King of the Barbers: The Irish and Italian as England’s Greatest Threat

As in my previous post I have touched on the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as a text that bears striking similarity to The Woman in White as well as ideology in Victorian culture. I will be visiting it once again, however this time I am looking at Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco and their cultural identities. Within Sweeney Todd they are both found in the guise of Pirelli the Barber (or as he is also known Daniel O’Higgins), who swindles and charms the crowds of London. Initially an Irishman apprenticed to Sweeney Todd, O’Higgins eventually goes away and adopts the persona of Adolfo Pirelli, an Italian barber who serves the highest classes of Italy, including the Pope. He sells hair “tonics” to those desperate enough to fall victim to his words and charisma, despite being an incredibly effeminate and blindingly dazzling man. He embodies two types of people who the English see as suspicious characters.

Directly from his introduction Fosco is displayed as an effeminate, yet charmingly powerful and strangely terrifying man. (217) His little eccentricities and personality (which seems to be somehow false) force characters to like him, just as Pirelli works his “magic” over the crowds. Marian, being a sensible English lady, is immediately distrusting of Fosco, yet even she feels he is beginning to work his “miracle” (217) Fosco, as the Italian or non-Anglo Saxon, in addition to being of a higher class represents a threat to English society, much like a later popular character of Victorian literature[1]. His effeminate nature (I suppose that Pesca is his counterpart) combined with class represents a threat to English society and ideas about what men should be. However, he reinforces his dominance by controlling English women and fulfilling the desires of characters like Sir Percival Glyde.

While Glyde is not Irish no Italian (although his association with both seems unsavory by English standards), a brute Irishman is the cause of his misfortune and in turn the Secret and the plot against Laura and Anne. Because his mother was married to an Irishman (and thus her “marriage” to Sir Glyde was not valid) Percival is unable to inherit the family fortune. Although the Irishman’s deeds are by no means morally sound, it can be implied that it is his fault all of the events in the story happened, and he is not around to voice his own reasoning on the matter. He is nothing more than an Irishman whom can carry the blame (although we as readers still blame Percival for this). Thus both aristocrats, either by their ethnicity or association, represent the types of foreigners who England regards as deceivers and less respectable than true Englishmen.

[1] The Count, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, also represents a non-Anglo Saxon aristocrat who poses a threat to England through his charms, deception, and inversion of gender and sexuality.


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Noah S. Thompson

Noah S. Thompson is an Senior English and Art & Art History double major at Dickinson College with a passion for bees, gluten-free pastries, and all things queer. His work primarily focuses on portraiture and abstraction.

One thought on “King of the Barbers: The Irish and Italian as England’s Greatest Threat”

  1. While I have never seen or read any version of Sweeney Todd, the murderous barber, even I know that Sweeney Todd often murders his victims by slitting their throats with his straight razor. It is interesting that you mention Dracula in the same post as Sweeney Todd – along with both being murderers hidden in London society, both killers are focused on the neck, and letting blood escape from that particular point of the body. The neck is one of the most vulnerable points of the body – and often thought of as a very sensuous part of the body, perhaps connecting Dracula and Todd to sexual as well as physical violence.

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