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Shakespeare & Beyond

Etiquette in early modern England (part 2)

Folger Shakespeare Library V.a.311
Folger Shakespeare Library V.a.311
Folger Shakespeare Library V.a.311

Thomas Fella. A booke of diverse devices. Manuscript, ca. 1585-1622. Folger Shakespeare Library.

This is Part 2 of a two-part article. Read Part 1.

“Behave yourself!” is one of the first lessons children learn—or, as some arbiters of societal mores these days would have it, fail to learn. Those who decry the current lack of civility, however, would do well to hearken to the past, when even adults had to be told not to wipe their noses on the tablecloth or “snort disgustingly over the dishes like swine,” and keeping your fingers out of the mustard pot was considered a sign of refinement.

Books on manners became so popular during the Elizabethan period that it was only a matter of time before someone satirized them. In The Gull’s Hornbook (1609), Elizabethan dramatist and pamphleteer Thomas Dekker delivered a mock treatise on proper behavior disguised as the most egregious examples of boorishness. In an ordinary [restaurant], for example, he advised patrons to “discourse as loud as you can, no matter to what purpose” and to “eat as impudently as can be, for that’s most gentlemanlike.” He was especially instructive about what to do should nature call during a meal:

You may rise in dinner-time to ask for a close-stool, protesting to all the gentlemen that it costs you a hundred pound a year in physic besides the annual pension which your wife allows her doctor. And if you please you may, as your great French lord doth, invite some special friend of yours from the table to hold discourse with you as you sit in that withdrawing-chamber; from whence being returned again to the board, you shall sharpen the wits of all the eating gallants about you, and do them great pleasure, to ask what pamphlets or poems a man might think fittest to wipe his tail with (marry, this talk will be somewhat foul if you carry not a strong perfume about you)…

Renaissance manners sought both to elevate humans from animal-like behavior (boorish eaters were frequently compared to pigs) and, by introducing the concept of consideration toward others, to delineate class distinctions (the disgusting practice of wiping your nose on your sleeve was best left to fishmongers). Early modern courtesy manuals reflected these two aspects of civility, describing both a set of behaviors that distinguished man from beast, and a more variable civil code that defined a person’s place within a given society. These more subtle directives help a society define itself and, in some ways, define the notion of civilization itself.


Reminds me of a book that was making the rounds of the theater community, back in the ’80’s. “The Art of Course Acting”. Also written by a Brit.

Bert — November 10, 2017