A self-employed craftsman who worked from home in a rustic, minimalist studio? Shakespeare’s dad, John, lived the hipster’s dream. He was a glover by trade, and perhaps the inspiration for Romeo’s swoon at the first radiant sight of Juliet: “O, that I were a glove upon that hand,/ That I might touch that cheek!”
Shakespeare may not have followed in his father’s artisanal footsteps, but he incorporated a raft of now-trendy-sounding DIY occupations into his plays. Meet the apple-selling costermonger, a job enterprising millennials might salivate over. The Induction to the Taming of the Shrew, in which a confused drunkard explains how he eked out a living on the mean cobblestone streets of 16th-century England, adds to the vocational array:
Am I not Christopher Sly – old Sly’s son of Burton Heath, by birth a pedlar, by education a cardmaker, by transmutation a bearherd, and now by present profession a tinker?
A pedlar, or peddler, sold small goods (and continues to do so). The much less familiar cardmaker made metal combs used to spin wool. A bearherd kept bears, some for the notorious entertainment of bearbaiting. Historically, a tinker mended kitchenwares, like pots and utensils. (This may revise your understanding of Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell.)
Sly then begs his audience to verify his identity with the “alewife.” An alewife was not the significant other of a hopeless lush; she ran a tavern. Wife once referred, sometimes disparagingly, to women of humble employment.
These hyperspecific occupations often occur in comedic contexts with lower-class characters. Shakespeare’s theatergoers surely laughed at the rabble—but also identified with it. Julius Caesar opens with a cobbler who punningly describes himself as “a mender of bad soles.” A Welsh general in Henry V reprimands a hotheaded soldier: “You shall be a woodmonger, and buy nothing of me but cudgels.” Monger meant “merchant” in earlier English, and survives in the cheesemonger or fishmonger at your local farmer’s market; today, it sees more metaphorical business in, say, warmonger. So, like a timber trader, the soldier will acquire only cudgels—blows from a thick wooden club—from his general.
In moments of darker humor, The Comedy of Errors features a headsman, a diabolically frank term for “executioner,” and a “ropemaker,” whose wares could be used for similar ends. There are few jokes in the gruesome tragedy Titus Andronicus, but a clown does mistake “Jupiter” for a “gibbet-maker,” or gallows builder.
The many characters, settings, plots, and languages of Henry IV turn this two-part history into a veritable archive of daily life in Elizabethan England. We meet ostlers, who looked after the horses of guests at inns. We meet victuallers, who ran taverns. And, as a young Prince Hal revels with common thieves, whores, and drunks in a London tavern, we meet those who draw pints of beer: drawers.
No job title quite rivals the position Harry references when speaking to a companion, Ned, at an inn:
But, sweet Ned–to sweeten which name of Ned I give thee this pennyworth of sugar, clapped even now into my hand by an underskinker, one that never spake other English in this life that ‘Eight shillings and sixpence’, and ‘You are welcome’, with his shrill addition, ‘Anon, anon, sir! Score a pint of bastard in the Half-moon!’ or so.
Underskinker: This was an assistant to the skinker, or tapster, who helped draw, pull out, and serve booze. To skink is a Dutch-derived term for “to pour alcohol.” Lounge lizard, apparently, was a profession in Shakespeare’s day.
Today’s workforce is far more specialized than John the Glover could ever have imagined. We have assistant directors, general managers, vice presidents, sales associates, chief financial officers, and new business developers. Interestingly, many modern titles derive from French and Latin, the two languages upon which English drew most heavily for its vocabulary of government, administration, law, math, and science. Though they sound more official, these titles also feel more abstract, unlike the unpretentiously concrete underskinker. Maybe we are drawn to the glover today because we know exactly what a glover does.
We often poke fun at “hipsters” for their attraction to the artisanal and the handcrafted. But what if these millennial milliners are simply seeking a meaningful and tangible connection to their work? Let’s give some of our modern roles a Shakespearean makeover. You’re not a computer programmer; you’re a codemonger. You’re not a copy editor; you’re a wordtinker. You’re not a principal; you’re an overteacher.
The Bard is often our go-to when we’re in love, in mourning, or in extremis. It’s only fitting that we might turn to him to inspire us on the job as well.