Manly Mechanicals on the Early Modern English Stage

Manly Mechanicals on the Early Modern English Stage

Manly Mechanicals on the Early Modern English Stage

Manly Mechanicals on the Early Modern English Stage

Synopsis

This work examines the masculinity of common, manual-labouring men on the London stage and in its printed plays. Arguing that labouring men are not always merely a source of laughter, Ronda Arab examines representations of manual workers who emerge as key figures that excite, please, and sometimes frighten the audience.

Excerpt

Men of the manual laboring classes in renaissance drama, the conventional wisdom of early modern literary studies suggests, are not important characters and, in some form or another, function as comic relief, “to be looked down upon, to be laughed at, not with” (Smith, Shakespeare and Masculinity, 121). When it is noted that sometimes these working men do have more scope in the action of a play and are not merely a source of laughter, they are generally seen to mirror aristocratic codes; Laura Stevenson’s often-quoted 1984 Praise and Paradox: Merchants and Craftsmen in Elizabethan Popular Literature argues that middling-sort craftsmen, and also merchants, were praised only in terms reflecting quasi-feudal and chivalric aristocratic values that had little to do with their own experiences. These are grim prognoses for the literary representation of any social group, and it is no wonder that scholarly work on physically laboring men has stalled, leaving it a neglected topic in early modern literary studies. But these descriptions don’t account for such vital characters as Simon Eyre and his shoemakers, who invite us to laugh at foppish, idle aristocrats and celebrate physical labor; nor for Jack Cade and his rebel artisans who also invite us to scorn the elites—while they eviscerate hegemonic social order; nor for the London citizens of Edward iv Part One, who valiantly protect their homes, work spaces, and commercial property from attack when the king fails to send his troops. While there are certainly many derogatory representations of working men in early modern drama, it is hard not to conclude that something is missing from the picture literary criticism offers. Manly Mechanicals on the Early Modern English Stage seeks to redress this missing piece by examining the many representations of craftsmen, tradesmen, and laborers who emerge as key figures that excite, please, and sometimes frighten the audience, working men whose manliness matters. I argue that representations of these men often invested them with significant cultural value; indeed, stage representations often construct the physically laboring man as an exemplar of English manhood. Manly Mechanicals on the Early Modern English Stage thus provides a corrective to the limited literary scholarship that currently exists on men who did physical labor, scholarship that has ignored or simplified the ways these men could be and were . . .

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