Hard Shift for Husbands, or Bilbo’s the Best Blade

Samuel Rowley (1623)

Historical Records

29 October 1623:

For the Palsgrave's Players: a new Comedy, called, Hardshifte for Husbands, or Bilboes the best blade, Written by Samuel Rowley.

(Adams, Herbert, 26; Bentley, 5.1011).

A New Com: Hardshipe for Husbands, or Bilboes the best blade, containing 13 sheets, written by Sam. Rowley alld Oct 29, 1623, for the Palsgrave's company.

(Bawcutt, 146, using the Burn transcript of the Office-Book).

Theatrical Provenance

For the Palsgrave's Company.

Probable Genre(s)

Comedy (per Herbert's record); marriage comedy

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Anon., The Damosel's Hard Shift for a Husband (1675).

References to the Play

None known

Critical Commentary

This play is only known from the entry in Herbert's lost Office-Book, variously transcribed. The first part of its title has been given in at least three substantively different forms in different sources. Earlier sources tend to modernize to "Hard Shift for Husbands"; Bentley consistently refers to it as "Hardshifte for Husbands"; and Bawcutt prefers "Hardshipe [i.e. Hardship] for Husbands", the variant form in which the title is given by the nineteenth-century scholar Jacob Henry Burn in his recently rediscovered notes from the Office-Book (Bawcutt, 146). Burn's account also adds the descriptive phrase "containing 13 sheets", omitted by other sources.

The author is given as Samuel Rowley, an experienced actor-playwright who had already been involved in theatre for more than twenty years. For a biography, see Susan Cerasano's Oxford DNB article.

This was one of at least fourteen new plays licensed by Herbert between July 1623 and November 1624 for the Palsgrave’s Company, whose writers included Samuel Rowley, Dekker, Ford, Gunnell, and Drew. This concentration of new writing for one company, unparalleled in Herbert's record, is plausibly linked by Bentley to the Fortune Theatre fire of 1621, which may have destroyed the company’s existing stock of playbooks. It would be a repertory worthy of study in its own right, but unfortunately thirteen of the fourteen are lost.

In particular, two of the other plays in this group were written by Rowley: Richard III, or the English Profit (July 1623) and A Match or No Match (April 1624). In her Oxford DNB article, Cerasano notes that these are dates of licensing, and that in all three cases "their dates of composition are unclear".

For What It's Worth

"Hard shift for husbands" wouldn't mean "Hard work inflicted on husbands". An EEBO-TCP search collects twenty examples of the phrase "hard shift for", and in almost all of them it is clear that the "for" means "in order to gain" rather than "inflicted upon". The same applies to the results of an EEBO-TCP search for the phrase "hardship for" - it tends to mean "hardship for the sake of", rather than "hardship inflicted upon".

Thus, whichever reading one makes of the original words, this seems to have been a marriage comedy. It featured at least two witty women, who had to adopt desperate measures to obtain husbands.

The Damosel's Hard Shift for a Husband (1675) is a broadside ballad whose existence is recorded in Bruce Olsen's Broadside Ballad Index. It is not (in 2010) currently accessible in any online form. It sounds like a possible intertext for the play under discussion, and would repay further investigation. Furthermore, its existence might lean one towards retaining "Hard shift" or "Hardshift", rather than "Hardship", as more likely to be the correct title of this lost play.

Bilbo blades are swords made in Bilbao, Spain, prized in the seventeenth century for their excellence. At the moment, one cannot guess how this phrase relates to the action of the play.

Update, July 2014: This ballad mentioned above is now available online in facsimile thanks to the Bodleian Library project Broadside Ballads Online. The tone of The Damosel's Hard Shift for a Husband is well summed up by the ballad's epigraph: "This Jest is of a Maiden fair, / For want of a Man lives in dispair; / But e're long she will have one, she doth protest,/ Because all night she can take no rest." It is spoken by a young woman who fears herself to be on the shelf at 21; who believes she is getting sick as a result of not having a lover; and who announces her intention to obtain a husband, and a baby, by any means necessary, including cozening her rivals. One married, she admits, she would be happy to cuckold her new husband. This might confirm the suspicions outlined above that the title suggests a (possibly somewhat bawdy) comedy featuring one or more women willing to take the initiative in marriage-matters.

Update, August 2015: Cf. also Thomas Jordan, Money is an Asse (London: Peter Lillicrap, 1668), 45, where Felixina defends her conduct in deceiving her father to enable the happy marriages that conclude the comedy:

Heaven pardon us, 'tis not our greatest Crime, in such a cause as this.
I hope so too, and time shall tell (sweet Madam,
Though we made shift for Husbands, yet we had um.

Works Cited

Cerasano, S. P. ‘Rowley, Samuel (d. 1624)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2010 accessed 21 Dec 2010
Jordan, Thomas. Money is an Asse. London: Peter Lillicrap, 1668.

Site created and maintained by Matthew Steggle, Sheffield Hallam University; updated 8 August 2015.