This humorous 17th-century broadside ballad portrays the Master Constable as a self-important busy-body. He is exposed as a pompous ‘asse’ who relishes his status but lacks sophistication, much like Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing or Elbow in Measure for Measure.
In the ballad, the Master Constable arrests a man for undermining his authority with cheeky and ambiguous responses to his questions. When they both appear before the judge, the arrested man – Mark Noble – defends himself saying his riddling replies were actually based on truth. The judge agrees that the constable is in the wrong, commanding him to pay compensation for wasting Noble’s time and to drink a pint of wine with him.
Click here for an easy-to-read transcription of the ballad being sung.
Broadside ballads are lively narrative verses or songs, often illustrated with woodcuts, which circulated widely as a kind of tabloid press in early modern Britain. They respond to current events and heap praise or blame on well-known public figures. These ballads were recited and sung to familiar tunes in ale-houses and public places. They appear on broadsides, which are cheaply-produced single sheets of paper, printed only on one side and designed to be pasted on walls or thrown away after reading.
Before the formation of a professional, centralised police force (first introduced in London by Sir Robert Peele in 1829), each area of a city was policed by ordinary citizens. These were often humble uneducated men who patrolled the neighbourhood and arrested wrongdoers. The chief civil officer of the parish was the Master Constable, usually an unpaid volunteer, though some (like Shakespeare’s Elbow) were paid for the job to spare others having to do it.
Dogberry and Elbow provide moments of comic farce in two plays with tragic potential. There is an ironic distance between their delusions of grandeur and their limited understanding. This is shown particularly in their use of malapropism (the ludicrous misuse of words, when similar-sounding words are mistaken for one another). For example, Dogberry sees Seacoal as ‘the most senseless and fit man’ to be a constable, a malapropism for ‘sensible’ (Much Ado About Nothing, 3.3.22–23). Despite his seeming incompetence, Dogberry is successful in uncovering Don John’s plots, but continues to expose himself as an ‘ass’ even after solving the crime (4.2.75–88).