Research Essays

Mapping The Dutch Courtesan

§10This article was read, in draft form, by Richard Rowland and Mark Smith.  I am deeply indebted to both of them for their helpful comments and corrections.   Any errors which remain are my responsibility. The Dutch Courtesan divides opinion.  For one scholar, it is Marston’s only “masterpiece in dramatic portraiture” (Bradbrook, 162), while, for another, it exemplifies the terminal “deliquescence of his talent” in the final phases of his playwriting career (Ure, 77). If views of the script’s quality diverge so radically, so do accounts of its major characters. Representations, for example, of its title character as “a traditional figure”, “the wicked fairy whose plots must fail” (Ingram, 120), vie with claims that Franceschina is “probably” Marston’s “best drawn dramatic character”, “too profoundly human to function as a mere embodied Morality Vice” (Gibbons, 118 & 120). Similarly, there is no consensus about the play’s predominant tonality. One observer reports that it “forces us to witness a lengthy process of purification, in which the rotten world is thoroughly anatomized” (Morris, 78), while a rival commentator records what he judges to be “the final lightness with which the play’s serious themes are disposed of” (Leggatt, 117-118).

§2 I am about to direct The Dutch Courtesan, and my decision to do so sufficiently declares where my sympathies lie in this debate, at least as regards the play’s overall merits. But a director’s close work on a script in the pre-rehearsal period is likely to identify a host of detailed queries, puzzles, and possibilities which initial enthusiasm had failed to note. Revisiting at this stage what has been written about a play can also helpfully stimulate fresh thinking – especially when one finds oneself disagreeing with strongly held positions.  Working out the reasons for such disagreements can begin to make one see key aspects of the text with fresh eyes.

§3 At the moment I am especially absorbed in thinking about the role of Freevill – a topic on which the scholarly inheritance is especially divided. Some writers effectively erase him from the record at critical moments in the story. Take, for instance, the statement that Malheureux’s “bad judgement sets off the intrigues and counter-intrigues which call for a sensational resolution in the fifth act”. The same writer subsequently reinforces that judgement:

Malheureux’s passion has dire consequences in a world presented as real; his rationalized moral failings lead him, along with Mulligrub, to the point of execution (Levenson, 290-291).

Reducing this plot to a neat moral exemplum in this manner comes at a cost. It entails removing from consideration all traces of the intricate interplay between Malheureux and his friend Freevill – a relationship which is crucially instrumental in shaping the former’s pathway to the gallows. Though he initially accepts Franceschina’s demand that, in order to enjoy her, he must murder Freevill, Malheureux swiftly repents of that decision and informs his friend of that resolve, though he remains openly obsessed with possessing the courtesan. It is Freevill who, therefore, proposes the stratagem which will make it seem as if the killing has been carried out and thus allow Malheureux to achieve the consummation he desires. Freevill then deliberately disappears, and Malheureux is arrested for the apparent crime. Any adequate attempt to map this section of the action – on stage or in the study – must factor in the teasing and complex dynamic between the two men. The “dire consequences” Levenson speaks of (if, that is, the “consequences” are indeed justly to be seen as “dire”) are generated from the sum of their interactions, and are not simply the product of one of the men’s “bad judgement”.

§4 G. K. Hunter centres his account of the play on the character Levenson neglects. He proposes a distinctive reading whereby virtue “triumphs because one character (Freevil) steps aside to direct the plot and interpret it”. Accordingly, Freevill’s soliloquies in the second half of the play reflect “his move into disguise and into control of a medicinal or purgative plot”. For Hunter, the play is governed and shaped by a “simple moral discrimination” and premised on the conviction that there can be “no compromise between love and lust”. Freevill’s authority to initiate and direct that “medicinal or purgative plot”, however, means that he has to have been “part of the depraved world before he can accurately describe it, or effectively manipulate it”. But, for Hunter, it is crucial that, unlike Malheureux, Freevill, during his acquisition of the requisite experience, “was never besotted” and “could handle pitch without being defiled” (Hunter, 109-110). In this view, he must be able to investigate a “world of fallen creatures, where depravity may be checked but cannot be forgotten”, without in any way being subdued to – or even, it would seem, temporarily absorbed by – the delights it can offer (Hunter, 109-110).

§5 Hunter’s assertions remain unsupported by close textual reference and leave this reader sceptical. The Freevill we encounter at the start of the play knows his way around the sexual underworld and presents himself as a connoisseur of the skills, natures, and motivations of courtesans. He singles out the special qualities of his “pretty, nimble-eyed Dutch Tannakin” (1.1, 140-141)1All quotations from Marston’s plays, unless otherwise indicated, are from: John Marston, ‘The Malcontent’ and Other Plays, ed. Keith Sturgess (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). and concludes his praise of her with a celebration of her abilities in bed. She is, he affirms, “woman enough for any reasonable man in my knowledge” (1.2, 143-144).  What clairvoyant powers license Hunter’s certainty that, in her embraces, Freevill was never for a second “besotted”? He was clearly, for a time, Franceschina’s frequent visitor, and his behaviour caused her to harbour hopes, however misguided, that he might become permanently hers. How then can we, who witness none of this at first hand, confidently legislate that, throughout their mutual dealings, he was always able to handle “pitch without being defiled”? And why indeed would we ever think it appropriate to pose the question in such language? Hunter’s queasy metaphor images the intimate dealings between Franceschina and Freevill in grossly reductive terms, whereby the client conceives of the courtesan, whose services he repeatedly requires, as irretrievably defiled and polluting, but, despite this, somehow convinces himself that he can abstract himself, even at the most intense moments of their sexual encounters, from any contamination by her debased condition. Yet more astonishingly, Hunter rests the spectators’ approval of Freevill’s right to act as deviser and executant of the play’s concluding “medicinal or purgative plot” on their presumed acceptance of the probity of this troubling act of psychological and ethical disassociation.

§6 If I believed this view accurately conveyed what Marston’s play presents, I would not be preparing to direct it. I am reassured, however, by the gap I perceive between Hunter’s legislative rhetoric and the moment-by-moment unfurling of the action, to which his essay pays little detailed attention. The most fundamental decisions playwrights make concern what they choose to show their audiences, which elements of the story they decide not to stage, the order in which they dispose those events which they do present to the audience directly, and the degree to which how they narrate these events does or does not prepare spectators for the next stages of the relevant plot. If we seek to re-view Marston’s opening scene with the eyes of a first-time spectator, some striking dramaturgical choices emerge.

§7 As I read it, for instance, everything in the first scene cues the audience to share Malheureux’s assumption that Freevill’s announced excursion to a “common house of lascivious entertainment” (1.1, 59-60) means that he is going there for sex. Freevill alludes in passing to his “intention of marriage” (62), but gives no hint that he has yet decided that this “intention” must end his relationship with Franceschina.  His agilely witty oration in justification of paid sexual labour tends in the same direction, as does the note on which the scene ends – his mockery of Malheureux’s untested certainty that the “sight of vice augments the hate of sin” (153). This sounds like the scepticism of a man who knows from his own experience the potency of the body’s needs, and who will never underrate the flesh’s capacity to assert itself.

§8 Freevill and Malheureux’s arrival in the “house of lascivious entertainment” starts with an encounter with Cocledemoy, who is also confident that he knows why Freevill has come there:

Cocledemoy   . . . . .  Ha, my fine knave, art going to thy recreation?
Freevill   Yes, my capricious rascal.  (1.2, 62-64)

Which leads to Cocledemoy’s prophecy that Freevill will therefore soon “look like a fool”, because all men look so when engaged in the “belly-act” (65, 70). Two meanings of “recreation” are potentially in play in Cocledemoy’s use of it: (1) the woman who provides your pleasure; (2) the sexual sport you have with her. It is only in retrospect that we can recognise that Freevill, by a private equivocation, may only have been assenting to the first of these in his reply to Cocledemoy’s question – if, that is, his decision not to go to bed with Franceschina on this visit has already been made by that point. On the latter question, however, the script, as Marston has designed it, affords us no certainty.

§9 In due course, Freevill will leave Mary Faugh’s house without having had sex with Franceschina, but nothing in the dialogue Marston has chosen to provide signals at what point that decision is made.  Before he and Malheureux came there, for instance, or at some moment during 1.2 itself, not marked in the dialogue? Hunter’s assertion that in the play’s later stages Freevill “steps aside to direct the plot and interpret it” reflects aptly enough the number of solos Marston has awarded the character in the play’s second half, in which he presses upon us his disgust at Franceschina’s homicidal plotting. But the Freevill of the opening act is much less communicative. Marston has chosen to leave his behaviour and decisions opaque at a crucial point, when he could easily, via an aside or soliloquy, have made them transparent to us. In translating a script into performance, actors and directors must work with the data they have been given, and Marston’s decisions here are sufficiently idiosyncratic to ask us to think carefully about their logics.

§10 While Franceschina is briefly offstage in 1.2, Marston has Freevill testify to the qualities he has respected in her, which include her being “none of your ramping cannibals that devour man’s flesh, nor any of your Curtian gulfs that will never be satisfied until the best thing a man has be thrown into them” (85-88). As she, to her credit, lacks some of the vices habitually associated with the whore figure, so he found himself entertaining feelings for her which exceeded a merely commercial relationship. He tells Malheureux that “I loved her with my heart until my soul showed me the imperfection of my body and placed my affection on a lawful love” (88-90). Whatever our production eventually makes of this admission, for me it rules completely out of court Hunter’s “touching pitch without being defiled” assumptions. Marston has Freevill himself confess that his liaison with his Dutch courtesan was more emotionally complex than such a view will countenance. One scholar conceives of Franceschina in terms of the stereotype of the avaricious predatory whore, whose “covetousness” explains her centrality to what he claims (in my view, mistakenly) to be the play’s focus on metropolitan avarice (Horwitz, 259). But, in Mary Faugh’s eyes (2.2, 1-5), Franceschina’s cardinal error has been to invest emotion and expectation in a relationship which is, at its core, merely that between a paying client and a provider of a sexual service. It would appear that, at one point, she was not alone in that mistaking. Freevill too felt something he is still prepared to call “love” for her.

§11 One scene The Dutch Courtesan lacks which it might have offered its audience is a meeting in which Freevill explains to his erstwhile lover that their association must end. The dramatic attractions of including such a tense, emotionally volatile duologue are obvious. Marston foregoes that opportunity, however, and implicitly justifies his decision in an intriguing way. Having explained to Malheureux that his affections have shifted to Beatrice, Freevill immediately proceeds to admit that he fears Franceschina’s reaction to this news. Once she knows what he intends, he says, there will be “no being for me with eyes before her face” (91-92). This may reveal a sensible care for his own self-preservation, but it hardly casts him in a courageous or dignified light.    Here too Freevill “steps aside”, but in a less flattering sense than Hunter intended his use of the phrase to convey. Similarly, Freevill’s almost casual handing of her on to his newly “besotted” friend – “I resign her freely. The creature and I must grow off.” (2.1, 99) – has to look, from one perspective, like playing with fire. He has testified to the fury she is likely to feel at his abandoning her. Encouraging Malheureux to step forward at this moment in his stead provides the ingredients which are perfectly calculated to generate the mayhem which follows. The name Marston has given his character invokes the notion of free will and freedom of self-determination (something which Freevill prides himself on exercising), but its spelling – “v” instead of “w” – also opens up the possibility of educing from it the idea that his indulgence of those freedoms also frees evil – i.e. the manner in which he disengages from his courtesan and manipulates his ingenuous friend lights the powder-trail for all that ensues.2The classic study of the significance of character names in early modern theatre is: Anne Barton, The Names of Comedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), which, however, only accords Marston passing mention.  Aughterson, 21, fascinatingly unpacks the potential significances of Freevill’s name.

§12 The formulae Hunter favours afford Freevill, in the later stages of the play, a position of special authority, slightly apart from the action he shapes and determines, and absolve him from being adversely implicated in it. Marston’s fashioning of these earlier scenes leads me to suspect that there is a more intricate story to be discovered here in the rehearsals which lie ahead.   Marston’s playwright’s instincts draw him to explore the complex and paradoxical ways in which one character interacts with, and upon, another. Hunter’s attempt to abstract a single figure from that larger dynamic and accord him privileged status, therefore, simplifies the play in the same way we observed to be operating in Levenson’s treatment of Malheureux.

§13 Scholarship has been much influenced by one aspect of the play in print – the fact that the text is prefaced by a “FABULAE ARGUMENTUM”, which asserts that the comedy provides its audiences with a definition of the “difference between the love of a courtesan and a wife” (p.358). Commentators tend to assume that this formula is Marston’s, though we cannot, in fact, be sure that it was not penned by someone else. However that may be, the courtesan/wife antithesis it promotes has often influenced critical accounts of The Dutch Courtesan. In a frequently cited article, for instance,  Coppélia Kahn starts by asserting that, in separating and opposing the two terms, Marston “denigrates women and sexual pleasure in general” (Kahn, 252). She then proceeds to the following:

whatever pleasures marriage offers, they should not be sexual; those are the province of whores, and like them, to be shunned. (Kahn, 253)

She buttresses this account with what seems to me to be a questionable reading of Freevill’s “Low Countries” riff in 1.1, in which he asserts that

I would have married men love the stews as Englishmen love the Low Countries: wish war should be maintained there lest it should come home to their own doors. (64-67)

Kahn’s deduction from this is that Freevill “defends his liaison with Francischina on the grounds that the lusts she satisfies ought to be indulged only outside marriage” (253). So, sexual ardour can never be the province of the chaste wife, and the needy husband must therefore find relief through extra-marital marauding.

§14 But Freevill, in fact, deploys the political analogy to quite a different effect. He represents English encouragement of war in the Low Countries as a necessary strategy for preventing its migrating across the Channel and plunging England into catastrophe. In a similar way, he claims, married men approve the survival of brothels, because the latter deflect and absorb energies which might otherwise “come home to their own doors”. In other words, the outlet the brothels afford provides a safety valve which lessens the risk of these husbands being cuckolded by predatory rivals.

§15 Kahn’s next conclusion is, therefore, also flawed:

It is not only lust that Freevill disowns by displacing it onto his whore; it is passionate feeling – wars – of any sort. (Kahn, 253)

On the contrary, Freevill is emphatic that, once he is a married man, Franceschina will belong to his past.  Equally, his 2.1 encounter with Beatrice gives the lie to the belief that “passionate feeling” is not part of their developing relationship.  It is true that, concerned at the intensity with which he expresses his feelings for her, Beatrice asks him at one point not to be “so passionate” (49) in his language; but her worry is that “Nothing extreme lives long” (50), and the heady intensity with which he addresses her therefore makes her doubt his love’s longevity. Freevill’s response to this is impetuous, urgent, and confident:

But not to be
Extreme – nothing in love’s extreme! – my love
Receives no mean.3For this sequence I have preferred the handling of the text in: John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. David Crane (London: A & C Black, 1997), 2.1, 50-52.  The 1605 first quarto here reads: “But not to be extreame, nothing in loue’s extreame my loue receiues no meane.”

§16 She bows before his certainty and concedes to him with “I give you faith” (52), while, however, begging him never “to deceive” her (54). Their marriage is, therefore, absolutely not one from which passion is banished. Emotional extremism is central to his feelings for her – something of which he is happy to boast, to such an extent, indeed, that the fervor with which he expresses his feelings for her makes Beatrice doubt whether his passion can possibly sustain itself. In this play where speeches often tellingly echo each other across substantial spans of action, she thus anticipates Freevill’s own later declaration to Malheureux: “Heat wasteth heat, light defaceth light; / Nothing is spoiled but by his proper might” (II.i, 124-125).

§17 If we need further confirmation that Kahn’s separation of sexuality from marriage does not reflect how this play defines the “difference between the love of a courtesan and a wife”, we might look to this ecstatic passage from Freevill’s celebration, in the same scene, of the choice he has made in embracing marriage:

Envy I covet not: far, far be all ostent,
Vain boasts of beauties, soft joys, and the rest;
He that is wise pants on a private breast.  (35-37)

§18 The verb “pant” is a favourite of Marston’s, and one with vivid and specific associations for him. In The Malcontent, for example, he gives it to Malevole as he pollutes Pietro’s mind with the thought that, as he labours to bring his wife to climax, her excitement will actually be triggered by her imagining at that moment her lover’s embraces, not Pietro’s (1.1, 156-160). Malevole’s circumstantial evocation of Pietro’s humiliation lingers scornfully on the details of his befuddled myopia:

To hug her with as raised an appetite
As usurers do their delved-up treasury,
Thinking none tells it but his private self;
To meet her spirit in a nimble kiss,
Distilling panting ardour to her heart . . . (146-150)

So, for Marston “panting” signifies the breathlessness of sexual consummation.  Freevill expects energetic sexual satisfaction from his marriage. Whatever contrast Marston draws between courtesan and wife, it is not the one which Kahn asserts.

§19 There is another provocative link between the Malcontent passage and the Dutch Courtesan one. In Malevole’s account, Pietro’s delusion includes the belief that he is his wife’s only sexual partner, and that she is his private possession (“none tells [= counts] it but his private self”).  So, too, Freevill is explicit to Beatrice about his fears that his private kingdom might be invaded:

And would to God only to me you might
Seem only fair!  Let others disesteem
Your matchless graces, so might I safer seem.  (32-34)

And, a few lines later, his celebration of the wisdom of panting “on a private breast” leads directly on to a thought about the advantages of total isolation from the threat of other men’s sexual energies:

So could I live in desert most unknown,
Yourself to me enough were populous.  (38-39)

§20 The fear Malevole injects into Pietro’s head is, therefore, one which Freevill’s mind already nurtures. For Freevill, the prospect of marriage breeds a hope of exclusive possession of the loved one, and there are moments where it seems as if the “difference between the love of a courtesan and a wife” may for him principally rest on the sense of stable ownership of his partner which he takes to be a husband’s right (as compared with the multiple possessors who inevitably enjoy, in Malheureux’s phrase, the “common bosom” of “One that sells human flesh” (1.1, 95-96). But, even as he raptly celebrates the pleasures that lie ahead of them, Freevill cannot but blurt out a fear that Beatrice’s charms will draw the gaze of other males, and with that gaze their unwelcome competition for her favours – competition Freevill appears to be unsure that he can successfully withstand.

§21 Their dawn duet in 2.1 is sometimes written about as if it were conventionally, even insipidly, imagined. In Jean Howard’s account, for instance, “Proclaiming her artlessness, Beatrice is the passive object to whom men sing Petrarchan love complaints” (153). I find that judgment difficult to reconcile with this idiosyncratic portrait of a wooer who, in the midst of his most ardent outpourings to his betrothed, is drawn to confess such unnerving misgivings about their future prospects. The writing in this scene, as also in its predecessors, convinces me that there is much more to be discovered about Freevill than Hunter’s dubious elevation of him to the status of moral arbiter or Kahn’s monochromatic antithesis between wife and courtesan acknowledges. The real explorations lie ahead, as in the rehearsal room we begin to experiment with the ways in which Marston has plotted Freevill’s interactions with those whose lives he affects, and who affect him.   The next few months promise to be fun.


Kate Aughterson, ‘“Going the way of all flesh”: Masculinity as Vice in The Dutch Courtesan’, Cahiers Elisabéthains, no. 76 (Autumn 2009), 21-33.
Anne Barton, The Names of Comedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990)
M. C. Bradbrook, The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy.  Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1963.
Brian Gibbons, Jacobean City Comedy: A Study of Satiric Plays by Jonson, Marston and Middleton.  London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1968.
Richard Horwich, “Wives, Courtesans, and the Economics of Love in Jacobean City Comedy”.  In: Clifford Davidson, C. J. Gianakoris, and John H. Stroupe (eds.), Drama in the Renaissance: Comparative and Critical Essays (New York: AMS Press, 1986), 255-273.
Jean E. Howard, Theatre of a City: The Places of London Comedy, 1598-1642 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).
G. K.  Hunter, “English Folly and Italian Vice: The Moral Landscape of John Marston”.  In: John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (eds.), Jacobean Theatre.  London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd., 1960).  85-111.
R. W. Ingram,  John Marston.   Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.
Coppélia Kahn, “Whores and Wives in Jacobean Drama”.  In: Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker (eds.), In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama (Metuchen, N. J., and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1991), 246-260.
Alexander Leggatt,  English Drama: Shakespeare to the Restoration, 1590-1660.  London and New York: Longman, 1988.
Jill Levenson,  “Comedy”.  In: A. R. Braunmuller and Michael Hattaway (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.  263-300.
John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. David Crane.  London: A & C Black, 1997.
John Marston, ‘The Malcontent’ and Other Plays, ed. Keith Sturgess.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Brian Morris,  “Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama”.  In: Christopher Ricks (ed.), English Drama to 1710.   Revised edition.  London: Sphere Books, 1987.  55-102.
Peter Ure, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama: Critical Essays by Peter Ure.  Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1974.


  • 0
    This article was read, in draft form, by Richard Rowland and Mark Smith.  I am deeply indebted to both of them for their helpful comments and corrections.   Any errors which remain are my responsibility.
  • 1
    All quotations from Marston’s plays, unless otherwise indicated, are from: John Marston, ‘The Malcontent’ and Other Plays, ed. Keith Sturgess (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
  • 2
    The classic study of the significance of character names in early modern theatre is: Anne Barton, The Names of Comedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), which, however, only accords Marston passing mention.  Aughterson, 21, fascinatingly unpacks the potential significances of Freevill’s name.
  • 3
    For this sequence I have preferred the handling of the text in: John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. David Crane (London: A & C Black, 1997), 2.1, 50-52.  The 1605 first quarto here reads: “But not to be extreame, nothing in loue’s extreame my loue receiues no meane.”

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