The publication of No-body and Some-body: humanism, history and economics in the early Jacobean public theatre[1]

Anthony Archdeacon
Liverpool Hope University

Anthony Archdeacon, "The publication of No-body and Some-body: humanism, history and economics in the early Jacobean public theatre."EMLS 16.1 (2012): 2.

  1. No-body and Some-body is known from a quarto text printed in 1606. There has been limited critical interest in the play, and what has been written about it shows an extraordinary lack of consensus, even about what genre it belongs to. [2]  The anonymity of the play seems to have given commentators licence to assign to it all manner of genre or ideology, and it has been characterised variously as a farce, a history play, or a late morality play. In the 1970s, John Weld placed it in the same line of morality plays as the medieval Castle of Perseverance (Weld, 1975: 64-5) then David Hay, who produced an introduction to his edition of the text, suggested it combined the history play genre with the conventions of the ‘complaint’ tradition (Hay, 1980: 5). Critics have sometimes invented new genres to fit the play into: Alan Dessen classified No-body and Some-body along with various late sixteenth-century plays, including Robert Wilson’s allegorical The Three Ladies of London, as an “estates morality” play (Dessen, 1965: 121-136). This type of play combined allegory typical of the morality tradition with a degree of character realism and social relevance more familiar in the public theatres of the time. John Curran (1999) decided to place it alongside other plays which used (or misused) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae as their source material, producing what he designated “non-history” plays.  Luke Wilson, in perhaps the closest examination of the text so far, saw in its word-play a legal significance in relation to exculpation and inculpation. Wilson recognised the sub-plot as satirical, but rather dismissively called the objects of this satire traditional (L.Wilson, 2000: 238). Most recently, Anston Bosman dealt mainly with the European context of its performances in the first half of the seventeenth century, looking not only at the English play but also its later German and Dutch versions, seeing it as an example of renaissance “intertheater” (Bosman, 2004: 559-585). A considerable amount of the attention the play has received has been in the European context, because of the later translations and our knowledge of its performances in Germany, at the detriment of consideration of the context of the London public theatre.

  2. No-body and Some-body’s genre is, undeniably, hard to pin down: switching from court and city to country and from high politics to low clowning, the action encompasses the full range of Polonius’s “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral”. But the question of genre seems much less important than the simple question of why this play text came to be published at all. As Peter Blayney has observed and detailed (Blayney 385-9), the printing of new plays in this period was at the rate of only about five per year (amongst the scores of plays which might have been performed) and they would not typically return a quick profit. Any play which is seen by a bookseller as worth the risk of publication was, then, quite exceptional, and therefore seems to demand serious consideration. This play was it seems well advertised at the time, having been ‘printed for John Trundle ... to be sold at his shop in the Barbican, at the signe of No-body,’ according to the title page (Hay p.73) So rather than trying to classify the play, I have asked what might have made it appealing to the audience, and indeed the potential readership, of the time. This leads me to consider the historical contexts of its production, both as play, focussing on the specific context of the London public theatre, and as a playbook, considering its literariness and other features which made it an attractive proposition for publication.

  3. The title-page also bears the assurance that this was a true copy of No-body and Some-body “as it hath beene acted by the Queenes Majesties Servants”.[3] The company referred to was Queen Anne’s Men, previously the Earl of Worcester’s Men under Elizabeth.[4] Worcester’s Men had only arrived in London at the beginning of the decade, but with several ex-Chamberlain’s Men amongst their number, including Will Kempe, Thomas Beeston and Thomas Heywood (not an unlikely candidate for authorship of the play) they were soon competing well with the two well-established adult troupes at the Fortune in North London and the Globe south of the river. By 1606 they were playing at the theatre constructed the year before in the yard of the Red Bull Inn in London, north of the City in Clerkenwell, as well as touring provincial English towns.[5] It is known that No-body and Some-body was in the repertoire of the company, and the meta-theatrical reference in the play to “this Play-house yard” could have described either the Red Bull, or equally the company’s previous theatrical space from 1602, at the Rose theatre in Bankside, if as some have suggested the play had been performed for some years before its publication.[6]  The full title in the 1606 printing included the addition, “with the true chronicle history of Elydure”. This titling of the playbook is curious in itself since the history of King Elidure’s three reigns constitutes the main plot of the play, whilst the eponymous protagonists figure in a comic sub-plot. Woodcut illustrations of No-body and Some-body, placed respectively at the front and back of the playbook, provide a visual pun: Nobody is all legs and no body, whilst Somebody is almost all torso. From the evidence both of this and of a 1608 drawing, as well as various jokes in the text, we know what costume was worn by the comic character on stage.

  4. The stage representation of Nobody was new, and uniquely English, even though it has been associated by various critics with the pictorial representations of Nobody that had been popular throughout Northern Europe in the sixteenth century. The “picture of Nobody” was famously mentioned in The Tempest by Trincolo (3.2.129)[7], but there is no need to assume, as some recent writers including Bosman (572) have done, that Trincolo was actually referring to No-body and Some-body. [8] The currency of Trincolo’s allusion relied upon the audience’s familiarity with a pictorial representation which had been appearing in print in Northern Europe for a hundred years and would have been far more familiar than the new and visually distinct dramatic figure which had appeared a few years earlier on the London stage.[9] As Gerta Calmann (1960) showed, Georg Schan’s picture accompanying a poem from around 1507 began a sequence of copies and imitations during the sixteenth century, including one from Holbein, but of the seventeen different Nemo / Niemand images reproduced in her article, not one bears any resemblance to the stage figure. [10]

  5. Exactly when the stage Nobody first appeared is uncertain. Luke Wilson drew attention to Ben Jonson having used the same visual joke three years earlier than the play’s publication in a masque for Queen Anne. A character called No-body introduced the entertainment “attyred in a pair of breeches which were made to come up to his neck, with his armes out of his pockets” (L. Wilson 221). If the play post-dates Jonson’s masque, then perhaps he should be credited with the invention of the English theatrical Nobody: there is no record of such a character in drama or elsewhere before 1603, despite suggestions from some critics that the play might have originated in the 1590s. Whilst the stage Nobody is a new and different creation, the play does make a joking nod to his continental cousin when Somebody sets a price on Nobody’s head and tells the Constable to get a print made of his likeness: “His picture shall be set on every stall” (887).[11] But when later the Braggart recognises Nobody from his picture, it is presumably a picture like the playbook woodcut, not the traditional Nemo or Niemand figures. Thus we can see the value of having the picture printed in the playbook (and also, it seems, outside the bookseller’s shop, from the evidence of the frontispiece), not only to amuse with the visual joke but also to distinguish it from that older and more familiar image.

  6. In addition to the visual differences, that familiar ‘picture of Nobody’ would have had religious overtones which have no obvious relation to the stage Nobody.  Calmann’s study showed how this figure was appropriated in the course of the sixteenth century by German Protestant pamphleteers, as when Schan recast his Niemand as a broadsheet in 1533 (Calmann 84). The 1533 image of “The Welspoken Nobody”, which was produced in both German and English versions, was a slight variation on Schan’s original, which had a padlock on Nobody’s mouth. In Calmann’s view, the new image presented a “rebellious Nobody” (85), speaking out against Papism, which with its indulgences and absolutions might be presented as relinquishing moral responsibility for bad deeds.  But any thematic or ideological connections between the picture and the theatrical creation are tenuous at best. Nothing in the play suggests a Protestant agenda (the welcome it received in Catholic Styria in 1607 surely rules out any such suggestion) and nor do the other associations of the picture transfer to the play. Whilst the figure’s iconography is ambiguous and shifting, a consistent feature is that he apparently brings all kinds of disasters in his wake, being surrounded by broken pots and other household items. Sometimes he is dressed in rags and carrying the appurtenances of a fool, looking mischievous and puck-like, at other times well dressed but standing amidst the chaos as if oblivious. Wilson follows up Calmann’s iconographical analysis with his own, but the value of this in interpreting the later dramatic figure is doubtful, since in several respects the stage Nobody character turns up-side down the implications of the earlier depictions. He may be slightly ridiculous, but is not an outright fool, he is the opposite of irresponsible, and in fact is the hero of the piece, bringing harmony and justice where Somebody did harm. It may actually be the related character Elck (Each or Every man) of Pieter Breughel’s 1558 drawing which has the closest relation to the English play, insomuch as this acquisitive merchant figure has something in common with the greedy land-owning Somebody. In Breughel’s work, several “Everyman” figures, the central one posed rather like the Nobody of pamphlets, are scavenging or looting in a war-torn landscape.

  7. Both Wilson and Bosman acknowledge Calmann’s work in explaining the significance of Nobody, but to treat that picture as a source for the 1606 play is potentially misleading, because the link is less between the pictorial and dramatic representations of the Nobody character, and more between the verses accompanying the pictures and the dialogue of the play. Whilst there is no visual or thematic similarity between the pamphlet images and the playbook portrayal of the stage character, the verbal play employed in Schan’s poem is certainly echoed in the playscript. Accordingly, therefore, I want to redress the critical balance by emphasizing the verses about Nobody  rather than the images. Ulrich von Hutten published Latin poems about Nemo in 1510 and 1518, and this was just the start of a humanist fad for the topic during the next century – Caspar Dornavius was able to collate another six Latin Nemo poems, together with a long German poem Niemandt, to include in his 1619 compendium of humanistic facetiae (Dornavius 757-71). These poems derive intellectual amusement from the illogicality of “nobody” as a grammatical subject or object, as in for example the Biblical allusion of “Nemo potest dominis simul inservire duobus” (Nobody can serve two masters at once) from Carmen de Nemine. (761) These were all the products of university educated writers at a time when the university curriculum was undergoing extensive reform all over Europe, moving from the rigidity of the medieval Trivium and Quadrivium to a curriculum which encompassed the studia humanitatis.

  8. Nemo was matched in popularity by nihil (nothing) as a subject for humanists’ mock-serious verses, since both words appeared to be nouns without a referent, referred to in medieval logic as a “nomen inane” or “empty name”. The poems were typically academics’ recreational writings, and almost certainly derived from a scorn for the logical exercises such as “fallacies” and “sophisms” which had formed the basis of dialectic for university students since the Middle Ages. A good number of these sophisms included paradoxical statements about nothing, such as “Si nihil est, aliquid est” (If nothing is, it is something) or about non-existent fictions such as Pegasus or the Chimera. Designed to exercise the minds of young university students, they were still being printed in text books at the beginning of the sixteenth century, but to anti-scholastic humanists they were meaningless and valueless relics of an outdated curriculum. The link between these and our topic is made explicit on a fifteenth-century manuscript of the Nemo poem, on which is inscribed in the margin “Nullus et nemo mordent se in sacco” (Nothing and Nobody devour each other in a sack)..[12]  This was, it seems, one of the most infamous of the sophisms being ridiculed by humanist reformers at the time, appearing as it does in Philip Melanchthon’s De corrigendis adulesecentiae studiis (On Correcting the Studies of Youth) in 1518, and just a year later, in the satirical Adversus pseudodialecticos (Against the pseudo-dialecticians) of Juan Luis Vives, where it appears alongside “The antichrist and the chimera are brothers” as examples of the “laughably foolish” excesses of dialecticians.[13] It was clearly not difficult at the time then to see the relationship between these logical absurdities and the jokes in the Nemo poems.

  9. Humanists undoubtedly took great pleasure in wordplay which highlighted a conflict between those two pillars of the medieval Trivium, logic and grammar, to the advantage of the third pillar, rhetoric. Rosalie Colie (1966) identified the wordplay in “praise of nothing” verses and essays as examples of a fashion for “paradoxical encomia” in the early modern period, which she saw as part of the shift of emphasis from Logic to Rhetoric (Colie 34). In the case of much of the nihil or nemo wordplay, however, the purpose was often satire rather than paradoxical musing, and the objects of satire were infinitely changeable. The form served as a convenient vehicle for witty attacks on any target one wished, and this is also the case in Some-body and No-body, where the targets can be anyone from adulterers to hosiers, from moneylenders to absentee landlords. The topics are not important: ultimately, the double-entendre of the apprentice’s “Sooth Nobody was drunke with me” (509), works in the same way as “Nobody is more powerful than the German Emperor” in von Hutten, and this, ultimately, is the key connection between the two texts. It is really only in the play’s dialogue, then, that the figure from sixteenth-century pamphlets survives transition to the stage: the complex iconography of the Nobody pictures, and the characterisation (such as it was) is not to be seen. And if the Nobody word-play is recognisably rooted in a literary tradition of serio ludere (serious play), then this is perhaps one of the reasons it was thought to be worth the financial risk of publication. The appetite for this kind of material in print was considerable in the renaissance: for example, the Dornavius anthology, published in a costly Folio, was reprinted several times. A popular theme could be disseminated across Europe, being translated and adapted along the way, as with the “praise of nothing” trope which spread from Italy in the mid-sixteenth century (Francisco Beccuti) to France (Jean Passerat), Germany (Lambertus Pithopoeius et al) and England (Edward Daunce) by the 1580s.The passion for this kind of writing extended well into the seventeenth century (Passerat’s poem Nihil, which he himself translated into French, was loosely translated into English by Sir William Cornwallis in 1616) and this is one of the contexts in which the publication of the playbook of No-body and Some-body should be considered.

  10. It is possible to overstate the university origins of the word-play, for there is also a folkloric aspect to this character, and the word-play surely belongs to an oral tradition too. Despite the supposed sophistication of the humanist poems, jokes that “Mr Nobody did it” are accessible to children even to this day, and the “nobody is to blame” theme which is central to the iconography of the Picture of Nobody, does make up a fair proportion of the jokes in No-body and Some-body.[14] In addition to the actual blaming done by Somebody, the Clown voices the same sentiments: “as the world goes, Somebody receaves all and Nobody is blamd for it” (sig.D3) and so does Nobody himself, for example after he has moved to London:
    … what so ere is done
    Amisse in London, is impos’d on me,
    Be it lying, secret theft, or any thing
    They call abuse, tis done by No-body (1176)
    Although there is often a larger social and political context, the joke is brought down to the domestic level several times in the course of the action, as when the husband enters arguing with his wife, who claims to have committed adultery with nobody (496) or when the apprentice insists to his master that he was with Nobody in the ale-house (503).[15]

  11. But jokes about nobody being to blame are only one of several types of word-play employed, to varying effect, for example in the list of pseudo-paradoxes which annoy Nobody:
    …he is onely held peacefull and quiet,
    That quarrels, brawles, and fights with Nobody,
    He’s honest held that lies with Nobodies wife,
    And he that hurts and injures Nobody,
    All the world says, ey thats a virtuous man. (453)
    The idea of fighting nobody is taken up and turned into a joke at the expense of braggarts (1214), and the Clown recounts how he was arrested as a vagrant for having had Nobody as a master).[16] Another effect again, one of misanthropic pessimism, is achieved with statements such as the Second Man’s that “Nobodie will keepe his worde, Nobodies word is as good as his bond”. Probably the key form of the nobody word-play however, is that which enumerates the good deeds of Nobody, one which Luke Wilson (241) links to the parodic sermo neminis tradition, whilst acknowledging that it functioned rather differently because of the moral conscience aspect of the stage Nobody.  I would suggest that this aspect of the stage Nobody’s function is distinct from that of the saintly Nemo who could perform miracles, who was ultimately a joke at the expense of medieval hagiographies.[17] The function here is undoubtedly to draw attention to certain social ills, and moreover (going beyond the estates morality agenda) to suggest how some might be remedied. It is also the feature which highlights the contemporariness of a play ostensibly set in a remote past. Nobody’s appearance on stage is heralded by a speech which apparently praises the character:
    Come twentie poore men to his gate at once,
    Nobody gives them mony, meate and drinke,
    If they be naked, clothes, then come poore souldiers,
    Sick, maymd and shot, from any forraine warres,
    Nobody takes them in, provides them harbor,
    Maintaines their ruind fortunes at his charge,
    He gives to orphants, and for widdowes buildes
    Almes-houses, Spittles, and large Hospitals,
    And when it comes in question, who is apt
    For such good deeds, tis answerd, Nobody.
    Now Nobodie hath entertaind againe
    Long banisht Hospitalitie, and at his boord
    A hundred lustie yeomen daily waites,
    Whose long backs bend with weightie chynes of biefe,
    And choise of cheere, whose fragments at his gate
    Suffice the generall poore of the whole shire.
    Nobodies table's free for travellers,
    His buttry and his seller ope to all
    That starve with drought, or thirst upon the way. (316)
    Here we see the crux of Nobody’s uniqueness as a creation, as distinct from all previous portrayals: unlike the Nobody of folklore and verse, he is not only blamed for bad things, but is responsible for doing good things. This gives the character a new possibility, and a dramatic energy, going beyond the critique of society to a recommendation of what should be done. And yet of course the double meanings throughout seem to press the pessimistic underlying message that no-one actually does this, so the audience (or reader) is encouraged to admire a social hero who, rather uncomfortably for everyone, doesn’t really exist. It is also important to note that the objects of social satire here are not the traditional ones highlighted by Wilson: the welfare of injured soldiers returning from foreign wars, or indeed “the generall poore” were hardly familiar topics of satire in the period.

  12. The stage Nobody’s relationship with Somebody has specifically dramatic antecedents which also point towards the social critique function of the play. The cognate figures of No-one and Everyone, featured in one of the last plays of Portuguese playwright Vil Vicente, Auto da Lusitania. A dialogue between Todo o Mundo, a rich merchant, and Ninguém, a pauper, forms the final act of this farce, which was first published in 1532 and translated into Spanish in 1562. Whilst Calman did note this, she overlooked the parallel in French farces from the mid-sixteenth century, which similarly used personifications of everything and nothing as allegorical representations of poverty and wealth. In a number of these plays the character of Rien is set against that of Tout, that of Peu against Prou, highlighting the massive gulf between the top and bottom of the social scale.[18] The late medieval French farce had occupied the same kind of ideological ground as the English morality play, but in these early modern examples we see a form which, perhaps like the estates morality of the same period in England, was starting to cross traditional dramatic boundaries into the realms of social satire. Bernadette Rey-Flaud described the farces of the sixteenth century as expressing alienation born of a “menacing determinism” (Rey-Flaud 298). Konrad Schoell has suggested that even the fifteenth-century farces could be satiric, noting the democratic, almost sociological interests they expressed.[19] But if our English Nobody shares with the French Rien figure a mission to highlight poverty and social exclusion, there is a significant difference in that the English hero is neither poor nor disenfranchised.[20]  The English play, then, takes on only one part of the standard opposition, making Somebody the fat villain, but giving Nobody the same social rank.
  13. There is one other possible ancestral line for the stage Nobody. The medieval tradition of a Lord of Misrule, who represented during Carnival a temporarily transgressive “world turned upside down”, shares some obvious family resemblances. The paradoxicality of everything Nobody says, or that is said about him, produces a verbal equivalent of the carnivalesque – indeed he even turns upside down the notion of Carnival by having no body! This tradition could still be seen in the early modern popular theatre, not only in Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch, but also, David Bristol suggests (Bristol 236), in Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1599). Bristol also points out that this tradition went hand in hand with the tradition of hospitality, whereby “a fraction of surplus production be allocated to the poor, the disabled and the dispossessed” (234). In this light, Nobody’s entertaining of “Long banisht Hospitalitie” looks like nostalgic yearning for a lost principle of popular culture.  
  14. The missing link between the English folk drama, anti-scholastic wit and early-modern satire may well be the late fifteenth-century play Mankind. Jessica Brantley and Thomas Fulton have explored the peculiar piece of doggerel macaronic verse written by a court steward called ‘Nought’, making reference to a King Edward who does not reign (Brantley and Fulton 2006). This reference, apparently to Edward IV, is used to date the play, or at least this version of it, to 1471, a period of ‘political and regnal uncertainty’ not dissimilar to the period covered by No-body and  Some-body. Via the observation that the Latin nullus could translate as either nothing or no-one, Brantley and Fulton identify a connection between the poem’s “Edwardi nullatenti” and “regis nulli” and the fifteenth-century Nemo poems of Schan and von Hutten (332), and indeed our 1606 play (333). It appears that Mankind was the earliest example of this specific kind of word-play used dramatically, and with a political slant, since by suggesting that ‘nobody’ is king it effects “a ludic critique of Edward IV”. (331) They also point to a poetic precedent in Hoccleve’s early fifteenth-century The Regiment of Princes, where a Lordly Nemo has a satirical function, concluding that by the medieval Saint Nemo trope had become secularised, and “the satirical paradox was available for political as well as theological purposes.” (336)
  15. The dramatic character, therefore, has a complex genealogy, apparently drawing upon literary, artistic, dramatic and cultural traditions without clearly belonging to any one of them. With regard to the morality play tradition, it is useful to review the arguments that have been made for the play belonging in that category. John Weld starts from the assumption that Nobody was an allegorical character, and deduces that Nobody differs from his counterpart Somebody in being led by conscience and reason rather than bodily desires (Weld 64-5). He quotes Erasmus on this, though it was by no means an exclusively humanistic trope: Christian advice to abjure the temptations of the flesh and be led instead by the higher faculties was a medieval commonplace.[21] Such an allegorical reading therefore sounds convincing enough on one level, but the story of how the play was performed by an English troupe in the southern German state of Styria a year or so after it was published in London, illustrates its  limitations. Though the play might at first have been played in English, it was certainly soon translated into German, from the evidence of a manuscript presented early in 1608 to Maximilian, the younger brother of the Archduke Ferdinand at the court in Gräz, by the actor playing Nobody, John Green.[22] Of course, the visual pun of the torso-less costume worn by Nobody on the English stage did not translate into German or Latin, and neither therefore would the possible Erasmian connotations. But the word-play in the dialogue certainly did survive translation – after all it had started in Latin and German – again suggesting that this was a key factor in its popularity.
  16. Alan Dessen identified in the estates morality genre certain “social types” rather than the traditional ones of moralities, but the case of Some-body and No-body does not fit easily alongside his other examples.[23] In Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London, the types represented might have had an immediate social relevance, but it was still employing traditional emblematic characters: Love, Sincerity, Simplicity and Conscience struggled against Usury, Dissimulation, Artifex and Fraud. The Braggart and the courtier Sicophant are the nearest to this generalised typology in Some-body and No-body, though Sicophant may have had a more specific satiric reference to Lord Cobham, who had ended up in the Tower for his involvement in a plot against James.[24] In any case, the Sicophant’s function is mainly to provide a running joke as he changes sides each time the crown threatens to change hands. The Three Ladies was ultimately a moral sermon attacking usury and other facets of the increasingly money-driven culture of London, and its simplistic identification of poverty and virtue is what you might expect of the morality. In contrast, No-body and Some-body takes humorous side-swipes at a wide range of targets, more in the manner of satire than morality play: no-one seems exempt from the barbed jokes. Interestingly there is also a nobody figure, or indeed two of them in Wilson’s play: one Nicholas Nemo, a Lord in decline (presumably from being a somebody to being a nobody) and the other a judge who returns in the sequel Three Lords and three Ladies of London. The judge figure, whilst not being exactly a hero, is on the side of right and justice like Nobody, so one could draw a direct link there. However, Nemo stands outside the psychomachian allegorical categories of Wilson’s play, not suggesting any particular character trait.
  17. Not only would it be very reductive to treat No-body and Some-body as a morality play, but the same word-play which is so important to it as entertainment is also inevitably disrupting the certainties of meaning and value upon which allegory is based. The genre of serio ludere writing, though often coming out of universities, provided a rare opportunity for transgression in print, as exemplified by the aforementioned Dornavius anthology which included two mock-serious treatises on farting. [25] It seems that on the level of verbal and even dramatic meaning, Nemo / Niemand / Nobody is always potentially subversive, quite the opposite of the semantic and ideological fixedness of the allegorical characters. Every time he is mentioned and every time he speaks, the audience is forced into a double think with regard to meaning, as when the Clown speaks ostensibly about how welcome Nobody is made in London, with a sub-text about the inhospitable nature of the city:
    come to them as often as you will, foure times a day, and theyle make Nobody drinke, they love to have Nobody trouble them, and without good security they will lend Nobody mony. Come in to Birchin Lane, theyle give Nobody a sute, chuse where he list. (472)
    Here the audience is invited to consider Londoners as generous and welcoming, showing Christian charity to the thirsty, poor and naked. But that positive reading is instantly undercut by the direct contemporary reference to the clothes sellers / hosiers of Birchin Lane, who presumably were not likely to give away suits, and therefore by the same token not going to give you a drink even if you asked four times a day.[26] These jibes, at the very Londoners who might be in the audience, are a recurrent feature, and one surely designed to unsettle those who might be complacently distancing themselves from the targets of the play’s satire. The apparently simple moral polarities suggested by the characters Somebody and Nobody are constantly being complicated by the double meanings of everything they say. The Prologue may admit that “A morrall meaning you must then expect”, but the next line makes it clear than the moral will be more elusive than expected: “grounded on lesser than a shadowes shadow” (Prologue, 6). Whereas the morality play deals with the human condition largely in the abstract, dealing in allegorical types representing virtues, vices or faculties of the soul, this play addresses particular social or political problems via a combination of mytho-historical characters and a hero who cannot be said to represent anything at all. It depicts a society composed of an uneasy balance of contending forces, rather than a stable one based upon certitudes and, as we will see, a world of economic contingencies rather than moral absolutes.

  18. If meanings and morals are elusive, there are clear points of reference for the audience in the story, both pseudo-historical and social. The history which provides the skeleton of the plot – of King Elidure, the reluctant King who ended up ruling England three times, alternating reigns with his younger brothers – was told in Holinshed. Like Gorboduc, written early in Elizabeth’s reign, No-body and Some-body is a story of tyranny and depositions, divided family and divided nation. The authors of Gorboduc were apparently counselling the new queen on the importance of stability and smooth succession. So given the timing of No-body and Some-body, this play too might be read as an advice-to-princes style intervention, counselling fair and just rule, attacking sycophancy and the immoderate pursuit of power, and stressing the need for stable government. The anonymity of the author or authors might be attributable to timidity about the possible political anxieties the play could provoke. So soon after the ill-fated 1601 production of Richard II, and writing for a company with a royal patron, a prudent playwright might have been circumspect about putting his name to a play in which a series of monarchs or pretenders to the throne are presented, variously, as weak and vacillating, as self-seeking and easily manipulable, or simply as tyrannical. If Sicophant might be recognised as Lord Cobham, King James might be associated with Elidure, or riskier still, Archigallo. The historical theme, then, is controversial enough in itself, without the satiric targets bombarded in the sub-plot. Furthermore, the very way the play switches back and forth from mythic past to real present accentuates the tendentiousness.

  19. The comparison to Shakespeare’s Richard II, which had been so controversially involved in the politics of the 1601 Essex rebellion, only highlights how different a play this is. The dramatic purpose of Lord Sicophant, who shifts his allegiances at every turn, is clearly comic, accentuating the preposterous frequency of the crown’s passage back and forth between family members. And the compression of action which ostensibly spans several decades is so great, with the motivations of the characters explored so little, that it is difficult to take seriously much at all of the main plot. This story of dynastic to-ing and fro-ing from the distant past has grafted onto it a story of two symbolic characters rooted in a recognisable present. The historical plot is almost used as a cover for the contemporariness of an underlying satirical attitude in the sub-plot. The Britain of the sub-plot, with its constables, absentee landlords, lease-hold farmers and money-lenders, is decidedly Jacobean. And it is the comic sub-plot which generates this feeling of serious social relevance, while the historical story of Elidure is often at the level of absurd caricature. Though Cornwall might have a touch of Richard II’s John of Gaunt about him, Archigallo himself is little more than a pantomime villain, and might easily have been played so on the stage.  Cornwall’s early speeches to Martianus (eg “The state itself mourns in a robe of Wo”, 6 / sig.A3) hint at the prospect of a serious examination of the failings of government, but Archigallo’s entrance quickly reduces the political scenario to the level of the absurd. When two lords appear before the King for an adjudication on their land dispute, the audience would have recognised this as a classic test of the royal character, as in the opening scenes of Richard II. There, a weak but well-intention King failed to deal with the dispute between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, allowing discord to grow and eventual disaster to ensue.  Here, Archigallo summarily settles the dispute by simply claiming the land for himself, as if in a parodic inversion of Richard’s protracted indecision:
    Replie not, I take it to my selfe
    Because I would not have dissention
    Betwixt two peeres, I love to see you friends.
    And now the Islands mine, your quarrel ends.
    Whats next. (99)
    And then when he immediately does the same in a dispute over a “pretty Neat browne wench” (129) between Rafe and the Clown, claiming her (once he has established that she is still a virgin) as his own, the audience’s expectations have been moved rapidly from serious historical drama to the realm of farce. Though the interjections of Cornwall and Martianus regularly try to pull the action back to some level of seriousness, the historical plot is constantly teetering on the edge of comedy rather than tragedy, as when later Vigenius and Peridure literally wrestle for the crown, which Elidure has handed over without demur (1453). Again, members of the audience familiar with the notorious deposition scene of Richard II, where the act of handing over the crown is treated with a religious solemnity, would have perceived this scene as absurd, if not outrageous. Conversely, the ostensibly comic sub-plot climaxes with a litany of social ills in both town and country, against which context the matters of state seem like the petty squabbles of a dysfunctional family.

  20. Nobody and Somebody is clearly not simply an “advice to princes” sermon: it deals in broad strokes, and broad humour, with the familiar dramatic material of monarchical rule, but at the same time highlights issues closer to home for the contemporary audience, such as the rights of tenants and the duties of lords and landowners. And beyond even the wide social range of those who might have been in the audience at the Red Bull, No-body and Some-body speaks about the homeless and the starving. The play’s adopted title appears to signal a polemical purpose, by pointing to fundamental socio-economic categories, rather than the categories of morality plays, with their allegorized virtues and vices which might belong to any class. Some of the comedy generated by Nobody may be flippant and trivial, but the feud between Somebody and Nobody provides the play with a serious and topical socio-economic reference-point. We saw how Nobody’s entrance was heralded by an enumeration of his good deeds, but when prompted by Somebody to say more about the deeds he is famous for, the servant makes Nobody into more than an unlikely philanthropist:
    His barns are full, and when the Cormorants
    And welthy farmers hoord up all the graine,
    He empties all his Garners to the poore
    Under the stretcht price that the Market yeelds,
    Nobody racks no rents, doth not oppresse
    His tenants with extortions. (340)
    The final double negatives force the listener to pause, to triple think, and consider the idea that it is actually surprising for a landowner not to abuse his position.  With regard to the selling of grain under the market price, however, we suddenly have a note of realism: in this regard, Nobody is not impossibly munificent, he is a landlord who appreciates the common-sense of preserving his consumers in time of famine. Historical evidence suggests that the positive interpretation of the Nobody here was not as idealised as one might think. One of the features of English society which acted against widespread famine conditions in these decades was, according to John Walter, the giving or sale below market price of grain by landlords to the poor during periods of dearth:
    Apart from the promptings of church and conscience ... it was often in the self-interest of the “better sort” to lend to the poor in conditions of dearth which highlighted inequalities and bred resentment. ... The distribution of grain at under-prices by members of the gentry shaded into more obvious examples of outright benevolence and charity.[27]
    So it seems that the play was advocating a fairly common practice, and berating those who, anti-socially, refused to help those in need. So Nobody in this respect may be a “strange opinioned fellow” as Cornwall calls him, but not completely unknown. His world may be a world in negative, where nothing is but what is not, but this is not More’s Utopia, or Gonzalo’s naively fanciful commonwealth in The Tempest: it is rather a world in which poor people might just survive. That the socio-economic situation of the ordinary people is an important theme of the play is underlined again when Somebody, by accusing Nobody of “ingrossing corne, and racking poor mens rents”, draws attention again to the common phenomena of dearths and repossessed farms, with their social consequences: “This makes so many beggers in the land” (1846-9), Somebody declares, with heavy irony, since he is the real cause.

  21. The climax of the sub-plot focusses on these “abuses”, which are primarily the responsibility of the gentry. Again the hoarding of corn during dearths is attacked, ironically by Somebody himself:
    Examine all the rich and wealthy chuffes
    Whose full cramd Garners too the roofes are fild,
    In every dearth who makes this scarsitye (1854)
    The Middle English insult “chuffes” gives a comical edge to this self-referential attack on the rich.[28] Somebody goes on further to indict (unwittingly) the failings of “nobles of the land” who build great houses and have Nobody live in them: “A hundred Chimnies, and not one cast smoke.” (1868) Nobody’s response in his own defence is one of the most resonant speeches in the play, clearly grounded in the realities of early Jacobean Britain. It sheds light on the social problems of absentee landlords and high rents but also says clearly how they can and should be rectified, by reducing the rents and occupying the houses again:
    If things were done, they must be done by some-body,
    Else they could have no being. Is corn hoorded,
    Some-body hords it, else it would be delt,
    In mutuall plentie throughout the land,
    Are their rents raisd, if No-body should doe it,
    Then should it be undone. Is
    Safe money stampt, and the kings letters forgd,
    Some-body needs must doe it, therefore not I,
    And when he saies, great houses long since built
    Lye destitute, and wast uninhabited,
    By No-body my liedge, I answer thus,
    If Some-body dwelt therein, I would give place,
    Or wold he but alow those chimnies fire
    They would cast cloudes to heaven, the Kitchin-foode
    It woulde releeve the poore, the sellers beere,
    It would makes strangers drink. (1884)
  22. Of course one of the abuses mentioned above, fraud, is not associated specifically with the nobles or gentry, and in case the lower orders in the audience become complacent that the play’s satiric targets are only the better sort, attention is then turned to London where, as Somebody claims, drunkenness, pimping, child prostitution and pick-pocketing are rife. In response, Nobody, with that licence granted the fool to dispense with dramatic illusion, suddenly addresses the audience directly, dispelling any doubt as to the contemporary reality of these problems:
    Once pickt a pocket in this Play-house yard,
    Was hoysted on the stage, and shamd about it. (1938)
    Almost threatening to name and shame the criminals in his audience, Nobody’s riposte both balances the play’s derisive attacks upon the higher social groups and places the action unquestionably in the present.

  23. A surface reading of the sub-plot might be that those who are somebody – that is, all those with wealth and power – have a duty to take responsibility for the nobodies, or at least not to exploit them. This might seem to make it a secular and economic counterpart to that emphasis upon personal accountability which was associated with the Protestant figure of Nobody, though here it is in relation to a particular social group. But the issues here are less the moral ones of duty and responsibility, and more the pragmatic ones of economics and social order, a point which is supported by comparison with two of Shakespeare’s plays from around the same time. Within a year or two of the playbook’s publication, Shakespeare had produced King Lear and Coriolanus, both stories about power and responsibility. Both also address the problem of fair distribution of resources, pointing to contemporary rather than ancient ills. King Lear, which like No-body and Some-body draws on the Geoffrey of Monmouth / Holinshed mytho-history of Britain, recalls No-body and Some-body in its use of anachronism: Edgar’s allusion to “Bedlam beggars” (7.180) is a sharp reminder that beggars were a thing of the present, not some mythic past.[29] The end of the sixteenth century saw the emergence of a group recognisable as “the poor”, for the first time in England, as a permanent and substantial section of the population.[30] In the context of a sudden increase in vagrants during Shakespeare’s career, Edgar’s disguise had a topical relevance. King Lear rants against authority, power and wealth, and feels for the destitute as Nobody does. Nobody’s emptying all his garners to the poor is matched by the mad King’s call for “pomp” to “shake the superflux” (10.32) to the poor, and later echoed by Gloucester: “So distribution should undo excess, / And each man have enough” (16.68). In the opening scene of Coriolanus the same demands were being made by the Citizens that the authorities “would yield us but the superfluity” (Coriolanus, 1.1.16). The citizen’s speech recalls not only Nobody’s charity, but also the lessons learnt by Lear, Gloucester and Edgar:
    ...They ne’er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich; and provide more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain the poor. (Coriolanus, 1.1.77)
    The contemporary references of the citizens’ complaints have been examined in some detail by Richard Wilson (1993).[31] The fact of rising grain prices in the first years of the seventeenth century in Warwickshire, even after harvests had recovered, points to profiteering by grain-hoarding landlords. Such exploitation of control over resources is exactly what Nobody was attacking. This was less on moral grounds, than a strategic policy to maintain social order and cohesion, since food riots were a localised but regular occurrence, and as Wilson (89) points out, the Midlands rising of 1607 could be attributed to the artificially high cost of grain. All three of these plays go beyond moralising about greed or tyranny and hint at constructive social criticism – of the mismanagement of resources, and insensitivity to the suffering of the poorest in society. And rather than either damning or idealising the poor, they perceived them as social problems remediable by intervention from those in authority.

  24. No-body and Some-body’s evident popularity at the Red Bull suggests something about the role the public theatre was creating for itself. The public theatre of the early seventeenth century seems to have been establishing itself as a medium for immediate comment on current social issues. From another perspective, this concern with the quotidian anxieties of small farmers in this period – concerns which the play to some extent privileges over the more traditional presentation of English history – shows perhaps a responsiveness to public demand in a period of commodification in the theatre. The nobodies of the theatre-going public were thereby getting what they wanted: a play which mocked and vilified the somebodies of English society. Seeing No-body and Some-body as a play of satiric intent and immediate relevance to the play-going public situates it more clearly, perhaps, than seeing it as a variation on the history play or morality play forms. And foregrounding the word-play rather than the clowning in the comic sub-plot makes clear the humanistic heritage which it is drawing on. It comes out of a tradition of verbal wit and satire, and importantly a quite recent written rather than just oral tradition: the visual element of clowning is counterpointed by a self-consciously clever script which the literate in the audience would have recognised as such. In No-body and Some-body, “the socially undifferentiated consumer of cultural services”, as David Bristol (248) has described the early modern theatre audience, was being offered a “cultural commodity” tailored to its diversity. All of this combined to produce the prospect of a wide potential readership for the playbook too: those that liked its clever word-play or its mocking slant on history, those that responded to its social critique or simply relished its silliness. It seems that No-body and Some-body had within it something for everybody.

Works cited



[1] This essay has its origins in a paper presented to the University of Hertfordshire conference “In Shakespeare’s Shadow”,  on minor drama 1590-1610, organised by Andrew Stott and Andrew Spong , March 1997.

[2] The play was reprinted in the nineteenth century by Richard Simpson, and was edited by David Hay (1980) but only facsimile editions have found their way to print in recent years.

[3] Entered in the Stationers’ Register under the date March 12, 1606: see Kramer 85.

[4] Shakespeare’s Chamberlain’s Men had become the King’s Men, so the new reign under James marked a ramping up of royal patronage of the public theatre.

 [5] See Bentley 214-47; also Leggatt 20-3.

[6] See Gurr 139-40; also Fleay 293-4: Fleay observes that “play-house yard” here need not refer to an inn-yard, citing the word “yard” used for the pit in the indentures for building the Globe.

 [7] References to Shakespeare’s plays will all be taken from Wells and Taylor (1986).

[8] See also Halpern (1992).

[9] The character’s fame seems to have been greater on the continent. By the time that The Tempest was first being performed in late 1611, No-body and Some-body had already been off the London stage for four years, during which it was performed in Germany, Austria and later the Netherlands.

[10] In addition to Calmann’s exhaustive work, several of the images are reproduced in L.Wilson,149-157, and in Bosman, which also has the 1608 drawing of Nobody.

[11] Line references are using David Hay’s 1980 edition.

[12] I am indebted to Brantley and Fulton (337) for this information, though my interpretation of it is rather different.

[13] See Guerlac 58-9; Brantley and Fulton interpret this as a lewd joke meaning “Nothing and Nobody bite each other in the balls”, but Guerlac translates the sophism as the more decent “Nothing and Nobody devour each other in a sack”, but I have followed Guerlac's translation.

[14] See also the widely circulated piece of workplace wit on the subject of “Teamwork”, which tells a brief tale of Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody, concluding, “It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done”.

[15] Wilson cites actual legal cases where fictional “nobodies” were named as responsible for crimes in this period, but though they provide a fascinating intertextual perspective on the issue of blame, the connection to our play is tenuous since he acknowledges (218) that only one recorded legal case actually names a ‘Nemo’.

[16] There is a possible metadramatic significance to this joke, if the Clown is seen as representing players who were, thanks to the Elizabethan Poor Laws, apt to be classed along with vagrants as ‘undeserving poor’.

[17] A more convincing comparison could be made to Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), where ‘no place’ represented somewhere impossibly good.

[18] Saulnier 135-200; also Farce Nouvelle et fort ioyeuse a troys Personnages cestassavoir Tout Rien et Chascun, Anon., in Farces c.1550  BM ref. c.20.e.13.

[19]. See Schoell 13: “Elle [la farce] présente des types de différents états de la société et leurs conflits dans le mariage, dans l’école, dans l’exercise du métier, dans les rapports sociaux et économiques.” Schoell suggests (10) that Rey-Flaud under-stated the critical and satirical elements of the farce.

[20] Illegitimacy is the subject of the farce Jenin Fils de Rien, in which Jenin is a sot or fool but also a figure of pity.

[21] The locus classicus for this in Middle English writing would be Langland’s Piers Plowman, where the allegorical figures of Wit, Wisdom, Reason and Conscience are set against the likes of Concupiscencia Carnis.

[22] See Kramer 85-87.

[23] Dessen 122.

[24] Chambers (37) used this supposition (based on the fact that “Sycophant” was Essex’s nickname for the courtier) to date the play after 1603, the year of Cobham’s disgrace; see also Fleay, who points out (293) the physical aptness of Some-body representing the Falstaffian Cobham.

[25] One of these works on flatulence, Physiologia crepitus ventris, was the work of Rodolphus Goclenius, also author of a treatise on Nothing in the same collection.

[26] In the seventeenth century, Birchin Lane was known for men’s ready-made clothes shops.

[27] Walter & Schofield 105, 107; see 104-13 for details of these practices.

[28] Interestingly, the only use of the word in Shakespeare is by Falstaff in 1 Henry IV, who calls the travellers he is about to rob ‘fat chuffs’ (II.ii.87)

[29] King Lear references are to The History of King Lear in the Wells and Taylor edition, which uses the 1608 quarto version.

[30] See Wrightson 141.

[31] See Richard Wilson 83-117.


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