Paola Pugliatti. Beggary and Theatre in Early Modern England. Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate, 2003. 233pp. ISBN 0 7546 0344 X.

Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard, eds. A Companion to Shakespeare's Works: Volume 1, the Tragedies. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. 491pp. ISBN 0 631 22632 X.

Chris Fitter
Rutgers University at Camden

Fitter, Chris. "Review of Paola Pugliatti. Beggary and Theatre in Early Modern England, and Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard, eds. A Companion to Shakespeare's Works: Volume 1, the Tragedies." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.2 (September, 2006) 16.1-11 <URL:>.

  1. Around 1512, Erasmus and John Colet visited the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Horrified by the vast accumulation of treasure on display, they suggested that it should all be sold to feed the poor. But encountering, just outside the town, a beggar who offered them St Thomas's shoe to be kissed, they responded with equal ire: "Do these fools expect us to kiss the shoe of every good man who ever lived? Why not bring us their spittle or their dung to be kissed?" (Johnson 267). Such ambivalence typified Tudor responses to poverty, since even reform-minded leaders, denouncing the social system, nonetheless blamed the victim, usually construing individual vagrants primarily as duplicitous idlers. (Thomas More was a rare exception.) Self-contradictory contempt of poverty is familiar enough, of course, in the USA, where national self-celebration as the noble home of refugees has for centuries gone hand in hand with hostility to actual immigrants.

  2. Historical attitudes to pauperism are highly important for students of early modern drama, not only because Shakespeare and Dekker, among others, prominently portrayed vagrants and masterless men, but because actors per se were classified with vagabonds in Tudor statutes. Players, jibed antitheatricalist John Greene, "like brave and noble beggars . . . stand to take money of every one that comes to see them loyter and play" (55). "Are they not taken by the Lawes of the Realme, for roages and vacaboundes?" jeered Puritan Philip Stubbes in 1583 (fol. 92) . In 1996 William Carroll surveyed Tudor constructions of indigence in Fat King, Lean Beggar: Representations of Poverty in the Age of Shakespeare (Cornell), a substantial work followed in 2001 by Linda Woodbridge with Vagrancy, Homelessness and English Renaissance Literature (University of Illinois). Paola Pugliatti has now expanded our understanding with Beggary and Theatre in Early Modern England. All three embed literary representations in sixteenth-century economic and legislative contexts, and all venture brief engagement of Shakespeare in their light.

  3. Medieval attitudes, schooled by the Church Fathers, had favoured unconditional almsgiving to paupers. In the early Middle Ages it had been the Church's mission to help the poor, and a third or a fourth part of Church income was to be allocated to them on a regular basis. Fat King detailed the sharply contrastive Tudor vision of polluting, thieving hordes of work-shy rabble, violent and godless, whom penal legislation needed to suppress. For as Karl Marx wrote of capitalism's transmutation of peasantry into proletariat, in "the historical movement which changes the producers into workers . . . these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire." Tudor statutes -- in an economy of widespread illegal enclosures, engrossment, depopulated villages, soaring unemployment, and hyper-inflation -- criminalized per se wandering commoners without work (even if seasonal migrants in search of employment), and decreed for them branding and ear-boring, bloody floggings across country to houses of correction, and even (in two statutes) condemnation to slavery. Fat King further surveyed contemporary English stereotypes of the vagrant, construed either as hardened professional trickster, deploying virtuoso acting in the mere role-playing of suffering, hunger and disease, or as merry beggar, whistling through pastoral landscapes of daffodils and doxies, in a soft primitivist fantasy of permanent escape from all work and responsibility. Both versions assumed, like statutes and proclamations, that itinerant destitution was a lifestyle choice, elected by loafers. Rogue literature, with its gallery of cheerily cunning parasites, is thus found widely in works such as Harman's Caveat for Common Cursitors (1566; rpt. 1573 and 1592) and in later cony-catching pamphlets, as well as drama, from the 1590s. "Rarely has any culture fashioned so wily and powerful an enemy out of such degraded and pathetic materials", Carroll comments (47).

  4. Woodbridge tackled at book-length the question of why the Tudors so thoroughly demonized 'vagabonds', and fantasized their organization into fraternities of criminal specialization, replete with their own jargon, terrorizing the countryside, and threatening the very state: a picture that modern historians have proven from court records to have been wholly false. I would suggest, in general Freudian terms, that the obsession was literally a national hysteria, deriving its obsessiveness, intensity and restless creative energy from guilt over the desanctification of poverty, and the brutality dealt the victims of destitution on the pretense of their villainy. Even the sadistic Harman makes occasional ritual profession of almsgiving to the deserving poor. Woodbridge, however, supplies an ingenious variety of explanations on the discursive level. Humanism's emphasis on educational self-improvement and civic responsibility precluded substantial empathy with the down and out. The total dependency of beggars on the benevolence of givers parodied the Protestant theology of unearned grace. The emergent Tudor ethos of family values, idealizing the happy home and domestic stability, inevitably constructed vagrancy as its Other. National volatility in matters of religion projected onto vagrant wanderings the horror of directionlessness, and traumatic loss of familiar landmarks. England's alarming involvement in wars in many countries stimulated Tudor fears of boundary violation, and thus phobias of pollution, which in turn intensified fear of vagrants as bearers of disease. Above all, Reformation anti-clericalism associated itinerant begging with the Catholic mendicant orders, long mocked in medieval folk tales; and indeed, following a suggestion from Stephen Greenblatt, Woodbridge argues that rogue literature, in its high spirits and perverse ambivalence towards underclass cunning, derives from the genre of the jestbook, beloved even of Humanists. "The period's preoccupation with vagrancy was overdetermined in the extreme" concludes Woodbridge: "they were everybody's bogeymen" (175).

  5. Paola Pugliatti's study of Tudor attitudes to beggary thus enters a scholarly field already ably studied; yet in examining the beggar/actor nexus, and in widening the focus to establish regular European, particularly Italian, comparisons, she makes a genuine contribution. Correcting, for example, the standard view that in English legislation, players were first classed with vagabonds in the proclamation of 1545 (or even the statute of 1572), Pugliatti points out (like Marx before her) that such statutory conflation dates in fact to Edward I in 1284, and also notes it recurring in 1401 and 1534. In each case, with idlers and vagrants were listed bards and rhymers (42). Although Pugliatti does not suggest this, it would appear that in each case these anti-bardic initiatives followed in the wake of spectacular monarchic self-aggrandizement - the annexation of Wales, cold-blooded murder of Richard II (and perhaps Chaucer with him), and dissolution of the monasteries - so that the statutes seem essentially projects of censorship, suppressing public performances of dissidence. Precisely such cause and effect seems at work in the climactic Tudor expansions of royal prerogative, with their correlative abolition of strolling players and amateur theatre for replacement by a censored and centrally controlled production of drama. 'Poor Laws', however, directed at suppressing vagrancy and relieving paupers, constitute a quite different legislative stream, Pugliatti argues; so that the Henrician and Elizabethan laws regularly cited by literary critics, which classify players with beggars and also provide for poor relief, are notable only for converging these normally separate concerns. England's statutes were, however, Pugliatti adds, "probably the most aggressive and virulent" in Europe (18).

  6. The middle chapters of Beggary and Theatre chronicle the thematic linkages made by contemporaries between actors and vagrants: the culpabilities of idleness, self-disguise and medico-moral pollution. These connections all were noted by Carroll and Woodbridge, but Pugliatti documents them more extensively. The charge of idleness, she adds, may owe something to the monastic concept of acedia, which associated sloth with chattering, desire for roaming, and impatience with religious discipline: a nexus echoed in the Homily against Idleness of 1563. Self-disguise, of course, struck against God's providential establishment of identity, and was condemned by the Bible, the Church Fathers, and, repeatedly, by Tudor antitheatrical polemic. Players and beggars both spread disease -- as London's City Fathers protested -- and both groups were themselves construed as human parasites, living off the money, and indeed the simulated behaviour, of others. Itinerance itself, of course, the condition of sinful abandonment of hereditary 'place', vividly figured for satisfying excoriation the numerous cultural transgressions against traditional decency of early modern society.

  7. Pugliatti's study, in addition to welcome consolidation of familiar, but normally fleeting, scholarly perceptions on the associations of beggary and theatre, offers fresh generic thinking on rogue literature. She introduces to English-language scholarship the discovery that the grandfather text of rogue literature is not, as often stated, the German Liber Vagatorum of 1509, but may be Teseo Pini's Speculum Cerretanorum of the 1480s, whose structure was widely reproduced in the Liber and thence in English and German rogue books. That the Speculum enjoyed, however, very limited circulation only confirms, I think, the thesis of Linda Woodbridge (whose book appeared too late for Pugliatti to read) that rogue writings were essentially the sprawling, promiscuous progeny of medieval jestbooks. Pugliatti also distinguishes sensibly between three generic forms: the early sixteenth-century rogue literature (Awdeley and Harman), with its rural settings and underclass villains; the later cony-catching works, written mainly by professional writers, set in urban locations, and featuring well-apparelled tricksters of uncertain class; and the picaresque novel, mostly French and Spanish in provenance, which, by reshaping narratives of errancy into spicy autobiographic form, shook off the dour moralization of rogue literature.

  8. Beggary and Theatre also offers rewarding digressions into related topics. Addressing the issue of whether Protestant countries, with their trumpeted work ethic, were harsher on vagrancy than were Catholics, its pan-European investigation concludes that there was little difference. Statutes on compulsory wage labour are found in France and England as early as the fourteenth century, in the wake of the Black Death; and penal legislation criminalizing beggars as disorderly, and mandating low-paid forced work, are common to Catholic and Protestant countries alike in the sixteenth century. Pugliatti concludes that in the historiographic debate between sociology's founding fathers, Marx and Weber, as to whether economic conditions or human beliefs constitute the primary long-term historical determinant of social history, the former thinker is vindicated: "provisions for the poor and the repressive and compulsive measures which accompanied them were a matter of economic policy long before becoming a matter of Protestant ethics" (21). Another discussion questions the recent critical current that argues, on the basis of antitheatrical polemic, that cross-dressing in early modern theatre sought to capitalize on widespread homoerotic proclivities, stimulating 'sodomitical' frisson and subversively 'effeminating' males. Pugliatti answers that antitheatricalism's accusations here indicate not Tudor pleasure in homosexuality but merely wider anxiety about pernicious self-disguisings.

  9. Pugliatti's final chapters engage in literary critical readings, mainly of Harman, Dekker and Greene. To my mind these are the least successful portions of this valuable, meditative and erudite work, since they draw, often ponderously, upon bodies of theory (Bakhtin, Roman Jacobson, Umberto Eco, Gérard Genette and others) to make pedestrian points needless of theoretic foundation. The one arresting suggestion is that in Alexander Iden, who slays Jack Cade in 2 Henry VI, Shakespeare is presenting that nemesis to vagrancy and celebrated rogue litterateur, Thomas Harman. Both Harman and Iden claim to be happy on a modest income, and to give to the poor, and each represents "the just man who reestablishes order", thinks Pugliatti (152). Yet Shakespeare is at pains to show us that Cade's murder is followed in fact by the dwarfing outbreak of aristocratic mayhem; and no one would argue that Harman's works or alleged actions stemmed the rising tides of miserable, tormented vagrants. Further, Shakespeare's depiction of Cade versus Iden looks weighted to the former's advantage: Iden encircles funny, solitary, starving Cade with five henchmen, and his own physical bulk so towers over the little man that the effect of cruelty seems inescapable, even before he concludes the scene by plunging his sword repeatedly into the small man's corpse.

  10. Curiously, although Pugliatti, Woodbridge and Carroll note the frequent allegation that vagrants spread sedition - a charge laid, inter alia, at the door of drama - none of them thinks to provide this theme with the substantial contextualization they accord the other motifs. No doubt this is partly because historical evidence suggests the fear to be incorrect: the destitute were too sick, exhausted, solitary and desperate, not to mention too firmly outcast, to engage in political analysis and agitation. But vagrants were not merry pastoral wanderers either, and yet that perspective is lovingly documented. And the historical reality of a supine vagrancy makes all the more remarkable England's obsessive, lurid fantasy that starving tramps were trouble-making commies. It is perhaps the inhibiting tradition of Cold War anticommunism that has rendered modern literary criticism so averse to pursuing systematically the subversive egalitarian thematic that haunts Tudor literature and popular consciousness, from Utopia to Jack Strawe, and from Humanist treatises on poverty to justifications of the gentlemanly savagery following Kett's Rebellion. Allied to this institutionalized aversiveness is the relative rarity of criticism relating Shakespeare to poverty and its discontents, and connecting his dramas to voices heard from below. For every book discussing Shakespeare - even briefly, like the three discussed above - in the context of underclass conditions, there are scores relating him instead to voices from above: the court, the aristocracy, the formal history of ideas (Aristotle, Cicero, Tacitus, Augustine, Descartes, Montaigne, etc), or to the intertextuality of canonical literature. It is symptomatic that none of the three authors discussed in this review, despite occasional quotations of Robert Crowley, appear to know of the existence and philosophy of the powerful mid-sixteenth century movement of the Commonwealth Men; nor do any of them acknowledge the underground peasant tradition, running from at least 1381 through to the Levellers and Diggers, of skeptical egalitarianism. Tudor men of property were not wholly fantasizing when they beheld in the tattered grimness of the ultra-poor the spectre of radical distributivist notions.

  11. The same political asymmetry is found, perhaps inevitably, in Howard and Dutton's Companion to Shakespeare's Works: the Tragedies, whose essays conspicuously lack concrete engagement of the politically turbulent levels of economic suffering of the lower classes in the 1590s and early Jacobean period. Naomi Conn Liebler on 'The City in Romeo and Juliet', for instance, conceives Shakespeare's critique of urban crisis in the merely aristocratic terms of lenient prince and feuding ruling families: but what of the class struggle presented by the drama, in the form of angry commoners seeking to arrest haughty Montagues and Capulets, or of the juxtaposition of banqueting patricians to starving apothecary: a virtual diagram of inequity deeply embedded in the great hunger of 1594-97? Likewise, Jyotsna Singh's essay on 'The politics of empathy in Anthony and Cleopatra' seeks "a sustained class analysis of the tragic experience of the play"(428), exhibiting the Brechtian alienations of audience sympathy from the militarily incompetent and romantically self-aggrandizing tragic rulers, produced by the words and victimization of a host of servants and subalterns. Yet Singh at no points connects this design to lower-class sufferings due to years of warfare: catastrophically failed expeditions, military impressment, officer-footsoldier hostility, troop desertions, etc. These essays, nonetheless, are refreshingly free of both the old Christian pietism and the new obscurantism, and, largely comprising authoritative summations of traditional and current thinking in the field, they offer perhaps the best single-volume introduction to the subject available. There are notably illuminating essays by David Scott Kastan on the idea of tragedy, by Rebecca Bushnell on sixteenth-century meanings of 'liberty', 'tyranny' and 'the commons' floated in Julius Caesar, and by Michael Neill on professions of friendship in Hamlet. Kiernan Ryan's essay on the mysterious sense of momentous otherness in King Lear, of "implications for which no adequate language is yet available" (386), is a haunting instance of his call for a criticism simultaneously historicist, and cognizant that Shakespeare, humanely repelled by both feudal and capitalist inhumanity, is "way out ahead of us, waiting for us to catch up" (390).

    Works Cited

    • Awdeley, John. The Fraternitie of Vacabondes. 1561.
    • Carroll, William. Fat King, Lean Beggar: Representations of Poverty in the Age of Shakespeare. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996.
    • Greene, John. A Refutation of the Apology for Actors. 1615.
    • Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.
    • Stubbes, Philip. The Anatomie of Abuses. 1583.
    • Woodbridge, Linda. Vagrancy, Homelessness and English Renaissance Literature. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2001.

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    © 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).