Tinker of Totnes, The

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Historical Records

Performance Records

Playlists in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 21v (Greg I.42):

ye 18 of July 1596 . . . . . . ne . . . Res at the tyncker of totnes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . iijll

Theatrical Provenance

"The Tinker of Totnes" was performed at the Rose by the Admiral’s men as a new play in July 1596.

That much has not been disputed by theater historians. There is a question, however. Henslowe dates that performance on the 18th of July, but his calendar following the 8th of July ( for "the second part of "Tamar Cham") is disordered. The next four entries (for "The French Doctor," "The beager" [Blind Beggar of Alexandria], "Troy," and "1 Tamar Cham") are dated July 4, 5, 7, and 8, thus restarting the calendrical list following the 3rd of July. Consequently, when "The Tinker of Tones" is dated the 18th of July, it is four days "off." Greg II suggests July 23 in place of the 18th; Wiggins, Catalogue #1039 suggests July 24.

None of this would be any more interesting than a clerical error except that the Privy Council issued a restraint against playing because of an upsurge in illness due to plague. If the accurate date for the introduction of "The Tinker of Totnes" as a "ne" play was the 23rd or 24th, it was played after the issue of the restraint.

Probable Genre(s)


Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Information welcome (see For What It's Worth below).

References to the Play

Information welcome.

Critical Commentary

Malone does not comment on this play (p. 298); Collier suggests that the play might be "on a similar story" as "'the Tinker's Good Fortune" (p. 75). Fleay, BCED makes no comment (2.#184, p. 305), nor does Greg II (#94, p. 181) except for a parenthetical emendation of July 18 to July 23.

Robert Boies Sharpe, noting that the play received only a single performance before the company ceased playing until October 27, queries whether the play was "offensive" and maybe precipitated an inhibition against playing (p. 79). He grounds this question in the politics of the Chamberlain's patrons and their eventual involvement (in some sort) with the Essex Rebellion (see For What It's Worth for a brief summary of Sharpe's argument).

Gurr makes no comment on "The Tinker of Totnes," its narrative or possible participation in its company's patron's politics.

Wiggins, Catalogue #1039 notes only that its solo performance is curiously dated. He queries that Henslowe's "July 18" (which is a Sunday) might instead be July 24 (a Saturday), noting further that the date is complicated by the fact that there was an inhibition against playing on 22 July 1596.

For What It's Worth

Tinkers in Prose Narratives

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. ES, 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.

Possible Political Context for "Tinker of Totnes"?

Robert Boies Sharpe and Powerful Political Figures with an Interest in the Chamberlain's Men

In making his case for a "war" between the Admiral's men and the Chamberlain's men post-1594, Sharpe depends on several threads inherited from theater historians from the 1880s forward including rival repertories (the Admiral's less sophisticated than the Chamberlain's) and rival political factions (Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon vs. William Brooke, Lord Cobham). The connection Sharpe draws between company patrons and "Tinker of Totnes" is the coincidence of Hunsdon's death in July 1596 and the Chamberlain's post subsequently going to Cobham instead of Hunsdon's son; he asks, "Was The Tinker of Totnes so offensive as to provoke an 'inhibition'?" (p. 79). Sharpe adds Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford to the political stew because the Devon town of Totnes was connected with the Seymours and their seat at Berry Pomeroy (p. 79). Sharpe posits 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" (p. 80). Without elaboration, Sharpe also links "The Tinker of Totnes" to the Essex Rebellion, thinking it might have been one of the Admiral's plays "to have felt a heavy hand" (p. 237).

Works Cited

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.

Site created and maintained by David McInnis, University of Melbourne; updated 13 September 2019.