Jill Barker


Much work on proverbs involves the careful mapping of an individual proverb’s lineage from its earliest occurrences through the various languages and historical periods within which it can be traced. There is often a sense that the variant verbal forms in which a proverb might appear are not highly significant, as long as the ‘meaning’ remains broadly the same. Within sixteenth-century English, however, not only were proverbs in general widely used, but the nature of the proverb came under scrutiny. In this paper I explore some of the attitudes towards the concept of the proverb held in mid-sixteenth-century England. Sixteenth-century texts, especially theatrical texts, used proverbs extensively as a way of tapping in to received wisdom, and as a way of claiming moral validation for the position advocated. In a number of plays from the 1570s, the idea that a proverb contained reliable moral truth was examined.[1] Where the earlier psychomachia-morality focussed on the battle between good and evil figures, a proverb-morality conducts the same battle by locating it around a particular statement. Its brief is to show that the statement has moral implications.

The overt project of a proverb play is to demonstrate the universality of application of its given proverb, that is, to expound the idea that individuals share common truths of experience. It thus attempts to establish truth as single and absolute, a project which as we shall see, it inevitably subverts, with considerable consequences. This universality had previously been taken for granted in the medieval morality plays with the construction of the allegorical figure of mankind as a single representative individual.[2] Establishing a single truth based on a proverb is attempted in the plays by one of two methods. In the first method, it is assumed that the proverb offers a true comment on the world, and the play then follows a rondo form: a) a statement of the proverb; b) an enacted demonstration of a circumstance in which the proverb can be seen to apply; c) a restatement of the proverb with enhanced credibility. Steps b) and c) are then repeated with variations for as long as the author wishes the play to proceed. The second method, recognizing that a proverb may be interpreted in conflicting ways, opposes a virtuous interpretation to a vicious one and presents scenes which show the two possibilities in operation. The climax then demonstrates that only the virtuous interpretation is ‘worthwhile’.

As a traditional weapon of argument, the proverb is an obvious mode for a vice figure to appropriate, given his renowned persuasive skills. The use of proverbs is also very much in keeping with the fashion of the times, evidence for which may be found in John Heywood’s collections of proverbs, and epigrams on proverbs.[3] The proverb appears to embody wisdom based on reliable observations of the way of the world. Its overtone of trustworthiness is derived in part from frequent repetition, in part from its witty, concise form. In the sense that proverbs appeared to be true, they were and are used seriously by ‘dramatists and pamphleteers, politicians, orators and preachers’.[4] A proverb, however, is not necessarily always true. John Heywood knew this, and presumably so did his many readers. Not only can circumstances alter cases, but proverbs themselves are by nature ambiguous. Because of the pithy form – often gnomic and usually metaphoric – the proverb’s meaning is matter for interpretation and hence also for debate. The inherent ambiguities of semantics and syntax make it possible to reverse a proverb’s meaning completely.[5] Proverbs, therefore, mark a craving for interpretation, and hence a node of Derridean playfulness and hesitancy within apparent certitude.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 5:1997 & Issue 6:1997, an electronic book, available from and other leading Internet booksellers.

When Faithful Few restores Christianity with support and encouraging words, another version of courage is now on stage, and out of Courage’s control. Faithful then confronts Courage’s creature Greediness in debate, and matches his arguments:

G. Why I lende my money like a friend for good will,
And thereby doe helpe men at their neede.

F. A friend thou arte in deede, though a friend but ill,
Pithagoras thy friendship, hath playnely decreede,
There be many sayth he, who no friendes do lacke,
And yet of friendship they have but skant,
So thou arte a friend for their moneys sake
And yet thy friendship they alwayes shall want

(F iiii v)

Having thus forced a re-interpretation of the word ‘friend’, Faithful Few now clashes over the word ‘riches’:

G. I put case pouerty should me assayle,
Can Gods word and fayth me anything ayde:
Pouerty agaynst riches can neuer avayle,
I am sure syr this may not be denayde.

F. We deny not, but in this world, riches beare the sway
Yet, it not riches to be called sure:
For in Gods power it is to make riches decay,
Whereas Gods word and fayth shall euer endure.

(F iiii v)

From this point it still seems as if Greediness’s arguments may carry the day. Significantly, however, just as Faithful is proposing to refer the debate to God himself (as the logocentre) for judgment, the discussion is cut short by Courage’s departure. This is one of the rare occasions when Courage is off stage, and it is a weak move on his part as it leaves Faithful Few in possession of the stage, as if it were a field of battle. Faithful Few retains undisputed control from here to the end of the play, for by the time Courage returns he has been much diminished by the death of Greediness.

In the verbal confrontation between Greediness and Faithful we see selfish and selfless forms of courage in combat, but we also see another conflict. Courage’s claim to establish an absolute meaning of ‘the tyde tarrieth no man’ has been constructed throughout the play by his behaviour as a kind of showman who has set up each relevant plot situation. Each time he has drawn the same moral: that one must rush in quickly, exploiting others in order to make money. We have heard Greediness stating his wish for independent control of meaning:

Why would you not haue me, how to inuent,
Which way were best to bring in my gayne?

(F iiii)

His use of ‘best’ suggests a moral dimension to his decision making. This claim on behalf of the individual is subverted by an external phenomenon: the virtue of a Christian life as exemplified by Faithful Few. He counters Courage’s and Greediness’ bid for independent interpretation with an argument elevating the interests of the majority:

But not in such sort, to set thine intent
That all the world of thee should complayne.

(F iiii)

In the example cited earlier, we found Greediness and Faithful disputing the usage of the term ‘friend’, with just the same opposition of the selfish and the social. Faithful introduces Pythagoras’ authority – an appeal to communal standards. When Christianity is ready to give in to Greediness’ arguments, Faithful makes the scene untenable to the vice figures by introducing another social form: that of a trial before a judge, in this case God.

To God let us the cause betake:
Whome I trust, when as time he doth see,
He will for us, a deliueraunce make.

(G i)

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 5:1997 & Issue 6:1997, an electronic book, available from and other leading Internet booksellers.

In this manner, Wastefulness repeats Faithful’s words line by line through four sentences, which drive away the ‘ougly shape’ (G i v) of the monster Dispayre. Thus the ‘outside’ of language and meaning is still also language, and there is no ‘transcendental referent’. Though the Prologue attempts to establish a single supra-linguistic transcendental ‘truth’, the play cannot help showing that even that must be contained within a structure, and is part of a sign-system.

In this way, and predictably enough, language subverts its own claims to be able to speak unambiguously and hence to offer ‘the truth’. In so doing language also subverts the character of the subject as a fortress-like individual, since it is only when meaning is seen as fixed that the subject can be put forward as an indivisible unit. What is extraordinary here is that this struggle to define the individual takes place in precisely the period when the humanist individual is being constructed, and through precisely those plays which might be viewed as precursors to the enhanced psychological realism of the later Elizabethan stage. Crucially, then, the characterisation of the other as a linguistic other, equated to a verbally competent vice figure, acts in the end to subvert the notion of the self. Such a subverted self can no longer claim autonomy, self-determination or extra-linguistic transcendental existence. At one moment the escalating process of multiple characterization works towards greater individuation of stage characters, while at the same time it generates a fundamental attack on the unity of that very subject it seeks to construct.


  1. These include W. Wager, Enough is as Good as a Feast (1560s) and The Longer Thou Livest, the More Fool Thou Art (c.1568); Thomas Lupton, All For Money (1577); Ulpian Fulwell, Like Will To Like Quod the Devil to the Collier (1568) (an early Wellerism); and the anonymous The Weakest Goeth to the Wall(1600).
  2. Examples include The Pride of Life; Mankind; Everyman; The World and the Child; and The Castle of Perseveraunce.
  3. John Heywood, The Proverbs, Epigrams and Miscellanies, ed. John S. Farmer, EEDS (London, 1966; first published, 1906). His work was still the subject of admiration c.1612, when John Davies of Hereford described his own epigrams as imitations of Heywood’s.
  4. F. P. Wilson, ‘The Proverbial Wisdom of Shakespeare’, in Shakespearean and Other Studies, ed., Helen Gardner (Oxford, 1969), pp143-175 (p.144).
  5. The entertainment of Heywood’s proverbs and epigrams comes from observing the paradoxes that are generated by assuming all interpretations of proverbs to be equally valuable. Heywood provides many neat examples of paradoxical interpretation, for example:
    A merry man by his master at meat set:
    Methinketh’ quoth the master, ‘thou canst no drink get
    ‘Here is enough, though there be none,’ said he.
    ‘Then art not dry?’ ‘Yes, so mote I thee,
    And fain would drink.’ ‘How be thy words true then?’
    ‘Thus: This word enough two ways we may scan;
    Th’one much enough, th’other little enough;
    And here is little enough.’ His master lough.
    However, the servant suffers for his wit in the end, for:
    More than enough were waste: he getteth no more.’ (Number 52 of The First Hundred of Epigrammes, 1562).
  6. Students’ Facsimile Edition (London, 1910)
  7. It should be noted that we are moving between theoretical systems here. Lacanian psychoanalysis, for all its emphasis on a three-part system, usually functions with, and reasons through, dualities. (This is a contentious remark, as there are Lacanians, such as Malcolm Bowie, who feel that his three-part structure can be sustained.) Derrida’s analyses, towards which this discussion is now moving, delight in polarities because they lay themselves open to deconstruction.
  8. Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, tr Margaret Waller (New York, 1984; first published in French, 1974), pp.25-28.
  9. Robert Hughes, Heaven and Hell in Western Art (London, 1968) sees a related philosophical difficulty for the artist who seeks for images with which to depict the ‘chaos’ of Hell. ‘To paint Chaos in a chaotic manner would merely produce an illegible picture. And so the problem was to discover a form for the Pit without depriving Hell of its terrible and negative formlessness’, p.156. ‘They evolved a set of images which were, to a surprising degree, stable. They were the negative images to Heaven’s reality, doubling it, parodying it, like hallucinatory reflections in black water’, p.157.
  10. This move is wholly within the project that the Prologue has mapped out, and also manifestly not intended to deceive the audience. The vice portion of the play is in collusion with the Prologue in demonstrating one version of the Proverb’s meaning.
    For I am a broker the truth is so
    Wherefore if men in me hurtfulnesse should know
    There are few or none that with me would deale
    Therefore this word hurtfull I never reueale
    (A iii v)
  11. The hesitation between devilish and human motives in the late moral play (c.1576 onwards) may be understood historically, as part of the gradual humanisation of the vice role documented by Bernard Spivack in Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York and London, 1958). See especially Chapter Seven, ‘Change and Decline in the Morality Convention’, pp.206-250.
  12. Even their names are very general ones, and also very much open to interpretation, compared with the specificity embodied in such earlier stage virtues as Mercy, Pity or God’s Promises, to name but a few.
  13. Consciousness of this difficulty is not a modern construction: it can also be found in other plays. Sensualitas, the vice figure in Virtuous and Godly Susanna (1578, c. 1568) sees worldly opinion opposed to spiritual credit:
    For God, or his threatninges, I passe it not a straw,
    But for myne honour in this world, is it I stand in aw.
    A vice figure’s opinion is a dubious one to rely on, but one also finds the sympathetic figure of Philologus reflecting on a comparable dilemma in The Conflict of Conscience (1581; c. 1570):
    My case indeed I see most miserable
    As was Susanna betwixt two evils placed
    Either to consent to sin most abhominable
    Or else in the world’s sight to be utterly disgraced
  14. In considering the play’s interpretations of the proverb, one must notice the image which Courage’s first monologue plays on. His list of the people who are to board the ship for Hell raises the great image of the Ship of Fools. Barclay’s free translation into English (1509) of the immensely popular Narrenschiff by Brant (1494) describes at great length each of the huge variety of fools who are to be loaded onto the ship. This substantial work is further enlarged by the inclusion of a category of additional follies at the end, and one of its principal effects is an impression of eternity. The Ship is always about to set sail; it is always very nearly full. Urgency to get on board is really merely another aspect of folly, as it is never too late to damn oneself.

Jill Barker
University of Luton