Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"To Stirre VP Liuing Mens Minds to the like Good": Robert Armin, John in the Hospital, and the Representation of Poverty

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"To Stirre VP Liuing Mens Minds to the like Good": Robert Armin, John in the Hospital, and the Representation of Poverty

Article excerpt

One of the most frequently reproduced images of the early modern theater is the woodcut of Robert Armin that appears on the title page of Armin's play, The Two Maids of More-clacke. (1) The woodcut typically accompanies commentary on Armin's portrayal of Shakespeare's witty, artificial fools--Touchstone, Feste, Lear's Fool--as it does in Bart Van Es's recent Shakespeare in Company. (2) In fact, the woodcut depicts Armin as the natural fool he returned to again and again, in print and in performance, John in the Hospital. (3) John appears in three of Armin's five major works: as the final example in Foole upon Foole and A Nest of Ninnies, and as a character in Two Maids, where he is both depicted on the title page and named in the title itself: "The History of the two Maids of More-clacke: With the life and simple maner of IOHN in the Hospitall." (4) Armin's writing and performing of such natural fools has received less attention than his Shakespearean artificial fools, but the natural fools are integral to the complexity of Armin's art and performative identity. Moreover, Armin uses his natural fools to explore the conditions of marginalized lives. In John in the Hospital, Armin developed one particular natural fool, an actual inhabitant of London, into a recurring and beloved character who humanized the face of London poverty and reminded audiences of the need for personal and collective charity.

Written in 1609, near the end of Armin's career with the King's Men, the address to the reader at the beginning of Two Maids reveals the character's continuing importance to Armin:

   TO THE FRIENDLY PERUSER.

   Gentlemen, Cittizens, Rustickes, or quis non, I haue boldly put
   into your hands, a Historical discourse, acted by the boyes of the
   Reuels, which perchaunce in part was sometime acted more naturally
   in the Citty, if not in the hole. Howsoeuer I commit it into your
   hands to be scan 'd, and you shall find verse, as well blancke, as
   crancke, yet in the prose let it passe for currant, I would haue
   againe inacted Iohn my selfe, but Tempora mutantur in illis, I
   cannot do as I would, I haue there fore thought good to diuulge him
   thus being my old acquaintance, lack, whose life I knew, and whos
   remembrance I presume by appearance likely, wherein I whilome
   pleased: and being requested both of Court and Citty, to shew him
   in priuate, I haue therefore printed him in publike, wishing thus
   much to every one, so delighting, / might put life into this
   picture, and naturally act him to your better contents; but since
   it may not be, my entreaty is, that you would accept this dumbe
   show, and be well wishing to the substance.

   Yours euer as he is merry and frolicke, Robert Armin. (5)

Even though the play also contains the artificial fool Tutch, Armin emphasizes the natural fool John, whom he affectionately calls "my old acquaintance, lack, whose life I knew." And it was the natural fool John who was so popular with both Court and City that they wished to see Armin "shew him in priuate," in solo performances in their houses, as well as in public performances of the play.

Armin first described John in the Hospital in Foole upon Foole Or, Six Sortes of Sottes (1600). The jestbook describes six different fools--"A flat foole, and A fatt foole, A leane foole, and A cleane foole, A merry foole, and A verry foole"--"Shewing their hues, humours and behauiours, with their want of wit in their shew of wisdome." (6) In his address to the printer and binder, Armin makes the now-familiar distinction between artificial fools and natural fools, and says his focus will be on the natural fools: "many now a dayes play the fooles and want no witte, and therefore tis no wonder for me to set downe fooles naturall, when wise men before theyle be vnprofitable, will seeme fooles artificiall." (7) Three of these natural fools live in the countryside. Two others are court fools, including the famous jester of Henry VIII, Will Sommers. …

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