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  • Writer's pictureRosemary Gemmell

Punch and Judy Through the Ages

The Punch and Judy show has been an integral part of the British seaside holiday for many years and was mentioned as early as the 17th century. One briefly featured in my Victorian novella, Pride and Progress, and I enjoyed investigating the history of these puppet shows.

In England, during the Puritan era of the early to mid 17th century, most theatres were closed and acting on a stage was forbidden. Puppet theatres began to take their place, since glove puppets were still allowed. At the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, in 1660, theatres thrived once more and European visitors began to arrive in England with their own type of puppets.

Commedia dell’Arte and Pulcinella

The famous commedia dell’arte, or comedy of art, was popular in Italy during the 1550s. One of its main characters, Pulcinella, soon became a favourite puppet character in Italian marionette shows in the early 1600s. Later that century, its popularity spread to England where it performed in areas of London. Samuel Pepys refers to the puppet in his diary in 1662. The character was soon renamed Punch, from another version of the name, Punchinello, and a new puppet show was born.

Punch and Judy

Once established in England, the beak-nosed Punch became a distinctive character, partly influenced by clowns as well as the original Pulcinella. He soon acquired his humped back and a nagging wife called Joan. Puppet plays were often influenced by the mystery plays of the 15th century, with their tales of morality, and in these early shows Punch often fought with the Devil.

By the 19th century, Punch’s wife became known as Judy and a crocodile had replaced the Devil. It was well established as a children’s puppet theatre show during Victorian times, with Punch and Judy as glove puppets ‘performing’ in the recognisable tent-like booth, usually at the seaside.

Punch is a rascally character who strangles his baby in a fit of jealousy. Not surprisingly, his wife Judy hits him with a bludgeon, but Punch ends up beating her to death. When Punch throws the bodies in the street, he is arrested and thrown into prison but escapes with a golden key. Not exactly suitable viewing for youngsters, perhaps, although I loved it myself when a child!

Various characters have appeared over the years, such as the policeman, a clown, a dog and the hangman. A string of sausages often appears in the script at some point. In some versions, Punch tries to hang the hangman, once known as Jack Ketch after a real person. No matter how badly Punch behaves, he always manages to escape, often by means of violence and is usually very pleased with himself, giving rise to the well-known phrase ‘pleased as punch’.

Punch and Judy Today

In this politically correct age, Punch and Judy shows are not such a common sight as during earlier periods, but they do still make an appearance at some seaside resorts or for special performances. There are websites and organisations dedicated to this old craft of puppetry, and professional puppeteers are proud of the tradition. There is also an element of pantomime in the performances, with Punch’s catchphrase of ‘That’s the way to do it!’

It seems that the colourful glove puppets will survive for many more decades. In some areas, the Punch and Judy show has been reintroduced to modern children and I saw a street performance of it on the Chanel island of Guernsey several years ago. Mr Punch will live to fight another day!

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Rae Cowie
Rae Cowie
08 Νοε 2020

An interesting post, Rosemary, and you made me laugh at the memory of a string of sausages. (I presume for the dog?!) I had no idea that Punch's character inspired the phrase 'pleased as punch'. Shame it's now deemed inappropriate...

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