Henry Fielding – Tom Thumb (Play Summary)

Henry Fielding’s famous eighteenth-century satirical play Tom Thumb was first produced on April 24, 1730, at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, located in Westminster, England. It was an instant success, running almost continually until June 22. It was first produced as a coda (or afterpiece) to Fielding’s 1730 play The Author’s Farce; and The Pleasures of the Town.

Tom Thumb is a two-act play that, on its surface, portrays Tom as a conquering hero returning to King Arthur’s court. The king rewards Tom with his daughter’s hand in marriage, and jealousies, murders, and general hijinks follow.


Characters:

King Arthur
King Arthur is the ruler of the court. The king loves Tom for conquering the giants and bringing honor to his kingdom. He compares Tom to the world’s greatest rulers and wants him to marry his daughter.

Bailiff
The bailiff wishes that lawyers and reason were abolished so he could dispense justice according to his own will. He arrests Noodle as a debtor but is immediately killed by Tom for doing so.

Bailiff’s Follower
The bailiff’s follower is exactly that. He assists the bailiff and parrots his opinions, even dying as the bailiff does.

Cleora
Cleora is one of Huncamunca’s maids. She sings for the princess, to distract Huncamunca from her love for Tom. At the end of the play, Cleora kills Noodle because he has murdered the queen. Since Noodle is revealed to be Mustacha’s lover, Cleora is in turn murdered by Mustacha.

Queen Dollalolla
The queen is King Arthur’s wife and Princess Huncamunca’s mother. She shows herself to be a conniving and jealous person. While she says she objects to Tom marrying Huncamunca because he is an illegitimate child and a peasant, she actually does so because she is in love with Tom.

Mr. Doodle
Mr. Doodle is a member of King Arthur’s court who sings the praises of Tom Thumb and wishes that all the subjects in the kingdom were like him.

Lord Grizzle
Lord Grizzle does not like Tom. He believes Tom’s claims of conquering the giants are false and he does not think that a peasant should be allowed to marry a princess.

Princess Huncamunca
Princess Huncamunca is the daughter of King Arthur and Queen Dollalolla. She is in love with Tom Thumb.

Mustacha
Mustacha is one of Huncamunca’s two maids. She does not believe that Huncamunca should love or marry a peasant.

Mr. Noodle
A subject in King Arthur’s court (and Mustacha’s secret lover), Mr. Noodle announces that Tom Thumb, the conquering hero, is returning to court.

Tom Thumb
Tom Thumb is the tiny hero who conquered the giants, returning triumphant to King Arthur’s court. He shows that he is modest and humble when he refuses to name a reward.


Summary:

Prologue

Tom Thumb is written in blank verse, a type of poetry that is typically written in iambic pentameter and without rhyme. The prologue is addressed directly to the audience and is meant to be delivered by the actor who plays Lord Grizzle. The speech advises audiences that while plays often focus on mythical Greek and Roman heroes, England should turn its attention to its own mythical figures, specifically Tom Thumb, a folkloric figure who dates back to the sixteenth century and is said to stand no taller than his father’s thumb.

Act 1

SCENE 1
The first scene opens in King Arthur’s palace. Mr. Doodle says to Mr. Noodle that it is a beautiful day, as if all of nature is smiling. Mr. Noodle agrees, commenting that the great hero Tom Thumb is on his way. With him are a horde of ugly giants; all of them have been conquered and are in chains. Doodle declares that when Tom Thumb was born, so was the hero of England. Noodle reports that he has heard rumors that Tom has no bones, only gristle (cartilage and other tough tissues). Doodle wishes that all of England’s subjects were made the same way, the better to vanquish their enemies. They hear trumpets and announce that the king is approaching. They go to prepare for his arrival.

SCENE 2
King Arthur announces that it is a happy day and no one should be sad, yet Queen Dollalolla is crying. She claims that they are tears of joy. The king declares that all his subjects should cry in the same manner, until his kingdom becomes an ocean. Doodle appears, hoping to discuss a petition with the king. Arthur states that it is a day of celebration and no business shall be conducted on such a day. Trumpets herald the arrival of Tom Thumb.

SCENE 3
The king thanks Tom for his services andoffers to reward him, but Tom is humble and modest, replying that doing his duty to King Arthur is reward enough. The queen is clearly smitten by Tom Thumb, calling him ‘‘a lovely creature’’ in an aside (a comment that is supposed to be heard only by the audience).
King Arthur praises Tom further, and they discuss the captive giants, who are stationed outside the gates because they are too big to enter the palace. Arthur then declares that he wants Tom to marry his daughter, Princess Huncamunca. Tom accepts with joy, waxing poetic on her many charms. The queen objects to the betrothal, noting that Tom is of low birth. The king, however, feels that Tom is a better man than all of the world’s greatest rulers. The queen continues to object, angering King Arthur. He says he will put her on trial before he allows her to become the man and make him the woman.
Noodle applauds the king. Doodle and Lord Grizzle are also present in this scene, though they do not speak. Tom rejoices at the thought of becoming Princess Huncamunca’s husband. The group exits, leaving Lord Grizzle behind.

SCENE 4
Grizzle ridicules Tom and the court’s favor of him. Like the queen, he feels that Tom is a peasant not worthy of the honors bestowed upon him.

SCENE 5
Queen Dollalolla finds Lord Grizzle and they share their mutual dislike for Tom. Secretly, of course, the queen is upset because she wants Tom to be her lover. She notes that Tom is an illegitimate child who is not fit to inherit the throne. Grizzle and the queen plot against him. Grizzle wants to kill Tom, but the queen is hesitant. She does not know how they can conquer the man who conquered the giants. Grizzle thinks that the giants are a ruse; he observes that no one has even seen them.
The queen is shocked at Grizzle’s audacity. She says he is a jealous traitor and a dog. She plots with him nevertheless, commenting as though he were a dog, ‘‘I use thee.’’

SCENE 6
The queen is alone, and she delivers a sixteen- line monologue (continuous speech given by one actor) in which she reveals her love for Tom but also her fear for her own virtue. She hopes that her husband will die so she can marry Tom Thumb and have both her love and her honor.

Act 2

SCENE 1
The bailiff and his follower wish that the law of harsh justice ruled the land in place of lawyers and reason. They step aside as Lord Noodle passes, and they indicate that they are plotting against him.

SCENE 2
Tom Thumb confides to Noodle that while he loves Huncamunca, he is afraid to get married. He says his grandmother warned him against marriage. Lord Noodle chides Tom, calling him a great warrior who is afraid of his own grandmother. He describes the pleasures and benefits of marriage and convinces Tom to wed. The bailiff appears (along with his follower) and arrests Noodle as a debtor. Tom is enraged and vows to take his revenge. Tom Thumb kills the bailiff and his follower. He says all bailiffs should follow suit (that is, die) so that all debtors may go free.

SCENE 3
The scene takes place in Princess Huncamunca’s rooms. She is lovesick over Tom, and she asks her maid Cleora to sing and distract her. Cleora does so, but Huncamunca continues to pine for Tom. Her maid Mustacha teases her for being in love with a commoner.

SCENE 4
The king enters and demands to be alone with his daughter. The maids leave, and King Arthur asks Princess Huncamunca why she has been so sad lately. The princess replies that she is in need of a husband, and the king tells her she has been promised to Tom Thumb. Huncamunca’s joy is immediately apparent to the king, and she admits that she is indeed in love with Tom.

SCENE 5
Doodle enters and announces that Tom Thumb is dead. Huncamunca faints, and the men revive her with the rum she hides under her bed. In shock and disbelief, the king demands to see the doctors who tended to Tom.

SCENE 6
Two physicians are presented to the king by Doodle. They both attended to Tom, and the first says that Tom died of distemper. The other disagrees: ‘‘He complained of a Pain in his Arm, I would have immediately cut off his Arm, and have laid open his head.’’ The king pokes holes in both of the doctors’ arguments.

SCENE 7
Tom Thumb enters, searching for Huncamunca. He heard a rumor that she has died. The king is overjoyed to see him, and the physicians observe that their cures have apparently worked after all.

SCENE 8
Noodle appears and informs King Arthur that there are rumors of a plot to poison Tom. He says that a monkey dressed as Tom was mistakenly poisoned instead. This is the ‘‘Tom’’ that the doctors tended to, and the King derides them for not noticing the difference between a monkey
and a tiny man.
The king wants to head to the temple so that Tom Thumb and Princess Huncamunca can be married right away. He hopes that they will have many children. The king desires his kingdom to be peopled by several generations of Tom Thumbs. He compares this process to that of a maggot in cheese, multiplying until the cheese is infested with maggots.
Tom is so overjoyed at the thought of marrying Huncamunca that he says, ‘‘I have lost myself.’’ Huncamunca responds: ‘‘Forbid it, all the Stars; for you’re so small, / That were you lost, you’d find your self no more.’’

SCENE 9
The doctors argue nonsensically over their respective diagnoses of ‘‘Tom.’’

SCENE 10
Queen Dollalolla laments her impending loss of Tom Thumb, but she mentions another hero who is worthy of her attentions. She hears a loud noise and wonders what it can be.

SCENE 11
The king, queen, and princess are gathered together with their court and Huncamunca’s maids. King Arthur declares that all prisoners and debtors should be freed and their debts paid. He declares a celebration for Tom and Huncamunca’s wedding day. A dance commences.

SCENE 12
Noodle and Grizzle enter, and Noodle tells the king he saw a cow swallow Tom Thumb whole. In an aside, Grizzle curses the cow for killing Tom; he wanted to take vengeance on Tom himself. The king announces that all the prisoners should be recaptured and all of their debts reinstated.
The ghost of Tom Thumb appears and confirms that he was indeed swallowed by the cow. Lord Grizzle is overjoyed at once again having his vengeance, and he promptly kills Tom’s ghost. Enraged, Huncamunca kills Grizzle.
Doodle is outraged that the princess has killed Lord Grizzle, so he kills her. The queen is maddened by the death of her daughter, and she murders Doodle. Noodle responds by killing the queen. Cleora steps forward and kills Noodle, but Mustacha cries that Cleora has killed her lover, and so Mustacha slays her. The king calls Mustacha a murderess and strikes her dead. He then takes his own life. As he dies, he says: ‘‘Kings, Queens, and Knaves throw one another down / . . . So all our Pack upon the Floor is cast, / And all I boast is, that I fall the last.’’

Epilogue
The epilogue is delivered by Tom Thumb, who declares that he has been revived from the dead once again. He says he fears critics more than cows or Lord Grizzle’s dagger. Although he is small, he says, the world is peopled with little men (here, ‘‘little’’ means unimportant). He says that while women may think him too tiny to love, he has a large soul and would be a good companion.


Criticism:

Tom Thumb was an instant popular success. According to L. J. Morrissey, in the critical introduction to the dual edition ‘‘Tom Thumb’’ and the ‘‘Tragedy of Tragedies,’’ the play ‘‘was Fielding’s first overnight success.’’ It ‘‘ran nearly uninterrupted’’ for almost ‘‘forty nights.’’ Morrissey writes that ‘‘this success can be accounted for in part by the vigour and gaiety of the farce.’’ Nevertheless, ‘‘it is the satire and the burlesque [racy content] that must have pleased Fielding’s audience most.’’

Assessing Tom Thumb in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Paula R. Backscheider calls it ‘‘a hilarious play and one rich in original verbal effects.’’ She also commends ‘‘Fielding’s satire and verbal virtuosity.’’ Offering a similar opinion, Morrissey finds that Fielding’s ‘‘parody of the heroic drama . . . is delicious.’’

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