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I just finished teaching “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to my Shakespeare class, and while I find the various pairs of lovers in the play to be fairly boring, I’m enchanted by the “Rude Mechanicals” , the group of working men who perform “A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisbe, very tragical mirth” at the wedding celebration in Act 5. My favorite “rude mechanic” is Snug the joiner (he plays the lion), but there’s also a carpenter, Peter Quince.

Because Snug was on my mind, I asked in yesterday’s newsletter (Nov. 11, 2009) if anyone could name a literary furniture maker from fiction, poetry or drama who predates Snug (the play was first printed in a quarto edition in 1600). The prize for the earliest is one of my copies of the play (which will take me down to three).

Many of you weighed in for Noah, Joseph, Jesus and other Biblical woodworkers , but that brings up a discussion of whether the Bible is non-fiction or fiction (or poetry , and I suppose it could be argued that much of it is poetic, whether or not one categorizes it as fiction or non-fiction). That, gentle readers, is a fray I don’t want to enter!

Two readers mentioned medieval mystery plays, for those were acted by the various craft guilds (hence Shakespeare’s appropriation of “mechanicals” as his play-within-the-play actors). By the by , the craft guilds are also the origin of the title of Adam Cherubini’s Arts & Mysteries column , the “mysteries” of each guild were jealously guarded by its members.

I received several mentions of Gepetto from the Pinocchio story, Robin Hood and his gang (do bows count as furniture?), the innkeeper in “Moby Dick” (he wields a handplane at one point) and the ship’s carpenter in the same novel (he builds a coffin , which I suppose counts as the final furniture piece for many ,  for Queequeg).

But the winner is Bill Seavey, with his vote for Odysseus. In Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” (which depending on to whom one listens predates the earliest known fragments of Genesis) the title character carves a bed out of a rooted olive tree, which serves as a love test for his long-suffering wife Penelope after Odysseus returns from years of wandering, following the fall of Troy (and years of sleeping around). There was also a vote for Epeus, who builds the Trojan Horse in an earlier book of the same poem , but I don’t think a horse counts as furniture!

And for those of you who are still reading, here are two final Shakespeare-woodworking connections:

At Woodworking in America, Roy Underhill told me that his family tree has been traced back to Stratford-upon-Avon, and at least one of his ancestors was a woodworker. So it’s possible that an Underhill worked on New Place (the house Shakespeare bought in his hometown after his London success). And for the record, Roy can recite from memory far more Shakespeare than can I , and it falls trippingly from his tongue.

James Burbage, the theatre impresario in charge of the company of which Shakespeare was a shareholder (The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later known as The King’s Men), was a joiner. In 1576, he financed and built the first dedicated theatre space in London since Roman times (aptly named “The Theatre”). When he was refused renewal of his lease on the Theatre’s land, he and his crew dismantled the structure under the cover of night, and moved the timbers across the Thames, where they constructed “The Globe.”

Not asleep yet? You can read about “joint stools” and Shakespeare in an earlier post.

– Megan Fitzpatrick

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Showing 4 comments
  • Shannon

    I played Snug in Britten’s operatic version of Midsummer and it is still my favorite role. If you haven’t heard his lion aria it is worth your time. Unfortunately, that upstart Weaver gets most of the cool music, but Snug still sings more than Quince so Joiners rule! I found myself rereading it lately with my newly educated woodworker’s eyes and greatly enjoyed it.

  • Matthew

    Literature and furniture making! Thanks, Megan, for a look at two of my favourite things.

  • megan

    It does indeed – but no one weighed in for "Gilgamesh" (and I’ve read only parts of it…and a very long time ago at that – is there a furniture maker therein?)

  • mdhills

    Doesn’t the Epic of Gilgamesh predate The Odyssey?

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