“The Shoemaker’s Holiday” in Canterbury: Cicely Bumtrinket and Bowdlerized drama (Graeme Forbes)

On the 6th of October the Canterbury Branch of the Paper Stage read Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday. It is a fun Elizabethan Comedy, with classic early modern tropes including disguise, elopement, and mistaken identity. Also, amusing Dutch accents. As with many playwrights of the time, Dekker seems to have asked himself ‘why have one entendre when you can have two?’. And when Dekker sets about writing a play laced with double entendre, he doesn’t stint. One of the characters most responsible for comic relief is Firk, a journeyman shoemaker. In case you were worried it was mere coincidence that even his name sounds rude, let me set your heart at rest: it is not.

We discovered, in the course of our reading, that one of the copies of the text upon which we were relying had taken a more proactive approach to edition than the others. A copy of the text had decided to remove the rudest bits from the play (known to the cognoscenti as Bowdlerizing it). This included excising mention of a non-speaking character by name: Cicely Bumtrinket became merely ‘the maid’.

Putting to one side the merits and deficits of editing a play to expurgate the lewder language, the experience of reading a play and finding that one script doesn’t contain the same text as the others is always disconcerting. When we did find that we were missing such euphonic gems as ‘Cicely Bumtrinket’ from being read aloud, one must confess, we felt a little cheated. Proceedings were interrupted momentarily while Cicely was reinserted into the oration. The Bowdlerization of the play also produced other reactions. When Firk was discussing a couple performing the traditional dance ‘The Shaking of the Sheets’, there was a certain amount of surprise that this was not considered ripe enough to be plucked from the text.