Bridewell and Bedlam:
Locations of Civic Nationalism in Early Modern England:
A Response to "Civic Institutions and Precarious Masculinity in Dekker's The Honest Whore" by Jean E. Howard

by Jyotsna Singh

 

     1. An essay that sets out to examine the reasons why City Comedy was a popular genre in the 15 years following 1598 makes a persuasive case for the cultural and ideological work done by literary works and genres. Drawing on the premises of critics who have read city comedy as a genre through which Londoners explored their role in a vastly expanding market economy and negotiated the particular class tensions "between the gentry and merchants," Howard's essay raises the political and intellectual stakes of this premise. These plays about London "merchants, young gallants, whores, among others," according to the critic, importantly contributed to the formation of a civic and national identity, specifically as these were "bound up in changing gender relations and ideas of masculinity and femininity" (paragraph 3). Thus, the essay moves in two important directions: first, it pushes beyond the boundaries of the local, limited referentiality of this very "English" world peopled with recognizable types, revealing the construction of England and "Englishness" via processes of normalization and exclusion. Second, in doing so, it establishes how the discourses that contributed to the making of English nation-hood were inevitably and crucially gendered.

     2. Exclusion and inclusion are the most frequently cited issues in recent analyses of nation-formation in the Renaissance. For instance, Richard Helgerson, in his recent study, Forms of Nationhood, shows how these forms are shaped by "the inclusion or exclusion of various social groups from privileged participation in the national community and its representations"(9). Thus, according to him, merchants and mercantile interests were important to the rise of the "nation-based capitalism" and among the discursive communities in which the nation-stage originated were the "merchant-adventurers of London and colonizing west-country gentlemen led by Raleigh"(15); and it was their "overlapping interests" that "determined the shape of Hakluyt's Principal Navigations"(15). If the emergence of nation-based capitalism led to the inclusion of merchants as important players in the state, the related, though antithetical, rise of "nation-based sovereignty" was premised on monarchic power and the exclusions emerging from high culture and the hierarchical state Church (11). Overall, in Helgerson's formulations of inclusion and exclusion, players and playwrights were removed from the "councils of power"; and Shakespeare, as the main author of England's national theatre, established "a new genre of the national history play that contributed at once to the consolidation of central power, [and] to the cultural division of class from class'"(245).

     3. Helgerson's analyses of the formation of English subjects, while sensitive to social class differences, do not attend to gender inflections of this process. Howard, in comparison, discusses specifically gendered manifestations of subject-formation: according to her, in plays such as The Dutch Courtesan (1605), The Honest Whore, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (1604), Westward Ho (1604), and Eastward Ho (1605), to name a few, whores and bawds, as well as merchants and young gentlemen, figure as important characters in the various civic projects of moral reformation. Thus, two crucial institutional sites of moral reform and, more surprisingly, of nation-formation frequently appear in several of these plays: Bedlam, the literal madhouse of the city, and Bridewell, the reformatory for the poor. It is interesting to note that the insane, undisciplined, idle, or criminal subjects were herded together under the general civic injunctions of labor discipline and sexual morality, which were the normalizing categories in the formation of desirable civic subjects.

     4. While social class distinctions -- between merchants and gentlemen-- are frequently the subject of Helgerson's formulations of nation-building, his analysis seems curiously oblivious to ways in which gender ideologies, especially as related to sexual morality, shaped this process -- an issue that Howard usefully foregrounds in her essay. Thus, her essay leads us to ask: why do works like the two parts of Middleton and Dekker's The Honest Whore end in Bridewell and Bedlam? Of interest here are the suggestive possibilities of exploring connections between the regulation of sexual morality, associated with all forms of self-display and self-indulgences -- in both men and women -- and the formation of a desirable civic and national identity. What is more threatening to the body politic, which must be cleansed? Is it the "men out of control" -- the gallants and young men of leisure -- or the prostitutes and bawds that operate the sites of widely perceived "moral degeneracy"?

     5. Such issues about national and civic identities enable us to re-evaluate the ideological work done by City Comedies; despite their "domestic" subject matter, they are a part of a larger discursive community of nation-formation, one which "brings merchants into the nation and the gentry into trade" (Helgerson 176). Furthermore, the historical frame developed here could be extended by examining whether the obsession with the formation of self-regulating English manliness prefigured the merchants' impending roles as colonial masters who also had to protect themselves from unruly desires. Seventeenth-century travel/trade narratives and eighteenth-century political debates in England repeatedly stress moral/sexual regulation and civic manliness as crucial to good governance, first of trade and later of empire. Edward Terry, Chaplain to Thomas Roe, often promoted the supposedly superior, Christian morality to the English merchants in the East Indies, as he observes in : A Voyage to East-India: "For truly it is a sad sight fthere to behold a drunken Christian, and a sober Indian, a temperate Indian and a Christian given up to his appetite"(Terry 1655; 419).

     6. Edmund Burke's writings and speeches in the 18th century more directly attempt to administer a moral corrective on the "excesses" and "decadence" of the young, mostly non-aristocratic, Englishmen -- the merchant classes turned colonial administrators. What Burke and others propose is not unlike the ideological project of the city comedies. They argue that the manliness of the colonial administrators required the supplement of the state, namely the surveillance from the metropolitan parliament to curb their feminizing "decadence." And the "natives" -- both men and women -- stood in for the whores and bawds and other so-called influences of decadence. Thus, Burke's criticism of the colonists clearly centers on what he perceives as a deformation of their Englishness:

There is nothing in the boys we send to India worse than the boys whom we are whipping at school, or that we see trailing a pike, or bending over a desk at home. English youth in India drink the intoxicating draught of authority and dominion before their heads are able to bear it
(cited by P.J Marshall, The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke): 402-403).

     7. In Burke's view the behavior of these colonial masters -- or "nabobs" -- also creates social dislocations at home:

In India all the vices operate by which sudden fortune is acquired; in England are often displayed by the same persons, the virtues which dispense hereditary wealth. Arrived in England, the destroyers of the nobility and gentry of a whole kingdom will find the best company in this nation, at a board of elegance and hospitality (Marshall, 403).

     8. While the English merchants/administrators were criticized for their "appetites," their behavior was clearly seen as "un-English," since the feminized east was breeding immorality in the young Englishmen. Other English voices also echo Burke's anxiety about withstanding the threats to civic morality and national identity. A Mrs Sherwood, a traveler and prolific writer wrote as follows in 1845: "All these Englishmen who were beguiled by the sweet music [of the native courtesans were] slowly sacrificing themselves to the witcheries of the unhappy daughters of heathens and infidels. (Harvey Darton, Ed. The Life and Times of Mrs Sherwood, 1910): 449-50

     9. The colonial reach I am suggesting here -- namely marking a besieged and gendered "Englishness" facing foreign vices -- is to show that Bedlam and Bridewell's seemingly local regimens of surveillance, punishment, and moral renovation for the shopkeepers like Candido had far-reaching geographical and historical implications. The "otherings" of vice, often played out in displacements to foreign venues in city comedies, participated in the making of civic nationalism, which later enabled and consolidated English colonial expansion. Like nationalism, colonialism was ultimately an exclusionary process and product.

 

 

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Form copyright © 2000 Early Modern Culture.

Content copyright © 2000 Jyotsna Singh.