Satire on watchmen and playhouses in Dekker’s The Gull’s Horn-book


This playfully ironic book paints a vivid picture of pleasure-seeking life in Jacobean London. It gives humorous suggestions on how to outwit watchmen, how to behave in playhouses and taverns, how to dress and when to go naked.

Pretending to offer advice to a fashionable young ‘gallant’, Thomas Dekker (c. 1572–1632) actually gives him misleading guidance to make him expose himself as a ‘gull’ or credulous fool. As such The Guls Horne-booke is a witty substitute for the horn-books or primers for children that were common in this era. Educational horn-books were so-called because they were made of a leaf of paper containing basic letters and numbers, protected with a transparent layer of horn. These were mounted on a tablet of wood with a handle for the child to hold.

‘How a Gallant should behave himsefe in a Play-house’ (pp. 27–32)

This section gives fascinating insights into how theatres were viewed in Shakespeare’s day – placed alongside taverns on the margins of polite society. Dekker distinguishes between common ‘groundlings’ (first mentioned in Hamlet, 3.2.11) who pay a penny to stand in the ‘pit’, and wealthier ‘paymaisters’ who sit in the seats. But he insists that the theatre is a social leveller, providing entertainment for everyone from the smelly ‘Stinkard’ to the ‘sweet Courtier’ and the distinguished ‘Critick’ (p. 28). Dekker also wryly recommends ‘sitting on the Stage’ to show off your clothes, legs, hair and ‘tollerable beard’ (p. 28).

‘How to passe by any watch’ (pp. 36–39)

Before the formation of a professional, centralised police force (first introduced in London by Sir Robert Peel in 1829), each area of a city was protected by the watch. This small group of ordinary citizens, often humble uneducated men, patrolled their neighbourhoods as watchmen and arrested wrongdoers. These men are depicted by Dekker as figures of fun, much like the inept Watch in Much Ado About Nothing.

Dekker’s watchmen are easy to smell out because they stink of onions, which supposedly help them sleep (p. 36). To get past them, you should appeal to their ingrained respect for social status. Talk loudly of knights, or lords and ladies with whom you have danced and played cards, and the watch will ‘winke’ and ignore you (p. 37). You can also dodge them by pretending to be foreign or ducking into the house of your ‘sweete mistris’.

The Watch in Much Ado About Nothing

Similarly Shakespeare’s Watch seems blunderingly incompetent. They proclaim naively, ‘We will rather sleep than talk; we know what belongs to a watch’ (3.3.37–38). Their attempt to keep tabs on men of higher social rank is also problematic: ‘If you meet the Prince in the night, you may stay him’ but only if the Prince is ‘willing’ (3.3.76; 80). Ironically, however, Shakespeare’s villains don’t get past the simple watch. Dogberry and Verges discover Don John’s plot, while the Prince and Governor fail to do so.

‘Gulls’ in Much Ado About Nothing

In the comic garden scene, Benedick wrongly dismisses the idea that he could have been gulled or tricked (2.3.118), and shows misplaced trust in Leonato’s authority. But he is truly exposed as a gull when his friends dupe him into believing that Beatrice loves him.

Who was Thomas Dekker?

Dekker was a hugely prolific playwright who wrote numerous works both alone and in collaboration. Along with Shakespeare, he contributed some lines to the manuscript of Sir Thomas More (1593–94), held in the British Library. But as a professional writer without a patron’s support, Dekker was plagued with debt and spent some years in prison. As a means of making money, he tried his luck with pamphlets like The Belman of London (1608) and The Guls Horne-booke (1609).

How did Dekker use Grobianus?

Dekker’s Horne-booke was inspired by a Latin satirical poem called Grobianus (1549), by the German author Friedrich Dedekind. Like Dekker’s work, this addresses a foolish lout, supposedly giving him tips on sophisticated conduct, but instead exposing him to further ridicule. Dekker adapts Dedekind’s work to reflect his own experiences, including intimate details of the underside of London.

Full title:
The Guls Horne-booke
1609, London
Book / Quarto
Thomas Dekker
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

Related articles

Comedy, tragedy and gender politics in Much Ado About Nothing

Article by:
Emma Smith
Comedies, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage

Much Ado About Nothing pits male bonding against heterosexual relationships. Emma Smith examines this conflict and the ways in which it threatens the play's status as comedy.

Shakespeare’s London

Article by:
Eric Rasmussen, Ian DeJong
Shakespeare’s life and world

Early modern London was an expanding metropolis filled with diverse life, from courtiers, merchants and artisans to prostitutes, beggars and cutpurses. Here Professor Eric Rasmussen and Ian DeJong describe the city that shaped Shakespeare's imagination.

Subversive theatre in Renaissance England

Article by:
Eric Rasmussen, Ian DeJong
Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Renaissance writers, Power, politics and religion

Eric Rasmussen and Ian De Jong investigate the subversive potential of Renaissance theatre.

Related collection items

Related works

Much Ado About Nothing

Created by: William Shakespeare

Much Ado About Nothing opens at the end of a conflict in Italy: Don Pedro of Aragon has defeated his brother Don ...