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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: January ::
Psychology of Gertrude
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0102  Wednesday, 14 January 2004

[1]     From:   Thomas Larque <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 13 Jan 2004 13:50:22 -0000
        Subj:   Re: Purses

[2]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 13 Jan 2004 14:48:36 -0800
        Subj:   RE: SHK 15.0090 Psychology of Gertrude


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Larque <
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Date:           Tuesday, 13 Jan 2004 13:50:22 -0000
Subject:        Re: Purses

 >Tom, hold your fire till we disagree on something substantive!  In the
 >meantime, can you or any other on this list educate me on purses:  What
 >was the value of the "purse" so often flung from one person to another
 >in the plays, as in "Here, take my purse."  I assume it was a purse of
 >coins, but what kind (always gold?) and of what value- surely varying
 >with the economic resources of the giver-but roughly what value in our
 >coinage?

This sounds rather like a "how long is a piece of string" or "how many
children had Lady Macbeth" sort of question.  The answer is surely that
the purse contained whatever money the person handing out had on their
person and could thus vary from virtually nothing to relatively large
sums.  When Antonio gives his purse to Sebastian it seems to contain
enough to make this a very generous and trusting gesture, and apparently
dwarfs the coinage that Viola tries to give Antonio when she divides her
own purse contents in half, saying "my having is not much", and
presumably tries to give him much less than half of the money that was
given to Sebastian, and which Antonio expected back (minus only the cost
of moderate purchases).

My own guess would be that Antonio's purse is a good deal heavier than
Viola's, but that neither one holds a fraction of the contents of the
purse given to Edgar by Kent in "Lear" - but all this is just guesswork,
and I am not sure there is any way to estimate the true value of any of
these fictional purses, which have a literary rather than a financial
purpose.  You might as well ask how much money Midas earned by turning
things into gold.  It just isn't relevant to the story, which has no
reason to be any more precise than saying "a lot of money" or "not very
much".

I would imagine that most people in the Renaissance period, as today,
carried only one purse with them at any one time.  Certainly this is
true of Antonio and Viola, since Antonio evidently has no money left -
having given everything to Sebastian - and Viola intends to divide
everything that she is carrying with Antonio, but only seems to take out
one purse.  The sheer extravagance of the purse casting gesture is
presumably that you have given the person everything that you are
carrying with you (although this does not mean everything that you own,
since you are likely - especially if you are a rich man or ruler - to
have a good deal stored at home, lent out, or invested, or some
combination of the three).  It would be more normal, as Orsino, Viola,
Sebastian, and Olivia do at various times in "Twelfth Night", to say
"there's gold" and give the person a few coins rather than the whole
amount that you are carrying, purse and all.

As for "cutpurse", the purse was usually attached to the belt by
strings, and a "cutpurse" was known as such because he would use a knife
to cut the strings of the purse and carry it away while the owner was
distracted.  Modern thieves are usually known as "pickpockets", because
we are more used to having wallets or purses in the pockets of trousers,
jackets, or coats, and the "pickpocket" reaches in and picks out the
items that he wants.  I don't see any relationship between the term
"cutpurse" and the action of giving away purses full of money.

One final thing that may be relevant is that, as I seem to remember,
some British monarchs (who traditionally do not carry money, but have
servants to do such things for them) have been in the habit of having a
variety of purses with small amounts of money in, ready to be given away
symbolically to needy people that they happen to come across.  I admit
that I may be confusing the Maundy ceremony (when numerous purses filled
with small amounts of money are ritually given away as a charitable
demonstration on a particular date during an organised ceremony) with
everyday royal life in some way.  If somebody does have multiple purses
waiting to be given away, however, then it is the symbolism of the
gesture that is important - as it is in the Maundy ceremony - but the
giving of purses is at its most generous and sincere when the giver has
only one purse to give, especially if everything that they have left is
within it, as seems to be the case with Kent in "King Lear" where he has
been cast out of his home, leaving all but a few portable possessions
behind him, and is preparing to kill himself, so has no reason left to
keep anything at all, and can afford to be unremittingly generous to the
poor man (as he thinks) who has helped him.

Thomas Larque.
"Shakespeare and His Critics"       "British Shakespeare Association"
http://shakespearean.org.uk           http://britishshakespeare.ws

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Tuesday, 13 Jan 2004 14:48:36 -0800
Subject: 15.0090 Psychology of Gertrude
Comment:        RE: SHK 15.0090 Psychology of Gertrude

David Cohen asks,

 >What was the value of the "purse" so often flung from one person to
 >another in the plays, as in "Here, take my purse."

I'm not sure that I understand the question.  What's the value of a
wallet, as in, "Here, take my wallet"?

Yrs,
Sean.

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