Internet Shakespeare Editions



From Greene's Notable Discovery of Cozenage (1592). Reproduced in Social England, ed. H.D.Traill. University of Victoria Library.

Urban crime in Shakespeare's London surfaces very little in his plays*, but it was there in the card sharps, the cutpurses, the pimps, bawds, and prostitutes. And of course begging was a crime.

Go to a picture of a card game..

"Catching rabbits"--coney-catching--is the term that several informative, and sensational, pamphlets give the activities of professional criminals, or con-men.

If we are to believe those who wrote about them*, there was in the underworld as much a hierarchy as in the overworld. Order, if not honour, among thieves.

A list of different kinds of criminals.*

Sympathy for the underworld?

In Measure for Measure, the sub-plot does deal extensively with an underclass, but it is mainly made up of sexual offenders: Mistress Overdone the bawd, Pompey Bum the pimp, and Kate Keepdown, a prostitute.

Shakespeare's sympathy for these characters is shown in a number of ways: Kate was ">broken*"not by an "upright-man*" but by the playboy, Lucio; and Pompey is given a memorable line when asked why he lives such a "beastly" life: "Truly, sir, I am a poor fellow that would live" (2.1.222).


  1. A hellish hierarchy

    Thomas Harman, lover of alliteration, wrote a pamphlet called A Caveat for Common Cursitors [a warning for common vagabonds, or beggars], in which he reveals the "abominable, wicked, and detestable behaviour of these rowsey, ragged rabblement of rakehells."

    Harman is relentlessly moral in his condemnation of the people he describes; the modern reader will read between the lines of an underclass both desperate and proud.

    Here is Harman's hellish hierarchy:

    A returned soldier who refuses to beg, but bullies, robs and steals.
    Previously a servant, who is "skilful in picking, rifling, and filching," and who will bully lesser vagabonds. They are too proud to travel with their women ("morts").
    Hooker or Angler
    Carries a pole with a hook on the end, to snatch items through windows when people are asleep.
    Less skilled than the hooker, and more timid, the rogue is a more conventional thief.
    A horse thief.
    Pretends to be mad, and to have been in the hospital for the insane, Bedlam.
    Counterfeit crank
    Pretends to have the "falling sickness," epilepsy.
    Pretends to be dumb, if not deaf. According to Harman, "the most part of these are Welshmen."

    Then (lower in status than the men) there are the female beggars:

    Carries a basket with trinkets, and uses it to get on good terms with the maidservants in a gentleman's house, from which they then steal.
    Actually married , often to an upright-man; she will take her children with her.
    Walking mort
    Not married, and therefore vulnerable to other beggars, especially men: "Many of these had, and have children. When they get aught, either with begging, bitchery, or bribery, they are quickly shaken out of all by the upright-men."
    "These doxies be broken and spoiled of their maidenheads by the upright-men," and then become prostitutes.
    "[A] young wench, able for generation, and not yet known or broken by the upright-man."
    Kinchin mort and kinchin co
    The kinchin mort is a girl, the kinchin co a boy. Even for these Harman has no pity, for he comments,"soon ripe, soon rotten."
  2. Writers on the underworld

    As well as Thomas Harman, quoted extensively in the "hellish hierarchy" list, two dramatists of the period, Robert Greene and Thomas Dekker, turned their hands to writing pamphlets about the underworld. In all these documents, we should be aware of the attractiveness of sensation, and the tendency to fictionalize.