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The delights of sin

23 July 2012

10:47 AM

23 July 2012

10:47 AM

Epigram 7 from The letting of humours blood in the head-vaine

‘Speak gentlemen, what shall we do to day? Drink some brave health upon the Dutch carouse? Or shall we to the Globe and see a play? Or visit Shoreditch for a bawdy house? Let’s call for cards or dice, and have a game. To sit thus idle is both sin and shame.’

This speaks Sir Revel , furnished out with fashion, From dish-crowned hat unto the shoe’s square toe, That haunts a whore-house but for recreation, Plays but at dice to cony catch or so, Drinks drunk in kindness, for good fellowship, Or to a play goes but some purse to nip.

Like tabloid exposés of celebrity sexual shenanigans, satire can tread a fine line between condemnation and titillation. Good writing can exploit that confusion. Does The Godfather glamourize organised crime? Perhaps, but it also makes no secret of how the Corleones make their money. Maybe our own willingness to find pimps, murderers and blackmailers glamorous is one of its subjects. That conclusion lets The Godfather off the hook a little too easily, but that’s because it’s often impossible to pin the most compelling satires down. They flirt with what they condemn.

Rowlands’ Sir Revel is an object of satire but he is also a satirist himself. His last line is a parody of conventional moral platitudes: ‘To sit thus idle is both sin and shame.’ Churchmen of the time (Rowlands was writing in 1600) certainly held that idleness was sinful. But drinking, whoring, or (just as bad) going to the theatre were not approved remedies. Sir Revel’s willingness to turn his own sins into a joke is a sign of his dissoluteness. But it’s something which Rowlands himself had, in a way, made a career out of.

Rowlands was associated with a genre of Elizabethan writing known as ‘cony-catching’ literature. These were cheap pamphlets, commercially produced for the popular market. They take their name from a 1591 book by Robert Greene which established the genre, known as The Art of Cony-Catching (a cony is a rabbit). Ostensibly they were accounts of the tricks used by petty criminals in London, provided as a warning to innocent visitors and citizens. In reality their popularity rested largely on their lively depiction of London’s criminal underworld. People found crime exciting.

In 1602 Rowlands published Greene’s ghost haunting conie catchers which promised to expose the ‘grosse villanies’ that ‘are now practised in the bright Sunne-shine’. This was an explicit addition to the cony-catching tradition. But his previous collection of two years earlier, The letting of humours blood in the head-vaine (including Sir Revel), draws on the same sources of interest. Rowlands may condemn Sir Revel, but he also gives quite a full picture of his life including his tricks for gulling dupes when gambling and stealing purses at the theatre.

Rather like certain modern campaigners against the popular press, some of Rowlands’ contemporaries worried about the popularity of this sort of thing. The Archbishop of Canterbury ordered all the copies of the book to be burnt. The next year booksellers were fined for having bought copies of them. All this notoriety actually seems to have helped drive sales for Rowlands. Some things never change.

That’s not to say that Rowlands was a cynic. He published several religious works and no doubt genuinely believed in the conventional moral values his books claim to represent. But he was a commercial writer paid to write what sold. The form his work took was shaped by the demands of his customers. Cony-catching literature was a format with a track record. It was popular and it was modern. It was the natural way for someone interested in public morality to write. Adopting it secured Rowlands an audience but it also muddied his message. How could Rowlands make sure people were reading him for the right reasons?

Not at all, probably. His two stanzas are meant to answer each other. Rowlands draws his readers in with Sir Revel’s lively address to an unseen group of friends which sets out a menu of exciting debauchery. The second stanza is intended to discredit Sir Revel by exposing this way of life as squalid. But it doesn’t even begin to acknowledge the fact that sex, drink, and easy money are things which lots of people find quite attractive. The satirical second stanza is little more than a repeat of Revel’s smorgasbord of sin with some added details. That might be enough to condemn Sir Revel and his way of life for a godly man like Rowlands. But what if you’re the type of person who thinks that kind of thing sounds quite fun? There comes a point when a satirist has to get to grips with the folly of human desires. If you merely repeat them, you’re just giving people more of what they want.

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