The Dutch Courtesan

Marriage in The Dutch Courtesan

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    178m§1 Quite aside from the choice of not marrying at all, Marston offers three models for early modern marriage, as demonstrated by three couples who are about to marry or already married:  Freevill and Beatrice, Crispinella and Tysefew, and the Mulligrubs. Each couple illustrates the drawbacks of the model they offer, especially for a modern audience, but I would suggest that early modern audiences might also find one or more of the options objectionable. The traditional patriarchal marriage is the one proposed by Freevill and accepted by Beatrice, although even before she marries, she suffers disappointment and abuse, perhaps a promise of things to come. Crispinella and Tysefew tease each other with demands for and promises of equality in their marital relationship, but we cannot know to what extent these courtship pledges will work out in practice. Finally, the Mulligrubs present us with a puritan marriage based on popular misconceptions about the Family of Love, and, despite the play’s offensive distortions of standard matrimonial expectations within the sect (as opposed to within the Church of England), that marriage works successfully in all ways that matter to the couple.  How can this be?

    §2 To assess the damage Marston inflicts on ideas about contemporary marriage, we need to look at attitudes toward the duty of marrying in a Protestant country. Few people married for love, and parents and friends frequently invoked the failure of love-matches to stand the test of time. The alternative was not enforced marriage: legally, no marriage could take place without mutual consent, and that meant that both bride and groom had to be courted into a public demonstration that each was disposed to like, admire, and respect the other. Doubtless the courtship game could be ‘fixed’ or hypocritical, especially when large estates were part of the marital package. But, as we see for example in the management of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, two people who show signs of interest in each other can be persuaded by friends and family that the match is workable, but no one supported a marriage based on passionate love: instead, background, reputation, and financial resources underwrote suitable unions. ‘Virtue’ in both parties was a primary concern, as was the equality of birth, age, education, and especially mutual trust.[1] The guarantee of that mutual trust was a substantial gift-exchange, a binding expression of ‘matrimonial intentions’ that (if necessary) could be tested in court in a breach of promise suit.[2] On these two factors of virtue and trust, Freevill fails miserably, but he hides his failure behind copious argumentation and self-justification that prevent his bride from casting him off – apparently because he has patriarchal custom on his side.[3]

    §3 Freevill’s relish for the sexual outlets permitted to young unmarried men does not extend to equal opportunity for women. In fact, although he obviously enjoys (the idea of?) sex with a variety of women, his attitude toward them is dismissive and intolerant, taking advantage of their necessity for his own erotic appetites, rather than pitying their economic stresses (1.1.92-126).[4] A woman whose husband is incapacitated or absent has to support herself in an ‘occupation’ – a word equivocally describing the sexual act, and suggesting that prostitution is her only possible economic resource. Thus charity demands that men avail themselves of such a woman’s trade, because relief of the poor is a good thing. In addition, women give return for value, whether in pleasure, children, or syphilis, ‘quid for quo‘ (115), and in any case they are sexually responsive to men’s actions (‘do you rise, they’ll fall’). Clearly the tone here is satirical, claiming to praise a woman who sells only her body, not her soul. Freevill sums up his argument as a patriarchal statement of God-given male rights: ‘All things are made for man, and man for woman’ (126). The implication is that a beautiful and loving woman is man’s reward for succeeding in masculinist terms; why else would a man ‘care for coin’ (124) if not to win a mistress? In Freevill’s logic, man doesn’t think of his sexual partner as a person, but as some thing, a garment that can be taken in or let out in the seams to fit any man (1.2.58-59):  she only has ‘virtue enough for a woman, and woman enough for any reasonable man’ (1.1.143-44), a contemptuous attitude.

    §4 Yet he sees no incongruity in translating his former passion for Franceschina into an equally dubious passion for Beatrice, desiring her for her virginity, her ‘private breast’ (2.1.37) – that is, not the public sensuality Franceschina represents – hoping  no other man will desire her and thus cause himself to feel jealousy. She represents virtue, because she has no sexual experience; that is, her value is her absence of sexual knowledge, a blank virtue, untested, empty. For that reason of ‘virtue’, she trusts Freevill, trust being the other prime quality needed in marriage. But Freevill trusts her only because she is a blank virtue, an empty vessel that only he can fill, and he otherwise demonstrates the same contempt for her offer of ‘faith’ (2.1.52) as he showed earlier for Franceshina’s ‘virtue’ in accommodating his lust for her.  Beatrice’s concrete token of her faith, her acceptance of his love as part of their marriage contract, is to give him a ring, which Freevill swears to keep, but does not reciprocate with a token of his own. And herein is the significant twist on Freevill’s view of marriage. Instead of recognizing Beatrice’s ring as a symbol of herself – her love and belief in Freevill, as well as the chastity of her body that she will consecrate to him – he  lends the ring to Malheureux (just as he lends him his former mistress Franceschina, who will receive Beatrice’s ring) as part of the fake death scheme. What then is the value of his promise, when the ring is used subsequently as payment for sexual relations with a courtesan (4.2.17-20)? Is Freevill, as some have claimed, a virtuous Machiavel teaching his friend Malheureux a moral lesson – ‘The end being good, the means are well assign’d’ (4.2.47) – or is he grossly short-sighted in permitting Franceschina to show the ring on her hand to Beatrice as proof of Freevill’s flagrant disloyalty?

    Franceschina … Do not veep, lady. De yong man dat be slain did not love you, for he still lovit me ten tousant tousant times more dearly.

    Beatrice O my heart! I will love you the better; I cannot hate what he affected. O passion! O my grief! which way wilt break, think, and consume?

    Crispinella Peace!

    Beatrice Dear woes cannot speak.

    Franceschina For look you, lady, dis your ring he gave me, vid most bitter jests at your scorn’d kindness.

    Beatrice He did not ill not to love me, but sure he did not well to mock me: gentle minds will pity though they cannot love. (4.4.49-60)

    The worst Beatrice will say of her intended husband is that he didn’t behave like a gentleman. Freevill proves the truth of that statement when he decides immediately to test Beatrice to the breaking-point because he wants everyone to envy him for having a wife who is a saint, a veritable Griselda. He never fears that she will reject him, even though he has symbolically reduced her to the level of a prostitute and exercises tyranny by forcing her to sacrifice even more of her self-esteem for his vanity.

    §5 At the beginning of act 5, Freevill still has no consciousness of any wrong-doing on his part:  he compares Franceschina to Beatrice, asking who would prefer hell to heaven. Beatrice represents

    The modest pleasures of a lawful bed,
    The holy union of two equal hearts,
    Mutually holding either dear as health,
    The undoubted issues, joys of chaste sheets,
    The unfeigned embrace of sober ignorance,   (5.1.68-72)

    and Franceschina, ‘th’unhealthful loins of common loves, / The prostituted impudence of things / Senseless’ (73-5). But he has chosen exactly that ‘impudence’ in engaging passionately with Franceschina, without consideration of the poison he might import into his marriage, or indeed without thinking at all of embracing the ‘modest pleasures’ of ‘equal hearts’ with a wife, whose ‘sober ignorance’ might satisfy him more than all of Franceschina’s sexual expertise. He has not treated Beatrice as an equal, and he does not expect marital sex to match what he enjoyed with his mistress. When he is reunited with Beatrice (who is suicidal with grief), he does not apologize or even seem to understand what he has done to her.  Instead he claims he has never ‘been false to her’ (conveniently forgetting the promise attached to the ring) and shrugging ‘Only I presum’d to try your faith too much, / For which I most am grieved’ (5.2.55-57). Beatrice, unlike her sister, never questions why Freevill should need to test her faith at all, never mind ‘too much’. The mutual consent of marriage expects trust in the partner’s honesty, something Freevill has failed to provide; and it expects respect from the partner, again something Freevill has failed to demonstrate. Even the wedding masque that should celebrate the union of Freevill and Beatrice becomes the means to fake a quarrel between Freevill and Malheureux.Yet in 5.3, the last scene of the play, Beatrice has nothing to say: she is ready to be transformed into the submissive patriarchal wife Freevill desires.

    §6 Crispinella’s views on courtship and marriage differ substantially from her sister Beatrice’s. She claims she is sickened by patriarchal assumptions that women want to kiss or be kissed by male visitors, most of whom are unkempt – with stubble on their cheeks, dirty teeth, and bad breath. She rejects the idea of ‘virtue’ as absence or lack:  ‘this froward, ignorant coyness, sour, austere, lumpish, uncivil privateness, that promises nothing … good for nothing but for nothing’ (3.1.48-52). For her, virtue must be positive and active, valued for the truth and self-confidence it expresses, and not for mere conformity to social custom. She rejects marriage for herself, because ‘husbands are like lots in the lottery: you may draw forty blanks before you find one that has any prize in him’ (3.1.67-69). A man who seems tolerable as a suitor, ‘obsequious’ (3.1.74) and willing to please, will as a husband be ‘inflexible, tyrannous’ (76), and elusive. She therefore rejects the idea of virtue in marriage, because if the wife cannot share equally in the management of the shared life, and if the husband has peremptory control, then whatever virtue came into the marriage vanishes, or is erased and rendered blank. She has no intention of becoming part of a so-called virtuous marriage in which her husband is the rider and she the horse. In any case, she seems to see men as children, quarrelsome, competitive, in need of regulation, as when she sorts out the squabble over the theft of Tysefew’s ring, telling the thief Caqueteur, now her ex-suitor, ‘You are a child; I’ll give you to my nurse’ (3.1.186-87).

    §7 Many critics and audiences enjoy her successful suitor Tysefew because he establishes a witty and playful rapport with Crispinella, appreciating her point of view (apparently) by teasingly agreeing with her, or returning insults she heaps on him. In particular, he seems to agree on the role of a wife:  ‘ By the Lord, I think thou wilt marry shortly, too; thou growest somewhat foolish already’ (4.1.28-29). His remark sets off a stream of abuse from Crispinella about why she will not marry: husbands are arrogant, foul-smelling, complacently foolish, unfaithful, and incapable of loving their wives. Men want to pursue new sexual objects; they don’t want to be bound in duty to one partner only. Surprisingly, her frankness provokes a marriage proposal from Tysefew, despite his mockery of her reading habits as warping her perception of reality – too much romance like Euphues, Palmerin, and The Legend of Lies (47-48) and not enough recognition of an actual lover’s ‘gallantry’ (56) – and more surprisingly Crispinella responds with a series of doubts suggesting nevertheless that she has chosen Tysefew already as her husband. But she wants him to realize that she won’t say yes just because she is attracted to him or because he has asked; and that despite the fact that marriage is an honourable estate, he may yet ‘prove a cuckold’ (71). In other words, she asserts she is her own person, and will never be simply his obedient wife. The result is a key promise from Tysefew:  ‘If you will be mine, you shall be your own. My purse, my body, my heart is yours’ (76-77) – all well and good, but theirs is a joking relationship, and within such a relationship how do couples recognize the truth or seriousness behind assertions if they are not willing to speak seriously without the protective covering of jests? Is everything a tease? Tysefew continues his promise with a caveat:  ‘only be silent in my house, modest at my table, and wanton in my bed, and the Empress of Europe cannot content, and shall not be contented, better’ (77-79).  On the one hand, Crispinella has what she wants in a marriage: control over the household and assurance of love; on the other hand, she is expected to behave like a patriarchal wife, silent, submissive, and sexually available. Is this the quid pro quo she seeks? Or in accepting the match, does she discount the caveat as jest and accept the promise as if it stood alone? The charming courtship of this couple is yet to be tested, and both will no doubt find that they cannot laugh their way out of every problem that will emerge in the marriage. Note, for example, Tysefew’s last words to Crispinella, commenting on Franceschina’s ensnarement of Malheureux:  ‘Who’ll trust fair faces, tears, and vows? ‘Sdeath, not I! / She is a woman – that is, she can lie’ (5.2.132-33). He speaks not of one woman, but of all women, and although Crispinella warns him, ‘turn not a man of time, to make all ill / Whose goodness you conceive not’ (134-35), we cannot tell how Tysefew receives this rebuke (he is silent, but is it the silence of sulky resentment, or the silence of agreement?), and to what extent his masculinist thinking will disrupt a relationship that has, up to now, depended on shared joking, not a serious consideration of gender roles.

    §8 The Mulligrubs are partners in a working marriage that illustrates, albeit satirically, their beliefs as members of the Family of Love. Like all stage-puritans, they seem to be hypocrites, but nevertheless follow their faith in matters of trade, connections with customers, and the relationship with each other as a viably married couple. That faith depended on the ‘service of love’,[5] that is, following a life of loving others, which in the popular imagination became a fantasy of fornication (Franceschina and Mary Faugh are also members of the Family of Love); purifying the self through contemplation, a fairly common act of piety;  and a flexible reading of the bible as more allegory than stricture. For that last reason alone the Familists were understood as heretics who violated scripture, opening the door to violating other spiritual and social concepts that were rooted in the Bible: the ten commandments, the marriage contract, courtroom testimony, and the law in general.[6] Many of the Familist beliefs now no longer seem radical: marriage is a contract, not a sacrament; divorce is better than an unloving marriage; religious toleration should be the law, because all religions have something positive to say, and if a person lies about spiritual devotion or seems to conform to the majority to protect life or livelihood, then he or she is not sinning, but a (potential) victim of coercion, and God will accept only the truth of the heart. The deceit, in other words, will not keep a Familist out of heaven. In Marston’s day, however, many thought the Family of Love was a sect of libertines, spiritually, legally, and sexually. As a result, the Mulligrubs are open to interpretation (pro and con) as a statement on the impact of religious persecution by members of the majority faith, whether religion explicitly comes into the argument or not. For example, we first meet Mulligrub weeping over the theft of a ‘nest of goblets’ (1.1.4-5) from his tavern: as a Familist, he may mourn the failure of his love in trusting others not to cheat him, but Malheureux and Freevill think Mulligrub is the trickster tricked, a sly businessman who adulterates his wine and hence deserves deceit in return. When Mulligrub’s ‘nemesis’, Cocledemoy, robs and abuses Mulligrub several times over during the play, no one, apparently, is offended by these attacks.

    §9 This doubleness marks the Mulligrubs throughout the play. In 2.3, Mistress Mulligrub, as a good tradesman’s wife, keeps the accounts, but is willing to ‘score false’ despite ‘the burden of [her] conscience’ (2.3.11, 9-10). Both Mulligrubs are gullible, testifying to their trust in others and superstitious reliance on ‘wise men’, while cheating customers themselves, but when Mulligrub is ‘shaved’ and ‘trimmed’ of fifteen pounds by the false barber (Cocledemoy), Mistress Mulligrub offers consolation: ‘Good husband, take comfort in the Lord. I’ll play the devil, but I’ll recover it’ (105-6) – that is, she will find a way to fiddle the tavern accounts in order to make back losses without her husband’s ‘good conscience’ (106) being disturbed. Mulligrub trusts his wife absolutely. When he orders new plate, he has it delivered home ‘to my wife’s own hands’ – an order he repeats twice (3.2.17, 19). Meanwhile Mistress Mulligrub demonstrates her business skills at home, serving the delivery-boy Lionel a drink, inquiring after  his master and mistress, and acknowledging the duty of wife to attract customers by being ‘a worthy ornament to a tradesman’s shop’ (3.3.11). Alone, she tells the audience how she encourages ‘gallant’ company by serving elegant meals, lending money, allowing credit, ‘and I trust them; and truly they very knightly and courtly promise fair, give me very good words, and a piece of flesh when time of year serves’ (21-24) – that last perhaps an equivocally sexual admission – but all for the sake of improving the status of her ‘silly husband’:  ‘alas, he knows nothing of it; ’tis I that bear – ’tis I that must bear a brain for all’ (26-28). The limitation on her brain-power soon appears when she sends the newly delivered bowl back ostensibly to be engraved (as the disguised Cocledemoy claims), accepts a jowl of salmon for a dinner-party, and then sends it back too, tricked into believing that the party has been moved to another house to which she and her husband are invited. When the Mulligrubs learn they have both been fooled over the silver and the salmon, they agree to ‘be patient’ and ‘go hear some music’ (3.3.144, 147) instead of squabbling or crying over their losses. Even prayer will not help in such a fallen world, where the ‘service of love’ has no effect. Instead, they recuperate their good spirits as a couple, without offence to others.

    §10 But Cocledemoy continues to torment the Dutch-inflected Mulligrubs for their foreign religion and their willingness to trust others[7] By the end of act 4, Mulligrub is arrested for stealing Cocledemoy’s cloak, and by the end of act 5, he is about to be executed for that theft. His wife stands by him loyally, grieving that he should be ‘cast away for nothing’ (5.3.87). At the same time, recognizing that marriage is a civil arrangement, Mistress Mulligrub welcomes a marriage proposal from the disguised Cocledemoy, but waits to make sure her current husband is dead before she moves on to the next. When he is reprieved, on the basis of confession of his real sins – ‘I confess, I confess, and I forgive as I would be forgiven!’ (5.3.113), a demonstration of the ‘service of love’ he repeats twice more (120, 126-27),  Cocledemoy is (mock-)converted and acquits the vintner in turn (135-36). Mulligrub weeps for joy, and his wife weeps too, although she admits ‘but God knows for what!’ (146).  Again, her remark is capable of two interpretations: she weeps with relief at keeping her husband, the successful partner of many years of earthly joy in the Family of Love; or she weeps with disappointment at missing the chance for an upgraded marriage to Cocledemoy (disguised as a gentleman), although marriage to a self-infatuated trickster suggests little possibility of happiness. The Mulligrubs have a comfortable companionate marriage, not a love-match, but a marriage of convenience, a civil arrangement to their mutual profit. Believing himself about to die, Mulligrub leaves everything to his wife, and compassionately tells his ‘good yoke-fellow’ to leave the place of execution without witnessing his death. She refuses, because, despite the comic sound of her reassurance – ‘i’ faith, I will not leave you until I have seen you hang’ (100-01) – she wants to be acknowledged still as a loving wife, not ‘unkind’ or unnatural in abandoning him to death among hostile strangers. This marriage, despite its little larcenies and follies, is a lasting and happy one. Mulligrub has a successful business, and his wife is a successful manager both of his business and her own. They are truthful to each other when it matters, and respect each other’s feelings. If they bicker, they drop pointless arguments and move on without grudges. Neither is on a pedestal, where Freevill perches Beatrice; neither jokes with or teases the other, screening the truth like Crispinella and Tysefew. This couple, not gently born or bred, is mutually supportive, consoling at times of sadness, sharing religious beliefs. The business of the Mulligrub marriage is to run the tavern, turn a profit, be well-liked by neighbours and customers, and generally enjoy the pleasant life they have created, a little heaven on earth.

    §11 As representative early modern marriages, these three couples are surprising. Assumptions about the wife’s role in particular invert early modern expectations. The chaste, silent, obedient wife seems destined for misery with an arrogant schemer. The smart outspoken wife may be doomed to live with a husband who may, even before they marry, resent being corrected by a woman. But Mistress Mulligrub has a good thing going, a husband who shares responsibilities with her, trusts her judgment, does not blame her for mistakes, and is grateful for her support. The weight of the play’s satire seems directed against the Mulligrubs but the facts of their relationship, whether ‘for better or for worse’, argue instead for the new virtue and mutual trust of this more modern marriage.

     

     


     

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

    1. 1) David Cressy, Birth, Marriage & Death: Ritural, religion, and the life-cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 250-55.
    2. 2) Cressy 264.  See also Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford, Women in Early Modern England (Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1998) on ‘Courtship’, 108-23; they allow women less agency than Cressy suggests, but agree that women below gentry status had more agency than gentlewomen and noblewomen. For a specific case of breach of trust brought by a woman against an actor, see Loreen L. Giese, ‘Theatrical Citings and Bitings’, Early Theatre 1.1 (1998): 113-28. Available at: http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/earlytheatre/vol1/iss1/7
    3. 3) On the difficulties of dealing with ‘custom’, see Andrew Fleck, ‘The Custom of Courtesans and John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan‘,  ANQ  21.3 (Summer 2008): 11-19. Fleck describes Freevill as a ‘young gallant [who] rhapsodizes about the utility of courtesans’ “house[s] of lasciuious entertainement” as a proper defense of marriage: “I would haue married men loue the Stewes, as Englishmen lou’d the low Countreys: wish war should be maintain’d there, least it should come home to their owne dores” (A4r)’. See also William M. Hamlin, ‘Common Customers in Marston’s Dutch Courtesan and Florio’s Montaigne’, SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 52.2 (2012): 407-24. DOI: 10.1353/sel.2012.0015
    4. 4) All quotations are taken from M.L. Wine’s edition of Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan for Regents Renaissance Drama (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), and cited parenthetically in the essay.
    5. 5) Jean Dietz Moss, ‘The Family of Love and English Critics’, Sixteenth Century 6.1 (1975), 39, quoting Hendrik Niclaes, the founder of the sect.
    6. 6) Douglas FitzHenry Jones, A Straying Collective: Familism and the Establishment of Orthodox Belief in Sixteenth-Century England (diss. University of Iowa, 2011), 137.
    7. 7) Jean Howard, ‘Mastering Difference in The Dutch Courtesan‘, Shakespeare Studies 24 (1996):105-17, describes Mulligrub as ‘slow-witted’, a ‘Dutchified Englishman, wallowing in his own sensuality and his things’ (113). But, as I have argued, we can reread the same evidence as being about pleasure and shrewd business sense indicating that both the Mulligrubs are faithful to their sect in the ‘service of love’, enjoying their work and trusting people to be what they seem. The English citizens are the ones who are duping the so-called foreigners and dissenters, not the other way around. For the English, reference to the Low Countries is merely a vulgar joke about sexual activity in the nether regions of the body. Both Donne and Jonson play on those words. On the significance of being Dutch in English eyes, see Marjorie Rubright, ‘Going Dutch in London City Comedy: Economies of Sexual and Sacred Exchange in John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan (1605)’, English Literary Renaissance 40.1 (2010): 88-112, esp. 109-11.