Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Discovering the Sins of the Cellar in the Dutch Courtesan: Turpe Est Difficiles Habere Nugas

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Discovering the Sins of the Cellar in the Dutch Courtesan: Turpe Est Difficiles Habere Nugas

Article excerpt

THE fabulae argumentum of The Dutch Courtesan declares that the "difference betwixt the love of a courtesan and a wife" is the scope of the drama, but Marston's plotlines devoted to the courtesan Franceschina and the vintner Mulligrub complicate this simple formulation, along with the play's related epigraph, "Turpe est difficiles habere nugas." (1) Through a series of episodes, the playwright demonstrates that the two urban characters are not as unlike one another as one may initially think, given the behaviors they exhibit and the various forms of moral, economic, and social corruption they promote and, conversely, endure themselves at the hands of two self-styled "virtuous" citizen tricksters, one a city gentleman and the other a gallant knave, each claiming to act for the common good. Marston invites us to understand the similarity between Franceshina and Mulligrub in the double entendre he suggests that we should associate with them, literally embodied in the "seller" and "cellar" homonym. (2) The typesetter of the earliest edition of the play (1605) prints "sellar" (A4), which M. L. Wine modernizes to "cellar" (1.1.40) to mean "Mulligrub's wine cellar." (3) Marston's notorious punning would suggest "sellar" to mean a literal "storehouse" or "storeroom," thus making sense of the opening sequence, as well as a figurative "small vessel" that anticipates the introduction of Franceschina in the following scene.4Both "sell" and trade in "cellars," Mulligrub the wine merchant with his architectural space, Franceshina the courtesan with her analogous biological femaleness.

Yet the play makes important distinctions between them. Cocledemoy decries the vintner, a "spigot-frigging jumbler of elements" (3.2.38-39), for polluting the wine vessels and falsifying customers' accounts. Franceschina, shown to be the weaker vessel, is strangely stronger, more productive, and more honest than the thieving merchant (for she is honest about who she is), sells the cellar itself. Marston's representation of the perils of wine and women therefore reveals a kind of double vision, a way of seeing that leads one to understand a thematic element in the play that has been rarely discussed: the idea of moral relativity, in spite of protestations to the contrary by those characters who fancy themselves more virtuous than their fellows as well as by those critics who argue the play is narrowly moralistic and even censorious. Marston demonstrates his humanitas and ethic of social tolerance in his sensitive and sympathetic vision of essentially powerless women oppressed by a society of self-interested urban men.

Many scholarly treatments of The Dutch Courtesan have examined its moral vision, especially in the mid-twentieth century, when this was common practice, just as current criticism focuses on topics such as national identity and urban economies, both sexual and commercial, in early modern London, typical of our own time. Morse Allen (1920) and Samuel Schoenbaum (1952) argue that the morality of the play and playwright is perverse. Similarly, Paul Zall (1953) reasons that Marston's confused ethical perspective, "concerned more with titillation than with reformation," compromises the unity of his comedy, an idea that has persisted in studies of this work, such as that of Michael Scott (1978). (5) This obsession with morality, unsurprisingly, led to studies of The Dutch Courtesan in the lineage as a descendant of the moral play such as Robert K. Presson (1956), Brian Gibbons (1968), G. K. Hunter (1978), and George L. Geckle (1980). (6) Others such as Anthony Caputi (1961) think that the play is less didactic yet still "censorable" for its "coarse scatological references," or, as Wine (1964) claims, in the tradition of Measure for Measure, which ends with "healthy laughter and a conclusion that forgives mankind its follies." (7) More recent critical studies by Jean E. Howard, Garrett A. Sullivan, and Marjorie Rubright shift their focus away from direct discussions of morality and have redirected scholarship on the play toward social history. …

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