Buck is a Thief

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Anon. (1623)

Historical Records

Dramatic Records of Sir Henry Herbert

Malone transcribes a now-lost record from the year 1623:

Upon Innocents night, falling out upon a Sonday, The Buck is a Thief, the king and prince being there. By the king's company. At Whitehall.

(Adams, p.51; Bawcutt, p.147)
Innocent's Night is 28 December.

Theatrical Provenance

King's Men at court

Probable Genre(s)

Comedy? (Harbage)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

None known

References to the Play

None known

Critical Commentary

F. G. Fleay (1.218) thought this might be an alternative title for Wit at Several Weapons, in which a fashionable young man joins forces with thieves: a suggestion that both Chambers (3.232) and Bentley (5.1297) have considered baseless. Bentley adds: "Though it was good enough for performance at court, it must have lost its appeal in the next eighteen years, for it is not included in the repertory of the company protected by the Lord Chamberlain in 1641."

For What It's Worth

What does the title mean? So far, I don't think this problem has ever been considered, except in Fleay's implicit assumption that the "buck" of the play is a fashionable young man. But OED doesn't support Fleay's idea that "buck" could yet have that meaning, for which its first citation is as late as 1725: OED n.1 2b.

But what then could the eponymous "buck" be? For obvious reasons, it seems unlikely to be a deer. The speculation offered here, which is less well evidenced than one would like, is that this could be OED buck n.5 2, the belly. In that case, the phrase would be a version of a maxim which appears in the work of George Buddell in 1609:

euery man seeking with Diues in the Gospell, to fare deliciously and courtly euery day, without intermission, giuing (as Prudentius our Christian famous Lyricke speaketh) no rest at all to his iawes, stomacke, bellie, which are tyred with their continuall gorges: it commeth to passe, that Nature becomes often defectiue vnto vs, and Diogenes is proued too true a man of his word, that [Greek: [illeg] biou charibdys], mans belly is the notable priuy thiefe and deuouring gulfe of all mans necessary prouision.

(Buddell, p.68)

A similar maxim appears in the work of John Taylor in 1622:

Two Arrant Thieues we euer beare about vs
The one within, the other is without vs,
All that we get by toyle, or Industry
Our Backs and Bellies steale continually…

(Taylor, A6v)

In the background of this idea, too, is the Fable of the Belly, as represented for instance in Shakespeare's Coriolanus, which revolves around the idea that the belly is stealing resources from the rest of the body.

An anti-gluttony proverb would make a plausible if not very informative play-title, along the lines of other proverbial titles (including, for instance, Wager's Enough is as Good as a Feast). It would fit interestingly with the fact that by this date the King's Men had gained the services of William Rowley, specialist in fat clown roles. (The Rowley connection is documented by Bentley, 1.555-8).

Casting the net wider finds a few more references to "buck", "bulk", or "bouk" = "belly". The Lexicon of Early Modern English includes Elisha Coles, writing in 1677, who glosses "bowk" as "body, belly, stomach", and cross-references that entry from "buck". OED, bulk n.1 2a has seventeenth-century usages, including Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece, where "bulk"="belly". See also OED "bouk". It still remains hard, though, to come up with more direct examples of the proverbial use of "the buck/bulk/bouk is a thief", or similar phrases, and this whole suggestion is still tentative.

The discovery of uses of "buck"="fashionable young man" that antedate 1725; or of further instances of "bouk"/"bulk"/"buck"="belly"; or of other meanings of "buck" from texts of the period, might help clarify the situation. In short, this title should invite further investigation.

Works Cited

Buddle, George. A short and plaine discourse Fully containing the vvhole doctrine of euangelicall fastes. London: Matthew Law, 1609.
Fleay, F. G. A Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama, 1559-1642. London: Reeves and Turner, 1891. Print. Internet Archive
Taylor, John. An arrant thiefe, vvhom euery man may trust in vvord and deed, exceeding true and iust. London: Henry Gosson, 1622.

Site created and maintained by Matthew Steggle, Sheffield Hallam University. Updated 15 January 2010.