Begging at the Gate: Jack Straw and the Acting out of Popular Rebellion
Schillinger, Stephen, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England
THE Life and Death of Jack Straw (1) is a short, anonymous, and rarely read history play from 1593 or 1594. (2) We know nothing of its authorship, little of its performance history, and even less of how audiences reacted to its performance, if it was performed at all. Extant copies of the play are probably incomplete or error-ridden. From a comparison to the various other documents produced by its original printer we can surmise that the play was initially printed with modest profit aspirations and without much concern for the specific content of the text. (3) Even though we have no reason to attribute the text to one person or another, its language either echoes, or is echoed in, other texts from the period. (4) In short, all we know of Jack Straw is the result of what we can read in its two alternate versions, and what we can imagine as possible for this play from within its context.
Situating Jack Straw in its context is a deeply compelling project as the play represents the most important popular revolt in English history and does so at a time when London was frequently stirring with riots. If ever there was a play in need of reconsideration after the changes in the study of early modern drama, it is Jack Straw. In its curious relationship to the actual 1381 uprising, Jack Straw departs from its sources and, in its contradictory representation of the rebels and the royalists alike, poses intriguing questions about early modern English culture, riots, popular rebellion, and the reception of early modern plays.
Jack Straw gives voice to the period's most radical ideas about popular revolt and protest, suggesting how the public theater could reflect a sense of significant political unrest in the city. Jack Straw represents historical events which themselves were part of the early modern cultural memory in significantly different ways for people at different positions in the social hierarchy. The figure of Jack Straw participates in the Robin Hood tradition, and as such is an important cultural signifier so that his representation cannot easily be contained by royalist or aristocratic readings. Nonetheless, Jack Straw has very rarely been studied. (5) The issue is not that Jack Straw is literally never read nor mentioned in scholarship, but that its consideration is so profoundly superficial and seemingly secondhand that even very basic aspects of the interactions between characters are entirely lost in scholarship. This most cursory understanding of the play makes it difficult to use the play to develop our knowledge of either the stage or the period. My reading of Jack Straw emphasizes the public playhouse as a site in which sentiments of more genuinely radical, common revolt are given articulation. Yet these articulations in the play are almost impossible to see as long as the context of reception is constrained by current models for understanding power and audience reception, and as long as the play is read only in the service of studying Shakespeare.
Jack Straw begins with the rebels presented as sympathetic and ends with the valorization of the royalist position and the valorization of the Lord Mayor. The royalist conclusion is politically inevitable for the printing and performance of the play. So the questions remain: how sympathetically are we to read the rebels after the first scene? Also, how radical are we to perceive the representation of the rebellion throughout the body of the play? The argument of this essay is that the play's royalist-didactic conclusion should be seen as necessarily formulaic and designed to safely contain what is otherwise a generally sympathetic representation of the rebels and the goals of the rebellion. A sympathetic reading of the rebellion emerges by studying not only the formal construction of the play, but from its possible audience reception. Furthermore, the material texts and the adjustments therein are indicative of early modern readers who approved of the rebel position. …