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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: April ::
Margery and the Tearful Jestmonger
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0614  Friday, 1 April 2005

From:           Joseph Egert <
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Date:           Thursday, 31 Mar 2005 23:29:41 +0000
Subject:        Margery and the Tearful Jestmonger

I've often wondered why, in a play like The Merchant of Venice , so
heavily freighted with Biblical allusion, Shakespeare chose the name
Margery for Launcelot's mother. Is she meant to invoke a long lost
saint, queen, or witch? Or do the etymological links "pearl" or
"marjoram" bear meaning here? Launcelot, in his scenes both with Old
Gobbo (2.2) and with Jessica (2.3), "raise[s] the waters" and drops
"tears" along with his malaprops. Unlike racist Portia, lusty
Lance-a-lot is undeterred by his African Moor's complexion; he is
clearly prepared to breed parti-coloured offspring through his Dark Lady.

Will Kemp(e) (c1540-c1603), probably hailing from East Anglia, was
celebrated for his afterpiece jigs and his overall persona as a blunt
rough-hewn phrase-mangling man-of the-people. In role after role he was
always a threat to disrupt the flow and integrity of the drama with his
boisterous improvisation, a fact which may have eroded his ties to
Shakespeare's troupe. Kemp dedicates his Nine Daies Wonder (relating his
famous Morris dance from London to Norwich in 1600) to "Mistress Anne
Fenton, maid of honor to the most sacred maid royal Queen Elizabeth."
Some believe he intended Anne's sister Mary Fenton, notorious for her
illicit (and fruitful) affair with William Herbert, 3rd Earl of
Pembroke, the Maecenas of England. She may in fact be the Dark Lady of
the Sonnets. Interestingly, Kemp's pamphlet evidences the casual
Portia-like racism of the time. He complements his dedicatee: "I know
your pure judgment looks as soon to see beauty in a Blackamoor...as to
find anything but blunt mirth in a Morris dancer, especially one as Will
Kemp, that hath spent his life in mad jigs and merry jests." Also of
interest, Kemp commends the welcoming Mayor of Norwich for his "bounty
and kind usage", for his "chaste life, liberality and temperance" who
"lives unmarried and childless" depending upon "merchandise, being a
merchant venturer" (a model for Anthonio?). Finally, in a later passage
Kemp labels his deriders "notable Shakerags"-- a dig perhaps at his
earlier partner Shakespeare.

Margery Kempe (c1373-c1438), also from East Anglia, grew up a Mayor's
child, like Shakespeare. After marrying at age twenty, lusty Margery
bore her husband fourteen children. To atone for her carnality, she
devoted most of her life to Christian meditations, as detailed in her
Book of Margery Kempe, the earliest surviving English autobiography.
Extracts were published in England in 1501 and 1521. During church
prayer she was known to burst out in uproarious wailing and weeping,
invariably disrupting the service. Such scenes may seem farcical to us
now; her fellow congregants, however, were not amused. On more than one
occasion, she was accused and nearly burnt as a heretic supporter of the
Lollard revolt led by Lord Cobham, John Oldcastle (the original
Falstaff). Margery was pronounced orthodox and at one point given a
letter certifying her as Kosher. Oldcastle himself was not so lucky.  A
beneficiary of Christian mercy like Shylock, he was hanged and burnt in
1417 as an outlaw, traitor, and heretic.

I now suspect that Will Kemp(e) and Margery Kempe were somehow related
short of six degrees, if not by family, then at a minimum by Kemp
claiming the tie, converting it into a running joke within the
troupe--hence tearful Launcelot's mother "Margery." I call upon my
fellow resolutes of the List for further comment supporting or refuting
said suspicion.

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