Posts from — February 2014
On the surface, a tale of a tub is a fable. But the proverb is more specific referencing how a ship when threatened with capsizing from a whale, will toss a tub overboard. The tub distracts the whales, and the ship sails away safely. Jonathan Swift also used “A Tale of a Tub” as a title of one of his satires, the frontispiece of which is shown below. For our purposes, Ben Jonson is telling us there are two things floating in the water in his play; one his tub tale, there to distract the whales, i.e. the theatrical censors; and two, the ship containing the play’s message surrounding the Authorship Question. By making the tub in this parable a tale of the Tub family, Jonson is making sure we understand that there is a fable here to distract the censors-as-whales.
The Tub family is in the saltpeter business. Saltpeter was lucrative in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was the key ingredient in gunpowder. England was unable to meet her saltpeter needs solely from domestic supplies. To the extent it needed to be imported, it was an issue of national security. King Charles I declared saltpeter the “inestimable treasure.” Saltpeter was made from dung. Caves with bat guano were ideal. But ultimately it was collected anywhere refuse was found, farms, pigeon houses etc. The dung was soaked in large tubs, with the saltpeter harvested as crystals (potassium nitrate). The saltpeter business literally turned shit into treasure, and it did it in tubs.
The saltpeter business appears to be an allusion to the theater business. Both were lucrative ‘new’ endeavors in commerce of that age. In an In Medlay, the spoof on Inigo Jones, is a cooper in the play. In and In builds tubs. Inigo Jones designed theater sets. One of his tubs in the play is the frame for the shadow puppet masque he also writes. If the tubs are the stage, then is the dung the play? In Act IV sc v, Squire Tub is trying to convince Lady Tub that he should take Audrey to the vicars to see her married to John Clay (of course he has other ideas.) Lady Tub sees through him.
“…you forget yourself,
And make your love too palpable: A Squire?
And think so meanly? Fall upon a Cow-Shard?
You know my mind…”
If the saltpeter business is the theater business, and the tub is the stage, and Audrey is a “Cow-Shard” – then Audrey is indeed the plays.
We’ll revisit this crucial scene in more detail later. Specifically Lady Tub’s insistence that Squire Tub not marry a piece of dung. It seems there was a stigma for associating a nobleman with the theater.
A word about Marten Polecat’s beginnings as a ‘basket carrier.’ In the saltpeter business, he’s carrying baskets of dung. To recap, the Shakspere character in A Tale of a Tub begins the play as a shit-carrying, stinking weasel. He’s got nowhere to go but up!
February 19, 2014 No Comments