Review: The Shoemaker’s Holiday, Thomas Dekker, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon. 14 February 2015
Shakespeare’s contemporaries get a raw deal in the game of glory but, although they were all dealt a poor hand, some still managed to win bigger shares of the pot than others. Partly for the seedy and mysterious glamour of his life and death, Christopher Marlowe lives on in our collective imagination; and Ben Johnson also managed to find a little space in our hearts. But we’d have to work our way a long way down the list before we got to Thomas Dekker. This is in some ways unfair. Like Shakespeare, he was competent in different genres, including a successful side-line as a pamphleteer, and he was perhaps ahead of Shakespeare in seeing the future of comedy. Modern rom-coms like Love, Actually are closer to Dekker’s city comedies, set in London and featuring ordinary folk, than Shakespeare’s tales of Italian aristocrats. And whereas the little we know about Shakespeare’s private life suggests it was a fairly ordinary (some might say boring) journey towards comfortable respectability, Dekker’s life included such fascinating if unfortunate titbits as a seven year stretch in the slammer. Even so, there is no dishonour in being outshone by Shakespeare. The real indignity has been inflicted by Google: search for Thomas Dekker and you’ll find our playwright appearing below his modern namesake, an actor renowned for appearing in TV versions of The Terminator and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
So, it’s nice of the RSC to put on a Dekker at the Swan Theatre. The Shoemaker’s Holiday consists of two intertwined love stories. One story revolves around the aristocratic Rowland Lacy and the rich but un-aristocratic Rose Oatley, both of whom are despised by the others’ families. Rowland is tasked with rounding up men to send as soldiers to fight in France under Henry V (the play was put on shortly after Shakespeare’s Henry V and is in some ways a comedic response) and he rounds up married shoemaker Rafe, who is sent to France, from whence he eventually returns a cripple to find out that his wife thinks he is dead and is about to marry somebody else. Rowland deserts the army and stays in London disguised as a shoemaker, taking Rafe’s job so that he can continue to woo Rose. SPOILER ALERT: the two couples wind up together at the end.
The play begins to go wrong almost immediately by including a needless introduction which gives much of the plot away before the play begins. The introduction does say that ‘Nothing is purposed here but mirth’, which is at odds with the anti-war theme picked up by some critics and focused upon in the RSC programme. But were Elizabethans anti-war in a recognizably modern way? Or were they more fatalistic – war was a tragic but inevitable part of life, to be avoided if possible, to be accepted if necessary.
The humour is juvenile: fart jokes, names like Cicely Bumtrinket, much pissing, talk of bums, a character named Firkin, around whom there are numerous uses of ‘Firk you’ and ‘Firked’, a couple of ‘prick’ puns, and everything is excessively, needlessly, tediously spelled out. Where the humour does initially work well, it is often repeated until it becomes stale. The phrase, ‘Prince am I none, yet am I nobly born, as being the sole son of a shoemaker’ is said at least four times. To ‘Dance the shaking of the sheets’ is a good description of sex, but repeating it smacks of desperation. Likewise, the play overall dragged on much too long, with seemingly irrelevant issues cropping up at the end such as a new hall where the shoemakers could trade leather two days a week: presumably this was once topical, and perhaps interesting, now it is neither. Despite the over-simplicity of the story, the needless repetition and the reliance throughout on the lowest common denominator, the play is paradoxically more difficult to understand than anything by the much more complex Shakespeare. The reason is Dekker’s over-reliance on jargon, whereas Shakespeare had the gift of being able to use simple language in clever ways.
|David Troughton as Simon Eyre|
Perhaps the biggest weakness, for what is, after all, a love story, was that the two pairs of lovers are both incredibly dull. The actress playing Rose Oatley, Thomasin Rand, gave a game performance, but neither she nor the others had much to work with. The most interesting character is Simon Eyre, whose language is odd but not especially clever: much of it relies on the incongruity of calling London bums ‘Brave Hyperboreans’, ‘Mad Mesopotamians’, ‘Babylonian Knaves’, ‘True Trojans’ and so on. The programme describes Eyre as Falstaffian and there is something in this, which fits in nicely with the Agincourt link: Shakespeare had killed off Falstaff so by introducing his new Falstaff and having him befriend King Henry V , Dekker was perhaps trying to tap into Falstaff’s, and Shakespeare’s, popularity. Even so, the programme goes a little too far in suggesting that Eyre shares Falstaff’s moral qualities. Eyre is a much more upright, though less interesting, character; extremely loyal to his workers and the soul of generosity. David Troughton, playing Eyre, was excellent but again let down by some mediocre dialogue: I suspect he would make a fantastic Falstaff. It was a very nice idea of the director’s to have the clothes of Eyre and his wife change as their social standing improved during the play. They begin the play in rags but by the end of the play she is Queen Elizabeth I and he is Henry VIII.
From a social perspective, there is more here for the common man than we would get in the average Shakespeare play: cross class love affairs, the victories of the apprentices over the gentlemen, the rise of Simon Eyre to Lord Mayor, and the sympathetic portrayal of an entire profession (the ‘gentle craft’ of shoemakers). Even Henry V turns out to be an egalitarian at the end: ‘Does thou not know that love respects no blood?’
Historicist readings of Shakespeare attempt to explain his plays based on the historical context, explaining why and how he covers certain themes because of the society he lived in. This can be an enlightening approach, but it can also blind us to what is unique about Shakespeare: his genius. Watching a play like this reminds us of a simple truth: Shakespeare is better remembered than his contemporaries because his plays are better than theirs. But if Shakespeare was the towering genius that the old ‘Great Men’ historians might have portrayed, could he have been so great as to transcend his historical context? If we moderns can discover ‘history’ then we are exempting ourselves from its grip (by knowing ideas are historically determined, then can’t we disregard the ideas we recognize as determined by our own historical context?) But in discarding such ideas, does that leave us with nothing, nihilism, or does it free us to recognize eternal ideas? And if we can put aside our historically determined ideas (a big if) isn’t it possible that other people (like Shakespeare) might have done so in the past? Perhaps the ability to transcend his historical conditioning was one of the factors that made Shakespeare such a great playwright (ok, this is getting a little circular). The Socrates of Plato’s Republic argued that society is a cave of opinion, from which only a few philosophers find their way out into the sunlight of real truth. Many of today’s intellectuals accept that society is a cave of opinion, but think there is nothing at all outside the cave. All supposed truths are mere opinions. On this evidence, Dekker is firmly ensconced inside the cave. Take away the play’s topicality and there isn’t much left. The Shoemaker’s Holiday is an interesting picture of the Elizabethan cave, but it doesn’t point the way to any deeper idea of what it is to be human. A number of Straussians have examined Shakespeare’s plays for the eternal problems, believing that Shakespeare was able to see that sunlight of real truth. Maybe there’s something in it.