The Dutch Courtesan

Title page of the 1605 quarto

The Dutch Courtesan was originally performed by the Children of the Queen’s Revels c. 1604, and printed in 1605. A model ‘boys’ play’, it includes many of the feats – dancing, songs, shows of wit – for which the boys were admired. Act 1 scene 2, in which Freevill introduces Malheureux to the titular Courtesan, Franceschina, features her singing the seductive song ‘The dark is my delight’, performed to inflame the abstemious Malheaureux with desire, while 2.2 has the frolicsome lyric ‘Mine mettre sing no oder song’.

Franceschina is a savvy and dangerously charismatic sex worker. She is unabashed in her ability to play multiple roles for her various customers, and adeptly uses her voice both in seductive song and, remarkably, in her cutting accusations of men like Freevill, who enjoy women’s sexual favours while demanding that they adhere to strict chastity as the locus of their social worth. ‘Oh, unfaithful men! Tyrants! Betrayers! De very enjoying us loseth us! And when you only ha’ made us hateful, you only hate us! Oh, mine forsaken heart!’ Franceschina cries in 2.2, astutely critiquing men’s hypocrisy while also movingly displaying her raw hurt and anger.

Franceschina’s rage-fuelled threats and diatribes (such as her promise in 2.2 to ‘scratch out [Beatrice’s] eyes and suck the holes’, and her wild rage in the play’s final scene) make her a fearsome figure, but the play never reduces her to a cartoonish villain. Notably, it is she who frequently deploys Marston’s characteristic Juvenalian satire. Her complexity invites us to revisit questions about the experience of women in early modern culture and drama, while offering a compelling figure for the contemporary stage. This complexity must also complicate critical readings of her ‘comic’ Dutch accent: we should recall that comedy need not exclude serious commentary, that a Dutch accent was a rote feature of the early modern English stage (and perhaps not as outlandish as we might initially suppose), and that the boys were skilled actors whose portrayals of women might elicit real sympathy and desire. Our edition will explore how Franceschina might be read as both villain and sympathetic heroine, comical figure and astute social commentator, feared foreign sex worker and a desirable and captivating woman.

With her vengefulness, scheming nature, professional association with disease (the pox), and metonymic association with political conflict in the Netherlands, the ‘Low Countries’ where England was frequently at war in the 16th and 17th centuries, Franceschina is often read as a cipher for comic xenophobic fears in early modern England. Our edition slants towards a focus on how these well-documented English fears of foreigners position Franceschina as woman and sex worker.

These fears are also critical to our interpretation of the play’s subplot, in which the jesting thief Cocledemoy plays pranks on the Mulligrubs, innkeepers who are adherents of the Family of Love, an Anabaptist sect of salacious repute. Hendrik Niclaes, a Dutch self-style prophet and former Catholic, established the Family as an iconoclastic church, which engaged in forms of economic socialism and had a radically anti-hierarchical structure. The Family of Love fled from persecution and moved into England in the mid-16th century. Despite failing to find the protection they hoped for under Elizabeth I, they maintained a presence in England until the mid-17th century, though they never gained a large or stable foothold. Early modern English dramas like Middleton’s A Mad World My Masters and Lording Barry’s The Family of Love, as well as The Dutch Courtesan, frequently associate the sect with mysticism, economic and sexual dishonesty, and sexual excess and perversion. Its Dutch origins carry the main plot’s xenophobic themes over into the sub-plot, though in an arguably simplified way: the Mulligrubs are offered up to the audience as objects of laughter, deserving of Cocledemoy’s treatment because of their involvement in criminal activity (they are selling watered-down wine and use their inn as a warehouse for stolen goods). Cocledemoy remains an intriguing figure, however; his name, with its etymological connections (via French, Spanish, and Italian) to ‘Lubberland’, the Land of Fools, hints at romantic dreams of undeserved success. And yet the play differentiates between him and those other foreigners, the Mulligrubs and Franceschina, instead figuring him as the comic essence of undefeatable, fashionable, and very urban London.

Helen Ostovich and Erin Julian