Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Merchants of Venice in a Knack to Know an Honest Man

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Merchants of Venice in a Knack to Know an Honest Man

Article excerpt

THE anonymous comedy A Knack to Know an Honest Man seems to have been popular with audiences in 1590s London: Philip Henslowe records twenty-one performances at the Rose Theatre between 22 October 1594 and 3 November 1596, and when the play was published in quarto in 1596 as A Pleasant Conceited Comedie, Called, A Knacke to Know an Honest Man, readers were told on the title page that the play had been "sundrie times plaied about the Citie of London." (1) It has, however, received relatively little attention from critics. With the exception of Arthur Sherbo, who in 1957 compared the play to the sentimental drama of the eighteenth century, most have tended to consider it alongside the earlier play A Knack to Know a Knave, performed seven times at the Rose by Lord Strange's Men in June 1593 and December-January 1593-94. (2) In a 1930 article on social criticism in Elizabethan morality plays, Louis B. Wright made brief reference to A Knack to Know an Honest Man as an "effort to capitalize on the popularity of A Knack to Know a Knave"; despite the presence of "a morality character, Penitent Experience, who travels through the state, witnessing evils and trying to right them," the later play contains no "really serious treatment of social conditions." Assuming there to have been a "rivalry between Shakespeare's fellows and the other chief London company, the Admiral's Men" in the 1590s, Robert Boies Sharpe argued in 1935 that A Knack to Know an Honest Man was "probably written in emulation of the popular older play"; if A Knack to Know a Knave passed from Lord Strange's to the Lord Chamberlain's Men on the latter company's formation in 1594, this would give us "our first example of competition between the playwrights of the rival companies." Laurens J. Mills discussed the play in 1937 as an instance of the "friendship theme" whose prevalence in Tudor and Stuart literature is the subject of his survey. He was surprised to find that A Knack to Know a Knave "contains only a little friendship material," and argued that A Knack to Know an Honest Man "was probably a competitor to the previous 'Knack' play; in order to compete with it, the new play supplies what the older one lacked." Finally, David Bevington suggested in 1968 that the later play may have been written "in response to the anti-Puritan A Knack to Know a Knave," to which he devotes more of his attention. (3)

In view of the similarity of the plays' titles and the proximity of their dates, it seems reasonable to posit some sort of relationship between them; as Sharpe writes of A Knack to Know an Honest Man, "The chief points of likeness are the title, a direct allusion in the text to the title of the rival play, a moralistic purpose to separate good from evil characters, and the presence of characters going under the names of abstract qualities, as in the morality plays." (4) However, there are also significant differences. A Knack to Know a Knave is set in the England of King Edgar and Saint Dunstan, and is heavily influenced by the prose works of Robert Greene, who may indeed have been one of its authors. (5) A coneycatcher, a corrupt courtier, a hoarding farmer, and an uncharitable priest who takes goods in pawn (the last two also export wares to England's enemies overseas) are denounced, and mercilessly punished, by Honesty. A Knack to Know an Honest Man, by contrast, is set in contemporary Venice, and combines a friendship plot akin to the story of Damon and Pithias with a vengeful merchant character apparently inspired by Marlowe's Barabas. (6) Despite the similarities that Sharpe identifies, A Knack to Know an Honest Man seems to be a play with a very different set of thematic concerns from A Knack to Know a Knave; furthermore, I would argue, it is a play that deserves proper critical attention in its own right. In the essay that follows I will examine what I believe to be the play's most innovative aspect, namely the way in which it treats merchants--a class of people that A Knack to Know a Knave, despite its interest in acquisitiveness and in financial wrongdoing, does not directly criticize. …

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