The Weakest Goeth to the Wall – Introduction

First off, an explanation of the title.  “The Weakest Goeth to the Wall” is a proverbial expression.  When walking on the side of a street, it was customary for the “weaker” of two people to walk furthest from the street, against the wall of the buildings.  This protected them from being hit by the street traffic or splatterd by mud.  The phrase occurs in the opening dialog of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when the Capulet servants Sampson and Gregory are discussing their hatred of the Montagues.  Sampson says, “I will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague,” to which Gregory replies, “That shows thee a weak slave, for the weakest goes to the wall.  Sampson then says, “‘Tis true, and therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall!”

This play is usually listed as anonymous, but that has not stopped commentators from assigning various playwrights to it over the centuries.  In particular, John Webster, Henry Chettle, Anthony Munday, and Dekker have been consdered.

Webster, along with Dekker, were proposed at the authors in 1675 by Edward Phillips in a list of “several not wholly to be rejected plays,” apparently from a misreading of catalogues.  Today, most scholars reject the Webster claim, as the play is not at all in his style.  Chettle was proposed by Mary Leland Hunt in her 1911 book Thomas Dekker: A Study based on a comparison of the love scenes with that of Chettle’s play The Tragedy of Hoffman but very few commentators have agreed with her claim.  The claim for Munday is even weaker, proposed by Frederick G. Fleay who assumes that the play was originally written in the 1580’s.  His train of thought is the title page decaration that the play was performed by the Earl of Oxford’s Men.  Since Munday was associated with Oxford’s Men around that time, Fleay assumes he must have written it–very scanty evidence indeed.  Furthermore, as with Chettle, there seems to be little in common between The Weakest Goeth to the Wall and Munday’s other known works.

There seems to be little doubt that the play is at least in part Dekker’s work.  The primary reason for supposing this are the characters of Barnaby Bunch and Yacob van Smelt.  The former is a typical Dekker comic character, similar in type to the shoemakers of The Shoemaker’s Holiday, Babulo of Patient Grissel, Scumbroth of If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil Is In It, and Bilbo of Match Me in London.  Just as do those characters, Barnaby serves not only as a comic character, but as a source of wry commentary on the action, much like a Greek chorus, and he also displays qualities of fierce loyalto to those he serves.  Yacob van Smelt is a typical Dekker Dutch character, like the role Lacy assumes in The Shoemaker’s Holiday, speaking in broken English.  There seems little doubt that the play was written, at least in part, by Dekker.

The play, according to the quarto title page, was performed by Oxford’s men, and printed by Thomas Creede in 1600.  It was most likely written a short time before.

The play can be classed as a melodrama with romantic leanings.  There are two young couples in the plot, both on the run, but for different reasons, in life or death struggles. Added to this confusion is the fact that one of the men is the long-lost heir to a dukedom who it had been assumed, had died in infancy during his father’s struggles against an enemy duke.  What melodrama is complete without a long lost child?

The Weakest Goeth to the Wall is not in Fredson Bowers four-volume edition of Dekker’s plays.  It is difficult to understand why it was omitted, since a play like Lust’s Dominion, which has as much claim to being Dekker’s, was included.  My main source for the text is the 1912 edition by the Malone Society.  I occasionaly made use of the A Critical Edition of the Anonymous Elizabethan Play The Weakest Goeth to the Wall, edited by Jill. L. Levenson in 1980, which was a publication of her Ph.D. dissertation of 1966/67.  She supplies some very good information about the play, and I would recommend it to anyone who would like to know more about this play.  I have taken the translations of Yacob’s speeches from her edition.

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