Early
William S. Carroll. Fat King, Lean Beggar: Representations of Poverty in the Age of Shakespeare. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996. xii+237 pp. ISBN 080-143-1859 Cloth.
Michael Long
Oriel College, Oxford University
michael.long@oriel.oxford.ac.uk

Long, Michael. "Review of Fat King, Lean Beggar: Representations of Poverty in the Age of Shakespeare" Early Modern Literary Studies 3.1 (May 1997): 7.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-1/rev_long.html>.

  1. With the increasing politicization of literary studies over the last two decades, literary criticism has focused on the position of all people and things "marginal" in the societies of history. By no means has Renaissance literary studies been excluded from this focus; on the contrary, many would argue that it is at the vanguard of the movement. The ongoing excavation of women writers from the "patriarchal archive," the examination of homoerotic texts and homosexuality, and the re-reading of ethnicity as characterized by post-colonial theory are only some of the enterprises through which our literary and cultural conceptions of early modern England are being reconfigured. By making use of the tautology "the center defines the margin; the margin defines the center" literary criticism has mined a vein that yields up the intricacies of power relations inherent in the discourses of early modern England.

  2. Curiously absent, however, from the ranks of the marginal has been any recent study of poverty and its cognate, crime. While historians like A.L. Beier, Ian Archer, J.S. Cockburn and Paul Slack have turned their attention to the subject, regrettably the literary interest has, despite its penchant for "the other," been negligible. While William S. Carroll's Fat King, Lean Beggar: Representations of Poverty in the Age of Shakespeare is more interested in crime, it seems, than in poverty, it is, nevertheless, a welcome contribution to an area of early modern literary studies and, as such, it is decidedly one of the better books on the subject.

  3. Carroll's study investigates an impressive array of cultural arenas relevant to the study of poverty including statutes, polemics, rogue pamphlets, the institutions of Bridewell and Bedlam as well as the myriad theatrical representations of the beggar. But more particularly it focuses on the "uses" these disparate discourses were put to by their agents. As Carroll points out, the beggar was "invested" with "multivalent, contradictory meanings" entirely dependent on the agenda being advanced. Contradiction, for example, arises between the anxiety over idleness that the undeserving beggar clearly represented and the use-value of the beggar's physical body understood as a labor resource for England's burgeoning colonizing efforts overseas. "Thus the early modern discourse of poverty inscribed the beggar's body both as a potentially valuable commodity and as a site of lawlessness and subversion." Consequently, the beggar was demonized and painted as every social threat the polemics could summon: Catholic or Anabaptist, criminal or rebel, gypsy or Irish or even witch.

  4. State efforts to curb the supposed marauding hoards of beggars and vagabonds are understood as a form of "penal semiotics" where marking the beggar's body, either by branding letters on the skin or, in the case of the Act of 1572, boring holes through the ear, was designed to differentiate the "sturdy" vagabond from the legitimate. Characterizing vagabonds as seditious or as an infected member of the body politic authorized, so it was thought, state modes of social control. Renaissance "projectors" like Robert Hitchcock and Thomas Stanley hammered home an anti-idleness message which commodified the beggar's body by considering it both as a "faceless mass" and "an untapped economic commodity" to assure a foothold in the New World. Carroll confines himself to a brilliant study of the Virginia colony but his findings on plantation literature of the period are equally applicable to Humphrey Gilbert's and Richard Whitbourne's musings on the exploitation of "New-found-land." However, the most contradictory discourse on the Renaissance beggar arises in the romanticization of a life of poverty, manifested most insidiously in John Taylor's The Praise, Antiquity and Commodity of Beggery, Beggers and Begging (1621). Carroll concludes that such "extraordinary idealization" requires an "inverted" reading which attests to the decidedly miserable lot of the early modern beggar.

  5. Despite Carroll's erudite treatment of the mechanisms behind and against poverty in the Renaissance, his most fascinating chapter by far is on the classic rogue text, Thomas Harman's Caveat for Common Cursitors (1567). More particularly, Carroll offers a convincing reading of the archetypal rogue Nicholas Genings, a.k.a. Nicholas Blunt. Genings was a counterfeit crank or feigner of epilepsy who exploited the charity of sentimental Londoners. Dressed in rags, besmeared in blood and excrement and brandishing the typical rogue penchant for histrionics, Genings plucked the heartstrings of all those who witnessed his supposed misery. The curiosity about Genings is not so much in the nature of his ruse (such practices are continually recorded by virtually every pamphleteer of rogue literature from the Liber Vagatorum (1509?) to well into the eighteenth century), but in the fact he has thoroughly escaped the scrutiny of literary critics and historians alike. Genings does receive brief treatment by Aydelotte, Judges and Salgado, but Carroll's is the first detailed analysis of this fascinating villain. Harman is known for the historical accuracy of his portrayal of the rogues who passed through the Kentish countryside, an accuracy corroborated in 1913 by Aydelotte's confirmation of the rogues identified in Harman's appendix to the Caveat. Genings himself, however, was not included in Aydelotte's findings and consequently his historical identity was left to speculation until Carroll's discovery of evidence in the Repertories of the Corporation of London Records Office that verify Genings' appearance before the Court of Aldermen, accused of having "used and counterfeited him selfe to be A diseased person with the grevous disease of the falling sicknes . . ." (82-3). Carroll makes great play with Genings' dissimulating ability, concluding that the sturdy beggar "invalidates the prevailing ideology of work," and making much of the state's correction of the transgression with "judicial lashings" by which it reinscribed "the beggar's bodily identity within the (legitimate) economy" (85). These musings are followed by a reading of the woodcuts accompanying the Caveat, an interesting passage illustrating Genings' criminal life up to his punishment and pillorying at Bridewell. In this case, Carroll shows how the visual narrative parallels the textual narrative. Carroll, however, mistakenly refers to the "new" woodcut of the naked Genings fleeing his captors as exclusive to the Caveat when in fact it appeared in an earlier edition of Boccaccio's Decameron. Similarly, the subject of the female rogue, another unexplored facet of Renaissance rogue literature, does not do justice to the breadth of the subject. Carroll concludes, rather quickly, that women were demonized by their representation as "sexually aggressive and voracious" -- there is nothing new in this. Women rogues were often as ingenious as Genings himself if one considers the theatrical use of "surfling water" to feign virginity in brothel houses so as to command higher prices for services rendered (see Gilbert Walker's Manifest Detection, 1552). And what of the antics of the most celebrated harlot of the English Renaissance, Elizabeth Holland, a.k.a. Dame Britannica Hollandia, and her renowned pleasure dome in Bankside?

  6. The "cultural representations" of Bedlam and Bridewell are also considered, particularly, in the case of Bedlam, in order to explore how the "early modern discourse of madness intersects with, and is contaminated by, the discourse of poverty . . . " (98). Carroll examines Bridewell, for example, by viewing its multiple uses as "a royal palace, a house of correction and job training, a harsh prison, a place of torture, a favored site for non-noble prisoners, a theatre, a granary, a mill, a warehouse, a whorehouse" as cause for contesting and contradicting cultural meanings--an assumption best exemplified by the sometimes awkward paradigm "fat king and lean beggar." That both King and beggar were housed in the same building means precious little when the two were chronologically separated by years. One man was poor; one man was rich--what of it? While Carroll is thorough in his excavation of the cultural representations of both institutions there seems to be too much effort expended in trying to cram these representations into a catch-all notion that is never made entirely clear.

  7. Carroll writes: "[t]he second half of the book turns to dramatic inscriptions of the discourse of poverty, primarily Shakespeare's." The main interests are in 2 Henry VI and the subversive threat posed by poverty as represented by Sly (The Taming of the Shrew), Autolycus (The Winter's Tale), Edgar as the Bedlam Beggar (King Lear), and characters in the last chapter of Fletcher and Massinger's Beggar's Bush and Richard Brome's The Jovial Crew. In these chapters, Carroll displays his acumen with the cultural/social realities of poverty and crime, and this is the virtue of the book--its command of "everyday life" and the microworkings of Renaissance culture. The final section on drama permits an elaboration of the social/cultural analysis advanced in the first three chapters--and perhaps it is here the King and Beggar schemata is meant to be illuminated through Henry IV, Lear or other regal characters. But the book, nevertheless, has the markings of an attempt to put a square peg in a round hole. Carroll is far more effective in the role of social/cultural historian.

  8. My central problem with the text, however, is its conception of poverty. I often thought the text was more about Renaissance crime and rogue literature than poverty per se. Carroll would probably claim the two were inseparable, that these discourses intersect or "contaminate" one another, but in the case of rogue literature, which is cited frequently and dealt with at great length, criminals are clearly the primary subject and rarely is the naive charitable giver even mentioned. Although the reading of the Nicholas Genings episode is very solid, Genings was not a beggar, he was a conman, a criminal seeming to be a beggar. Harman's tirades are not against beggars, only against the knaves who are fraudulent beggars. The function of the statutes, rogue pamphlets, polemics and proclamations was to discern beggar from criminal, to disentangle identities and to extricate a truth from the ingeniously deceptive ruses of a clever criminal underworld. In that sense, crime is an epistemological concern as much as a political one, though the latter is the focus of Carroll's arguments. The blurring of the categories of "poor," "beggar," "masterless man," "rogue," "vagrant" or "vagabond" tends to obfuscate the real issue of poverty. Rogue pamphlets and hyperbolic polemics may be less then precise because their authors searched vigorously for synonyms, but the legislators took great pains, as William Harrison noted in his Description, to lay down categories in order to establish some degree of certitude, and it was these categories that resulted in the Poor Laws. The inter-relation of poverty and crime is conceded, but their mutual distinction needs to be as well.


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1997-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(RGS, June 16, 1997)