Tinker of Totnes, The
Performance Records (Henslowe's Diary)
ye 18 of July 1596 ne . . . R[d] at the tyncker of totnes . . . . . . . . . . iijll
'The Tinker of Totnes' was performed by the Admiral’s men as a new play in July 1596.
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
(information welcome; see For What It's Worth below)
References to the Play
Robert Boies Sharpe, noting that the play only received a single performance before the company ceased playing until October 27, inferred that the play was ‘offensive’ and potentially precipitated an inhibition against playing (79). He imagines that the play contained ‘some mild, complimentary propaganda in the Seymours’ favor, imbedded in a play about some merry Tinker and the landing of Brutus on the stone still to be seen in the town’. Although Henslowe inaccurately recorded the date of performance as being Sunday July 18, four days prior to the formal restraint of playing (July 22), Sharpe relied on Greg’s corrected date of July 23 (Wiggins corrects again to Saturday July 24), and should thus have noticed that the dates rule ‘The Tinker of Totnes’ out from contributing to the inhibition (see Wiggins #1039). Sharpe’s conjecture about ‘political allusion’ involving the Seymours is therefore unfounded, since the premise that led to that conjecture (the play’s ostensible contributory role in the restraint) is false.
For What It's Worth
Currently in EEBO TCP, the only substantial narratives about a tinker (one who mends pots, kettles, etc.) are from writers associated with the public theatres: Robert Greene and Thomas Dekker. Neither narrative is concerned with a tradesman from the market town of southern Devon, but each has dramatic potential for a comedy either at the tinker’s expense or in his celebration.
In The Second Part of Conny-Catching (1591), Greene tells a ‘true and merry Tale of a Knight, and a Tinker that was a pick-locke’, set in Bolton le Moors in north-west England (Greene, sig. F3r). Numerous of the knight’s tenants complain of having their locks picked in the night, and the chief suspect is the tinker who is known to spend very lavishly about the country. The knight promises to avenge the townsfolk if he can establish the tinker’s guilt, and conveniently the tinker soon arrives at the knight’s house seeking employment. When the tinker comes in to mend pots, he lays out his bag of tools and the knight sifts through them until he discovers the picklocks. Feigning not to recognise what such tools are used for, the knight politely enquires (over drinks) where the tinker will travel to next. Upon learning that Lancaster is the tinker’s destination, the knight asks him to carry a letter to the jailor there (the letter is actually a mittimus, or warrant for arrest – it thus predates Shakespeare’s introduction of the ‘letters sealed’ which Hamlet carries to England, and which would have resulted in Hamlet’s execution). The tinker makes his way to Lancaster hastily and delivers the letter to the jailer, who promptly claps ‘a strong pair of bolts’ on his heels and mocks him by asking whether he can gain freedom by picking his own locks. When the tinker hears the mittimus read out, ‘his hart was cold’ and he went silent, his ‘conscience accused’ (Greene, sig. F4r). There he remained until the next sessions, after which he was hanged in Lancaster.
By contrast, in The Wonderful Year (1603), Dekker recounts the story of a tinker who was pointedly not one of those ‘rascally’ tinkers who prefers to steal purses than mend pots; rather, he was a ‘devout’ and ‘Musicall’ tinker who played country dances on his kettle drum, and whose sweet tunes lured the very bees from their hives such that they followed him in swarms, to the fear of townsmen (sig. F2v). Stopping for a drink at a tavern where a citizen of London has recently died of suspected plague, the tinker is approached by the host, who offers him a crown (a considerable sum for the tinker) to identify the body in the chamber and safely bury it. Fortified by drink, the tinker agrees (negotiating a higher fee from the townsfolk in the process), and carries the body off to a distant field where he souvenirs the dead man’s clothes and raids his pockets with satisfying results: seven pounds in coins. (Unlike the battlefield pilfering and ‘pocketing up of wrongs’ by Nim, Bardolph and Pistol in Shakespeare’s Henry V [3.2.44], the tinker’s confiscation of the dead man’s property is here seen as a just reward for the tinker bravely undertaking to remove the potentially plaguey body that no one else would touch for fear of their lives). The tinker cheerfully returns to town, enquiring through song whether there were any more Londoners to bury: ‘Haue yée any more Londoners to bury, hey downe a downe dery, haue ye any more Londoners to bury’ (sig. F3r). The moral of the story is that Death makes ‘fooles euen of wisemen, and cowards of the most valiant’ (sig. F3v), but the fearless tinker is rewarded for his foolhardiness in the face of plague.
Whether the lost play’s tinker had his comeuppance or profited by his rashness, a common conceit about tinkers is their dual identity as craftsmen and cunning thieves. Henslowe records only a single, though successful (£3), performance of the play on what he calls July 18 (critics have corrected this to July 23), 1596. (See Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, 2.144 on the dating.) The repertorial context provides only a slight clue to the lost play’s subject matter, in that it featured a play about a thief (like Greene’s tinker) who was hanged: ‘Bellendon’. This proposition is tempting inasmuch as the hanged-thief tinker-story by Greene antedates the lost play, thus potentially providing source material. Unfortunately the Bolton le Moors setting of Greene’s story doesn’t gel with what we know of the play’s setting from Henslowe, though ‘Totnes’ in the play’s title may simply have been added for alliteration, of course.
Dekker, The Wonderful Year (1603). Greene, Robert. The Second Part of Conny-Catching (1591). Sharpe, Robert Boies. The Real War of the Theatres (Boston: D. C. Heath & Company, 1935).