Posted by: internationalroutier | August 30, 2010

Roaring Boys- Book Review

Thanks to a work schedule that allows me to hit the op shops several times a week if I so desire, I buy a lot of books. I particularly try to keep my eyes peeled for books relevant to the 17th Century and in so doing have amassed a nice little historical library.
One day I may even read some of them.
Actually, that is harsh; I do read, in part, most of them. I do however, struggle to read one from cover to cover. After a while they seem to drift to the bedside table pile and I live in hope that they give up their secrets via some form of nocturnal osmosis. Nocturnal osmosis fail. (As the young people would say).
I have most success with historical books that I can dip into, read in self contained ‘chunks’, look at some pretty pictures and return to the shelf. Funnily enough the book I am going to talk about today does not really fall into the ‘in chunk readability’ genre, and there is a dire lack of pretty pictures but I have managed to make quite a good show of this one.

Roaring Boys: Shakespeare’s Rat Pack by Judith Cook.

There was a general acceptance that London was overpopulated and filthy, with what amounted to open sewers running down the middle of the streets, not to mention the notoriuosly appaling state of the River Fleet, yet killjoys like Gosson and Stockwood were far more concerned by the ‘filth’ purveyed by the theatres than the raw sewage in the streets or the carcasses of dead animals floating down the Fleet. ‘What availeth it to have sweet houses and stinking souls?’ boomed Stockwood. God, he warned, would be noting the names of those who listened to the players rather than the preachers.
But such critics were whistling in the wind and there was one vital and missing ingredient from all that had gone before. With the ever-increasing popularity of the playhouses, the rapidly increasing professionalism of the theatre companies and the apparently insatiable demand for entertainment, there was, above all, a desperate need for plays of all kinds. Which is where the writers take centre stage, the lifestyles of many of whom would exceed the bigots’ wildest nightmares. Enter the roaring boys.

Cook sets the Elizabethan theatre scene in considerable detail. We also get long passages on who went to which university (or scandalously didn’t go at all!). There is drinking, carousing and the borrowing of money from all and sundry. However, to a palate jaded by staff lunchroom gossip rags and celebrity internet buzz it all seems a little lacklustre.
One of the chapters I most enjoyed quoted great swathes from Thomas Dekker who we have previously met in this blog as coauthor of The Roaring Girl. Cook quotes Dekker’s tongue in cheek The Guls Horne-Booke 1609 which describes the life of a gallant in and around the London theatre scene.

For it is well to try and dress in the fashion. For instance, one’s boots should always be as wide as a wallet and so fringed as to hang down to the ankles. One’s doublet of the showiest stuff you can afford. Never cut your hair or suffer a comb to fasten his teeth there. Let it grow thick and bushy, like a forest or soem wilderness. Let not those four-footed creatures that breed in it and are tenants to crown land, be put to death…Long hair will make you dreadful to your enemies, manly to your friends; it blunts the edge of the sword and deadens the thump of the bullet; in winter a warm nightcap, in summer a fan of feathers.

After this we have the usual speculation of whether Marlowe was a spy and a quite good bit on Ben Jonson. Also in the section on the ‘Roaring Girls’ we hear the claim that “Women before or since have rarely had a worse press”; which does seem to hold some weight when passages are quoted from Joseph Swetnam’s The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Forward and Unconstant Women: Or the Vanity of Them: Choose you Whether. Shakespeare’s women are held up as the exception to the rule, Cook’s (well deserved) admiration is obvious there.

After that I must admit to the book drifting to the discard pile. Sigh. I might just be the person least qualified in this group to do historical book reviews. But stick with me kids for reviews of the first 80-100 pages of all kinds of interesting op shop finds! I did get my $3 worth though I suppose 🙂

BTW Today I saw Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo, 1623-1633 for $6. Will happily head back and pick it up for anyone interested (and quick enough!).

The 124 letters span a decade, from 1623 to 1633. In that period, a pope came to power who battled the Protestant Reformation and filled Rome with artistic monuments. The Thirty Years’ War embroiled all of Europe and Scandinavia. The bubonic plague erupted from Germany into Italy, where it ravaged the city of Florence until stemmed by a miracle. And a new philosophy of science threatened to overturn the order of the universe.



  1. Seems like an interesting book…at least the beginning. thanks for the partial review!

    • Yeah, I kept waiting for the motivation to finish it but got well sidetracked by a novel instead. Besides wouldn’t want to undo my perfect track record 🙂

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