Let the research commence!

Holiday time is over! So it’s time to regroup and begin the next phase of involvement with the RSC’s Play For The Nation project. First things first, some background/character research.

Nick Bottom’s chosen  profession is weaving. Leaving aside some obvious and not so obvious metaphorical connotations is there anything pertinent to understand about the actual job? It is very noticeable that one of the key things about the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that they are all workers. Shakespeare is quite insistent that they are denoted by their jobs and professions; in their first scene together Quince introduces each of the others in turn by calling out their name and their trade. Thus there is a carpenter (Peter Quince), a weaver (Nick Bottom), a bellows mender (Francis Flute), a tailor (Robin Starveling), a tinker (Tom Snout) and a joiner (Snug) – for some reason the latter isn’t given a first name though recent lion-related events make me think of him as a Cecil!

Although the play is supposedly set in Athens (yeah right!) these workers are clearly figures from the British landscape and Shakespeare appears to be writing about the sort of tradesman he may well have encountered in London while writing plays such as The Dream. The medieval guilds (trade associations) represented such skilled workers and, incidentally, did a nice line in amateur dramatics with the Mystery plays for which they became known. In the capital, many of these guilds had gradually evolved into the City Livery Companies which are still operational today continuing to represent their members and carry out many charitable works. From the ranks of the Livery Companies emerged the London Mayor and in Shakespeare’s day it was not unusual for his inaugural pageant to be scripted by one of the City’s leading dramatists – though there is no evidence that WS was ever offered the gig.

Siting of present day City Livery Company halls
Siting of present day City Livery Company halls

Of course there are endless books, scholarly articles and learned tomes written about Shakespeare’s body of work but I thought I’d try something more practical, especially living on the doorstep of the city in which Shakespeare spent most of his working life. It being a bright sunny day (yes, there actually were one or two this summer) and having located a self-guided audio tour online I thought I’d set off on a ramble around some of the various livery company halls which still exist; currently there are 42 of them so I certainly didn’t try to see them all. Of the trades mentioned in A Midsummer Night’s Dream there are now only halls for the Carpenters and Merchant Taylors – or tailors – (Nos.7 & 32 respectively on the map) so I made sure I passed by those. Many of the halls which existed have gone the way of all flesh, some sold to stave off mounting debt and others the victims of history – the Great Fire of London and Hitler certainly have a lot to answer for. It was a fascinating couple of hours, getting to see some unfamiliar bits of the City and realising quite what a rabbit’s warren of buildings and alleyways exists just off the main streets. What certainly struck me from investigating the halls was the sense of the economic power that the Livery Companies must have wielded in Shakespeare’s time. An interesting article about the various halls appears here.

My tour finished at the Guildhall and I decided to visit the library there to carry out some further research. Both here and the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell provided much food for thought and helped me to form an interesting notion about the relative hierarchy within the Mechanicals – one which might even go some way to providing an insight into their group dynamics.

Firstly, it is interesting to note that two of the characters sit outside the realms of the City Livery Companies/guilds. Snout is a tinker, an itinerant odd job man and mender of pots and pans and other household goods. Important in an economy that was less “throw away” than ours but, nevertheless, it was not one of the officially organised trades. A tinker’s ability to turn his hand to a number of things, however, placed him slightly higher than Flute, the bellows mender whose skill was limited to just one task. Again an important one as it underpinned the skilled work of others such as the blacksmith but it does place him at the lowest level of the pecking order (sorry, Adam!). Perhaps this is why he traditionally is played by someone younger (definitely the case in our team) and he doesn’t have much say about being given the female role of Thisbe in the play within a play.

So this leaves the other four, all of whom worked in a profession represented by a City Livery company. The relative importance of each company was established in 1515 by the then Lord Mayor’s Order of Precedence. This followed many years/decades/centuries of disputes among the 48 companies which existed (today there’s 108 and growing) about who was to be top dog; this precedence still exists today for formal functions and events such as the Lord Mayor’s Parade. Taking the top three slots – the Mercers, the Grocers and the Drapers.

TaylorsOf the Mechanicals characters, the ironically self-effacing Robin Starveling the tailor would have theoretically been head honcho. The Merchant Taylors were ranked either 6 or 7 in the order of precedence along with the Skinners with whom they had an ongoing precedence dispute. They still exchange their order yearly and this has given rise to the phrase “to be at sixes and sevens”.

CarpentersComing in at about halfway down the list (No. 26) would be Peter Quince and the Carpenters. Sitting outside the so called “Great 12 companies” the carpenters were nevertheless very economically powerful. Their growing responsibility for the many wooden buildings springing up all over London and for supplying the timber to build increasing numbers of merchant ships not to mention the newly opening theatres made them a force to be reckoned with. Quince in the play is clearly an organiser and someone whose time to shine has come.

JoinersAt the time of writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream the Joiners and Ceilers company was still a relative newcomer in terms of it receiving an official charter. Its rather lowly position of 41 in the Order of Precedence sits well with the relatively reticent character of Snug – just a little unsure of its/his position in the great scheme of things.

WeaversSo what of Nick Bottom? Interestingly the Weavers in terms of longevity seem to be the oldest surviving Company; the company was granted its Royal Charter as far back as 1155. Unfortunately the Lord Mayor’s Order of Precedence was based on economic and not staying power and by 1515 the weavers were having a tough time of it moneywise. So much so that they found themselves tumbled down the rankings at No.42 which must have been a bit of a blow and perhaps gives some basis for Shakespeare’s character being somewhat of an attention seeker who wants to run things in his own way. Could it also explain some of the apparent antagonism between him and Quince? Perhaps it’s the case that Bottom realises that he needs to forge a new career – hence the interest in acting.

Sadly, the weavers were never really to regain their former status. They had been overtaxed by successive monarchs who had disingenuously based their levy on financial accounts from previous eras. Another reason for the downturn in their fortunes was the massive influx of unregulated foreign weavers in the 16th century. The native weavers were suspicious, resistant and blamed the newcomers for their economic troubles. Ah, so there we are then; Nick Bottom is basically Nigel Farrage – character sorted!


Let the research commence!

7 thoughts on “Let the research commence!

  1. Celia says:

    Great piece of detective work. I’m now wondering what their state of health would be according to their jobs, whether they had enough work to keep themselves and their families and whether the work itself had any hidden dangers (such as the weaver working with poisonous dyes). Celia x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It was great fun tracking this stuff down. I’m going to see if I can find out a bit more about what went into the actual job so I’ll see if there were any risks. Don’t suppose they had H & S back then!


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