Welcome to Episode #51 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.
For William Shakespeare, the Globe theater itself represented a place that brought together a mix of classes. People from high society, all the way down the poorest of the poor observed Shakespeare’s plays, but how much of the bard’s work acknowledged the poor and what was the reality of charitable giving going on around William Shakespeare as he was penning some of his famous scenes about beggars? That’s the question we’ll be asking today as we chat with our guest, Robert Henke. Rob is a Professor of Drama and Comparative Literature at Washington University in St Louis, and the author of several works on Shakespeare and theater. He joins us today to discuss one book in particular, Poverty and Charity in Early Modern Theater and Performance
Rob Henke is an author and professor of Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis.
Robert Henke has published three single-authored books: Pastoral Transformations: Italian Tragicomedy and Shakespeare’s Late Plays (University of Delaware Press, 1997); Performance and Literature in the Commedia dell’Arte (Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Poverty and Charity in Early Modern Theater and Performance (University of Iowa Press, 2015).
With Eric Nicholson, he has coedited two essay collections published by Ashgate and issuing from the “Theater Without Borders” research collective, of which he is a founding member: Transnational Exchange in Early Modern Theater (2008) and Transnational Mobilities in Early Modern Theater (2014). He has edited, with M.A. Katritzky, European Theatrical Performance Practice, 1580-1750 (Ashgate, 2014). He is editing the early modern volume of A Cultural History of Western Theatre (Bloomsbury Academic).
He is presently working on three projects: a study of Shakespeare and Italian plays, scenarios and novellas; an examination of international early modern theatrical networks (especially those of humanists and traveling players); and a performance-centered source book of commedia dell’arte and related popular piazza literature.
With Margaret Garb, he is the Co-Director of the Washington University Prison Education Project, a program that provides liberal arts college courses to inmates and staff at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, Missouri.
Find out more about Rob and connect with him here.
Links to books shown here are affiliate links.
In this episode, I’ll be asking Robert about :
- What was the official policy about the poor?
What was the actual practice, and why do you think in a society rife with sumptuary laws and other manner of overall extravagant regulation, was there an accepted deviation from official policy when it came to the poor?
Do you think Shakespeare was exploring poverty philosophically in his plays because he was an artist reading ancient theologians and naturally thus inclined, or because a philosophical approach to charity was a current event in his life?
…. and more!
A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud,
shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy,
worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver'd, action-taking, whoreson,
glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue;
one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of
good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave,
beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch;
one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deny the
least syllable of thy addition.
Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601
There were a significant number of poor and vagrant members of society during Tudor England, and Elizabeth I was the first to create what's referred to today as the Old Poor System, by passing a law which tried to eliminate manipulation of the established poor relief by poor considered undeserving. Elizabeth made a clear distinction between people who found themselves fallen on hard times, and those who refused to work and instead opted to rely on the welfare of the town parish. Her law in 1601 combined the law passed in 1597 called the Act of Relief for the Poor, which made it a criminal offense not to contribute to the poor, and a new law which tried to stop good-for-nothing individuals from taking advantage of the system unnecessarily. After the dissolution of the monasteries, which had been until that point the primary source of poor relief, Elizabeth instructed each individual parish to collect a poor tax. You'll see this law show up in modern representations of England during this time period. In Disney's animated film, Robin Hood, for example, Friar Tuck's church has a poor box. Despite Friar Tuck's depiction of that poor box being voluntary and contributed out of kindness, quite to the contrary, if parish members did not contribute to the relief of the poor, under Elizabeth's Poor Law, they could be imprisoned and fined.
Whiles I may scape,
I will preserve myself; and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast.
Justice of the Peace, Collector for the Poor
Edward IV passed a Vagabonds Act which declared vagrants could face up to two years of indentured service for their crimes. Additionally, they were to be physically branded with a “V” after their first arrest for vagrancy, and would be killed after a second. It was the job of the Justice of the Peace, or “Collector of Alms” to enforce these punishments, and many were known to be lenient, unwilling to execute someone for vagrancy. Under Edward VI, in 1552, the Collector of Alms was made an official position in each parish, requiring the poor to be licensed. Basically, the government had to approve your right to be poor before you could benefit from the coffers collected for poverty. They were trying to eliminate people taking the money off wealthier members of society without needing it, or similar abuses. Because the passing of the poor act and establishment of a collector of alms, along with registration of poor was designed to take care of any poor in the city, begging was completely prohibited. An Act passed in 1572, when Shakespeare was 8 years old and just two years prior to Dudley proposing to Elizabeth I at Kenilworth, offenders caught begging would have their ear canal burned with a stake driven through it, and if you persisted after that at begging, you would be hung. It was in this way Elizabeth sought to make a distinction between those who made their living as being poor to collect alms and people who found themselves in need of charity through no fault of their own.
Thou hast seen a
farmer's dog bark at a beggar?
The almshouse, which would eventually become workhouses, were established as a place to send anyone who was able to work and provide for themselves but instead refusing to do so, preferring to collect alms and subsist on that. Such members were considered a blight on society, plainly taking advantage of others instead of contributing, and the workhouse was a place they were sent in order to mend their attitude. Sometimes, the alms hosue would even been called a House of Correction as a kind of incarceration whose purpose was to convince vagrants and beggars who were physically able to work or hold a job, to go out and earn their keep instead of letting others do it for them.
The laws about the poor and the almshouses in particular are the included in the argument between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely at the beginning of Henry V. In 1410, (“The eleventh year of the last king Henry” Henry V Act I.1_) Parliament suggested confiscating church land. Henry V refused to attack the Church and the House of Commons had to beg for the bill to be struck off the record.
Photo by Stephen Fry. “Alms Houses, Chipping Campden This row of alms houses on Church Street was endowed by a local wool merchant, Baptist Hicks, in 1612. It is an indication of how wealthy a town Chipping Campden was in the 17th century.” No changes have been made to this image, and it is shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Original Source
It was not uncommon for England's poor to travel extensively in the 16-17th centuries, trying to locate more wealthy parishes which could give more generously to their plight. Registered poor laws during Shakespeare's lifetime tried to limit this practice by requiring the poor to be attached to the town where they received alms by birth, marriage, or apprenticeship.
And, to relief of lazars and weak age,
Of indigent faint souls past corporal toil.
A hundred almshouses right well supplied;
And to the coffers of the king beside,
A thousand pounds by the year: thus runs the bill.
Vagrancy and the Playwright
The laws against vagrancy was a personal one for William Shakespeare, as when he arrived in London he would not have been able to simply decide he was a playwright and start performing theater. While this arrival in London is one lacking in a great deal of information for William Shakespeare's history, what we do know is that players were not allowed to be unattached from a patron or baron who would vouch for their legitimacy as professionals. The 1572 Act declared “all fencers, bearwards, common players of interludes, and minstrels (not belonging to any baron of this realm, or to any other honourable person of greater degree),” wandering abroad without the license of two justices at the least, were subject “to be grievously whipped and burned through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about.” For Shakespeare and his playing company, this meant that if they were to travel for performances they would need to take papers with them certifying that they were under official patronage. John Shakespeare, William's father, was the man who would have been in charge of approving the papers of travelling companies and ensuring only those licensed to do so were performing plays in William's hometown of Stratford Upon Avon.
Shakespeare's Place in History
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