- Being Mistress Eyre in Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday and Deloney's The Gentle Craft
Though discounted by the men of the shop, Margery Eyre, the master shoemaker's wife in Thomas Dekker's comedy, knows business.1 Throughout the play she offers sound advice, demonstrating both her familiarity with her husband's profession and the good housewife's diligent stewardship of household goods. For example, Margery questions Simon's magnanimous (yet, to her mind, impractical) offer to supply the army with seven years' worth of boots as a payment to keep their apprentice Rafe out of service (1.136). She likewise frowns on Simon's hiring of Lacy (a new and foreign worker) when both she and her husband believe that they already have adequate assistance (4.50–54). But this advice goes unheeded, as Simon denies his wife a role in the business in favor of humoring his staff and preserving his own reputation as benevolent master: "I love my men as my life" (4.69–70).2 Margery's stance, though unpopular in its sobriety (the men expect the funny talk of the Dutchman will enliven their workday), shows her almost single-minded dedication to productivity.3 Similarly, Margery lacks sentiment as she proposes to replace the workers who threaten to quit (7.55–56). In a likewise unpopular but efficient vein, she begrudges the shoemaking staff its holiday, as Firk anticipates: "She'll scold, on my life, for loitering this Monday" (7.27–28). Finally, she supports her husband's advancement to mayor, though she does not participate in the commercial transaction that engenders it.4 Indeed, typical for the play, Margery is expressly excluded from the business deal with the Dutch merchant, both silenced and nominally banished from the scene (7.26), and Simon reduces her to the common stereotype of the talkative woman, personifying her as "tittle-tattle" (7.62, 103), and banishes her "away" and "avaunt" (7.47, 63). [End Page 451]
In contrast, the workers elsewhere acknowledge their mistress's wonted support of their labors, revealed when they mock the "puling" speech she apparently affects after Simon becomes sheriff (10.131). Her ordinarily plain speech and active role in the shop appear by default when one of the shoemakers impersonates his mistress: "speak to me in the old key. 'To it, Firk'; 'there, good Firk'; 'ply your business, Hodge' … 'I'll fill your bellies with good cheer till they cry twang' " (10.132–35). Thus providing encouragement, praise, and food, Margery seems an active member of the operation (she and her maids also produce piecework such as shoe thread; 4.36). Yet in the play her business savvy is ignored, rebuffed, or represented negatively and, in much of the criticism, the character seems a drain on rather than a contributor to the domestic economy.
My essay shows that this contradiction in the representation of the tradesman's wife is one of several contradictory impulses in literature of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries concerning the urban merchant milieu. Other portraits of tradesmen's wives similarly deny or undermine their involvement in husbands' trade: consider the crafty yet dutiful merry wives of Windsor, who challenge some notions of hierarchy in order to preserve others; and the many shop wives of citizen comedy whose spunk is matched only by their willingness to deceive their often miserly spouses and who use their position as occasions to transgress.5 The wifely duty of shopwomen also informs tragedy, as when Jane Shore's accessibility to royal assault comes through her routine labor in the jeweler's window in Heywood's Edward IV, Part I.6 My aim is to place the tradesman's wife figure, and Mistress Eyre in particular, within discussions of the transition to mercantilism in late sixteenth-century England by showing how some of the negative aspects of this transition burden this figure. In this formulation, I find applicable Laura Brown's feminist intervention into later imperialist ideology which "places women at the center of the structures of rationalization that justify mercantile expansion" through metonymy and synecdoche.7
The economy of early modern England, moving toward "mercantilist ethics...