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  • Title: The Honest Whore, Parts 1 and 2: Analysis of the Plays
  • Author: Joost Daalder

  • Copyright Digital Renaissance Editions. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Joost Daalder
    Peer Reviewed

    The Honest Whore, Parts 1 and 2: Analysis of the Plays

    55Part 1: The ‘Comic’ Plot

    The comic (one may even say ‘farcical’) plot revolves around the linen-draper Candido, and is the part of the play which focuses most strongly on the life of citizens. The ‘morality’ plot is concerned with people, including Bellafront, who essentially belong to a higher level of society. Although it is concerned with serious matters, it is less preoccupied with the world of daily toil and hard work than is the world of Candido and his Prentices.

    In many ways Candido and his helpers most strongly attract Dekker’s advocacy. In The Shoemaker’s Holiday this had happened in a more obviously propagandist fashion. Matters are subtler in the Honest Whore plays, because Candido is in some ways a more complex and eccentric character. As a citizen, he shows what Dekker sees as typical virtues: he is self-controlled, hard-working, very moral and honest, and – partly as a result – commercially successful. In the world of the citizenry, he is also highly respected. His apprentices admire and protect him, and he is a member of the Senate (the equivalent of the London ‘Common Council’), an honour which he has earned as a citizen of outstanding virtue and value.

    Yet, given Dekker’s respect for citizens and their world, he presents, in Candido, someone who must have been an unusual example. It is one thing to be self-controlled and disciplined, and, both as a businessman and a courteous individual, to be polite and helpful to others; but it is quite another to put up with bad behaviour from others in the super-tolerant way that Candido does. His is clearly the attitude of a Stoic, and although Stoicism was a fashionable philosophy at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Candido takes his adherence to it very far. The extent of his patience is what is truly remarkable.

    For Stoics, as I have said before, the practice of patience – ‘the suffering or enduring (of pain, trouble, or evil) with calmness and composure’ (OED sb. 1a) – was central in the pursuit of their beliefs and as a way of coping with life. We must remember that Seneca, who is largely the shaping force in Renaissance Stoicism, lived in highly turbulent times, where for example politically motivated murders were very frequent. The doctrine of Stoicism was something which provided counsel and assistance in situations of serious adversity, and as the Renaissance in England offered periods of considerable instability and suffering to substantial numbers of people, the popularity of Stoicism is explicable. However, Candido is not actually confronted with major crises, but practises Stoicism as an art form even in situations of comparatively minor trouble, and in such a way that he allows others to take advantage of his tolerance. It is perhaps particularly noteworthy that on the whole, in any potential conflict with others, he is the one usually inclined to yield: often not even to insist on equality, but to let others take the upper hand.

    Compared with other males in the play, except perhaps for Orlando and Antonio Giorgio in 2 The Honest Whore, Candido appears to be remarkably kind, accommodating, civilised, and thoughtful. He is not a total weakling, either, and steers his Prentices with a firm hand. For all these reasons he is probably to be seen above all as a favourable contrast to other male characters, especially those who treat women badly, as, in rather different ways, Hippolito and Mattheo do (who, however, both display worse behaviour in 2 The Honest Whore than 1 The Honest Whore).

    60For all his virtues, it is difficult to see Candido as ‘an ideal man’, for otherwise we would be forced to conclude that his wife Viola has absolutely no reason to feel dissatisfied with him, and, although an audience is bound to dislike the way she treats him, it will nevertheless understand that Viola does have a point in thinking that there is something lacking in Candido.

    Similarly, although on the whole an audience will respect Candido’s attitude to the gallants and others who try to provoke him – often very rudely and unreasonably – it is not easy to see Candido’s response as necessarily always the very best imaginable. There does appear to be a shortcoming, although upon reflection one’s opinion of him tends to improve.

    We should of course not fail to see that possibly the chief reason for the Candido scenes is to provide funny entertainment, and they do. There is something hilarious about a person who cuts out, and sells, a piece of cloth the size of a penny right out of the middle of a bolt some seventeen yards long. The event is unexpected, curious, and laughable in its absurdity, even if we may develop a complex attitude to both Candido and those vexing him.

    Candido is not just the cardboard figure of the ‘patient man’ who is often simplistically approached by critics, but provides some real puzzles to an audience as to how it is to interpret him. Let us examine some of the relevant evidence in 1 The Honest Whore. The Candido scenes are rather episodic, and do not form a coherent narrative, except – loosely – when they involve the relationship between him and Viola. There are two different parties that vex him with a view to provoking him into losing his patience. There is Viola on the one hand, and a number of the gallants on the other. I shall turn to the gallants first, and then deal with the more important Viola strand.

    The gallants know, by repute, about Candido and his patience. Probably one reason why they want to provoke him is that he is considered meek as a lamb, which makes them feel that they can exploit him without undue trouble and thus easily create a scene of mirth. Another motive is presumably that they want to convert him into someone more like them, or show him up as too unusual, standing out too much from the crowd. There is undoubtedly a desire to make him conform with the common norm, and the gallants repeatedly express their amazement at his deviation from it, although in the end they come to respect him for what he is.

    65In 1.4 they are shown discussing their plan to vex him so as to arouse his anger, and it is interesting to observe that one of them, Pioratto, is immediately doubtful that this can actually be done, as he is aware of an incident that showed Candido incapable of being provoked. Nevertheless, they proceed. In 1.5 Castruccio succeeds in persuading Candido to sell him a pennyworth of lawn in the incident already mentioned: Candido, in exchange for a penny, cuts a penny-sized piece out of an expensive piece of lawn, which is therefore largely ruined. Of course the incident is spectacular and sure to astonish, and amuse, both the gallants and the audience. Candido defends his action by saying:

    We are set here to please all customers,
    Their humours and their fancies, offend none;
    We get by many if we leese [= lose] by one.
    (TLN 607-09)

    This answer greatly impresses Fluello, who says:

    O wondrous man, patient ’bove wrong or woe!
    How blest were men if women could be so.
    (TLN 615-16)

    The second line probably alludes to the fact that Viola had expressed her disapproval of Candido’s action previously (TLN 576-78). Not only is Fluello’s remark in general misogynist, but even in relation to the incident in question it seems somewhat misdirected. Surely Viola does have some reason to criticise Candido’s generosity, although her reaction falls short of perfect understanding, as Candido is no doubt partly right, from a commercial point of view, to argue that above all he must keep his customers happy, and will in general trade profitably if he does so, even if he loses money in a single instance. If we think further about the matter, we realise that if he had allowed himself to be provoked by Castruccio, some quarrel would have ensued that ultimately might have harmed his business. In other words, his action is not as foolish as it looks to Viola. Even so, any audience is bound to feel some doubt about Candido’s wisdom in an instance like this.

    Subsequent to this incident, Candido offers the gallants the opportunity to drink toasts from a silver-gilt beaker. The gallants manage to think up a trick that enables them to walk off with this precious object. Again Candido preserves his patience, and is impressive in doing so, but at the same time he looks foolishly generous. However, he provides an antidote to Viola’s anger by ensuring that the beaker does get retrieved, relying on a constable for that to happen. As Jean Howard argues, ‘Candido proves a good subject when he does not fight with his customers over a stolen object but calls in the law.’[19] Moreover, we can see that although Candido’s patience seems boundless, his generosity is not. In selling a pennyworth of lawn at great expense his judgement was perhaps debatable, though defensible. He considered that if he had taken any kind of hostile action then, that might have been disadvantageous to his business. After all, he was engaged in selling. In the case of the beaker, he has to decide whether he will accept theft, and concludes that he will not. This shows very clearly that although he will not allow himself to lose his patience, he is not prepared to accept all vexatious actions from others without counter-action. And again Fluello praises him – not referring to the beaker, but to Candido’s patience (TLN 727).

    Again it is noteworthy in this scene ( 1.5 ) how Dekker uses the action of tragicomedy in miniature. The loss of the damaged cloth does, of course, prove a financial set-back, but Candido has explained why he was prepared to accept that in order to protect his business. More unambiguously, he is effective in solving the beaker incident. His reputation for patience remains intact, while he has demonstrated that he will not tolerate theft. The gallants have failed in their desire to upset him, ands indeed the scene ends with his inviting them (and even the constable) to a meal. He feels he can now, having retrieved the beaker, show generosity on his terms. We may still feel that Viola has some justifiable reason to be less than happy, but all in all Candido’s actions are, however unusual, well-considered enough to create positive goodwill among the gallants without seriously damaging his and Viola’s financial position. Thus in essence the ending of the scene, if viewed as a mini-play, is that of comedy. The gallants in 1 The Honest Whore, at any rate, are impressed by him, and do not bother him again. (The situation is different in 2 The Honest Whore.)

    Now let us turn to Viola’s treatment of Candido, which in its comparative coherence offers something more like a true plot, and – importantly – another male-female relationship. Viola fundamentally sees her husband as a ‘man in print’, i.e. a perfect man (TLN 230). However, she explains to her brother Fustigo that he is never angry, and that she longs for him to be so. Like the gallants, she decides to try and provoke him, and instructs Fustigo, whom Candido does not know, to infuriate her husband by irritating behaviour in his shop – by pretending to have a sexual relationship with her, by snatching her jewellery, etc.

    70The attempt is made in 3.1 , but proves a dismal failure. Fustigo does annoy Candido, who speaks to him quite sharply, though patiently. The Prentices, who are not Stoics, are mightily irritated by Fustigo, and decide (contrary to Candido’s own inclinations) to take action against him. When Viola goes so far as to give Fustigo valuable pieces of cloth, a group of Prentices beat him with clubs, and vehemently so.

    Viola is however determined to persist in her efforts to anger her husband, and prevents him from wearing his proper gown to the Senate. Instead, Candido wears an improvised ‘gown’ made of a (probably Turkish) carpet, and decides to pretend that he is sick, so that other senators will accept his costume. Viola, at the end of 3.1 , encourages George to put on Candido’s clothes and to act as though he is the Master.

    In 4.3 , Candido returns from the Senate, sees George wearing his (i.e. the Master’s) clothes, and, wearing the carpet, exits without saying a word. Viola concludes he surely now must be angry. However, Candido returns dressed in a prentice-coat, and assumes the behaviour of a Prentice. All this is too much for the disappointed Viola to bear. She leaves, in order to find officers who will be prepared to believe that Candido is mad and must be taken to Bethlem. She succeeds in achieving her goal. But, of course, Candido is not mad, and Viola soon misses him. In Act 5 she requests the Duke, whose signature is required, to release him. The Duke does so, but not without declaring that it is Viola herself who showed madness; and Candido also admonishes her.

    In the main, the audience is likely to feel respect for Candido’s patience and to think of his wife as a rather foolish shrew. However, that does not entirely do her justice. She obviously believes quite genuinely that he is in some ways abnormal in never getting angry, and it is significant that the Duke says: ‘’Twere sin all women should such husbands have, / For every man must then be his wife’s slave’ (TLN 2946-47). The Duke has just listened with admiration to a lecture by Candido on patience (TLN 2922-36). Nevertheless, his statement about ‘such husbands’ is a strong one. In the Duke’s view, patience, in the way Candido practises it, is too lenient towards others, especially those who are unreasonable. Candido has allowed his wife too liberally to act according to her own wishes only. The implication is that, even if patient, he should not have given her unbridled freedom. In that sense, then, Viola was right all along in believing, as she had put it to Fustigo in TLN 222-23, that Candido ‘has not all things belonging to a man’. The allusion is to gender roles, not, as is sometimes thought, to sex. Let me explain my view of this further in the next paragraph.

    The Candido-Viola plot presents us with something like an inversion and parody of the more ‘normal’ situations offered to us in the rest of the play. Hippolito and Mattheo are too ‘male’ in their somewhat insensitive attitudes, particularly towards Bellafront, a woman in a very difficult position. By comparison Candido has erred in the opposite direction, by yielding too much ground to Viola, and thus adopting something like a traditional ‘female’ stance. Viola was wrong in thinking of Candido as ‘mad’ because he was never angry, but although her conclusion was extreme, it did in part arise from Candido’s failure to establish normal boundaries. Had such boundaries been set, she would probably not have longed for him to assert himself. Admirable though Candido in many ways is, we should not idealise him as perfect. Even so, at the conclusion of 1 The Honest Whore a solution of sorts has been found, and, as befits a comic ending, Candido and his wife are together again.