Merchants and Kings, Cities and States, Wives and Whores:
A Response to "Civic Institutions and Precarious Masculinity"

Theodore B. Leinwand


     1. Jean Howard would have it that The Honest Whore "labors to remove from the London shopkeeper the stigma of emasculation" (¶29). It strikes me that the two Bellafront/Candido plays, along with a host of other plays of the sort that we are now given to calling "city comedies," labor, better still contort themselves, not to remove but relentlessly to stage and so to insist upon emasculation. Momentary, moralized recuperations (in the form of the Duke embracing Candido) hardly efface ten acts worth of proclaiming impotence. It is, after all, one of the master tropes of the genre to maintain that gallants and citizens have distinct capacities. The former are phallically enabled, if not entitled; the latter are, to borrow from Middleton's Michaelmas Term, short-yarded. Or, as we read in that same play, "They're [the gentry or gallants] busy 'bout our wives, we [merchant-citizens] 'bout their lands" (I shall return to "lands," shortly). The woolen-draper's wife in Michaelmas Term suggests that her husband didn't even know how to use her "so well as a woman might have been used." We may read this, with Howard, as symptomatic of widespread cultural anxiety (¶7) and of the need to supplement "civic manliness" (¶18) with the carceral potency of the state. Or we may read this as a sort of score settling, even as a form of accounting: Candido, along with a cadre of city comedy merchants, compensates for being "oddly sexless" (¶16) by being oddly good at turning a profit. From where we stand, we know very well that the state was increasingly to find an advantage in allying itself with merchants' profits, whether in the form of credit or purchased land. The extent to which merchants were helped or stymied by virtue of their varying affiliations with the state remains more difficult to generalize about. Certainly in Dekker and Webster's day, the state proved itself capable of impeding as well as facilitating commerce.

     2. Perhaps the relationship of the state to capital was less supplemental than appropriative. In her wonderful inquiry into the origins of objectivity (Objectivity in the Making: Francis Bacon and the Politics of Inquiry, Johns Hopkins, 1998), Julie Solomon argues that what Jean Howard (perhaps tacitly following Max Weber) associates with a petty bourgeois posture (¶15)--the psycho-social habitus of self-discipline and self-regulation--we might alternatively recognize as the economic and philosophical stance of self-distancing. After all, disinterestedness was the sine qua non of (Candido's) commercial success. Howard gestures toward dialectic (¶7) but opts for prosthetics, supplementation, and symptomatology. If the Duke and Candido are "symbiotically linked" (¶25), it is because Candido is apparently the docile citizen "the state craves" (¶25). Solomon, I think, comes closer to dialectics. According to her,

Bacon promoted two mercantilist strategies to reground regal authority in the commercial world: first, he reactively [because in response to the merchants] fashioned royal government as a site of disinterestedness, and second, he hoped to enlarge the bureaucracy's capacity to seize and incorporate newly flourishing private interests. Together, the two strategies were to prove the government's social, political, and moral dominance. Bacon constructed the monarch's all-encompassing disinterestedness as a dialectical formation construed in opposition to the interestedness of the merchant and merchandising. (87)

     3. Howard would be hard-pressed to find evidence in The Honest Whore for the "self-regulating man['s] . . . lust for profit" (¶14; my emphasis). What we see in Candido, and in Scott's remarkable model draper, is calculation and restraint. Bedlam and Bridewell were hardly necessary to discipline London's sufficient (read affluent) citizenry, not that the two institutions together would ever have been up to the task. They may have been "landmarks connected with incarceration and the control of those perceived as socially disruptive or disorderly" (¶22); but Howard herself acknowledges that Candido, who ends up once in each lock-up, is precisely the "citizen the state craves" (¶25), not one by whom it feels threatened. If one looks about early modern London, one does not in fact find all that much evidence of state sponsored "management of violence" (¶18; my emphasis) on the citizens' behalf. Yes, rioting (usually apprentices, not citizens) was put down, and marshall law then was much more ugly than in Seattle, in 1999, when the state went furiously to bat for international capital. But I think then, as now?, the relationship between the state and its (merchant-)citizenry had less to do with violence than with more subtle operations of power. Solomon describes how "individual merchants began to align themselves with the mercantilist aims of a royal state that simultaneously sought to cultivate and contain them" (78). This may be the symbiosis that Howard has in mind, but violence is, for the most part, peripheral.

     4. Jean Howard is also interested in the "way city comedy helped construct what it meant to be an English Londoner" (¶3; my emphasis). While in this instance, at least, this does not seem to be of prime interest to Howard, she does read The Honest Whore's foreign setting as evidence of an "Italianiz[ing]" or "othering" of vice (¶9). I rather think that Italy, in plays like these, is something we are meant to read pretty much right through. All of the pointers that Howard lists (Bridewell, Bedlam, English-style shopkeeper, etc.) are like so many signs advertising London at every street corner ("England is never really screened out"--¶ 8; "London is the subtextual referent"--¶9; "Italy in this play seems to signify a potential within England"--¶9). From what I can tell, city comedy is far more concerned with civic identity than with national identity. Almost all of its points of reference are intramural, or they are extramural only to the extent that the City wall was a permeable membrane meant to distinguish aldermanic jurisdiction from the suburbs and the liberties (see Joseph P. Ward, Metropolitan Communities: Trade Guilds, Identity, and Change in Early Modern London, Stanford, 1997). Civic identity already had so many criteria--apprentice, master, bachelor, yeoman, journeyman, freeman, liveryman, bailiff, beadle, assistant, upper warden, master warden, citizen, alderman, sheriff, provost marshal, mayor, scavenger, surveyor, constable, vestryman, churchwarden; via guild or company (goldsmith, haberdasher, grocer, etc.), via parish and/or ward; artisan, shopkeeper, merchant, mere merchant, great merchant, overseas merchant; gentleman, gallant, knight; not to mention gender (lady, mistress, dame, citizen's wife, widow and all the fine discriminations of prostitution: punk, whore, courtesan, mistress, drab, etc.)--that city comedy had its hands full marking metropolitan, let alone national, borders.

     5. Strangers do play a part in some city comedies, but for the most part, they are already Londoners after the same fashion that recent immigrants in American cities are New Yorkers or Angelenos or Washingtonians. This is not to say that many "us's" do not construe their own identities in opposition to various "them's"; rather, it is to suggest that what, say, second generation early modern Londoners (in a city constantly being replenished by an influx of mostly English people) made of Dutch immigrants had as little to do with their "Dutch-ness" per se--but much to do with competition in the workplace, with religion, and with suburban growth--as what second generation Washingtonians make of Salvadorans' "Salvadoran-ness." Ward's account of early modern London swings the historians' pendulum to the right: "Most Londoners belonged to a variety of associations, but the extent to which they identified with these groups, as opposed to being merely identified by them, remained largely a matter of individual choice" (6). "Many citizens," Ward documents, "had working relationships with the strangers in their midst" (39). English weavers might have found themselves in sympathy with immigrant, Huguenot weavers on religious grounds but antagonistic toward them when it came to bread and butter issues. Company oligarchs argued that to admit strangers into their companies was to secure control over their trade. Xenophobia among the lower ranks was understandable to the extent that they saw company officials profiting from "developments that decreased production costs" at the yeomen's expense (142). Of course there was a widely available repertoire of national-identity prejudices and jokes (French, Spanish, Dutch, Irish, Scottish--take your pick) for city comedians, and for Shakespeare, to draw on; but again, these tend to be symptoms of local, London concerns, not internationalist anxieties. While strangers in London may have had a finely tuned sense of their alien national identities--memories of Evil May Day in 1517 certainly lingered; Huguenot weavers were attacked in 1595--we do well to remember that it was those who left the English countryside for London and who were non-free Englishmen (Shakespeare is exemplary in this regard as well) who were called "foreigners." Ward argues that "while some citizens considered immigrant settlers in the suburbs and liberties a threat to their values and livelihoods, their more pressing challenge was the diversity of attitudes within their guilds and within themselves" (6).

     6. I have already noted city comedy's zero-sum balancing of what Howard calls the "new man" as "emasculated husband" (¶16) against the genre's hyper-phallic gallant. But what of the "honest whore"? What happens when sexual capacity and sexual dormancy, wit and patience, lodge not only in one and the same person, but in a woman? Here, and not for the first time, Howard makes the persuasive argument that early modern Englishmen regularly banded together to enforce marital chastity. If this means an eventual and improbable alliance among the likes of Hippolito, Matheo, and Orlando Friscobaldo (Bellafront's father), so be it. There is very good reason not to underestimate the force of what Howard refers to as the "masculine fantasy of submissive womanhood" (¶28), not to mention the pleasure "some spectators" must have taken in the spectacle of women's "utter abjection" (¶27). But in this regard, I think that the two plays' sharp focus on the figure of the prostitute is significant. Howard notes that the "audience is often reminded that this virtuous wife is really a reformed whore" (¶27). Certainly when I read the play, I tend to think of her more in terms of her (former) profession than her current status (Matheo's pronounced failure as a husband abets this). So to what extent does city comedy use its prostitutes to screen its wives (this question pertains to Marston's The Dutch Courtesan, to the Ho plays, and maybe to Middleton's Michaelmas Term too)? The Honest Whore features a self-disciplining and repentant whore in its title and in its story. But in both plays we (who is this we? wives in the audience at the Prince Henry's Men's performances?) also are treated to the spectacle of Candido's unruly wives. Neither of Dekker's plays is about to allow either of these wives mastery, but then neither play entirely succeeds in staging their, as opposed to the whore's, abjection. Candido's second wife kneels before him, acknowledging his mastery, but she--unlike the honest whore--still has the gumption to assert to the audience (the "world shall judge") that "You [Candido] win the breeches, but I win the day." Howard writes of the "willingly compliant wife" (¶29). What is the status of a willfully compliant wife? Where are Portia and Bassanio heading at the end of an earlier city comedy, The Merchant of Venice?

     7. "As is typical of comedy," Howard reminds us, "marriages and reaffirmations of marriage signal the channelling of desire into socially acceptable forms" (¶22). While I suspect that this is inarguable, I find that (city) comedies also scrutinize the content of those "forms," only to find that "docile and chaste wives are not to be taken for granted" (¶26), perhaps even not to be desired. At odds with the "fundamental weakness of women" (¶29) is the unruly, emasculating woman in the form of a wife. As Stephen Orgel rather laconically puts it: "Marriage is a dangerous condition in Shakespeare" (Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England, Cambridge, 1996, p. 17). The prostitute in The Honest Whore, like the one in The Dutch Courtesan, is an easy mark for normalizing, moralizing and mocking. Even the Overbury "character" with which Jean Howard begins her essay mingles these very processes: the "whoore" does finally meet with "shame and repentance," but to be "acquainted" with these "two strangers" is also to be raped by them, minimally, to have intercourse with them. However, comedy throughout the period depends on wives, not prostitutes, when it validates another of Orgel's sentences: "The patriarchal structure is always in place, always threatened" (p. 76). Staring down that threat, there was, we know, a Bridewell for prostitutes in early modern London, and the Bridewell Court Books list 294 drunks, bawds, and prostitutes among the 923 people confined there, 1600-01. But was there a comparable site of confinement for wives? And does it really make sense to call it marriage? In The Honest Whore, the analogues for the "whips of the beadles" (¶24) that terrorize prostitutes are the comic "yard-rule" and the "ell-rule" (45 inches) with which Candido and his wife, respectively, fence.



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Content copyright © 2000 Theodore B. Leinwand.