Anonymous
Kempe? Peele? Wilson?
A KNACKE TO KNOWE A KNAVE

licensed 10 June 1592

a synoptic, alphabetical character list

ALFRIDA

Osrick's daughter, a beautiful lady. King Edgar has heard of her beauty and wants her as his concubine. He sends Ethenwald to court her, but Ethenwald marries her himself and tells the King that she is not fit to be the wife of a king. When Edgar comes to visit them, she has to disguise herself as a kitchen maid, but Edgar discovers her and becomes angry because Ethenwald tried to cheat him.

ASMOROTH

A devil. Dunstan calls the devil to ask him what King Edgar's intentions are. Asmoroth tells him that the King plans to murder Ethenwald. Dunstan wants to prevent this and asks Asmoroth to follow him. Asmoroth follows, but is not needed in the end. This is possibly the same devil that comes to collect the bailiff of Hexham at his death.

BAILIFF

An anonymous bailiff brings two Poor Old Men before Walter, the Knight and the Squire. The poor old men will be imprisoned unless they give Walter their houses, but the Knight relieves them by paying their small debt of 40 shillings.

BAILIFF OF HEXHAM

The father of four sons:
  • Walter, the farmer;
  • John, the priest,
  • Cutbert Cutpurse the Coneycatcher, and
  • Perin, the courtier.
During his sixty years as a bailiff he has collected bribes from his prisoners. Now he his dying, and he has asked his four sons to assemble at his deathbed. He admonishes them to look to themselves and to get rich by cheating others, which they all have done so far. He dies without repenting and a devil comes to fetch him.

BEGGAR

When he comes with Honesty and asks the priest for a penny, he receives nothing.

CLERK OR CLARK OF THE ASSIZES

He is called to the court to tell King Edgar how many people he has in custody because of Walter. He informs the court that Walter stocks his corn to raise the prices, or exports it to the enemy, and that he raises the rents of his houses till people like Piers Ploughman are no longer able to pay them.

COBBLER

One of the Madmen of Goteham (together with Miller and Smith). In a comic interlude they decide to deliver a petition to the King. They want a license to brew strong beer three times a week.

CUTBERT CUTPURSE THE CONEYCATCHER

One of the four sons of the Bailiff of Hexham, the brother of Walter, the farmer; John, the priest; and Perin, the courtier. He lives by his wit, even his father thinks that he needs no council. He usually dresses as a gentleman and cheats merchants by taking commodities on credit, which he never pays. As an intermediary between a broker and a gentleman he earns 40. King Edgar, who is disguised as a gentleman detects him when he agrees to swear a false oath in front of the judge. For his punishment at the end of the play, Honesty decides that he has to stand at the market cross with his tongue pinned to the breast till the birds pick out his eyes.

DEVIL

The devil that comes to fetch the Bailiff of Hexham is a non-speaking character. Later in the play, Dunstan calls up a devil he calls Asmoroth. This might be the same devil.

DUNSTAN, BISHOP

A bishop, counselor to King Edgar, Ethenwald's uncle. He is more severe than the King, so long as his nephew is not concerned. When Philarchus' father comes to accuse his son of disobedience and wants him sentenced to death, the King does not know how to react, but Dunstan wants him to be as severe as his new laws. Together with the King he is always present when Honesty presents his "knaves." To catch Cutbert the Coneycatcher, he disguises as a farmer while the King disguises as a Gentleman who wants to pay Coneycatcher to swear a false oath. The King asks Dunstan what the punishment should be for somebody who dissembled in front of the King, and Dunstan recommends death. He notices too late that the King's question refer to his nephew, Ethenwald, who also dissembles in front of the King. At Osrick's place Dunstan calls the devil Asmoroth to ask him what the King's intentions were. He tells him that the King plans to murder Ethenwald. Dunstan wants to prevent this and asks the Devil for his help.

ETHENWALD

Earl of Cornwall, Bishop Dunstan's nephew. He is sent to woo Alfrida, Osrick's daughter, on the King's behalf. Before he sets out on his errand he decides to marry her himself and to tell the king that she is not fit for him. When he is invited to stay at Osrick's place, he confesses his love to Alfrida, and she consents to become his wife. Ethenwald then goes to King Edgar and tells him that Alfrida's face was "black" and that she was therefore only fit to serve an earl but not a king. The King asks him whether he loves her and he wishes him luck, but he intends to find out more. When Ethenwald hears that the King wants to visit him, he is afraid that King Edgar might fall in love with his wife and cuckold him. Osrick and Alfrida would like to present themselves in the best manner, but he forbids it. Kate, the kitchen maid, is made to wear Alfrida's dress and play the lady's role. But her manners and language betray her, and the King asks to see the kitchen maid. Alfrida then comes, dressed as a kitchen maid, and reveals her identity. The King tells Ethenwald that he is now his enemy. Dunstan raises the devil Asmoroth to prevent Edgar from killing his nephew. In the end, Ethenwald is forgiven.

FARMER

A disguise adopted by Dunstan to catch Cutbert the Cutpurse and Coneycatcher. The King disguises as a Gentlemen needing to have Cutbert swear a false oath.

GENTLEMAN, FIRST

The Gentleman wants to pawn land for money with the broker in scene 4.

GENTLEMAN, SECOND

A disguise adopted by King Edgar to catch Cutbert the Cutpurse and Coneycatcher. Dunstan disguises as a Farmer to aid in the plot.

HONESTY

He is a plain man of the country who comes to King Edgar and tells him that he is surrounded by flatterers. Honesty, has a "Knack to know a knave" if he does but see his cap. He notices that Perin is a knave, although he will only prove it at the end of the play. He then proceeds to collect knaves for the King: He presents Cutbert the Cutpurse, Walter the Farmer, John the Priest and finally Perin the Courtier to Edgar and Dunstan. He is allowed to punish them in his own fashion at the end of the play.

JACK

A "ghost character." One of the two poor old men suggests that his boy Jack could write down what the other old man's horse will speak.

JEFFREY THE TRANSLATOR

A "ghost character," according to the Cobbler he is the mayor of Goteham.

JOHN THE PRECISE

A priest, one of the four sons of the Bailiff of Hexham, the brother of Walter, the farmer, Cutbert Cutpurse, the Coneycatcher and Perin, the courtier. He is a hypocrite who only lends money against securities. A colleague of his must give him his horse till he can repay 50 shillings. When a beggar asks him for a penny, he denies it. But he sends a petition to the King asking to be allowed to deal in tin, wool and clothes overseas. For his punishment at the end of the play, Honesty decides to have him shot to death in Finsbury Fields north of London.

JUDGE

A disguise Perin adopts in front of his brother Cutbert.

KATE

Ethenwald's kitchen maid. When King Edgar comes to visit Ethenwald, Alfrida and Osrick, Ethenwald, eager to hide his wife from the King, bids Kate to play Alfrida's part. The King soon finds out that something is wrong, and after having seen Kate in Alfrida's dress he asks to see the kitchen maid. Alfrida comes, dressed as a kitchen maid, but immediately reveals her true identity. Kate tries to go on pretending and becomes most rude to the king.

KING EDGAR

King of England. Together with his counselor Dunstan he would like to establish a just government. At the beginning of the play he sets up severe laws, involving death for murder, felony and rape. Honesty appears and tells him that there are still many knaves around and that he has a "knack to know a knave." Honesty then goes out to "discover" the four sons of the Bailiff of Hexham, first Cutbert, then Walter, then John and finally Perin. The ultimate discovery is always in front of Edgar and Dunstan, in the first case, for the detection of Cutbert, they must disguise themselves as a farmer and a gentleman. While Honesty is detecting knaves, Edgar wants to find himself a concubine. Having heard of Alfrida's beauty, Edgar would like her, but Dunstan insists he should marry her. Edgar sends Ethenwald to woo her for him. Ethenwald appears and tells him that Alfrida has a "black" face and was only fit to serve an earl but not a king. The King finds this strange, but asks him whether he loves her and wishes them luck for their marriage. He asks Dunstan what kind of punishment he would give for somebody who dissembled in front of the king, and Dunstan recommends death. Ethenwald shall be tested and shall die if he dissembles, the King decides. He then asks Perin whether Alfrida was so ugly, and Perin confesses that Ethenwald has dissembled. When he goes to see Ethenwald, Kate the kitchen maid is presented to him as Alfrida. Her manners and language betray her, and Perin betrays Ethenwald by whispering to Edgar that this is Kate, the kitchen maid, and not Alfrida. Edgar then asks to see the kitchen maid, who admits to being the lady of the house. Dunstan admonishes him against adultery and attempts to protect his nephew. But Edgar remains resolved that Ethenwald should die till the end, when Honesty has detected all four "knaves." Edgar leaves it to him to punish them severely, but Ethenwald is finally forgiven.

KITCHEN MAID

Alfrida has to dress as the kitchen maid when King Edgar comes to see her. q.v. Kate is the kitchen maid, but it is also a disguise assumed by Alfrida at Ethenwald's request.

KNIGHT

The Squire's brother. He follows the old aristocratic values of keeping an open house for everybody and helping the poor, but he notices that this is no longer fashionable and that he is running out of money. Walter, the farmer, tells him to save expenses by dismissing his servants and by inviting fewer guests. He must also brew weaker beer and other such money-saving ploys. But the Knight thinks his goods are lent to him to "relieve his needy brethren". When he witnesses Walter's behavior towards the two poor old men he pays the 40 shillings to the Bailiff to set them free. When Perin comes to ask for money to lend to the King, he can give only 20. He invites Honesty to eat with him and his brother.

MADMEN OF GOTEHAM

In a comic interlude a Smith, a Miller and a Cobbler decide to deliver a petition to the king. They want a license to brew strong beer three times a week.

MILLER

One of the Madmen of Goteham (together with Cobbler and Smith). In a comic interlude they decide to deliver a petition to the king. They want a license to brew strong beer three times a week.

NEIGHBOUR

The priest's (John's) neighbor. He asks to live in his house for 30 shillings a year, but John wants more.

OLD MEN, TWO

They come with the bailiff to Walter, the farmer. One poor old man has been accused of destroying Walter's corn with his horse, but it was Walter's boy. The other poor old man has borrowed some corn from Walter and brought it back, but he is told he must repay it twice because the prices have gone down since. The Knight pleads for him, but Walter wants him imprisoned.

OSRICK

Alfrida's father. Osrick tells his daughter Alfrida to be especially courteous and well behaved when Ethenwald comes. Osrick agrees to her marriage with Ethenwald.

PERIN

The courtier is one of the four sons of the Bailiff of Hexham, the brother of Walter, the farmer; John, the priest; and Cutbert Cutpurse, the Coneycatcher. He is called a knave by Honesty in the first scene, but remains the last to be caught. In most scenes he seems not to know his brothers, and they seem not to know him. He disguises as a Judge to catch his brother, the Coneycatcher, and he comes to ask the Knight, the Squire and his brother, the Farmer, whether they can lend money to the king. The Knight can give 20, the Squire 10, and the Farmer 200 with promises for a lot more if Perin can provide him with a license to export his corn overseas, because the prices in England are too cheap to make a living. For his punishment, Honesty decides that Perin must be hanged at Tyburn.

PHILARCHUS

A young man who has become proud because he has been in King Edgar's favor. His father accuses him of filial disobedience. He confesses everything and asks the King and his father for forgiveness, but his father remains firm and wants him killed. Philarchus begs to be exiled or sent to war. His father then agrees to have him banished, and Edgar sends him abroad with a noble pension

PHILARCHUS' FATHER

He comes to Edgar and complains that his son is disobedient and ashamed of his poor father. When he wanted to beat his son for that, he was instead beaten by him. Philarchus is now ashamed for his deeds and asks forgiveness, but his father grows angry and demands his death. Finally he agrees to have his son banished.

PIERS PLOWMAN

He comes with Honesty to the King to present a petition against Walter, the farmer. Piers is a simple peasant with wife and family. Walter deals sharply with the simple people. He buys up all the land, puts prices down and generally oppresses them.

REVENGE

A "ghost character." She stands, according to the dying Bailiff of Hexham, with an iron whip and cries "Repent!"

SMITH

One of the Madmen of Goteham (together with Miller and Cobbler). In a comic interlude they decide to deliver a petition to the king. They want a license to brew strong beer three times a week.

SQUIRE

The Knight's brother.

TITUS

Only mentioned. When Osrick welcomes King Edgar, he says the king is as welcome as was Titus to the senate of Rome. The simile is strained, but it seems a to allude to Shakespeare's play Titus Andronicus or maybe to an earlier version, Tittus and Vespacia (as "Vaspasian" is also mentioned three times).

VESPASIAN

Only mentioned. "Rome's rich emperor", King Edgar compares himself with him in the first scene; Philarchus' father mentions him as an example for Edgar: "Who for a blowe his sonne did giue a Swaine, / Did straight commaund that he should loose his hand." (See also Titus).

WALTER

A farmer, one of the four sons of the Bailiff of Hexham, the brother of John, the priest; Cutbert Cutpurse, the Coneycatcher; and Perin, the courtier. Walter is a "husbandman", an early capitalist who knows how to "make shift." He tells the Knight he should provide for himself and let God provide for the poor. His treatment of a "poor old man" shows how he manages to become rich by influencing the corn market. There has been a shortage of corn because Walter has withheld his corn to raise the price, and the old poor man had to borrow some corn. Now he can give it back but Walter wants double the amount because the prices have dropped in the meantime. According to Walter, the other poor old man's horse has destroyed a cornfield. The old man denies it, but he has to pay anyway. As both men are unable to pay the 40 shillings Walter wants, they have to go to prison unless they sign a deed to give their cottages to Walter. At the last moment the Knight redeems and frees them. When Honesty leads Perin to Walter, the brothers seem not to recognize each other. Perin is collecting money for the King. While the aristocracy (Squire and Knight) are only able to give 10 and 20, the capitalist farmer Walter offers 200 for the King and promises a lot more if he may have a royal license for the export of corn. For his punishment, Honesty decides that he should be carried into a corn field, have his legs and hands cut off, and rest there until the crows pick his eyes out.