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Comedy, Realism and History in The Dutch Courtesan | The Dutch Courtesan

The Dutch Courtesan

Comedy, Realism and History in The Dutch Courtesan

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    211m§1 So full of japes is The Dutch Courtesan that it is unclear whether Marston meant his audience to take any part of it seriously. Relying on quick entrances and exits, plus a number of costume changes, Marston has Cocledemoy dress variously as a barber, a French pedlar, a servingman, a bellman, and a sergeant all in order to pursue and vex the play’s gull, Mulligrub the vintner. As a prominent member of the Middle Temple, Marston aims his satire against a member of London’s ‘great twelve’, the Vintner’s company, a credulous fool who aspires to become ‘one of the Common Council shortly’ (2.3.79).[1] Mulligrub is robbed of three tavern bowls but learns nothing from the episode. In one of the play’s finest comic moments, he goes for a shave only to realize, blinking through a faceful of shaving foam, that he has been duped yet again and his money-bag is missing. Outwitted to the point of despair and (potentially) the hangman’s noose, Mulligrub’s misfortunes prove an entertaining distraction to the play’s main narrative, a plot that centres on exposing the venalities of Franceschina, the Dutch courtesan. Early audiences seem to have regarded the play as just as much Cocledemoy’s and Mulligrub’s as Franceschina’s: a 1613 performance, in honour of the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Frederick, Elector Palatine of the Rhine, ran under the title ‘Cockle de moye’, and later performances all the way through to the eighteenth century principally followed elements in the sub-plot.[2] What apparently ties all of Marston’s disparate narrative elements together is the fact that this is very much a civic comedy, one that that mentions specific London locations. As the play moves towards its final action, Freevill states, ‘the sudden close of many drifts now meet’ (5.2.74) and it all ends in a single, judicial space, the sessions house, where Franceschina is sentenced to ‘the extremest whip and jail’ (5.3.59), Mulligrub is fated to hang merely for picking up a cloak, and the real thief of the story, Cocledemoy, closes the play on a note of ‘hurtless mirth’ (5.3.159). The original title-page of 1605 shows that it was first written to be performed at Blackfriars by the Children of the Queen’s Revels. So has it all just been child’s play? What in this drama, if anything at all, is to be taken seriously?

    Serious comedy?

    §2 Prostitution has, of course, always been a serious matter. Almost reassuringly, the play’s ‘Argument’ (appended probably by agents other than the author) states that the play shows the ‘difference betwixt the love of a courtesan and a wife’. But this is only to advertise the work along household lines in a way that distorts most of what the play in fact represents. Beatrice may be the intended ‘wife’ of the ‘argument’, but neither she nor her similarly betrothed sister, the earthy Crispinella, actually wed, and the cast’s only married woman, Mistress Mulligrub, proves far from an ideal companion. Cocledemoy, at the end of the play, wittily and cruelly threatens the very stability of civic married life by seeking her bed. If the play were ever preoccupied with the virtues of matrimony, its jokes serve to undermine them. We are left equally uncertain about Marston’s motives regarding the main plot. When he transforms Franceschina from an attractive, compliant, though morally questionable young woman to a figure of ‘comely damnation’ speaking with a ridiculously contrived Dutch accent, it is hard to avoid a sense that he is resorting to caricature for deliberate comic effect. Writing for a company of children, Marston laces mischief everywhere. Freevill defends the use of brothels, Cocledemoy jokes about trading ‘wholesale’ and his friend being of ‘sound fart’ (2.1.159), a servant bawdily quips that he has delivered ‘greater things than this to a woman’s own hand’ (3.2.20), Crispinella demands that, should she marry an old man, he must ‘die within a fortnight’ (4.4.30), and Cocledemoy cockily promises he will see to Mistress Mulligrub’s ‘payment’(5.3.98). Elsewhere, Marston plays for obvious laughs, requiring Crispinella to pronounce the word ‘honorificabilitudinitatibus’ in the middle of a speech (5.2.23). He has Franceschina resentfully declare that, cast off by Freevill, she must now ‘turn Turk for twopence’ (2.2.42), a continental allusion to the provision of anal sex.[3] But if all this is satire, it is not easy to see its point or ameliorative purpose.


    §3 One way of pursuing this question is to seek out the play’s realism. There were plenty of Mary Faughs in Marston’s London.[4] Elizabeth Sanders, ‘late servaunte with Edwarde Gardener’, complained that his wife would ‘comenlye euery night’ make her stay out in Cheapside, on Wood Street Corner, from 5pm in the afternoon ‘untill ix or x a clock before she came to her agayne’. The court had long known Sanders as an ‘olde gest of this house’ and doubting her explanation, committed her to prison.[5] On Wed 28 July 1601, Elizabeth Sherman testified that her landlady, one Mistress Cowell, would send her to fetch Margaret Smith whenever young men arrived at the house ‘so that they might have thuse of her body’. Sherman would also have to find other ‘younge women to come home to her house for the same purpose’. A Master Newton frequented her mistress ‘diverse nightes’ and lay with her ‘all the night long when her husband was out of towne’. It seems that Cowell ran a small network. Newton used to send ‘letteres and mesuages to and fro for such kinde of people as did resorte to the said Mistress Cowells’.[6] A notorious pander Henry Boyer, of Cowe Cross near Clerkenwell, confessed on 22 October 1577 that Mistress Harding, wife of the parson of Islington ‘desired him to help her to ii or iii wemen to her house to play the harlottes at her house with suche as came for she had ii or iii Justices of the countrye at her house to deall with them’. He added that ‘he sent a harlott that Mistris Neale kepte in her house for that same purpose’. Mistress Neal, he said, is ‘a comen bawde and she hath kept dyvers harlottes’.[7] These are just a few of the many women who sought to make a living by arranging sexual liaisons in early modern London. Among the most active bawds of the time were Black Luce of Clerkenwell, Jane Fuller of Hounsditch (and the Bell in St. John’s Street, Clerkenwell) and Thomasine Breame residing at Worcester House, the former residence of the Earl of Worcester, situated usefully just by the dock of Queenshithe. Black Luce became a minor London legend, but less is known about Fuller and Breame. Kathryn Jones, a diminutive prostitute, declared that ‘Jane Fuller did intyse her aboute a yeare and a half past to this lewd lyfe that she now useth’. According to Jones, Fuller also kept one Jone Silvester in Hounsditch where ‘dyvers Englishe men & straungers had thuse of her body’. Jones ended her statement declaring, ‘Jane Fuller is an Arrant bawde & she is hable to spoyle a greate nomber’.[8] On Christmas Eve 1576, Fuller herself admitted ‘that she hath used the trade of bawdrye and she knoweth one Kathryn Jones had to do carnally with many men in her house in St. John’s Streate & in Hownsditche with many straungers & others’.[9]

    §4 By mid-1576, Thomasine Breame had lived apart from her husband for two years, and was living in Westminster, kept by one Edmund English ‘gentleman’ and steward to a ‘Master Peters’. English gave her money and ‘such thinges as she neded’, and bought her ‘a suete of apparrell wch cost xli’.[10] He did not have her to himself. A Master Kingston from Hampshire had lodged her in Holborn ‘these ii last termes’, gave her ‘a petticote of iii or iiiili’, and would give her angels to the value of five pounds in return for sexual favours. A ‘Master Cortney’, servant to Lord Hunsdon the future Lord Chamberlain, kept her at the Bear in the Palace of Westminster, and paid her ‘v or vili’‘ for the use of her body.[11] She had money enough to acquire a maid, Anne Jervis, who assisted with liaisons, collecting white stockings for her from an admirer, a Master Best, and greeting her home from an assignation and a play.[12] Among the London aldermen presiding over charges against her was Robert Winch, a senior member of the Drapers’ Company and the mayoral council. On 24 March 1577, Winch had to sit through allegations made in open court that he maintained Breame at a house in St. Paul’s, an arrangement that two witnesses, Henry Boyer and Anne Jervis, had previously declared. Breame of course had to deny it. She condemned the suggestion as ‘utterlye false and a horrible slander to Master Winche and more than ever was thought on to her knowledge’, wording that was, perhaps, not wholly helpful.[13] Winch exerted his authority. He put Boyer to torture in Bridewell, and pursued another who had affirmed the allegations, Anthony Bate goldsmith of Lombard Street, through the Court of the King’s Bench.[14] Anne Jervis, who had evidently discussed Bate with another madam, one Mistress Higgens, described him in striking terms. He sported ‘a hansome longe bearde a blacke cloke and a hatt with a gret broche in it of golde and ii rings of one of his handes with blewish stones the gretest on his forefinger And on thother hande three jemmes of golde together he was a thick sett man with verie stronge leggs and gret guttley fellow full sett And he had some reasonable store of grey heares in his bearde and his heade And like to an awncyent cytyzen mrs higgens said it was a contre gentleman but it was not so like for he had no sworde nor rapior nor dagger nor apparrell like a contre man’.[15] Jervis and Higgens’s conversation seems to indicate some popular debate regarding styles of rural and civic apparel. We might recall Prospero asking Ariel for his country attire: ‘Fetch me the hat and rapier in my cell: / I will discase me, and myself present / As I was sometime Milan’.[16]

    §5 There were clearly also quite a few Cocledemoys in Renaissance London. On 12 April 1606, John Palmer stood accused of stealing ‘a Beaker from the Sunne in Newfish street and he sayeth yt is at the Three Cranes in Southwarke at an Alehouse where he sayeth ytt shalbe redelivered’.[17] Sometimes referred to as ‘creepers in at windows’, children might be used for dexterous acts of filching. About three weeks before Palmer’s case, a young child was apprehended: ‘Matthew Chubb a litel boy about 5 or 6 yeres of age hath stolne 5 or 6 cupps from Taverns by his mothers entisement his mother is in Newgate’.[18] In 1553, Philip Danyell stole ‘sixty pieces’ of pewter from Clement’s Inn. Although his fate is not recorded, he is more likely than not to have been sent to Tyburn.[19] William Horner, sailor, was charged on 4 December 1579 with having stolen ‘three cups of silver’ worth £9, a ‘solver bole imbossed and graven’ worth 50 shillings, a tankard and some silver spoons. He confessed the indictment and was summarily hanged.[20] Nicholas Flewellyn stole ‘a silver cup called a Taverne cuppe worth 45 shillings’ from Nicholas Hyckes, though his sentence is unrecorded.[21] In 1598, Edward Steward, John Fynch, William Askewe and one Ballard stole items from the household of John Soper, including a ‘parcel-gilt silver bole’ worth 52 shillings, a silver beaker worth 40 shillings, and a silver ‘bole’ worth 30 shillings. Steward and Fynch were sentenced to hang: the others remained at large.[22] These are just a handful taken from several hundreds of recorded crimes from the sixteenth century but they are evidence enough that even relatively minor acts of theft like the pranks pulled by Cocledemoy were routinely treated at the sessions houses as capital offences. In the year before Shakespeare died, Richard Burbage was robbed at Shoreditch of many items, including a ‘darinxe’ [dornix] carpet, a hunting gun (‘fowling peece’), a substantial number of pewter pots, several aprons, smocks, bands, cuffs, handkerchiefs, and various pieces of linen. The suspects, Henry Elliott, his wife and Thomas Pierson, were caught. Elliott’s wife was acquitted. Pierson pleaded his ‘neck verse’, a process that required the defendant to read aloud the first verse of Psalm 51. He read ‘like a clerk’, and, as with Ben Jonson, was given a reduced sentence of branding. Elliott himself stood mute, knowing his punishment would be horrific. Those who refused to plead were routinely sentenced to what was termed the ‘peine fort et dure’, otherwise called ‘pressing to death’. Carried out in ‘the pressing yard of Newgate’, the sentence involved the very gradual crushing to death of the accused by heavy weights, and Elliott suffered it.[23]


    §6 So were there any Franceshinas? If by this we mean vengeful, scheming, truly murderous whores, the answer must be none that we know of. There were a few Dutch women working as prostitutes in early modern London, but they seem to have been far outnumbered by Hanseatic Dutch merchants, associated with the Stillyard or Steelyard, seeking out English women.[24] On 10 October 1577, Richard Combes, also known as ‘Fat Dick’ was reported as having tried to entice three young men to visit ‘a douch womans’ home in the precinct of Bedlam, outside Bishopsgate.[25] Katherine Jacob was detained on 26 March 1603, recorded as ‘a Dutch harlot brought into this house by the watch in Fleetstreete vehementlie suspected of incontinency’.[26] Too often, suspicion alone was taken to justify incarceration. Unfortunately, we know nothing more about these women’s lives. We learn more from the case brought against Elizabeth Wilford ‘a Dutchwoman’ on 6 March 1598 for escaping from ‘Master Sympson the Marshall’.[27] Wilford was born in the port of Embden, a centre for Dutch immigrant workers located in what eventually became the northwestern corner of Germany. Wilford told the court that she was first married to ‘one John Coome’ from Gaunt, heir to his uncle and ‘only newe come from schole’ when he married. The marriage lasted for three years but when the town was besieged and taken ‘by the enemy’ (presumably forces of Philip II of Spain), Elizabeth took refuge with friends. Subsequently her young husband remarried twice, compelling her to initiate a petition for divorce. She then married ‘John Willford an English man At a village by Flushing in Holland’. He stayed with her for ‘about Seaven weekes’ but then joined the ‘Portugall voiage’ on which, so she eventually learned, he was slain. Her first husband, it seemed, was still living, for she had seen him just three months previously in Gaunt. As for her situation now, she confessed that Sympson had apprehended her in Churchyard Alley in Thames Street and that she had escaped his custody. She added that her father in Gaunt sent money to maintain her, an explanation the Marshal may have doubted. Women who could not satisfactorily explain how they made their living were commonly suspected of incontinency. This is as much as we know about Elizabeth Wilford, the major incidents of her life summed up in a succinct paragraph, a micro-biography. There is nothing in the case to suggest that she was a prostitute or a courtesan, and nothing to hint that she was anything like Franceschina, even though she also was abandoned. Patricia Fumerton has written vividly about the lives of many early modern women as being itinerant, on the move, or ‘unsettled’.[28] This was true of Wilford, but only up to a point. She was sentenced to be detained in Bridewell, an enforced stability with very little chance of escape.

    The Condemned

    §7 It seems though that, try as he might, Marston was unable (in The Dutch Courtesan at least) to avoid poignant social observation entirely. Searching out Cocledemoy, Mulligrub gets caught up in a confused scramble and picks up a cloak his roguish enemy has deliberately dropped. Reversing the play’s pattern of disguises, Cocledemoy informs a company of fortuitously arrived constables about ‘a false knave in the habit of a vintner’ and a would-be cut-purse. Cocledemoy complains, ‘he got my cloak: a plain stuff cloak, poor, yet ‘twill serve to hang him! ‘Tis my loss, poor man that I am!’ (4.5.24-8). Mulligrub runs in with the cloak, is apprehended and placed in the stocks to await trial at the county sessions. Events move fast. In the closing act, Tysefew invites Crispinella, Beatrice and Freevill to view the execution, explaining that, ‘A cloak was stolen; that cloak he had it, / Himself confessed, by force’. Mulligrub has been tortured, and Tysefew’s account confirms that he stood little chance at trial: the justice’s nose was so ‘wronged in wine’ that it lit the wit of ‘hasty jurors’ who in their ‘malignance’ quickly declared a guilty verdict (5.2.115-120). On the way to execution, Mulligrub is brought in, his wife in train. Mistress Mulligrub (echoing Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor 4.1) attempts to console him: ‘Nay, and you had been hanged deservedly, it would never have grieved me. I have known of many honest, innocent men have been hanged deservedly’. At this point, Marston cannot resist piercing irony. She tells Cocledemoy he will always be welcome to ‘a piece of mutton and a featherbed’ at her home, and tells her husband, ‘I will not leave you until I have seen you hang’ (5.3.83-101). The vexed vintner is certain he stands condemned at the hands of one Cocledemoy but offers forgiveness, and so, in the very nick of time, his nemesis relents and he is saved. The comedy has been precise, relentless and at times cruel, pursued with an exceptionally keen eye for the ironic. But it has – at the very last – also hit home, for Mulligrubs swung routinely in Marston’s time. William Whetley, merchant tailor, was indicted on 24 August 1571 for stealing ‘a black woollen-cloth cloak worth thirty shillings’. He pleaded guilty and was duly sentenced to hang.[29] Thomas Payne, Richard Pryce and John Haywood all stood accused on 1 December 1571 for assaulting Arthur Warde and stealing from him a number of items including ‘a wollen-cloth cloak of sheeps coller worth ten shillings’. All were sentenced ‘to be hung’.[30] Hugh Aprise, William Davis and Thomas Calverly were found guilty on 14 April 1577 of stealing ‘a russet-coloured woolen cloth cloak worth forty shillings’. They pleaded guilty and, unsurprisingly, were hanged.[31] On 6 July 1601, John Holloway was charged with theft of several items including three cloaks (in colours of sage, purple, and ‘phessante’). He pleaded his ‘neck verse’ but because evidence was brought of a former offence in Berkshire, he too was summarily hanged.[32] Robert Lambert was found guilty on 20 April 1608 of robbing Sir John Egerton of goods, including ‘a silke russet cloake worth five pounds’, and was sent to the gallows: William Spirritt alias Swetface, also linked to the crime, pleaded not guilty and was acquitted.[33] Cocledemoy’s line, ‘he got my cloak … ‘twill serve to hang him!’ rang true. It would be simplistic in the extreme to imagine that Marston had any historical person in mind when he created poor Mulligrub. But neither is the play ahistorical. For in his bitter comic quips and twists, especially when Tysefew describes the callous ineptitude of the trial system and Mistress Mulligrub recalls innocent men being hanged ‘deservedly’, Marston reminded his audience of the devastating injustices of the age.

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

    1. 1) All subsequent quotations are cited from John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. David Crane (London: A & C Black, 1997), although I have also consulted editions by Martin L. Wine (Edward Arnold, 1965) and Macdonald P. Jackson and Michael Neil (Cambridge, 1986).
    2. 2) See E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933) iii, 431. Also, Michael Scott, John Marston’s Plays: Theme, Structure and Performance (London, 1978) 104-7.
    3. 3) For the same joke, see Niccolo Machiavelli, Mandragola, trans. Mera J. Flaumenhaft (Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1981), 30.
    4. 4) As most editors point out, ‘Marry, faugh!’ was a common expression of contempt.
    5. 5) Bridewell Court Minute Book (hereafter BCB), courtesy of Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum , Beckenham, Kent, 3.271r (4 January 1577/8). In this and subsequent transcriptions, letters originally omitted by contraction are supplied in italics.
    6. 6) BCB 4.248r.
    7. 7) BCB 3.249v-250r.
    8. 8) BCB 3.100r-v.
    9. 9) BCB 3.128r.
    10. 10) BCB 3.13r, 133r.
    11. 11) BCB 3.13v.
    12. 12) BCB 3.133v.
    13. 13) BCB 3.296r.
    14. 14) For Boyer’s experience in Bridewell, see BCB 3.242r.
    15. 15) BCB 3.215v.
    16. 16) The Tempest, 5.1.84-6. Shakespeare was addressed in letters as a fellow ‘countriman’ and left his sword in his will to Thomas Combe. See E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), ii. 101-6, and 172.
    17. 17) BCB 5.97v.
    18. 18) BCB 5.95v.
    19. 19) J. C. Jeaffreson (ed.) Middlesex County Records (London: GLC, 1972), i. 9.
    20. 20) Ibid., 119.
    21. 21) Ibid., 194-5.
    22. 22) Ibid., 243.
    23. 23) Jeaffreson (ed.) Middlesex County Sessions Records 1603-1625 (London: GLC, 1974), ii. 108-9. Cuthbert Burbage was similarly robbed ‘burglariously’ the same night.
    24. 24) On the Stillyard or Steelyard, see C. L. Kingsford (ed.) John Stow, A Survey of London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908, 1971) i. 232-5, ii. 318-21. Stow, p.232, describes it as ‘a place for marchants of Almaine, that vsed to bring hither, as well Wheat, Rie, and other graine, as Cables, Ropes, Masts, Pitch, Tar, Flaxe, Hempe, linnen cloth, Wainscots, Waxe, Steele, and other profitable Marchandizes.’
    25. 25) BCB 3.247v.
    26. 26) BCB 4.365r.
    27. 27) BCB 4.67v.
    28. 28) Patricia Fumerton, Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).
    29. 29) Jeaffreson, i. 70.
    30. 30) Ibid., 72.
    31. 31) Ibid., 105.
    32. 32) Ibid., 272-3.
    33. 33) Jeaffreson, ii. 36.
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