Is A Shoemaker’s Holiday anything more than a utopian vision of the world of the London citizen?

As a play, Thomas Dekker’s A Shoemaker’s Holiday presents a unique snapshot of the city of London. But is it an accurate picture that is painted for the audience? By the play’s resolution we have everything neatly tied up, the characters celebrating in joy at the turn of events that has led to newfound providence for them all. It is a positive play, one that ultimately focuses on the upside of everything. But looking deeper, is there a darker side to be found, something more than a utopian vision of the city? Beneath the shiny, happy exterior of the play’s ending, are there moments that present a more fractured, unpleasant world. And most importantly, on discovering these glimpses of negativity, if they do indeed exist, is the ultimate concept of a ‘Utopian London’ shattered?

Perhaps the most significant threat to the concept of a utopian feel to the play is war. It is war after all the serves as the reason Lacy disguises himself as Hans for the majority of the narrative. In the opening scenes of the play Lacy acclaims the spirit and courage of the soldiers preparing to leave London for the war in France, stating “All gallantly displayed in Finsbury /with frolic spirits long for their parting hour.” The irony here of course is that Lacy becomes a deserter, a man that many would dub a coward of the highest degree for shirking his duty to his King and country. Thus, one of the key protagonists is already set up as a morally dubious character, who not only fails to fight in a war, but sends another man in his place, who ends up injured.

The man in question who falls foul of this unfair fate – Rafe. If any character is dealt a poor hand in The Shoemaker’s Holiday, it is without a doubt him. His reintroduction to the play in Act 3, Scene 2, after his long absence in France is served by the stage direction “Enter Rafe, being lame”. His whole character now centres around his injury, furthered by his own speech as he highlights “Since I want limbs and lands”. He paints a sorry picture, searching for his lost wife, who in his absence has promised to marry another man. He is a figure of loss, and presents an interesting concept – can a society be truly utopian if it contains people who want within it?

The play offers its own solution to this problem by emphasising the sense of community between the shoemakers. In the same scene, Hodge is quick to offer aid to Rafe – “Thou shalt never see a shoemaker want bread,” he says, before providing him with the information he seeks, “Thy wife, man, is in London… We’ll ferret her out.” Here the audience is presented with a heart-warming image of comradeship between two fellow men. Rafe’s want is serviced by Hodge’s solutions; he is there to provide for and fulfil the wants expressed by Rafe. Thus, in many ways, the want is eliminated and there is an answer to every problem, furthering the idea of a utopian London.

This ties into the theme of trade and commerce within the play. In a heavily commercial society driven by goods and money, we again have to consider if this represents a ‘perfect’ city. On one hand it outlines a healthy society of thriving business and constant transactions providing the people of the city with all the material things and wealth they need to live a full life. But on the other hand, again the idea that if there is ‘want’ in a society, is it truly perfect?

If one scene more than any other depicts the ‘utopian’ London, then it is where Simon Eyre is made Lord Mayor. Through hard work he has progressed from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of success – he is the everyman done good. His exuberant, happy mood is plain for all to see as he exclaims “See here, my Maggy, a chain, a gold chain for Simon Eyre!” The use of a physical embodiment of his success is important too, the gold chain serving as a visual aid to emphasise to the audience his new-found status. The message is clear, work hard enough and riches and happiness will be your reward. Of course, this does equally present complications; the concept of gold tying into the problems outlined above. The main problem with this scene though is the irony that it is the very same scene where Rafe returns injured from the war. Here we are presented with both ends of the spectrum – the bad and the good. To add insult to injury, as Simon lists the gifts he has for his fellow shoemakers, Rafe is completely left out.

In terms of Simon however, he presents the perfect set of circumstances, as highlighted by the character himself when he says “Prince am I none, yet am I princely born!” The statement puts focus on how despite him not having royal blood, the virtues and values instilled him since his birth has ensured a life of success, and by association, happiness. The copious use of exclamation marks throughout Simon’s speeches in this scene show just how much of a positive effect his new elevated status has had on him. It also highlights a London of equal opportunity, a world where the lowly can rise to greatness – the ultimate utopian society of fairness.

In the presentation of a London that is recognisable to both contemporary audiences at the time, as well as current audiences now, we not only empathise more with the characters, but we can associate with the setting and the ideal of the play. One of the reasons so much potential for audience enjoyment is created in the play is because they are given inspiration that the same thing might happen to them in real life. The play’s characters are largely ordinary people, but achieve a resolution to all their troubles at the end of Act 5.

Another important element to consider is the concept of social justice – what place does rudeness hold in a utopian London? Hodge frequently insults Margery behind her back, saying she looks like “a cat out of a pillory” and needs a fan to hide her “wicked face”. Such derogatory comments at the expense of another person imply imperfection and a society flawed by bad feeling between its citizens. But equally, for Hodge, the insults represent a form of entertainment, furthering his own pleasure and happiness. And as the insults are made as asides, Margery is never made aware of them, so she does not personally suffer from them.

This concept links in with the statement made “To all good fellows” at the start of the play before the beginning of Act 1. Here, the audience is told “Take all in good worth that is well intended, for nothing / is proposed but mirth.” The message is clear, that the play is intended as a light-hearted piece, and by association, any insults of the sort Hodge makes are not to be taken as offensive, but in a far more cheery way. This helps to also allay the inequalities shown in the way Lacy, as a deserter, is ultimately knighted, while Rafe, who fights in the war ends up injured. The plays message asks us to always look on the optimistic side of things and concentrate on mirth and enjoyment. In the utopian society of the play’s London, if you do not allow yourself to feel negative, then negativity will simply not exist.

One of the reasons Dekker’s London seems so happy and perfect is because not only is its citizens content and fulfilled, but so too is the city itself. The place and those living in it go hand in hand, creating a mutually beneficial relationship – London was growing rapidly at the time, and so the self-confidence of the citizens in the play grows too. The play demonstrates this in the way it represents the people of London not just as citizens, but also evolves them beyond this into dramatic personalities. As illustrated above, the use of asides gives us a unique insight into the mind-set of people like Hodge, while we follow a man like Simon Eyre from humble beginnings to immense success. The play makes heroes of the ordinary man, capturing within its five acts a wide range of the social spectrum and the bonds that link the various elements of society together.

In many ways The Shoemaker’s Holiday acts as a kind of Renaissance soap opera, a microcosm of city life capturing the lives of everyday people. The audience are significantly enough removed from the events to be able to gloss over any negative aspects, yet still able to feel empowered by the positive aspects of the characters’ lives. It is here that we find a key element of the way the play presents London as utopian. There is so much negativity in the city that the play simply glosses over, and any flaws that come to light within the play itself are either only minor or solved within the play’s narrative.

This world of social mobility is picked out on stage with clothing; Simon’s own aforementioned gold chain, but also more prominently the clothes he buys for his wife. “I shall make thee a Lady. Here’s a French hood for thee.” The relationship here between status and clothes is explicit; in Simon’s eyes, by outfitting his wife in expensive clothes, they both now inhabit a ‘better’ class and their lives, by association improve. The implications here though are troublesome – now that Simon is in a new social class, does that imply his fellow shoemakers are now his lessers? The concept of a society of various unequal classes is not one that fits easily into the utopian ideal, but this matter is salved by the fact Simon rewards the other shoemakers, giving those closest to him various gifts and creating a holiday for the profession as a whole.

The concept of the ‘holiday’ within the play is so important it becomes part of the title itself – the first thing the audience experiences when they come to the play. By its very nature, the holiday is a highly positive thing, linking into the way the play focuses on the best of times. This climaxes in the celebratory feel of the final act where the King enters proceedings, his character a physical embodiment for the success, happiness and achievement all the characters have reached. “I have not met more pleasure on a day… come, lords, a while let’s revel it at home.”

The scene is suffused with this notion of pleasure and revelry, the culmination of the utopian feeling, a perfect moment in time where everything has been resolved and everyone is happy. If anything though, it is the play’s final line that serves as the most poignant message as to what the overriding sense of utopia within the play is built upon. “Wars must right wrongs which Frenchmen have begun”. The clarity of this line is self-evident – it advocates a way of life where any processes such as war that may hold within them any sense of negativity are dressed up in a sheen of righteousness and the negative aspects are passed off and blamed on foreign influences. In this respect, The Shoemaker’s Holiday does present a utopian London full of happy people, but look closer and there is a myriad of cracks in the utopian logic, the solutions to the various problems at best only paper thin.

 

Bibliography

Chambers, Edmund, An Index to the Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007)

Dekker, Thomas, The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker: Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Dekker, Thomas, The Shoemakers’ Holiday (London: Methuen Drama, 2008)

Dekker, Thomas,The Shoemakers’ Holiday (London: Nick Hern Books, 2003)

Hibbert, Christopher, The London Encyclopaedia (London: Macmillan Reference, 2010)

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