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Gambling and Elizabethan Gentlemen

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 November 2023

Abstract

Before the mid-seventeenth century when a developing understanding of probability transformed gambling, English gaming took place in the community rather than in dedicated institutions like casinos and so represented and interacted with more general social behavior. Different communities gambled differently; they had different status under the law. This article considers gentlemen's gambling, arguing that in the absence of other constraints, notions of honor had a key role in shaping that activity. Contemporary accounts such as Sir John Harington's “Treatise on Playe” suggest that high-stakes wagering fell into the anthropological category of deep play, whereby gamesters staked excessive sums to win renown for their daring; secondly, it appears that such behavior was seen as a young man's activity, with older men condemning immoderate wagering as their ideas about what was honorable shifted as they matured and became integrated into the community. In addition to age-related changes of attitude to gambling, a tension existed between Elizabethan ideals of gentlemen's gambling behaviors and individual gamesters’ real circumstances. Some had limited money for wagering, others little time; youths from gentle families were sometimes indentured as apprentices or otherwise in situations that altered their relationships to time, money, and regulation. Consequently, even within this single sector of Elizabethan society, attitudes to gambling acquired a high level of complexity.

Type
Original Manuscript
Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The North American Conference on British Studies

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Footnotes

He thanks Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Dr. Rosemary Gaby for their comments and suggestions; he also thanks the journal's anonymous readers who reviewed the article.

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168 Harington, “Treatise on Playe,” 225.

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171 Jonson, Chapman, and Marston, Eastward Ho!, 3.2.103–5.

172 Jonson, Chapman, and Marston, 2.1; 4.2.

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175 Harington, “Treatise on Playe,” 203–4.

176 Harington, 220.

177 Smyth, Lives of the Berkeleys, 2:263.

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