Louis Rhead’s illustration of Snug the Joiner, in his guise as a lion, from an 1918 edition of “Tales of Shakespeare,” by Charles and Mary Lamb.
I get a fair number of questions about my Instagram and Twitter handle, “@1snugthejoiner,” but fewer about the name of this blog,* Rude Mechanicals Press. I think that’s in large part due to Christopher Schwarz using the Twitter handle “@rudemechanic,” and referring to himself as such. As he’s explained many times, a “rude mechanic” is an old term for a skilled laborer, someone who works with his (or her) hands (though in early modern times, it did typically describe men).
Snug is one of the six “rude mechanicals” in William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” a group of craftsmen in Athens who want to put on a play for the city’s royalty, an activity which has its basis in medieval times.
In short, in England (and other countries, but I’m most familiar with English history), from sometime in the 14th century (when the clergy and monks ceded the stage) up until not too long before Shakespeare was born (1564), “theater” consisted solely of “traveling” religious pageants (“mystery plays” or “mystery cycles”) that were acted by a city’s guilds. Each guild would present a pageant within the cycle, and that guild made the props and owned the costumes, and they’d be used year after year.
In the York cycle, for example (one of a handful of cycles that survive almost in their entirety), we know that every year on Corpus Christi day, the Shipwright’s Guild presented the building of the ark, the Goldsmiths staged the “Adoration,” the Bakers’ Guild did the “Last Supper” and the Carpenter’s Guild presented the “Resurrection.” (There are 48 pageants…I won’t bore you with all of them.)
By Shakespeare’s time, plays were no longer restricted to religious topics, and there were a couple professional playhouses and theater companies in London by the time he was an adult. But a group of “rude mechanicals” wanting to stage a play (within a play) would be within living memory for some theater goers, and would be recognized as a quaint, old-fashioned undertaking – ha ha…look at the backward craftsmen! And yes, Shakespeare presented most of his rude mechanicals as just a bit lacking in brains. They are:
• Nick Bottom, a weaver (he wants to play all the parts, and eventually gets turned into an ass)
• Peter Quince, a carpenter (the group’s leader; he chooses the play “Pyramus and Thisbe,” assigns the roles and delivers the prologue)
• Francis Flute, the bellows mender (he is dismayed to playing a Thisbe, a lady)
• Tom Snout, a tinker (he plays Thisbe’s father…and also portrays a wall, because the group can’t afford to build props)
• Robin Starveling, a tailor (who ends up playing the moon, lantern in hand)
• Snug, a joiner (he plays a lion).
Snug is a little on the slow side, but he’s a kind soul; he’s concerned that the women in the audience will be scared of him in his lion guise:
“You, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear
The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor,
May now perchance both quake and tremble here,
When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.
Then know that I, one Snug the joiner, am
A lion-fell, nor else no lion’s dam;
For, if I should as lion come in strife
Into this place, ’twere pity on my life.” (Scene 5, Act 1) (emphasis mine)
I am a student of Shakespeare, I am a rude mechanical…and at times, I’m a little slow (until I’ve had my morning coffee, at least). Also, a lion is a cat, and I am a semi-crazy cat lady. It seemed a perfect confluence.
* Soon to be more than just a blog – stay tuned!