By Michael Flachmann
Thomas Dekker’s comic masterpiece The Shoemaker’s Holiday seems at first glance to be a late sixteenth-century version of “The Beverly Hillbillies Make Reeboks in the Renaissance.” Loosely based on part one of Thomas Deloney’s The Gentle Craft, a collection of stories celebrating the exploits of famous shoemakers in England, the drama’s main plot chronicles the meteoric rise to fame and fortune by Simon Eyre, an ambitious, mad-cap entrepreneur who through hard work, clever deception, and magnificent luck becomes lord mayor of London. Attended by Margery (his somewhat ditzy wife), Hodge (his industrious and kind-hearted foreman), Firk (a journeyman addicted to bawdy puns and cheap ale), and a gaggle of good-natured but unsophisticated cobblers, Eyre ascends to prominence in a delightful dramatic parable that rewards virtue over social status, industry over aristocracy, and love over law.
Garnishing this central story are two romantic sub-plots--each of which deals with love lost, then found. The first involves one of Eyre’s journeymen, Ralph Damport, who is conscripted into the army and sent off to fight in France. Returning wounded from the wars, he finds that his young wife, Jane, thinking him dead, has left Eyre’s shop and moved to a different section of London, where she is being courted by an unscrupulous gentleman named Hammon. In the other sub-plot a young aristocrat, Roland Lacy, disguises himself as a Dutch shoemaker so he can avoid going to war and instead court the beautiful Rose Oatley, with whom he is in love against her father’s wishes.
Simon Eyre’s Horatio Alger, shoeleather-to-riches story of working class triumph, with its two attendant love-plots, is described by Dekker in a dedicatory epistle as “a merry conceited comedy” wherein “nothing is proposed but mirth,” yet beneath the play’s comic surface lie a number of important themes which provide insight into the economic, social, and political milieu of London during the years 1598 to 1600 when the play was written and produced. Chief among these is the ascent of capitalism, in which Eyre’s dramatic elevation to lord mayor and his accumulation of an immense personal fortune emblemize the upwardly mobile middle class of England during a time of great financial opportunity and expansion.
All the major characters of the play, in fact, are engaged in the buying and selling of goods. Eyre, for instance, makes his fortune principally through purchasing a shipload of foreign merchandise and reselling it for enormous profit; Lacy bribes his way out of the service so he can be with Rose; and Hammon tries to buy Jane from Ralph with an offer of twenty pounds of gold. Even during the play’s denouement, when the king honors the shoemakers with a visit to their banquet on Shrove Tuesday, Eyre manages to raise the specter of commercialism when he talks his sovereign into giving him a special patent to buy and sell leather products two days each week in the newly named Leaden Hall. Eyre’s economic triumphs, set against this swirling background of money won and lost, signal a victory for the bourgeoisie at the expense of indolent and snobbish aristocrats like Hammon and Lacy’s pompous and insufferable father, the earl of Lincoln. True human value, Dekker seems to argue, comes not from riches and social prominence, but from the honest labor, vitality, patriotism, and camaraderie personified so vividly by Eyre’s gallant shoemakers.
Closely allied to this theme of nascent capitalism is the play’s emphasis upon the development of guilds--early trade unions, each with its own particular language, group identity, mythology, and patron saint. Based upon Dekker’s intimate knowledge of contemporary working class conditions in London, the play offers a delicious feast of cordwainer jargon. “Hark you, shoemaker,” Firk asks Lacy, who is disguised as a Dutch cobbler, “have you all your tools? A good rubbing-pin, a good stopper, a good dresser, your four sorts of awls, and your two balls of wax, your paring knife, your hand and thumb-leathers, and good Saint Hugh’s bones to smooth your work?” (4.78 82). This is a world in which people take immense pride in their work, and they are often rewarded for their diligence in mysterious and unexpected ways. Ralph, for example, is reunited with his wife when he recognizes a pair of sandals he once gave her: “This shoe, I durst be sworn, / Once covered the instep of my Jane. / This is her size, her breadth. Thus trod my love. / These true-love knots I pricked. I hold my life, / By this old shoe I shall find out my wife” (14.45 49; all references to line numbers are from Thomas Dekker, The Shoemaker’s Holiday, ed. Anthony Parr [London: A & C Black Ltd, 1990]).
In knowing the “size” and “breadth” of Jane’s feet, Ralph has captured the dimensions of her very soul. As the Cinderella motif implies, marriages—like comfortable footwear—need a perfect “fit” in order to be successful. Jane eventually rejects Hammon because he doesn’t “measure up” to the same moral and ethical standards displayed by Ralph and the rest of the good lads in the Shoemakers’ Guild who are loyal to their union brothers and mutually supportive in a manner that the play’s aristocrats could never understand or duplicate.
Focused so tightly upon commercialism and the emergence of industrial guilds, The Shoemaker’s Holiday also centers, not surprisingly, upon the city of London: the familiar, bustling, real-life locus of action which serves as scenic background for the fictional characters and events of the play. Eyre and his imaginary cohorts move through a dramatic landscape which includes such well-known place names as St. Paul’s Church, Leaden Hall, Watling Street, the Guildhall, Tower Street, and many other locations--particularly in the East End of London, the heart of trade--which would have been immediately familiar to Dekker’s audiences. The milieu of the play seemed like home to viewers in 1600 because it was home to them. In the same manner, the drama’s concentration on urban events also helps define it as one of the earliest examples of a popular and influential literary genre we now call “Jacobean city comedy,” which traditionally included sexual intrigue, class mobility, and the obsessive pursuit of wealth--in short, all the seamy ingredients of today’s most popular movies and television shows.
Other important themes in The Shoemaker’s Holiday include the rich and exotic uses of language--particularly in Eyre’s highly imaginative, rhetorical, and alliterative verbal flourishes; Lacy’s pseudo-Dutch dialogue; Hammon’s courtly, fashionable discourse; and Firk’s rambling obscenities concerning the erotic possibilities of the “tongues,” “laces,” and “tightness” of women’s shoes. Also of interest is the “holiday” aspect of the play, in which the three central plots move from union to wandering to joyful reunion at the conclusion; the employment of “scapegoat” figures like Hammon, Oatley, and the Earl of Lincoln, whose mean-spirited antagonism is defeated by the comic progress of the drama; and the gradual enrichment of clothing worn by Eyre and his wife as they rise in social and financial prominence. Most intriguing, perhaps, is the odd amorality of the world of the play: Eyre illegally impersonates a city official in order to purchase the shipload of valuable merchandise and then ascends to the position of lord mayor following an unlikely scenario in which “seven of the alderman be dead, or very sick” (13.35 36); Lacy deserts from the army only to be pardoned later by his strangely unperturbed king; and Jane and Ralph appropriate all of Hammon’s wedding gifts because, as Hodge argues, “The law’s on our side. He that sows in another man’s ground forfeits his harvest”(18.63 64).
In the final analysis, however, The Shoemaker’s Holiday may tell us even more about its author than it does about the world in which he lived. Thomas Dekker was a popular playwright, though hardly a wealthy one. Unlike Shakespeare, who as a shareholder in his own theatrical company earned a great deal of money on the plays he composed, Dekker was a “jobbing” dramatist who moved from one employment to another as his services were needed. Though he wrote several well-known pamphlets—including The Wonderful Year (1603), The Gull’s Hornbook (1606), and The Seven Deadly Sins of London (1606)--and had a hand in at least five other plays, he lived in continual poverty and was frequently cast into debtors’ prison. Incredibly, he earned only three pounds for writing The Shoemaker’s Holiday, his best and most influential play. Viewed in this light, Dekker’s “merry” comedy presents life in early seventeenth-century England as more of a dream than actual reality. Simon Eyre’s London is an idealized dramatic universe in which hard work and perseverance are always fairly rewarded with royal favor, financial security, true love, and good fellowship: Here even unsophisticated cobblers and minor dramatists can enjoy sweet success. Dekker has, therefore, stitched together with his playwright’s awl a compelling, seductive, and very stylish piece of social propaganda. If only his impoverished life could have imitated his art!