The London cit: the treatment of his character in English realistic comedy 1598-1640
Read, Patricia Elinor
Master of Arts
The first half of the seventeenth century was a period of critical social readjustment in England. Medieval concepts of the nature of the ideal society were being challenged at every point by the reality of a daily existence in which the reins of power were passing from the hands of the old landed aristocracy into the hands of the emerging mercantile class. The transition period was one of tension, for the aristocracy clung tenaciously to its hereditary privileges. In the struggle, the writers of realistic comedy allied themselves, for both ideological and economic reasons, on the conservative side, the side of the old nobility. The treatment of the character of the London citizen (or "cit" as Shirley calls him in "The Gamester") in the comedies of London life reflects the conservative bias of the comic playwrights. The citizens of London had emerged during the latter half of the reign of Elizabeth as a pressure group of considerable strength, deriving their power from wealth acquired in trade (both domestic and foreign) which experienced unprecedented expansion during this period. Throughout the reigns of James I and Charles I the Londoners exploited every menus in their struggle to acquire the political power which would enable them to protect their interests through control of trade policies, which formerly had been part of the prerogative of the Crown. As their economic base lay in trade rather than in land, so their ideological base was found in the Puritan theology of Calvin rather than in the conservative tenets which the Church of England had inherited from medieval Catholicism. The struggle of the London citizens to liberate themselves from restrictive government policies thus took on religious as well as economic implications. Early in the period between 1598 and 1640 some playwrights like Heywood and Dekker still sought to appeal to the citizen audiences of the public theaters. Despite the disapproval of the public officials of the city and the Puritan clergymen, the public theaters remained popular by presenting the old fashioned histories and comedies which appealed to the common taste. The citizen is presented as a hero in a number of realistic comedies. But he is a type of citizen of whom the upper classes would approve. He is generally a small craftsman, who because he rejoices in his city and his citizen status, does not seek to advance himself or his family beyond the limits of his own class. Nor does he seek to entrap unwary gentlemen by manipulating his economic power, Rather he supports the status quo, accepting without question the division between commoner and noble, and accepting also the privileges of a man of gentle birth. As the lines of social conflict became clearer, it was apparent that the dramatist had to appeal to the aristocratic audience of the private theaters to be financially successful. Thus many of the realistic comedies of this period patently celebrate the gentle classes at the expense of the mercantile classes of the City. The dramatists use the cit as a blocking character who must be eliminated from the play or converted to the gentle view of existence in order for the equilibrium of the comic world to be restored. The citizen is shown to be dominated by the sin of avarice; he becomes a usurer, bent on ruining young gentlemen by pandering to their vices in order to get them into debt. Or he is shown as a socially aggressive man who, violating all the tenets of correct social behavior for one of low station, pushes himself forward by his wealth into the society of his betters. Such characters are always defeated by agents of a more traditional world, thus the conservative position in English social theory is upheld by the writers of realistic comedy from 1598-1640.