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George Lillo was a relative unknown when his tragedy The London Merchant first debuted in 1731. Those who attended the first performances expected to scoff at what they thought would be low and vulgar entertainment, yet by the end audience goers found themselves inspired and moved to tears. And The London Merchant; or, The History of George Barnwell would go on to become not only Lillo’s most famous work, but also one of the most popular and admired plays of that century. The play is originally adapted from a seventeenth century ballad in which a man named George Barnwell steals money from his employer to fund a relationship with a prostitute, and later robs and murders his uncle. But Lillo modified the plot, researchers say, to strengthen its relationship with the urban lower classes, by enhancing the roles of the merchant Thorowgood (master), his apprentice George Barnwell, and even the prostitute Sarah Millwood. And therein lies one of the key components of The London Merchant, and one that is the subject of this research paper: the social roles in the tragedy, specifically the roles of merchants (masters) and apprentices. This paper will attempt to take a closer look at these social roles as used in Lillo’s play, for they not only contributed to the success of the play first and foremost, but also affected the society of the time, instilling certain social values and ideals among the people.
Before considering the impact these social roles had on society, we must first consider the basic role of apprenticeship contextualized within its relevant time period: sixteenth-eighteenth centuries. At the broadest level apprenticeship is a form of temporary indenture in which a youth is offered as an object of exchange between two men with the understanding that the young man will eventually gain the skills and knowledge to become a master in his own right. The master takes in the apprentice into his own home, and the apprentice becomes a member of the master’s family. The master receives a fee for this specialized training. As simple as the relationship may sound, history has shown numerous instances of complicated master-apprentice relationships, and moreover, conflicting views of how a merchant (master) should be. Lillo emphasizes the principal role of the merchant within society, showing that the merchant class has, what Peter Hynes calls, a level of “cultural legitimacy.” According to historians, the upper classes of eighteenth century England struggled to decide where to place merchants within the social hierarchy of society, the reason probably being that many in this class looked down upon the merchants, noting specifically those masters who were acquisitive and malevolent figures. Typical is the case of Philip Foster, a bricklayer’s apprentice in Westminster, who charged his degenerate master with “having deserted” him. As a result, Foster claims, he became “not only become an object of charity, but even of the world’s censure.” Usually, one unscrupulous practice was for a master to accept an apprentice and his fee (a rich man’s son could be charged about 1000 pounds) but then to dismiss the boy on the grounds of “misconduct,” which enabled the master to pocket the money without himself having gone to any expense.
At the same time, the argument exists that merchants strove to emphasize their gentility. Writer and critic Tejumola Olaniyan argues that the play glorifies the ideals of the mercantile class, such as peace, patriotism, and empire. He also asserts the importance of the merchant in terms of holding society together, for the merchant builds the empire and helps ensure the peace. The merchant Thorowgood draws forth these key aspects of the merchant as noted by Olaniyan throughout the text with statements such as “honest merchants, as such, may sometimes contribute to the safety of their country as they do at all times to its happiness”(I,i. 18-20). So it is then safe to say that Lillo’s character of Thorowgood is a master shown in such an image, as a cultural ideal. In sharp contrast to Foster’s master, Thorowgood (as his aptly-suited name might suggest) lauds the curiosity of his pupils, commends their diligence, and as if with no thought for himself, offers them knowledge and skills that will eventually enable them to become merchants on their own. “Methinks,” Thorowgood says to another of his apprentices Trueman, “I would not have you learn only the method of merchandise and practice it hereafter merely as a means of getting wealth. ‘Twill be well worth your pains to study it as a science, see how it is founded in reason and the nature of things.” Moreover, Thorowgood’s benevolence, some critics claim, is perhaps a result of a viewpoint that many in society held at the time: that the master should regard himself not merely as an economic facilitator, but as a surrogate parent. As Caleb Trenchfield writes to the master, “the concerns of an apprentice are much different from those of an ordinary servant – you being become to him loco parentis (in the place of the parent).” Edward Stephens echoes that argument in his presentation to Parliament: the purpose of the master, he claims, is to “succeed in the place and care of the Parent or Relation who placed the Apprentice with him, whereby he is under a special Obligation to them.” Others went so far as to assert that when masters refuse to treat apprentices as members of their family, apprenticeship fails to support its historic function.
Lillo reinforces these strategies by setting his play in the sixteenth century, where Thorowgood’s paternalism appears as part of Britain’s national heritage. He assigns Thorowgood two apprentices – the traditional number. And together, with his daughter Maria, they constitute a recognizable family. Indeed, the fact that Barnwell’s father is dead (a departure from the ballad upon which the play is based) reinforces the belief of the master’s paternal function. Thorowgood’s seemingly natural benevolence is shown throughout the play, perhaps most poignantly in the final prison scene where, rather than take joy in Barnwell’s misfortune for having wronged him, Thorowgood, in a fatherly show of emotion, sheds tears over Barnwell’s demise. More precisely, he anticipates this proof of familial affection: “This domestic misery bears too hard upon me. I must retire to indulge a weakness I find impossible to overcome” (V.ii. 54-56). In this way, Lillo simply attempts to replicate the strategies and idealism employed by Trenchfield, Stephens, and others, for whom the ideal master-apprenticeship relationship (like the ideal family) is a prevalent thought.
The assumption and subsequent statement, then, is not that a master (parental) role is one only in terms of affection and benevolence. Critics also note the quality of the master/father’s forgiving nature – his godlike mercy. To offer one instance, after Barnwell has broken his contract by staying away from the house overnight, Thorowgood begins to chastise the apprentice, but he stops short after noting the “grief and shame” on Barnwell’s face: “If my pardon or love be of moment to your peace,” he says, “look up, secure of both” (II.iv. 7-8). Such forbearance is exemplary of claims that, in addition to passing on specific skills, the master should take upon himself responsibility for correcting and forgiving minor transgressions. Stephens, for example, goes so far as to argue that errant apprentices, even those who have stolen from their masters, could not or should not be dismissed: “the very demand and acceptance by the master of Security,” he writes, “is an Evidence, that upon that Security, he ought to continue to train up his Apprentice in his Trade.” Thus after forgiving Barnwell, Thorowgood speaks in an aside: “When we consider the frail condition of humanity, it may raise our pity, not our wonder, that youth should go astray when reason, weak at the best when opposed to inclination, scarce formed and wholly unassisted by experience, faintly contends or willingly becomes the slave of sense. The state of youth is much to be deplored, and the more so because they see it not, they being then to danger most exposed when they are least prepared for their defense” (II.iv. 17-25). In addition to the role as a parental figure, the master is now also to be seen as a teaching figure. So impactful were Lillo’s words to viewers who saw his play and such was the ability of the play to regulate harsh masters, that we even see real world reactions as a direct result. Reported in Some Account of the English Stage, the report concerns the apprentice of a capital merchant who had embezzled almost 200 pounds of his master’s money but, after having seen The London Merchant, now wished to die so as “to avoid the shame of a discovery.” And although this part of the account is sometimes used as evidence of the play’s corrective influence on London’s apprentices, it also pertains to masters as well.
So whereas Lillo’s role of the master is of significance in that it represented an ideal social view of the merchant, so significant too, is the role of the apprentice. Before analyzing the role of the apprentice, however, it is crucial to see why Lillo placed such heavy importance on this social role in the first place. As first claimed, perhaps Lillo’s intent was to have influence on the surrounding society: how merchants and apprentices should be. But in order to influence society Lillo first had to connect with it. Apprenticeship was very popular and common at the time of The London Merchant, as there were about 10,000-20,000 apprentices in the city of London alone. And it was also common for the theatre to perform plays that were produced especially for the apprentice class on selected days throughout the year. These plays usually depicted an apprentice character or two that mirrored the audience. This character was constructed as someone whom these apprentices in the audience could identify with. With the case of The London Merchant, there were two such apprentice characters: Barnwell and Trueman. Lillo presented these two characters as the dichotomy of the apprentice class: Trueman being a model apprentice, and Barnwell representing the model apprentice led astray by the wiles of society (in this case women). Thus the latter character served as a warning to apprentices everywhere that even a small act of disobedience, breaking the master’s curfew, could lead to the unthinkable, in this case murder.
If this is how apprentices should be, then how were they in actuality? Research shows that apprentices were able to press their cases legally, or even to make public their demands about the proper behavior of masters at all. This suggests that the apprentice was once a more powerful and less predictable figure than many would believe. Apprentices differed from common servants in that they were drawn from every social rank. Indeed, as Steven R. Smith argues, during the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, apprentices “were thought of as a separate order or subculture” characterized by formal and informal meetings, their own body of literature, and by frequent petitions to government. Plays, pamphlets, and novels of the time told of the apprentices’ heroic past, for example their role in the Crusades. These instances of heroics instilled in them a “strong sense of fraternity.” Smith presents as one example The Honour of London Prentices, a propaganda sheet that posits that there exists “a kind of supernatural sympathy” among apprentices – “a general union, which knits their hearts in a bond of fraternal affection.”
That perceived fraternal dimension of apprenticeship links Lillo’s bourgeois tragedy to heroic drama and also helps explain its early production history, for whereas Lillo’s main goal in the depiction of the master and apprentice might have been to illustrate how both should be, a secondary goal in his depiction of the apprentice was perhaps to signify the importance of fraternity. As the research of W. H. Pedicord demonstrates, many early productions of The London Merchant were sponsored by the Freemasons. This international brethren included managers from four of the five London theaters where the play was staged, first at Drury Lane and then, simultaneously, at the less fashionable but more accessible theaters surrounding London. Pedicord speculates, moreover, that all of the men in the original cast-members were Masons or relatives of Masons. While one cannot assume conspiracy and/or a secret guaranteed relationship between this sponsorship and the meaning of The London Merchant, it does suggest what Lillo might have aimed for among members of the early audience. The London Merchant can be seen as offering a culturally-specific fantasy about the nature and value of relationships among men as a group. The master-apprentice relationship as stated earlier offers one example of this process, but so too does the role of apprentice in general, precisely because they were not easily identified with any particular social rank. According to Smith, this portrayal may be regarded as a testament to the possibilities of symbolic brotherhood itself.
This is evidenced as Barnwell himself claims that this surrogate fraternal relationship is more foundational than any surrogate parental one. He says to Sarah Millwood upon their first encounter, “In an especial manner I love my uncle, and my master, but, above all, my friend” (I.v. 37-38). The play is driven by scenes poignantly dramatizing this affection so that the domestic ideology we have already seen in the master (father) extends beyond to the fellow apprentice (brother). The difference between apprenticeship and other forms of servitude was often expressed in gender-inflected terms. It was not unusual, for example, for the apprentice to be compared, in positive terms, to the wife. This analogy goes back at least as far as 1629 when, in an argument that apprenticeship is suitable for gentry, Edmund Bolton writes that “Apprentices now commonly come like wives with portions to their Masters. If then Apprenticeship be a kind of servitude, it is either a pleasing bondage, or a strange madness to purchase it with money.” Moreover, because these “brothers” are adolescents and their roles feminized in relation to older men, Lillo uses this as an opportunity to reveal a more affectionate and sensual dimension of their association than today’s audience might come to expect. After leaving his master’s money with Millwood, for example, a guilty and clearly troubled Barnwell ignores his fellow apprentice Trueman’s offers of help and sympathy. Pushing him aside, Barnwell claims that his troubles should not give Trueman “a moment’s pain.” In reply, Trueman (again aptly named thus by Lillo) says, “You speak as if you knew of friendship, nothing but the name. Before I saw your grief I felt it” (II.ii. 30-1). Here compassion, a structure of feeling that will later be associated almost exclusively with women, is pressed into the service of male-male relations.
Elsewhere the physical and therefore seemingly involuntary nature of this identification is even more overt. Upon visiting Barnwell in prison, Trueman attempts to embrace his friend, but Barnwell, refusing, throws himself to the floor. “Thy miseries,” responds Trueman, lying down beside him, “cannot lay thee so low but love will find thee. Here will we offer to stern calamity, this place the altar, and ourselves the sacrifice. Our mutual groans shall echo to each other through the dreary vault. Our sighs shall number the moments as they pass, and mingling tears communicate such anguish as words were never made to express” (V.v. 34-45). Agreeing to these sentiments, Barnwell rises. He cries, “Then be it so! Since you propose an intercourse of woe, pour all your griefs into my breast, and in exchange take mine” (V.v. 46-48). The two apprentices hold one another, and this “intercourse of woe” rapidly gives way to an overflowing joy. And perhaps with this poignant display of affection, we reach the apex of Lillo’s view of brotherhood, for here fraternity is displayed as a “wordless” communication between two men. Interesting to note is that this affection between two men is nonetheless manifested in bodily signs: groans, sighs, and tears – emotions normally evoking passion felt between a man and woman. And yet this connection seems to go deeper than that. While the above “commerce of feeling” parallels Thorowgood’s earlier (rather unexpectedly amiable) response to Barnwell’s demise, the very mutuality and excess of this exchange indicates that it takes place in a different register. Here love between youth of equal rank is dramatized.
And just as we saw before the societal impact of the Lillo’s portrayal of model behavior among masters and apprentices, we see here again, through the language of Lillo’s play, an effect in the view of apprenticeship. We see this most clearly by turning to Samuel Richardson’s Vade Mecum, an apprenticeship manual published three years after the initial production of The London Merchant. It begins with descriptions and definitions of “apprenticeship” and “indenture.” “Indenture,” writes Richardson, “signifies a writing which contains an agreement between different Persons, whereof there are two copies, which being cut, waved, or botched, tally to one another when put together, and prove the Genuineness of both.” The logic of replication in this passage can, in retrospect, be said to help organize the relationships in Lillo’s family romance. Being staged, most obviously in the scenes between Barnwell and Trueman, is a doubling of sentiment that serves as a highly-theatrical “proof” of its genuineness; each display of emotion simultaneously serves as spectator and spectacle for the other. “Our mutual groans,” claims Trueman, “shall echo to each other through this dreary vault.”
Larger (especially the upper) class society frowned upon the fact that apprentices were encouraged to attend plays such as The London Merchant, as they felt that apprentices would abandon their businesses and duties in pursuit of meaningless entertainment, subsequently learning unacceptable behavior from the characters in the plays that were geared toward them. However, in truth, plays like The London Merchant were perhaps meant for the edification of masters and those of merchant class, as they sought to demonstrate “model behavior” to the apprentices. Stephan Flores claims that the play’s popularity “derives primarily from the way that it prompted audiences to recognize and repress their experience of ideological contradictions,” including but not limited to those implicit in the master-servant relationship. “It encourages its audience to identify with the master’s benevolence and mercy,” he writes, rather than with his disciplinary power.” In addition to stressing the importance of this “model behavior” among merchants and apprentices, Lillo’s tragedy also serves to use the apprentice as a force of brotherhood and fraternity. In the end, The London Merchant provides a tempered breakdown of complicated social issues and simplifies it into a parable about personal loyalty as well as personal affection.
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