Punch and Judy

Punch and Judy is a traditional puppet show that has been a staple at British seaside resorts since the seventeenth century. So is this historical entertainment or an expression of domestic violence? We’ve been exploring and experimenting with Punch and Judy to see what we could learn.

Punch and Judy is a traditional puppet show that has been a staple at British seaside resorts since the seventeenth century.

Originally hailing from Italy, the earliest recorded evidence of Punch and Judy in England is from diarist Samuel Pepys who saw a show while on a visit to Covent Garden on 9th May 1662.

The invention of George Stephenson’s steam engine, the Rocket, which revolutionised travel for all during the mid to late 19th Century. Wealthy members of society took day trips and holidays around Britain’s coastline. After the introduction of Bank Holidays in 1871, seaside day trips and holidays gradually became more affordable to the everyday family. These newly developing seaside resorts gave Punch & Judy men a lucrative opportunity.

Victorian seaside resorts became the fastest growing towns in Britain in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The introduction of railways catering for crowds meant that more people could visit the seaside and take advantage of the increased leisure time resulting from reduced working hours, and the August Bank Holiday introduced in 1871. Splendid new hotels catered for prosperous visitors to stay, while day-trippers joined the throng and had time to enjoy the Punch and Judy shows that began to be a standard part of the entertainment on offer.

Punch and Judy shows have stayed popular down the centuries because they have been kept topical. In wartime, Punch would fight and beat Hitler and in more recent times Tony Blair has even made an appearance. Mr Punch has always had a difficult relationship with authority, he seeks out violence, and has carried a stick since way back into his Italian ancestry. But is he an abusive misogynistic, out of step with modern times, or is he a fine example of traditional slapstick entertainment?

Critics argue that Mr Punch advocates violence in the home and is at odds with the government’s standpoint on domestic abuse. The Punch family comprises a man, woman and child whose only interaction with one another is based on violence. This is an inappropriate message which could corrupt children’s beliefs about what a healthy relationship is and not something that should be promoted.

Others see him as a positive lesson in how not to behave. Children instinctively disapprove of Mr Punch’s violence, responding to his cries of “that’s the way to do it” with “oh no it isn’t!” Even small children understand that Mr Punch is made to look the fool. Children enjoy the macabre and violent – indeed many of the most celebrated children’s art can be argued to use this to dramatic effect – Roald Dahl, Shakespeare, Tom and Jerry, the list goes on. Children of Punch and Judy producers do not grow up to be abusive despite being exposed to the show over and over. In fact, Punch and Judy shows were identified on a government website as one of the twelve most important British icons, including Stonehenge, a cup of tea, Alice in Wonderland and the Routemaster bus.

The debate continues…

  • Is Punch an abusive misogynist (a man who hates women), out of step with modern times, or is he a fine example of traditional slapstick entertainment?
  • Is violence within a relationship ever acceptable?
  • What are the alternatives to violence?
  • What do you think Domestic Abuse is? The definition is “Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse: psychological • physical • sexual • financial • emotional”.
  • What do you think is meant by “controlling” and “coercive” behaviour? The definitions are….“Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/ or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour”. “Coercive behaviour is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim”.

If you, or someone you know, are affected by domestic abuse please call Women’s Aid on 01472 575 757 or their male victim helpline on 01472 588888