The Dutch Courtesan

Imagining Marston, or, If Shakespeare is the Beatles, Marston is the Kinks

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    As Horace, Lucilius, Iuuenall, Persius & Lucullus are the best for Satyre among the Latines: so with vs in the same faculty these are chiefe, Piers Plowman, Lodge, Hall of Imanuel Colledge in Cambridge; the Authour of Pigmalions Image, and certaine Satyrs; the Author of Skialetheia.[1]

    kinksarthur§1 Francis Meres’s book Palladis Tamia (1598) is best remembered today for an incidental detail: its checklist of Shakespeare plays known to the writer in 1598, a list which forms a cornerstone of our understanding of the chronology of Shakespeare plays. But this comparison is incidental to Meres’s wider project, which is an extended comparison between ancient poets and modern writers, attempting to understand contemporary writers by matching them up with ancient counterparts. Thus, in the above list, Marston is “placed”, on the strength of his early verse satires The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image and Certain Satires, in a relationship with Horace, Lucilius, Juvenal, and other examples of classical and modern satire.

    §2 Why is Meres doing this? Because he sees in this technique a potent tool for spurring his imaginative negotiation both of the ancient and the modern writers. The game, in effect, is an aid to the aesthetic appreciation of the authors in question. For instance, Meres realizes he can adapt a remark originally applied to Plautus and apply it to appreciate Shakespeare’s style: “As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speake with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin: so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English.”[2] This might invite further consideration of the relationship between Shakespeare and Plautus, and other parallels offered by Meres are equally detailed and specific. We can play an updated version of the same game with John Marston, an author often considered in terms of dated and non-intuitive categories such as formal verse satire and neostoicism. We may attempt to “place” John Marston and his contemporaries in terms of 1960s popular music.

    §3 The first such parallel would be an obvious one to make, since The Beatles, for many observers already, are the heirs of Shakespeare himself. They share with Shakespeare the kaleidoscopic formal range; the relentless and enduring success with both intellectual and popular audiences; the obvious evidence of what used to be called genius.[3] Similarly, Shakespeare’s major contemporary rival Ben Jonson, whose own robust and brilliant achievements look narrow only next to Shakespeare, and whose work is almost inevitably discussed in terms of his enigmatic rival, could aptly be cast as the Rolling Stones of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. To pursue this analogy one step further: in Marston, author of The Dutch Courtesan and of numerous other plays, books of verse satire, and occasional writing, we are dealing with something like Renaissance drama’s equivalent of the Kinks.

    §4 Thinking about Shakespeare, Jonson, and Marston using the analogy of those three bands is helpful, first and foremost, for giving us a model for acknowledging both the similarities they share as part of their common (and constantly changing) cultural moment, and also the consistent differences between them. It allows us to map onto more intuitive examples what we can see of apparent interplay, rivalry, and creative imitation between the three authors. Marston is an important early admirer of and witness to Shakespeare and Jonson, and viewers of The Dutch Courtesan will doubtless be reminded of numerous Shakespeare plays in the course of the action, perhaps most obviously of Much Ado about Nothing in the spiky lovers Tysefew and Crispinella. The work, too, of Jonson, Marston’s sometime enemy, sometime collaborator, is clearly a point of reference in this fast-moving, London-set comedy. But Shakespeare and Jonson responded to the challenge of Marston, too, and more remains to be discovered about the interplay between the three.[4]

    §5 What is more, as it happens the Kinks are quite a good analogy for Marston in other respects too.  It is not hard to see parallels between the Kinks’ ongoing fascination with human sexuality, in all its forms – most famously, perhaps, in the song “Lola” – and Marston’s obsession with sex, from the verse satires onwards, which has prompted T. F. Wharton to observe that “Sexuality is more than a local amusement in Marston’s drama… it is probably the most insistent preoccupation of his work”.[5] Among the most interesting aspects of The Dutch Courtesan are the speeches advocating free love and praising the role of prostitutes, and the unmarried Crispinella’s memorable description of a husband as “a stiff, crooked, knobby, inflexible, tyrannous creature” (3.1, 73-74).[6] That sense in the play of a new permissiveness, a new sexual freedom, can certainly be related to and illuminated by the equivalent sense of the swinging sixties in the work of Ray Davies.

    §6 Secondly, and also speaking to the idea of what one might term a swinging 1590s, all of Marston’s work is fascinated by new fashions and new customs. One recent scholar of Marston, indeed, has noted that the “trendiness index” is such a dominant feature of Marston’s work that it may even help establish the authorship of texts on the edge of the Marston canon.[7] Particularly entertaining in this play – to me, at least – is the catalogue given by Tysefew, outlining the currently fashionable ways in which young men show their devotion to their women while out drinking with male friends: “I have… religiously vowed my heart to you, been drunk to your health, swallowed flap-dragons [raisins in burning brandy], ate glasses, drunk urine, stabbed arms, and done all the offices of protested gallantry for your sake.” (4.1, 54-57). Marston is interested in – and captures in a particularly fresh form – the zeigesist of the turn of the seventeenth century, and again the Kinks might provide something of a reference point for modern viewers: Marston’s characters are truly Dedicated Followers of Fashion.

    §7 That sense of newness, of an almost deliberate searching for eccentricity and individuality, affects not just the fashions the characters wear but the language in which they speak.  Just as a Ray Davies lyric is often exuberantly perverse in its use of language – and that language itself is part of the story that the song tells – so this play is fascinated by varieties of English: from the “most sincere prose” mentioned in its opening lines, to the tortured verse of Malheureux, to Cocledemoy’s strings of linguistic invention.  The process reaches a climax in 4.1, when what appears to be nonsense from Cocledemoy prompts Franceschina, herself a distinctive mangler of English, to remark, “By me fait, dis bin very fine langage” (1.1.11, 4.3.14).

    §8 Finally, the Kinks help us hear the subtleties of Marston’s satire. As Meres’s citation indicates, Marston made his name as an exponent of formal verse satire, and is usually considered by critics in terms of a relentless, snarling, satirist who now happens to be prosecuting his satire in dramatic form rather than in poetry.  However, the example of the Kinks might teach us to listen for nuance in that satire, and how in particular the satire often rebounds upon the satirist in sly ways. For instance, the hero of Ray Davies’ song “I’m not like everybody else” insists on his own individuality in a string of clichés undermined by the song’s own chorus, with its echoing affirmation “Like everybody else”. Similarly, the narrative voice of The Scourge of Villainie rather smugly concludes that, given the state of the world, it is clear that there is no-one real in it at all:

    Thou brutish world, that in all vilenes drown’d
    Hast lost thy soule, for naught but shades I see,
    Resemblances of men inhabite thee.[8]

    §9 The statement begs the question, obviously, of what to make of the speaker himself. In The Dutch Courtesan, too, satire is slippery: Freevill, who appears at the start to be wearing the mantle of the detached, satirical observer, soon finds himself put in mortal danger by his own actions. The speaker of the Epilogue, the part of the play where the moral might expect to be drawn, is none other than the slippery Cocledemoy. Moral authority, in The Dutch Courtesan as in the world of the Kinks, is itself somewhat slippery.

    §10 The analogy, of course, should not be pushed too far, but it suffices to get us going. Early modern drama, dominated though it now is in retrospect by the towering figure of Shakespeare, contains more than one other writer with the power both to give new angles on the more famous contemporary and to delight independently. It is to be hoped that this production of The Dutch Courtesan inspires some more readers, and more actors, to explore the relatively little-known pleasures of the rest of the John Marston canon.

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
    1. 1) Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia (London: Cuthbert Burbie, 1598), f.283v.
    2. 2) Meres, Palladis Tamia, f.282r.
    3. 3) See, for instance, Adam Hansen, Shakespeare and Popular Music (London: Continuum, 2010), with further references.
    4. 4) An important contribution in this area is Charles Cathcart’s book Marston, Rivalry, Rapprochement, and Jonson (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).
    5. 5) T. F. Wharton, “Introduction”, in T. F. Wharton, ed., The Drama of John Marston: Critical Re-Visions (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), 6.
    6. 6) John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan in The Malcontent and Other Plays, ed. Keith Sturgess (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1997)
    7. 7) Roslyn L. Knutson, “Histrio-Mastix: Not by John Marston”, Studies in Philology 98 (2001): 374-75.
    8. 8) John Marston, The Scourge of Villanie. Three Bookes of Satyres (London: I[ames] R[oberts], 1598), F5r-F6v.