Dekker: The Shoemaker’s Holiday

August 19, 2020

dekker-shoemakerThe Shoemaker’s Holiday
Thomas Dekker
(Methuen, 2008) [c.1599]
120 p.

Thomas Dekker was a prolific playwright working in London at the same time as Shakespeare, and The Shoemaker’s Holiday, which might as aptly have been called The Playgoer’s Holiday on account of its good cheer and genial tone, was one of his most successful.

It’s an early example of a “city comedy” — a play about artisans, merchants, and ordinary folk in London. In his appreciative introduction to a late nineteenth-century edition of Dekker’s plays, Ernest Rhys describes Dekker as a man of “abounding heartiness”, and singles out this play as among “the best comedies of pure joy of life which were produced by the Elizabethans”.

Much of that “joy of life” erupts from the play’s central character, Simon Eyre, a shoemaker who, by play’s end, has become Lord Mayor of London. Eyre is a man bursting with vitality and sturdy jollity, “the very incarnation [says Rhys] of the hearty English character on its prosperous workaday side.” He reminded me of no-one so much as Falstaff, right down to the joyous creativity of his volcanic speech:

Eyre. Away, you Islington whitepot! hence, you hopperarse! you barley-pudding, full of maggots! you broiled carbonado! avaunt, avaunt, avoid, Mephistophiles! Shall Sim Eyre learn to speak of you, Lady Madgy? Vanish, Mother Miniver-cap; vanish, go, trip and go; meddle with your partlets and your pishery-pashery, your flewes and your whirligigs; go, rub, out of mine alley! Sim Eyre knows how to speak to a Pope, to Sultan Soliman, to Tamburlaine, an he were here; and shall I melt, shall I droop before my sovereign? No, come, my Lady Madgy! Follow me, Hans! About your business, my frolic free-booters! Firk, frisk about, and about, and about, for the honour of mad Simon Eyre, lord mayor of London. (V, iv)

I don’t know what it all means, but it’s meant in good humour.

*

earlymoddrama-bookmarkThe play turns sweetly on a few charming romances. One thread has a nobleman in love with a lower class woman; he ducks military service and disguises himself as a Dutch shoemaker in order to be near her (speaking the while in a thick and fake Dutch accent that Dekker renders in almost undecipherable lines). Another has a young man wooing a woman whose husband is believed killed in a war against the French — until it turns out that the husband is in London but just hasn’t known where his wife is living! But I think it is fair to say that the story is largely just an occasion for the characters to do and say things, rather than the other way around.

*

Because we’re dealing here with the lower classes, much of the language of the play is challenging. As in Shakespeare, Dekker tends to give metrical lines to the upper classes and free prose to the lower, while endowing the latter’s speeches with a wealth of slang that would be hard going without notes. But this street talk is wonderfully colourful too, as in Eyre’s speech above.

Dekker also sometimes uses verse to signal important or especially graceful moments. There’s a scene I particularly liked in which a young man, Hammon, first approaches a woman, Jane, as she’s working in her shop. He loves her, and wants her to know it. It’s worth quoting at length:

Jane. Sir, what is’t you buy?
What is’t you lack, sir, calico, or lawn,
Fine cambric shirts, or bands, what will you buy?
Ham. (Aside.) That which thou wilt not sell. Faith, yet I’ll try:
How do you sell this handkerchief?
Jane. Good cheap.
Ham. And how these ruffs?
Jane. Cheap too.
Ham. And how this band?
Jane. Cheap too.
Ham. All cheap; how sell you then this hand?
Jane. My hands are not to be sold.
Ham. To be given then!
Nay, faith, I come to buy.
Jane. But none knows when.
Ham. Good sweet, leave work a little while; let’s play.
Jane. I cannot live by keeping holiday.
Ham. I’ll pay you for the time which shall be lost.
Jane. With me you shall not be at so much cost.
Ham. Look, how you wound this cloth, so you wound me.
Jane. It may be so.
Ham. ’Tis so.
Jane. What remedy?
Ham. Nay, faith, you are too coy.
Jane. Let go my hand.
Ham. I will do any task at your command,
I would let go this beauty, were I not
In mind to disobey you by a power
That controls kings: I love you!

This is simple and generous verse. That Dekker contrives to have the dialogue consist of rhyming couplets makes audible the happy harmony developing between them. In that respect it’s very much like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet (although in that case the two lovers actually compose a sonnet together).

*

I was also intrigued by how much Catholicism was in this play: the shoemakers belong to a guild devoted to St Hugh, and the characters swear by the Mass, by God’s wounds, by God’s nails, and other holy things characteristic of English Catholicism before the Reformation. Digging a bit, I found that the character of Simon Eyre is based on a real fifteenth-century Londoner, and so the action of the play is presumably meant to take place then.

There is even a passage late in the play in which the King is asked to undo the inter-class marriage by an outraged father, which includes this exchange:

King. Are they not married?
Lincoln. No, my liege.
Both. We are.
King. Shall I divorce them then? O be it far,
That any hand on earth should dare untie
The sacred knot, knit by God’s majesty;
I would not for my crown disjoin their hands,
That are conjoïned in holy nuptial bands.

I can imagine raised eyebrows when this played in Elizabeth’s court.

*

Plays are not meant to be read, but acted and seen and heard, and so we’re working from a position of weakness when we approach an unfamiliar play on the page. This weakness is especially acute, I think, in a quick-moving, quick-witted comedy like The Shoemaker’s Holiday, which drops non-negligible difficulties of diction in our path. I would love to see this play on the stage, and especially to see what a talented actor could do with Simon Eyre. As it is, I enjoyed the play, but suspect that there is more to it than I gleaned on my own.

3 Responses to “Dekker: The Shoemaker’s Holiday”


  1. You’ll probably be pleased to know that I had my 8 and 10-year-old grandsons calling each other “Islington whitepot” and “barley pudding full of maggots” when I read this a couple of days ago.

    I’m a little puzzled by the whitepot, though. According to various search results it’s a sort of pudding, and I didn’t see any reason why it should be an insult. Maybe they did it very badly in Islington.

    • cburrell Says:

      I am very pleased to know this. I made the mistake once of using a Shakespearean insult in conversation (“flap-eared knave”), and it took some doing to dissuade the children from applying it widely.

  2. SBishop Says:

    I am fortunate enough to be one of the people who has seen this play in performance – I can still remember going to Bill Gaskill’s production on a thrust stage at the NT Olivier Theatre in 1980 or 1981. Done in a typical clean Gaskill style with little scenery (it was on a huge wooden platform) it is certainly very different from many other plays of the period in its emphasis on daily life and the comedy of the working class. Overall the production was interesting but not such as to suggest that revivals should be frequent.
    The scene you’ve quoted above makes an interesting comparison with Shakepearean wooing scenes, eg Romeo and Juliet Holy Palmer’s Kiss


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