Sir Thomas Overbury's Characters


A Good Wife

Is a man's best movable, a scion incorporate with the stock, bringing sweet fruit; one that to her husband is more than friend, less than a trouble; an equal with him in the yoke. Calamities and troubles she shares alike, nothing pleases her that doth not him. She is relative in all; and he without her, but half himself. She is his absent hands, eyes, ears and mouth; his present and absent all. She frames her nature unto his howsoever: the hyacinth follows not the sun more willingly. Stubbornness and obstinacy are herbs that grow not in her garden. She leaves tattling to the gossips of the town, and is more seen than heard. Her household is her charge; her care makes her seldom non-resident. Her pride is but to be cleanly, and her thrift not to be prodigal. By her discretion she hath children, not wantons; a husband without her is a misery in man's apparel; none but she hath an aged husband, to whom she is both a staff and a chair. To conclude, she is both wise and religious, which makes her all this.

A Tinker

Is a movable: for he hath no abiding place; by his motion he gathers heat, thence his choleric nature. He seems to be very devout, for his life is a continual pilgrimage, and sometimes in humility goes barefoot, thereon making necessity a virtue. His house is as ancient as Tubal-cain's, so is a runagate by antiquity; yet he proves himself a gallant, for her carries all his wealth upon his back; or a philosopher, for her bears all his substance about him. From his art was music first invented, and therefore he is always furnished with a song; to which his hammer keeping tune, proves that he was the first founder of the kettle-drum. Note, that where the best ale is, there stands his music most upon crotchets. The companion of his travel is some foul sun-burnt quean, that since the terrible statute recanted gipsyism, and is turned pedlaress. So marches he all over England with his bag and baggage. His conversation is unreprovable; for he is ever mending. he observes truly the statutes, and therefore he can rather steal than beg, in which he is unremovably constant in spite of whips or imprisonment; and so a strong enemy to idleness, that in mending one hole, he had rather make three than want work, and when he hath done, he throws the wallet of his faults behind him. He embraceth naturally ancient custom, conversing in open fields, and lowly cottages. If he visit cities or towns, 'tis but to deal upon the imperfections of our weaker vessels. His tongue is very voluble, which with canting proves him a linguist. He is entertained in every place, but enters no further than the door, to avoid suspicion. Some would take him to be a coward; but believe it, he is a lad of mettle; his valor is commonly three or four years long, fastened to a pike in the end for flying off. He is very provident, for he will fight with but one at once, and then also he had rather submit than be counted obstinate. To conclude, if he 'scape Tyburn and Banbury, he dies a beggar.


An Excellent Actor

Whatsoever is commendable to the grave orator is most exquisitely perfect in him, for by a full and significant action of body he charms our attention. Sit in a full theatre and you will think you see so many lines drawn from the circumference of so many ears, while the actor is the center. He doth not strive to make nature monstrous; she is often seen in the same scene with him but neither on stilts nor crutches; and for his voice, 'tis not lower than the prompter, nor louder than the foil or target. By his action he fortifies moral precepts with examples, for what we see him personate we think truly done before us: a man of a deep thought might apprehend the ghost of our ancient heroes walked again, and take him at several times for many of them. He is much affected to painting, and 'tis a question whether that make him an excellent player, or his playing an exquisite painter. He adds grace to the poet's labors, for what in the poet is but ditty, in him is both ditty and music. he entertains us in the best leisure of our life--that is, between meals, the most unfit time either for study or bodily exercise. The flight of hawks and chase of wild beasts, either of them are delights noble; but some think this sport of men the worthier, despite all calumny. All men have been of his occupation; and indeed, what he doth feignedly, that do others essentially. This day one plays a monarch, the next a private person; here one acts a tyrant, on the morrow an exile; a parasite this man tonight, tomorrow a precisian; and so of divers others. I observe, of all men living, a worthy actor in one kind is the strongest motive of affection that can be; for, when he dies, we cannot be persuaded any man can do his parts like him. But, to conclude, I value a worthy actor by the corruption of some few of the quality as I would do gold in the ore-- I should not mind the dross, but the purity of the metal.

(copyright: Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry, 2nd ed., Witherspoon and Warnke)

John Earle's Microcosmography


An Upstart Knight

Is a holiday clown, and differs only in the stuff of his clothes, not the stuff of himself. [His honor was somewhat preposterous,] for he bare the king's sword before he had arms to wield it; yet being once laid o'er the shoulder with a knighthood, he finds the herald his friend. His father was a man of good stock, though but a tanner or usurer; he purchased the land, and his son the title. He has doffed off the name of a country fellow, but the look not so easy, and his face bears still a relish of churn-milk. He is guarded with more gold lace than all the gentlemen of the country, yet his body makes his clothes still out of fashion. His house-keeping is seen much in the distinct families of dogs, and serving-men attendant on their kennels, and the deepness of their throats is the depth of his discourse. A hawk he esteems the true burden of nobility, and is exceeding ambitious to seem delighted in the sport, and have his fist gloved with his jesses. A justice of peace he is to domineer in his parish, and do his neighbor wrong with more right. He will be drunk with his hunters for company, and stain his gentility with droppings of ale. He is fearful of being sheriff of the shire by instinct, and dreads the size-week as much as the prisoner. In sum, he's but a clod of his own earth, or his land is the dunghill and he the cock that crows over it: and commonly his race is quickly run, and his children's children, though they scape hanging, return to the place from whence they came.


A Player

He knows the right use of the world, wherein he comes to play a part and so away. His life is not idle, for it is all action, and no man need be more wary in his doings, for the eyes of all men are upon him. His profession has in it a kind of contradiction, for none is more disliked, and yet none more applauded; and he has this misfortune of some scholar, too much wit makes him a fool. He is like our painting gentlewomen, seldom in his own face, seldomer in his clothes; and he pleases the better he counterfeits, except only when he is disguised with straw for gold-lace. He does not only personate on the stage, but sometimes in the street, for he is masked still in the habit of a gentleman. His parts find him oaths and good words, which he keeps for use and discourse, and makes show with them of a fashionable companion. He is tragical on the stage, but rampant in the tiring-house, and swears oaths there which he never conned. The waiting-women spectators are over ears in love with him, and ladies send for him to act in their chambers. Your inns-of-court men were undone but for him, he is their chief guest and employment, and the sole business that makes them afternoon's-men. the poet only is his tyrant, and he is bound to make his friend's friend drunk at his charge. Shrove-Tuesday he fears as much as the bawds, and Lent is more damage to him than the butcher. He was never so much discredited as in one act, and that was of Parliament, which gives hostlers privilege before him, for which he abhors it more than a corrupt judge. But to give him his due, one well-furnished actor has enough in him for five common gentlemen, and, if he have a good body, for six; and for resolution he shall challenge any Cato, for it has been his practice to die bravely.


Paul's Walk

Is the land's epitome, or you may call it the lesser isle of Great Britain. It is more than this: the whole world's map, which you may here discern in its perfectest motion, jostling and turning. It is a heap of stones and men, with a vast confusion of languages; and were the steeple not sanctified, nothing liker Babel. The noise in it is like that of bees, a strange humming or buzz mixed of walking tongues and feet: it is a kind of still roar or loud whisper. It is the great exchange of all discourse, and no business whatsoever but is here stirring and afoot. It is the synod of all pates politic, jointed and laid together in most serious posture, and they are not half so busy at the Parliament. It is the antic of tails to tails and backs to backs [i.e., full of monstrous figures], and for vizards you need go no farther than faces. It is the market of young lecturers, whom you may cheapen here at all rates and sizes. It is the general mint of all famous lies, which are here, like the legends of popery, first coined and stamped in the church. All inventions are emptied here and not a few pockets. The best signs of a temple in it is that it is the thieves' sanctuary, which rob more safely in the crowd than a wilderness, whilst every searcher is a bush to hide them. It is the other expense of the day, after plays, tavern, and a bawdy-house, and men have still some oaths left to swear here: it is the ear's brothel, and satisfies their lust and itch. The visitants are all men without exceptions, but the principal inhabitants and possessors are stale knights and captains out of service: men of long rapiers and breeches, which after all turn merchants here and traffic for news. Some make it a preface to their dinner, and travel for a stomach; but thriftier men make it their ordinary [i.e., a place to get a cheap meal], and board here very cheap. Of all such places it is least haunted by hobgoblins, for if a ghost would walk more he could not [because it is so crowded].


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(copyright: Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry, 2nd ed., Witherspoon and Warnke)