This is the funniest play I have ever read. It is comedy more than worthy of the Marx Brothers. Technically, it is a farce, a slapstick sort of comedy that makes little or no pretension to high ideals, but exists almost purely for its own sake--fun. It does, however, manage to illustrate some ideas about the relationship of clergy and people, about the role of troublemakers, liars, gossips, and rogues in society, and how to deal with that.
It is set in rustic England in the 16th century (the earliest published edition is in 1575 by the printer Thomas Colwell). There is a great deal of classical comedy''s influence, as shown in the narrow time and space location, the simple stage setting, and the division into five acts with several short scenes. On the other hand, it is an extremely original play in terms of characters and themes. It derives a certain amount of material and tone from comedic episodes in the miracle and morality plays of the Middle Ages. Diccon, the Bedlamite (a person released from the madhouse, who had a license to beg [and in this case, at least, a habit of stealing]) is a prime driver in the play. According to various critics, he is much like one of the Vices in the medieval morality plays, both in his lack of fixed place of residence and in his various passes at troublemaking, although some contend he is like the parasite or one of the tricky rascals common in Roman comedy.
One thing one needs to remember in reading this play is the rarity and enormous value to the housewife of a good needle. Nowadays, it is only the matter of a few pennies and a quick trip to the store; at that time, it might be a year between buying opportunities, if that often, and it was a relatively much greater expense.
As the play begins, Gammer Gurton has been sewing up her manservant Hodge''s pants. She throws the pants aside and her needle is lost. The entire household is upset, as she looks for it in vain. Meanwhile, Diccon, the madman, tells Gammer Gurton''s best friend that Hodge, Gammer''s servant, has been stealing her chickens. Then he tells Hodge that said neighbour had found the needle and kept it for her own. So they go after each other. Things get so bad, that htey send for the local priest to make peace. He comes, complaining the while that because he has to do his job, when he''d rather hang out and drink at a local alehouse; but if he doesn''t come, he probably won''t get his tithe pig later on. When the pastor gets there, Dicoon has told the neighbor that Hodge is going to sneak in a hole in back to steal her chickens. He then tells the parson to go in there where he can see that the neighbour lady has stolen and is using the needle. The parson does this, and gets beaten with a spit until his head bleeds; so he goes to get the bailiff. There is much brouhaha and talk of hanging each other, but Hodge earns only a hit on his rump, and that drives the lost needle (which has been in his pants the whole time) into his buttock, and it is found. All are reconciled, and all ends well.
One of the themes here is the negative attitude and relationship of the clergy to their parishioners. The parson is pictured as a drunken lout, with little mercy and less good sense, who would do nothing for the people at all were he not afraid of losing his tithes (and easy living) at the end of the year. (It seems somewhat unjust, however, as the priest is very nice, if somewhat foolish, and tries very hard to bring about a reconciliation, once he get there). Another theme is the role of troublemakers and talebearers (innocent or not) in creating discord among even the best of friends, and how to deal with them. Another is the falsehood and negativity generated by black magic. Dicoon agrees to call up a demon to find the lost needle. Much mischief ensues, and although things come out right at the end, it is definitely the hard way. Invoking negative energies causes problems, whether we really seeor not. (It is amazing to me that people tend to believe more in devils and demons ability to solve their problems than they do in God, or even the lesser positive powers, like the angels and the saints or holy people.)