Beggars Bush: A Perambulation through the Disciplines of History, Geography, Archaeology, Literature, Philology, Natural History, Botany, Biography & Beggary

John Fletcher & Philip Massinger The Beggars Bush 1622

“The Beggars Bush” is a play written by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger in 1622, but commonly included in the “Beaumont and Fletcher” canon. Through performance, print, characters and development of the original text it was likely to have made a substantial contribution to the survival and distribution of the literary phrase. As to the eponymous Beggars Bush itself the play is vague. It is a meeting place for the beggar characters, some of whom, it is revealed, are not beggars at all. It does not attempt to portray a real location – the play is not set in England but in and around Bruges.


In Act 1, Scene 2, Gerrard, in the character of Clause, invites Florez, in the character of the merchant Goswin, a friend to the beggers, to a meeting at which Gerrard is to be elected King of the Beggars. Goswin does not know that Gerrard is his uncle who is protecting him, and that he himself is a prince :

“To morrow then (dear Mr.) take the trouble

Of walking early unto Beggars Bush,

And as you see me, amongst others Brethren

In my affliction) when you are demanded

Which you like best among us, point out me,

And then pass by, as you knew me not”

Higgen, the orator amongst the beggars, and an actual beggars, praises the beard of Clause (Gerrard) in Act II, Scene 1, who is elected King of the Beggars, as being a haven, like Beggars Bush :

“ . . . by that beard

Thou wert found out, and mark’d for Soveraignty.

O happy beard ! but happier Prince, whose beard

Was so remark’d, as marked out our Prince,

Not bating us a hair. Long may it grow,

And thick, and fair, that who lives under it,

May live as safe, as under Beggars Bush,

Of which this is the thing, that but the type.

When questioned in Act 2, Scene 1 by Hubert, a character not yet trusted by them, one of the beggars, Snap, refers to Jaculine being born “at the barn yonder”, and says that this is by Beggars Bush. Unfortunately, while doing so, as he is speaking to an outsider, he adopts a stammer, and his answer is unclear:

“She was bo-bo-bo-bo-born at the barn yonder,

By-be-be-be-be-Beggars Bush-bo-bo-Bush.”

The Plays of Beaumont & Fletcher

There are more than 50 plays published as by “Beaumont & Fletcher” in the Folios of 1647 and 1679. Probably only nine were solely the work of the two men, the others being by one or the other, alone or in collaborations. The exact contribution, if any, made to this play by Beaumont, Fletcher and Massinger is a matter of scholarly debate, though it is now widely accepted that it was the work of Fletcher & Massinger alone.

Although less well known now in the hundred years after they were written the plays of Beaumont & Fletcher were more often performed than the works of Ben Jonson or William Shakespeare, and continued to be until after the Restoration. In the nineteenth century they received fewer performances, as their direct style and mix of high tragedy & low comedy fell out of favour with audiences.

“The Beggars Bush” Play

The plot contains the usual fare of Jacobean drama; disguise, honour, betrayal, spying, loss of fortune, true love not running smooth, and some knockabout rustics. Being set in Bruges the roles of knaves and drunkards were given the “Boors”. Both within the plot and from the looseness of the staging the beggar’s parts allow plenty for scope for stage business, tomfoolery, acrobatics, songs, juggling, and card tricks.

Amongst the beggars, there are obviously specific comic roles. Higgen has a song praising his trade as a “sow-gelder” containing advice on how to control wives and telling how he gelded the Devil. Prigg does card tricks and juggles. The play offers opportunities for all members of the cast, and could be performed by a relatively small group of players.

The main character, Clause was clearly popular. He was selected to be included in his engraving for The Wits published by Francis Kirkman, and later took on a life of his own independent of the play.

The beggars, although integrated into the plot, are clearly there to provide entertainment. There is nothing in the text to suggest any first hand knowledge of beggary by the authors. It seems likely that they were following the popularity of The Gypsies Metamorphosed, a masque by Ben Jonson that had been presented successfully the previous year. This featured members of the court, led by the Duke of Buckingham, dressed as gypsies and using cant based on Thomas Dekker’s pamphlet Lantern and Candlelight. The play followed the fashion for rogue literature, including works by Robert Greene and Thomas Dekker. The blessing of Hubert into the beggars’ band could have been taken almost directly from Thomas Harman’s A Caveat for Common Cursitor’s (1566 and later editions) which served as a source for much of the later “rogue literature”, including Greene and Dekker. There are several sections of “cant”. Some is translated but others not. As the meaning is not obvious from the context, the authors must have expected their audience to have some knowledge, and if they continued to come the audiences cannot have been too mystified (see The Lame Commonwealth). The theme of nobles disguised as beggars was not new; see the Elizabethan ballad The Blind Beggar of Bednall Green and the play of the same name by John Day and Henry Chettle (1600). Nor is the theme of beggars electing to remain beggars; it featured in the St Martin of Tours legend, which appeared in three French medieval plays. John Taylor was not the only contemporary writer to list the supposed advantages of beggary.

The play may also have had a intentional political context or at least a resonance for the first audiences, relating to the Gueuzen movement in the Low Countries English foreign policy towards the Dutch and the Elector Palatine.

Performance History and Publication History

Further Reading

Text at Project Gutenberg

Dorenkamp, John H., (ed.), Beggars Bush, Paris & The Hague, 1967

Bowers, Fredson , The Dramatic Works of The Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, Vol III, OUP, 1967

F. Bowers, ‘Beggars Bush: a reconstructed prompt-book and its copy’Studies in Bibliography, 27 (1974) 113-136

Glover, A. and Waller, A.R. (eds) Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, Cambridge, 1906

Butterworth, P., Magic on the Early English Stage, CUP, Cambridge, 2005

Sprague, A.C., Beaumont and Fletcher on the Restoration Stage, Harvard 1926, reprinted New York, 1965

Posted: March 20th, 2011 | Filed under: Writers, The Play | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

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