apparel and Social Stability in The Roaring Girl,” p. 382). A very different view is put forth by Simon Shepherd, in Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1981): Prudence and Mistress Gallipot are pawns in “the male world” which exploits women by relegating them to “the emotional and sexual sphere” (p. 49). The citizen-plot reconciles the husbands with the gallants “to the exclusion of the women, who remain used and dissatisfied” (p. 80). Shepherd's interpretation is not entirely borne out by the text, where the women are never passive in their dealings with the men, and where the reconciliation between Openwork and Goshawk is tenuous.

  23. David Holmes notes that “Mistress Gallipot's deficiencies, deceitfulness, and proneness to corruption, contrast with Mistress Openwork's plain dealing and moral hardihood” (The Art Of Thomas Middleton, p. 107), but he does not substantiate the claim. The Royal Shakespeare Company's production also differentiated between the citizen-couples: “At their appearance in the final scene of the play some unease still attended the Gallipots, though balanced by the firmer relationship of the Openworks” (P. Mulholland, “Let her roar again: The Roaring Girl Revived,” p. 23). Gomme, on the other hand, echoes a prevalent view in his suggestion that both wives “realize how much more solidly worthwhile their husbands are than the gallants whom they can, it seems, trap so easily,” although he acknowledges that “the innuendoes” in the dialogue between the two women (IV.ii.40ff.) “are so broad that one cannot believe they have altogether given up the search for new delights” (“Introduction,” The Roaring Girl, p. xxx).

  24. Alfred Harbage, Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions (New York: Macmillan, 1952), p. 249. Harbage notes that the “single exception” is Chapman's Blind Beggar of Alexandria (1598).

  25. Thomas M. Greene, “Spenser and the Epithalamic Convention,” in Edmund Spenser: Epithalamion, ed. R. Beum (Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1968), pp. 37-52; p. 43. For a comprehensive analysis of the literary conventions of epithalamic verse in European literature see Virginia Tufte, The Poetry of Marriage: The Epithalamium in Europe and Its Development in England (Los Angeles: Tinnon-Brown, 1970).

  26. Although George E. Rowe, Jr., in Thomas Middleton & the New Comedy Tradition (Lincoln and London: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1977) does not analyze The Roaring Girl, attributing the play largely to Dekker (p. 23), he offers a valuable discussion of the structures of New Comedy and of Middleton's sustained critique of traditional comic values: “Middleton does not revise tradition in order to create new syntheses. … He revises it in order to reject it” (p. 17). I concur with Rowe's suggestion that The Roaring Girl harbors a comic vision that is closer to Dekker's; by upholding a synthesis of discordant elements, I believe, the play modifies Middleton's otherwise cynical treatment of comic themes. For an account of the debate surrounding the play's authorship see Gomme, pp. xxxii-xxxv, and Champion, Thomas Dekker and the Traditions of English Drama, p. 173, n. 52.

  27. Cyrus Hoy, 3:46, n. 104.

  28. “Moll must dress as a man,” notes Caroline L. Cherry, “to make people respect her and take her seriously” and “to express herself fully” (The Most Unvaluedst Purchase: Women in the Plays of Thomas Middleton [Salzburg: Universität Salzburg, 1973], pp. 104-05). Simon Shepherd observes that Moll “connects … chastity and … freedom” (Amazons and Warrior Women, p. 78).

  29. Margot Heinemann, Puritanism and Theatre: Thomas Middleton and Opposition Drama Under the Early Stuarts (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), p. 100. See also Louis B. Wright, Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (1935; rpt. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1958), pp. 494ff.

  30. Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance, p. 263.

  31. Gomme, p. 87, n. 211.

  32. In his review of the 1983 production, Irving Wardle notes that although roarers, “from Ancient Pistol and Jonson's Kastril to the roaring academy in A Fair Quarrel, were the much-ridiculed skinheads of their time,” in The Roaring Girl “the sympathy is entirely on the roarer's side” (“Distant Echo of Jacobean Mirth,” p. 14).

  33. Critics unanimously attribute this scene to Dekker. The canting, however, is usually considered “an almost complete irrelevance to the remainder of the play” (Gomme, p. xxx). Champion, on the other hand, argues that the canting episode “serves through its linguistic hilarity to prevent a tone of heavy sentimentality in the reconciliation scenes that both precede … and follow” (Thomas Dekker and the Traditions of English Drama, p. 85).

  34. Thomas Dekker, Worke for Armorours (1609), Biv; quoted in Hoy, 3:49, n. 12.

  35. Gomme, p. 126, n. 194.

Jane Baston (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6546

SOURCE: “Rehabilitating Moll's Subversion in The Roaring Girl,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 37, No. 2, Spring 1997, pp. 317-35.

[In this essay, Baston insists that “Moll's defiance is reinvented in The Roaring Girl in order to be contained, enervated, and eventually incorporated into the prevailing social apparatus.”]

On 12 February 1612 in a letter to Sir Dudley Carleton, John Chamberlain included an account of the punishments of three women. Of the first two he writes: “The Lady of Shrewsberie is still in the Towre rather upon wilfulnes, then upon any great matter she is charged withall: only the King is resolute that she shall aunswer to certain interrogatories, and she is as obstinate to make none, nor to be examined. The other weeke a younge mignon of Sir Pexall Brockas did penance at Paules Crosse, whom he had entertained and abused since she was twelve years old.”1

But what do we learn from this account? Certainly something about the subjugation of women at this time—a subjugation that seems to recognize no class boundaries. Lady Shrewsbury's refusal to answer certain questions amounts to “wilfulnes” for which she is imprisoned. Although in this case she is refusing to answer the king, willfulness in a woman was tantamount to a crime.2 The second unfortunate, the unnamed “young mignon” of Sir Pexall Brockas, was made to submit to public penance in what seems to be public shaming of the victim of sexual abuse. Thus we have a woman imprisoned for refusing to submit to a man's will, and a woman punished for submitting to a man's will. Finally, Chamberlain writes of a third woman, Moll Cutpurse, who achieved a curious reversal of the expected order:

and this last Sonday Mall Cut-purse a notorious baggage (that used to go in mans apparell and challenged the feild of divers gallants) was brought to the same place, where she wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but yt is since doubted she was maudelin druncke, beeing discovered to have tipled of three quarts of sacke before she came to her penaunce: she had the daintiest preacher or ghostly father that ever I saw in pulpit, one Ratcliffe of Brazen Nose in Oxford, a likelier man to have led the revells in some ynne of court then to be where he was, but the best is he did extreem badly, and so wearied the audience that the best part went away, and the rest taried rather to heare Mall Cutpurse then him.3

By adopting at least the external signs of conformity—“she wept bitterly and seemed very penitent”—and exploiting the ineptness of the authority figure—the preacher Ratcliffe who “so wearied the audience”—Moll Cutpurse subverts the intended display. Ironically, it is for subversion of the power structure for which Moll was being punished in the first place.

Records show that Moll was known as a thief. Mark Eccles gives details of three records of Mary Frith in the Middlesex Sessions Court rolls between 1600 and 1608, where she is accused of stealing purses.4 My own search of the Calendar of Assize Records has turned up another reference to Mary Frith. The Southwark Assizes of 26 March 1610 indict Mary Frythe for burglary, stating that, “On 8th September, 1609, she burgled the house of Alice Bayly at St Olave and stole £7 7s in money, 2 gold angels, a gold 20 shilling piece, 2 gold half-crowns, a gold ring (6s) and 2 crystal stones set in silver (20d).” The record also shows that she was found not guilty.5

But it was Moll's metaphorical and physical challenge to patriarchy that Chamberlain comments on, “a notorious baggage that used to go in man's apparell and challenged the feild of divers gallants.”6 Through her apparent acquiescence to the ritual humiliation of public shaming, Moll subverts the dominant power mechanisms of the community with an individual charisma. She effects her move from dissenter to maverick, and turns the spectacle of public shaming into a theatrical extravaganza. This is no small achievement when female intrusion into male codes could be very harshly punished, even or especially by the disempowered mob—as shown by the fate of one seventeenth-century woman, Ann Morrow, “who had been found guilty of disguising herself as a man for the purpose of marrying three different women, was blinded by stones flung at her by an exceptionally violent crowd.”7

This paper examines women's “transgressions” within the prevailing patriarchy to show how such threats were countered and largely suppressed. After placing my argument within recent criticism on The Roaring Girl, a play which treats Moll, I will examine the “transgression” of cross-dressing as it appears in seventeenth-century pamphlets and church records, and finally in the dramatic representation of Moll. Specifically, I will show how Moll's defiance is reinvented in The Roaring Girl in order to be contained, enervated, and eventually incorporated into the prevailing social apparatus.


Until recent years criticism of The Roaring Girl was sparse.8 But Mary Beth Rose's important essay, “Women in Men's Clothing: Apparel and Social Stability in The Roaring Girl,” initiated new cultural readings of the play.9 Rose links The Roaring Girl with the pamphlets Hic Mulier and Haec Vir, and locates all these texts in the context of the “moral and social anxiety aroused by changing sexual values in Jacobean England” (p. 368). Documenting Moll's defiance of conventional social and sexual behavior, Rose suggests that the figure of Moll calls for a “greater freedom for women and equality between the sexes” (p. 385). Rose concludes, however, that such freedoms are eventually undercut because “the play resists the absorption of Moll into the tolerant new society which forms in the final scene” (p. 385). In “Crossdressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England,” Jean Howard extends Rose's argument as she sees Moll there to “protest injustices”; in an even more recent essay Howard similarly “appropriate[s] Moll for radical purposes” to show “how she lodges a critique of the specific material institutions and circumstances which oppressed women in early modern England.”10 Although neither Rose nor Howard sees Moll as totally successful in challenging conventional gender roles, they do both stress Moll's role as a radical, critiquing patriarchal society and calling for greater freedom and equality for women.

Two other critics who have contributed to this debate are Jonathan Dollimore and Stephen Orgel. While Jonathan Dollimore's recent essay, “Subjectivity, Sexuality, and Transgression: The Jacobean Connection,” would seem to take greater account of Moll's containment, he too ends up seeing the play as largely subversive. Dollimore disrupts the binary opposition of subversion and containment and suggests that we see the latter as a “potentially productive process.”11 Thus “the very process of repressing one kind of subversive knowledge, actually produces another.”12 However, I would argue that although this political model may be viable, it is not manifested in The Roaring Girl. The specifics of the play, as I illustrate later, do not ultimately suggest anything beyond Moll's circumscription.13 Stephen Orgel in “The Subtexts of The Roaring Girl,” questions the “relation between the construction of gender and its performance.”14 Although he recognizes that Moll's portrayal in the play as an “honorable, comic, sentimental peacemaker” is very different from the “dangerous scoundrel” of the documents, he does not identify this as a containment of Moll.15 Rather, Orgel argues that by the end of the play “Moll is acknowledged to be an attractive and powerful figure, both on stage and off it.”16

In contrast with these critics, I suggest that the vision of the play is far more reactionary than radical. I argue that The Roaring Girl subtly but thoroughly stages Moll's recuperation. In my view, the play rewrites Moll's subversion through seeming acquiescence (as observed by Chamberlain) into a mere gesture towards subversion which is ultimately recuperated. Although in the early part of the play Moll does appear to challenge and subvert gender and class norms, a close examination of the final acts reveals that she is gradually contained and incorporated into the prevailing social apparatus of the play. Whereas Rose interprets Moll in the final scene as outside the “tolerant new society,” I argue that Moll has become rehabilitated into a society which is neither new nor tolerant.


Early seventeenth-century English accounts of cross-dressing make clear that a woman dressing up as a man posed a considerable threat. The overt signs of sexuality which previously proclaimed ‘femaleness’ were now hidden. The challenge to established norms becomes more potent in its very covertness.

Although there is a long history of women taking on male garb, from Joan of Arc to the American jazz musician Billie Tipton,17 evidence suggests that there was a rise in female-to-male cross-dressing during the early seventeenth century.18 Linda Woodbridge notes that female transvestism came to the fore again around 1606 with the publication of “Henry Parrot in The Movs Trap (epigram 24), 1606, and Richard Niccols in The Cuckow (Sig. C2v), 1607. Both satirize women in male attire. From then on, the movement gained momentum, public and literary interest in it climaxing between 1615 and 1620.”19

Of course a woman dressing as a man was not always intended as a challenge to patriarchy. In many cases women who adopted male clothing were doing so for a particular practical purpose such as escaping poverty, becoming soldiers to follow their lovers to war, or as erotic stimulation. Indeed, many of the women apprehended at this time were accused of prostitution.20 However, when necessity did not dictate the wearing of male styles, women's adoption of them was particularly threatening. Instances of women wearing male garb to church are of particular interest. My own search of the records of the Archdeaconry of Essex Acts found that a Joan Towler of Downham “came into church in mannes apparell upon the sabath daie in the servyce time.”21 There appears to be no practical reason for appearing in church in male clothing, and the fact that Joan Towler appeared in her own parish church would suggest that she was deliberately challenging the authority of the church and the village.22 Joan Towler was not an isolated case. Indeed, the preacher John Williams in A Sermon of Apparell, 1619, rails against women for distracting the congregation by coming into church “halfe male, and halfe female … lifting vp towards his throne two plaister'd eies and a polled head … In Sattin (I warrant you) in stead of sackecloath.”23

Undoubtedly women's cross-dressing did cause social anxiety. It struck at the base of hierarchies based on gender, and, in the light of preacher Williams's indignation at the women wearing satin rather than sackcloth, it also undermined hierarchies based on rank. Such concern with controlling women who transgressed is not surprising at a time when fear over the “crisis of order” abounded.24 As David Underdown has observed, “[b]etween 1560 and 1640 local court records show an intense concern about unruly women.”25 The particular concern with cross-dressing peaked around 1620 with the publication of Hic Mulier and Haec Vir—an attack and counterattack on women's cross-dressing; and, although these were published after The Roaring Girl, we can see some of the same strategies used to demonize women who stepped out of line.

The pamphlet Hic Mulier; or, The Man-Woman: Being a Medicine to Cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine-Feminines of Our Times, 1620, attacks the “masculine-feminine” woman who adopts not only “masculine” dress but also masculine behaviors, “from bold speech, to impudent action … and will be still most Masculine, most mankind, and most monstrous.”26 Such demonizing of the woman is common in the misogynistic diatribes of this time.27 This mechanism of separation is used throughout Hic Mulier. The masculine woman is separated from good women, social standing, and ultimately the whole of humankind.

In order to separate the masculine woman from the “good” woman, the speaker in this pamphlet suggests that the adoption of masculine dress signifies sexual promiscuity: “exchanging the modest attire of the comely Hood, Cawle, Coyfe, handsome Dresse or Kerchiefe, to the cloudy Ruffianly broad-brim'd Hatte, and wanton feather, the modest upper parts of a concealing straight gowne, to the loose, lascivious civil embracement of the French doublet, being all unbutton'd to entice all of one shape to hide deformitie, and extreme short wasted to give a most easy way to every luxurious action.”28

Here then, women are accused of dressing in male styles in order to give quick and easy access to their bodies—the dress of the whore. Women really are in a “no-win” situation since the speaker criticizes women for not wearing the “straight gowne” with its “concealing upper parts,” while at the same time he condemns the looseness of the French doublet as lascivious. Masculine women are also denied the possibility of social standing for they are all “but ragges of Gentry, torne from better pieces for their foule staines, or else the adulterate branches of rich Stocks.”29 The final step expels the masculine woman from the human community. They will be “so much like a man in all things, that they are neither men, nor women, but just good for nothing.”30 Here the woman's transgression effectively excludes her from existence; she becomes “nothing.”

The British Crown promoted this tactic of separating cross-dressing women from the community. In a letter dated 25 January 1620, Chamberlain reports that King James had instructed the clergy to “inveigh vehemently and bitterly in theyre sermons against the insolencie of our women.”31 Less than a month later, on 12 February 1620, Chamberlain's entry identifies yet other channels for controlling the “impudence of women.” The authorities recruit the forces of popular culture—players and ballad singers, and in case their influence proves ineffective, “the King threatens to fall upon theyre [the transgressors'] husbands, parents, or frends that have or shold have powre over them and make them pay for yt.”32

In summary, the practices of control included separation from, and ostracization by, the community—a curious blend of solitary confinement and public shaming.


Thomas Middleton's and Thomas Dekker's play, The Roaring Girl, addresses these mechanisms of control, but also goes beyond the strategies of separation and shaming to “rehabilitate” the roaring girl—Moll Cutpurse. Rehabilitation seeks to reform and normalize deviant behavior; thus, it not only effaces the original threat, but strengthens and extends the authority structures that the deviant undermined. What appears as Moll's “victory” in Middleton and Dekker's play is subtle recuperation. Moll cannot achieve on the stage the defiance she contrived in real life. In Chamberlain's account of Moll's “penance,” she adopts the external signs of conformity in order to subvert and undermine the status quo; she produces her own “stage,” on which she fashions herself into a spectacle. But the play inverts that construction. Her stage representation, which on the surface seems empowering, is in fact conforming.33 The play fashions Moll into an eccentric pantomime character—a spirited principal boy—rather than a spokeswoman for a new world order, transforming her into a matchmaker, mediator, and conciliator, all in the service of venery, not radical feminism.

Even the title page of the 1611 quarto of The Roaring Girl illustrates Moll's recuperation when compared with the frontispiece to The Life and Death of Mrs Mary Frith, an anonymous document first published in 1622.34 In the illustration for the play, although wearing full male dress, Moll looks like a woman dressed as a man. The small features and round body proclaim her gender, while the self-conscious pose holding her “props” (the pipe and sword), and the flowers in the hat and shoes make clear her function to amuse. Whereas the later illustration, which appears in a document purporting to be at least part autobiographical, shows a more masculine figure even though we cannot see the breeches. The stance of the figure is more natural and authoritative, the gaze more direct, and the effect more threatening.

Thomas Middleton's address “To The Comic Play Readers” sets out many of the mechanisms that fashion the fictional Moll.35 His extended metaphorical juxtaposition of play making and alterations in apparel introduces a central issue in the play, Moll's adoption of male clothes. But Middleton suggests that such cross-dressing is a disguise: “for Venus being a woman, passes through the play in doublet and breeches; a brave disguise and a safe one” (Address, lines 15-9). Here Moll is seen as playing a role—her “disguise” is “brave” and “safe,” rather than subversive. More importantly, her role as Venus presents “Venery and Laughter to The Readers” in a manner that allows Middleton to assure the reader that the play will defuse any potential threat. Moll's eventual reformation is adumbrated by Middleton's belief that “'Tis excellency of a writer to leave things better than he finds 'em” (line 23), in the sense that “worse things … the world has taxed [Moll] for than has been written of her” (lines 21-33).

But how does Middleton leave things better? For whom is Moll's reformation better? She is no longer deviant and therefore she is better for society; she is better in upholding the status quo. Even before we see the unveiling of Moll's reform, we are dealing with a sanitized Moll. The Prologue assures us that of the many types of Roaring Girls that exist, “our” Roaring Girl is a cut above a “suburb roarer” who “roars at midnight in deep tavern bowls,” and neither is she a “civil city-roaring girl, whose pride, feasting, and riding, shakes her husband's state” (lines 23-4). The Prologue presents Moll the fiction—“she flies / With wings more lofty” (line 25)—while making a claim of truth for the play “her life our acts proclaim” (line 30). But such acts do not proclaim Moll's life. They institutionalize her; they reduce her to stereotype; they subtly undercut her political potency. They fashion a socially acceptable Moll contained not only in their words but literally on their stage as Mary Frith (aka Moll Cutpurse) sits on the stage playing her viol.36

Moll's eventual rehabilitation is made more effective by her demonization early in the play. Here some direct comparisons with Hic Mulier are useful. Both Hic Mulier and Moll are identified as the Other—one outside the norm—a deviant. In both cases they reveal a social practice of demonization of women. Both The Roaring Girl and Hic Mulier place the “man woman” against a picture of a “good woman.” The speaker in Hic Mulier rejoices that there are still women who “are in the fulnesse of perfection, you that are the crowne of nature's worke, the complements of mens excellencies, and the Seminaries of propagation; you that maintaine the world, support mankinde, and give life to societies; you, that armed with the infinite power of Vertue, are Castles impregnable, Rivers unsailable, Seas immoveable.”37

In The Roaring Girl, Neatfoot, Sir Alexander's serving man, takes up similar themes in his opening addresses to Mary Fitzallard, the “good woman.” He refers to her as “emblem of fragility” (I.i.3), “fairest tree of generation” (I.i.8). He praises her “chastity” and “modesty.” Although we have to recognize the sexual innuendo and ridiculously elaborate diction in Neatfoot's language as a part of the comic tradition, Mary's refusal to be drawn into this establishes her as the model woman, embodying the traditional traits of femininity—modesty and chastity.

After establishing this paradigm of woman, both texts go on to study the Other—the bad woman. Like Hic Mulier, Moll is shown as strange and monstrous. In the first act of the play Sebastian observes:

                                                            There's a wench
Called Moll, mad Moll, or merry Moll; a creature
So strange in quality, a whole city takes
Note of her name and person.


As Sebastian continues to describe Moll, the “strange” quality turns to something more sinister. He explains that his father believes him to be “bewitched” (I.i.107), and that in loving Moll he follows a “crooked way” (I.i.108). This progression toward Moll's demonization culminates in Sir Alexander's description of Moll:

                                                            It is a thing
One knows not how to name; her birth began
Ere she was all made; 'tis woman more than man,
Man more than woman; and, which to none can hap,
The sun gives two shadows in one shape;
Nay, more, let this strange thing walk, stand, or sit
No blazing star draws more eyes after it.
Sir Davy. A monster! 'Tis some monster.


Sir Alex's final line encapsulates the potential problem that Moll poses. The real-life Moll on the public stage of St. Paul's draws all eyes to her, and therein lies her power.

Yet while act I builds up her demonization, act II is something of an anticlimax. Ostensibly concerned with the subplot of the merchants, their wives, the local “gallants,” and the sexual subterfuge going on between the latter two groups, act II presents certain female stereotypes. Mistress Gallipot is the unfaithful wife who swindles money from her husband to give to her lover; Mistress Openwork is a scold who controls her husband. In relation to these women, Moll presents us with nothing more shocking than her sharing a pipe with the assembled gallants. She is not even sporting her male apparel; she enters in a frieze jerkin and a black safeguard.38 Moreover, Laxton renders Moll's strength into sexual vivaciousness: “Heart, I would give but too much money to be nibbling with that wench; life, sh'as the spirit of four great parishes, and a voice that will drown all the city. Methinks a brave captain might get all his soldiers upon her” (II.i.194-8).

Even though later Moll clearly rejects Laxton's treatment of her as a sexual object, such a response subverts her potential authority and replaces it with mere spirited caprice. Indeed, Goshawk's remark, “'Tis the maddest fantasticalist girl” (II.i.213), lessens Moll's threat from that of devil to daredevil—from a mad creature to a madcap—enervating her power and reducing her to an acceptable stereotype.

Moll's discussion of marriage with Sebastian (precipitated by his proposal to her) reveals some interesting conflicts in her attitude and role. Although her words appear to reflect a free spirit—a reference to bisexuality—“I have no humour to marry; I love to lie o' both sides o' th' bed myself” (II.ii.38), she still reinforces the dominant view of marriage—“a wife, you know, ought to be obedient, but I fear me I am too headstrong to obey” (II.ii.35-40). Here Moll is fitting into the traditional requirements of marriage rather than seeking to change them. Her use of the word “headstrong” suggests the willfulness of a naughty girl rather than a credible critique of marriage. A few lines later she even seems to be perpetuating the demonizing of women, when she suggests that women trick men into marriage: “if every woman would deal with their suitor so honestly, poor younger brothers would not be so often gulled with old cozening widows, that turn o'er all their wealth in a trust to some kinsman, and make the poor gentleman work hard for a pension” (II.ii.62-7).

Such misogynistic stereotypes are more suited to the mouth of that arch-conservative, Sir Alex. At this point Moll seems to have taken on not only the apparel of men but also many of their prejudices! By the end of act II, Moll moves from being a monster to a matchmaker, from a virago to Venus. Sebastian resolves to get Moll's help in his plan to marry Mary, for

'Twixt lovers' hearts she's fit instrument,
And has the art to help them to their own.
By her advice, for in that craft she's wise,
My love and I may meet, spite all spies.


However, before Moll effects the meeting and marriage between Sebastian and Mary, she deals with Laxton. Act III marks the peak of Moll's resistance; subsequently her threat becomes enervated. Moll's confrontation with Laxton in III.i indicates a degree of resistance. She rejects his advances, lectures him on behalf of “fallen women,” and eventually physically fights and wounds him. Moll rebuffs Laxton's treatment of her as a whore:

What durst move you Sir
To think me whorish? A name which I'd tear out
From the high German's throat, if it lay ledger there
To dispatch privy slanders against me.


But, more significantly, she also decries the system represented by Laxton which forces women into prostitution:

In thee I defy all men, their worst hates
And their best flatteries, all their golden witchcrafts,
With which they entangle the poor spirits of fools,
Distressed needle-women and trade-fallen wives;
Fish that must needs bite, or themselves be bitten;
Such hungry things as these may soon be took
With a worm fastened on a golden hook:
Those are the lecher's food, his prey; he watches
For quarrelling wedlocks and poor shifting sisters;
'Tis the best fish he takes.


Here she suggests that women are forced into prostitution by economic necessity and she locates the “blame” and “slur” of prostitution with male exploiters. Thus Moll opposes the system which usually treats women as sexual enchantresses intent on corrupting men. Undoubtedly Moll shows resistance, but in the context of her eventual rehabilitation this resistance ultimately reinscribes and eventually extends existing power. Moll's final containment and silence adds credibility to the status quo.

Acts IV and V restore harmony through Moll. Her roles as conciliator, matchmaker, and translator demonstrate the extent of her rehabilitation. Act IV presents a depoliticized, domesticated version of earlier threats. Mary Fitzallard adopts a page's clothing, not to demonstrate her commitment to Hic Mulier, but as a disguise to enable her to meet her lover. Thus Moll now devitalizes her main strategy of resistance (the donning of male clothing). She comments to Sebastian, “My tailor fitted her well; How like you his work?” (IV.i.71).

Similarly a good natured banter replaces Moll's earlier pattern of fighting; Sebastian gives the viol to Moll telling her to “end thy quarrel singing” (IV.i.81). And she not only accepts but initiates sexual innuendo in her reply to him: “I'll play my part as well as I can; it shall ne'er be said I came into a gentleman's chamber, and let his instrument hang by the walls” (IV.i.86-8). Such bawdy punning as continues throughout act IV is typical of the double entendre present in much Jacobean drama, but it also undermines some of our earlier impressions of Moll.

Specifically this scene presents the interchange between Moll, Sebastian, and Sir Alex, in which Sir Alex (knowing she is not the “musician” that Sebastian claims) consistently places Moll in the role of whore. The double entendres of “fingering,” “the most delicate stroke,” and “prick-songs,” objectify Moll in sexual terms. These puns and Sir Alex's asides invite the audience to laugh, and through that laughter to recognize that Moll is no threat to order. She is just a “fit instrument,” serving at best the plot, and at worst patricians such as Sir Alex.

This scene ends with Sebastian and Moll reveling in their supposed deception of Sebastian's father. But since the audience knows that Sir Alex is not deceived, Moll's final line, “He that can take me for a male musician, I can't choose but make him my instrument, and play upon him” (IV.i.214-6), invites the following inversion: that Moll cannot disguise herself—and that that self is a “fit instrument” to be played upon. Although Moll can defend herself against the direct assault by Laxton, when he thinks her his “fond flexible whore” (III.i.78), she is defenseless against Sir Alex's asides and innuendo which become the subtext that ultimately contains her.

Finally, Moll's role as translator in act V shows her capitulation to the dominant practices of class and gender. Throughout V.i she takes up an appropriately obsequious stand in relation to the gentry. First, she “saves” Sir Beauteous from giving money to Teardrop and Trapdoor, exposing them as “base rogues.” And yet only a few lines later she is part of a “canting” duet with Trapdoor that reduces her to thief and whore. Moreover, she adopts this role for the entertainment of the assembled gentry, and at the expense of her own dignity. For example, Trapdoor's song in which he suggests to Moll that they “wap” and “niggle” under the “ruffman's” (i.e., copulate under the hedge) contains Moll in the same way as Sir Alex's asides and innuendo in the previous scene. That is, although Moll is supposedly playing a role (“musician” in the first example, “canting partner” in the latter), the implication is clear. Moll's credibility as an independent force is belittled. Her one show of anger during the duet is dismissed by Sir Beauteous: “This is excellent! One fit more, good Moll” (V.i.219). Her earlier articulate voice is effaced by the argot of thieves and whores.

Moll's songs in the final two acts incorporate her into the group of manageable, controllable, and even lovable rogues. This culminates at the end of her duet with Tearcat when all the others present exclaim: “Fine knaves, i'faith!” (V.i.235). The “omnes” are, of course, the male gentry of the play who can now comfortably incorporate Moll into the London underworld where her idiosyncrasies can be contained.

Moll's final rejection of marriage, unlike her earlier speech on prostitution, is not threatening. Its ambiguous content and riddling form make it a theatrical set piece rather than a serious rejection of marriage. Compared to her earlier critique of a system that forces women into prostitution, which was complex, eloquent, and authoritative, this latter piece—her final speech of any length—is clichéd and seems to be there, for entertainment value alone. Certainly the response it elicits from Sir Alexander, “In troth thou'art a good wench” (line 228), suggests that Moll's rejection of marriage is not to be taken as radical critique.

There has been no radical shift in terms of gender or class: Sir Alex's magnanimity toward Moll is obviously a result of his relief that she will not be his future daughter-in-law. The play ends with the strengthening of the ruling class through the union of Sebastian and Mary. The last words of the play go to Sir Alex as he supposedly makes “amends” to Moll. Those amends are, of course, in the form of angels—an economic gesture by the patrician class to avoid moral investment in the real issues.

By the close of the play, then, Moll's actions, words, and appearance are no longer threatening. Her function of matchmaker allows her to bask in the benevolence of Sir Alexander Wengrave and his cronies. Her incisive speeches have been dulled into comic misrule. And her appearance, her “trademark”—that for which she was best known—has been “redressed.” For in her last appearance in the play Moll is dressed in female clothing.39 Her rehabilitation in every sense of the word is complete.40

As the title page presages, the play The Roaring Girl recuperates Moll's defiance. She is reinvented to become a mere translator rather than an interpreter; a singer harmonizing inequalities rather than a roarer protesting them; and finally a riddling rhymster rather than an articulate spokeswoman. By the end of the play Moll has been recuperated into the network of social relations. She can now be dismissed as a “good wench” (V.ii.225)—a description that subsumes Moll into existing class and gender hierarchies and so ensures her rehabilitation into the existing patriarchy.41


  1. Norman Egbert McClure, ed., The Letters of John Chamberlain, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1939), p. 334.

  2. As McClure tells us, this was Mary, wife of the seventh earl of Shrewsbury. She was imprisoned for acquiescing in the marriage of her niece, the Lady Arabella Stuart (p. 334 n. 13).

  3. McClure, p. 334.

  4. Mark Eccles, “Mary Frith, The Roaring Girl,” N&Q n.s. 32, 1 (March 1985): 65-6.

  5. Public Records Office, London, Calendar of Assize Records, Surrey Indictments, James I. Southwark Assizes, 26 March 1610 (#336).

  6. Here Chamberlain impugns Moll sexually by calling her a “notorious baggage” (a common epithet for a whore). Chamberlain's choice of language reveals the connection, at least in the minds of many commentators of the time, between female cross-dressing and female promiscuity.

  7. Christopher Hibbert, The Roots of Evil: A Social History of Crime and Punishment (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1963), p. 29.

  8. Early criticism of the play concentrated on Moll's character. T. S. Eliot in Elizabethan Essays (New York: Haskell House, 1964) saw Moll as embodying a “free and noble womanhood” (p. 100). The dating and stage history of the play are dealt with in two articles by P. A. Mulholland: “The Date of The Roaring Girl,RES n.s. 28, 109 (February 1977): 18-31; and “Let her roar again: The Roaring Girl Revived,” RORD 18 (1985): 15-27. Patrick Cheney, in “Moll Cutpurse as Hermaphrodite in Dekker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl,Ren&R n.s. 7, 2 (May 1983): 120-34, sees Moll as a traditional Renaissance hermaphrodite figure, “a supreme symbol of two souls becoming one,” who brings about a society renewed by married love (p. 124). Viviana Comensoli, in “Play-making, Domestic Conduct, and the Multiple Plot in The Roaring Girl,SEL 27, 2 (Spring 1987): 249-66, analyzes the multiple plot of the play to show that “Moll's misogamy and the citizens' domestic conflicts counterpoint the Sebastian-Mary action” indicating the central concern of the play—“the degeneration of marriage and the Family” (p. 251).

  9. Mary Beth Rose, “Women in Men's Clothing: Apparel and Social Stability in The Roaring Girl,ELR 14, 3 (Autumn 1984): 367-91. Subsequent references will appear parenthetically in the text.

  10. Jean E. Howard, “Crossdressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England,” SQ 39, 4 (Winter 1988): 418-40, 436; and “Sex and Social Conflict: The Erotics of The Roaring Girl,” in Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, ed. Susan Zimmerman (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 170-90, 180. Deborah Jacobs in “Critical Imperialism and Renaissance Drama: The Case of The Roaring Girl,” in Feminism, Bakhtin, and the Dialogic, ed. Dale M. Bauer and Susan Jaret McKinstry (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1991), criticizes such “feminist” readings for their transhistorical assumptions and suggests that “we have to admit to a past in which gender might be less central or radically different” (p. 76). Although caution is needed when using anachronistic terms, it is still necessary and indeed enlightening to talk about The Roaring Girl as challenging and being recuperated by patriarchal authority, since even a brief examination of sermons, ballads, church records, and polemics of the time makes clear the subordination of women and the attendant controls and mechanisms designed to ensure its continuation.

  11. Jonathan Dollimore, “Subjectivity, Sexuality, and Transgression: The Jacobean Connection,” RenD n.s. 17 (1986): 53-81, 71.

  12. Dollimore, p. 72.

  13. In his essay Dollimore does not illustrate how this “potentially productive process” works in The Roaring Girl (p. 71), but rather turns to Fletcher's Love's Cure. Marjorie Garber, in “The Logic of the Transvestite,” in Staging the Renaissance, ed. David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 221-34, also disrupts “materialist and historicist feminist” readings which view the play as about “the economic injustices of the sex gender system.” Garber recognizes the “anxiety about sexuality” present in the play, but locates it with the “sexual inadequacies of men” (p. 221). Moll, through constant references to castration, emasculation, and penises, becomes “phallicized” (p. 227).

  14. Stephen Orgel, “The Subtexts of The Roaring Girl,” in Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, pp. 12-26, 13.

  15. Orgel, p. 22.

  16. Orgel, p. 25.

  17. In January 1989, when Billie Tipton died, it was revealed that “he” was a woman. Tipton's wife, Kitty Oakes, explained that Tipton thought becoming a man was the only way to join a swing band in the 1930s.

  18. Rudolf M. Dekker and Lotte C. van de Pol, in The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe (London: Macmillan, 1989), document 119 “women living as men” in the Netherlands between 1550 and 1839.

  19. Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984), p. 141.

  20. Jean E. Howard in “Crossdressing” quotes research by R. Mark Benbow of records of the Repertories of the Alderman's Court in the London City Record Office and from the Bridewell Court Minute Books between 1565 and 1605. These show that many of the women apprehended were accused of prostitution (p. 420).

  21. Public Records Office, Chelmsford, Essex D/AEA 17 (1596) folio 149.

  22. David Underdown, in Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England, 1603-1660 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), talks about the importance of the parish as an institution: “The parish church was automatically the site of the formal gatherings in which the unity of the village and its hierarchical order were symbolically affirmed” (p. 14). Acts such as Joan Towler's may also be seen in relation to other instances of female resistance to church practices such as “churching,” in which new mothers participated in a ritual “cleansing” before they could take communion again. Phyllis Mack, in her study of female prophets, Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1992), gives details of such resistance, pp. 36, 53.

  23. Quoted in Woodbridge, pp. 142-3.

  24. For a full discussion on order and disorder in the early seventeenth century, see Underdown.

  25. Underdown, p. 39.

  26. Hic Mulier; or, The Man-Woman: Being a Medicine to Cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine-Feminines of Our Times, 1620 (Exeter, England: Rota Press, 1973), sig. A3.

  27. Joseph Swetnam's The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women, 1615, repeated the traditional arguments about women's flawed natures and dangerous tongues.

  28. Hic Mulier, sigs. A4r-A4v.

  29. Hic Mulier, sig. B1.

  30. Hic Mulier, sig. B2.

  31. Chamberlain, p. 286.

  32. Chamberlain, p. 289.

  33. On this point I disagree with Jean E. Howard, who suggests in “Cross-dressing” that “one of the most transgressive acts the real Moll Frith performed was to sit, in her masculine attire, on the stage of the Fortune and to sing a song upon the lute” (p. 440). In my view, by so doing Moll is validating her own recuperation. Her presence on the stage is a visible containment—an “emasculation”—of her transgression.

  34. The Life and Death of Mrs Mary Frith, Commonly called Moll Cutpurse, ed. Randall S. Nakayama (1662; rprt. New York and London: Garland, 1993). This work is divided into three parts: the preface, an introduction relating Moll's early life, and a third section entitled “Moll Frith's Diary.” The three animals in the illustration draw on specific elements of seventeenth-century iconography. An initial reading could see the monkey as Lust, the lion as Masculine Strength, and the parrot as Imitation.

  35. The Roaring Girl in Drama in the English Renaissance II, The Stuart Period, ed. Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin (New York and London: Macmillan, 1976). All references to the play are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text by act, scene, and line numbers.

  36. For a full account of Moll's appearance on the stage at the Fortune Theater see Mulholland, “The Date of The Roaring Girl.

  37. Hic Mulier, sigs. A3r-A3v.

  38. Although a jerkin is a male garment usually worn over a doublet, on the important part, i.e., her lower half, she is wearing a petticoat.

  39. At the beginning of V.ii, Moll enters dressed as a man. She then disappears and comes back on “masked,” but she must now be in female garb for Sir Alexander Wengrave to believe that she is Sebastian's bride.

  40. According to the OED, the stem “habilitate” from the Latin habilitare can mean to establish character or reputation as well as to fit or to clothe.

  41. I am grateful to Laura Knoppers for her helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this essay.

Further Reading

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Adler, Doris Ray. Thomas Dekker: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

Annotated bibliography of primary and secondary works relating to Dekker.


Brown, Arthur. “Citizen Comedy and Domestic Drama.” In Jacobean Theatre, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, pp. 63-83. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 1. London: Edward Arnold, 1960.

Argues that Dekker “wrote in a popular and romantic vein” which was more concerned with plot than was the rhetorical and intellectual drama of such playwrights as Ben Jonson.

Gasper, Julia.The Dragon and the Dove: The Plays of Thomas Dekker. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, 241 p.

Focuses on the religious and political aspects of Dekker's plays.

Gregg, Kate L. Thomas Dekker: A Study in Economic and Social Backgrounds. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1924, 112 p.

Considers the evidently contradictory judgments of mercantile capitalism expressed in Dekker's works, which generally laud commerce as the source of many blessings, yet condemn hardships brought about by the inequalities it produced.

Hoy, Cyrus. Introductions, Notes, and Commentaries to texts in “The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker” Edited by Fredson Bowers. 4 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Useful critical introductions and comments to accompany Bowers's 1953-61 collection of The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker.

McLuskie, Kathleen E. Dekker and Heywood: Professional Dramatists. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994, 200 p.

Emphasizes the stagecraft of Dekker's and Heywood's works.

Ross, Gordon N. “Dekker's The Shoemakers' Holiday.The Explicator 44, no. 3 (Spring 1988): 7-9.

Considers Margery Eyre “[o]ne of the most entertaining and carefully drawn minor characters in Elizabethan comedy.”

Additional coverage of Dekker's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 62, 172; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists Module; Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 22.

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