"The Early Years--Romantic Comedy, Satire,"

Critic: Larry S. Champion
Source: Thomas Dekker and the Traditions of English Drama, Peter Lang, 1985, pp. 11-53.



[(essay date 1985) In the excerpt below, Champion analyzes the construction of the two parts of The Honest Whore. He judges Part II a masterpiece, comparing its structure to that of "Shakespeare's most effective comedies."]

Whatever the critical complaints about parts of the canon, Dekker's work at its rare best ranks, as A. H. Bullen has observed, "with the masterpieces of the Elizabethan drama."1 And in any description of those moments, the two parts of The Honest Whore invariably place high on the list.2 Yet, a comparison of these plays--like that of Westward Ho and Northward Ho--reveals significantly different levels of craftsmanship and, at the same time, provides clear evidence why Part II is one of his greatest works.3 In both plays the attempt (as in Shakespeare's problem comedies) is to create, not the stylized, one-dimensional puppet of situation comedy, but rather a more complex character who is forced to confront a viable force of evil and to make ethical and moral decisions and who--in the course of the action--experiences a credible and genuine development. In these stage worlds the power of evil is real; and the characters, struggling on the fringe of comedy, must cope with the actual consequences of crime and sin.4

Such characters obviously create problems for the dramatist who desires to maintain a firm comic perspective for the spectator rather than see his narrative turn to melodrama or tragicomedy. Since the spectators' involvement with physical action does not extend beyond the superficial laughter that a humorous situation arouses, the playwright--to the extent that he can maintain such a perspective--has no difficulty in achieving a comic tone for "flat" characters who make no ethical decisions. On the other hand, with greater character complexity, the spectator is easily provoked into emotional identification with character and situation, and his comic perspective is blurred. Regardless of how the Renaissance comic form took shape, whether primarily from "Saturnalian release" or from "Terentian intrigue," the dramatic experience which is to divert rather than to distress is possible only so long as the spectator is either emotionally detached from the characters or, if emotionally involved, in possession of such knowledge or provoked into such a mood as to be assured of a happy end accomplished by means which only temporarily appear unpleasant.

In Part I the structure is loose and the effect disorderly. With the spectators' perspective at times unguided and consequently blurred and with critical character inconsistencies, the action at several points degenerates into sheer melodrama. In Part II the structure is firm, the comic perspective carefully controlled throughout; the result is a stage world in which, from a position of knowledgeable security, the spectators observe the development of characters obsessed with greed and lust but ultimately purged and presumably restored to a richer life through the power and grace of selfless love.

In Part I, more specifically, the comic perspective is maintained with only partial success; it depends to a large extent on a farcical secondary plot that involves six of the twelve scenes in Acts I-IV, before the plots merge in the final act. These scenes (second, fourth, fifth, seventh, tenth, eleventh) Dekker interweaves presumably to block the spectators' emotional involvement with a main plot dealing with unrequited love and apparent death. Candido, a linen draper, is depicted as a veritable "(mirror of patience) ... [in whom one may] sooner raise a spleene in an Angell, than rough humour" (I.iv.15, 23-4). Equally stylized is his wife Viola, who is convinced that her husband, unless he can be goaded into a fit of passion, "haz not all things belonging to a man" (I.ii.58-9). Her philosophy in a nutshell is that "[w]omen must haue their longings, or they die" (136).

This rather ingenious variation of the battle of the sexes, in effect, sets humor against humor.5 Through mockery and ridicule (in I.v as rakish courtiers enter his shop demanding a "pennyworth of lawne" cut from the very center of a seventeen-yard piece), through apparent cuckoldry (in III.i as Viola encourages her brother to take outlandish liberties with her in order to rouse her husband's jealousy), through physical abuse (in IV.iii as Candido is mistaken for George, his apprentice, and soundly cuffed by two "bravos"), and through mental abuse (in IV.iii as his wife's charges of insanity precipitate his detention at Bedlam), Candido perseveres in his incredible patience. Viola, instead, is the one to crack, admitting her shrewishness and swearing to "vex [his] spirit no more" (V.ii.479) as she petitions the Duke to release her husband from the asylum. Obviously this entire action must be played broadly, else the spectators would understandably begin to question not only Viola's motivation in her determination to infuriate her husband but also Candido's willingness to be mocked and bludgeoned in the name of a patience that by any realistic standard smells either of cowardice or of stupidity. But, played farcically, the one-dimensional characters provide a degree of comic distancing for the main plot; the linen-draper, in fact, survives the role as comic butt to emerge at the end of the play as a kind of middle-class hero who delivers an encomium on the virtues of patience as the "soule of peace" (489), the "perpetuall prisoners liberty" (500), the "bond-slaues freedom" (501), the "beggers Musick" (504), the "sap of blisse" (506). Above all, he observes--in a line calculated to sharpen the comic perspective during the sentimental fifth-act reconciliations--it is the "hunny gainst a waspish wife" (509). The bemused Duke can only admit that "[s]o calme a spirit is worth a golden Mine," even as he quips that "Twere sinne all women should such husbands haue, / For euery man must then be his wiues slaue" (515, 512-13).

Along with the interlaced double-plot, the elaborate artifice of Act V is apparently devised to reinforce the comic perspective during the final moments of the play. This action is replete with madhouse scenes (comic at least to the seventeenth-century audience), disguise, mistaken identity, plots and counterplots: Hippolito's disguise as he steals forth to Bethlem Monastery to wed Infelice, the Duke's disguise as a country gentleman to prevent the nuptials, the discovery of the Duke's plans by the lovers, their posthaste wedding and disguise as friars, and the reconciliation of Trebatzi and his son-in-law effected by Friar Anselmo.

Despite these comic devices the spectator in Part I does not, for the great bulk of the plot, observe the action from a vantage of superior knowledgeability. He is not led to anticipate a pattern of action which provides the emotional assurance of comedy at the same time it sustains the absorbing interest of narrative, and consequently there are several points at which the comic perspective is blurred. Indeed, the dominant tone at the outset of the play is far from comic--a macabre funeral procession for the fair Infelice who has "died" suddenly and mysteriously, a distraught lover who bursts upon the mourners with charges that the father is a "murderer" who has "kill'd her by [his] crueltie" (I.i.35), and the sorrowing father who--lashing out with equal vehemence--commands that, if Hippolito "proceede to vexe vs, your swordes / Seeke out his bowells" (15-6). The imagery further underscores the tragic tone of the scene. Infelice is one whose cheeks are "roses Withered" (23), her eyes a "paire of starres ... Darkened and dim" (24-5), the "riuers / That fed her veines with warme and crimson streames, / Frozen and dried vp" (25-7). "[B]eautie [is] but a coarse" (55); "Queenes bodies are but trunckes to put in wormes / That now must feast with her, were euen bespoke, / And solemnely inuited like strange guests" (103-05). All of this, the spectators must accept as straightforward exposition as they tend to develop a sympathetic rapport with the aggrieved young lover. Understandably, then, they feel themselves to be the victims of an emotional trick when, well into the action--two full scenes later, they discover to their amazement that Infelice, far from dead, is herself the victim of a family fued and of her father's determination to bar her romantic interest in Hippolito. He swears to "starue her on the Appenine" (I.iii.25) before he will permit the marriage; and, informing her that Hippolito is dead, he sends her to Bergamo where "[i]n a most wholesome aire" (76) she shall "[c]ast off this sorrow" (81). Publicly lamenting his previous sharpness toward Hippolito and his family, he secretly commands Doctor Benedict to murder the innocent lad: "Performe it; Ile create thee halfe mine heire" (98).6

Even though the events of these two scenes (I.i; I.iii) have eroded a firm perspective, the viewers--once the truth is revealed--are now at least in possession of sufficient information to observe the near tragic events from a vantage of comedy. Yet, a few scenes later Dekker and Middleton employ another narrative trick which further confuses the audience. In IV.iv the doctor reports that Hippolito is dead (poisoned when drinking a "health ... [t]o Infaelices sweete departed soule" [8]) and urges Duke Trebatzi "to bury deepe, / This bloudy act of mine" (30-1). Again, since the spectator has no reason whatsoever to assume that this event has not actually occurred, the comic perspective is destroyed. And, again, the spectator is understandably troubled and far from emotionally satisfied to learn later that Dr. Benedict has been lying, that Hippolito is alive and healthy, and that the doctor--now bitter at the peremptory treatment he has received from the Duke--will reveal all to the youth and will aid him in rescuing and wedding Infelice.

A further difficulty concerning the perspective of the main plot involves the title character Bellafront, a notorious woman of the behind-door trade. It is difficult not to view her "conversion" as stylized; her alteration in the scope of a single scene from a practicing prostitute, bandying words of the trade with her servant Roger and with several of her best customers, to a repentant ("honest") whore replete with sermonettes, tears, and a dagger with which to end her shame is so shockingly sudden as to be comic--much like Valentine's conversion to love in The Two Gentlemen of Verona or Berowne's shift from anti-lover to Petrarchan doter in Love's Labor's Lost.7 As if to emphasize the stylized quality of the action, the playwrights make no attempt to dramatize any credible motivation; we simply view the whore in one line, the penitent in another and all for the sake of the heart--Bellafront's true love at first sight of Hippolito--a stock motif in English romantic comedy since the work of the University Wits.

Once the spectator has accepted Bellafront as a stylized character, however, and has in this fashion blocked himself from emotional involvement with her, he is confronted with three consecutive scenes (III.ii, III.iii, IV.i) which appear designed to convince him post hoc of the sincerity of her conversion. She is berated in succession by her servant Roger and her confidante Mistress Fingerlock, who comprehend only the money lost as a result of the sea change; by her customers, who take obvious delight in mocking her new posture; by Matheo, who first was responsible for her sexual promiscuity and who laughs outright at her suggestion that he marry her and make her honest ("How, marry with a Punck, a Cockatrice, a Harlot? mary foh, Ile be burnt thorow the nose first" [III.iii.116-17]); and by Hippolito, who spurns her for violating his devotional to Infelice and flatly rejects her proffered love. Apparently broken at this point, Bellafront moans in soliloquy that she

                              must therefore fly,
From this vndoing Cittie, and with teares,
Wash off all anger from my fathers brow.


These scenes, apparently calculated to evoke sympathy for the long-suffering regenerate, result in a richer and more complex characterization than the spectator has been led to expect from the stylized conversion earlier.

For this very reason the inconsistency in Bellafront's remaining appearances is all the more disturbing. Since her father is never mentioned after the short reference cited above, it is possible that Dekker, already planning a sequel, was providing a connecting link. But, in any event, there is no reason to believe that she is lying in her pronouncement. Indeed, the convention of the soliloquy assumes just the reverse. Yet we see her next, not at her father's home, but as a patient in Bethlem, and only later do we realize that her insanity is merely a pose. Moreover, the audience is totally unaware of her decision to forget her passionate love for Hippolito and to pursue her honor above her romance in the stratagem by which she gains Matheo as a husband. No doubt the spectator must overcome a momentary tendency to sympathize with Matheo as a victim in a ploy from which there is no honorable escape, much like the momentary tendency to sympathize with Bertram against Helena in All's Well That Ends Well. Forced to admit the truth of the "lunatic's" claim that he has rifled her most precious jewel and forced by the Duke to agree to marry her if and when she ever recovers her wits, Matheo is astounded as she calmly announces:

                                                            Matheo thou art mine,
I am not mad, but put on this disguise,
Onely for you my Lord.


Certainly, the spectator--provoked alternately to laughter, tears, and disdain for the "honest whore"--is justified in feeling some degree of emotional dislocation.

In short, the viewer is at times totally unprepared for the direction of the narrative; uninformed as on several occasions he faces what he can only presume to be tragic events of an irrevocable nature and confused at times by inconsistencies in character, he is practiced upon just as much as certain characters in the plot. The main plot, frankly melodramatic as a result of this lack of comic control, falls short of truly effective comedy.

In sharp contrast, the action of Part II, written entirely by Dekker, is firmly controlled, the structure similar to that of Shakespeare's most effective comedies. Of primary significance is Orlando Friscobaldo, Bellafront's father, who functions directly as a comic pointer, visibly controlling the various complications and providing through his actions and his comments a sufficiently comic view for the spectator to rest secure that an impenetrable circle of wit has exorcised any dangers of permanent consequence. As a result, the audience achieves a knowledgeable perspective through which it can anticipate a solution to the serious problems of the narrative and an outcome mutually pleasant to each of the principals. In his benevolent practice upon Bellafront, Hippolito, and Matheo, Friscobaldo is joined by Duke Gasparo Trebatzi, whose power is responsible for the final solutions. Dekker introduces, as an additional comic device, Bryan, an Irish footman whose zany activities provide moments of boisterous physical action and whose fractured punctuation--like that of Dr. Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor--produces numerous bawdy doubles entendres. Finally, Dekker sharpens the comic perspective through a subplot featuring the further experiences of Candido the patient linen-draper.

This subplot, more specifically, is made to serve directly the larger design of the drama. Instead of, as in Part I, a narrative strand which involves eight of the fourteen scenes (six exclusively)--to all intents and purposes a double plot with separate complications and resolutions--this material involves only five of thirteen scenes (four exclusively) and, without an independent line of action, assumes its importance from its relationship, both thematic and structural, to the major action.8 Lodovico's disguise as Candido's apprentice, for example, and his practice upon the new bride parodically parallel the action of the main plot, in which a benevolent practicer will likewise control the action in order to bring correction, adjustment, and eventual reconciliation. The moment the wife kneels in willing submission to her husband, Lodovico (who has coached the patient man in the art of masculine supremacy) removes his disguise with the quip: "I taught him to take thee downe: I hope thou canst take him downe without teaching" (II.ii.126-27). This action (I.iii; II.ii) does, of course, provide broad physical comedy; but, more importantly, with the main plot disguise established in the immediately preceding scene in Act I, and with the first significant activities of the practicer as a servant in his daughter's household occurring between the two farcical scenes, Dekker has obviously constructed the incident as a broadly comic parallel to the more complex issues of the main plot.

The two remaining incidents of the subplot share a similar relationship to the principal action. In III.iii Carolo and Lodovico, determined to cuckold the "patient Linnen Draper" (19) and flout his "fine yong smug Mistris" (20), seek the services of Mistress Horseleech and Bots, who are themselves out to procure fresh ammunition for their behind-door trade. Acting as a pander, Bots whisks the bemused wife aside and prattles on about a "waiting Gentlewoman of my Ladies" who wishes to see her; rebuffed on those grounds he admits in the same breath that the "naked truth is: my Lady hath a yong Knight, her sonne, who loues you" (III.iii.53-4). Although he fails again to arouse either the wife's interest or lust, he maintains his dishonest poise as he informs Carolo to name the afternoon and "she'll meet him at her Garden house" (66). While nothing ever comes of this incident--except Bot's comic punishment in the final act--it is inserted between two moments in which Bellafront faces the temptation to revert to whoredom: in III.ii to satisfy her despairing husband and in III.iv to satisfy the passionate wooer on whom she herself earlier doted. Like the earlier scenes this subplot action is significant only in context as a boisterous parallel to bolster the spectator's comic perspective on the main plot.

Finally, Candido's arrest for possession of stolen goods parallels the arrests of Matheo and Bellafront. Innocently drawn to Matheo's house to purchase certain linens from Matheo, Candido finds himself in the middle of a wild party of gallants who plan to have a "good fit of mirth" (IV.iii.19) by forcing him to drink, dance, and sing bawdy songs. Appalled by the liquor which is forced upon him and by the kiss which Mistress Horseleech bestows (the bawd whose "breath stinkes worse than fifty Polecats" [79]), the flustered linen-draper can muster no defense when the Constable bursts upon the scene with a warrant to "search for such stolne Ware" (170) and proceeds to arrest him ("Why sir? what house I pray? ... Is't so? thankes, sir: I'm gone. ... Indeed! ... Me, sir, for what? ... Must I so? ... Ile send for Bayle. ... To Bridewell to?" [165 et passim]). He is then forgotten at Bridewell until Orlando's practice has been fully exploited upon the main characters, after which he is rescued by the Duke and praised for his patience:

                                                            these greene yong wits
(We see by Circumstance) this plot hath laid,
Still to prouoke thy patience, which they finde
A wall of Brasse, no Armour's like the minde. ...
A Patient man's a Patterne for a King.

(V.ii.490-93, 497)

Through the farcical misfortunes of Candido, then, Dekker sharpens the comic tone and blocks the spectators' emotional involvement at a point when the imprisonment of the major characters and the subsequent general reconciliation might otherwise blur the comic perspective. As in the best of Shakespeare's subplots, this material consists of comically stylized characters and of anecdotal incidents arranged and developed to parallel the events of the main plot and thus to strengthen the perspective through which the spectators realize the fuller comic possibilities of the entire play.

The more important structural device, as we have noted, is the function of Orlando Friscobaldo as the major comic pointer.9 Introduced as an Old Master Merrythought spawning words as he sketches the character of a happy and carefree man ("After this Picture (my Lord) doe I striue to haue my face drawne: For I am not couetous, am not in debt, sit neither at the Dukes side, nor lie at his feete" [I.ii.67-9]), Orlando publicly proclaims his total alienation from his daughter. He immediately informs the audience, however, in a brief soliloquy that his concern is real, that he will "to her, yet she shall not know me: she shall drinke of my wealth, as beggers doe of running water, freely, yet neuer know from what Fountaines head it flowes" (171-73). Presenting himself as Pacheco (who, he avers, last served Orlando Friscobaldo), he seeks service with Matheo, and by slanderous remarks against his previous master he ironically provokes Bellafront to defend her father. The spectator, realizing that each is sincerely concerned for the other, begins to anticipate that their reconciliation will form a part of the general resolution. In his new position Pacheco observes the purse, ring, and letter by which the Duke's son tempts his daughter, and in another soliloquy he expresses his delight that she refuses to receive the bribe:

                                                            [H]old out still, wench.
All are not Bawds (I see now) that keepe doores,
Nor all good wenches that are markt for Whores.


The disguised father begins his direct manipulation of the action Act III as he attempts to protect Bellafront from both Hippolito and Matheo. For one thing, he moves to block Hippolito's access to his daughter. Under the ploy that his mistress' lands are being encircled by a designing neighbor and that she needs the Duke's protection, he gains an audience with Infelice. When she requests a survey of the land, he gives her instead the letter, purse, and ring--evidence of her husband's infidelity. In this manner he hopes, though without success, to stifle Hippolito's lust through Infelice's indignation. For another, he offers money secretly to Bellafront, assuring the spectators a few moments later that, despite Matheo's treatment of his wife, no harm will come to her: "Ile giue him hooke and line, a little more for all this" (III.ii.160). In Act IV Orlando moves directly against the degenerate husband. First, the father (without disguise) visits Matheo and berates him fiercely for his profligacy. Mocking his request for funds when he is so stupid as to "flie high" in an expensive gown he cannot afford in order to "keep the fashion" (i.8) with the "best ranke of gallants" (9) and openly branding him a "Thiefe, ... a Cheater, Whoremonger, a Pot-hunter, a Borrower, a Begger" (91-2), Orlando forces his son-in-law to hear the truth and warns him of his impending arrest for the robbery of two peddlers (actually Orlando's servants disguised and planted for this purpose). Second, returning in the disguise of Pacheco, he literally saves his daughter from being beaten by the infuriated husband, proclaiming, as the cowardly assailant raises a stool to strike her: "Zownds, doe but touch one haire of her, and Ile so quilt your cap with old iron, that your coxcombe shall ake the worse these seuen yeeres for't" (190-92). Feigning reconciliation a short time later, Pacheco agrees to help Matheo rob his father-in-law, thereby setting the stage for the trap to be sprung upon the young rake.

Since the moment for judgment upon Bellafront, Matheo, and Hippolito requires more authority than Orlando possesses as an ordinary citizen of Milan, his practice in the final stages of the action is combined with the Duke's power. Informed of the entire situation, Trebatzi agrees not to reveal the plot. He then orders the arrest of all prostitutes past and present (a stratagem to get Bellafront in prison and lure Hippolito there to "saue" her) and the arrest of Matheo (on the charge of the previously designed robbery of the two peddlers). At Bridewell each character will more fully reveal his true nature. The dastardly Matheo will refuse to accept the responsibility for his own degeneracy by claiming not only that his wife planned the robbery but also that he caught her in bed with Hippolito; the saintly Bellafront will offer to sacrifice herself for the sake of one who does not deserve her devotion; the repentant Hippolito, whose nobler nature is again stirred, will defend Bellafront's honesty even though to do so is to expose publicly the nature of his own previous lust.

Set in Bridewell (as Part I in Bedlam), the fifth act again creates a heightened fictional tone as the action operates on multiple levels of awareness, all of which the spectator views from a position of omniscience.10 Orlando, still disguised as Pacheco, stands trial with Matheo for robbery of the two peddlers, actually his own servants. Meanwhile Infelice observes unseen as Hippolito, impelled by lust, rushes to Bellafront. Then, in rapid succession the disguises are peeled away: Infelice steps forward to accuse her guilty husband; Orlando removes his disguise and stands as irrefutable evidence before his guilty son-in-law and his innocent daughter; and Duke Trebatzi reveals the full extent of his role and in like fashion stands before his guilty son-in-law. Acknowledging that he is "here to saue right, and to driue wrong hence" (V.ii.202), the Duke suggests the therapeutic value of the entire ruse in proclaiming Orlando "the true Phisician" (191). Both Hippolito, who admits that his cheek blushes at the ill, and Matheo, who declares himself the "Phisician's" "Patient" (192), are presumably transformed as they face the inescapable truth and stand fully revealed both to themselves and to the surrounding characters.11 Only the final judgments remain when Bellafront will plead again for her husband, Matheo will be forgiven his faults, and the father will be reconciled with both his "honest" daughter and her mate.

From first to last, then, Orlando's comic spirit hovers over the main plot. Moreover, more systematically than in Part I, minor characters are utilized to sharpen the comic tone throughout the play. Bryan, the Irish footman, for example, appears in three scenes. In I.i he contributes to the comic perspective through the doubles entendres resulting from his difficulties with pronunciation (15-6, 20-1, 179-81). In III.i he provides comic insurance as Infelice reveals to Hippolito her knowledge of his sexual improprieties. In and out of the action like a comically victimized jack-in-the-box, a scapegoat for both the husband and the wife, he helps to prevent the spectators from becoming emotionally involved in a scene with all the narrative earmarks of tragedy. Finally, in III.iii Bryan, playing the part of a gallant, is set upon Candido to tear his fabric and test his patience. Mistress Horseleech and Bots are similar characters. This unwholesome pair furnish further bawdry in III.iii (in which they describe the various "Dishes" offered in their establishment [9-18] and attempt to cuckold Candido) and in IV.iii (in which the befuddled Candido finds himself kissing the bawd and, at Bots' insistence, "pledg[ing] this health ... to my Mistris, a whore" [93-4]). Finally, in V.ii Dekker--amidst the sensational exposures and reconciliations--maintains an effective comic tone through these "two dishes of stew'd prunes" who remain comic butts throughout the scene. Arrested and dragged on stage, Bots swears that he is no pander, but a soldier who has seen "hottest Seruices in the Low-countries" (227), who was wounded "at the Groyne" (228), at Cleuland" (cleft-land), and "in Gelderland" (231). His pose is shattered, however, as Mistress Horseleech (paraded across the stage with her associates Dorothea Target, Penelope Whorehound, and Catherina Bountinall--like the Bedlamites in Part I) exposes his guilt by recognizing his "sweet face" (400) even though his head is covered in an attempt to conceal his identity.

While Orlando dispenses grace and mercy to those whom he has shocked into repentance, the Duke pronounces sentence upon the pander as the "basest" of all offenders. This incident--in which Bots' corruption is revealed, despite his disguise--becomes a kind of comic inversion of the situation of the main plot--in which a disguise is employed to expose the corrupt and the hypocritical in Matheo and Hippolito.

In sum, the force of evil is viable and active in Part II, and the characters are involved in decisions and problems replete with tragic potential. Even so, through the major comic controller, an effectively contrived subplot, and minor farcical characters who bolster the perspective at potentially critical moments, the spectator is constantly reminded not only that a benevolent authority stands behind the action to prevent disaster from striking but also that this power is directing the action to a conclusion both pleasant and beneficial. The result, like Northward Ho, is one of those rare occasions on which a sequel surpasses the original in structural excellence and dramatic effectiveness. In effect, Dekker in Part II retains both the principal characters and the juxtaposition of the farcical with the serio-comic. But he abandons the loose intrigue structure and brings into comic focus a complex and powerful human relationship not unlike those of Shakespeare's later comedies. The evil in man's nature prompts a character to action by which he loses his self-respect and his public reputation. In time, however, such a character, exposed to love in its finest hour--a love which yearns to give and forgive while asking nothing in return--stands fully revealed both to himself and to others. Through this self-knowledge and his subsequent regeneration, he is resorbed into a normal society, and the spectators have reason to assume that he will lead a fuller life as a result of his experience.

Just what spurred Dekker to write the sequel we cannot, of course, precisely determine. Perhaps for some reason he was specifically commissioned to continue the story; perhaps the success of Part I provided economic stimulation; perhaps he was called upon to produce a play on short notice and grabbed at the material freshest in his mind; perhaps the narrative possibilities haunted him as he considered the abrupt conclusion in which Bellafront (quite out of character) tricked Matheo for the sake of an honor which could hardly be regained through a marriage in name only to the first of her many bed partners; perhaps he was struck by the likelihood of disharmony between two intense young lovers, who loved each other passionately despite the insurmountable barriers of family and fate and who now--marriage consummated--suddenly find all opposition gone and adventure past;12 perhaps the dramatic possibilities haunted him as he envisioned the more effective comedy which could result from a plot firmly structured to maintain the comic perspective throughout.13

In any event, given the similarities between Measure For Measure and 2 The Honest Whore,14 one of the fascinating possibilities concerns the continuing artistic interaction between Dekker and Shakespeare. Both plays depict a young woman willing to strain the quality of mercy in begging for a man who has grossly wronged her. Both involve a young man of political position whose reputation is sorely tarnished by hypocrisy and moral degeneracy but who is ultimately regenerated through the forgiving grace of love. Both also involve a betrothal or marriage temporarily estranged by a man whose venture into crime threatens literally to destroy him. Even more significant are the structural similarities. Both comedies depict a benevolent figure of power and authority who in disguise manipulates the action, as a veritable deus ex machina, in order to send several individuals through a series of moral tests and thereby provide the therapy by which to nourish, in the woman, the forgiving grace of selfless love and, in the men, the shame and repentance that will save them from themselves as well as from the law. Both, moreover, utilize a subplot featuring a prostitute and pander which sardonically parodies the principal action.

Although many Elizabethan comic plots share at least some of these features, it strains probability to assume that this particular relationship is merely coincidental. Not one of the points of similarity concerning character, narrative, or structure is found in 1 The Honest Whore. Certainly the evidence suggests that in writing Part II Dekker was directly influenced by Shakespeare's play, of which the first recorded performance is December 26, 1604. Dekker and Middleton completed Part I early in 1604, Dekker alone Part II in 1605.15 Through Measure For Measure he apparently realized the greater comic possibilities in the material and was encouraged to create the sequel. Orlando, in fact, is a more firmly conceived comic pointer than Vincentio, though Shakespeare's character is admittedly more profound. In any case, Dekker in Part II has produced a play excellent in structure and firm in characterization; more important, whether "in response to his own maturing genius,"16 the fashion of the Jacobean age, or the hand of a master craftsman, he has achieved one of his finest and most substantial works through this comic vision of the transforming power of human love.


1"Thomas Dekker," DNB (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1917), V, 750.

2The "exception to all the generalizations about Dekker's faulty craftsmanship" (Normand Berlin, The Base String: The Underworld in Elizabethan Drama [Cranberry, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1967], p. 12), The Honest Whore achieves a great "degree of unity and harmony in conception and construction" (A. C. Swinburne, The Age of Shakespeare [London: Chatto and Windus, 1908], p. 73). The two parts "form Dekker's most ambitious and sustained effort" (Mary Leland Hunt, Thomas Dekker: A Study [New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1911], 94), his "most carefully worked out plot" and his most "aesthetically satisfying drama" (Berlin, "Thomas Dekker: A Partial Reappraisal," SEL, 6 [1966], 277).

3The Honest Whore, Part II, is "Dekker's masterpiece" (Hazelton Spencer, ed., Elizabethan Plays [Boston: Heath, 1933], p. 668), his "finest achievement" (W. W. Greg, as cited without documentation by Peter Ure in "Patient Madmen and Honest Whore: The Middleton-Dekker Oxymoron," Essays and Studies [London: Arnold, 1966], p. 18), in which we see a "lightning-like revelation of the recesses of the human soul" (Gamaliel Bradford, "The Women of Dekker," Sewanee Review, 33 [1925], 290). A masterfully unified play (Michael Manheim, "The Thematic Structure of Dekker's 2 Honest Whore," SEL, 5 [1965], 372), it reveals a "great mastery of ... truth to human feeling (George R. Price, Thomas Dekker [New York: Twayne, 1969], 64). treated with "high seriousness, ... vigor of characterization, and ... noble poetry" (Hunt, p. 92). It is the rare critic who asserts that "the Second Part falls below the first" (Thomas Marc Parrott and Robert H. Ball, A Short View of Elizabethan Drama [New York: Scribner's, 1943], 111) or that it adds little to our knowledge of Dekker" (Arthur Brown, "Citizen Comedy and Domestic Drama," in Jacobean Theatre, ed. J. R. Brown and B. Harris [London: Arnold, 1960], 72.

4The general tone of both plays, "sexy, urban, problematical" (Ure, Essays and Studies, p. 18), was shaped in part from a group of plays popular in the first decade of the century, "comedies ... concerned chiefly with contrasting seeming and actual virtue, chiefly in sexual matters" (Manheim, SEL, 372). See also Hunt, p. 92 ff.; and Sidney R. Homan, Jr., "Shakespeare and Dekker as Keys to Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore," SEL, 7 (1967), 269-76.

5"A Patient Grizzle out of petticoats, or a Petruchio reversed" (William Hazlitt, The Complete Works, ed. P. P. Howe [London: Secker, 1931], VI, 239), Candido provides the "farcical humor" (Price, p. 60). While Manheim (SEL, 372) sees no valid connection with the major action, Harry Keyishian ("Dekker's Whore and Marston's Courtesan," ELN, 4 [1967], 264) views the "advocates of self-control [Hippolito and Candido]" as the heroes of the play; and, to Ure (Essays and Studies, p. 27), the converted shrew of the Candido scenes matches the converted courtesan of the Bellafront scenes. Ronald J. Palumbo points out that the parallel between the two is developed early in 1 The Honest Whore as a contrast between a trade leading to social order with one leading to social disorder ("Trade and Custom in 1 The Honest Whore," AN&Q, 15 [1976], 34-5).

6Certainly Price (p. 63) assumes more than the context of the scene will allow in his assertion that the spectator would receive assurance and comfort from the "intonation and facial expression" by which Benedict would signal "his secret horror of Gasparo's command to poison Hippolito." For an altogether different view, see A. L. Kistner and M. K. Kistner, "1 Honest Whore: A Comedy of Blood," HAB, 23, No. 4 (1972), 23-7.

7Brown (pp. 70-1) notes that Dekker's tongue may have been straying to the middle of his cheek when, in the heat of Bellafront's "tear-jerker confession," he has her refer to Hippolito (her new love) as "meetly legd and thyed" (II.i.271).

8Ure (Essays and Studies, pp. 29-30) deplores the change in Candido as botch-work. To the contrary, Manheim (SEL, p. 372) argues strongly for a close unity between main plot and subplot; Candido's taming his shrewish wife is the comic reversal of the Matheo-Bellafront action; so also the humiliation that Candido endures parallels that which Bellafront endures. Berlin (SEL, p. 271) suggests further a parallel between Bellafront's virtue and that of Candido's wife when propositioned by Bots.

9Various critics, while not concerned with structure as such, have noted Friscobaldo's essential function. A "Simon Eyre grown old" (Parrott and Ball, p. 111), he is "the disguised father, who puts Bellafront, Matheo, and Hippolito to the test and thereby glorifies Bellafront's fortitude and reveals the corruption of the two men" (Price, pp. 67-8). "Among the great characters of English comedy" (Hunt, p. 98), "unforgettable" (Hazlitt, p.235), a "protector" and "perpetrator of tests" (Manheim (SEL, p. 366), he "controls the action and creates the emergency that enlightens Hippolito" (Keyishian, p. 265).

10While Hunt (pp. 100-01) describes the Bridewell scene as merely "an appeal to the gallery," both Price and Manheim see a more significant purpose. "The long show of Bridewell birds which follows Matheo's confession ... allows ample time for him to show his change of heart by caressing Bellafront, though he does not speak" (Price, p. 164 n). The scenes, according to Manheim (SEL, p. 381), serve--especially through Dorothea Target--to "recall Bellafront as she first appeared in Part I and thereby to contrast with Bellafront as she now appears." See also Charlotte Spivack, "Bedlam and Bridewell: Ironic Design in The Honest Whore," Komos, 3 (1973), 10-6.

11"Matheo and Hippolito are overwhelmed with shame and guilt" (Price, p. 66). Nimitz (p. 129) sees Matheo as a figure of "noteworthy" development, and Hunt (p. 99) quite correctly observes that Dekker does not disturb the integrity of the character with a long and maudlin repentance.

12Berlin (SEL, p. 269) conjectures that Dekker had to write another play "to test the sincerity of her [Bellafront's] conversion."

13Part II is conceded to be Dekker's unassisted work, whereas Part I is a product of collaboration, however slight Middleton's contributions (See Fredson Bowers, The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, 4 Vols. [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1953-1961], III, 133). Schoenbaum's argument that Middleton had no hand in Part I ("Middleton's Share in The Honest Whore," N&Q, 197 [1952], 3-4) is not generally accepted.

14F. C. Fleay first noted s similarity in the plays in his observation that both Measure For Measure and 2 The Honest Whore employ a contemporaneous statute "closing the suburb houses" (A Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama [London: Reeves and Turner, 1891], I, 132). More recently, Ure (Essays and Studies, pp. 36-7) has written that Friscobaldo "conducts an experiment, not always an openly benevolent one, much like the Duke in Measure For Measure."

15Part I can be dated with certainty, and it is generally assumed that Part II followed soon thereafter, probably in 1605. See Jones-Davies, II, 369-71; Bowers, II, 3, 133; G. E. Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage (Oxford: Clarendon, 1956), III, 243; W. Bridges-Adams, The Irresistible Theatre (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1957), p. 248.

16Spencer, p. 668.

Source:  Larry S. Champion, "The Early Years--Romantic Comedy, Satire," in Thomas Dekker and the Traditions of English Drama, Peter Lang, 1985, pp. 11-53.