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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

    95Part 2: The Hippolito, Infelice, and Bellafront Triangle

    Already in our analysis of Hippolito as he appeared in 1 The Honest Whore we noted that Dekker wanted us to think of him as a very self-absorbed young man, with a less than well-tempered character. However, he was at that stage presented as a somewhat puritanical and over-serious person, who avoided Bellafront for one thing because he seemed afraid of his own sexual feelings as well as only too willing to judge her harshly as a moralist. He also demonstrated an interest in meditative reflection and spirituality in 4.1 , when, in privacy, he reflected on our mortality and after-life (at that point believing that Infelice had died).

    Hippolito is one of the characters portrayed in such a way as to make one think that Dekker had a two-part play in mind all along. For, moving from 1 The Honest Whore to 2 The Honest Whore, we see a logical development of his psychology and behaviour. As Manheim says, like Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan, Dekker’s play ‘studies in detail the problem of corruption in seemingly virtuous individuals.’[22] Manheim’s essay points out that this idea is illuminated strikingly by Gustav Cross, who described The Dutch Courtesan as a ‘subtle and perceptive study of sexual psychology.’ Cross argues, in Manheim’s words, that The Dutch Courtesan ‘concerns the theme that “abhorrence of the passions” is as ill-advised as failure to control them, since the first might well lead to the second.’[23] I think we can see exactly such a development in Hippolito’s case.

    Broadly speaking, after repressing his sexual urges in 1 The Honest Whore, Hippolito becomes a victim of lust in 2 The Honest Whore. From the beginning of 2 The Honest Whore, 1.1 , there are several allusions to his wanting to spend a substantial part of the morning in bed with Infelice. The scene begins immediately with a series of hints, by Lodovico and other gallants, which prompts us to think of a morning that encourages sexual activity. Lodovico finishes a speech to that effect with the words ‘What, is thy lord stirring yet?’, to which Astolfo replies: ‘Yes; he will not be horsed this hour, sure’ (TLN 15-16). A little later Lodovico asks Hippolito’s Irish footman whether Hippolito is ready, and hears that ‘my lady will have some little ting [= thing] in her pelly [= belly] first’ (TLN 23-24). Somewhat later again, we see Bellafront arriving upon the scene with a petition, on behalf of Mattheo. When she explains that her business is ‘unto my lord’, Lodovico says ‘He’s about his own wife’s now’ (TLN 93-4). Hippolito takes a very long time to appear at last, and then says ‘We ha’ wasted half this morning!’ (TLN 123). It is not difficult to guess what he has ‘wasted’ half the morning on.

    Hippolito does not immediately recognise Bellafront, and asks her to approach him again at a better time. However, when she explains that a man’s life is at stake, he urges Infelice to wait for him in their coach. A poor scholar, Antonio Giorgio, who has been waiting for longer than Bellafront, is told he will be attended to later. Bellafront, though still attractive, is asked repeatedly by Hippolito, who emphasises his friendship with Mattheo, whether she is truly his wife, and it is clear that Hippolito’s interest is not only in Mattheo, who is in prison because he has killed a man in a duel, but also in Bellafront: he is revisiting the past, and wants to make sure of her identity. He promises to save Mattheo’s life through intervention from his father-in-law, the Duke, and then concentrates fully on Bellafront. He reminds her that he was the person who converted her, and asks her whether she is ‘a good wench still’ (TLN 162).

    His conversation with her, which has become increasingly private, strikes the waiting Infelice as taking unduly long, and she admonishes him through Lodovico, and subsequently Brian, the footman, to join her. Hippolito, however, takes time to promise Bellafront to bring about a reconciliation between her and her father. The reason for this is no doubt that he aims to get a hold over Bellafront not only through what he does for Mattheo, but also through her father, Orlando. His interest in her is rekindled. As soon as she leaves, he exclaims: ‘The face I would not look on! Sure then ’twas rare, / When in despite of grief ’tis still thus fair’ (TLN 189-90). As Manheim remarks, a telling feature of this scene is that, although Hippolito does eventually talk to Antonio, he favours Bellafront with his attention, and puts off the scholar. Hippolito may opt, as Manheim rightly sees it, for ‘the life of prudence and wisdom’ or he ‘may choose the life of lust and deceit’ symbolised by what he (along with many other men) continues to see as ‘the whore’.[24] However, we should add that in fact Hippolito’s choice is the more ignominious because he does know, better than other men, that Bellafront decided, years ago, to be chaste. He is in the process of plotting her moral downfall by exploiting her vulnerable position, especially the poverty she is in, now that she is no longer a whore, and without financial support from either her imprisoned husband or her estranged father.

    100Shortly after, in 1.2 , we see Hippolito manipulate Orlando’s sensitivity about his daughter. He tells Orlando that Bellafront is dead, simply to evoke a strong emotional response that reveals both to him, and not least to Orlando himself, that Orlando still does love his daughter. Hippolito suggests that the two of them may together save Mattheo and thus Bellafront. All this could be noble, in theory; but subsequent developments prove that it is not. We shall later explore how Orlando does indeed come to help his daughter, but at this point we will further consider Hippolito’s actions.

    Predictably Mattheo is set free, and in 2.1 we see Hippolito briefly visit the newly re-united couple. We must remember that both in this play and in 1 The Honest Whore he has constantly declared himself Mattheo’s friend. Although we shall discover that Mattheo still regards his wife as essentially a whore, and indeed will encourage her to act again as such, Hippolito does not know that, and his interest is merely in conquering Bellafront. It now transpires in an exchange between Hippolito and Bellafront (not heard clearly by Mattheo) that Hippolito, via his footman, has sent Bellafront a letter in which he attempts to persuade her to become his mistress, and that, by way of tangible bribe, he has offered her a diamond ring as well. He seems half-indignant not to have heard from her, and before parting from her he says ‘I must have no nay’ (TLN 775). He thus adds the pressure of his social power to that of money. As well, he tells Mattheo that ‘my purse is yours; call for it’ (TLN 785). This is a seemingly generous offer, which constitutes a further bribe, even though Mattheo does not realise that Hippolito is, through him, trying to ‘buy’ Bellafront in yet another way. He also reminds Mattheo that he has been released through his intervention, as Mattheo duly acknowledges (TLN 780-82). Just before leaving, Hippolito moreover ensures that Bellafront will receive a purse from him.

    He gives this purse to what he takes to be Mattheo’s servant, Pacheco, who is in fact, unbeknownst to anyone, Orlando in disguise. (Orlando, we shall later see, has adopted this role for good reasons.) Orlando passes on the purse to Bellafront, who tells him she will not be bribed, and asks him to return the purse, the diamond ring, and the letter to Hippolito.

    Hippolito has not only intruded into Mattheo’s and Bellafront’s marriage, in an attempt to win Bellafront’s sexual favours, but is of course in the process of cheating on his wife, Infelice, as well. Orlando decides to exploit this fact, and in 3.1 visits Infelice. Infelice believes that (as suggested by Orlando) the return of the gifts may indicate a determination on Bellafront’s part to extract more out of Hippolito (TLN 1121-23). Nevertheless, Orlando has succeeded in making her fully aware that her husband is planning an adulterous relationship. Infelice resorts to a marvellous strategy to confront Hippolito with that fact. She pretends that she has had sex with Brian, the Irish footman. The choice of this supposed rival is deliberately outrageous, designed to infuriate and humiliate Hippolito, and her trick succeeds fully. Hippolito, enraged, lectures her in his most ‘puritanical’ and moralistic manner. Quite obviously, he himself is not remotely aware that the sensual side of his nature has in his own case won out against his moral strictness. Fully applying a double standard, he attacks his wife for just such behaviour as he has come to see as appropriate for himself. It is only when Infelice uses his own moralistic words against him that he becomes conscious of his inconsistency. However, this does not impact on his behaviour. In a soliloquy at the end of 3.1 , he utters such words as these:

    He’s damned that raised this whirlwind, which hath blown
    Into her eyes this jealousy. Yet I’ll on,
    I’ll on, stood arm{`e}d devils staring in my face.
    To be pursued in flight quickens the race.
    Shall my bloodstreams by a wife’s lust be barred?
    Fond woman, no.
    (TLN 1280-86)

    It is one thing to commit evil, but another to know that one is doing so and yet to persist with it. That is what is happening here, and even at the end of the play Hippolito is still unrepentant, brazenly and in public referring to Infelice as ‘a jealous wife’. ‘Infelice’ means ‘she who is unhappy’, and obviously Dekker has chosen her name with care. We may note in passing that the name is less appropriate for the Infelice of 1 The Honest Whore, which suggests that at the time that Dekker first thought of her as a character, before writing 1 The Honest Whore, he probably already had 2 The Honest Whore in mind.

    105All in all, Hippolito is, in this play, not only morally reprehensible and repugnant, but he is even no longer intellectually impressive. In 4.1 , he proposes to Bellafront a debate, along the lines of the one we saw in 1 The Honest Whore, Act 2, when he persuaded her to abandon her ‘trade’ as a whore. Now, he aims to talk her into becoming his own private mistress, though in the context of a general defence of prostitution. The attempt is ludicrous. He appears to believe in the possibility of making two completely opposed positions equally plausible by the sheer force of rhetoric. As Manheim says:

    Rhetoric, the two debates suggest, is only as strong as the morality behind it; and Dekker stacks the cards against Hippolito in Part 2, letting Bellafront win the day by citing her own experiences as examples which Hippolito finds impossible to refute. ... In Part 1, Hippolito entered upon his argument with great emotional intensity. ... Hippolito’s argument in Part 2 lacks both the intensity and morality of his argument in Part 1. It is obviously specious and slavishly formal.[25]

    Manheim analyses the debate extensively and very well, explaining also why Bellafront’s pertinent logic, honesty and personal experience impress us by contrast with Hippolito’s failings. Readers will be able to discern the differences for themselves, and note how Bellafront has in all respects grown, both emotionally and intellectually, since the previous debate in 1 The Honest Whore. An interesting point made by Manheim is that the ending of this scene, 4.1 , recalls that of 3.1 , where as we have just seen Hippolito also allowed his passion to conquer his reason. He now refuses to concede that Bellafront is victorious. As a result she leaves him, whereupon he says:

    Fly to earth’s fix{`e}d centre, to the caves
    Of everlasting horror, I’ll pursue thee,
    Though loaden with sins, even to hell’s brazen doors.
    Thus wisest men turn fools, doting on whores.
    (TLN 2047-50)

    Possibly the most striking point here is that – as at the end of 3.1 – he knows he is wrong, but is not prepared to change his action accordingly. This makes it very difficult for an audience to sympathise with or respect him.

    But ... the play is a comedy. So, although Hippolito does not ever apologise for his behaviour to his wife, he is nevertheless shown to have a sense of shame, which to an extent rehabilitates him. Once Infelice mistakenly accuses Bellafront of having accepted letters, gold, and jewels from Hippolito (TLN 2621-22), he indignantly defends Bellafront on the basis of her – Bellafront’s – morality, including her utter chastity. Moreover, soon after he says, when Mattheo admits that he is now Orlando’s ‘patient’ (TLN 2644): ‘And be so still / ’Tis a good sign when our cheeks blush at ill’ (TLN 2645-46). As he speaks about ‘our cheeks’ (plural) I take it that he, too, blushes at his own ill. Thus, to an extent, he redeems himself in our eyes, and Orlando considers him even ‘an honest man’ (TLN 2634), probably because ultimately he has not actually committed the adultery that he aimed for and which Mattheo has accused him of (TLN 2606-08). But in the eyes of many members of the audience his stature is bound to remain less than wholly satisfactory, not least because he shows no unambiguous sign of repentance, leave alone love, towards his wife.