Thomas Middleton, Your Five Gallants (1606-7)

[My friend and colleague Richard Stacey has twice interviewed me for his brilliant final year course at the University of Glasgow, Dragged off the Street: Queer Players on the Renaissance Stage. He asked me to talk about Thomas Middleton’s play Your Five Gallants, which gave me a chance to read it in Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino’s monumental edition, Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. All references are to Ralph Alan Cohen’s edition of the play in volume 1 of the Collected Works, and I also used Taylor’s life of Middleton, ‘Lives and Afterlives’, and Scott McMillin’s essay on ‘Middleton’s Theatres’.

This version of the post has been revised, introducing some new ideas after Richard interviewed me a second time, and a couple of new footnotes. The five questions are Richard’s, the answers mine.]


Thomas Middleton

Q: Your Five Gallants was written by Thomas Middleton. Could you tell us a little bit about Middleton’s theatrical career?

A: The son of a London bricklayer who became a building contractor and made himself a gentleman, Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) described himself as a gentleman throughout his life. His quasi-gentlemanly status may have played a role in his choice of topic for Your Five Gallants, which centres on a handful of fake gentlemen making a living from their entirely fabricated class position. His Dad died when he was five, his Mum married again, but her second husband seems to have been a bit of a monster and she spent the whole of her marriage fighting him over ownership of her property. She won.

Middleton went to the University of Oxford, but like his outrageous older contemporary Kit Marlowe (1564-1693) he didn’t graduate. He wrote and published poems while a student, and one book of his poems was burned by the Elizabethan censors for breaking a law against writing satires. After that he started writing for the theatre. He also wrote civic pageants for the City of London authorities and masques for the royal court. He wrote a lot, in fact: the Oxford Middleton is bigger than the Bible.

Unlike Shakespeare, who wrote for just one company, Middleton was a freelance playwright who wrote for all the major playhouses and theatre companies in London. At the beginning of his career he co-wrote with other playwrights, or made additions to other people’s plays – such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, to which he added some rather rubbish extra scenes involving the witches, or Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1580s), to which he added some scenes extending the madness of Hieronimo. One of the servants in Your Five Gallants is called Hieronimo Bedlam, as if in homage to this little job of his. His favourite collaborator was Thomas Dekker (c. 1572-1632), his worst enemy Ben Jonson (1572-1637) – who also happened to be the son of a bricklayer.

In 1603 the theatres were closed for a year, first because of the death of Queen Elizabeth I, then because of the plague. While they were closed Middleton got married and wrote some terrific pamphlets about the plague (with his friend Dekker) that got reworked by Daniel Defoe in his novel A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). You’ll note the number of plague references in Your Five Gallants – for instance, the broker Frip is always counting the number of plague victims in the parishes of London to help him decide which items to accept in pawn (Act 1 scene 1), and his plague obsession draws on the material Middleton used in his pamphlets.[1] After this year-long break from theatre work, his career as a playwright really took off.

Here’s a list of his finest plays:

A Trick to Catch the Old One (1607), a comedy about a young man tricking an old one out of his cash.

The Roaring Girl (1611), a comedy about the real-life cross-dressing female thief, Mary Frith or Moll Cutpurse. She attended some of the performances and exchanged banter with the audience.

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613), a satirical city comedy about a girl who doesn’t want to marry an older man called Walter Whorehound, for obvious reasons, dies of grief, and then – but that would be telling.

The Revenger’s Tragedy, an extremely bloody revenge tragedy, in which a Duke is murdered by kissing a poisoned skull.

Women Beware Women (1621), another extremely bloody revenge tragedy which culminates in masque whose participants are all killed, some of them by Cupids shooting poisoned arrows.

The Changeling (1622), about multiple murders in a castle, purportedly in defence of a woman’s reputation.

A Game at Chess (1624), a satire on the court machinations around the proposed marriage of Prince Charles to a Spanish princess. This seems to have been his last play – he may have been banned from writing when it was thrown off the stage by order of the Privy Council.

One more thing is worth adding about Middleton’s theatrical career. The Oxford Middleton brought out the extent to which he was a collaborative writer, both in his prose and his plays; and perhaps the most controversial aspect of the edition was its suggestion that he should be recognised as co-author of some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, including Macbeth (1606-7) and Measure for Measure (1603-4). Your Five Gallants bears all the hallmarks of a writer steeped in Shakespeare’s work, and in particular it contains multiple echoes of Shakespeare’s greatest English history play, Henry the Fourth Part One (1596-7). In the opening scene the pawnbroker Frip fancies himself as a Prince Hal figure, taking off his battered old usurer’s cloak to reveal the fine gentleman’s clothes underneath with words that echo Prince Hal’s when he promises to discard his unruly friends from the Boar’s Head Tavern on the day he inherits the crown. Here’s how Prince Hal puts it:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness;
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him. (1.2.188-196)[2]

And here are Frip’s words as he takes off his battered cloak:

Vanish, thou fog, and sink beneath our brightness,
Abashéd at the splendour of such beams.
We scorn thee, base eclipser of our glories,
That wouldst have hid our shine from mortals’ eyes.
Now, gallants, I am for you; ay, and perhaps before you!
You can appear but glorious from yourselves,
And have your beams but drawn from your own light;
But mine from many, many make me bright. (1.1.279-286)

Notice that Hal chooses to distinguish himself qualitatively from his lowlife companions and promises to reveal his ‘true’ royal nature when he casts off the wild behaviour of his youth. Frip, by contrast, aims to show himself the best of a bad bunch, in that he can out-con all the gentlemen con artists who are his friends; and he proposes not to reveal some essential ‘true’ good nature of his, but to take full advantage of his own fakeness, of the way his glorious appearance is made up of clothes pawned by the full range of Jacobean society, adding their various ‘lights’ to his own until he looks vastly brighter than he did before.

The parallels with Henry the Fourth Part One continue. Later in Your Five Gallants, the tendency of the fake gallants or gentlemen to inflate the number of people who attacked and robbed them (Pursenet lyingly claims to have been attacked by ‘three at once’ when he lost the goods he stole from Tailby, 3.4.61) directly echoes Falstaff’s inflationary lies in Act Two Scene Four of Henry the Fourth Part One (‘if I fought not with fifty of them, I am a bunch of radish’, 2.4.178 ff.). Fitzgrave’s decision to disguise himself as a gullible scholar echoes Hal’s decision to pose as an irresponsible young hooligan, while the robbery scene at Coombe’s Hill clearly echoes the robbery scene at Gadshill in Henry, during which Prince Hal robs and humiliates Falstaff after Falstaff has robbed some unfortunate merchants. These and other echoes[3] suggest that Middleton thinks of his play as a complement or accessory to Shakespeare’s history play – set in the present rather than the past, when the goings-on at the Boar’s Head Tavern have spread to encompass the entire capital, infecting all social classes like the plague or a sexually transmitted disease rather than just the Prince of Wales and his narrow circle of drinking partners. Hal’s outrageous behaviour has, in fact, become the norm, and Fitzgrave’s dedication to honour and faith indicates his rootedness in a past that was more serious (‘grave’) than the present day, and is now in imminent danger of being forgotten, like the dead (again, this is implied by his name: ‘Fitz-grave’ or Son of the Cemetery).

These various echoes of the older poet remind Middleton’s audience that they live in a different age from the one that spawned the great Elizabethan history plays. It is in some ways a more democratic age; in Act 4 scene 7 the thief-gallant Pursenet urges his fellow fake gentlemen to support each other instead of acting as rivals or competitors, since damaging their peers has never been in the interests of the ruling classes they seek to impersonate: ‘This should not be; ’twas never seen among the Romans, nor read we of it in the time of Brute’ (Brutus being the legendary founder of ancient Britain or Brute-tain) (4.7.116-118). ‘Are we more Brutish now?’ Pursenet goes on, and the answer, of course, is in one sense yes: the modern descendants of Brutus are more brutish than their ancestors in their total dedication to the delights of the animal senses. But they are also less inclined to decline into the kind of self-destructive Civil War that haunts all of Shakespeare’s history plays, from the three parts of Henry VI to King John. Their sense of having learned from the past and discovered a way to make it work for them is confirmed by a near quote from another Shakespearean history play that quickly follows Pursenet’s speech. Having reached an agreement to support each other faithfully whatever may come next, the five fake gallants proclaim that ‘now the world shall not come between us’, to which Pursenet adds a proviso: ‘If we be true to ourselves’ (4.8.187-188). Middleton’s audience might have heard an echo of the famous closing lines of King John (mid-1590s):

This England never did, nor never shall
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror
But when it first did help to wound itself.
[…] Nought shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true. (5.7.112-118)

The irony here is that the men who are swearing to be true to one another in Middleton’s text are the opposite of ‘true men’ in the eyes of the English legal system; they are all thieves of one kind or another.[4] Their actions ‘wound’ their country, and they themselves have sustained effectively self-inflicted wounds (like Pursenet’s when Fitzgrave dispossessed him of the spoil of the Coombe’s Hill robbery, or Fripp’s when Pursenet mistakes him for Fitzgrave) in carrying out those actions. At the same time, their ingenuity as con artists has entertained the audience throughout the play, and their determination to support each other comes across as more attractive by far than Hal’s plot to cast off his Boar’s Head friends when it suits him to do so. Things have changed in England, Middleton emphasizes, and will go on changing with the same speed and inventiveness as the gallants have shown when they repeatedly changed their costumes and their stories in pursuit of personal gain.[5] Theatre audiences, at least, have not lost by these changes.


[1] I co-edited one of these pamphlets for the Oxford Middleton: News from Gravesend: Sent to Nobody. It’s a cracker. See Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), pp. 128-148. All quotations from Middleton refer to this edition.

[2] All my references to Shakespeare come from my sea-wracked old A level edition: The Alexander Text of William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Peter Alexander (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1975). Years later I wrote introductions to some of the history plays in a later issue of the same edition. A-level student me would never have believed it!

[3] Such as a harassed barman calling ‘anon, anon sir’; see King Henry the Fourth Part One, 1.4.35ff., and Your Five Gallants, 2.4.337.

[4] The phrase ‘true men’ seems to have been a quasi-legal term in early modern times, used to indicate someone without a criminal background, as in the description of a jury as ‘twelve good men and true’. Shakespeare uses it a number of times, most notably, perhaps, in Love’s Labours Lost (where it becomes gender neutral): ‘Walk aside the true folk, and let the traitors stay’ (4.3.209), and in Much Ado About Nothing, when Constable Dogberry asks the recruits to his Watch: ‘Are you good men and true?’ (3.3.1).

[5] Calling attention to these changes, the pawnbroker-gallant Frip tells the audience: ‘I can continue change more than the proudest gallant of ’em all; yet never bestow penny of myself [i.e. never pay out any of my own money], my pawns do so kindly furnish me’ (4.1.6-9).


The American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia

Q: Your Five Gallants was performed at Blackfriars theatre. Would it be possible for you to tell us a bit about this particular playing space?

A: There were two kinds of playhouses in Jacobean England: the public playhouses, like Shakespeare’s Globe, which had a large capacity – up to around three thousand spectators – and the private playhouses, like the Blackfriars, which held a few hundred. The public playhouses were unroofed, relying on daylight for lighting, while the private ones were roofed and heated, and had artificial lighting: lanterns, rushlights, candles etc. The public playhouses were quite cheap – especially if you were prepared to stand in the pit rather than pay for a seat. The private playhouses were quite expensive. As a result, the public playhouses had a very diverse audience, while the private ones were attended by the middle and upper classes only – ‘gallants’ or gentlemen of the play’s title, gentlewomen, lawyers from the Inns of Court, ladies, well-off merchants, etc. etc.

You’ll notice the way Your Five Gallants plays on class. For instance, it’s got a lot of Latin in it – Latin being the language of law and government as wielded by the ruling classes. The masque devised by Fitzgrave in the final act includes a Latin prologue spoken by Pursenet’s thieving boy, as well as Latin mottos for the shields presented to the five fake gallants or gentlemen of the title, whose lower-class status is indicated by their ignorance of the language.[1] And the plot of the comedy, too, is based on class. Fitzgrave, whose name suggests he is the bastard son of a (possibly dead) gentleman, but a genuine gentleman all the same, aims to prevent any of the five fake gentlemen from seducing and marrying the woman he loves – and who loves him – Mistress Katherine, a lady by right of birth (as against the various fake ladies, most of whom are prostitutes, who populate the play). At the same time, the interdependence of the classes is demonstrated by the way valuable objects circulate among them (a string of pearls, a jewel, a cloak, goblets, an expensive salt cellar and a lot more) and the difficulty of distinguishing genuine from fake gentlefolk. King James had degraded the status of the nobility and gentry by selling knighthoods and other honours for cash. Fitzgrave’s struggle to assert the difference between true and false gentry is a genuine struggle, and not guaranteed to come off.

Some commentators suggest that the proximity of the players and the spectators in the private theatres – you could pay for a stool, if you wanted, to watch the play from the stage itself – explains why the plays performed there switch so readily between intimate asides to the audience and dialogue between the actors. There are certainly plenty of these asides – like Piamont’s in Act 4 scene 7, ‘See yonder’s the rogue I suspect for foul play. I’ll walk muffled by him, offer some offence or cause of a quarrel, only to try his temper’. But this is true of many plays performed in public playhouses too, where the spectators were milling round the actors’ feet, so I’m not convinced. On the other hand, a play written for a private playhouse, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) by Francis Beaumont, has the most elaborate interplay between audience and players I can think of, as a citizen and his wife emerge from the audience to send the play in an entirely new direction. So they may have a point after all!

The most striking thing about the Blackfriars was that the actors who performed there were young boys: choristers who performed at the Chapel Royal and whose voices (for the most part) had not yet broken.[2] This meant that music was important in this theatre; you’ll notice that there are several calls for music in the play, including the extended musical interlude between Acts Two and Three, Interim 1 and Interim 2, in which two mini scenes are acted out by Tailby to illustrate how he has all his needs provided for by the many women who appreciate his sexual favours. The boys were accomplished professional musicians, and the playhouses did all they could to take advantage of the fact.

In addition, the fact that the boys were not paid for their acting (they were funded by their roles as choristers) means that the plays written for them often have large casts. The Oxford Middleton has helpful suggestions for reducing this number to about twelve by giving the same actors multiple roles (see pp. 635-6), but that wouldn’t have been necessary in the original production. Another thing you might notice is that they often don’t have a central role that lays an enormous amount of stress on a single actor. Your Five Gallants divides the action among multiple main actors, with all the five gallants having plenty of time in the limelight, as well as the ‘true’ gentleman Fitzgrave, Mistress Newcut, the thieving boy, four courtesans, and so on. The public playhouses often featured famous stars of the Jacobean stage – Richard Burbage, Edward Alleyn, Will Kemp and so on – playing roles like Hieronimo, Tamburlaine the Great, Hamlet, Falstaff and the rest. The private playhouses may have had a faster turnover of actors, and were more reputed for ensemble work than individual performances – at least, that’s what I guess.

Something that may arise from the more even distribution of roles in plays for children’s companies than in plays for adult companies is the tendency in Your Five Gallants to emphasize collaborative action over individual action. Going back to Prince Hal and his plans to reveal himself at last as a responsible monarch, casting off his old drinking companions as he does so, this is very much the secret plan of an individual; the whole point of it is that he’s the only one who knows about it, and this is why it will take the world by surprise when it happens. Hereditary monarchic systems are all about the specialness of individuals, their ‘natural’ superiority to the communities they were born to govern, and the rest of the feudal hierarchy from aristocracy to gentry to commoners to mendicants could be said to share in this favouring of the notion of ‘natural’ class divisions within communities.

The five fake gallants, on the other hand, not being born into their supposed status as members of the gentry, rely entirely on their relations with other people to sustain it. Indeed, they acknowledge as much quite frequently (consider, for example, what Frip says above about his outward identity having been formed from other people’s pawned garments), despite boasting from time to time of their individual skills in their chosen ‘trades’. The born gentleman, Fitzgrave, has the gentleman’s skill as a competitive swordsman, stabbing the thief-gallant, Pursenet, in the arm as he tries to run away. Pursenet and the other fake gallants never offer to fight; the gigolo-gallant Tailby, for instance, surrenders his property willingly and at once as soon as Pursenet challenges him with weapons on the public highway. The agreement by all five fake gallants to support each other in Act 4 scene 7 has a democratic principle behind it; they agree that whichever of them succeeds in winning the heiress Katherine as his wife will thereafter use his newfound wealth and social status to boost the interests of the other four gallants in their future projects. Even Fitzgrave partly gives in to this democratic impulse in the final act, recruiting the courtesans of the pimp-gallant Primero as his associates in his plot to expose the fake gallants for who they are. The courtesans consent to this collaboration with Fitzgrave willingly, because like the gallants they are conscious of their reliance on other people, and because they collectively wish for vengeance on the men who have repeatedly betrayed them. Fitzgrave’s flirtation with democracy, on the other hand, doesn’t last long. After exposing the fake gallants by naming them truly in a masque, he forces them to marry the courtesans against their will, and the courtesans seem as unhappy with this arrangement as their prospective husbands:

Rather confine us to strict chastity,
A mere impossible task, than to wed these
Whom we loathe worse than the foul’st disease.

Your Five Gallants, then, pitches democratic collaboration and reliance on other people against the wielding of power by individuals on the basis of birth-right. The Blackfriars Theatre, with its company of children, may have made Middleton particularly conscious of the workings of cooperative or symbiotic action as against hierarchical divisions. And despite the triumph of the true-born gentleman Fitzgrave at the end – who with his new wife Katherine ‘treads down’ his rival gallants, thanks to his plot (5.2.99) – the audience will have remained conscious, I think, of the highly collaborative nature of a Blackfriars performance as they left the theatre, and of what this said about the rapidly-changing society to which they were returning.


[1] See Your Five Gallants, 5.1.193-221 and note.

[2] I say ‘for the most part’ because some of the page boys in the plays of John Lyly, which were written for children’s companies in the 1580s, take the bass part in the songs they perform. That’s my memory, at least – but looking through the plays just now I couldn’t find an example. Perhaps I was thinking about another play for children’s companies, such as Richard Edwards’s Damon and Pithias or George Peele’s The Old Wive’s Tale!


Q: Have any of the early performance elements of Your Five Gallants been preserved in the script? How do we think the play might have been originally staged?

 A: I’ve given quite a few examples in my previous answer, haven’t I? There’s the music, the large cast, the Latin, and the attitude to class. There’s the frequent use of asides, if you think of that as specific to the private playhouses. And the writer of the introduction to the play in the Oxford Middleton, Ralph Alan Cohen, has some interesting things to say, in particular, about the crowd scenes in the play (pp. 594-597).

There are three of these crowd scenes: a scene in Primero’s brothel (2.1), in which Primero acts as a kind of circus master, concealing Mistress Newcut to enjoy her favourite activity of voyeurism, reintroducing the pawnbroker Frip to his latest prostitute, and overseeing the musical performance that accompanies the various seductions and acts of thievery that go on in his establishment. Then there’s a scene in the Mitre Inn (2.4), which focuses on a game of dice but keeps breaking away to follow the various player-gallants who have to raise money by illicit means to continue their gambling – suggesting a chaotic economy of theft and counter-theft, all of which culminates in the purloining of the Mitre’s most precious item, a gilt goblet, by the con-man Goldstone. And finally there’s the masque in the final act (5.2), which is danced by the company to music and so has far fewer words than the action in the other acts, while also gesturing towards the high standard of education in the audience through its use of the ‘high’ art of masque as well as the Latin speeches. The masque announces the return of the world to harmony and balance, as the five gallants are exposed by being given their proper names and ranks for the first time in the action; that was the function of masques, according to their most celebrated practitioner, Ben Jonson, so the music in it would have been ravishing.

Each of these crowd scenes plays to the strengths of the playhouse as well as of the boy company that performed there. They’re indoor scenes at which the crowded nature of the venue would be a positive asset. They take advantage of the highly trained boy’s company by using their special talents in music, dance and concerted movement. They also take advantage of the boys’ youth to involve numerous female parts (an adult company only had a few boys in it capable of playing women). And the multiple separate actions taking place at once in the first and second crowd scenes would mean that different sections of the playhouse audience might well be expected to notice different activities going on in different parts of the stage, leading to a satisfying variety of reactions perfectly in tune with the illicit goings-on we’re witnessing.

One can imagine all three scenes as ways to demonstrate the boys’ virtuosity in various ways; a virtuosity that gets underlined by the gallants’ intense anxiety over whether their own boy, the thieving servant of the thief-gallant Pursenet, will be able to remember his lines in the final masque (the masquers in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost have the same anxiety about their own boy prologue, Moth). There’s no real doubt over whether the Children of the Chapel Royal will remember their lines; it’s a skill that’s been thrashed into them since they joined the choir.


Edward’s Boys in John Lyly’s Gallathea

Q: Your Five Gallants is quite a male play, in that a lot of the actors are tasked with portraying boys or men. Critics tend to associate the practice of boy playing with cross-dressing and gender play, almost by default. Are there any particular effects which are generated by boys playing men on stage?

A: This is such an interesting question, and not one I’d thought about before you asked it! Long ago I made a study of the earlier phase of the children’s companies, when their main playwright was a talented man called John Lyly. In those days Lyly made the most of his company’s childishness. In his comedy Sapho and Phao (1584), for instance, the titular ferryman Phao – with whom the poet-queen Sappho falls in love – is consistently referred to as ‘my child’, ‘foolish boy’, ‘fair boy’ and so on; while in Gallathea (1588), in which two girls disguise themselves as boys to avoid being sacrificed to a monster, their youth is constantly emphasized; Gallathea tells herself at one point ‘Thy tender years cannot dissemble this deceit, nor thy sex bear it’, and the other girl disguised as a boy shortly afterwards calls the disguised Gallathea ‘a pretty boy and a fair, he might well have been a woman’, which of course he is, in the play at least. Men’s parts in Lyly’s plays seem sometimes to have been played by men – possibly the boys’ teachers. Sir Tophas in Endymion (1588) is obviously much larger and deeper-voiced than his page boy Epiton, though not half as clever. At the end of the 1580s the children’s companies shut down, but Lyly’s plays were remembered in the Jacobean period: the boy’s company play The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) begins (at least in its printed version) with a version of the prologue to Sapho and Phao. But the later children’s companies went a different way, giving audiences the spectacle of children playing adults using decidedly adult language.

At the same time, there are times when the youthfulness of the players acting as men would have produced some amusing effects in Middleton’s plays, quite apart from the basic pleasure of seeing the city’s adult affairs played out in miniature. The enjoyment shown by the pawnbroker Frip’s enjoyment of the opportunities for dressing up made available by his trade could be described as boyish: ‘Let me see now, whose cloak shall I wear today to continue change?’ And the pleasure of the other gallants in their own ingenuity has a similar air of youthfulness. After Tailby has gambled away his clothes, his infectious pleasure in being supplied with new clothes by the women who adore him makes him seem a little like a spoiled boy whose every need is provided for by doting relatives. And Cohen has pointed out how naïve the thief Pursenet is when he plies his trade, delighted with Tailby for giving up his valuables so easily (‘that shows a good nature, sir’), unreasonably shocked by Fitzgrave’s resistance to being robbed – he keeps asking him to play fair – and outraged by Piamont’s discourtesy in keeping one hand in his pocket at all times, preventing Pursenet’s boy from picking it: ‘Unpractised gallant! Salute me but with one hand, like a counterfeit soldier?’ (The joke is that Piamont is a ‘genuine’ gallant or gentleman, so the idea of a fake gallant telling off a true one for not being gallant is highly amusing.) Pursenet’s repeated telling off of his boy for bad manners would also be amusing if done by a larger boy, who is presumably subject to similar tellings-off at other times from his own elders. So would Fitzgrave’s comment on him after he beats him in a fight: ‘O thou world, / How art thou muffled in deceitful forms!’ The fact that the fake gallants are played by children would make their fakery or deceitfulness very obvious at every stage of the action; and the fact that Fitzgrave is himself a child, and that he’s in disguise for most of the play, would help to emphasize the difficulty of distinguishing ‘real’ fakes from ‘fake’ fakes in Jacobean urban life.

There’s another pleasure to be had from the notion of the five gallants being played by boys. They are members of the Jacobean criminal underworld, which had been the subject of many pamphlets by Robert Greene and Middleton’s friend Thomas Dekker. Those pamphlets achieved popularity by posing as the products of men with inside knowledge of the secret lives of con artists and tricksters. The notion that children might possess such inside knowledge when in fact they are still imbibing more conventional knowledge at school would add to the wit of Middleton’s plot. And the fact that they are beaten at their own game by another child – Fitzgrave – who has clearly spent longer at his lessons than they have, since he knows Latin and they do not, would add another layer of wit to the performance. The humour to be got from this situation only applies if the actors are boys playing men, of course, since most girls and women did not have access to the same educational opportunities. Around 80% of women in Jacobean London, including Middleton’s mother, signed their names with a mark.

One final point that might be made about boys playing men in Your Five Gallants is that it could have lent additional force to the play’s portrayal of its characters’ vulnerabilities. There’s a great deal of emphasis in the play on the fact that people in it have no living relatives, and hence no support network to protect them from economic loss, social disasters, or the depredations of urban con artists. The ‘true lady’ Katherine, who is courted by all five fake gallants as well as by the ‘true gentleman’ Fitzgrave, is only of interest to the criminals because her father is dead: ‘there’s a general meeting / At the deceased knight’s house this afternoon’, Primero tells Frip, at which decisions as to her future will be made from which he and Frip hope to profit (1.1.269-70). Fitzgrave, meanwhile, poses as a scholar whose ‘friends [i.e. relatives] are of the old fashion – all in their graves’ (2.1.61-62), which will make him, he hopes, the ideal target of the fake gallants, as he bids to expose their criminal activities. Con artists, after all, prey on the vulnerable, as Frip confesses in the very first scene: ‘Many over-cheated gulls have fatted me / With the bottom of their patrimonies’, that is, with their inheritances, which traditionally they would have received on the death of their fathers (1.1.156-157). Most of the men and women in the play are alone in the world, and the dangers to which this situation subjects them would have been rendered more visible, perhaps, by the fact that both men and women were played by boys.

But the fake gallants, too, are vulnerable, and acutely conscious of their own vulnerability. We’ve already noted Frip’s paranoia about the plague, which means he refuses to pawn any garment that comes from a parish where there are cases of contagious disease. Primero and his courtesans live in fear of sexually transmitted diseases putting paid to their activities, and Tailby claims that the older courtesans are already well on their way to an early death (‘they cannot live till Easter’, 2.1.337). Meanwhile the gigolo-gallant, Tailby, depends on his own physical and sexual health to ply his trade; as his servant Jack reminds him, the benefits he derives from sex rely on ‘the state of your body, sir’, and will only last for as long as he can ‘hold up [his] head. If that droop once, farewell you, farewell I, farewell all; and droop it will, though all the caudles [medicinal drinks] in Europe should put to their helping hands to’t’ (Interim 2, 23-28). The thief-gallant, Pursenet, lives in fear of capture and execution, and the young boy who helps him bears out these fears by being threatened twice with death for picking pockets (‘That boy will be hanged’, Tailby observes in Act Five, 5.2.49). All the fake gallants depend on their reputations as gentry to pull off their various cons, and reputations can be withered at a breath. Child actors are not only conspicuously vulnerable owing to their youth, size and physical weakness, but conspicuously subject to the effects of time: they are still in the process of growing up, and as their voices change they will approach the end of their period of employment with the children’s companies. Middleton’s comedy, like the comedies of Ben Jonson as analysed by Ian Donaldson, operates like a clockwork mechanism, its diverse components working together towards the seemingly inevitable outcome of the final act like cogs in a timepiece.[1] Children are embodiments of time, and their inevitable displacement by other children as they mature and leave the company lends added poignancy, I think, to the clearly well-founded fears of Middleton’s characters.


[1] See Ian Donaldson, ‘Time and The Alchemist’, in The Glasgow Review, Issue 1, here. Also his book, Jonson’s Magic Houses.


The ‘Last Boy PLayer’, Edward Kynaston

Q: Your Five Gallants is quite a bawdy play, in line with other child company pieces. As critics, what can we make of this type of early modern dramaturgy?

A: The plays performed by the children’s companies were famous for being risqué, arousing the disapproval of the moralists for their tendency to have many female roles – the idea of the male putting on the garment of the female being expressly forbidden in the Bible – and for the conviction that they corrupted both the children who acted in them and the audiences who went to see them. In Middleton’s time, too, they frequently engaged in topical satire, something that had theoretically been banned in print – as I mentioned when I pointed out that Middleton’s own verse satires were burned, along with other offensive books, by order of the Ecclesiastical High Commission, the censors of early modern printed books.[1] Children’s companies may have been banned from performing for ten years before they began performing again in the first decade of the seventeenth century; though whether or not this was the result of a ban is not certain. They had powerful patrons – children’s companies were at different times very popular for entertainment at court – but the powerful antitheatrical lobby, led by the City authorities, did not approve, and this doesn’t seem too surprising from the perspective of the twenty-first century, given the sexually explicit content of some of their plays.

I suppose the question of knowledge comes into this too (and when I use this word I think of Henry James’s great novel of childhood, What Maisie Knew). There might perhaps have been an assumption that schoolboys would not know exactly what they were talking about when they spoke about sex, just as they wouldn’t if they talked in the cant terms of the criminal underworld. So the explicit allusions would add to the humour of the performance, from one point of view, while the fact that they were made by boys could be held up as a way to defuse them, so to speak – to drain them of their poison. You may remember the puppet play in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614), which is thought by the fool Bartholomew Cokes to be performed by a children’s company because the puppets are small, like children. When attacked for performing profanities by a religious zealot in the audience, the puppets respond by pulling up their garments and displaying their puppet bodies: they have no genitalia, of course, and therefore cannot be accused of indulging in sexual acts – or of inciting them, the puppet master implies. Cokes’s confusion of puppets with boy players may suggest that boy players, too, were seen as in some sense sexless and genderless – which explains their skill in acting both men and women, since they have not yet acquired the physical characteristics of either gender. That’s a bit of early modern biology, by the way: you grew into your gender as you grew up, you weren’t exactly born with it, they thought. Their view of gender identity was therefore somewhat flexible in comparison with the views, say, of Victorian biologists at a time of imperialist expansion.

One thing the plays demonstrate, down all these years, is the remarkable skill of those boy players. They could perform highly complex scripts, deploying a combination of complex physical and musical skills; they could chop and change from one disguise to another, play elaborate tricks on stage, dance, sing, cavort and juggle, fight with swords. That’s another thing the plays would have given their audiences: the opportunity to be amazed that such young boys could be such consummate performers. This suggests, perhaps, that there would always be a little bit more of a distance between the boy players and their roles than in an adult production. They were so much more obviously not the people they played, not doing the things they pretended to be doing, not involved in the politics or the business decisions or the plots or sexual antics they were acting out on stage; hence, perhaps, the play’s stress on the gap between the roles its characters play and their inward identities, if indeed they have any fixed identities at all (as Fitzgrave puts it, ‘O, thou world, / How art thou muffled in deceitful forms!’, 3.1.177-178). The children’s plays tend not to have deep emotion in them – at least, not the ones I can think of (though the boy players could do deep emotion if they wanted to, if Antony and Cleopatra is anything to go by). They were so much more obviously plays as a result; playful play-acting; hence perhaps the Jacobean tolerance for the bawdy material they contained.


[1] For early modern censorship press practices see the work of Cyndia Susan Clegg. In this case the first of her books on the subject is most relevant: Press Censorship in Elizabethan England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), especially chapter 9.


The Globe Young Players in The Malcontent by John Marston

Q: What role do objects play in Middleton’s comedy?

 A: In a discussion with me a while ago, you suggested that the Elizabethan theatre of the sixteenth century has objects in it that contribute to the symbolic order: the sword the guards swear on in Hamlet, which represents their feudal duty to the crown; the crown in Henry the Fourth Part Two, which represents monarchy; the pound of flesh in The Merchant of Venice, which represents the common humanity of all the play’s cast; the magic flower in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the armour pursued by Hector in Troilus and Cressida, etc. etc. I suggested in response that there’s a far greater diversity of heterogeneous objects in Jacobean drama, which represents a change of order under James I – often thought of at the time as a wholesale loss of order. Think of the revolting list of things described in Ben Jonson’s Volpone as the contents of a mountebank’s (fake) elixir of youth (‘a sheep’s gall, a roasted bitch’s marrow, / Some few sod earwigs, pounded caterpillars, /A little capon’s grease, and fasting spittle’, 2.6); or the even more disgusting list of substances used by alchemists to fool their gullible customers in Jonson’s The Alchemist (‘your broths, your menstrues, and materials, / Of piss and egg-shells, women’s terms, man’s blood, / Hair o’the head, burnt clouts, chalk, merds, and clay, / Powder of bones, scalings of iron, glass, / And worlds of other strange ingredients’, 2.1).[1] The elixir is supposed to impart long life; the potions are supposed to refine the alchemist’s customers into suitable recipients of limitless gold; but both are sickening when broken down into their constituent elements, and symbolize a market-driven society that’s sickly as well as disordered, no longer capable of distinguishing the good stuff from the bad, the fake from the genuine, in food and objects as well as in people.

Your Five Gallants opens with a scene in which the exchange of heterogeneous objects is used to represent the breakdown of the early modern class system and the symbolic order connected to it. People of all classes pawn their things to raise cash – the things are mostly clothes – and the pawnbroker-gallant Frip collects them and puts them to use, transforming himself in the process from his earlier condition as a hard-up, put-upon servant into one of the five fake gallants of the title. During the play we witness other objects being passed from hand to hand, including the precious things exchanged as love tokens at the beginning of the play by the genuine Lady Katherine and the genuine gentleman Fitzgrave, a string of pearls (signifying chastity) and a jewel (signifying fidelity). At the end of the Mitre scene, the gilt goblet stolen by the con-artist-gallant, Goldstone, is thought to have miraculously disappeared: presumably this is a mocking reference to the miracles wrought in medieval romance by the Holy Grail, the cup Christ used at the Last Supper; and the name of the tavern, the Mitre, strengthens the allusion with its reference to another religious object, a bishop’s headpiece. The draining of meaning from objects by their random exchange symbolizes a draining of conviction from religious practices, a forgetfulness of the virtues that drove the Arthurian knights on their lonely quests, a draining of value itself from the Jacobean economy (though in fact value remains, since each object in the play has its own value in the mind of the pawnbroker who exchanges it for cash).

At the end of the play, objects seem to be restored to their role in the symbolic order by the devices Fitzgrave uses to expose the true nature of the five fake Gallants: an upside-down purse to signify the thief-gallant’s thieving and whoring, three silver dice to signify the con-artist gallant’s cheating and opportunism, a pearl in a cave to represent the pimp-gallant, who sells the virginity of young girls and can’t appreciate beauty or value of any kind, and so on. When the devices are formally presented to the five fake gallants in the final masque, the languages of value and social order are restored to meaningfulness again. The promise of this ending is held out throughout the performance by the applicability of the names of the characters – Pursenet the fisher for purses, Frip the pawnbroker who thrives on other people’s frippery, Goldstone the con artist, who converts anything he touches to gold for his own uses, Tailby who earns his living by his (front) tail, and so on.[2] The masque dances these names into their correct position in relation to meaning; so for a while at the end of the play the Jacobean audience would have felt reoriented and comforted – until they stepped out of the playhouse door and re-immersed themselves in the seething city streets.


[1] My copy of Jonson – an ancient 2-volume Everyman edition – doesn’t have line numbers; this suggests it’s meant for reading, not acting, which might require cutting lines. It’s also not meant for scholarship, with its need for references. But it’s nicely printed and very complete! The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson, 2 vols. (London and New York: J M Dent and E P Dutton, n.d.).

[2] For a rich account of the link between names and meanings in comedy see Anne Barton’s The Names in Comedy (Toronto and Buffalo, New York: University of Toronto Press, 1990), especially chapter three; also the ‘chapter interloping’ on names in her Ben Jonson, Dramatist.

Jacobean gilt goblet (standing cup), 1607

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *