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Prefacing The Dutch Courtesan | The Dutch Courtesan

The Dutch Courtesan

Prefacing The Dutch Courtesan

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    A preface may also be an act of direction, an act of misdirection, or both at the same time.[1]

    §1 While John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan speaks for itself, this essay is concerned with the ways in which the play is also spoken for. As Marie Maclean points out, the prefaces attached to a printed work influence reception in ways that can be both informative and playful, leading or misleading the reader into a particular interpretive mode. The Dutch Courtesan begins, in print at least, long before Freevill’s first line.

    The reader picking up the first quarto, hot off the press in 1605, would have had to flick through an unusual amount of material before reaching Actus primi, Scena prima. A2r and A2v, immediately following the title page, contain a Prologue, a Fabulae argumentum and a Dramatis personae list that collectively suggest ways of encountering the play. Taking each of these in turn, imagining a (slow) reader making their way to the play, it is possible to see how Marston begins to steer his audience towards modes of reception that favour his purposes within the play.

    §2 Prologue.[2]

    Slight hastie labours in this easie Play,
    Present not what you would, but what we may:
    For this vouchsafe to know the onely end
    Of our now studie is, not to offend.
    Yet thinke not, but like others raile we could,
    (Best art Presents, not what it can, but should)
    And if our pen in this seeme over slight,
    We strive not to instruct, but to delight,
    As for some few, we know of purpose here
    To taxe, and scowt: know firme art cannot feare
    Vaine rage: onely the highest grace we pray
    Is, you’le not taxe, untill you judge our Play.
    Thinke and then speake: tis rashnesse, and not wit
    To speake what is in passion, and not judgement fit:
    Sit then, with faire expectance, and survay
    Nothing but passionate man in his slight play,
    Who hath this onely ill: to some deem’d worst,
    A modest diffidence, and selfe mistrust.

    In the first decade of the seventeenth century, cautious prologues offering disclaimers were particularly popular. In 1607, Ben Jonson would prefix the quarto of Volpone with a lengthy epistle addressed to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge defending his art and his particular choices in that comedy; and the 1616 text of Epicoene (first performed 1609/10) included a second Prologue in a similar vein to Marston’s, concluding with the lines:

    If any yet will, with particular sleight
    Of application, wrest what he doth write,
    And that he meant or him or her will say:
    They make a libel which he made a play.[3]

    §3 Jonson’s concern with ‘application’ acts to pre-emptively defend the author against attacks by outraged citizens, displacing the work of relating characters to real persons from the author to the auditor. As almost always, these prologues contain a note of flattery, appealing to the intelligence of the reader/auditor and asking that they exercise that intelligence judiciously. ‘Thinke and then speake: tis rashnesse, and not wit / To speake what is in passion, and not judgement fit’ acts to invite a particular kind of response, a response formed by judicious consideration and enjoyment.

    The disclaiming note goes even further towards dictating the mode within which the play should be enjoyed. In direct contrast to the epistle attached to Jonson’s Volpone, which argues that it is ‘the office of a comic poet to imitate justice and instruct to life, as well as purity of language, or stir up gentle affections,’[4] Marston insists that in The Dutch Courtesan ‘We strive not to instruct, but to delight’ and that the auditor will encounter ‘Nothing but passionate man in his slight play.’ M.L. Wine glosses the latter as referring specifically to Malheureux, ‘whose dilemma, from the comic point of view, is but slight or trifling,’ though there appears no obvious reason that this may not also refer to the subplot of the Mulligrubs.[5] To point specifically to the ‘passionate man’ as the object of ‘delight’ raises the spectre of the humours play, which Martin Wiggins treats as emerging from the ‘plotless comedy’ of Chapman in which characters are distinguished by their ‘behavioural eccentricity.’[6] While there is, of course, much more to the humours comedy than this, Wiggins’s observations are helpful in relation to a play which defines itself as ‘nothing’ other than these passions. We see here a disclaimer which acts to reduce the play, to boil it down to constituent elements that contain nothing more, as in the next section of the paratext.

    §4 Fabulae argumentum.

    The difference betwixt the love of a Curtezan, & a wife, is the full scope of the Play, which intermixed with the deceits of a wittie Citie Jester, fils up the Comedie.

    Two references to ‘full’ and ‘fils’ support the sense that there is ‘nothing’ other than the passions of the play. There is, Marston insists, no hidden agenda here, nothing untoward other than a dispute in love and some witty deceits. Yet the ‘argument of the story’ still has more to say for itself.

    Note, for example, the indefinite articles preceding ‘Curtezan’ and ‘wife’. While the contest is set up between the Courtesan and the wife, the elephant in the room is the object of their competing loves, the man in relation to whom the identity of the ‘wife’ is fixed. We might note that Beatrice is in fact not yet Freevill’s wife but his fiancé, and a fiancé who spends much of the play assuming her betrothed is dead. The absence of Freevill is striking here, displacing the ‘playful cruelty’ that Matthew Steggle argues is typical of Marston’s writing with the impression that the play will stage a debate between two different forms of love.[7]

    The debate is explicitly encountered within the play only in the words of Freevill himself, particularly in V.i.

    O heaven: what difference is in women, and their life?
    What man, but worthie name of Man:
    Would leave the modest pleasures of a lawfull bed:
    The holie union of two equall harts,
    Mutuallie holding either deere as health,
    The undoubted yssues, Ioyes of chast sheetes,
    The unfained imbrace of sober Iignorance,
    To twine the unhealthfull loynes of common Loves,
    The prostituted impudence of things.
    Senselesse like those by Cataracks of Nyle,
    Their use so vile, takes awaie sense   (G4r)

    §5 Fascinatingly, the difference between the love of a courtesan and a wife-to-be becomes the full scope of Freevill’s play. Although the initial trick is directed against Malheureux, the effect of the trick is to place increasingly significant focus on the distinction between Franceschina and Beatrice.

    The role of the fabulae argumentum, then, would seem to be to point towards the moral discovery that Freevill makes towards the play’s end. Whether one reads Freevill’s earlier comments on brothels – ‘Most necessary buildings, Malheureux. Ever since my intention of marriage, I do pray for their continuance’ (I.i.59-60) – as sincere or satirical, the effect of the fabulae argumentum is to imply a moral debate that directs the reader towards the relatively sententious tone of this speech. The question that remains open, pleasingly, is whether or not Marston is attempting genuinely to draw the reader’s attention to this aspect of the comedy, or if he is engaging in a deliberate act of misdirection.

    The ‘deceits of a wittie Citie Jester’ are almost certainly those of Cocledemoy, though one might speculate on the possibility of a reference to Freevill. The acknowledgement of the subplot seems a necessary qualification to the assertion that the combination of stories ‘fils up the Comedie’. It is worth considering how the following section of the paratext further affects this reading, however.

    §6 Dramatis Personae

    Francischina } A Dutch Curtezan. Mary Faugh } An old woman. Sir Lionell Freevill, Sir Hubert Subboys } Two old Knights. Young Freevill } Sir Lion: Sonne. Beatrice, Crispinella } Sir Huberts Daughters. Putifer } Their Nurse. Tysefew } A blunt Gallant. Caqueteur} A pratling Gull. Malheureux } Young Freevills unhappie friend. Cocledemoy } A knavishly witty City companion. Maister Mulligrub } A Vintner. Mistresse Mulligrub } His wife. Maister Burnish } A Goldsmith. Lionell } His man. Holifernes Rains-cure } A Barbers boy. Three Watchmen.

    Cocledemoy has now been described as both ‘wittie Citie Jester’ and ‘knavishly witty City companion’. ‘Jester’ clearly indicates ‘one who performs jests’ rather than a more formal definition of a clown, and ‘companion’ in combination with ‘knavishly’ appears to carry the sense of definition 4 in the OED, ‘As a term of familiarity or contempt. Cf. ‘fellow’. (Cf. German geselle, French petit compagnon.).’[9] The character is defined in both descriptions as being ‘witty’ and of the ‘City’, and it is in these terms that the reader is most clearly instructed to think of Cocledemoy.

    Few of Marston’s plays include dramatis personae lists, but those that do date from the same period of work for the Children of the Queen’s Revels and contain a great deal of interpretive information. The quarto of Parasitaster (1606) includes the following:


    In this list, we see how judgements are set up concerning the characters before they have even been introduced. Gonzago is ‘weake’, Don Zuccone is ‘causlesly iealous’. These are far more than the relationship descriptors typical of Shakespeare’s dramatis peronsae lists, informing the reader not only of the character’s hierarchical position but also of their character and disposition. The use of these terms foregrounds the overall arc of the characters rather than their initial positions, inviting the reader to see the characters as types whose paths and personalities are mapped ahead of time.

    §7 The most significant aspect of this list is, of course, the foregrounding of Franceschina at the head of the list, sharing priority here with the title of the play. As Maclean argues, ‘the title offers guidance, attempts to control the reader’s approach to the text, and the reader’s construction of that text.’[11] Naming the play after Franceschina and foregrounding her in the list of parts has an inevitable influence on how the reader approaches the text. Despite the fact that the play opens and closes with the Mulligrub plot, and that Franceschina’s role is far from being the play’s largest, the title sets her up as the key to the play. Indeed, she competes throughout with Freevill for control of the play’s intrigues, with Malheureux becoming a passive figure batted back and forth between the two. It is significant that Malheureux is cast in the same vein as ‘Freevills unhappie friend’; ‘the unhappie’ of course, speaks to the character’s discontent, but also to his unhappiness, the ‘bad fortune’ that is signified in his name (mal heur = bad fate) and throughout his experiences in the play.

    To place Franceschina at the top of the dramatis personae, the position often reserved for the ruling figure of the play, perhaps goes further to say something about the fascination she holds over men. Served by Mary Faugh (who sits immediately below her, unusually placing two female characters at the head of the play), lusted after by both Freevill and Malheureux, and able to manipulate the entire cast of the play, there is indeed a power to the character’s interactions. Wine argues

    [that Franceschina] should give the play its title is not surprising since, being a “punk rampant” and a “woman of sin and natural concupiscence”, she is the incarnation of what man becomes when his passions, like hers, run rampant.


    Franceschina merely threatens the comic world of the play; its basic sanity places her in proper perspective. From beginning to end she appears as a grotesque, even an absurd, figure, not as a symbol, ultimately, or overwhelming evil or even as a victim.[12]

    Wine’s reading rather acts to displace Franceschina from the privileged position that the dramatis personae list puts her in, suggesting that it is the idea rather than the person of the Courtesan that is significant. Dramatically, however, she is much more than a threat. Like Angellica Bianca in Aphra Behn’s The Rover (a play indebted to this), she shapes the conditions of the environment that receives the city wits and exercises an unusual amount of agency in determining the fates of men, even if Freevill’s own stratagems ensure that this takes place within a controlled set of possibilities.

    §8 The other significant value judgements are those accorded to the relatively minor characters Caqueteur and Tysefew, respectively ‘a prattling Gull’ and ‘A blunt Gallant’. Whereas the dramatis personae of Parasitaster includes a wide range of descriptions, The Dutch Courtesan is most keen to distinguish between the four wits who open the play. Freevill, of course, as the leading role, needs no differentiation, but his three friends are given distinct characteristics in their descriptors to enable the reader to begin distinguishing roles and understanding the dynamics of this group. Caqueteur’s role is brief, confined to four lines in I.i and the banter of III.i (the character does not even return for the final scene); Tysefew has a larger role, and is indeed characterised by his ‘bluntness’ in reporting the fate of Malheureux in Act V. The distinctions are obvious in the characters’ reportage of themselves, but the dramatis personae list privileges them beyond the significance of their roles, suggesting stock character types that ensure the four who appear together with Mulligrub are not seen as an equal group of comrades along the lines of, for example, Truewit, Clerimont and Dauphine of Epicoene. The prioritisation of these types would seem to promise a comedy of city types that in the event is given short shrift. As the Prologue points out, however,

    Slight hastie labours in this easie Play,
    Present not what you would, but what we may.

    §9 Conclusion

    Is it the case, then, that the paratexts are deliberately misleading? The play’s title, prologue, cast list and argument set up a series of expectations about characters and action that are not entirely met; or, at least, imply ways of reading the play that are not necessarily the most immediately obvious priorities on stage.

    The question remains of how we use this information in preparing a production for the stage. To produce a play called The Dutch Courtesan that does not prioritise Franceschina would seem perverse, yet does the play’s title, as with the red herrings about Caqueteur and Tysefew, push us towards a way of reading that obscures other important readings? Is the promise of the Argument that the debate between Franceschina and Beatrice’s modes of love is the full matter of the play to be taken seriously; in which case, should Beatrice be foregrounded more prominently than her bracketed, mundane description as ‘[one of] Sir Huberts Daughters’ promises? If we are, as the Prologue suggests, to ‘Sit, then, with fair expectance’, what exactly should an audience be inducted to expect? This brief overview suggests some of the terms on which Marston sets out his play to be received, but these are terms which the play itself freely (re)negotiates as each act progresses and as Freevill and Franceschina jostle for control.



    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

    1. 1) Marie Maclean, ‘Pretexts and Paratexts: The Art of the Peripheral’, New Literary History 22.2 (1991): 273-79 (277).
    2. 2) The text is printed as in the 1605 quarto, with ‘u/v’, ‘i/j’ and ‘ae’ standardised to modern usage.
    3. 3) Ben Jonson, Epicene, or The Silent Woman, ed. Richard Dutton (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003), Prologue 2. 11-14.
    4. 4) Ben Jonson, Volpone, ed. Gordon Campbell, in The Alchemist and Other Plays (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995), Epistle 107-9.
    5. 5) M.L. Wine, ed., The Dutch Courtesan (London: Edward Arnold, 1965), p. 3.
    6. 6) Martin Wiggins, Shakespeare and the Drama of His Time (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), pp. 66-7.
    7. 7) Matthew Steggle, ‘Urbane John Marston: Obscenity, Playfulness, Co-operation’ in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Contemporary Dramatists, ed. Ton Hoenselaars (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012), p. 73.
    8. 8) ‘Dramatis personae’. Image adapted from EEBO holdings,
    9. 9) See OED entry on “companion, n.1”.
    10. 10) Parasitaster (London, 1606), A3r.
      Image adapted from EEBO holdings,
    11. 11) Maclean, 275.
    12. 12) Wine, p.xix.