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


(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 describes both types: "A Swigman goeth with a Pedlers pack" (5), and "a Tinkard leaveth his bag a sweating at the Alehouse, which they terme their Bowsing In[n], and in the meane season goeth abrode a begging" (5). Most tinkers, Dekker says in The Wonderful Year (1603), are "base, rascally . . . with a ban-dog and a drab at their tailes, and a pike-staffe on their necks, [and] will take a purse sooner then stop a kettle," though his story concerns a "devout" one (1963: 1.142). A man disguised as a tinker in Robert Armin's The History of the two Maids of Moreclacke (1609) enters "in a tawny coate like a tinker, and his boy with budget and staffe, Toures tincks upon his pan drinking" (C3V). The wandering tinker in Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher's The Coxcomb (c. 1609) is more threatening, however, as he enters "with a Cord" (2.2.1.s.d.) and his doxy, Dorathy; frustrated by all the locked doors, they circle Viola menacingly, with many sexual comments, and finally bind her, before abandoning her (2.1.28-93).

Harman, as usual, amplifies these two rogue types considerably. If "dronken" tinkers, also called "Prigs," see any old kettles or pewter about, they "quicklye snappeth the same up, and in to the booget [i.e., budget, or pig-skin bag] it goeth round" (59), just as Autolycus, who sings "If tinkers may have leave to live, / And bear the sow-skin budget" (The Winter's Tale 4.3.19-20), describes himself as a "snapper-up of unconsidered trifles" (4.3.25-26). Such tinkers, Harman notes, mingle "with a litle worke for a coulour," or pretense, and so "they live with deceite." The "swadder or Pedler," Harman likewise concedes, is "not all evile, but of an indifferent behaviour"; they themselves fear the stronger beggars such as Upright Men because "they have often both wares and money of them" (60). Evidently uneasy with their ambivalent status, Harman nevertheless accepts their mere status as criminal: "But for as much as they seeke gaine unlawfully against the lawes and statutes of this noble realme, they are well worthy to be registred among the number of vacabonds" (60).

With his usual combination of plagiarism and invention, Dekker (in O per se O, 1612) describes, in the familiar metaphor, the "swarms of locusts" who flock to the Deerhurst Fair, with a resonant political analogy: "If you look upon them you would think you lived in Henry VI's time, and that Jack Cade and his rebellious ragamuffins were there mustering" (Pendry 1968: 287). Dekker's vision of the fair is like something out of Dante, with more than one echo of The Winter's Tale and foreshadowing of Jonson's Bartholomew Fair. At Deerhurst, "None here stands crying 'What do you lack?' for you can ask for nothing that is good but here it is lacking. The buyers and sellers are both alike, tawny sunburnt rascals, and they flock in such troops that it shows as if Hell broke loose. The shopkeepers are thieves and the chapmen rogues, beggars and whores" (Pendry 1968: 288). In the usual projection of hierarchy, Dekker also describes how one "is chosen the Lord of the Fair, who is commonly the lustiest rogue in the whole bunch," leading his mob "from alehouse to alehouse" (288) in a drunken inversion of a royal procession. Such fairs always end in riot and violence, he concludes: "Here lies a rogue bleeding, there is a mort cursing, here a doxy stabbing with her knife. And thus this fair which begins merrily ends madly, for knaves set it up and queans pull it down" (Pendry 1968: 288). Dekker ironically ends his own book by identifying himself with such vagrants: "Enough of this, and he that desires more pieces of such pedlary ware may out of this little pack fit himself with any colours. Vale!" (Pendry 1968: 308).

The peddler and the tinker, then, were as clearly defined vagrant stereotypes as the Counterfeit Crank. In fact, at times, according to one writer, the peddler who fears impressment will resort to all the usual deceits of a Genings: he will "stirre his stumpes: but if that will not serve, he turnes counterfeit cripple, and as one cut off by the stumps, he cants his maimes most methodically: and this practice hee most constantly retaines till the coast be cleare" (Cater: 139). Like other vagrants, they blear the honest man's eye: the peddler was a "raiser of simulation," the tinker "live[s] with deceit." These vagabonds employ the standard canting language, "babbling French," as Copland says, but speak as well their own more specialized rhetoric; the Tinker's "tongue is very voluble, which with Canting proves him a Linguist" (Overburian: 35). They are also associated, like other types of masterless men, with disorderly mobs in country and city, even linked to Jack Cade as potentially rebellious subjects (Cade's wife is also said to be "a peddler's daughter," 2 Henry VI 4.2.44). Peddlers and tinkers are distinguished from most other vagrants, however, by the fact that they have an "occupation," though "they seek gain unlawfully against the laws and statues of this noble realm," as Harman noted; they are thus marked more by their tendency to rob than to beg. Overbury's Tinker ironically "observes truely the Statutes, and therefore hee had rather steale then begge . . . and [he is] so strong an enemie to idlenesse, that in mending one hole, he had rather make three then want worke" (Overburian: 35). In some ways, peddlers and tinkers figure as prototypes of early capitalist entrepreneurs, yet contemporary discourse in general ranks them as petty criminals and inveterate frauds, experienced practitioners of various "black arts," like their cousins the Dommerar and the Abraham Man. Residual feudal values thus criminalize their entrepreneurial economic self-sufficiency, serving as one additional marker of the period's obsession with socioeconomic transgression. Perhaps the most telling description of all is R.M.'s ironic vision of a tinker "in the summer season . . . most frequent to be seene at the Royall Exchange of a Bush or hedge" (C6V). The central symbol of the emergent new economy, the institution presiding over, but not really controlling, exchange transactions of capital, is thus fused with what is taken to be its economic and philosophic opposite, the tinker, in a metaphor of condescension.5 Yet the tinker's mobility reflected capital's liquidity—indeed, it proceeded from the same forces—in ways that were not yet understood. The bourse and the beggar are, once again, two dishes, but to one table.

Given their pedigrees of thievery and deception, then, we might expect that the representations of tinker and peddler in Shakespeare's plays would be as darkly edged as that of Poor Tom, but such is not the case. Instead, Shakespeare seems to move in the opposite direction, offering us the genial warmth of Snout the Tinker in A Midsummer Night's Dream rather than, say, a vicious Jonsonian cheat whose trickery mocks the stupidity of his victims. The purpose of this chapter is to consider in some detail the two chief Shakespearean exemplars of this vagrant type, Christopher Sly in The Taming of the Shrew and Autolycus in The Winter's Tale.

The Taming of a Tinker

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Christopher Sly identifies himself to the lord by reciting a comical curriculum vitae that firmly locates him geographically and socially: "Am not I Christopher Sly, old Sly's son of Burton-heath, by birth a peddler, by education a cardmaker, by transmutation a bearherd, and now by present profession a tinker?" (Ind. 2.17-20). And he further cites as a reference "Marian Hacket, the fat alewife of Wincot," to whom he owes the substantial sum of fourteen pence for the ale he has drunk. Stage directions and speech headings of the Folio text of The Taming of the Shrew, however, identify him more simply as "Begger" and "drunkard," generic rubrics which include all of Sly's announced "profession[s]." Sly's career...

(The entire section is 1697 words.)

Autolycus: A "Gentleman Born"

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Autolycus: A "Gentleman Born"

After Simon Forman saw a performance of The Winter's Tale at the Globe on 15 May 1611, he reported the Leontes-Polixenes plot with some care, explicitly noting the abandonment and recovery of Perdita. Yet Forman notoriously did not mention any of the spectacular stage effects from the second half of the play—no Chorus of Time (though he does note that Perdita is sixteen years old), no bear, no eating of Antigonus, no great statue scene; he does not even note Hermione's apparent death, much less her rebirth. But one feature of the second half of the play struck his attention greatly, and he devoted considerable space to it:


(The entire section is 6250 words.)