Sunday, June 28, 2009

Summer reading: A Shoemaker, A Gentleman, by William Rowley

Yes, there is another early modern quasi-history play about shoemakers. Why did nobody tell me this when I was writing my dissertation? Oh well. At least I've read it now.

Stuff That Happens: The plot takes place in early fourth-century Britain, under the rule of the Roman co-emperors Dioclesian and Maximinus. The Romans have defeated the British king, Allured; they take his wife prisoner. His two sons, Elred and Offa, disguise themselves as humbly born boys named Crispianus and Crispin and become apprentices to a shoemaker. The household also includes the shoemaker’s wife, Cicely, and two journeymen, Ralph and Barnaby. Meanwhile, Sir Hugh and Amphiabel flee to Wales and take refuge with the Christian princess Winifred. Hugh falls in love with Winifred, but she’s made a vow of chastity. An angel appears, confirms that Winifred is holy, and persuades Amphiabel to confront the Roman persecutors. He successfully converts a knight named Alban, but Maximinus orders them all tortured and executed.

Meanwhile, Offa has fallen in love with Maximinus’s daughter Leodice and marries her secretly. Elred is drafted into the Roman army, and the shoemaker hires Hugh to replace him. Elred wins fame and honor by rescuing Dioclesian on the battlefield.

Winifred is captured and doomed to die; most of the shoemakers go to see the execution. Offa, left alone with Cicely, admits that Leodice is pregnant with his child. Barnaby rushes in and announces that Hugh has publically proclaimed himself to be a Christian and has been taken by the Roman officers. The shoemakers bear Hugh company at his martyrdom; after he dies, Barnaby declares that their tools will be known henceforth as “Saint Hugh’s Bones.”

Offa spirits Leodice out of the palace; she gives birth to his son at the shoemaker’s house. Elred returns and reveals himself to be Allured’s son; Maximinus agrees to free Elred's mother from prison and offers him Leodice’s hand in marriage, should she ever be found. On cue, Leodice turns up with the baby and announces that she is already married to Elred’s brother. Dioclesian and Maximinus restore Elred and Offa to their kingdoms, proclaim freedom of worship in Britain, and agree to let Offa build a church to St. Alban, the first English martyr.

Thoughts: First of all, I really, really need to re-read The Gentle Craft so that I can work out what Rowley is adding, changing, and emphasizing. As in Deloney and Dekker, much is made of the "gentility" of shoemakers; the printer dedicates the play "to the honest and high-spirited gentlemen of the never-decaying art called 'The Gentle Craft'." Elred initially greets the shoemakers as “gentlemen,” which prompts the Shoemaker to reply, “We are good fellows, no gentlemen. Yet, if gentleness make gentility, we are gentlemen” (I. ii. 54-55).

This speech glances at one of Rowley's persistent themes: how does one address and interact with people when the line between aristocrat and craftsman is blurred? The Shoemaker scolds Barnaby for addressing Hugh, a stranger who appears to be a gentleman, as "thou," and then finds himself in a very confusing position when he takes on Hugh as an apprentice: “Thou, gentleman, as thou art a soldier, and a good fellow when thou’rt a shoemaker, I bid thee welcome to Faversham” (III. ii. 207-09). When Offa reveals his identity, the Shoemaker exclaims, “How! my Right Worshipful ‘Prentice” (IV. ii. 151) and removes his cap, despite Offa’s urging, “Nay, gentle master, / I am your ‘prentice still, pray not stand bare” (161-62). It’s all treated comically, of course, but there are some serious questions lurking underneath; in a society where the most basic of social interactions are scripted by rank, what do you do when rank is both invisible and malleable? And what is this gentility stuff, anyway? Can one be both shoemaker and gentleman, both prentice and prince? Rowley does rather more with these questions than Dekker does, in part because the Roman setting allows for greater social mobility; Dioclesian and Maximinus are the sons of a scrivener and a smith. In this setting, it makes sense for Leodice to reason, “Whence springs that fount / That runs all royalty? ‘Tis the sea itself: / The lesser rivulets and running brooks / Are those of common sense, yet all do mix / And run in one another. What are titles? / Honours bestow'd ad regis placitum. / Should my father make that shoemaker a lord / Then were he noble” (II. i. 51-58).

Rowley does, however, restore the original social order at the end of the play, and I think he's making a distinction between aristocratic and common values throughout (though that distinction may be blurred in the case of Elred / Crispianus and Offa / Crispin). Cicely, on beholding the Queen being led to prison, comments: “The world treads not upright; methinks it had need of a good workman to mend it” (I. ii. 149-50). It’s not clear, however, how much workmen can do to mend it; the heroes and martyrs of this play are noblemen and women, while the commoners are chiefly concerned with laying low, adapting, and surviving. The Shoemaker's rejoinder encapsulates this difference: “Peace, Cicely ... let us keep good consciences within doors howe’er the wind blows abroad. ‘Tis honester deceit to seem bad and be good, than to seem pure and be a knave” (151-56). Similarly, Barnaby and Ralph keep Hugh company at his death, prompting him to describe them as “a trade / Of fellowship’s best mixture, nobly made” (IV. iii. 151-52), but they do not step forward and sacrifice themselves. Indeed, Barnaby tries to persuade him to disavow his faith: “Nay, fellow Hugh, or noble Sir Hugh, remember ‘tis not every man’s case to die a Christian. Prithee, leave it, then, and save thy life. The Roman gods are as good gods as e’er trod on a shoe of leather, and therefore, sweet Hugh, we may get their custom, and bring ‘em to our shop, and so we shall be shoemakers to the gods” (51-56). (All of this said, I wonder whether the conventionally heroic choice is necessarily the more admirable one, in Rowley’s world. Offa and Elred, like their subjects, are pragmatists and survivors, and they arguably accomplish more good than Winifred, Hugh, and company.)


Anonymous said...

I am not sure that all values are universal. I am intrigued by the question however implicit here about the transition of Roman nobility to English values... have the prentice and prince come from the romans who must therefore be gods or whence, from something british..... and where does christianity find a nest and from whence.

Context would be an important historical reference although human nature, christian impulses etc. might be considered literary. I do not know. But a most interesting read.

Sisyphus said...

So, wait ... there were shoemakers in Roman England? And these shoemakers were considered to be like gentlemen? What's so great about shoemakers, that they get two plays about 'em?

Fretful Porpentine said...

Sisyphus -- Heh, it all starts with a work of prose fiction by Thomas Deloney, called The Gentle Craft. Basically, it's a collection of Tales of Heroic Historical Shoemakers (and sometimes princes disguised as shoemakers, because disguised princes happen a lot in Elizabethan fiction). Deloney has this whole mythology going about how awesome shoemakers are; among other things, it's the most "gentle" of the trades, since even princes have pursued it.

I'm not sure to what extent Deloney's tales are derived from pre-existing popular culture and to what extent he was making them up out of whole cloth, but at any rate, the book was wildly popular and inspired at least two stage adaptations -- A Shoemaker, A Gentleman and Dekker's much-better-known The Shoemaker's Holiday. (I also have no idea whether there were actual shoemakers in Roman Britain, but Deloney sure thought there were.)

If you really, really want to know more, I'd recommend reading either Laura Caroline Stevenson's Praise and Paradox or Alison Chapman's "Whose St. Crispin's Day Is It? Shoemaking, Holiday-Making, and the Politics of Memory in Early Modern England." That said, I have probably already told you more than you wanted to know :)

Pedantius said...


Longtime reader, first time commenter.

I'll be interested to hear your further thoughts on this topic. I hope I have time to read some of these things myself.

I wonder when the term 'shoemaker' started taking over from 'cobbler.' Also, like to cobble me a shoe someday.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Nice to meet you, Pedantius and Garry DesMetis! Welcome!

I have a vague idea that "shoemaker" and "cobbler" refer to slightly different activities in early modern English; that is, shoemakers make shoes, but cobblers fix them -- but I could be wrong.

Susan said...

Just off the top of my head: but there is so so much anxiety in early modern England about social mobility that all this stuff about the king's sons disguised as apprentices falling in love with the emperor's daughter is just amazing.

Is one reason shoemakers were "gentle" that they can talk while they work? Later on it's the weavers and printers that have the reputation for reading a lot and being revolutionaries.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Ooh, that's an interesting question. I'm not sure, but I'll definitely keep it in mind as I re-read Deloney.