The Dutch Courtesan

Northern barbers and fallen women: The Dutch Courtesan and the 1604-5 repertoire

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    233m§1 James Shapiro’s engaging study 1599 encouraged us to think about a single year as a moment in early modern experience that we might zoom in on and unpack in specific ways.[1] If we apply these ideas to a repertoire as opposed to a year, a repertoire stretching across the years of 1604-5, to which date The Dutch Courtesan is most frequently ascribed, then it proves insightful to look at other plays which were being staged by the adult companies at the Bankside open-air theatres and by the children’s companies at the indoor theatres in the Blackfriars region of the city at the time when this play was being developed for the stage. The kinships and analogues that can be identified as a result can tell us much about the cultural and political ‘moment’ to which Marston was both responding, and which he was seeking to shape.

    §2 The precise dating of The Dutch Courtesan remains a point of scholarly conjecture. The title-page of the 1605 Quarto publication tells us that ‘It was Playd in the Blacke-Friars, by the Children of her Maiesties Reuels’, and we know that the play was entered on the Stationers’ Register in June of that year. Some critics have suggested that the play might have been composed as early as 1603, when the Children of Her Majesty’s Revels were being formed from the Children of the Chapel Royal. However, the particular brand of anti-Scots satire in the play encourages us to think of The Dutch Courtesan as a play that, like a number of others in these years –  including the collaborative Blackfriars play Eastward Ho! (1605) in which Marston was also involved as a writer – was responding to the particular impacts and effects of an influx of Scottish courtiers into London society, following the journey down from Edinburgh made by the Scottish court when James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603.

    §3 Act II Scene iii is the best example of this brand of topical social satire in action in the play.[2] Cocledemoy persuades the gullible young barber’s apprentice, the superbly named Holofernes Reinscure to let him take his place and head to Mulligrub the vintner’s house to shave him. (Holofernes’ surname refers to the kidneys and alerts audiences to barber-surgeons’ reputation for acting as local medics to their communities, despite the best efforts of the increasingly professionalized Surgeons’ company to restrict their practices.) Cocledemoy fashions his very particular disguise with the express purpose of ‘shaving’ Mulligrub in the more negative sense of the word – i.e. cheating or tricking him – onstage and in full sight and sound of the now complicit audience:

    And if I shave not Master Mulligrub, my wit has no edge, and I may go cack in my pewter. Let me see – a barber. My scurvy tongue will discover me; must dissemble, must disguise. For my beard, my false hair; for my tongue – Spanish, Dutch, or Welsh; no, a Northern barber; very good.
    (II.i.234-40)

    §4 The negative connotations of the name that Cocledemoy assumes for his dissembling purposes are fairly self-explanatory: ‘Andrew Shark’ continues this association with illicit practices and the deception of your average Londoner. Barber-surgeons were regularly stereotyped on the early modern stage as individuals operating at the edge of legality; so it was an association most Blackfriars spectators would be primed to make.

    §5 In a telling exchange with Mulligrub, staged midway through the shaving ritual (and therefore with Mulligrub suitably obscured by shaving foam), Cocledemoy as ‘Andrew Shark’ claims to have been shaving the Court (presumably in both senses of the word) for ‘this two year’ (II.iii.28). If he is intended to be understood as part of the Scottish Jacobean entourage which caused such resentment and backbiting in London during these years, then this dates the play fairly tightly to 1605. Certainly that dating draws The Dutch Courtesan into an even closer relationship with Eastward Ho!, for whose anti-Scottish content Jonson and Chapman (though oddly not Marston) were temporarily held in prison at the king’s pleasure.[3]

    §6 Other significant ways in which The Dutch Courtesan links to Eastward Ho!, and the manifold ways in which a Blackfriars repertoire was developing at this time, can also be identified in the deliberate verisimilitude of both plays’ cultural and social geography. If Eastward Ho! is often seen as a key text in the formation of what came to be known as ‘city comedy’, a genre for which Jonson and Thomas Middleton became renowned, the beginnings of Marston’s experiments in this genre can be seen in The Dutch Courtesan. In the scenes briefly quoted above, there is reference to the ‘Three Razors’, where Holofernes’ boss has his shop (II.i.220); and Cocledemoy refers to the conduits and fountains at Greenwich (II.iii. 49-51) and to the bears kept for the purposes of public baitings at Paris Garden on Bankside (II.iii.65-8). Cocledemoy’s repertoire of disguises in the play becomes in itself a point of entry to the multiple trades and practices that could be encountered on the city’s streets: a Scottish barber-surgeon, as we have seen, but also a French pedlar selling soap, and a city bellman who comes to converse with Mulligrub in the public stocks. There are further references to puppet shows and civic entertainments – Crispinella discoursing on the contemporary fashion for ‘chopines’ or high heeled shoes from Italy observes: ‘And yet all will scarce make me so high as one of the giant’s stilts that stalks before my Lord Mayor’s pageant’ (III.i.139-41) – and to religious practices, to well-known prisons such as Bridewell (I.ii.69), and to shopping and trade. All of this scenic detail captures something of London in 1604-5, including its soundscapes, not just through its synecdochal representation of the influx of Scottish accents in the Shark persona, but also through the identity and language of the play’s female protagonist Franceschina. She herself stands for the significant presence of Dutch immigrant communities in London, including the theatregoing districts such as the Blackfriars precinct, where their skills in textiles and related crafts were much in demand.[4] The complex cosmopolitanism of an emergent capital city is beautifully captured through theatre repertoire in this way.

    §7 Another informing geographical site or location that impacts on the content of this play is that of the Inns of Court, the training grounds for would-be lawyers that were within walking distance of the Blackfriars Theatre where The Dutch Courtesan was staged, and where Marston himself had studied. It has been suggested that much of the audience for Blackfriars plays was comprised of ‘termers’ at the Inns, and a number of plays do seem to make conscious reference to them, either through direct allusion or through characterisation in order to capitalise on this fact. Certainly, both Young Freevill and Cocledemoy in The Dutch Courtesan are fine working examples of this; their lengthy discourses on prostitution (Freevill at I.i.118-61) and on bawds (Cocledemoy at I.ii.37-69) are exercises in paradox familiar from the Inns’ debating practices and training in rhetoric which Marston himself would have undergone. Here, for example, is Cocledemoy in full flow:

    List, then. A bawd. First for her profession or vocation: it is the most worshipful of all the twelve companies; for as that trade is most honourable that sells the best commodities – as the draper is more worshipful than the pointmaker, the silkman more worshipful than the draper, and the goldsmith more worshipful than both […] – so the bawd above all: her shop has the best ware[…]                    (I.ii.37-45)

    There are some wonderfully caustic embedded allusions here to the power of the London craft guilds and the various orders of precedent they were so keen to maintain in the civic rituals and pageantry that we have already seen as forming part of the background fabric to this prototype city comedy.

    §8 The underlying theme of prostitution, played out through the role of Franceschina, the Dutch Courtesan of the title, and the bawd character Mary Faugh, is another important way of thinking about connections in and across theatre repertoires and programmes at this time. This particular dramatic theme might be understood less as responding to precise topical happenings in 1604-5, as was the case with the anti-Scottish references alluded to earlier, than revealing a conscious response to theatre fashions in that moment and the commercial demands on the professional playhouses to appeal to audiences in this way. Jean Howard has argued for the Blackfriars Theatre as a space particularly alert to issues of novelty and fashion and furthermore indicated how plays like Eastward Ho! were keen to display the latest objects and fashions on the stage as part of their plotlines.[5] The Dutch Courtesan might be seen to be effecting something similar through its engagement with a fashion for a certain kind of plot at this time, what Martin Wiggins has referred to elsewhere as ‘the whore play’, a phenomenon that appears to have enjoyed audience favour at both the open air amphitheatres of the Bankside and the somewhat more elite, and certainly more expensive, candlelit environs of the Blackfriars.[6] Undoubtedly, when we put Marston’s play alongside William Shakespeare’s Othello, a 1604 tragedy known to have been performed at Court and probably also staged at the Globe by the King’s Men in that year, and which works out the brutal consequences of a previously virtuous woman (Desdemona) being publicly slandered as a whore by her husband’s military colleague, the ensign Iago, we can see unexpected connections across both genres and playhouses. Also in 1604, Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton embarked on their paired play project, The Honest Whore. Part 1 was staged at the Blackfriars in 1604 and Part 2 in 1606. The latter play, though ostensibly set in Milan, features an extended final scene in Bridewell, which was the primary prison in which ‘fallen’ women were incarcerated at this time. I have spoken elsewhere of the significance of the sheer proximity of Bridewell to the Blackfriars Theatre and the fact that the everyday sights and sounds that it cast out into the London environment played back into the plotlines and events of the plays staged there.[7] This would include an almost daily sight of women being punished for prostitution, dressed in blue livery and publicly paraded as part of their punishment.[8]  In this way, once again, we can witness early modern drama engaging in a complex call and response mode both with the city in which it was staged and performed (and, as we have seen, frequently located) and with the practices of the different playwrights who contributed to its repertoires.

    §9 Some decades ago, the critic Robert Presson proposed that The Dutch Courtesan was a direct riposte to The Honest Whore, recasting its theme in a wholly darker and more satirical register.[9] But looking at the 1604-5 repertoire equally suggests that Marston was continuing a reworking of another key genre of the time that he had commenced with his brutally sardonic (and highly influential) play, The Malcontent (1604): revenge drama. Franceschina is a defiantly female take on the revenge ‘hero’ pioneered by Thomas Kyd in The Spanish Tragedy through his character of the grieving Knight-Marshal Hieronimo. She even ends scenes with her declarations of intent in ways that consciously rework Malevole in The Malcontent:

    Now ick sall revange […] Freevill is dead; Malheureux sall hang; and mine rival, Beatrice, ick sall make run mad.                (IV.iii.37-41)

    Francheschina, however, merely mourns a thwarted relationship, and in that conscious rewriting and act of call and response Marston invites his city audiences to think about the value systems of the day. Thinking about The Dutch Courtesan in the wider landscape of 1604-5 can help us, then, to think about topicality and about the relevance of space, place and time to theatre programming, but it also guides us to thinking in more detail about the politics of rewriting in the hothouse commercial environment of the early modern theatre.

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
    1. 1) James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (London: Faber, 2005). See also the special Shakespeare Quarterly edition on 1594: 61:4 (2010).
    2. 2) All citations are taken from Macdonald P. Jackson and Michael Neill (eds) The Selected Plays of John Marston (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
    3. 3) For a fuller discussion of the Eastward Ho! episode, see Ian Donaldson, Ben Jonson: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 193-223.
    4. 4) On the Dutch immigrant communities in London, see Natasha Korda, Labor’s Lost: Women’s Work and the Early Modern English Stage (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), especially Chapter 1; and Deborah Harkness, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
    5. 5) Jean E. Howard, ‘Bettrice’s Monkey: Staging Exotica in Early Modern London Comedy’ in A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion ed. Jyotsna G. Singh (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), p. 327.
    6. 6) Martin Wiggins, in private correspondence.
    7. 7) See the public lecture available on the ShaLT (Shakespearean London Theatres) site, first given at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 5 May 2013: http://www.shalt.org.uk [last accessed 19 May 2013].
    8. 8) On Bridewell, see Paul Griffiths, Lost Londons: Change, Crime, and Control in the Capital City, 1550-1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 83.
    9. 9) Robert K. Presson, ‘Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan: The Study of an Attitude in Adaptation’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 55 (1953): 406-13.