Friday 10 June 2016

10 June, 1592 - A Knack to Know a Knave

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: ne ... R at a knacke to knowe a knave 1592 10day ... iijll xijs

In modern English: New. Received at A Knack to Know a Knave, 1592, 10th day [of June] ... £3 and 12 shillings

Today was an exciting day at the Rose playhouse, as Lord Strange's Men premiered a new play! A Knack to Know a Knave is a rather daft moral fable about the unmasking of devious tricksters. As we have seen, debut performances of new plays are always very popular at the Rose, but this one was at the higher end of the spectrum, being in the same league as Harry VI and The Tanner of Denmark, whose premieres appear to have filled the theatre to capacity. After the mysterious premiere of The Tanner of Denmark, which they never performed again, the company must have been keen for this new play to be a more straightforward hit.

The play

The 1594 publication of A Knack to
Know a Knave
What made A Knack to Know a Knave so popular? When it was first published, in 1594, its title page described it as follows:
A most pleasant and merry new comedy entitled A Knack to Know a Knave, newly set forth as it hath sundry times been played by Ed. Alleyn and his company; with Kemp's applauded merriments of the men of Gotham in receiving the King into Gotham.
This description is not very informative about the play's content, as the scene involving the "men of Gotham" is only a tiny part of it. Instead, this title page appeals to fans of Edward Alleyn and Will Kemp, the stars of Lord Strange's Men, treating them as guarantees of quality.

The play itself reads as though it is trying to please everyone, as it fuses a number of genres from the repertory of Lord Strange's Men. At essence, it is a morality play like A Looking Glass for London: it preaches against dishonest behaviour by depicting the downfall of four knaves. But it adds another storyline about a king who falls in love with a country woman and receives assistance from a necromantic friar, a tale that is reminiscent of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. And a lot of the dialogue is filled with the 'high astounding terms' popularized by Christopher Marlowe: grand speeches full of classical allusions and exotic place names, as in Muly Molocco. In addition, there's a scene of comedy rustic yokels for good measure. So, if you didn't like anything in A Knack to Know a Knave, you probably didn't like theatre.

Unfortunately, despite this entertaining content, the surviving playtext is not an easy read. It's full of weird grammar and awkward verse, and some scenes seem condensed to the point of incomprehensibility. For these reasons, most scholars think the text is a 'memorial reconstruction' - that is, it was put together by actors who were recalling (or half-recalling) their lines from performances of the play.

Still, A Knack to Know a Knave is a vivid glimpse of just how weird and wonderful the popular Elizabethan theatre could be. Let's look more closely at how it works...

The knaves

A Knack to Know a Knave is set in 10th century England, during the reign of King Edgar. The King asks an allegorical figure named Honesty to expose all the knavery in his kingdom.

The knaves from an Italian
pack of cards, c.1490
One source of knavery is the nasty old bailiff of Hexham, who has four knavish sons (presumably an allusion to the four knaves in a pack of cards). On his death bed, the bailiff gives a final word of advice to his sons, telling them to live by pure selfishness and don't be afraid of Hell:

Carve to yourselves and care not what they say
That bid you fear the fearful Judgement Day:
Live to yourselves while you have time to live,
Get what you can, but see you nothing give.

Immediately after he says this, the old man dies and realizes that he is "damned to ever-burning fire" when a devil enters and carries him away. But the sons are unfazed and resolve to follow their father's advice.

Image from A Quip for an Upstart Courtier
(1592), a prose example of 'estate satire', 
The four sons occupy different social positions, but each of them exploits the weak by using deceit. Cuthbert the coney-catcher (con-artist) uses falsehoods to steal a farm. Perin the courtier deceives people by misusing the royal seal. Walter the farmer oppresses his neighbours and sells corn to the enemy. And John the puritanical priest avoids giving charity. The play thus belongs to the genre known as 'estate satire', which criticizes wrongdoing at every level of society; the brothers represent city, country, court and church respectively.

Over the course of the play, Honesty exposes all of the brothers' lies. You might think that an allegorical figure named Honesty might be kind and forgiving even to the worst villains, but no: he sentences them to hideous punishments. Cuthbert the coney-catcher is to have his tongue pinned to his chest and must stand in the marketplace as a spectacle until birds peck his eyes out. Walter the farmer, who loved corn too much, is sentenced to have his limbs cut off and to be left in a cornfield where crows will peck out his eyes. Perin the courtier will be humiliated by being hanged at Tyburn with a cheap rope, like a commoner. And John the priest will be taken to Finsbury Fields and shot. This may seem a little drastic, but, as Honesty explains to the audience, "I warn you all that use such subtle villainy, / Beware that you like these be found by Honesty". It's not a comforting play.

King Edgar and the fair maid

King Edgar illustrated in 966; from
BL Cotton Vespasian A viii 
The story of the four knaves is interwoven with another tale about dishonesty. King Edgar hears of a beautiful maid named Alfrida. Ashamed to woo her himself, he sends a lord, Ethenwald, to woo her by proxy, but Ethenwald falls in love with Alfrida himself and marries her, telling the king that she turned out to be too ugly to be suitable to a monarch.

When the King decides to visit the couple, Ethenwald fears that he will steal Alfrida from him, and persuades her to swap identities  with the kitchen maid. When the King learns what they have done - committing yet another act of dishonesty - he angrily decides to murder Ethenwald. Bishop Dunstan, a wizardly friar who advises the King, fears that he is turning into a tyrant and summons a devil to convince him not to.

Exactly how the devil changes the King's mind is unclear, and it's an example of the messiness of the surviving text. The King insists, "I will never pardon Ethenwald!" Dunstan summons the devil Asmeroth, and "Here enter Alfrida disguised with the Devil". The King asks incredulously "Is this Alfrida?" and Dunstan tells him it is, and "This is Ethenwald, / That lays his breast wide open to your grace". The King pardons Alfrida and Ethenwald, and all are happy. This doesn't make any sense. What changed the King's mind? What exactly did the devil do? And where did Ethenwald come from? There seem to be missing stage directions and the whole thing is a bit baffling.

The mad men of Gotham

From the title page of a 1690 edition of
a book of Gotham jokes. It illustrates
the following joke: "Of a time, the men of 
Gotham would have penned in a cuckoo
whereby she should sing all year. So in the
midst of the town they made a hedge,
round in compass, and got a cuckoo and
put [her] therein, saying to her 'Sing here
all the year, thou shalt lack neither meat
nor drink.' The cuckoo, as soon as she
perceived herself encompassed within
the hedge, flew away. 'A vengeance on her,'
said they, 'we made not our hedge
high enough!'"
The muddled text of A Knack to Know a Knave is at its most disappointing when we arrive at the comic scene involving the men of Gotham. The title page advertises this as the play's main selling point: "Kemp's applauded merriments of the men of Gotham in receiving the King into Gotham". On the way up to Ethenwald's house, King Edgar passes through the village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire, which in legend was inhabited by fools. Presumably, the great comic actor Will Kemp had the audience in stitches during this scene. But you'd never know it from the short and unfunny scrap of dialogue that survives.

The yokels of Gotham exchange some dimwitted conversation ("Now let us constult among ourselves" says one). Then the King passes by and the Gothamites present him with a petition, which requests "nothing but to have a license to brew strong ale thrice a week, and he that comes to Gotham and will not spend a penny on a pot of ale, if he be a-dry, that he may fast". You might expect some banter between King and commoners about this petition, but the King simply says "Well sirs, we grant your petition," and off he goes. Hilarious.

I think you probably had to be there to understand why this was funny. But that's precisely the point. As a comic performer, Will Kemp specialized in improvisation rather than following a set script, so we can image that this rather flat little scene was merely a launch pad for Kemp and his sidekicks to riff from and to spin out in whatever way amused their audience most.

Weigh it as it is

As you can see, A Knack to Know a Knave was probably great fun on stage but is not a very pleasurable read. This applies equally well to the last lines, in which Honesty asks (in rather clunky verse) the audience to reward them with applause:

And thus, though long at last we make an end,
Desiring you to pardon what's amiss
And weigh the work though it be grossly penned;
Laugh at the faults and weigh it as it is
And Honesty will pray upon his knee:
God cut them off that wrong the Prince or commonality
And may her days of bless never have end
Upon whose life so many lives depend.

If you really want to read A Knack to Know a Knave, you can look at this Victorian edition from John Payne Collier's Five Old Plays (1851). 

What we learn from this

We learn from A Knack to Know a Knave that sometimes you lose a great deal from these plays if you didn't see them in the Rose playhouse in the 1590s. Indeed, Knack seems aimed very directly at theatregoers of that specific time, because it is packed with reminders of other popular plays that the audience would have known. Here are just three examples.

At one point, King Edgar compares himself to "wise Vespasian, Rome's rich emperor". This would remind the Rose's regular audience of Titus and Vespasian, which had been popular with the crowds in recent months. Later, when an old man praises King Edgar's unbiased application of justice, he compares him to "Vespasian, Rome's virtuous emperor, / Who for a blow his son did give a swain [i.e. a peasant] / Did straight command that he should lose his hand." Perhaps this line actually describes a scene in the lost play of Titus and Vespasian; if so, you can imagine the audience nodding as they remember it.

When the Bailiff of Hexham is carried away by a devil into Hell, the audience was seeing replayed a popular stage tradition that went back to the Middle Ages. If the bailiff's death was played comically, it might remind them of the demise of Miles in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, or if it was performed more seriously, it might recall the tragic ending of Dr Faustus, which was then being performed by a company at a different theatre.

And in another scene, Alfrida's father invites King Edgar into his house, saying
                As welcome shall you be
As warlike Titus was unto the Roman senators,
When he had made a conquest of the Goths,
That in requital of his service done
Did offer him the imperial diadem.
This describes perfectly the opening scene of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, in which Titus returns from fighting the Goths and is offered the position of emperor. The play is full of allusions to classical mythology, many of which might have gone over the heads of its less educated audience members. But by referring to scenes in popular plays, the playwright makes everyone feel knowledgeable.

So, if you were a keen theatregoer in 1592, you might have enjoyed the way A Knack to Know a Knave creates a sense of community in the theatre by building on the shared knowledge of its audience.

What's next?

There will be no blog entry tomorrow because 11th June was a Sunday in 1592. Henslowe's Diary ... a a Blog! will thus return on 12th June with another play - and with something more ominous...


A Knack to Know a Knave information

  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 930.
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 99-101.

Henslowe links


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!

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