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the shoemaker's holiday

26 january 2015

I first read Thomas Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday when I was in graduate school – 35 years ago now – and till last week all I remembered of it was a single line: "Come, you mad Mesopotamians, wash your livers with this liquor."

My graduate education lacked many things, including apparently memorableness, but at least I was reading, and I'll say this, I read a lot of early English plays. My professors worked on the theory that one should read as many plays by other dramatists as by Shakespeare. As a result, I've long been aware that while Shakespeare isn't overrated, he isn't on some astral plane far above his contemporaries, either. Shakespeare was more prolific and had a wider range, perhaps; but for almost any of his plays, there's one by a fellow writer in the same genre or mode that is just as good.

And so, via that single remembered line about the Mesopotamians, I was reminded of The Shoemaker's Holiday while recently reading Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor. Merry Wives is the closest thing Shakespeare wrote to a "city comedy," and it's not all that close: his Windsor is a village of a few families who are in and out of one another's houses. Dekker's play is the genuine article, an urban farce.

Dekker's shoemakers are quintessential stage Londoners, and his play seems more populous than it is. Noble and bourgeois characters drive what marriage-and-intrigue plots The Shoemaker's Holiday, but tradesmen are at its heart, and one of its assumptions is that you never know who you'll meet in the great city on a given day, and whether or not they'll make your fortune.

The city comedy – I suppose the great example is Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair – is full of hip, verbally abusive dialogue and excessive, hedonistic emotion. When Simon Eyre, master shoemaker, calls his employees "mad Mesopotamians," or his wife a "powder-beef quean," or calls out to nobody in particular

Come out, you fat midriff-swag-belly whores, and sweep me these kennels (Scene 4)
he's engaging in some of the more elaborate verbal torrents ever written for the stage. There's an Internet chestnut called something like the Shakespearean Insult Generator, but it might as well be called the Dekker Heckler; his characters throw shade like nobody else.

Our plot opens with Lacy, nephew of the Earl of Lincoln, in love with Rose, daughter of the Lord Mayor. Neither elder thinks the other's kid good enough for his own. For that matter, Lincoln doesn't think much of his own son, who has apparently spent his college days in Wittenberg (a classmate of Hamlet and Horatio?) getting drunk, spending money, and learning to be a shoemaker.

Lincoln buys his nephew a commission as colonel of a London regiment on its way to a war in France ("fuck up, move up" was Army doctrine in 1600 just as it is today, apparently). But instead of going once more into the breach and all that, Lacy disguises himself as a Dutch shoemaker and applies for a job with Simon Eyre. The other shoemakers insist on hiring "Hans" so that they can get a laugh out of his Dutch: "Hark, butter-box, now you must yelp out some spreaken" (Scene 13). Safely ensconced in London, Lacy/Hans can now hang out with Rose, although it takes him a few scenes to get around to it.

And really, being a shoemaker is just so much goddamn fun that there's no reason to do anything else. Simon Eyre yells at his workers all day, true, but he also buys them beer all day. The footwear industry of late Elizabethan England seems to have operated in a continuous alcoholic fog. The cobblers also sing and do Morris dances, and at the drop of the hat, Simon Eyre will give them a day off, hence the play's title.

Lacy/Hans pays Simon Eyre back for all the beer and chuckles by giving him a hot tip on a ship that's just come in. Apparently in London c1600 all you have to do is go down to the docks with some loose shillings in your pocket in order to turn a colossal profit, become Lord Sheriff, and then "by death of certain aldermen" – this sounds worse than Chicago – take over as Lord Mayor. Or is it 1600? There is a King, not a queen, and for that matter there was a real Simon Eyre who flourished in the 1400s. As the 1979 Revels editors Smallwood and Wells point out, the "chronotope" of the play moves fluidly between the historical past and the present day. There will always be a London, and it will always center on the same geography, institutions, and social dynamics.

There's an enormous amount to explore about those social dynamics in The Shoemaker's Holiday, a play which celebrates class mobility and the power of urban entrepreneurs and working men in a way fairly alien to Shakespeare. I'm more interested in its plot, dramatic possibilities, opportunities for actors, and verbal energy; not that I have space to consider much of that here, either.

Simon Eyre rises to become Lord Mayor without much dramatic opposition. The tension in the play is generated by parallel marriage plots. As Rose and Lacy gravitate toward each other, a certain Jane loses her shoemaker husband Ralph to those French wars, and is wooed by Rose's ex-suitor Hammond, a fellow of ambiguous class but undoubted wealth. The shoemakers catch wind of Jane's whereabouts and fluctuating marital status when Ralph returns lamed from the wars and recognizes a shoe that she's sent as a pattern for her wedding footwear. All ends happily in that plot too, without too much breaking of heads.

Simon Eyre is the best part for an actor, with some of the shoemakers (Firk, Hodge, and of course "Hans") following. Dekker's verse (used mainly for characters of "quality," or in speaking to them) is serviceable, but the real energy of the play is in its prose. As so often in these old plays, once in a while you come across a line that sounds like it could have been written yesterday. Here's Ralph wondering about his lost wife, and Firk replying:

RALPH. And why may not this be my sweet Jane?
FIRK. And why mayst not thou be my sweet ass? Ha, Ha! (Scene 15)
Well, maybe not the "mayst not thou" part.

Dekker, Thomas. The Shoemaker's Holiday. 1600. Edited by R.L. Smallwood and Stanley Wells. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979. [The Revels Plays] PR 2490 .A1