Research Essays

Marston’s Common Ground

§1 The first thing that somebody coming to The Dutch Courtesan for the first time might notice, either reading it on the page or hearing it in the theatre, is quite what a Eurodrama it is. The speech of its title character mixes French and Italian along with the imitation Dutch, and this is reflected in her name, Franceschina, which plays on francese, the Italian for ‘French’. It is set off by the equally bizarre diction of Cocledemoy, a grifter who speaks in a stream of streetwise, spivvish London slang, filled out with snippets of Latin and more exotic languages, some quite imaginary. When the two meet it sounds like a particularly fractious encounter in the bar at Strasbourg after the translators have gone home. In 4.3 Cocledemoy stitches together Spanish, Latin and double Dutch before launching a volley of crazed pseudo-Greek, to which a slightly stunned Franceschina replies, reasonably enough, ‘By me fait, dis bin very fine langage’ (4.3.13)1All citations from the play are taken from John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. David Crane (London: A & C Black, 1997).. Earlier, when planning to pose as a barber, he considers ‘for my tongue – Spanish, Dutch, or Welsh’, though he ends up claiming to be German (2.1.206-7; 2.3.28). Other characters in the play add to its European colouring. The bawd, Mary Faugh, for example, tells her protegée that she has made her ‘acquainted with the Spaniard, Don Skirtoll; with the Italian, Master Beieroane; with the Irish lord, Sir Patrick; with the Dutch merchant, Haunce Herkin Glukin Skellam Flapdragon; and specially with the greatest French’ (2.2.13-17). Her message is clear: sex is the single European market.

§2 The fabric of the play is also European, though more conventionally so for a drama of this period. The main plot is from Nicolas de Montreux’s romance Les Bergeries de Juliette (1585) and the main thematic and intellectual debt is to Montaigne, principally his essay ‘On Some Verses of Virgil’. But Montaigne was topical in 1605 because he had just been translated into English by the Anglo-Italian, John Florio, which would have appealed to Marston as another Anglo-Italian. Florio’s father was an Italian Protestant who had migrated to London as a religious safe haven, while Marston’s mother was the daughter of an Italian physician resident in the city, so both the source and the author of The Dutch Courtesan have a hybrid, European provenance.

§3 And there is, of course, the title of the play: ‘Dutch’ didn’t quite have the resonance for an early seventeenth-century English audience that ‘Brussels’ does for us, but it is still surprising. Were Dutch women famously seductive, notorious for their tricks in bed? I don’t think so, though it’s true that there were jokes about the ‘Low Countries’ (see here at 1.1.66). Perhaps The Dutch Courtesan is one of those theatrical oxymorons like The Honest Whore; but this seems a bit unlikely, since Franceschina’s character is a pretty much undiluted vessel of vindictive, scheming spite. The real point seems simply to be that she is foreign, and a large proportion of the immigrant community in early modern London were indeed Dutch, as Andrew Hadfield’s splendid biography of Spenser illustrates. East Smithfield, the area just beyond the Tower of London where Spenser grew up, had a particularly high concentration of Dutch and French immigrants. By the 1580s it has been estimated that almost a third of the city of London’s population was made up of Dutch and Walloons, and the cosmopolitan character of London would certainly not have diminished by the time Marston was writing his city comedies.2Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 23, 25. So ‘Dutch’ is a convenient indicator of foreignness and, by extension, of the new, hybrid, polyglottal world of the city that was being staged in a number of comedies in the first years of the reign of the new king, who was himself a foreigner.

§4 One feature of the play that is distinctively Dutch, though it had considerable outreach, is the referencing of the religious cult ‘The Family of Love’. As its name suggests, this was a mystic religion of universal brotherhood, which had been founded by Hendrik Niclaes in Amsterdam in 1539. It had a significant following in England in Marston’s day, as well as in the Low Countries, but its name also lent itself obligingly to satirical insinuation. Indeed, Marston himself may well have been the author of an anonymous play called The Family of Love, which is roughly contemporary with The Dutch Courtesan.3The play was formerly attributed to Middleton and then to Lording Barry, but the case for Marston’s involvement in its authorship is well made in Charles Cathcart, Marston, Rivalry, Rapprochement, and Jonson (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008). Here we see an apothecary’s wife, Mrs Purge, who is cheating on her husband and who is an elder in the Family, explaining to a new member of the sect that the meetings of the Family take place at night, in darkness, and are ‘carnal mixtures’ (3.2). In The Dutch Courtesan the Family is cited three times: at 1.1.146, when Freevill asks his friend Malheureux whether he’d rather join the Family of Love than visit Freevill’s ‘pretty, nimble-eyed Dutch Tannakin’; at 1.2.17, when Mary Faugh announces that as a bawd she is one of the Family of Love; and at 3.3.51, when Mistress Mulligrub, wife of a money-grubbing wine-seller, indicates that she and her husband are members of the Family in the more literal sense. These references help to frame the play’s central debate about love and sex between the two friends, Freevill and Malheureux (we note the English and French names, of course). If you don’t live freely and accommodate your natural instincts, Freevill implies, you’re going to be miserable and full of suppressed longings, which are liable to burst forth with obsessive and dangerous intensity, as in Malheureux’s case they do.

§5 The connection between the play’s European dimension and its debate about ‘free love’ – hinted at in the satiric references to the Family of Love – is provided by the theme of the ‘common’. The double sense of the common as something low or squalid and as something shared, and therefore of wider social benefit, is at the heart of the matter. The European Community was previously known as the European Economic Community, and before that as ‘the common market’. For some of the play’s characters the common market means the squalor of the sex trade: Malheureux tells Freevill that he wants to stop him being drawn ‘to some common house of lascivious entertainment’ (1.1. 60-1); Cocledemoy refers to the ‘common customs’ of whoring (2.1.158); Franceschina is a ‘common woman’ (4.4.74); and in the final act Freevill reflects on the contrast between marriage and ‘the unhealthful loins of common loves,/ The prostituted impudence of things’ (5.1.73-4). What is common is also what is publicly available, as Malheureux recognises, much to his distress, after falling in love with Franceschina: ‘whither am I fallen!/ A creature of a public use!’ (2.1.83-4). At one level, then, the common and the public refer negatively to the common market of commercialised sex.

§6 More broadly, however, they are part of a dialogue that the play sets up between the common and the pure, the public and the private. This is filtered through the liberal use of Latin maxims, which Marston derives from Montaigne, and arguably the most significant of these is Freevill’s utterance just before the first reference to the Family of Love: ‘bonum quo communius, eo melius’ [the more common a good is, the better it is] (1.1.142). This is to offer a different and entirely positive interpretation of the common as a shared public benefit, and one that Malheureux develops in order to rationalise his sexual obsession with Franceschina: ‘A common love?/ Blush not, faint breast!/ That which is ever loved of most is best’ (1.2.145-7). As for the Latin maxim itself, Marston’s editors translate it but don’t suggest a source. It was in fact quite widely used in the early modern period by those who wanted to justify the public dissemination of professional knowledge, typically through translation into the vernacular. It appears, for example, in Thomas James’s preface to his translation of Brucioli’s commentary on the Canticle of Canticles (1598) and in John Hester’s work on medicine and surgery, The Pearle of Practise (1594). There is no obvious direct source, but it seems likely to derive from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 1.2.8, which discusses public and private benefit and argues that the good of the state is greater than the good of the individual.4English Renaissance Translation Theory, ed. Neil Rhodes (London: MHRA, 2013), p. 166; John Hester, Pearle of Practise (London, 1594), STC 13253, image 3. Available at EEBO Its most interesting application in the present context, though, can be found in Florio’s preface to his translation of Montaigne, which sets out to answer every conceivable objection to the practice of translation:

Why, but learning would not be made common. Yea, but learning cannot
be too common, and the commoner the better. Yea, but who is not jealous,
his mistress should be so prostitute? Yea, but this mistress is like air, fire,
water: the more breathed, the clearer; the more extended, the warmer; the
more drawn, the sweeter.5English Renaissance Translation Theory, p. 381.

Florio’s preface, which plays with the positive and negative aspects of the common within the context of translation between languages, is an important intertext for The Dutch Courtesan, supplementing the play’s well-established debt to Montaigne’s essays themselves.

§7 Bonum quo communius, eo melius is an argument for making the benefits of learning freely available for public use. Reworked by Marston in the play’s debate about love and sex, and the twin poles of marriage and prostitution, it becomes part of an ideal of free love, grounded in nature but also in marriage. As Freevill puts it, echoing Montaigne:

Philosophy and nature are all one;
Love is the centre in which all lines close,
The common bond of being.               (2.1.117-19)

In speaking for ‘nature’, Freevill lives up to his name, but he is not the only advocate of this version of ‘free love’. His fiancée’s sister, Crispinella, is also eloquent on the subject:

You shall have an hypocritical vestal virgin speak that with close teeth
publicly which she will receive with open mouth privately… She
whose honest freeness makes it her virtue to speak what she thinks,
will make it her necessity to think what is good… Virtue is a free,
pleasant, buxom quality… this froward, ignorant coyness, sour,
austere, lumpish, uncivil privateness [… is] good for nothing but for
nothing.           (3.1.33-40, 49)

Crispinella is speaking to Beatrice and correcting her more conventional modesty, but she is also by implication criticising the hypocrisy of Malheureux. In doing so she extends ‘freeness’ into the realm of speech and to the distinction between the public and the private spheres, all part of the wider context of the play’s central debate.

§8 That debate is tied to the main plot through the different situations of Freevill and Malheureux. Freevill has exchanged whoring for marriage, while Malheureux has exchanged abstinence for a sexual obsession so intense that he is prepared to betray his closest friend in order to satisfy it. The extremity of Malheureux’s situation drives Freevill’s ruthless plan to reform him while simultaneously thwarting Franceschina’s attempted revenge on himself for having abandoned her. Freevill’s scheme brings Malheureux close to the point of execution for murder. Anticipating the situation that Malheureux will find himself in if people think that he has really murdered him, Freevill ponders: ‘But is this virtue in me? No, not pure;/ Nothing extremely best with us endures./ No use in simple purities; the elements/ are mixed for use’ (4.2.40-2). This rejection of a misconceived notion of purity (again borrowed from Montaigne) reinstates virtue as common, just as the rejection of ‘uncivil privateness’ reinstates it as public.

§9 It is also, of course, an endorsement of hybridity – something in which Marston had a personal investment – as a necessary part of a philosophy of pragmatism. To say that ‘the elements are mixed for use’ is entirely consistent with the view that ‘Philosophy and nature are all one’. This informs the play’s debate on sexual ethics, but the pragmatism also justifies the ruthlessness of Freevill’s plot to make Malheureux see that his obsession with the Dutch courtesan is the perverse outcome of his obsession with purity. Malheureux will certainly suffer, and there will also be some collateral damage, notably to the patient Beatrice. But the end justifies the means. That position is ultimately acknowledged by Malheureux himself in a statement that implicitly draws together many of the play’s themes, reinforcing in particular the link between the play’s linguistic hybridity – its Euro-Babel – and the good sense of its more philosophical reflections on purity and commonness, the public and the private:

Rich sense makes good bad language, and a friend
Should weigh no action, but the action’s end.           (5.3.63-4)


  • 1
    All citations from the play are taken from John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. David Crane (London: A & C Black, 1997).
  • 2
    Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 23, 25.
  • 3
    The play was formerly attributed to Middleton and then to Lording Barry, but the case for Marston’s involvement in its authorship is well made in Charles Cathcart, Marston, Rivalry, Rapprochement, and Jonson (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).
  • 4
    English Renaissance Translation Theory, ed. Neil Rhodes (London: MHRA, 2013), p. 166; John Hester, Pearle of Practise (London, 1594), STC 13253, image 3. Available at EEBO
  • 5
    English Renaissance Translation Theory, p. 381.

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