"In his gold I shine": Jacobean Comedy and the art of the mediating trickster.
Alizon Brunning
University of Central Lancashire

Brunning, Alizon. "'In his gold I shine': Jacobean Comedy and the art of the mediating trickster." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September, 2002): 3.1-25 <URL:

  1. 1. In Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses he describes the Golden Age as a world of plenty and abundance:

    The springtime lasted all the year, and Zephyr with his mild
    And gentle blast did cherish things that grew of own accord.
    The ground untilled all kinds of fruits did plenteously afford.
    No muck nor tillage was bestowed on lean and barren land,
    To make the corn of better head and ranker for to spread.
    Then streams ran milk, then streams ran wine, and yellow honey flowed
    From each green tree whereon the rays of fiery Phoebus glowed. (Abrams 122/128)

    In Jonson's Volpone, the eponymous hero has created his own version of the Golden Age where, as Mosca reminds him, he will

    come to swim, in golden lard,
    Up to the armes, in honny, that your chin
    Is borne up stiffe, with fatnesse of the floud

    The imaginative recreation of this golden land of plenty in Jonson's play could locate it within the festive comic tradition which is driven by what Suzanne Langer calls the life force or "élan vital," which permeates comic form and which is linked to the "driving rhythm of biological process." Langer asserts the correlation of fertility to comedy:

    It is not that the ancient ritual process, the Comus honoring the god of the name, was the source of this great art form- for comedy has arisen in many parts of the world where the Greek god with his particular form of worship was unknown- but that Comus was a fertility rite and the god it celebrated a fertility god, a symbol of perpetual rebirth, eternal life. [1]

  2. Northrop Frye also associates comedy, particularly romance, with the abundance and plenty of the Golden age. The romance quest, according to Frye, leads towards "the victory of fertility over the waste land." Here, by fertility Frye means "food and drink, bread and wine, body and blood and the union of male and female." Romance, according to Frye, is "the nearest of all literary forms to the wish-fulfilment dream." [2] It is a nostalgic form which seems to be searching for some "imaginative golden age in time or space." However, as Frye argues, the idealising romance narrative is not as an escape from reality, but as a "transformation of ordinary reality."

  3. While in the mythical Golden age, "The fertile earth as yet was free, untouched of spade or plow,/And yet it yielded of itself of every things enow," (115/116) the fate of those living in 'ordinary reality' is to have to work in order to achieve victory over the wasteland. In the postlapsarian age we are reminded of God's injunction that

    Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thy taken: for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return. (Genesis 3 17-19)

    Once nature provided humanity's every material need at no physical cost to man. Now he must enter into a relationship with the land in order to feed his requirements. In order to consume he must also produce. As part of the progression from dust to dust mankind makes his impression in the life cycle by producing children and by wresting the fruits of nature by the sweat of his brow. Instead of being a passive recipient he is an active agent of transformation and part of the transformation process itself. He is matter and he transforms matter. For Mikhail Bakhtin the participation of man in this cosmic cycle of continuing change is part of carnivalesque vitality:

    Abundance derives from transformations of matter carried out in work to renew the body. These processes include the agricultural cycle....butchering cooking and consuming of meat; eating digesting and defecation...Carnival represents a dialectical exchange between life and death, achieved through positive and negative transformations of matter. [3]

  4. John Locke also regards this agrarian relationship with nature as a form of economic paradise.

    This is certain, that in the beginning, before the desire of having more than men needed had altered the intrinsic value of things, which depends only on their usefulness to the life of man, or had agreed that a little piece of yellow metal, which would keep without wasting or decay, should be worth a great piece of flesh, or a whole heap of corn, though men had a right to appropriate by their labour, each one to himself, as much of the things of Nature as he could use, yet this could not be much, nor to the prejudice of others, where the same plenty was still left, to those who would use the same industry. [4]

    Bakhtin's folk culture and Locke's almost mythical economic paradise replace Ovid's Golden Age with a new form of Golden age in which labour is a necessary part of human relations with nature. The enjoyment of the material world is directly related to the effort which has gone into producing it. As Marx puts it:

    Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. [5]

  5. For both Bakhtin and Locke, the Fall is brought about by replacement of an agrarian economy with a money based one, the projection of this desire for material objects onto the "little piece of yellow metal," and the desire that the excesses of labour should be stored in the coin in the form of profit. In Ovid's mythical first age the fall from the Golden age of plenty was driven by "craft, treason, envy, pride and wicked lust." Man began to trade with ships and to divide up the common land and mine, not only for food, but

    For riches couched and hidden deep in places near to Hell,
    The spurs and stirrers unto vice and foes to doing well.
    Then hurtful iron came abroad, then came forth yellow gold,
    More hurtful than the iron far (157/160).

  6. Volpone's description of a life without labour would seem to correlate with the pre-industrial Golden Age of Ovid rather than the folk culture of Bakhtin or Locke: he exults that his material needs are met without his working:

    I use no trade, no venture;
    I wound no ploughshares; fat no beasts
    To feed the shambles; have no mills for iron,
    Oil, corn or men to grind 'em into poulder;
    I blow no subtle glass; expose no ships
    To threat'nings of the furrow-faced sea;
    I turn no moneys in the public bank;
    Nor usure private. (I i 30-36)

    Gold in Ovid's age is not money but food. In Bakhtin's folk culture too, it is "gay matter," the fruits of natural production which provide positive human experience. In Volpone, as we know, sustenance is not provide by food but by literal gold. Removing themselves from the festive cycle of production and consumption, the pair have replaced material objects of nourishment with that "little piece of yellow metal" which now stands in for the "great piece of flesh or the whole heap of corn." Gold and money now stands in or substitutes for food. [6]

  7. In Bakhtin's theory of carnival he argues that eating and drinking symbolise the struggle and victory of man over the world, a collective social triumph in wresting the fruits of the earth for consumption. "Everyday life and consumption are not isolated from the labour and production process." [7] However, as he points out:

    If food is separated from work and seen as a private way of life, then nothing remains of the old images ...Nothing is left but a series of artificial meaningless metaphors. [8]

    That food in Volpone is not only separated from work, but is a metaphor for money, affirms this. The Golden Age that Volpone and Mosca create is one of artificial metaphor. Bakhtin's statement seems to suggest that the metaphor has lost its connection with the material and physical world and become an arbitrary and abstract token- a free floating signifier. However I would argue that the metaphors are not meaningless. They work because the tricksters are able to find common ground between the Golden age of natural plenty and the Golden age of a money economy. The golden hopes of the citizens of city comedy are that they, like those lucky mythical citizens, can escape the Curse of Adam.

  8. Quicksilver in Eastward Ho!, like Volpone, wishes to evade the labour process. As the son of a gentleman his enforced apprenticeship offends his sense of status. He tries to persuade his industrious co-worker Golding to adopt his attitude to work:

    Why, do nothing, be like a gentleman, be idle; the curse of man is labour.
    Wipe thy bum with testons and make ducks and drakes with shillings. (I i 114-116)

    Golding however has been well schooled in the Protestant work ethic and answers

    Whate'er some vainer youth may term disgrace,
    The gain of honest pains is never base;
    From trades, from arts, from valour, honour springs
    These three are founts of gentry, yea of kings. (I i 143-146)

  9. Honest labour for Golding is the cornerstone of advancement and moral virtue. Quicksilver, on the other hand, shows his scatological contempt for the fruits of his master's labour by debasing them to the lower body. Bakhtin states that in folk culture

    Dung and urine lend a bodily character to matter, to the world, to the cosmic elements, which become closer, more intimate, more easily grasped, for this is matter the elemental force, born from the body itself. [9]

    However, Quicksilver's unwillingness to work has removed him from this cycle. In Protestant polemic idleness is constantly associated with base matter. In the Puritan John Northbrooke's case, as he explains in his 1577 Treatise wherein Dicing, Dauncing, Vaine Plays or Enterludes...are Reproved, labour is a duty and idleness is described in the language of the lower body, in the language of excrement and waste: "A slothful man is to be compared to the dung of Oxen," they are "the dung and the filthe of idleness" (Howard 27).

  10. In a similar way in Every Man In His Humour Brayneworme, in his disguise as an out of work soldier, is accused of idleness by Knowell in similar terms to those employed by Northbrook:

    Men of thy condition feed on sloth
    As doth the beetle on the dung she breeds in
    Not caring how the mettle of your minds
    Is eaten with the rust of idleness. (II v 110-113 )

    The metaphor of consumption dominates this speech and connects each image. The idle man feeds on sloth, the dung beetle feeds on dung and idleness feeds on man's "mettle." Immediately there is a suggestion that the idle man consumes but he does not produce. In other words he gets something from nothing. Labour is required to reinstate the idle man back into the cycle of consumption and production.

  11. The word mettle has a double meaning in this context; it means both the essence or quality of a person and a metallic substance. This is reinforced by the reference to rust which consumes the mind of the idle man. The reference to the dung beetle introduces a further level of meaning into the speech. It is suggested in this simile that the idle man, like the dung beetle, consumes without producing. The dung beetle feeds on filth and produces the same filth from which she then breeds. Like the idle man the dungbeetle bypasses the labour process. The traditional association "of shiny metal with faeces, or of lucre with filth links the dung beetle with the circulation of money. It may be seen as the Dukatensheisser or shitter of ducats" (Shell 12). While in Bakhtin's agrarian society dung symbolised the transformative relationship between man and matter, in an emergent capitalist economy, matter and money become equated. Money is food and drink and sex. Marx notes the productive power of money:

    That which I am unable to do as a man and of which therefore all my individual essential powers are incapable, I am able to do by means of money. money… converts my wishes from something in the realm of my imagination, translates them from my mediated, imagined or desired existence into their sensual actual insistence- from imagination to life, from imagined being into real being In effecting this mediation money is the truly creative power. [10]

    This paper will now examine the mediating and creative power of money in two city comedies: Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and Ben Jonson's The Devil is an Ass. Both comedies present characters who are eager to remove themselves from the cycle of consumption and production and avoid physical labour.

  12. In Gilbert Walker's "A Manifest detection of the most vile and detestable use of Dice -play, and other practices like the same," Walker outlines a kind of catechism wherein R and M discourse. M explains to R the cheater's ability to counterfeit:

    For the first and original ground of cheating is a counterfeit countenance in all things, a study to seem to be and not to be indeed; and because no great deceit can be wrought but where special trust goeth before, therefore the cheater, when he pitcheth his hay to purchase his profit, enforceth all his wits to win credit and opinion of honesty and uprightness.....the foundation of all those sorts of people is nothing else but mere simulation and bearing in hand. And like as they spring all from one root, so tend they all to one end : idly to live by rape and ravin, devouring the fruit of other men's labours. [11]

    In Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside the character Allwit, as his name suggests, is one such cheater. To the community, he appears to be an honest and upright citizen. Blessed with bounty, he seems to epitomise a man reaping the reward of honest toil. In Psalm 128 the curse of labour given to Adam is transformed to a blessing to all those who are reconciled to their fallen state:

    Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord; that walketh in his ways. For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands; happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee. Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the side of thine house; thy children like olive plants round about thy table. (Psalm 128 1-3)

    When we first meet Allwit he appears to be enjoying the fruits of his labour:

    I walk out in a morning, come to breakfast,
    Find excellent cheer, a good fire in winter;
    Look in my coalhouse about midsummer eve,
    That's full, five or six chaldron new laid up;
    Look in my back yard, I shall find a steeple
    Made up of Kentish faggots, which o'erlooks
    The water house and the windmills: I say nothing
    But smile and pin the door. When she lies in,
    As now she's even upon the point of grunting,
    A lady lies not in like her; there's her embossings,
    Embroid'rings, spanglings, and I know not what,
    As if she lay with all the gaudy shops
    In Gresham's Burse about her. (I.ii.22-34)

  13. For Allwit, this is the "happiest state that ever man was born to" (I.ii.21). His material needs are more than met and his wife is about to produce her seventh child. Allwit's prolific excess might be read as a sign of his carnivalesque phallic power. He has entered into the cosmic cycle of production and consumption on a grand scale. As Kurt Heinzelman argues:

    Labor is both economically and sexually potent. In economic discourse, labour always means masculine or male labor (to distinguish it from childbearing or female labor) Labor in the end is the economic expression of manhood. [12]

    However, Allwit's labour is neither economically or sexually potent. His wife may be a fertile vine, and he might rejoice in his groaning store cupboards, but the labour is out of his hands. Labour in Allwit's Golden age is not redundant but invisible. His hoarded stores of coal and faggots are the result of someone else's sweat. He enjoys the signs of work without expending any himself. The fall from Locke's golden age economy where a man worked to have sufficient unto his needs to one in which value lies in the objects of commodity rather than in the labour required to produce them is demonstrated in Allwit's gloating speech. His celebration of plenty moves from the festive symbols of abundance and winter cheer to the signs of conspicuous consumption. Even his wife's grunting labour, the curse of woman, is effaced by displaced from carnivalesque generative body to a shop window display. The movement from material excess to private consumption is signalled by Allwit's phrase "I say nothing, but smile and pin the door." Allwit is able to evade the comic cycle of life by employing a middleman or substitute to do his work for him. Allwit's seemingly sexually potent economic labour is provided by another man: Sir Walter Whorehound.

  14. We are told in the first act of the play that Mrs Allwit exhibits a carnal longing for pickled cucumbers and the coming of her lover Sir Walter. Her husband's servant Davy assures Allwit that the sight of the cucumbers will keep his wife happy until she can have the real thing. The phallically symbolic cucumber represents the displacement of labour onto a substitute or 'stand in.' First the cucumber represents the absent Sir Walter who in turn 'stands in' for the anti-libidinal Allwit. Allwit is now removed from the cycle of production and consumption and his material needs are supplied by an intermediary or 'middleman' without the need for sweat or toil. Allwit rejoices that the knight "hath took that labour all out of my hands" (I.ii.51). He has all the pleasures of the world without getting his hands dirty: "like a happy man/ I pay for none at all, yet fools think's mine;/ I have the name, and in his gold I shine" (I.ii.38-40). Allwit basks in the reflected glory of Sir Walter's status as a knight, as a rich man and as a figure of carnival festivity. He has replaced the appetites of the body and its material needs and desires with a materiality that requires no physical expenditure and the final refrain of this speech where he sings "La dildo, dildo la dildo, la dildo dildo de dildo" (I.ii.56) reinforces the separation between creative festivity and displaced desire. The use of the sexual stand in breaks the reciprocal link between man and matter and replaces it with a form of agent, representative or intermediary. In the same way the material nature of the carnivalesque is fractured and replaced with a material sign or symbol, material goods.

  15. However, while labour might be economically and sexually potent (more than enough is needed to sustain a family), in some cases sexual potency exceeds economic sufficiency. According to Arthur Marotti, Touchwood Senior, "the comic avatar of Eros…most vividly symbolises the power of fertility present in Middleton's dramatic world." [13] This invocation of festive procreation is undermined though when we meet Touchwood who is bemoaning his excessive fertility which threatens to prove both his economic and physical ruin:

    Life every year a child and sometimes two,
    Besides drinkings abroad, that's never reckoned
    This gear will not hold out. (II.i.15-17)

    Not only does his fertility cause the downfall of his family unit and the "wenches" he has impregnated but it also becomes an anti-comic threat in that it threatens to damage his "gear" and to delay the harvest, the symbol of rural festivity.

    I have such a fatal finger in such business
    I must forth with't, chiefly for country wenches
    For every harvest I shall hinder haymaking
    enter a wench with child
    I had no less than seven lay in last Progress
    Within three weeks of one another's time. (II.i.59-63)

    In this play the sexual excesses of carnival activity and the resulting progeny are not sources of festive celebration but of economic transaction. Touchwood sees the illegitimate child he has fathered as "a half a yard of flesh" and, relieved to be rid of it with just a small financial outlay, he remarks "and would I were rid of all the wares in the shop so" (II.i.99). The bawdy double meaning of wares and female genitalia links the child to a chain, not of consumption and production, cause and effect, but of commodity exchange.

  16. However his fertility does have a marketable value and he offers to sell his "magic water" to the barren but wealthy Kixes. The economic transfer of the symbol of fertility is made possible by the dilemma of the heirless gentry whose sterility is not felt simply as lack of children but will result in their loss of property and goods to their surviving next of kin Sir Walter Whorehound. Lady Kix castigates her impotent husband (who is not given to standing):

    'tis our dry barrenness puffs up Sir Walter;
    None gets by your not getting but that knight;
    He's made by th'means, and fats his fortunes shortly
    In a great dowry with a goldsmith's daughter. (II.i.51-154)

    Here it is fortunes that get fat not the body of Lady Kix. Money becomes both a procreative force in itself and the means to buy fertility, as Oliver Kix says -"I'd give a thousand pounds to purchase fruitfulness" (II.i.139) - although he makes an astute bargain that costs him only half this. The comic cycle of regeneration and renewal is removed to the level of the abstract cycle of monetary exchange when a symbolic token of potency, a vial of almond milk, is exchanged for five instalments of a hundred pounds. Oliver Kix does not begrudge the outlay because, as he argues, "Put case his water stands me in some five hundred a pint,/ Twill fetch a thousand and a kersten soul" (II.ii.185-187). Touchwood exchanges his "magic water" for money. In an act of substitution he replaces barren dryness with his fertile fluidity.

  17. Jean-Christophe Agnew suggests that in the Jacobean and Elizabethan attitude to commodity exchange there was a distinction between the exchange of solid and tangible commodity which, he remarks, was termed "dry exchange," and the abstract fluidity of financial transactions based on the disembodied form of money which was seen in terms of liquidity. [14] Kix hopes that his speculation will "bring him one hundred pounds profit." The procreative power of semen becomes dis-embodied in the cycle of exchange where it is transformed into an abstract and liquid form which like the fluid nature of money will keep on growing (Oliver envisions his wife in a few years "Circled by children," II.iii.90). Agnew points out that it was only

    within the expanded commerce of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that ecclesiastical authors began to embrace a definition of interest as the opportunity or displacement cost of sums available not just for settlement but for investment...Money now appeared to be a source of productive possibilities...the desire for liquidity thereby came to mean something more than the thirst for solvency; it suggested a simultaneous readiness to transact.. a moment frozen in the money form itself...liquidity thus translated and condensed ...the market process into a permanent speculative posture or attitude that subjected the world to a reflexive calculus of returns on capital. [15]

    The selling of carnival removes it from the lower body onto a more abstract level of exchange. Exchange of goods or dry exchange requires the material presence of both objects whereas money exchange allows for the absence of commodity- money stands in for the goods just as Touchwood's magic water stands in for Touchwood, who in turn stands in for Kix.

  18. In The Devil is an Ass Fitzdottrel, a would- be gentleman, wishes, like Allwit, to remove himself from the cycle of work and leave himself free to enjoy his materialistic lifestyle. The projector Meercraft is keen to show the creative potential of financial investment in his schemes:

    Sir, Money's a whore, a bawd, a drudge
    Fit to run out on errands; let her go.
    Via Pecunia! when she's run and gone,
    And fled and dead, then will I fetch her again,
    With aqua vitae, out of an old hogshead!
    While there are lees of wine or dregs of beer,
    I'll never want her. Coin her out of cobwebs,
    Dust, but I'll have her! Raise wool upon egg -shells,
    Sir, and make grass grow out o' marrow bones
    To make her come. (II.i.1-9)

    In the first part of this speech money is described as a whore and a drudge. Rather than being creative it is described as a biddable servant. It is Meercraft who has the creative power. He is able to harness the servile qualities of money and make it work for him, and thus for his employer. Money is also shown here to be an inherent property of base matter. By inserting his own creative labour or wit onto matter, he is able to transform it back into a liquid and labile form again. It is his manly labour, his economic potency, which can make money "come."

  19. Meercraft's schemes are to coin money out of transforming worthless material objects, the refuse of the world - dog skins, waterlogged land, cobwebs and raisins - into saleable and valuable commodities. He is redeeming matter and transforming it from dross into something good. Meercraft is keen to assure Fitzdotterel, however, that this isn't magic but investment in work. His project to transform dog skins into vendable commodities notes the effort involved: the dressing and medicining of the leather leads to "a height of improved ware" (II.I.71-2). In the "bottle ale scheme" Meercraft describes the seven years of hard labour put in along with "my water, my malt and my furnaces…the earth of my bottles which I dig, / Turn up and steep, and work, and neal myself, / to a degree of porcelain" (II.ii.85-90).

  20. While Meercraft is keen to persuade Fitzdottrel that his labour will save the lazy citizen from working himself, he also convinces him that his schemes will be profitable because they are labour saving. Fitzdottrel is easily gulled and tells his wife:

    This man defies the devil and all his works!
    He does't by his Engine, and devices, he!
    He has his winged ploughs that go with sails,
    Will plough you forty acres at once! And mills
    Will spout you water ten miles off!

    Here Meercraft has drawn on the belief that man could find ingenious ways to work on nature and to yield the most profit from the least output. According to Kurtz Heinzelmann, the seventeenth century political economist Sir William Petty used the term "art" to describe such labour:

    If by simple labour I could dig and prepare for seed a hundred acres in a thousand days; suppose I spend a hundred days in studying a more compendious way, and in contriving tools for the same purpose; but in all that hundred days dig nothing, but in the remaining nine hundred days I dig two hundred acres of ground; then I say that the said art which cost but an hundred days' invention is worth one man's labour for ever; because the new art and the one man performed as much as two men could have done without it. [16]

    However whether Meercraft describes a scheme to make money out of his own labour or whether he suggests a project for the saving of labour is truly im-material as neither object or labour really exist in the corporeal world. It is not matter which Meercraft promises to transform into commodity, nor even a viable scheme of ingenious industry for someone else to profit from: it is instead the money of investors that Meercraft really turns into profit.

  21. Marx's equation which differentiates between commodity exchange and capitalist production is useful here. In commodity exchange, he writes, commodity -C is exchanged for money -M which is then used to buy Commodity again, written C-M-C. However in a capitalist society, Marx argues, it is not commodity that circulates but money. Money is used to buy commodity C which is then sold on to make M thus M-C- M-. According to Shell:

    The circulatory system of capitalist production bestows a new significance on money replacing the direct exchange of commodities- money is no longer an exchange equivalent but possesses the power of transformation in itself. In this progression from M-M matter is created 'money which begets money'- we are no longer in the self enclosed world of Newtonian physics but further back in the magical transformation of alchemical elements. [17]

    In Meercraft's cycle of exchange the commodity is absent from the equation: the drown'd lands, the raisins, the dogskins are never physically present, they exist only in the projection of Meercraft's imagination into language. Money is invested by the citizen on the basis of belief in Meercraft's word, invested in the hope of a significant return or profit. It is Meercraft's wit and his command of the imagination of the aspirations of citizens for endless transformation that enables him to profit from the credulous Fitzdottrel.

  22. Pierre Bourdieu argues for a particular kind of social context which he calls field, game or market:

    A field or market may be seen a structured space of positions in which the positions and their inter-relations are determined by the distribution of different kinds of resources or capital. [18]

    This may not only be economic capital, he argues, but cultural capital, the possession of skills and knowledge and symbolic capital, the possession of honour, reputation and prestige. One type of capital can be converted to another for example skills into paid work and thus economic capital. The field or market is therefore a "site of struggle in which individuals seek to maintain or alter the distribution of the forms of capital specific to it." [19] The tricksters of Jacobean comedy achieve symbolic capital by a number of ritual transformations. By working on the desire for symbolic capital of others they are able to raise their own status.

    Symbolic power is an invisible power. The exercise of power through symbolic exchange always rests on the foundation of shared belief, in such a way that even those who benefit least from it participate to some extent in their own subjection. [20]

  23. Here in Meercraft's "toothpick scheme" the selling of the commodity is to be achieved by the printing of a book authorising the use of the product and educating the reader; an early form of advertising. Here Meercraft is enforcing the primacy of the word in the process of transaction. This is doubly emphasised when the reader/audience realises that there is no scheme. Meercraft's language does not have a material referent, it is an abstract symbolic system of signification which relies on the faith or credulity of the audience and the gullible citizen. It is not Meercraft's manipulation of the material world that makes him such an efficient trickster but his control of symbolic capital, his mastery of language which embodies other forms of symbolic capital such as religious discourse alchemical jargon and economic enterprise . As Robert Pelton points out, "The trickster's ability is verbal, words are what he juggles best." [21]

  24. Meercraft exercises his power through symbolic exchange drawing on the shared foundation of belief to those willing to participate in their own subjection. It is this faith or credulity that allows him to be successful in his coining of money. By manipulating the language of signs he is able to conjure up an absent material world which is represented by maps and charts and diagrams of the schemes. He is able to work on the imagination of characters like Fitzdottrel because he taps into the wish fulfilment desires of the citizens. The citizens imagine an ideal golden age without the need for labour. The creative potential promised by tricksters such as Meercraft is the alchemical transformation of base matter to gold. By offering to insert their labour, either physical, or ingenious they appeal to the citizens' Golden age desire of getting something for nothing. However many of the victims of such tricksters get nothing for something. Meercraft's transformation is not material. As Charles Nicholl says of Jonson's tricksters in The Alchemist, it is

    the alchemy of swindle transmuting the stuff of gullibility into the gold of profit, turning not lead but fools to gold. Face is the prospector, the miner unearthing rich ores of credulity, the prima material of their transformation. [22]

    Earlier I said that art was seen as a form of ingenious labour. Art or artifice is also used to describe cunning and trickery. The craftsman transforms matter into valuable commodity, to be sold for gold. The crafty man in these plays uses the language of the imagination to create a golden world; he is, like Sidney's poet, a creator. However unlike the poet the trickster has no positive transformative function; his art is Meer Craft.


1. Suzanne Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Charles Scribner and sons, 1953), 331.

2. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957), 186.

3. Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theatre: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority (New York: Methuen, 1985), 68.

4. John Locke 134-5, cited in Kurt Heinzelmann, The Economics of the Imagination (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P,1980), 168.

5. Karl Marx, Capital, 3 vols (New York: International, 1967), I, 177.

6. Edward. B. Partridge discusses many of Jonson's food/gold images in The Broken Compass (New York: Columbia UP, 1958).

7. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT P, 1968), 206.

8. Bakhtin, Rabelais, 281-2.

9. Bakhtin, Rabelais, 335.

10. Marx, Works, 3:325, cited in Heinzelmann, 179.

11. A. V. Judges, The Elizabethan Underworld (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), 36.

12. Heinzelman, 145.

13. Arthur Marotti, "Fertility and Comic Form in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside," Comparative Drama 3 (1969): 65-74, 67.

14. Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo American Thought (New York: Cambridge UP, 1986), 69.

15. Agnew, 46.

16. Petty in Heinzelmann, 148.

17. Marc Shell, Money Language and Thought: Literary and Philosophical Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era (Berkeley: U of California P, 177.

18. Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, ed John B. Thompson, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson. Oxford : Polity, 1992, 15.

19. Bourdieu , 15-18.

20. Bourdieu ,21.

21. Robert D. Pelton, The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Scared Delight (Berkeley: U of California P, 1980), 225.

22. Charles Nicholl, The Chemical Theatre (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), 112.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).