Research Essays

City Comedy and Material Life: Things in The Dutch Courtesan

§1 Take a moment to imagine yourself amongst the audience for this play at the Blackfriars theatre, a few years into the reign of James I. You might be a wealthy merchant playgoer, dealing in the commodities on which London’s prosperity was based and sensitive to the value of things. The city outside the theatre doors was where the vast majority of things first arrived in England, and its prodigious expansion had further fuelled that import trade because more people consumed more and more goods. Up the Thames sailed boats from abroad carrying linens, silks, calicoes and threads, metalwares, wine and brandy, fruit, raisins, currants, pepper, sugar, tobacco, and raw materials like silk, flax and hemp, wool, dyes and timber.1See Table 10, Brian Dietz, ‘Overseas Trade and Metropolitan Growth’, in A.L. Beier and Roger Finlay eds., London 1500-1700, the making of the metropolis (Longman, 1986) p. 124-5. Down the Thames in smaller boats and along the carrier routes out of London went many of these same goods again, redistributed to regional ports and towns, and the city received in return the food and manufactured goods from England’s regions. Into the provinces with these goods went new ideas about social mobility and the novel patterns of consumption that both underpinned and defined them – a static social order was being replaced by one in which you were what you consumed.

§2 Outside the doors of the theatre, then, was a city in a state of flux, like a chrysalis half way through a change of unprecedented speed from medieval city to early modern metropolis. The fabulously rich and the wretchedly poor, the new and the old, the innovative and the old-fashioned rubbed shoulders with one another in ways that were often dangerously and unpleasantly intimate. During the sixteenth century alone, London’s population rose from 50,000 to something like 180,000, changing everything about everyday life – the environment, social structure, urban politics, and cultural life of the city.2For demographic trends see Paul Griffiths and Mark Jenner, ‘Introduction’, in Griffiths and Jenner eds., Londinopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London (Manchester, 2000), pp. 2-3; Steve Rappaport, Worlds within Worlds (Cambridge University Press 2002), pp. 4-5, 61-86; Vanessa Harding, ‘The Population of Early Modern London: a Review of the Published Evidence’, London Journal 15, 111-28. It encompassed tiny houses, like that of Widow Kinricke in Billiter Lane with one room on each of three floors, one above the other (only one fireplace and no privy), but also dwellings of the enormous dimensions of old monastic buildings and the mansion houses of the rich on the Strand, or civic spaces like the guildhall and the huge halls of craft guilds, all built on a large scale to express the power and wealth of their builders.3John Schofield, The Building of London: From the Conquest to the Great Fire, (Colonnade Books, 1984) p. 158.

§3 Although these spaces were largely intermingled, the first audiences of this play were alive to the distinct nature of different areas of their city. The old, mercantile city within the walls; Cheapside, its ceremonial and commercial centre; the gentrified and professionalised West End, with its large aristocratic houses and Inns of Court conducting legal business, where buying and suing went on close to the palace at Whitehall and sellers of luxury goods such as musicians and tomb sculptors followed; and then the slow bleed into the suburbs – the expanding areas of production in the northern, eastern and southern suburbs, and the ‘western edge’, with its skilled metal-workers: ‘goldsmiths in Holborn, Fleet Street and the Strand; the cutlers of St Martin le Grand; and the jewellers, engravers, gilders, and silversmiths of Westminster’.4For Cheapside see Paul Griffiths, ‘Politics made visible: order, residence and uniformity in Cheapside, 1600-1645’, in Griffiths and Jenner eds., Londinopolis , p. 176; A. L. Beier, ‘Engine of Manufacture: The Trades of London’, in Beier and Finlay eds., p. 155. London’s wealth was starting to be focussed in the West.

§4 But the vast majority of Londoners did not lead the way in consumption, they were the producers of goods, and the play’s first audiences understood the skill and labour that went into the manufacture of material culture. Most Londoners made something – at the start of the seventeenth century just two of the large urban parishes housed 130 different trades between them.5Beier, ‘Engine of Manufacture’, p. 147. And around the edges of the reputable trades who took part in the civic life of the capital lurked a murky underworld. Street sellers who were reputed, at least, ‘to tour the city seeking to buy stolen jewels and gold and silver plate’; strangers who lived in ‘chambers, garrets and other secret places’ cutting ‘deceitful jewels’ and selling on the plate stolen by others.6Griffiths, ‘Politics made visible’, pp. 178-9.

§5 Because they lived in this metropolis, the audience that gathered to watch The Dutch Courtesan was hyper-sensitive to the nature of things – to their quality and their quantity, their material and their workmanship, their ubiquity or rarity, and their price – and to the place of those things in the city. So the play opens in a way not untypical of city comedies:

Enter three Pages with lights, Mulligrub, Freevill, Malheureux, Tysefew and Caqueteur

Freevill Nay comfort, my good host Shark, my good Mulligrub.

Malheureux Advance thy snout; do not suffer thy sorrowful nose to drop on thy Spanish leather jerkin, most hardly honest Mulligrub.

Freevill What, cogging Cocledemoy is run away with a nest of goblets? True, what then? They will be hammered out well enough, I warrant you. (I.i.1-7)7All references are to John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. David Crane (A&C Black, 1997).

§6 Marston sets the scene economically – Mulligrub is a host, so an innkeeper, and he needs comfort for his sorrows because, it transpires, he has been robbed. But just as carefully set up are the economic and social dynamics of the relationship between these men, and this is done through the identification of significant objects. As Malheureux suggests Mulligrub lifts his nose the audience’s attention is drawn to the jerkin on which it has been resting – the detail here (not just any jerkin but a ‘Spanish leather’ one) draws that attention, just as it might draw the actor’s hand to the leather to feel its quality. This example from the Museum of London collection is intricately scored and pinked, the texture of its decoration contrasting with the smoothness of the high-quality leather. It signifies Mulligrub’s wealth but also sets him apart from the gallants in their silks – a leather jerkin is a practical object, however expensive it might be, and improves with wear in a way that more delicate fabrics do not. Mulligrub’s nose falls because of a financial loss; the jerkin is an economic investment; he must not drop the bodily fluids of his distress upon it.

Leather Jerkin, c. 1550-1600. Museum of London.

§7 The other objects, the cause of the snot-inducing distress, are a stolen nest of goblets – a very expensive set of matching items of silverware. They too point up the innkeeper’s curious status. Urban inventories show the gentry owning large amounts of silver plate, but their collections are often surpassed by those of inns – many customers simultaneously expected to be able to take their meals from dining equipment of at least as high a quality as they were familiar with at home. So men like Mulligrub became rich on the spending of their social betters, and their household goods rose in status to meet their superiors’ expectations.

§8 These tiny details, then, pinpoint a complex social dynamic between wealth and status for early modern men and women. They spell out loudly the story of the Capital’s internal manufacturing skills and its import trades, but they also animate these bald economic tales of production and consumption: they show them being used in the subtle negotiation of social competition. The wonderful variety of London’s things – the explosion of different qualities and styles and values – is mapped onto the increasingly complex divisions of urban status. For that reason the objects in city comedies are usually deeply imbedded in the dialogue of the plays – they are an integral part of interaction, of social and sexual exchange. And that gives them a fundamentally mediatory quality – they actively intervene in the relationships between characters, creating and altering or extending them. Material culture is structural to the characterization of city comedy.

§9 But of course the goblets are no longer in use where they are supposed to be. Cocledemoy represents that seedy underside of London life: the illegitimate retail trade of fencing stolen goods, and the illicit manufacturing going on in back rooms, away from the prying eyes of the trade guilds, in which the alchemical magic of turning flat metal into raised and burnished silver plate is reversed – objects hammered out until their distinguishing marks of ownership and style are obliterated. A status invested in objects (literally in the case of silverware because its material has intrinsic value equivalent to coinage) is a mutable one, one that can quickly be morphed into something else by the unjust practices of the city. The materiality of process, of making and unmaking things and status, is firmly set up in the opening lines of the play and connected to the loss of reputation and identity that at points takes The Dutch Courtesan close to tragedy.

§10 Elsewhere on this website you’ll find a series of fascinating object biographies, where Ollie Jones aims to bring back the wider resonances of some of the things in this play, and to restore their contemporary valences. This essay asks what happens if we look at them as a group – if we try to lay out the play’s world of goods and see the connections between the objects it stages in the same way as we might plot the appearance of its characters or the development of its narrative threads. Both as staged props and as objects referenced in dialogue, the play concerns itself with a large number of things – with blackbirds, larks and woodcocks to eat, goblets, clyster-pipes, satin, basins and razors, pewter to cack in, a standing collar and skirts lined with taffety sarcenet, chopines, sweet meats, camphor balls, diaper napkins, perfumed sheets, and a caudle of cock-stones, to list a few. By and large they are ‘non-essential’ things, surplus to everyday existence – the little extras that define elevated urban status. These perfumed objects and expensive clothings are the very fabric of the city – a specifically urban materiality that gives a city comedy its distinctive domain. Cocledemoy’s comic language in particular is freighted with endless references to stuff – he offers, for instance, ‘to wring the withers of my gouty, barmed, spigot-frigging jumbler of elements, Mulligrub’, stating, ‘I hold it as lawful as sheep-shearing, taking eggs from hens, caudles from asses, or buttered shrimps from horses’ (III.ii.37-41). Material culture, as props and as the object-heavy dialogue of characters, constructs the environment within which the action of the play takes place.

§11 But within the lists of fripperies are objects that rise to the surface of the audience’s attention, and these are the ones that do significant narrative work. Amongst the variety that opens the play up to the town’s plenty, the visual concentration in the first two acts is on the ring that Tysefew lends to Caqueteur in I.i and its opposite number, the one that Beatrice gives to Freevill in II.i. The first exchange sets up the metaphorical usefulness of jewellery:

Caqueteur [to Tysefew] Is it a right stone? It shows well by candlelight.

[Tysefew] So do many things that are counterfeit, but I assure you this is a right diamond.

Caqueteur Might I borrow it of you? It will not a little grace my finger in visitation of my mistress.

[Tysefew] Why, use it, most sweet Caqueteur, use it. (I.i.47-52)

§12 The genuineness of the stone plays against the pretence of its use. Like other early modern plays, The Dutch Courtesan makes much of an object’s capacity to act as a token. Beatrice gives her ring to Freevill as a way of stabilizing his outburst of passion:

Beatrice Dear my loved heart, be not so passionate;
Nothing extreme lives long.

Freevill                                                      But not to be
Extreme – nothing in love’s extreme! – my love
Receives no mean.

Beatrice                           I give you faith; and, prithee,
Since, poor soul, I am so easy to believe thee,
Make it much more pity to deceive me.
Wear this slight favour in my remembrance.

Throweth down a ring to him

Freevill Which when I part from, hope, the best of life,
Ever part from me.                          (II.i.49-57)

§13 The ring literally negotiates the space that divides them in this large-scale, passionate scene, moving between the two lovers as a token of their intent. Token here means a sign or symbol, but also an evidence, something that demonstrates the truth of a situation – there is a verb ‘to token’, showing just how active these objects are expected to be in their mediations. The language is picked up in the other plot when Mrs Mulligrub, desperate to know who to trust with her plate, asks a disguised Cocledemoy ‘By what token? Are you sent by no token?’ (III.iii.38). The value of Beatrice’s ring is then debated by her betrothed and his courtesan in terms reminiscent of Bassanio and Portia’s tussles over a similarly-given token in The Merchant of Venice (IV.i):

Franceschina [seeing and grasping a ring on Freevill’s finger] Pridee now, ‘tis but a toy, a very trifle.

Freevill I care not for the value, Frank, but i’faith –

Franceschina I’fait, me must needs have it. (II.ii.72-4)

§14 In an explicitly comic rendering of this trope, Tysefew’s ring reappears in III.i, and Caquetur is quizzed by Crispinella about its ownership: ‘Is this yours to give?’(158), she asks, hinting at an allusory discussion of the ring as heart, but Caqueteur turns instead to the explicitly economic: ‘‘Tis a pawn, i’faith, or else you should have it’(165-6). The opposite of the token-as-evidence, a pawn’s suspended ownership renders it a dubious object in both symbolic and practical terms.

§15 The significance of the object’s intrinsic value in relation to the quality of the emotional bond it signifies is fully explored as it makes its way into a prostitute’s lodgings on Freevill’s finger and then into her increasingly obsessive imagination: she will have sex with Malheureux only when she is satisfied that its owner is dead, so it comes to symbolise something else: ‘Dis token of his death sall satisfy. / He has a ring, as dear as the air to him…’ (II.ii.184-5). It is lent by Freevill to Malheureux as a false token of that death, but one that in fact teaches its new wearer a lesson; it is produced by the prostitute to its first wearer as a sign of her beloved’s demise (‘For look you, lady, dis your ring he gave me, vid most bitter jests at your scorned kindness.’ IV.iv.57-8); and then given back to its rightful owner Freevill, in disguise, to vex her with. All the time, attention is drawn to the relationship between characters as the prop appears and disappears from sight: ‘She would have had this ring’, Freevill says to Malheureux in III.i, presumably pointing to it, and his friend’s reply insists upon an intimate gesture between the two actors: ‘Ay, and this heart; and in true proof you were slain, I should bring her this ring, from which she was assured you would not part until from life you parted’(230-3). The ring and the heart which link Freevill and Beatrice also, here, call into question the strength of the relationship between the men, recalling Malheureux’s question in II.i when he discusses his feelings for Franceschina, ‘Shall I not offend the vow-band of our friendship?’ (97). Marston uses the stability of the object – the same wherever it appears – to bring out the fickleness of the relationships it comes to symbolise.

§16 In Act III, he performs a slightly different trick with the plate with which the play began, and the associated paraphernalia of dining. Scene ii opens with Master Burnish the goldsmith and Lionel his boy, and Mulligrub ‘with a standing cup in his hand, and an obligation in the other’, the former’s significance strung out in Burnish’s joyous recitation of the contents of the latter, ‘A standing cup parcel-gilt, of thirty-two ounces, eleven pound, seven shillings, the first of July. Good plate, good man, good day, good all!’(3-6). At the other door enters Cocledemoy ‘disguised like a French pedlar’, London’s legitimate and illegitimate exchanges of goods represented on either side of the stage like opposing factions.Unlike the ring, it is the plate’s mutability that is stressed – a set of bowls that becomes a standing cup that might or might not be engraved. Lionel is holding it as he enters at the start of the next scene, but Cocledemoy almost immediately exits with it, allegedly so that Mr Mulligrub’s ‘arms may be graved o’ the side’(III.iii.36). His wife re-enters mid-way through the scene ‘with Roger, Christian, other Servants and furniture for the table’: ‘Come, spread these table diaper napkins and – do you hear? – perfume!’ (47-8).Mrs Mulligrub’s perfumed parlour with its expensive diaper napkins is to be crowned with the engraved plate – decorated with a coat of arms to which her husband is not, of course, entitled, in a social scenario which is a kind of parody of elite dining (she perfumes, in fact, to get rid of the inn-smell of tobacco). The frantic movements of wife and plate across the stage and the endlessly delayed meal produce a kind of mockery of which their householder’s near-execution is both the epitome and the excess – the point where a domestic charade becomes public, serious, potentially tragic. The dynamic between mutable and immutable emotions and objects sheds a light on all the play’s relationships.

§17 The closing movements of The Dutch Courtesan take its use of material culture one stage further. In this play we do not only see the things of the city, we feel them, hear them and smell them too. ‘News, news, news, news!’ calls Tysefew; ‘Oysters, oysters, oysters, oysters!’ (V.ii.76-7) Crispinella rejoins, calling attention to the sounds of the city that penetrated the doors and windows of the London house, and there is sound from inside too: in addition to the staging of songs to the accompaniment of a lute and a cittern, there are several other calls for music. Both Franceschina’s sheets and Mrs Mulligrub’s parlour are perfumed, and a disguised Cocledemoy offers potential purchasers the strong-smelling camphor balls in a cry that suggests both an aural and an olfactory appeal. Cocledemoy is also the one who offers the memorable truism, coming just before Mrs Mulligrub enters to freshen up her parlour, that ‘Every man’s turd smells well in’s own nose’ (III.iii.46). Smell in particular is an important part of the experience of engagement with the market in this sensual play.

§18 But texture is also especially significant, and it focuses on touch, linking things to bodies. Crispinella’s imagistic language, for example, is visceral in the way it brings out the full physical horror of a young woman contemplating physical closeness with an old man: a ‘stub-bearded John-a-Stile’ who ‘struck his bristles through my lips’, and the nobleman or knight who must be kissed ‘with a cur’sy’, despite his ‘unclean goose-turd-green teeth’ with the palsy, nostrils that ‘smell worse than a putrefied marrowbone’ and a ‘loose beard’ that ‘drops into our bosom’(III.i.16-23). As the objects that appear on stage negotiate the relationships between characters, so these ‘verbal things’ create a sensual world of unpleasant and undesired closeness that links the roughness and the smoothness of people and things: there is Cocledemoy’s ‘smooth-gummed bawd’ (I.ii.48), or Crispinella’s ‘uncivil privateness, that promises nothing but rough skins and hard stools’ (III.i.51-2), and there are almost-pairings: in I.i Freevill describes Franceschina as ‘a soft, plump, round-cheeked frow’ (148-9) and in I.ii Cocledemoy calls Faugh a ‘rotten, rough-bellied bawd’ (3); Cocledemoy leads Franceschina onto the stage with ‘here’s a plump-rumped wench, with a breast softer than a courtier’s tongue, an old lady’s gums, or an old man’s mentula’ (IV.iii.2-4) and Crispinella imagines again an old husband in IV.iv, ‘to feel his rough skin, his summer hands and winter legs, his almost no eyes, and assuredly no teeth!’ (22-4). This interest in the senses is not purely comic, however; it migrates across the boundaries of the play’s carefully separated discourses: ‘You with soft lip shall only ope mine eyes / And suck their lids asunder’ (II.i.43-4), Freevill says to Beatrice. It is a part of a passionate engagement with the materiality of lives lived at the ultimate point of closeness.

§19 Lust in particular, then, is represented through a language of objects that forms a proxy for those things that cannot be staged. Cocledemoy’s elaborate monologue about the bawd’s profession in I.ii draws the initial parallels between selling objects and selling sex: ‘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 honourable than both… so the bawd above all. Her shop has the best ware, for where these sell but cloth, satins, and jewels, she sells divine virtues… and those not like a petty chapman, by retail, but like a great merchant, by wholesale’ (31-40). But the play consistently extends these witty commercial analogies. Objects in The Dutch Courtesan offer both a synecdoche for broader subjects and a way in – a starting point for something less material: there is Lionel’s double entendre when instructed by Mulligrub on the delivery of his plate, ‘Be very careful, I pray thee – to my wife’s own hands’, to which the reply is ‘Fear not; I have delivered greater things than this to a woman’s own hand’ (III.ii.17; 20-1). The gesture this implies speaks of substitution and of the kind of dirty connections that are set up when things are staged side by side.  Towards the end of the play in particular, objects offer the way towards women’s bodies. ‘Where’s thy chamber?’, Malheureux asks Franceschina, ‘I long to touch your sheets’ (V.i.23), and Cocledemoy begins to seduce Mrs Mulligrub as her husband makes his way to execution: ‘shall I be welcome to your houses, to your tables, and your other things?’, he asks suggestively; ‘I have a piece of mutton and a featherbed for you at all times’ she replies (V.iii.91-4).These domestic things encase women, protectively and seductively offering proxies for their bodies, offering a metaphorical and literal point of contact at the boundaries of bodies: in addition to their traditional ‘city comedy roles’, things in this play are fully invested in and with The Dutch Courtesan’s interest in the corporeal.

Further Reading

A.L. Beier and Roger Finlay, eds., London 1500-1700, the making of the metropolis (Longman, 1986)

Darryll Grantley, London in Early Modern English Drama: Representing the Built Environment (Palgrave, 2008)

Paul Griffiths and Mark Jenner, eds., Londinopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London (Manchester, 2000)

Dieter Mehl, Angela Stock, Anne-Julia Zwierlein, Plotting Early Modern London: New Essays on Jacobean City Comedy (Ashgate, 2004)

Lena Orlin, ed. Material London ca.1600(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000)

John Schofield, The Building of London: From the Conquest to the Great Fire, (Colonnade Books, 1984)

Museum of London website,


  • 1
    See Table 10, Brian Dietz, ‘Overseas Trade and Metropolitan Growth’, in A.L. Beier and Roger Finlay eds., London 1500-1700, the making of the metropolis (Longman, 1986) p. 124-5.
  • 2
    For demographic trends see Paul Griffiths and Mark Jenner, ‘Introduction’, in Griffiths and Jenner eds., Londinopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London (Manchester, 2000), pp. 2-3; Steve Rappaport, Worlds within Worlds (Cambridge University Press 2002), pp. 4-5, 61-86; Vanessa Harding, ‘The Population of Early Modern London: a Review of the Published Evidence’, London Journal 15, 111-28.
  • 3
    John Schofield, The Building of London: From the Conquest to the Great Fire, (Colonnade Books, 1984) p. 158.
  • 4
    For Cheapside see Paul Griffiths, ‘Politics made visible: order, residence and uniformity in Cheapside, 1600-1645’, in Griffiths and Jenner eds., Londinopolis , p. 176; A. L. Beier, ‘Engine of Manufacture: The Trades of London’, in Beier and Finlay eds., p. 155.
  • 5
    Beier, ‘Engine of Manufacture’, p. 147.
  • 6
    Griffiths, ‘Politics made visible’, pp. 178-9.
  • 7
    All references are to John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. David Crane (A&C Black, 1997).

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