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Age and Ageing in The Dutch Courtesan | The Dutch Courtesan

The Dutch Courtesan

Age and Ageing in The Dutch Courtesan

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    §1 21mIn the fourth act of The Dutch Courtesan, Sir Lionel Freevill comments to Beatrice of her sister, Crispinella, ‘I like your sister well; she’s quick and lively. Would she would marry, faith!’. Crispinella responds, ‘Marry? nay, and I would marry, methinks an old man’s a quiet thing’ (4.4.6-10).[1] For a fleeting moment, Marston’s play toys with a conventional plot motif of early modern comedy: the wooing of a young woman by a much older man, only to reject it after a brief exchange of wit. Yet this exchange also hints at some of the ways in which The Dutch Courtesan manipulates the cultural and theatrical associations of age and ageing, and their pivotal place within comic narrative structures. Where many early Jacobean comedies draw heavily on the age-related conventions of Roman New Comedy, staging tales that pit the younger generation against the older, The Dutch Courtesan develops alternative strategies for the representation of both age and intergenerational relationships.

    §2 Like many plays written for children’s companies, The Dutch Courtesan foregrounds questions of age through the basic constitution of the troupe. The actors who performed the play appear to have been aged between around ten and sixteen, and their performances thus required actors to engage in what I have elsewhere termed ‘age transvestism’.[2] Theatricality and artificiality attended not only their performances in female roles but also those in adult male roles; moreover, the performance of a boy actor as a child character was also necessarily both self-conscious and in need of theatrical demarcation through costume, props or dialogue. Edel Lamb writes insightfully on the potential implications of a child’s performance in the role of an older man or woman in the plays of the Jacobean children’s companies, suggesting that ‘Language and staging properties […] create a fictional body in this theatre’.[3] The idea of the ‘fictional body’ is extremely fertile, as is Lamb’s emphasis on the importance of language in constructing that illusion of materiality. I would not, however, go as far as to argue that ‘the physical body of the player is not necessarily significant’ (23-4), because early modern plays often make productive use of the disparity between the fictional body and the physical body on stage.

    §3 Certain conventions were open to children’s companies in their performance of age. One of the most detailed accounts of such a performance is a description of a revival of one of the Roman writer Plautus’s comedies, probably in a grammar school, during the Elizabethan period:

    [T]hey put vpon them counterfayt trynckets: to witte, a white hoary beard vpon theyr chynne: gray and white lockes vpon theyr heades: counterfayting theyr gate with stooping and crooching: they rest their handes vpon some staffe shaking and tremblyng: and fashion theyr voyces bigge like olde men, doyng all this with a certayne witty and crafty conueyaunce of counterfayting: so that if you behold theyr outward handling and gesture, you would say they were olde men[.][4]

    The boy actors described here use a variety of conventions in performing their roles as old men: false beards; wigs; a distinctive stooping and crouching gait; particular gestures and uses of props, such as the hands shaking on the staff; and the volume and tone of their voices. What is described here, I think, is a meticulous presentation of age that is convincing without necessarily being authentic, and part of its charm is an awareness of the craft that has gone into it. The description also suggests that we might usefully compare the performance of age with that of gender – like the transvestite actor’s performance as a woman, the performance of a child player as an adult or old man is convincing until the point at which a dramatist decides to call attention to it and to aim for an alternative effect.

    §4 As the sociologist Judith Kegan Gardiner asks, ‘What does it mean to act your age – or to act your gender?’[5] Children’s companies allowed dramatists to play with age as something that was both essential and to some extent performative. However, in exploring the uses to which age is put in The Dutch Courtesan I do not draw solely on this performance context, richly suggestive though it is. Instead, I explore the more sustained pressure that the play puts upon conceptions of age and ageing. In doing so, I look first at the ways in which age is performed through performance techniques, costume and props, then at the manipulation of stereotypes attending to younger men and older women; finally, I look at the representation of two older men, Sir Lionel and Cocledemoy, and the ways in which Marston exploits and modifies the traditional materials of comedy.

    Performing Age

    §5 The dramatis personae printed with The Dutch Courtesan in 1605 foregrounds the age of four characters: the bawd Mary Faugh, Sir Lionel Freevill and Sir Hubert Subboys are all described as ‘old’, while the description of ‘Young Freevill’ evokes both the character’s absolute and relative age. Within the play itself, age is conveyed or constructed through a variety of means: through costume; through self-description or the descriptions of others; and, in some cases, through a character’s style of speech. As in other children’s company plays, beards are used to conjure what Peter Stallybrass and Will Fisher have termed a ‘prosthetic’ masculinity.[6] In some cases, attention is called to the ‘real’ beards of adult male characters – or, indeed, their very lack of a beard. In Act 3, Scene 1, the nurse Putifer describes the younger Freevill as ‘a fine gentleman […] and I warrant a strong; he has a leg like a post, a nose like a lion, a brow like a bull, and a beard of most fair expectation’ (3.1.58-61). Much of the comedy derives from the way in which this comment is framed as an older woman’s approving assessment of a much younger man. In contrast, later in the play, a much younger woman, Crispinella, tells her suitor, Tysefew, ‘I only said you were all mettle, that you had a brazen face, a leaden brain, and a copper beard’ (4.1.23-4). Tysefew responds in kind to this teasing attack, insulting her as ‘little more then a dwarf, and something less than a woman’ (25-6); her insult clearly, however, hits its target, given that he later declares,

    Nay, look you, for my own part, if I have not as religiously vowed my heart to you, been drunk to your health, swallowed flapdragons, eat glasses, drunk urine, stabbed arms, and done all the offices of protested gallantry for your sake; and yet you tell me I have a brazen face, a leaden brain, and a copper beard!


    References to the beard are part of a teasing courtship dance which apparently combines references to real and performed physicalities: the actor playing Crispinella must be comparatively short for Tysefew’s insult to catch, but the latter must presumably wear a red-coloured beard in order for hers to have any force. The beard is thus both a ‘real’ beard and a symbol of the character’s carefully maintained adult, masculine status.

    §6 The construction of age through dialogue is especially noticeable in the depiction of the youthful and naive barber’s apprentice, Holifernes Reinscure. We might look, for instance, at his initial conversation with Cocledemoy:

    Cockledemoy: […] What, a barber-surgeon, my delicate boy?

    Holifernes: Yes, sir, an apprentice to surgery.

    Cockledemoy: ’Tis my fine boy. To what bawdy house doth your master belong? What’s thy name?

    Holifernes: Holifernes Reinscure.

    Cockledemoy: Reinscure? Good Master Holifernes, I desire your further acquaintance – nay, pray ye be covered, my fine boy; kill thy itch and heal thy scabs. Is thy master rotten?

    Holifernes: My father, forsooth, is dead –

    Cockledemoy:                                      And laid in his grave.
    Alas, what comfort shall Peggy then have?

    Holifernes: None but me, sir, that’s my mother’s son, I assure you.

    Cockledemoy: Mother’s son? A good witty boy; would live to read an homily well. And to whom are you going now?

    Holifernes: Marry, forsooth, to trim Master Mulligrub the vintner.

    Cockledemoy: Do you know Master Mulligrub?

    Holifernes: My godfather, sir.

    Cockledemoy: Good boy! Hold up thy chops. I pray thee do one thing for me. My name is Gudgeon.

    Holifernes: Good Master Gudgeon.

    Cockledemoy: Lend me thy basin, razor and apron. [takes them]

    Holifernes: O Lord, sir!


    Holifernes’ youth is signalled by his use of monosyllables, his simple sentence structures, and his deference to adult authority, which includes the attempted removal of his hat when Cocledemoy addresses him as ‘Good Master Holifernes’. The impression of naivety that this creates is intensified by his repeated use of the word ‘forsooth’, which is often a marker of children’s speech in early modern texts. In Michael Drayton’s account of King John and Matilda, for instance, we find the king’s messenger dismissing Matilda’s ‘lyppish lisping fond forsooth, / Thys childish niceness, and those pettie noes’.[7] Holifernes’ childishness is also reinforced by the way in which Cocledemoy responds to him: in addition to repeatedly calling him ‘boy’ and ‘good boy’, he addresses Holifernes as ‘Master Holifernes’ rather than ‘Master Reinscure’, attempts to regulate his physical bearing and cuts him off while he is speaking. The line ‘To what bawdy house doth your master belong? What’s thy name?’ suggests that there is a pause after his first question, during which the naive Holifernes struggles with and fails to comprehend Cocledemoy’s innuendo.


    Stereotyping Age

    §7 In addition to conjuring age through dialogue, costume and other means, Marston also plays self-consciously with some of the stereotypical associations attached to youth and age. In the initial scenes of the play, youth is associated with sexual appetite. The prim Malheureux tells Freevill, ‘I fear the warmth of wine and youth will draw you to some common house of lascivious entertainment’ (1.1.59-61); a few lines later Freevill defends brothels on the grounds of male sexual desire, commenting that ‘Youth and appetite are above the club of Hercules’ (1.1.70-1), that is, more forceful than even the strongest weapon. Youthful desire is presented as the diametric opposite of mature repentance and reflection. Mocking Malheureux later in the play, Freevill cries, ‘That a man at twenty-three should cry, ‘O sweet pleasure!’ and at forty-three should sigh, ‘O sharp pox!’ (3.1.241-2). Malheureux also attempts to argue himself out of his sexual infatuation with Franceschina with the declaration, ‘Let colder eld the strong’st objections move; / No love’s without some lust, no life without some love’ (1.2.147-8); the inadequacy of this clichéd view of ‘colder eld’ is underlined when Freevill mockingly repeats Malheureux’s lines back at him a few lines later. The depiction of Malheureux is funny in part because it shows a young man who prides himself on not conforming to cultural assumptions about young men falling into the very stereotypical behaviour that he so condemns.

    §8 Some conventional assumptions about age also work to break down other stereotypes, especially where older people are concerned. This can be seen in Marston’s use of established character-types such as the bawd and the nurse. Putifer may claim that her ‘conceiving days be done’, but she is far from confirming that ‘colder eld’ is free from sexual heat, continuing, ‘Marry, for kissing, I’ll defend that; that’s within my compass’ (3.1.55-6). She maintains this bawdy vein when Crispinella attempts to diminish Caqueteur by telling him, ‘You are a child; I’ll give you to my nurse’; Putifer comments in reply, ‘And he come to me, I can tell you, as old as I am, what to do with him’ (3.1.190-3). Similar negotiations are evident in Marston’s presentation of the bawd, another role traditionally associated with post-menopausal women. Cocledemoy offers to anatomise Mary Faugh, whom he describes as ‘my worshipful rotten, rough-bellied bawd’, ‘my blue-toothed patroness of natural wickedness’ and ‘my fine rattling, phlegmy cough o’ the lungs and cold with a pox’ (1.2.3-4, 22-3), drawing attention to both her age and the received opinion that as a bawd she must be diseased.  Mary agrees to hear him, replying, ‘I love to hear myself praised, as well as any old lady, I’ (1.2.28-9), and Cocledemoy launches into an extended set-piece speech in which he refers to her as ‘little Mary’ (1.2.35) and ‘my smooth-gummed bawd’, who ‘lives by others’ pleasure, and only grows rich by others’ rising’ (1.2.48-49). He thus emphasises – or insists upon – Mary’s physical decrepitude, and in addressing her as ‘little Mary’ perhaps suggests his own age and relative status. I will return to the issue of Cocledemoy’s age, but it is worth noting the fact that although the description of Mary calls attention to her physicality it is possible to play against these lines. A younger actor has sometimes taken the role and played it as a younger woman, as in the Edwards’ Boys production staged at the education centre of Shakespeare’s Globe in 2008, in which Mary was played by Matt Cameron.[8] In this performance, the line ‘I love to hear myself praised, as well as any old lady, I’ became a sardonic response to Cocledemoy’s apparently unfounded insults, his attempts to brand a younger woman with the stereotypical attributes of the ageing bawd.

    §9 Further to his depiction of the nurse and bawd, Marston also creates a visual and functional dynamic between younger and older women. When Freevill first sees Mary approach he declares, ‘yonder’s the preface or exordium to my wench, the bawd’ (1.2.57-8), underlining the dramatic and symbolic dynamic between Francheschina and her bawd. This relationship is simultaneously financial, quasi-familial and temporal: Mary addresses Franceschina as ‘good sweet daughter’ (2.2.1), and Freevill later tells Franceschina, ‘Do not turn witch before thy time’ (2.2.96), alluding to the assumed progress of the ‘wicked’ woman from whore to bawd and finally to witch. Mary and Franceschina make the bulk of their appearances on the stage in each others’ company, and a dialectic relationship between youth and age is also created by the staging of the play’s ‘virtuous’ women, as Beatrice and Crispinella are habitually accompanied by the nurse Putifer. Through its manipulations of the gendered stereotypes of age, the play thus suggests some parallels between the two groups of women, and a structural similarity – rejected elsewhere – between Freevill’s whore and his legitimate lover, Beatrice.


    Comic Tradition and Age

    §10 Against this background, Marston’s treatment of two of the play’s older men is particularly striking, and it suggests much about the uses to which he puts comic tradition. In the case of Sir Lionel Freevill, he exploits age-related stereotypes in the service of an exchange that contributes little to the overall plot but which functions as a comic set-piece bridging the gap between the vengeful Francheschina’s exit at the end of Act 4, Scene 3, and her entrance with Freevill. The exchange draws on the established comic set-up of an old man who lusts after a young woman, a narrative in which, as Anthony Ellis describes, an older man’s ‘deviance from socially prescribed models of exemplary old age’ leads to ‘his construction as a repudiated other, and his final correction in which he must renounce what defines him as aberrant’.[9] Marston’s version of the narrative is notably perfunctory. Sir Lionel tells Beatrice, ‘I like your sister well; she’s quick and lively. Would she would marry, faith!’, and he and Crispinella fall into a bantering exchange that quickly becomes more pointed:

    Crispinella: Marry? nay, and I would marry, methinks an old man’s a quiet thing.

    Sir Lionel: Ha, mass! and so he is.

    Crispinella: You are a widower?

    Sir Lionel: That I am, i’faith, fair Crispinella; and I can tell you, would you affect me, I have it in me yet, i’faith.

    Crispinella: Troth, I am in love. Let me see your hand. Would you cast yourself away upon me willingly?

    Sir Lionel: Will I? Ay, by the –

    Crispinella: Would you be a cuckold willingly? By my troth, ’tis a comely, fine, and handsome sight for one of my years to marry an old man; truth, ’tis restorative. What a comfortable thing it is to think of her husband, to hear his venerable cough o’ the everlastings, to feel his rough skin, his summer hands and winter legs, his almost no eyes, and assuredly no teeth! And then to think what she must dream of when she considers others’ happiness and her own want – ’tis a worthy and notorious comfortable match!

    Sir Lionel: Pish, pish! will you have me?

    Crispinella: Will you assure me –

    Sir Lionel: Five hundred pound jointure?

    Crispinella: That you will die within this fortnight?

    Sir Lionel: No, by my faith, Crispinella.

    Crispinella: Then Crispinella, by her faith, assures you she’ll have none of you.


    §11 Like the representations of Putifer and Mary Faugh, this exchange exploits seemingly contradictory preconceptions about the sexual desires and capability of older people. Sir Lionel presents himself through established stereotype as an old man who could be granted renewed potency by the sexual attentions of a younger woman, and he is willing to trade bawdy innuendo with Crispinella – see, for instance, his comment ‘Will I? Ay, by the –’ (l. 17). New Mermaids editor David Crane presents this as an interruption, but the 1605 quarto edition reads ‘I by the ( )’, suggesting that a blasphemous oath or obscenity has been expunged.[10] As elsewhere in The Dutch Courtesan, the physicality of the old man is conjured through language that reinforces the visual cues provided by the costume. Performance and props might also intensify the effect if Sir Lionel himself had a pronounced cough or wore spectacles. The exchange seems calculated to remind audiences of the conventional plot-lines that Marston has chosen not to follow – in this case the January-May relationship that fuels so many early modern comedies.

    §12 Sir Lionel is ultimately contained and confined by the advanced age that text and performance impose upon him. This is not the case for another older man in The Dutch Courtesan, the ‘witty city jester’ Cocledemoy, whose carefully delineated age is held in tension with his dramatic function. Cocledemoy is described by Holifernes as a ‘thick, elderly, stub-bearded fellow’ (2.3.103), and his status as one of the older characters within the play is emphasised when he addresses Mary Faugh as ‘little Mary’ and when he tells Mistress Mulligrub, ‘I am a widower, and you are almost a widow’ (5.3.90-2), seeking to take the place of her elderly husband. Moreover, his relative age is also asserted through other means, in particular his tendency to refer to other adult men as ‘boy’ and ‘knave’. To Freevill, for instance, he declares, ‘my fine boy, thou art a scholar and hast read Tully’s Offices, my fine knave’ (1.2.62-3).

    §13 Yet Cocledemoy’s behaviour in the play does not conform to the kinds of functions performed by Sir Lionel, or even those of Putifer and Mary Faugh. His carefree disregard for social norms and, in particular, his repeated gulling of Master Mulligrub, aligns him not with early modern comedy’s patriarchs but with the witty gallants of the plays of Jonson, Chapman and Middleton. He is not exploited, but instead exploits, and his ‘deviance from socially prescribed models of exemplary old age’ takes the form not of desire for an inappropriate marriage but of the abusive deception of other older people. Cocledemoy is thus carefully positioned as an ageing prodigal, a potentially unsettling combination of relatively advanced age and a dramatic stereotype more readily associated with youth. Furthermore, Marston highlights Cocledemoy’s age-inappropriate behaviour by surrounding him with other characters that generally conform to convention. Age in The Dutch Courtesan is thus treated as something that is both shaped and confined by convention and curiously free from it. Further, as the performance of the play by the Children of the Queen’s Revels suggests, age is both essential and essentially performative, simultaneously a ‘real’ physical state and a guise that can be assumed or dismissed at will.



    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

    1. 1) All citations from the play are taken from John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. David Crane (London: A & C Black, 1997).
    2. 2) Of the actors recorded with the company in 1600, all were aged between ten and thirteen; if actors stayed with the company – as seems to have been the case – by 1604 the oldest would have been at least sixteen; I assume that younger boys would also have been recruited periodically. See Lucy Munro, Children of the Queen’s Revels: A Jacobean Theatre Repertory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 2, 40-3.
    3. 3) Performing Childhood in the Early Modern Theatre: The Children’s Playing Companies (1599-1613) (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 23.
    4. 4) Against Ierome Osorius Byshopp of Siluane, trans. James Bell (London, 1581), 2B8r-v.
    5. 5) ‘Theorizing Age and Gender: Bly’s Boys, Feminism, and Maturity Masculinity’, in Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions, ed. Judith Kegan Gardiner (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 90-118 (96).
    6. 6) See Stallybrass, ‘Transvestism and the “Body Beneath”: Speculating on the Boy Actor’, in Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, ed. Susan Zimmerman (London: Routledge, 1992), 64-83; Fisher, Materializing Gender in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
    7. 7) The Tragicall Legend of Robert, Duke of Normandy … With the Legend of Matilda the Chaste … And the legend of Piers Gaveston (London, 1596), H8v.
    8. 8) See Shehzana Mamujee, ‘Review of Globe Education’s Special Event, “Boys Will Be Boys, Girls, Adults …”, Featuring Scenes from John Marston’s Antonio and Mellida, performed by Dulwich College, and The Dutch Courtesan, performed by King Edward VI School, at the Globe Education Centre Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, London, Sunday 2 March 2008’, Shakespeare 4 (2008), 309-14 (312).
    9. 9) Old Age, Masculinity and Early Modern Drama: Comic Elders on the Italian and (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 42.
    10. 10) The Dutch Courtezan (London, 1605), H4r.