Business / Trades Characters

Introduction to Character Type | List of Plays | Up One Level

Introduction to Character Type

The appellation "Business / Trades Characters" designates an amorphous group within the examined comedies; the heterogeneity of the group is likely indicative of the group's flexible social position in English society. However, there are recurrent trends among these characters: they are linked by their professions in trades (e.g. cobbler, soap-boiler) and by their aspirations to move upwards in society through marriage and education.

Aspirations of social mobility through marriage are common to business and trades characters. The successful tradesman Old Cockney in Bickerstaff's unpopular Love in the City (1767) perfectly exemplifies this trend in his insatiable need to marry his daughter to a lord. He is mocked in that the latter proves to be a disguised military man. Demonstrating a similar social urge, young Crochet, a printer's son in Cumberland's The Box-Lobby Challenge (1794), pretends to be a Cambridge-educated scholar to seduce the aging noblewoman Diana Grampus. Finally, the Frenchman in Joseph Reed's The Register Office (1761) hopes to get a position as a language tutor in a girls' school as a means of making off with an heiress (because this is now illegal, the registrar encourages him to return to his profession of corn-cutting and to marry a French princess).

Samuel Foote's The Orators (1762), which satirizes the popularity of Thomas Sheridan's courses in oratory, presents an array of characters striving to elevate their social ranks through education. Particular among these is Ephraim Suds, a soap-boiler-turned-politician whose wife has told him that he will gain "purferment" through "speechifying": "It is the onliest way to rise in the world" (Foote 6). Other upwardly-mobile characters include a group of illiterate mechanics instructed in oratory, who are set in front of the audience by the instructor (Foote) to debate world affairs; instead, using elevated diction and formal language, they discuss the respective values of various forms of alcohol. The comic effect results from the audience's recognition of the folly of moving upwards in society via education. Likewise, the pin-making Minnikin family in Foote's A Trip to Calais (1776; published 1778) has sent their daughter Jenny to a boarding school; however, her schoolgirl French is laughable despite five years of instruction.

Language variation among business and trades characters often demonstrates affectations of a classical education, jargon characteristic of a profession, or a simple penchant for vulgarity. Representing the former trend, Old Cockney brags that his son has read "Virgil's Ovid" and "Syntax" (Bickerstaff 12). In contrast, Ledger, in Colman's Polly Honeycombe (1760), confines every term to business language, including a proposition of marriage. Finally, Johnny, a cobbler in Elizabeth Inchbald's The Mogul Tale (1784; published 1788), frequently curses, as a typical sample of his speech demonstrates: "Doctor! why damme Doctor, what's the matter with you---you are ship'd Doctor, damme I say what's the matter with you" (Inchbald 5). Likewise, the hairdresser in The Box-Lobby Challenge refuses to dress a wig in a speech peppered with swearing.

The "Business / Trades Characters" represent a significant proportion of characters in eighteenth-century comedies, as indeed they did in the society of that time. Despite the group's internal variation, its objectives are clear: to advance in society through marriage and education. However, the continued use of non-Standard English among group members despite improved fortunes (as the Mapletofts demonstrate in Cumberland's Lovers' Resolutions (1802)) suggests that class delineations are stronger than this group believes, guaranteeing an appreciative reaction from the audience as it witnesses the characters' fruitless efforts to elevate themselves.

Works Cited:

Foote, Samuel. The Orators. London: J. Coote, G. Kearsly, and T. Davies, 1762. Literature Online. 7 August 2008.

Inchbald, Elizabeth. The Mogul Tale. London: for the booksellers, 1788. Literature Online. 7 August 2008.

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List of Plays

Love in the City (Bickerstaff)

Polly Honeycombe (Colman)

The Box-Lobby Challenge (Cumberland)

Lovers' Resolutions (Cumberland)

The Orators (Foote)

The Cozeners (Foote)

A Trip to Calais (Foote)

The Mogul Tale (Inchbald)

The Register Office (Reed)

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©2008 Arden Hegele