Civic Institutions and Precarious Masculinity in
Dekker's The Honest Whore
Jean E. Howard
"She is ever moor'd in sinne, and ever mending; and after thirty, she is the chirurgions creature: shame and repentance are two strangers to her, and only in an hospitall acquainted."
-- description of "A Whoore" from Thomas Overbury's Characters
1. In 1604 Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker published The Honest Whore, a play that contradicts Overbury's assertion that prostitutes never reform until a stay in a hospital thrusts shame and repentance upon them. Bellafront, the honest whore of the play's title, renounces her life of dissolution in Act II, and then through this play and the sequel, The Honest Whore, Part II, she stays chaste despite numerous temptations to return to her life of sin. Reformed whores aren't common in city comedy, but unreformed ones are, especially in a group of plays staged soon after 1603 , the year of James I's accession to England's throne. To my knowledge, only The Dutch Courtesan (1605) joins The Honest Whore in giving the prostitute top billing in its title; but whores or bawds are important charcters in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (1604), Westward Ho (1604), Eastward Ho (1605), Northward Ho (1605), and in a number of other plays written during these two years.
2. The genre of city comedy to which these plays belonged became popular after 1598 for its depiction of urban life, especially the life of England's own burgeoning metropolis, London. Rather than highlighting the aristocratic figures who dominate the main plots of tragedy and of historical drama, city comedy focuses attention on merchants and shopkeepers, their wives and apprentices, along with city gallants and the occasional court figure or low-life type such as the prostitute or canting rogue. In the project I am working on now I am trying to figure out why the genre was so popular in the approximately fifteen years following 1598 by analyzing the particular pleasures these plays afforded a London audience and the particular kinds of cultural problems they were negotiating.
3. Typically, city comedy has been read as the genre through which Londoners explored their role in a vastly expanding market economy and negotiated the particular class tensions, especially between gentry and merchants, exascerbated by that expansion. Brilliant work on these issues has been done by Thomas Leggatt, Brian Gibbons, Theodore Leinwand, L.C. Knights, Lawrence Manley and others. I am interested in somewhat different questions, in particular in the way city comedy helped construct what it meant to be an English Londoner, that is, how it intertwined questions of civic and national identity and how both were bound up in changing gender relations and ideas of masculinity and femininity. To be an English Londoner meant being distinguishable, certainly, from residents of Venice, Paris, or Madrid. William Haughton's Three Englishmen for My Money (1598), arguably the first city comedy, puts questions of national self-definition on the agenda of city comedy. In this play the daughters of a Portuguese merchant defy his wishes that they marry a Dutchman, an Italian, and a Frenchman. Instead, they choose three Englishmen, and the play approves their choices since England and the English are presented as superior to all the nations of Europe. Such crude chauvinism is muted in other city comedies, but the preoccupation with how England "stacks up" against other European nations does not disappear. There are many foreign characters in the early city comedies, often merchants or artisans, a tacit recognition that trade mandated contacts and sometimes rivalries among the nations of Europe. It was against the discursive background of "the foreign," moreover, that these plays help to delineate what I call "civic Englishness," a view of English national identity as rooted in particular institutions, social practices, and ideologies constructed as central to city life but seen as metonymic for a more generalized identity not limited to those who happen to live in London.
4. But the category of the English Londoner was not itself a unified category. Gender, for example, was a point of division since male citizens and citizens' wives did not hold comparable public positions, and marriage signified differently for each. For women it was the defining social institution; for men, marital status, however important, did not totally circumscribe their social identities. City comedies not only helped define Englishness in relation to other nationalities; they were also involved in the construction of those forms of masculinity and femininity suited to civic life. The Honest Whore has a particular and interesting role in this project. The first part, in particular, was staged at an important moment of cultural transition, the year following James's accession to the throne and the dreadful plague that had delayed the King's entry procession into London, killing over forty thousand Londoners. There is an apocalyptic tone to much of the play's representation of city life. Dekker, one of its authors, had stayed in London throughout the plague, and he published a pamphlet, The Wonderful Year, about the events of 1603 when a queen died, a new king was crowned, and a pestiferous infection overwhelmed the city. By his account, hundreds fled the city, while many others were abandoned by neighbors and families to a solitary and horrible death. In his sardonic way, Dekker captured much of the grotesquerie of those months, describing how, for example, by stuffing rue and woodworm in their ears and nostrils to ward off contagion, people made themselves look like boars' heads served in at a Christmas feast (p. 47). Elsewhere, he horrifyingly described how "Death, like a Spanish leaguer--or rather, like stalking Tamburlaine--hath pitched his tents, being nothing but a heap of winding-sheets tacked together, in the sinfuly polluted suburbs. The plague is muster-master and marshall of the field; burning fevers, boils, blains and carbuncles the leaders, lieutenants, sergeants and corporals; the main army consisting like Dunkirk of a mingle-mangle, viz. dumpish mourners, merry sextons, hungry coffin-sellers, scrubbing bearers and nasty grave-makers (but indeed they are the pioneers of the camp, that are employed only like moles in casting up of earth and digging of trenches); fear and trembling, the two catchpoles of Death, arrest everyone" (p. 46).
5. In the immediate context of the city's battle with Death's armies, it is easy to see how the "sinfully polluted suburbs," and the whores, bawds, and brothels associated with those suburbs could, in The Honest Whore as in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, be singled out as a sign of urban corruption and marked for discipline and correction. From Roman times London's southern suburbs, in particular, had been associated with prostitution (Burford). After the breakup of the Southwark brothels by Henry VIII in 1546, prostitution had spread quite widely through the city of London, but whores were still discursively linked with suburban spaces: the Bankside, Shoreditch, the overcrowded Eastern suburbs (Shugg, Archer). In 1603 one of James's first royal proclamations was an order to pull down the overcrowded buildings within three miles of London in order to drive out the "idle, indigent, dissolute and dangerous persons" pestering the city and causing plague (Hughes and Larkin). Whores and bawds were numbered among such dissolute persons. In Measure for Measure the Duke orders the suburban brothels pulled down, as does the Duke in the second part of The Honest Whore. Plague, indigency, and prostitution were easy to lump together. In writing a play about a reformed whore, Dekker and Middleton could both use the figure of a sinful woman, a Mary Magdalen, to signify the vices that led to urban apocalypse and also have her model the repentance necessary for urban restoration.
6. But The Honest Whore is not just a morality tale about a woman who, through an individual act of repentance, reforms, thereby cleansing the civic body and providing a model for self-disciplined urban dwellers, though that is one highly gendered aspect of her representation. In both parts of this play (the second of which was probably written by 1608 when it was entered in the Stationer's register, but never published), the story of Bellafront, the honest whore, is juxtaposed to that of Candido, a linen draper. The play's full title is generally printed as: The Honest Whore, With, The Humours of the Patient man, and the Longing Wife. In fact, in Gary Taylor's forthcoming edition of Middleton's plays, this one will be called The Patient Man, that being the title used by Henslowe in his theatrical diary, an indication that for some Renaissance theatergoers, the linen draper was as much the focal point of attention as the reformed whore. In fact, it is the relationship of the one figure to the other that I in part wish to explore in this paper. The patient Candido's role in both plays, no matter what their titles, is a constant one. Perpetually provoked, he never gets angry. No matter what is done to him, Candido is patient, treating his customers and his wife with courtesy even when they abuse him. Through the formal device of juxtaposed plots, the plays thus contrast two different spheres of action: that of the whore and the gallants who have been her customers and that of the patient shopkeeper. What, I ask, is the cultural work done by this juxtaposition? Moreover, why do the two plays end, with perfect symmetry, inside two prominent civic institutions: Bedlam in Part I, Bridewell in Part II? The former was London's first madhouse, the second its first house of correction dedicated to reform through work (Jordan, O'Donogh). It is only inside these institutions that the plots reach resolution and where, I might add, we meet some unrepentant whores with names such as Doll Target, Penelope Whore-hound, and Catyryna Bountinall.
7. In trying to answer these specific questions about The Honest Whore and in inquiring more generally into the cultural work performed by city comedies, I continue to be interested, as in the past, in drama's role in the social struggles of its time of production. I do not, however, mean to mine these texts for "information" about early modern prostitution or plague, early modern linen drapers or the early modern institutions of Bridewell and Bedlam. As Fredric Jameson and others have argued, the historicity of texts we call literary lies first and foremost in the way their formal and generic features mediate the real. They are not mirrors, but displacements. The historicity of these plays is revealed primarily through the kinds of stories they tell. These stories are places where cultural fantasies, anxieties, and the crisis points of certain social logics are revealed. Consequently, I first attend to the texture of these plays as formal and ideological constructions. How are they made? Where are the points of contradiction and incoherence in the narratives that might be symptoms of the cultural tensions they are attempting to master? Attending to these things first, rather than to the local and limited referentiality of the text, I then work dialectically between the texts and accounts of the social world in which they were produced in order to develop an analysis of their cultural functions.
8. An important and obvious point of incoherence in The Honest Whore and one that bears on its role in constructing English civic nationalism and the kinds of masculinity and femininity associated with it has to do with geography. The city in which this city comedy is ostensibly set is Milan, not London. Most of the characters in the main plot have Italian names, and the title page to Part II ends with a promise that the play will conclude in "an Italian Bridewell." Yet, while the action is overtly set in Italy, England is never really screened out. The officer who describes the Italian Bridewell, for example, takes his description of that institution almost verbatim from Stow's description in his 1603 Survey of London (Vol. II, pp.44-45). And if the honest whore herself has a foreignish name, Bellafront, her servant is named Roger, and at least some of the other whores, such as Penelope Whorehound, sound as if they hailed from Shoreditch or Southwark, not Milan. The subplot story of Candido is even more obviously a London tale. At his second wedding, in Part II, Candido gives a long speech in praise of the flat caps worn by London apprentices; and his shop, where he calls people in by the familiar city cry, "What do you lack?," is unmistakably situated in the linen drapers' district of London.
9. Of course, not every city comedy is set in London--Measure for Measure, for example, is not-- though I would argue that London is the subtextual referent in nearly all of them. But the displacements in city comedy to a foreign venue are always ideologically interesting. Dekker and Middleton's play attempts to Italianize sexual vice and profligacy, to make them be, like syphillis, something that always originates somewhere else (Jones). Interestingly, when printed in 1604, the first play came out under the title The Honest Whore, but later in the same year was reprinted as The Converted Curtezan. There were no textual alterations of any significance, and no one has been able to establish for certain who changed the title or why. But "Courtezans" sound more Italian than do "whores," and Venice, in particular, had become famous in travellers' accounts for the beauty and sophistication of its courtesans (Rosenthal). The double title thus indicates indecision about whether prostitutes are foreign or domestic creatures, Italian courtesans or English whores. The "othering" of vice is never fully accomplished in the play. The face of England keeps peeping through representations of Italian sin. In fact, Italy in this play seems to signify a potential within England, especially the potential that sexuality and desire will spin out of control unless certain forms of regulation, internal or external, control the appetites which lead to social catastrophe: poverty, plague, murder, violence, adultery.
10. Both parts of The Honest Whore use the Italian setting, especially in the main plot, to focus rather luridly on scenes of men out of control, though the title pages of both would lead the reader to believe that it is women who especially need regulation. It is the linen draper's wife, after all, who disruptively "longs;" and it is another woman, the whore, who has needed to "convert" or become honest. But, ironically, it is primarily men who succumb to raging desires and passions in these texts. In the opening scene, for example, a gallant named Hippolito grieves excessively for his dead mistress. Described by others as "more savage than a barbarous Moore," Hippolito stalks the dead woman's hearse, rails at her father, and vows that on every Monday, which is the day his beloved died, he will deny himself the sight of women and live mewed up in a enclosed room mourning her. Later we later see him doing just this. In the same play Fustigo, the brother of the linen draper's wife's, dresses like a zany fantastic and joins his sister in outrageous plots to get Candido to show anger. These include demanding that Candido spoil a whole bolt of cloth by asking for a penny's worth of fabric from the very middle of it. Part I of The Honest Whore, moreover, ends in Bedlam, the literal madhouse within the city. The madmen on display there--and they are mad men--have lost their wits because of business losses or because a lover died or was untrue. Too much desire, for money or for love, and the frustration of that desire opens the sluice gates of madness.
11. Part II is even more over the top. Hippolito, the mourning man from Part I, had eventually discovered that his love was not dead and had married her in Act V of part I, but not before being the agent of transformation who shamed Bellafront into leaving her whore's profession and becoming the chaste wife of the first man who deflowered her, Matheo. Part II gives us the unexpected spectacle of the mourning man, Hippolito, deciding that he loves Bellafront better than his much-desired wife and attempting to woo her back to the whore's life from which he had formerly extricated her. Worse, her husband, Matheo, proves a profligate madman who in his desire to "fly high," a phrase he uses in nearly every speech, borrows and steals money to use for gambling, sells off the furnishings of their house, and attempts to bully his wife into returning to prostitution to keep them in cash.. In the most sensational scene in the play, Matheo strips his wife onstage of her one satin gown so that he can pawn it, all the while mumbling obsessively: "Must have money, must have some, must have a Cloake, and Rapier, and things" (p. 173). The encounter is both sadistic and lurid, leaving the reformed whore walking the stage in her petticoat.
12. Central to The Honest Whore, therefore, is the spectacle of men out of control, men associated with what were popularly deemed to be the vices of Italy: excessive and obsessive sexuality, devious intriques, peacockish self-display. These were, also, of course, the vices attributed to a certain group of Englishmen by another group, namely, to gallants and to men of leisure by those who worked and felt themselves to live lives of sober self-regulation: citizens, those of Puritan persuasion, those interested in moral reform (Sharpe, Archer, Greene, Stubbes). Dekker, in the years between 1603 and 1609, wrote a number of pamphlets in which he castigated the sins of Londoners, calling, in fact, one of his 1606 treatises The Seven Deadly Sins of London. It does not so much matter what Dekker himself really thought about the state of the city; what matters is that he knew well the languages it which its vices were enumerated and condemned. Scholars traditionally have assigned most of the writing of the main plot scenes involving Bellafront and the Italian gallants to him rather than to Middleton (Bowers, Hoy).
13. One can only speculate about the historical reasons why watching spectacles of men out of control would have been pleasurable to at least some London playgoers in the period following 1603. I have suggested that in a general way it may have been connected to the cultural trauma following the 1603 plague, one of the worst to hit London in the entire Elizabethan and Jacobean period (Barroll). The spectacle of people given over to moral degeneracy may have had a cathartic effect. Rehearsing vice, the theater could also stage its punishment; exorcise it. Certainly an apocalyptic sense of unfettered vice dominates the main plot, reaching a rhetorical climax in Hippolito's long, impassioned, and excessive speech in which he condemns Bellafront for prostitution. I quote just part of this speech:
You have no soule,
That makes you wey so light: heavens treasure bought it,
And halfe a crowne hath sold it: for your body,
Its like the common shoare, that still receives
All the townes filth. The sin of many men
Is within you, and thus much I suppose,
That if all your committers stood in ranke,
Theide make a lane, (in which your shame might dwell)
And with their spaces reach from hence to hell.
Nay, shall I urge it more, there has been knowne,
As many by one harlot, maym'd and dismembred,
As you ha stuft an hospitall: this I might
Apply to you and perhaps does you right:
O y'are as base as any beast that beares,
Your body is ee'ne hirde, and so are theirs.
For gold and sparking jewels, (if he can)
Youle let a Jewe get you with christian:
Be he a Moore, a Tartar, tho his face
Looke uglier then a dead mans scull,
Could the devil put on a humane shape,
If his purse shake out crownes, up then he gets,
Whores will be rid to hell with golden bits:
So that y'are crueller then Turkes, for they
Sell Christians onely, you sell your selves away.
We never see Bellafront coupling with a Tartar; nor do we see her clients lined up on the road to hell. But we hear from Hippolyto of miscegenation, crimes against Christianity, the selling of souls and the transformation of a human body into a sewer. Rhetorically off-loaded onto the figure of the prostitute, these crimes, as I've suggested, are, after the first act of the first play, more likely to be committed by the play's gallants than by Bellafront. It is Matheo and his companions who continue to seek for good wine and boys, to fight in the streets, and to sell their souls for finery. But my point is that both the acting and the cataloguing of Italian vice are a necessary prelude to the edifying spectacle of reform and correction.
14. As in certain other city comedies, dissipation demands discipline. Jonathan Dollimore, in fact, has argued of Measure for Measure that the raison d'etre for its emphasis on rampant vice and diseased sexuality is to justify the rigorous application of the law as a corrective. In The Honest Whore, regulation and correction take two forms: self-regulation and regulation by the state. The more "English" part of the play, the Candido subplot, offers the spectacle of the self-regulating man as an alternative to the men out of control in the main plot; and this is probably a chief reason why this story of a London linen draper should be juxtaposed to the story of Italianate gallants. Every moment Candido is on stage the audience can watch him carefully managing his emotions. (I imagine him wearing the expression of constipated virtue familiar to us from Pat Boone's tv appearances or an Al Gore press conference). Candido does not get angry when unreasonable customers demand he ruin a bolt of cloth, when his apprentice puts on his clothing and takes his place as master of the shop, when a customer tries to turn his wife to adultery. In part he displays the mentality of the careful shopkeeper whose control over his emotions enables him to be responsive to all his customers, not matter how repugnant they are. As he says:
We are set heere to please all customers,
Their humours and their fancies:--offend none:
We get by many, if we leese by one.
Oh, he that meanes to thrive, with patient eye
Must please the divell, if he come to buy. (p. 38)
This is the common sense of the marketplace, and, in a case of life eerily echoing art, it was repeated in the 1635 treatise by William Scott, An Essay of Drapery, in which an actual linen draper speaks of the need to show courtesy to customers, to use honeyed words to everyone, to be thrifty and avoid taverns, to restrain the pride and the tongue of a wife--and all in the pursuit of what he calls "sancta avaritia," holy covetousness. The self-regulating man, the man in control, has but one passion, a carefully-nurtured lust for profit.
15. What we will later come to call the petty bourgeois quality of this posture (what got England nominated, for better or worse, a nation of shopkeepers) would on the face of it seem to be the play's privileged alternative to its spectacles of vice and passion. Candido is not a gallant, but a shopkeeper and citizen; he is not as Italian, foreign, or degenerate as the more aristocratic figures in the main plot. His representation suggests that there is a certain degree of class struggle involved in the play's negotiation of the English/Italian binary. The true Englishman is the middling sort, self-disciplining shopkeeper, not his aristocratic antithesis. But there is a complicating faction in Candido's representation. He is insufficiently manly, at least in the eyes of most observers. In adumbrating a new type of man and a new type of masculinity suited for the world of the marketplace (Agnew) and a post-plague era of civil decorum, Dekker and Middleton seem unable not to articulate the contradictions that attend his emergence. Attractive for his self-control, Candido is also slightly comic, a figure shorn of the traditional marks of virility. Candido's wife indicates what is wrong in her first scene. To her brother she complains that "No losse of goods can increase in him a wrinckle, no crabbed language make his countenance sowre, the stubburnnes of no servant shake him, he haz no more gall in him than a Dove, no more sting than an Ant" (27). When she tells her brother she has a "strange longing" within her, he concludes she must be with child. To which she replies: "Y'are wide ath bow hand still brother: my longings are not wanton, but wayward: I long to have my patient husband eate up a whole Porcupine, to the intent, the bristling quills may sticke about his lippes like a flemmish mustacho, and be shot at me: I shall be leaner then the new moon, unlesse I can make him horne mad" (28). (I have not yet found a picture or description of a Flemish mustache, but I assume it is extremely bushy). It takes no great interpretive skills to see here her longing for a certain phallic sharpness, a certain hairy wildness, in her husband.
16. In this play of out-of-control men, Candido is oddly sexless and decidedly unable to protect himself. If he represents a new man, that new man is in the first instance constructed by drawing on comic stereotypes of the emasculated husband. Other men and his own wife treat Candido with disrespect. His is a manliness that requires supplementation, prosthetic enhancement. In fact, throughout the play, others are constantly providing him with the help he seems to need. His apprentices, for example, call him into a back room in the shop so that, up front, they can use their cudgels to beat up the gallant who is wooing Candido's wife. When unruly customers take his drinking vessel and won't pay for it, Candido sends for a Constable to fetch it back. When he marries a second wife in Part II, someone else teaches Candido how to tame her with his "yard." Paradoxically, the civil decorum appropriate to the shopkeeper who would solicitously woo his customers leaves him unprotected against abuses and certainly does not coincide with the prickly manliness deemed appropriate to a husband or lover. The passionate gallants have a corner on that commodity, yet their out-of-control passions are themselves the object of critique.
17. The plays, then displays anxiety over masculinity. The highflying swaggering of a Matheo and the lowflying timidity of a Candido are both deficient, in need of correction or supplementation, though each play struggles to install the linen draper in the position of cultural norm. As a formal device of closure, for example, the Duke of Milan (himself a figure who at first plays the tyrant and only gradually comes to embody a less-compromised form of state power) gets the last speech in each play, and in each he proclaims that he will take Candido to court to be an example to all of patient virtue. At the end of Part II he says:
Thou hast taught the Citty patience, now our Court
Shall be thy Spheare, where from thy good report,
Rumours this truth unto the world shal sing,
A Patient man's a Patterne for a King. (Part II, V.ii. 494-97)
Shopkeeper virtues are being appropriated for courtly use.
18. Yet there remains the problem of Candido's comic status. It is not easy to install the shopkeeper as an exemplification of civic manliness, but to understand how the attempt is negotiated it is worth thinking at this point about why the plays end in Bridewell and Bedlam, respectively. What I will suggest in what follows is that the civic manliness being constructed in these and certain other city comedies depends for its ultimate supplementation on the state and on the state's acting out a sanctioned violence supposedly denied to individual members of the commonwealth. As the self-regulating Stoic man, Candido eschews all displays of violence and passion. He will not discipline his wife or fight with his unruly customers. While other men (apprentices and friends) take up the violent roles he refuses, the law and the city's sites of incarceration and control are the clear alternatives to private duels and brawls. Candido proves a good subject when he does not fight with his customers over a stolen object but calls in the law. The constables employ the force he eschews as the state takes over the management of violence from private and particular citizens. One of the tasks of the Tudor-Stuart state was to accomplish this transmission of authority over violence (Smith, Sharp, Archer). Self-regulation goes hand in hand with enhanced state regulation. The violence of gallants and courtiers was as worrisome as the violence of petty criminals and apprentices. Elizabeth forbade private duels; the London city fathers attempted to control brawls and street crime. William Gouge advised husbands that if their wives absolutely required physical correction, perhaps it would be better to have the constable undertake it, rather than the husband himself. In The Roaring Girl, Sir Davy Dapper contrives to have his prodigal son, Jack Dapper, incarcerated in The Counter, a notorious debtor's prison, in order to effect the reform he himself can not achieve.
19. Candido's reliance on civic institutions is notable. Just as it is significant that Candido's first thought when he loses property to an unruly customer is to call for the constable, so it is important that he is a member of Milan's Senate, probably the equivalent of London's Common Council. Those who are Senators wear a special gown when called to the Senate House or they pay a considerable fine. Clearly, the gown is a masculinity-enhancement device, like a modern military uniform, that makes Candido seem more impressive than he is in daily life. But in revealing Candido's reliance on the state to fill him out, the play again stumbles over its own residual longing for a manliness less dependent on the law and the institutions of state to constitute itself. At one point when Candido goes to get his gown, he finds his wife has locked it away and won't give it back. Unable to let himself be angry with her, he takes a carpet (that is, a Turkish table cover) from his house, cuts a slit in it for his head, and goes to the Senate in this ridiculous gown, pleading the excuse of illness. In this instance, the enhancement effect is ruined. Candido demeans the dignity of the Senate rather than being elevated by it.
20. Candido's comically rendered insufficiencies are eventually what land him first in Bedlam and then in Bridewell. Unlike a number of other characters, he does not go to these institutions voluntarily, to pursue his own plots. Rather, he is committed to each: to Bedlam by his wife as a final attempt to make him angry; to Bridewell by officers of the law after he has been conycatched by the gallants into appearing a fence for stolen objects. In neither case has he been able to ward off the aggression of others. To understand why he ends up in these places, and why the dramatic narratives reach resolution there, it is necessary to say a word about each of these institutions.
21. Both were given to the city in the sixteenth century as part of the notable increase in London's charitable and carceral enterprises (Jordan). In 1547 Henry VIII gave the hospital of Bethlem to London in the parish of St. Botolph without Bishopsgate, and it became the Hospital for the Cure of Lunactics. At first a poor and underfunded institution, in early Jacobean days it probably housed only about thirty inmates in squalid conditions. Only in 1675 did it move to more suitable quarters; and only in 1770 were paying visitors who came to gawk at the inmates excluded (Bowen). In the early seventeenth century, Bridewell was a more active and important institution. Given by Edward VI to the city in 1553, Bridewell was a place where vagrants, homeless children, disorderly women, and a variety of petty criminals were incarcerated, whipped, and in theory, put to work beating hemp or cleaning the ditches and sewers of the city (O'Donoghue). As J.A. Sharp has argued, the existence of Bridewell represented a step in the criminalization of poverty and added the idea of labor discipline to more traditional notions of incarceration as retribution and deterence. Gradually it became a kind of switch point in the geographical and moral management of the poor. Vagrants who landed in Bridewell were after a short time typically sent with a pass back to their parishes of origin. Women accused of prostitution and taken to Bridewell were whipped and put to work before their eventual release. For a time after 1618, vagrant children were shipped from Bridewell to be indentured servants in Virginia and incarcerated women were sent out to become settlers' wives (Hume, Bridenbaugh).
22. Dekker and Middleton's Bridewell and Bedlam are not so historically accurate as they are ideologically interesting. Whatever the Italian setting of the plays, these two institutions evoke London. They are city landmarks. And landmarks connected with incarceration and the control of those perceived as socially disruptive or disorderly. In both plays the "Duke," half absolute monarch, half Lord Mayor, comes to these institutions to dispense justice and set wrongs right. [The same emphasis on the carceral aspects of civic life is present in other city plays with which The Honest Whore is intertextually linked. Over half the scenes in Measure for Measure take place in a prison or in the Ducal chambers; Eastward Ho contrives to land its unruly apprentice in debtors' prison; and even Westward Ho depicts the temporary arrest of the gallant, Monopoly, for debt.] In the first part of The Honest Whore, the Duke comes to Bedlam in Act V and ratifies the marriage of Hipppolito and his bride; marries Bellafront the reformed whore to Matheo, the man who had her maidenhead; reconciles Candido the linen draper with his penitent wife and then takes him to court. In the second play, in Bridewell, again under the Duke's watchful eye, Hippoplyto's marriage is reconfirmed; Matheo the prodigal is reconciled to Bellafront and sent to live with her in her father's house; and Candido is released from bondage and again taken to court. As is typical of comedy, marriages and reaffirmations of marriage signal the channelling of desire into socially acceptable forms. But what is not typical is that in these plays it takes the power of the state, represented in the person of the Duke and in the institutions of Bedlam and Bridewell, to effect this channelling.
23. Moreover, in both plays, the reformations occur against a backdrop of the unrepentant and the unreformed, those whom incarceration and correction alone can govern. Madmen and whores are made spectacles of uncontrol. In Part I, a man who believes he has lost his wealth in a battle between his ships and the Turkish galleys, drags a net around the stage, fishing for salmon and lost treasure, babbling incoherently. In Part II, three unrepentant whores, instead of weeping in repentance, sing and curse. They are surrounded, iconically, by signs of the state power that constrains them. The madmen are controlled by whips. The whores are more elaborately staged. As each is led before the Duke, an extended stage direction indicates how she is to appear:
Enter two of the Masters: a Constable after them, then Dorothea Target, brave, after her two Beadles, th'one with a wheele, the other with a blue Gowne. (p. 212)
The blue gown of penitence will replace her fine clothes; the wheel is the spinning wheel at which she must be employed in a mimicry of good houswifery; the masters, constables, and beadles are the officers who will execute her punishment.
Enter the two Masters, after them the Constable, after him Penelope Whore-hound, like a Cittizens wife, after her two Beadles, one with a blue Gowne, another with Chalke and a Mallet. (p. 213)
Again, the gown and the officers are prominently foregrounded, but this time the whore's work is beating chalk with a mallet; and the Master explicitly compares her to a housewife. "Goe give her the blue Gowne, set her to her chare, worke Huswife, for your bread, away" (V.ii.336-38).
Enter the two Masters first, after them the Constable, after them a Beadle beating a Bason, then Catyryne Bountinall, with Mistres Horsleach, after them another Beadle with a blue head guarded with yellow. (p. 215)
This third whore is the most outspoken. Missing are the implements of work, but present is the beadle beating a basin, symbol of the carting of a whore.
24. The elaborate staging of the whores suggests an exemplary spectacle meant both for the edification of those who watch on the stage and those who watch in the theater. It is a warning: control yourself or the whips of the beadles will tame your blood for you. It is a reassurance: here the city defends you against "the Bawd, the Rogue, and Whore" (V.ii.44). Lay down your weapons; the state will employ them for you.
25. It is against this backdrop that one needs to think again of Candido, the patient man, buffoon, and exemplary citizen. Unlike the whore, his commercial activities are lauded, not punished. He is the self-regulating man whom the whips of Bridewell should never need to curb. Yet twice he is incarcerated, unable to defend himself against his wife or the gallants who coneycatch him; twice he is delivered, exonerated and embraced by the Duke. This elaborate formula, so successful it was repeated from one play to the next, seems to me a complex fantasy about class struggle, gender, and above all about the role of the state in supplementing citizens, surplanting the prerogatives of a degenerate (i.e., Italianated) aristocracy, and asserting state control over the use of violence. Candido must go guiltless into Bridewell and Bedlam precisely so he can re- emerge, vindicated and intact, with the help of the Duke. A potential victim, he ultimately triumphs over his wife and his enemies, but only when his powers are augmented by the the constabluary, the Senate, the Duke, and the whips and beadles of Bridewell. Not without difficulty, does he, rather than the rake Matheo or the sanctimonious and hypocritical Hippolito, become the exemplary Englishman. It is no wonder that Candido and the Duke exit the stage together in both plays. They are symbiotically linked. Candido is the patient, self-regulating citizen the state craves; the Duke embodies the state power to which the citizen sutures himself, extending his phantasmagoric manliness. The civic nationalism adumbrated in such a city comedy depends on the intricate suturing of the male subject to the state and its apparatuses of rule.
26. This being so, what finally joins the Candido story to that of the reformed whore? Why does this play need two plots, and why, as the frequently changing titles indicate, was it so difficult to decide which one was the main plot? On one level I would simply suggest that the picture of civic masculinity being constructed through Candido cannot be complete without imagining the complementary figure of the self-disciplining and obedient wife, which is what Bellafront becomes and what Candido lacks. The achievement of such a wife is itself a cause of anxiety. That the first part quickly gives us a graphic scene of the whore Bellafront amid her cosmetics, primping for the arrival of her clients; that both parts show us Candido's unruly wives; that part two ends with the trio of brazen and unrepentant whores--all this suggests docile and chaste wives are not to be taken for granted. Hence much of the energy of Candido's friends and apprentices is spent in disciplining and foiling his unruly wife; and much of the coercive technology of the state is directed against whores, punishing them and turning them, as far as possible, into simulacra of wives by equating their forced labor to housewifery.
27. In Bellafront's case, the state goes so far as to make her an actual wife by giving her in marriage, after her repentance, to the first man who had had her maidenhead. The state thus reads her defloration as a marriage and erases her subsequent sexual history. As a "converted courtesan," Bellafront is apparently therefore an exemplary figure who has learned to eschew the life of vice and discipline herself to chastity. But her portrait also reveals the misogynist dimensions of this tale of English Londoners. The audience is often reminded that this virtuous wife is really a reformed whore, and she is treated accordingly. For example, Bellafront does not get to marry the man she loves--Hippolito. He gets what he desires, the chaste and insipid daughter of the Duke; she is delivered to the rake Matheo. After, her life is hell. What gives pleasure in her characterization to some spectators, I think, is her utter abjection. Like a patient Griselda or like the long-suffering Jane Shore of Heywood's Edward IV, Bellafront absorbs abuse and recrimination like a sponge.
28. Bellafront's portrait is thus a masculine fantasy of submissive womanhood. Always already guilty, this wife will never defy a husband's authority or cross his will, except to preserve her chastity. But should she stray, the whips of the beadles are there to return her to her proper "huswifery." To possess such a wife, whose abjection is total, is yet another way of shoring up the deficient, but culturally central, male subject. Her self-control is less privileged than his. Needless to say, though the Duke marries Bellafront off, he does not invite her to court to be the pattern of patience. That role is reserved for Candido, the proper Englishman and civic subject, whose masculinity, ever at risk, requires all the shoring up it can get.
29. But there is another reason, I think, why the play needs to insistently foreground the fact that Bellafront was once an unreformed whore. This repetition not only emphasizes the fundamental weakness of women, but also draws attention away from the ways in which the culturally central male citizen engages in his own form of marketplace prostitution. "Oh, he that means to thrive, with patient eye/ Must please the divell, if he come to buy," is the credo both of the man of the market and the woman of the brothel. To attach the name "whore" so firmly to Bellafront prevents its being attached to others. That, in fact, may be the point. Looking closely at the similarities between Bellafront and Candido reveals that the civic masculinity being constructed in the marketplace world of Dekker and Middlteon's play shares much with the abjected feminine position it so strenuously disavows. Coming into a Venetian courtroom, Portia famously asked,"Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?" A clear-eyed reader of The Honest Whore might, in turn, ask: "Which is the citizen here, and which the whore?" In its anxious civic nationalism, the play labors to remove from the London shopkeeper the stigma of emasculation and self-prostitution. In part it does so by suturing the male subject to the state and its institutions, supplementing deficiency with the imagined plentitude and rigor of the law and its institutions of incarceration and correction. To solidify Candido's class identity, however, requires not only such supplementation, but the utter abjection of the play's literal whores and the eventual construction,for him, of a willingly compliant wife. Nonetheless, the fragility of Candido's masculinity in perhaps its most enduring feature, suggesting the Achilles' heel of the men of the market and the enormous cultural labor required to construct a satisfactory gender identity for England's increasingly important commercial class.
Go to Theodore B. Leinwand's response. Send EMC your comments on this essay. Go to this issue's index. Go to The Electronic Seminar. Go to the current issue's index.
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