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Welcome to Episode #129 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

Society in Elizabethan England is well known for being divided by class. There were workers, peasants, aristocracy, and even a kind of middle class but what was the definition of a labourer? When it comes to exploring the roles of characters like Ariel and Caliban in Shakespeare’s Tempest it is important to understand the 16th century mindset towards labor. Under Catholic England, the monasteries had decided they placed a higher value on the ability to commune with your thoughts and labor at intellectual pursuits, whereas Protestant England had leanings toward a more active, physical labor as being more valuable, particularly an emphasis on trades like making gloves, shoes, or wool. The practical aspects of everyday life in England like food to eat, houses to live in, and clothes to wear were all built on the value of craftsmen, tradesmen, servants, laborers, and what Henry V might have called England’s yeomen. But what is an industrious servant precisely? Can we recognize one when we see them on stage? What are the appearances, actions, or conditions of a servant for Tudor England, and what was Shakespeare trying to draw attention to with characters like Ariel who spend most of the play, The Tempest, yearning for his freedom. To explore the realities of servanthood, including where superstition overlaps with practicality to create a suspicion of magic associated with good craftsmanship is our guest, James Tink.

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James Tink is Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature, School of Arts and Letters, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan. He researches Shakespeare and early-modern English literature, and he has recently published in volumes including Shakespeare and Money (edited by Graham Holderness, 2020) and Literature and London, 1603-1901 (edited by Barnaby Ralph et al, 2017). He also writes on contemporary British literature and is co-editor of the essay collection Seeing Animals after Derrida (Lexington Books, 2018)

In this episode, I’ll be asking James Tink about :

  • Culturally during Shakespeare’s lifetime, was there a distinction made between physical labor and intellectual labor?
  • Was one version of labour considered more valuable than the other?
  • How was this perspective received in the audience when most of the people in the seats at The Globe would have been artisans or craftsmen?

… and more!

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What, Ariel! my industrious servant, Ariel!
Prospero

Tempest (IV.1)

Act I, Scene 1 of The Tempest by William Shakespeare, in an engraving by Benjamin Smith based on a painting by George Romney. Published by J. & J. Boydell at the Shakespeare Gallery, Pall Mall & at No. 90 Cheapside. | 1797 | The titular tempest wrecks the ship of King Alonso. As revealed in Act I, Scene 2, the tempest was conjured by Prospero (old man, right), who sent the spirits (seen in the upper left) to create the storm. His daughter Miranda clings to him, as she does in Scene 2, begging for the lives of those on the vessel – but Prospero assures her used his magic to prevent anyone from dying, though he will lead people to believe that others have in the events to come in the play. His brother, Antonio, who usurped his place as the Duke of Milan, is on the vessel, and it is against him he seeks revenge… | Source

Suspicious of Idleness

In his research, James defines the idea of a gentleman with a reference from 1583 saying “The Tudor Humanist Thomas Smith had stated…that he ‘who can live idly and without manual labour, and will bear the port, charge and countenance of a gentleman…shall be taken for a gentleman’.” This definition suggests that being a gentleman could be more about looking the part than any kind of character quality. James explains,
” [There was a ] suspicion of people who were idle for people who weren’t supposed to be gentlemen.”
During this time you saw the rise of what is called “the 30 pound Knight.” These were men who were created as barons/gentlemen by paying money to the King. James explains that among the populace,
“the worry [was] that some of these men didn’t deserve their status. [A] theme of Eastward Ho by Ben Jonson and The Tempest, in a way, Gonzalo talks about a commonwealth/utopia, where everyone can be idle that raises the point of can a gentleman afford to be idle or does it lead to problems (as it does in the play).”
Asking these questions about what constituted work and how to do it properly were not only real questions being asked at the time Shakespeare wrote these plays but relate to many of the laws against vagrancy passed in England which also required acting companies like Shakespeare's to be representing a patron in order to be considered gainfully employed.

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Go, hang yourselves all! you are idle shallow things:
Malvolio

Twelfth Night (III.4)

Portrait of Francis Bacon | 1617| Paul van Somer I (1576/1578–1622), Formerly attributed to Frans Pourbus the Younger (1569–1622) | Source

Culture was questioning idleness and vagrancy

At the same time Shakespeare was writing The Tempest, you have Francis Bacon writing The Advancement of Learning as well as John Florio’s Montaigne, both considered potential sources for Shakespeare’s play. This plethora of sources tells a tale about the morality of hard work and suggests that this debate over the purpose of labour was a hot topic for the 16th century. James' research into the Industrious Servant addresses the concept of ildeness and vagrancy, saying that when it comes to whether this was a hot topic:

“What to do with unemployment they called idleness of vagrancy. Abolition of monasteries and disappearance of charity as a ritual, left a void in poor relief. This was a huge concept–[questioning] the best use of labor, [addressing the ] problem of people with nothing to do. [These issues are manifest in the] revolt of Caliban in the play.”

Defining exactly what it means for people to have “nothing” to do was also up in the air as Shakespeare was examining servanthood through Ariel in his play. Culturally during Shakespeare’s lifetime, there a distinction made between physical labor and intellectual labor. James explains, 

“[ This issue] goes back a huge way in culture. Difference between vitae activa, vitae activa templa [Cassidy's horrible Latin spelling, likely wrong. Please correct me in the comments.] … life based on doing vs life based on thinking. Goes back to Jesus, Mary, Martha, —Martha works very busy to handle the hosting duties, Mary just visits with Jesus and Jesus praises Mary. Luke from the Bible….[The question became whether] contemplative life was superior to active life? Monastic culture saw contemplative life as superior. There is a long tradition… two forms of labor explored through scriptural study and literature.”

James' research points out that Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (which we know profoundly influenced Shakespeare) was also exploring these varieites of work.

Read The Advancement of Learning on Google Books here. You can also purchase your own edition on Amazon. There's the 99 cent version from Centaur Classics, as well as this version The Two Books of Francis Bacon: Of the Proficience and Advancement Of Learning, Divine and Human from Wentworth Press (or just search for Francis Bacon and the title to find more. It's highly distributed and available). You can check out John Florio's Montaigne and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales at these links. (or again, just search for them, but hopefully these links make that easy.)

The Essays of Montaigne. Done Into English by John Florio, Anno 1603. Edited With an Introd. by George Saintsbury; Volume 2
The Canterbury Tales: The New Translation by Gerald J. Davis
The Canterbury Tales (Penguin Classics)

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I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour.
Shakespeare

Venus and Adonis

Shoemakers from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), 1568. Source

The Magic of Artisans

How was this perspective on labour received by the audience when most of the people in the seats at The Globe would have been artisans or craftsmen? James explains, 

“[It] comes down to the mystery of what did audiences think of his plays. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, artisans are comical. Is that insulting? Clearly not, it was hugely popular.  Apprenticeship was a path to citizenship and status in London. Shakespeare’s play company and acting company had apprentices (boy actors, [for] example). Certainly a way to think the social life of London was being represented in the playhouses largely through city comedy –which Shakespeare specifically didn’t write compared with his contemporaries.” 

James paper draws a parallel between craftsmanship and magic when he says “modes of artisanal craft and specialist knowledge in the sixteenth century could be represented as a form of “secret knowledge” comparable to magic.” The contemporary mindset in the 16th century was such that when you talked about someone able to conjur magic, it could apply to artisans. James explains,

“By “magic” the word often crudely means craft or technique. Genre of “Book of Secrets” in the 16th century claims to tell the secret arts of how to make things happen. Might be magic like a MAgus or supernatural, but some of the contents are quite practical like How to Make an instrument, etc… 17th century artisans and technical knowledge overlap with magic and making things happen or finding cause/effects for various factors. Context in which Francis Bacon (not a magician) was still writing about learning/discovery and experiment as a form of technique. Skills of wanting to learn how to do something could be represented as magic. One feature of being an apprentice is a promise to maintain the secrets of your master. Implies craft technique and skill. [There were even] carpenters arrested for sorcery because their work was so good.”

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I' the commonwealth I would by contraries Execute all things; for no kind of traffic Would I admit; no name of magistrate; Letters should not be known; riches, poverty, And use of service, none; contract, succession, Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none; No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil; No occupation; all men idle, all; And women too, but innocent and pure
Gonzalo

Tempest (II.1)

The ‘Red House' at Framlingham Castle in Suffolk was founded as a workhouse in 1664 | Source 

The Poor Laws

The population in England grew rapidly over the course of the 16th century, despite numerous bouts of plague which claimed several infants, including children which preceeded William Shakespeare in birth order of the Shakespeare family. This grapid growth in people caused problems with an over amount of people and not enough infastructure to support them. Poor people in villages could, and often were, put out of their homes by wealthy landowners. This caused a great deal of strife on both sides. Often, the poor would revolt or riot to express their displeasure, including the Kett rebellion where one man, William Kett, lead a group against the government in 1549, claiming “that all bond men may be made free, for God made all free with his precious blood-shedding [the crucifixion of Christ]”(Source). 

While the term “workhouse” isn't recorded until 1631, after the passing of the Elizabethan Poor Laws, England saw the creation of the House of Correction, which is essentially the same thing. These houses were places where the poor who were not considered contributing to society were put to work. In this image, the woman in the center is working in Bridewell Prison (a portion of Bridewell Palace dedicated as a place of correction in the mid 16th century). You can see the woman is beating hemp, and being told to do so by the woman standing to her right.  This is part of an entire series of engravings by William Hogarth called “A Harlot's Progress” Source | More about the series.

Thus, the “idle poor” were provided temporary relief by the government in an effort to solve the practical problem of rising inflation alongside a rapid deterioration in living standards across the board. This relief came in the form of poor laws. While the workhouse would not be firmly established until much later, the 16th century saw laws passed that tried to gainfully employ, or exchange goods and services for work with what was called the “impotent” or “idle” poor. 

Become a Member

Immediately access to our digital streaming app, PLUS Bonus content, exclusive interviews, documentaries, digital history activity kits, and more! Come inside, where you can cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare.

Books & Resources James Tink Recommends

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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