William Shakespeare Would Not the Beggar Then Forget Himself?: Christopher Sly and Autolycus

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

"Would Not the Beggar Then Forget Himself?": Christopher Sly and Autolycus

William C. Carroll, Boston University

When Rivers suggests to the future Richard III that he and his followers would follow Richard, "if you should be our king," Shakespeare's Richard recoils in his usual false sincerity, "If I should be? I had rather be a peddler!" (Richard III 1.3.148-49). The contemporary depth of disgust in Richard's invocation of his symbolic opposite may also be seen reflected in the Maid's initial encounters with the Peddler in The Pedler's Prophecy (1595):

I never knew honest man of this occupation,
But either he was a diser, a drunkard, or a maker of shift,
A picker, a cutpurse, a raiser of simulation,
Or such a one as runne away with another mans wife.

[A type of men] whose whole trade is idlenesse:
Dicers, drunkards, makers of strife,
Very sincks and sentences of all wickednesse.

(A4V, B)

The low reputation of peddlers in the period derived not only from empirical evidence but from legal theory as well, for the statutes defining vagrants invariably included, like the 1597 law (39 Eliz. I, c.4), "all Juglers Tinkers Peddlers and Petty Chapmen wandring abroade" (TED: 2.355).1 Here we see that though a peddler holds an "occupation," he is defined by statute as a vagabond; so too jugglers2, tinkers, and others. Though they are not on the public dole, do not (usually) beg in the streets, and generally support themselves, such occupations are nevertheless legally and socially condemned. The real objection is that they are "wandring abroade"—literally vagrant (a peddler, one writer said in 1631, is "a wandring starre," Cater: 8). They are not bound through guilds to a master-apprentice hierarchical relation, to a fixed place or to a fixed wage.

Such free-lance economic activity was considered harmful in other ways as well. In Love's Labor's Lost, for example, Berowne complains of Boyet,

This fellow pecks up wit as pigeons pease,
And utters it again when God doth please.
He is wit's peddler, and retails his wares
At wakes and wassails, meetings, markets, fairs;
And we that sell by gross, the Lord doth know,
Have not the grace to grace it with such show.


Recasting the dandified Boyet as a peddler is an insult in class terms, but a more concrete objection is that he "utters" or sells whenever the time seems appropriate, earning "retail" at the expense of those who "sell by gross," or wholesale.3 This violation of economic convention is repeated in the peddler's infiltration of various seasonal festivals and in his seeming ubiquity; as one character in The Ñedler's Prophecy says, "there be too many such runnagates at these days, / All the whole world with such idle persons doth flow" (C3r-v). The peddler was thus a loose cannon on the economic ship: unregulated, mobile, transgressive. Tinkers were little better. Indeed, "a sort [i.e., gang] of tinkers" (3.2.277) forms part of the mob in 2 Henry VI, and Robert Greene tells a conny-catching tale of "a tinker, that went about the country" and practiced the "black art" of the picklock (Salgado 1972: 227). "A Tinker," as one writer put it, "is a mooveable: for hee hath no abiding place; by his motion hee gathers heate, thence his cholericke nature" (Overburian: 34).4

Peddlers and tinkers were simply vagabonds, different from Counterfeit Cranks or Dommerars only in the details of their transgressions. In The Highway to the Spital-House, "Copland" and the Porter rank peddlers like any other stereotype of beggar.


Come none of these pedlars this way also,
With pack on back, with their bousy speech,
Jagged and ragged, with broken hose and breech?


.. . out of the spital they have a party stench.
And with them comes gatherers of cony-skins,
That chop with laces, points, needles and pins.

(Judges: 23-24)

Some master thieves, Gilbert Walker reports in A Manifest Detection of Dice-Play (1552), "follow markets and fairs in the country with peddlers' footpacks, and generally to all places of assembly" (Kinney: 83). Awdeley...

(The entire section is 9,767 words.)