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"You ha'done me a charitable office": autolycus and the economics of festivity in The Winter's Tale.

WILLIAM Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (1610) is a play which challenges audiences with its unlikely resolution: the action opens with the King of Sicilia, Leontes, consigning his infant daughter to death from suspicions of his wife Hermione's infidelity with his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia; his daughter Perdita, however, survives, and at the conclusion, Leontes is forgiven by both daughter and wife. Even more improbable, Hermione, who apparently died from grief when the baby was taken away, miraculously is "resurrected" in the last act. While careful reading of the play reveals evidence that a loyal noblewoman has kept Hermione hidden for 16 years, the scene nevertheless occasions inquiry regarding the nature of artistic verisimilitude, resurrection and atonement. This last consideration--atonement--is King Leontes's central concern, as he is debilitated by guilt and yearns for forgiveness for his responsibility for the (supposed) deaths of his wife and daughter. When Hermione and Perdita appear alive in the play's final act, Leontes thinks he has just witnessed a miracle. He is restored to full faith not only in divine grace but in his marriage too. This play, one of Shakespeare's late plays known as the "Romances," begins as a problem play but ends as a comedy, with Leontes's daughter marrying Polixenes's son, thus uniting the kingdoms at the same time that Leontes and Hermione are reunited. It is the restoration of faith in grace and in personal bonds that I explore in this essay, focusing not on Leontes but instead on the rogue character Autolycus whose action is central to reuniting the kingdoms.

Autolycus holds apparently contradictory roles: socially threatening cutpurse and socially assimilated figure whose machinations unite the play's antagonistic factions, maneuverings that ultimately help provide the atonement that carries the conclusion. Ignoring this salutary role, most critics consign Autolycus to his identity as a roguish thief, finding his character nefarious at best (Mowat, Bristol, Fumerton). While indeed Autolycus has no compunction about filching others' belongings, since he makes a living as a petty thief, or a "snatcher-up of unconsidered trifles," his crucial social function as go-between deserves examination (4.3.25-26). (1) I argue that it is his socially expansive role as huckster and peddlar in the play's sheep-shearing festival that gives him this ability. More importantly, it is the marketplace atmosphere of the festival itself that endows Autolycus with particular social liberties not afforded him in other contexts. I examine this character in light of recent work by social and economic historians that has uncovered the nature of ethical obligation and community membership centered on the feast or communal ale in early modern England. Employing theories of economic and social historians such as Craig Muldrew, Keith Wrightson, and Tim Hitchcock, I also draw from more recent work on charity and personal obligation (Ben-Amos). Using this historical backdrop, I further suggest that Shakespeare imbues such social bonds with a devotional significance, found in the sacramental rhetoric of reconciliation uttered in moments of forgiveness in the play's final act. Autolycus, then, represents the interrelation of religious and economic obligation in early modern England, a correlation that both looks back to commitments of pre-Reformation Catholic worship and that accommodates the familiar language of those commitments to the post-Reformation world of the marketplace.

In the festival scene, the conventions of the Romance genre and of English festive culture are coincident: pastoral festivities suspend the hostilities dramatized in the Romance's opening acts; and festive ales and feasts affirm community ties and allegiances. (2) This sheep-shearing festival occurs on the island of Bohemia, where Leontes's daughter Perdita has been brought up by shepherds who found her abandoned in the wilderness. Now sixteen, Perdita is being wooed by Prince Florizel, King Polixenes's son in disguise, whose impending betrothal to Perdita counters his father's wishes (who still thinks she is just a poor shepherdess). At the festival, Autolycus sells silk ribbons, trinkets, and ballads he sings as advertisement. Perdita buys ribbons from Autolycus, reminding us that rural celebrations and festivals in Renaissance England--often attending seasonal agricultural rituals such as sheep-shearing--also served as marketplaces. Large numbers of community members, whether in provincial towns or more rural outposts, would gather to eat, drink ale, and buy or sell wares, lace, ribbons, and "broadside" ballads, or songs or poems printed on one "side" of paper. This market was attractive to local artisans and travelling peddlers alike, who capitalized on the communal bonds of obligation engendered at such festive events.

Yet while salutary social bonds were affirmed at such events, festive markets also drew economic opportunists, such as Autolycus. When he picks an unwitting shepherd's pocket on the way to the feast, Autolycus's comment to him--"You ha'done me a charitable office" (4.3.71-72)--doubles as an ironic statement of fact: the charity is both the clown's offer of help and the stolen pence. The complicated ethical relationship between charity and compelled donation at festive events such as the sheep-shearing feast is a truth universally acknowledged by historians of festive culture, as is the relation of festive events and the market activity often transacted on church property (Bennett 19).3 As thief and peddler at the feast, Autolycus most often has been identified by scholars as a vagrant or vagabond, thus as representative of outlaw or outsider status (Mowat, Fumerton). Instead we might view him as representative of institutions and practices of festive fundraising that, despite statutes banning them, remained effective sources of parish revenue. Since some practices verged on the extortionate, Autolycus represents the practice of forced giving such feasts occasioned. Further, he represents the Protestant cultural assimilation of the bonds and obligations implicit in traditional festive rituals: he utilizes commitments fostered at the feast to, like the church and the state itself, remind the participants of mutually-enhancing bonds of reciprocity.4 He then capitalizes on the bonds solidified with that rhetoric, in order (we are led to believe) to regain his lost position with Florizel, under whom he had served previously at court. (5)

Autolycus, operating both as beggar and seller in a festive environment, embodies the traditional ritual culture that encouraged both almsgiving and marketing on church property. There was a longstanding acceptance of commerce in churchyards, where, from the early sixteenth century, peddlers would sell their merchandise on feast days, with churchwardens sometimes receiving rents for such arrangements. One reason for the persistence of peddlers at church events is that they yielded useful income for the church (Dymond 484). (6) Autolycus is representative of the easy entry of both beggar and peddler into such festive environments: he essentially first begs for alms when he appeals, in duress, to the shepherd's son, "I am robbed, sir, and beaten; my money and apparel ta'en from me" (4.3.58-59). In this he represents the implicit demand for charity that preys on the sympathy of those attending festive events. A bit later, as peddler of ribbons and ballads, he hawks his wares with "Come buy, come buy./Buy, lads, or else your lasses cry" (4.4.251-52), bringing the marketplace to the feast. Two distinct episodes, his begging and selling employ seemingly distinct rhetorics of obligation: the former, to respond ethically and morally to the needs of the destitute; and the latter, to supply the "lasses['s]" demands for commodities. Two discrete types of returns come with fulfilling each of these obligations: one otherworldly, the other earthly. Yet these types are succinctly joined in his customers' behavior: "They throng who should buy first, as if my trinkets had been hallowed and brought a benediction to the buyer" (4.4.673-74). With this observation Autolycus links salvation with commercial trade. His simile reminds us of the continuum from the spiritual transaction of the mass in which Christ's death buys humanity's redemption, to the corrupt Catholic practice of selling indulgences, to his own customers' vulgar and covetous "worship" of his ribbons and ballads, a worship that, they think, confers blessings. Hope for such returns shaped an explicit and crucial centerpiece of Catholic culture. (7) Advice manuals tied charity to the expiation for sin, presenting almsgiving as a way of both achieving and dispensing mercy. Ecclesiastical thinkers from Gratian and Augustine to churchmen through the middle ages promoted an awareness of the obligations of property and the commonality of interests that existed between benefactors and beggars (Clark).

FIESTIVE events provided a marketplace to serve that commonality of interests, allowing for the flourishing of a mixed economy of welfare at seasonal celebrations and holidays, such as Whitsun (or Whitsunday, the festival of Pentecost), Rogation (a procession and blessing of crops invoking God's mercy), Easter, Hocktide (a fundraising ritual to collect funds when agricultural rents were due), and Christmas. (8) Although communal festivity as a means of fund-raising was in decline by the time The Winter's Tale was first performed (1610-11), festive events had been flourishing in many locales as late as the 1590s (and were still active in many parts of Oxfordshire into the early seventeenth century). (9) Charity was forthcoming at such events, so that even though Autolycus is the "unsettled" peddler, to use Patricia Fumerton's phrase for a category of laboring poor (the often displaced who were forced to find various types of makeshift labor), he finds a zone of hospitality at the feast (Fumerton). And while indeed he is displaced at the play's opening, he uses that displacement to his advantage at the sheep-shearing festival's "economy of makeshift" (King and Tomkins). (10) A term that essentially means all of the ways that the laboring poor made ends meet, the makeshift economy in The Winter's Tale encompasses both Autolycus's begging before the feast and its ersatz market in trinkets and ballads.

Apparently what protects Autolycus as a beggar also protects him as a thief: trust and communality at the feast. He is successful as a thief because he is unsuspected, and free to beg because he is not pursued criminally as a vagrant. While England's harsh vagrancy laws are not Bohemia's, the green-world fiction of the Romance does, nonetheless, typify aspects of early seventeenth-century English festive culture. Attitudes towards almsgiving at festive events fostered a leniency that, according to Tim Hitchcock, "threw a secure boundary around specific forms of begging," so that professional beggars were protected from prosecution under the vagrancy laws (487). (11) While Autolycus fears the "gallows" "on the highway" (4.3.27) he is singularly successful--and singularly protected--in the feast environment.

And yet the etiquette of almsgiving, initially formulated by monks and espoused by episcopal authorities, met with antimendicant polemic and later Protestant manuals such as Thomas Cooper's The Art of Giving (1615) that warned against charity at feasts that would only feed wasteful "vanity and ostentation" at such unnecessary events (63). The liberality--with one's money but also in behavior--that characterized festivity made the profitability of such events ethically and morally suspect. The festive drinking and conviviality that opened pockets to beggars also served to fill parish coffers: but the nature of such donation, and the uses to which they were put, came under question. Indeed the profit-driven nature of transactions at festive events such as church-ales was a point of contention in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (12) Positive views, such as those penned by antiquarians and in some literary pastorals, highlighted charitable relief for the poor occasioned by the ale. (13) Nicholas Breton emphasized the neighborliness of such gatherings: he countered Protestant pastorals such as Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar (1579) that characterized festivities as occasions for self-indulgence (King, Norbrook). Breton wrote in his Pasquils Palinodia: "Happy the age, and harmless were the days ... when ... Whitson-ales and May-games did abound ... Then friendship to their banquets bid the guests, / And poor men far'd the better for their feasts" (B3). An opposing view came from pamphleteer Philip Stubbes, whose damning description in his diatribe against contemporary manners and pastimes, The Anatomy of Abuses (1583), compared participants at church-ales to "the rich glutton in the Gospel" Balthazzar, who "for all his riotous feasting" was condemned to the fires of hell (I2v).

Some censures of festive practices singled out fiscal corruption by churchwardens and rectors. Stubbes essentially was right: his railing against the extortion at church-ales, while polemical, accurately represented questionable practices in some parishes. (14) Stubbes found that while he who spends lavishly at ales was "counted the goodliest man of all," he who cannot was sometimes "counted one destitute both of virtue and goodness" (I3r). Another form of social exaction was compulsory attendance at ales, with donations sometimes stipulated. Scot-ales (where "scot" denoted a compulsory contribution or even a tax) were held by officers to extort money from people under their jurisdiction, and those who refused to attend the ale were "sorely punished" (Turner 126). The ale was just one of a variety of means for parochial provision, and those who did not pay their share could be the object of presentments, formal reports made by a churchwarden to the bishop at his visitation. In The Temple (1633), George Herbert described the parson, who "mislikes" any not participating in his Rogationtide processions, "and reproves as uncharitable, and unneighborly; and if they will not reform, presents them" (284). Herbert emphasized the expectation of charitable neighborliness as a social rule by censuring those who exempt themselves from the rule.

These social consequences--being counted "destitute of virtue" and being named in churchwardens' presentments--applied a heavy social tax upon the miserly. Yet such inducements to conform to a culture

of obligation serve as evidence, perhaps counter-intuitively, for the general success of that culture. As economic historian Craig Muldrew's work on credit has shown, since the culture of credit depended upon a high level of interpersonal trust, that trust was communicated in the form of reputation (3). The emphasis upon reputation at festive events was one way to insure that bonds of reciprocity were enhanced. In her extensive work on church-ales, Judith Bennett has shown that commerce and charity at festivities, with their attendant heavy drinking in crowded, convivial settings, changed the nature of the reciprocity inherent in church-ales. Because they occurred in familiar local settings, these festivities affirmed relationships between known donors and known recipients (Bennett 39, Ben-Amos 183). Festival participants, owing to their exchanges, be they commercial or charitable, achieved a measure of social reconciliation in these settings. Whether that reconciliation took the form of mutually beneficial commerce, or chastisement of social "outliers," the end result was a stronger sense of community.

It is this sort of social reconciliation that Autolycus achieves through his exchanges at the sheep-shearing feast. As he moves towards atonement with his former master Florizel, his interactions with the shepherds, while seemingly ruled by an ethos of deceit and opportunism, actually are endowed with a sacramental character. Clues to the import of these interactions come in the parallels between commercial and theological exchange concerning ballads sung and sold at the feast. The characters experience a religious admiration for Autolycus's dirty songs while singing is described in terms that combine hallowed and sacred. One servant admires Autolycus's vulgar ballads, adding that Autolycus "sings 'um over as they were gods or goddesses" (4.4.231-32). Perdita's songs too merge the sacred with the mercantile, in Florizel's oddly venal package: "when you sing, / I'd have you buy and sell so, so give alms, / Pray so, and, for the ord'ring your affairs, / To sing them too" (4.4.157-60). Bracketing the devotional is the worldly, as if in order to give alms, one first must participate in the marketplace; and in order to pay your debts or dispose of your goods in a testament, you must pray to God for their good ordering. Christianity has always been imbued with a commercial understanding of salvation, in what John Parker has termed the "inherently economic structure of redemption." (15) The notion persisted even in Reformation rejection of the Catholic doctrine of salvation through good works and charity. Luther in The Babylonian Captivity. expressed Christ as a token of the "price" of the grace of God, and the liturgy of the eucharist as Christ's testament, the bequest of which is the forgiveness of sins (quoted in McGrath 508). The conflation of piety and commerce, the trafficking of holiness is not a sacrilegious debasement of transcendent truths into material goods, but a recognition of the theological language of exchange at the root of Christianity itself. The festive culture that celebrates marketing and spending, charity and social reconciliation is just one manifestation of this system of exchange.

AUTOLYCUS'S profits from the feast appear strictly secular, as do the social profits he gleans soon afterwards: bribed by Polixenes's advisor Camillo to exchange clothing with Florizel, he not only gets payment but information. He learns that the shepherdess newly married to Florizel is actually Perdita, the lost Princess of Sicilia. Camillo, previously the advisor to Leontes but currently banished, arranges for Florizel to disguise himself in Autolycus's clothing as a peddlar, in order to smuggle himself aboard a ship bound for Sicilia. Camillo hopes that Leontes, once faced with the living Perdita, will be so overcome with joy at seeing Perdita alive that he will accept the marriage. Once the two kingdoms are united in this way, Camillo wagers that Florizel's father Polixenes too will forgive Florizel for pursuing a marriage forbidden by his father. Upon learning these secrets, Autolycus realizes the value of the information for Florizel's future, but also for his own. Autolycus admits the commercial paradox of it: "What an exchange had this been without boot" and "What a boot is here with this exchange" (4.4.749-50). Even without the added "boot" or payment, his advantage gained is the knowledge of Perdita's origin, but also the knowledge that Prince Florizel is as skilled a thief (for "stealing" Perdita) as Autolycus. His very syntax traces the logic, as he predicates his own dishonest actions on the example of his social superior:
   The Prince himself is about a piece of iniquity, stealing away from
   his father with his clog at his heels. If I thought it were a piece
   of honesty to acquaint the King withal, I would not do't. I hold it
   the more knavery to conceal it; and therein am I constant to my
   profession. (4.4.752-56)

Constant to his profession, Autolycus is also consistent in behavior with the higher-ups at court. The world where, he notes, the spoils go to the "quick eye" and the "nimble hand" (4.4.746) is not the unethical, antisocial vagrant's world but the social world of advantage at large where princes like Florizel thrive. In realizing that this advantage-getting involves him in, rather than excludes him from the court world he wants to reclaim, he is free to profit others in order to get there, by giving the shepherds information that, he hopes will "do the Prince my master good" (4.4.898-99) and that ultimately will get the shepherds a place at court. Helping them stow away on the ship with Perdita and Florizel headed for Sicilia, Autolycus delivers them to where, once Perdita's true origins are known, they will find favor at court for having protected her all those years. Although his intent may not initially have been to help them, Autolycus admits of his actions, "I have done good [to the shepherds] against my will" (5.2.112). In getting them aboard the Prince's ship, he is essentially their redeemer, something that the shepherds fully understand when they say "we are blest in this man" (4.4.893), and "he was provided to do us good" (4.4.894-95). Autolycus is perhaps an unlikely character to bestow grace upon the shepherds, yet he delivers the shepherds to Sicilia where their news of Perdita's origins sounds to the King like "a world ransomed" (5.2.13). The efficacy of Autolycus's actions get expressed in the same terms as do the mystery of God's saving work in Christ: terms of payoff and bought freedom.

In his last lines in the play Autolycus plans to make good the shepherds' debt to him, so he draws upon his social capital as redeemer to be successful as a supplicant. The successful beggar from early in the play, here at the end he secures from the shepherds a recommendation to Florizel through the language of forgiveness: "I humbly beseech you, sir, to pardon me all the faults I have committed to Your Worship, and to give me your good report to the Prince my master" (5.2.134-36). His appeal echoes the rite of reconciliation, in which the penitent confesses his faults and asks forgiveness. He elevates the shepherd to the role of a priest as he deliveres his mea culpa, asking for the divine gift of forgiveness. That the shepherds confer the divine gift upon the one from whom they earlier received blessings does not invalidate this rite, nor does the fact that it is a parody. It is efficacious nonetheless, as he promises to "amend" his life (5.2.140), and they promise to redeem Autolycus to his master Florizel, by speaking well of him and recommending him for service. Just as sacraments confer a sign of fellowship and union with Christ, a demonstration that the individual belongs to a community of faith, so too the words between the shepherds and Autolycus evoke and enable their commitment to each other.

The point of examining Autolycus's begging at the sheep-shearing feast in light of his appeals for court service is to emphasize what they share--the redistribution of money and goods in response to carefully deployed rhetorical acts. As a vagabond, he is one of an entrepreneurial class of masterless men who exploited the language of Christian charity and social obligation for personal profit. As more than vagabond, as representative of practices of forced giving through which institutions like the church pressured members into economic participation, Autolycus also represents community and fellowship. Like the prodigal son, Autolycus is the self-serving figure who atones and finds acceptance. Unlike the stock stage prodigal who typically remains selfish, however, Autolycus is conscious of the needs of those around him (despite his professed reluctance to help the shepherds). What Autolycus's trajectory back into the world of court service reveals is the mystery of social indebtedness and its unlikely product: reconciliation. Like the social acceptance found through the Christian sacrament of reconciliation, the reinstatement Autolycus seeks carries with it a truth that transcends his thievery and lies. Autolycus's desire to be reconciled to his former employer Florizel parallels Leontes's reunification with his lost wife and daughter, in that both achieve admittance within a larger community, whether at court or with family. At the play's end, we learn that "bonfires" have been lit on Sicilia, and that "ballads" will be written about Perdita's tale. Festive communality continues, with bonfires around which citizens celebrate the reconciliation of the two kingdoms. Such rituals of festive gathering translated, for the culture, social bonds and obligations that were both practical and mysterious.

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Bristol, Michael D. "In Search of the Bear: Spatiotemporal Form and the Heterogeneity of Economies in The Winter's Tale," Shakespeare Quarterly 42:2 (Summer, 1991): 145-67.

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(1) Autolycus's name identifies him classically as a thief too, as he was "littered under Mercury" (4.3.24-25), the Roman god of thieves.

(2) "Festive culture" is a term used to denote the social activities and artistic forms--including dances, ballads, processions, Maypole dances, and plays--enacted in festivals and other celebrations held during traditional agricultural and parish holidays, including Mayday, Whitsuntide, Christmas, and Easter.

(3) Keith Thomas identifies the value of certain festival days "for paying rent, or carrying out other secular activities" (618); David Cressy identifies the "fiscal benefits of ceremonies," where "opportunities for local fund-raising and redistribution, bounty and largesse, rooted the traditional holidays in the soil of the local economy" (15). Also See Ronald Hutton, "Seasonal Festivity" (66-79) for his argument for the co-option of festivity into parochial funding. Cowley writes, "after participating in divine service, the eucharistic drama, people could naturally pass to secular buying and bargaining in or about the same building" (22).

(4) For discussion of how The Winter's Tale "defends the old religion on aesthetic grounds, advocating an anti-iconoclastic aesthetics of 'real presence' for the theater and a festive world for early modern England" see Jenson (282).

(5) At 4.3.13 Autolycus reflects, "I have served Prince Florizel ... but now I am out of service."

(6) Puritanically inclined Archbishop of York Edmund Grindal had explicitly addressed this in his visitation articles of 1571, which condemned fairs, markets and the peddling of wares in church-porches or church-yards. Despite such warnings, church yards were in use for fund-raising and marketing purposes up until the Civil War (Dymond 484).

(7) John Parker traces such links between spiritual and commercial returns in The Aesthetics of Antichrist, especially in his chapter "Blood Money: Antichristian Economics and the Drama of the Sacraments" (87-138).

(8) For the "mixed economy of welfare" see Innes.

(9) Ronald Hutton surveys the ubiquity of festive customs in Tudor England and their relative decline in the Stuart era, highlighting their fundraising role in parish finances, while pointing out the persistence into the seventeenth century of Hocktide and annual Whitsun ales in "villages near London and towns along the Thames between the capital and Oxford" in Rise and Fall (120).

(10) The term was originally used by Olwen Hufton in The Poor of Eighteenth-Century France to summarize the French experience of marginality, namely characterized by subsistence migration and localized begging.

(11) That vagrants found some protection in the ritualized begging atmosphere of festive celebrations is notable since parish officers themselves were empowered to "whip vagrants and return them to their places of origin," Wrightson (216).

(12) On the centrality of church-ales to the financing of rural festivities, Kumin writes "The key element in the financial success of rural festivities was their association with church ales and-often-play or music as additional attractions" (118).

(13) See for example Carew, where at the church ale "neighbor parishes ... lovingly visit one another, and this way frankly spend their money together" (S4r).

(14) For abuses by wardens and ministers, see Parker (62-63). One churchwarden critiqued the use of parish funds for the light before the Rood, when, he noted, "the pore lackyd fode," quoted in Duffy (586).

(15) John Parker, in What a Piece of Work is Man," emphasizes the "essentially Christian" nature of the drama: "for me, if it remains 'essentially' Christian despite its apparent break with Christianity, this is because of its commercial motives (Christianity's 'essence' being itself inextricable from the realities of exchange and the inherently economic structure of redemption)" 665.
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Author:Ingram, Jill Phillips
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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