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Franceschina’s Voice | The Dutch Courtesan

The Dutch Courtesan

Franceschina’s Voice

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    §1162m[*] Scholarship on The Dutch Courtesan has been fascinated by its title character’s idiosyncratic and wayward accent and, with very few exceptions, has expressed decisive views about its likely effect on audiences. According to one observer, Marston has burdened Franceschina with a “grotesque foreign lingo”, which irreparably cuts her “off from normal life” (Hunter, 320). For one of the play’s editors, “Franceschina is, to be sure, vicious; but she is ridiculously vicious”; and he assumes that no more is needed to justify this claim than an invocation of her “ridiculous stage Dutch accent that serves no purpose other than to alienate her from the audience’s sensibility” (Wine, xix). In the same spirit, a third scholar asserts that “her accent guarantees a laugh right from her first line” (Slights, 82). Another dubs her “a comic villain”, whose “comic excess is heightened, of course, by her thick Dutch accent”, and adds that “apparently all accents were funny to the Jacobeans” (Caputi, 230-231). The same presumption is made by another writer, who generalises this predisposition into a transhistorical phenomenon. The English, he asserts, “rich in their own dialects, always find foreigners’ English endlessly funny”; and, accordingly, Franceschina’s “cunning” is fated by her inventor to operate “in a comic environment in which all her plans must fail” (Ingram, 120).

    §2 A minority of scholars has refused to view Franceschina in so reductively comic a light. M. C. Bradbrook, for instance, celebrates her as “the one strong and individual figure in Marston’s comedy: a full-length, overpowering study, suggesting a portrait from the life” (Bradbrook, 163). Brian Gibbons similarly claims to detect in her “final appearances” “a passionate naked power rarely equalled by women in Jacobean drama” (Gibbons, 122). In so acclaiming her, however, Bradbrook and Gibbons sidestep the question of Franceschina’s accent and its probable impact on an audience. David Crane, the play’s most recent editor, is accordingly unusual in his insistence on a non-comic interpretation of the role, while also confronting head-on the orthodox reading of it:

    The foreignness of the accent is not comic like the wit we have so far seen in the play, not ridiculous and to be laughed at, because her beauty prevents that. It simply sets her apart from all other characters; and she will be set apart thus for the rest of the play, in a certain sense untouchable by her context, reaching for a single point of contact beyond her untouchableness (which is Freevill) and soon denied that. (Crane, xxiii)

    He therefore argues that the strange dialect in which Marston makes her speak may isolate her from her fellow characters, but not from the possibility of an audience’s developing an empathetic understanding of her plight. Like his opponents, however, Crane merely asserts that this is the case. Neither side offers much in the way of textual analysis to confirm their interpretative preferences.

    §3 From the perspective of a director about to stage The Dutch Courtesan, the assertion that Franceschina’s “accent guarantees a laugh right from her first line” is worrying. It proposes that Marston is happy to rest the role’s effectiveness upon the activation of chauvinistic prejudice and to ask little more from its player than the constant re-cueing of a single rudimentary response. A part so constrained is likely to be unrewarding for its performer and, if of any length, may, in its monotony of effect, have deleterious consequences for the larger theatrical design of which it is a part. As I embark on my production of the play, my fervent hope is that rehearsals will demonstrate the inadequacy of such an account of its title role!

    §4 I am made equally uneasy by the facile determinism of claims that English spectators “always find foreigners’ English endlessly funny”, and that, therefore, any representation of linguistic accident-proneness of this kind is bound to “alienate” the character guilty of such a solecism “from the audience’s sensibility”. “Always”? Even if we were to accept this questionable generalization as accurate in the overwhelming majority of cases, scholarly circumspection might be expected to allow for the possibility that the present instance could be a rare exception. Determining whether or not this is indeed the case requires the kind of detailed textual exploration missing from these accounts.

    §5 Marston’s is the first surviving early modern English play “to mention a foreign character in its title” (Hoebselaars, 117). Yet he has given her an Italian name, and one associated with the Commedia dell’Arte character of the witty chambermaid to the “prima donna inamorata” (Rudlin, 127). Equally, The Dutch Courtesan received its first performances in the midst of a mini-fad for plays about Italian, usually Venetian, courtesans (Elam, 235-246). One observer judges Franceschina too to be “more Italian than Dutch, especially when she begins to act like an avenging fury from an Italian revenge drama, scheming for the death of her lover, Freevill, when he leaves her” (Howard, 110).

    §6 This Italian/Dutch double vision is carried further in the intricate linguistic medley with which Marston has endowed his character’s speech. One scholar notes that, compared “to other versions of stage Dutch [in plays of this period]…, Franceschina’s language is remarkably inconsistent”, and that “her accent changes from scene to scene and even from line to line” (Montgomery, 57). Similarly, one of the play’s editors reports that

    No phonetic consistency characterizes Franceschina’s speech, which is a helter-skelter of Germanic, French, Italian, as well as pure English, pronunciation added to somewhat conventional grammatical errors: the important thing is impression rather than accuracy. (Wine, xix)

    Marston’s phonetic rendering of her voice may be approximate and/or muddled, but the play’s title does firmly proclaim Franceschina’s national origins. This has provoked one distinguished contributor to this website to consider Marston’s title a theatrical oxymoron, so unwilling is he to concede erotic potency to the Dutch (Rhodes, 3). Two contemporaneous Middleton exchanges suggest that early modern spectators may have thought differently. In The Revenger’s Tragedy, 1.3, 18, Lussurioso tests the man he may be about to employ as his pimp by asking him if he knows “I’th’ world strange lust”, to which he receives the ardent and confident reply: “O, Dutch lust, fulsome lust!” (Middleton, 555); while, in A Trick to Catch An Old One, 3.3, 16, 18, a reference to a “Dutch widow” is immediately glossed as meaning “an English drab” (Middleton, 394). Marston could also draw on his spectators’ and readers’ knowledge of the “age-old tradition of Dutch prostitutes in London” to underpin the plausibility of his title’s distinctive collocation of nationality and trade (Hoenselaars, 117-118; Burford, 78, 145-146).

    §7 Some degree of English informedness can also be presumed about the cultures of prostitution in the major Dutch cities, especially Amsterdam (van de Pol, passim). The extent of the interconnections between the worlds of the English and the Dutch in this period can scarcely be overestimated. Soldiers from the two nations fought together on continental battlefields; there was refugee traffic on a major scale, and in both directions, between England and the Low Countries; and Dutch craftsmen migrated to England in substantial numbers to employ their skill in the manufacture of “paper, hat, thread, bone-lace, wire, tapestries, jewelry, and other commodities for British home and foreign markets” (Murray, 839). The immigrants’ know-how and enthusiasm transformed practice in numerous crafts and industries (Davies, 4-7). In 1577, one commentator testified to the extent of English indebtedness in this respect: “We ought to favour the strangers from whom we learned so great benefits, as before is declared, because we are not so good devisers as followers of others” (Davies, 5). Similarly, Dutch economic theory and technical innovation were heavily influential in England, and Gresham specifically “modeled the Royal Exchange on the Antwerp Bourse” (Murray, 840). There were also comparable cross-encounters in the crafting of polyphony, in painting, in agriculture and garden design, in map-making, and in printing (Murray, 837-854). In religion, the interplay between the two nations was especially marked and influential, with, for example, the establishment of settled Dutch Calvinist churches in London (Grell, passim). The English language was similarly inflected by Dutch importations. Such words as “sloops”, “hoys”, “caulk”, “scurvy”, “balk”, “harpoon”, and “becalm” are early modern importations from Dutch (Murray, 841). As a pamphleteer hyperbolically pronounced in 1664, “most of our old words are Dutch” (The Dutch Drawn, 67).

    §8 London in 1604-1605 was a polyglot community, in which representatives of many different nations intermingled in the pursuit of trade, and where significant clusterings of immigrants from individual countries were to be found in specific parishes. No institutions of learning existed which were devoted to assisting new arrivals from Holland to learn English or native speakers to learn Dutch. Acquiring either skill must therefore have been a matter of daily improvisation and “sink-or-swim” survival. The first manual to help English readers to acquire Dutch was published the year after The Dutch Courtesan first appeared in print (Salmon, 36); and its author was so lacking in confidence about the efficacy of what he could offer that his preface advised readers who aimed to comprehend “the hardest and most eloquent Dutch, and to speake it naturally” that, in preference to relying on his help, they “must acquaint” themselves “with some Dutch-man, to the ende that you may practise with him by dayly conference” and also frequent “the Dutch-church, hauing a Dutch Bible, and marking how the Reader readeth, and hearing the Sermons” (le Mayre, A2v).

    §9 Early modern London will therefore have been the daily location for Dutch and English people engaging in urgent business together, whose command of each other’s tongues must in many cases have been halting, garbled, and incomplete. Franceschina’s foible in pronouncing, for example, English “w” as “v”, inverting apt syntactical order, and using “mine” when “my” would be idiomatic, will inevitably have had frequent parallels in everyday communication by Dutch bankers, merchants and craftsmen, as they laboured to adjust to conducting negotiations in a foreign tongue. Her linguistic slips may mark her apart among the other dramatis personae of The Dutch Courtesan – as T. S. Eliot remarked, “her isolation is enhanced by her broken English” (Eliot, 158) – but in the world beyond the playhouses how aberrant would her difficulties in commanding this strange tongue have really seemed?

    §10 If the ability to communicate one’s thoughts to native speakers in a language not one’s own be a crucial test of relative competence, then, in practice, it is one which Marston allows Franceschina to pass with flying colours. The easiest joke for a dramatist to exploit at the expense of a foreign character in such circumstances is to render their attempts at communication sometimes impenetrable to their English interlocutors. At no point does that situation arise in The Dutch Courtesan. Whatever local imprecisions or oddities may afflict her phrasing or pronunciation, Franceschina always conveys her intended meaning clearly and effectively to those with whom she speaks. Her command of English is also sufficient to allow her to manipulate Malheureux commandingly and to dupe efficiently those she will eventually lead to arrest him.

    §11 Similarly, the non-native speaker picking his or her way through the minefield of a foreign tongue can be used by a playwright to generate dialogue in which the novice manages to say more (or worse) than they had intended, or to blunder into unintended (though perhaps revelatory) sexual or scatalogical references or punning. (Think, for example, of Shakespeare’s exploitation of this possibility with Doctor Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor.) Marston also spares Franceschina this indignity.[1]

    §12 At the only moments when ambiguities of any sort occur in her speech, the uncertainties they generate are of a subtler kind. A representative one would be her greeting to Malheureux when he is first introduced to her: “A mine art, Sir you bin very velcome” (1.2, 85).[2] Annotators assume that “art” here is Franceschina’s mispronunciation of “heart”, and for her to welcome her lover’s friend from her heart would certainly be a natural form of greeting. On the other hand, “art” is also both what she is showing (cultivated courtesy apt to the occasion) and also the fundamental attribute upon which her career as courtesan rests. A moment later, she will offer Malheureux “a bedde too, if dat it please him” (112); so she is greeting him here, at least partly, in her professional mode. Accordingly, both meanings can advantageously be in play here, and neither is one of which the character needs to be presumed necessarily unaware – i.e. if an equivocation is in play here, it is one which, in particular stage incarnations, Franceschina might be interpreted as being fully able to control. In the longer term, her erroneous belief that she and Freevill are bonded by the heart, and not just by the solace her art can temporarily afford him, will be her undoing. So, in retrospect, a proleptic anticipation of that impending crisis for her may be discerned in the fluctuations of meaning in this line. However that may be, we are very far here from the kind of inadvertent linguistic disasters often inflicted on foreigners essaying English in stage comedy.

    §13 There is another common kind of theatrical maltreatment based on linguistic inexperience which Franceschina is spared – i.e., where a character is humiliatingly misled as to the proper meaning of words in the language he or she is learning to speak. A convenient example of this from Merry Wives is:

    Host … A word, Monsieur Mockwater.
    Caius Mockwater? Vat is dat?
    Host Mockwater, in our English tongue, is valour, bully.
    Caius By gar, then I have as much mockvater as de Englishman.
    (2.3, 45-49)

    §14 Franceschina can never be subdued by this kind of trick, because Marston has given her an ability to decode the subtleties of spoken English of a quite different order of competence from anything Caius will ever attain. In addition, he makes her the astute interrogator of the obliquities in others’ speech. Here she is, for example, catching with prophetic force a covert implication in Freevill’s speech:

    Franceschina Rest to mine deare loue, rest, and no long absence.
    Freevill Beleeue me not long.
    Franceschina Sall Ick not beleeue you long. (1.2, 125-127)

    (Freevill seeks to assure her that he will not be absent long, but she glosses his choice of phrase as also suggesting that she should not trust his word or have faith in his love much longer.) Similarly, as Malheureux maladroitly sets out to woo her, she takes his pleas apart with forensic precision:

    Malheureux Will you lie with me?
    Franceschina Lie with you, O no, you men will out-lie any woman…
    (2.2, 123-124)

    The closer one looks at the local detail of the writing, the more one wonders whether the legend of Franceschina’s linguistic incompetence has not been greatly over-promoted.

    §15 It has been traditional to speak of her “heavily-accented language” (Montgomery, 61) and draw extreme conclusions from it:

    Franceschina’s artfulness does not extend to linguistic mastery. Verbally, she is confounded by the difference she would master. She can dance, play the lute, sing a pre-scripted song, scatter her hair, and prolong amorous pleasure, but when she talks she is a monster of deformity, a hybrid creature who masters no one language, but roils about in a mixture of many. In her case, the multinational city has produced a cacophonous, hybridized speech by turns comic and alienating. (Howard, 111-112)

    Returning to what Marston has actually scripted after sampling such heightened rhetoric can feel anti-climactic. The degree to which Franceschina’s creator[3] sustains his attempt to render phonetically the distinctness of her dialect fluctuates markedly, sometimes from sentence to sentence. But a line like the following is not untypical of one of her characteristic modes of speech: “Now fait, I judge it all incredible, vntill this houre I saw you pritty fayre eyed yout, would you enjoy me?” (2.2, 152-153). Some of the forms here (“fayre”, for instance, or “pritty”) are well within the normal range of variation in a period when spelling was as yet unstandardized, and they therefore do not signify non-English pronunciation. So, the only spellings which relate to her continental accent are “fait” (= “faith”) and “yout” (= “youth”), neither of which is likely greatly to inhibit an audience’s ability to comprehend what is intended. In addition, “judge” ought to be “judged”, but mishaps with tenses are among the most frequent slips which will ambush an apprentice speaker of a foreign language. These too are unlikely seriously to impede a hearer’s ability to discern what Franceschina means to convey. We are far here from anything which could justify characterisations of her as “a monster of [linguistic] deformity”, or as someone who “roils about in a mixture of many” languages. “Roil”, with its implication of angry, confused, and confusing, turbulence, and of stormy incomprehensibility, seems very wide of the mark.

    §16 The Franceschina of the play’s later stages is tightly focused on wreaking retributive havoc on her erstwhile lover and his betrothed, but her language remains syntactically coherent and decipherable. Here, for instance, is her revenger’s credo:

    der sall be no got in me but passion, no tought but rage, no mercie but bloud,
    no spirit but Diula in me,
    Dere sal noting tought good for me,
    But dat is mischieuous for others. (4.2, 41-44)

    As in the earlier example, Marston logs some foreign pronunciations – more here than in the previous passage, but all still relatively easily comprehensible, especially at this later point in the action, when an audience will have become skilled in listening to Franceschina. The only syntactical query attaches to the missing word in “sal noting [be] tought good” – again, not something likely to hinder understanding to any real degree. (In the last line, “dat” indicates the desired pronunciation, but is not a syntactical error, since “that” = “that which” is common usage in early modern English.) A performer might, of course, choose to interpret Marston’s phonetic indicators as favouring a very heavily accented articulation, which would represent a real barrier to comprehension; but that seems to run counter to the fact that none of the other characters ever has problems in accurately construing what Franceschina is saying. What seems to be invited is sufficient difference in pronunciation to convey a foreign speaker, but not so much that effective communication is blocked.

    §17 At some key moments Marston reduces – even abandons completely – his phonetic rendering of her accent and writes out individual lines and sections of speeches with little or no indication of foreignness. These include some of the most sharply accusatory and plangent utterances he assigns her. In 2.2, he gives her several resonant rebukes to Malheureux, which chastise her forlorn and over-parted suitor as a representative of men’s demeaning exploitation of women:

    O vnfaithfull men, tyrantes, betrayers, de very enioying us, looseth us, and
    when you onely ha made vs hatefull, you onely hate vs… (116-118)


    doe you take mee to be a beast, a creature that for sence onely will entertaine loue, and not onely for loue, loue? O brutish abhomination! (127-129)

    One “de” for “the” apart, these words would have been set down no differently if crafted for a native English speaker. (“Ha” for “have” is a common elided form in early modern drama.) No sign here of “roiling”.

    §18 The framer of these accusations is given the verbal authority (assisted, in the first of these excerpts, by an apt borrowing from Montaigne (Wine, 115)) to unpick lucidly the hypocrisy which confronts her. The traditional stereotyping of Franceschina as crippled by “linguistic deformities”, which are then read as emblematic of the evil she either espouses or represents (Scott, 41), works to deafen us to these possibilities. The fact that the first quarto text at such points more or less abandons its attempts at a phonetic encoding may indicate a desire that these blows should be allowed to land home, without even the slightest risk of her accent weakening their force. It seems to me, at this pre-rehearsal moment, that any rendering of Franceschina which does not permit the actress to convey the full strength of the highly articulate thoughts Marston has given her would betray the nature of his writing here. David Edgar has aptly remarked that “Alone among the arts, the live theatre is in the present tense or it is nowhere” (3). Thinking ambitiously about Franceschina, and attempting to unlock her in rehearsal and then performance, means attending to the moment-by-moment possibilities Marston has crafted for her. Claims that her accent rendered her automatically comic for “the Jacobeans”, and therefore must also do so for us, send us in the wrong direction and substitute a problematic pre-judgement for the exciting complexity of what the script actually offers to the role’s performer.


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    Anthony Caputi, John Marston, Satirist (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1961).
    D. W. Davies, Dutch Influences on English Culture 1558-1625 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1964).
    David Edgar, “Provocative Acts: British Playwriting in the Post-War Period and Beyond”, 3-34, in: David Edgar (ed.), State of Play (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1999).
    Keir Elam, “’Tis Pity She’s Italian: Performing the Courtesan on the Early Seventeenth-Century English Stage”, 235-246, in: Michelle Marrapodi (ed.), Shakespeare and Renaissance Literary Theories: Anglo-Italian Transactions (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2011).
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    Brian Gibbons, Jacobean City Comedy (London: Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd., 1968).
    Ole Peter Grell, Calvinist Exiles in Tudor and Stuart England (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 1996).
    A. J. Hoenselaars, Images of Englishmen and Foreigners in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries: A Study of Stage Characters and National Identity in English Renaissance Drama, 1558-1642 (Rutherford, Madison, and Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992).
    Jean E. Howard, “Mastering Difference in The Dutch Courtesan”, Shakespeare Studies, 24 (1996), 105-117.
    G. K. Hunter, English Drama 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).
    R. W. Ingram, John Marston (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978).
    Lloyd Edward Kermode (ed.), Three Renaissance Usury Plays (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2009)
    Marten le Mayre, The Dvtch Schoole Master. Wherein is shewed the true and perfect way to learne the Dutch tongue, to the furtherance of all those which would gladly learne it (London, 1606).
    John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. David Crane (London: A & C Black, 1997).
    John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. Martin Wine (London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd., 1965).
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    Thomas Middleton, The Collected Works, ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007).
    Marianne Montgomery, Europe’s Languages on England’s Stages, 1590-1620 (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2012).
    John J. Murray, “The Cultural Impact of the Flemish Low Countries on Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England”, American Historical Review, 62 (1957), 837-854.
    Neil Rhodes, “Marston’s Common Ground”, The Dutch Courtesan website,
    John Rudlin, Commedia dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook (London and New York: Routledge, 1994).
    Vivian Salmon, Language and Society in Early Modern England: Selected Essays 1981-1994, selected and edited by Konrad Koerner (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1996).
    Michael Scott, John Marston’s Plays: Theme, Structure and Performance (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1978).
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    William W. E. Slights, “Unfashioning the Man of Mode: A Comic Countergenre in Marston, Jonson, and Middleton”. Renaissance Drama, New Series, 15 (1984), 69-91.
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    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

    1. This article was read, in draft form, by Richard Rowland and Mark Smith. I am deeply grateful to both of them for their helpful comments and suggestions. Any errors which remain are my responsibility.
    2. 1) One might compare William Haughton’s treatment of a Dutch character in a comedy from the late 1590s, Englishmen for my Money. That play’s inept Dutchman, Vandal, is left constantly at a disadvantage in his dealings with the English characters and made the butt of humiliating practical jokes. He is allowed only a relatively small share of the play’s dialogue – he is made to confess his incapacity in English (2.3, 188-189) – and much of what he does say is of a degree of benighted opacity (incompetently stranded as it is between Dutch and English) utterly unlike anything that Franceschina utters. Take, for instance, this characteristic outpouring: “God’s sekelin, dat’s een fraai meiskin, Monsieur Delion, daar de grote freister, daar would ik zien, tis een fraaie daughter, daar heb ik so long loved, dare heb my desire so long geweest” (2.1, 17-19). He is also made to blunder into inadvertent scatology (3.4, 90-91). (Quotations and act/scene/line references are from the Lloyd Mark Kermode edition of Three Renaissance Usury Plays listed in the Bibliography.)
    3. 2) Act/scene/act references for quotations from The Dutch Courtesan are to the edition by David Crane (London: A & C Black, 1997); but the quotations themselves derive from the 1605 first printing of the play. I have expanded the speech prefixes to match the style of Crane’s edition.
    4. 3) We cannot be sure, of course, about the progress of the play from manuscript to print, or what may have happened to the details of its phonetic refraction of Franceschina’s dialogue along the way. So, my references to Marston as the likely architect of the variations and inconsistencies in the first quarto’s representation of her accent are a convenient fiction and not meant to deny the possibilities of scribal and/or printshop transformations en route to publication.