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  • Title: The Honest Whore, Parts 1 and 2: Introduction
  • 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: Introduction

    1(1) Dates and Authorship

    The Honest Whore was published in two parts, and each carries Dekker’s name as that of the author. Part 1 was definitely written in 1604, and Part 2 not much later, probably in 1605. While Thomas Middleton, as yet a comparatively inexperienced playwright, certainly contributed to Part 1, his part in the writing seems to have been quite minor compared with Dekker’s, and Dekker alone wrote Part 2. Part 2 is carefully and interestingly written as a surprising but logical sequel to Part 1, and Dekker may have had a two-part design in mind from the beginning. In general, then, it seems reasonable to think of the two plays as essentially Dekker’s, although without ignoring the fact that Middleton assisted in writing Part 1. However, questions of dates and authorship need to be considered in some detail.

    Prior to 14 March 1604, Philip Henslowe paid £5 to ‘Thomas Dekker and Middleton in earnest of their play called The Patient Man and The Honest Whore’, i.e. 1 The Honest Whore.[1] The statement suggests strongly that to all intents and purposes the work on the play was finished, and by both men. Nothing is said about the division of the £5, and if Middleton received half that would probably not have been because he wrote half of the play, or was entitled to 50% as its ‘intellectual’ author.

    Be that as it may, the text could not as yet have contained a striking allusion (see 1 The Honest Whore, TLN 1731n) to the siege of Ostend which finished when that city was taken by the Spaniards on 11 September 1604. It is likely that this was a later addition made while the play was already in performance, simply as an interesting topical allusion, and that it does not materially change the date of its composition. No performance would have occurred until well into 1604, as the theatres were closed during the plague and were not re-opened until April 1604.

    Middleton’s name did not appear on the title-page of Q1 or Q2 of 1 The Honest Whore. Until comparatively recently, it was generally agreed that Middleton’s contribution was no doubt quite minor, but of late there has been a tendency to magnify it beyond what to me seems reasonable. The actual evidence which exists or is produced does not suggest that the traditional judgement was incorrect. Middleton was still a very inexperienced dramatist when he took part in the writing of 1 The Honest Whore, while Dekker was not only about eight years his senior (Middleton was certainly born in 1580, Dekker probably in 1572), but already had a distinguished career as a dramatist behind him. For example, Middleton’s sole surviving pre-The Honest Whore play The Phoenix (1603-4) is, despite signs of brilliance, nowhere near as accomplished a work, technically and otherwise, as Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday written some years before. Middleton could not possibly lay claim to bringing anything like equal proven competence to the task of writing a play with Dekker, and the latter was undoubtedly the senior partner in the collaboration. Cyrus Hoy, who is keen to see Middleton’s work duly acknowledged, nevertheless states that it is probable that Middleton’s name was omitted from the title-page because ‘his share in the play was not as great as Dekker’s, and the advantages that would accrue to the younger dramatist from having it displayed were not enough to make a point of including it.’[2] However, we know that when Dekker’s The Magnificent Entertainment was published a little earlier, he acknowledged a single speech by Middleton. While the two works were not of a similar nature, it seems to me that the ever-generous Dekker would certainly have wanted to see Middleton’s name on the title-page of 1 The Honest Whore if there had been a substantial reason for it to be there.

    5For Middleton’s admirers (amongst whom I am one) it is infinitely tempting to see him as having done more than very little for this play, but this wishful thinking springs from reasoning back from Middleton’s later and hugely distinguished work to a very early period in his career. Thus we have Hoy arguing: ‘It is unlikely that Middleton’s share in the play was limited to the Candido subplot and sundry verbal and poetic strokes elsewhere. With the knowledge of hindsight, it is hard not to see his hand in the structural design of 1 The Honest Whore. Or if he did not help to design it, he must have learned from it.’[3] I think it entirely improper and illogical to bring ‘the knowledge of hindsight’ to bear on this whole matter: all we can hope to know is what Middleton had done before he came to 1 The Honest Whore and in part what he did for it, not what he might have done for it by speculating that somehow he had already accomplished (in his mind) what he was still to do. Reasoning back into the text from a later point in this way will never establish anything solid. Middleton no doubt did indeed learn from his work for the play, but that is an entirely different matter.

    The thought of Middleton contributing significantly to the design of the play should be seen as a fantasy unless the contrary could be proved. Such evidence as there is suggests that Dekker was more than capable of thinking through the scheme for 1 The Honest Whore by himself, and that Middleton was assigned a very modest role in the collaboration – in essence that of a junior assistant. All other considerations based on Middleton’s later sophistication should be viewed with suspicion, like the oft-mentioned idea that, because Candido in 2 The Honest Whore is somewhat different from what he is in 1 The Honest Whore, we must conclude that Dekker could not construct the same character. There is another, more likely explanation: 2 The Honest Whore attempts to do something very different from 1 The Honest Whore, showing other characters, too, in a very different light: for example Hippolito, who talks Bellafront out of whoredom in 1 The Honest Whore, attempts to talk her back into it in the sequel.

    The focus on Candido as somehow a Middletonian creation also manifests itself in another misguided fashion. On page 353 of Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Culture: A Companion to The Collected Works (Oxford, 2007) Paul Mulholland notes, with approval, that several commentators have remarked on what they consider to be Candido’s strong affinity to Quieto in Middleton’s The Phoenix. As it does seem clear that Middleton did write some of the Candido material for 1 The Honest Whore, it is understandable that critics should look for a ‘model’ in his earlier work. However, the case for comparing Candido and Quieto is very unpersuasive. Quieto’s role in The Phoenix is slight indeed, and he simply has very little in common with Candido, in particular in that the latter is subjected, time and again, to outrageous provocations and discomforts, which he patiently tolerates. In this he does not resemble Quieto, but a striking creation by Dekker, namely the heroine of Patient Grissil, a play written by Dekker, Chettle, and Haughton which was produced in 1600. In this version of the traditional (and popular) Patient Griselda story, Grissil has to put up with considerably more adversity and suffering than Candido, but has a conspicuously similar cast of mind. Both are Stoics who show patient forbearance come what may, and what is likelier than that Dekker wished to see a comic male counterpart to Grissil in 1 The Honest Whore? This suited his purpose also in that in 2 The Honest Whore Bellafront is presented as another Patient Griselda.

    The most convincing approach to the whole question of Middleton’s authorship is, to most people, that pursued by those scholars, notably David Lake and MacDonald Jackson, who examine the minutiae of multitudes of texts to try and identify peculiarly individualistic traits – often hardly of a conscious kind – which betray authorial presence rather in the way a fingerprint would.[4] Although attractive, the method does not always produce satisfying results. In his 1987 Revels edition of The Roaring Girl (1611) Paul Mulholland examined, much under the influence of others known for this method of research, the shares of authorship for that play.[5] As The Roaring Girl is, like 1 The Honest Whore, a Dekker and Middleton collaboration (with more work done by Middleton), I intended to benefit from Mulholland’s enquiry, so proceeded to examine what he produced.

    Mulholland initially says that, in their attempts to settle what was written by Dekker and what by Middleton in The Roaring Girl, ‘Lake and Jackson accord to slight traces undue weight’.[6] He offers some perceptive comments on differences in style between the authors, but still – understandably and rightly – is drawn to more tangible, factual evidence. Thus, despite his comment about the dangers of according undue weight to ‘slight traces’, he proceeds to mention as oaths/exclamations characteristic of Middleton ‘faith’ and ‘i’faith’. No one has yet, I believe, claimed 2 The Honest Whore for anyone else than Dekker, but these expressions (if taken together) occur 22 times in that play, and thus they cannot be seen as markers of Middleton’s authorship. Similarly, I found the supposedly Middletonian ‘troth’ nine times in Dekker’s play. Mulholland mentions ‘pox’ as a Middleton form, but it occurs plentifully in 2 The Honest Whore. Some other supposedly Middletonian features, such as ‘by this light’, and ‘I protest’, are also found in 2 The Honest Whore.[7]

    10Despite all this, I believe that the Jackson-Lake material which Mulholland refers to, and which he accurately summarises, in his relevant section on 1 The Honest Whore in the Middleton Companion [8] is more reliable than his own in the case of The Roaring Girl. Even so, it is a matter of concern that, as Mulholland points out, Jackson regards the following expressions in 1 The Honest Whore as Middletonian: ‘for’t’, which is in fact found four times in 2 The Honest Whore; ‘on’t’, which also occurs four times in 2 The Honest Whore; and ‘heart’ (found once in 1 The Honest Whore, but twice in 2 The Honest Whore).[9]

    Whatever the ultimate implications of these findings, they certainly do not dent a case for Dekker as the main author of 1 The Honest Whore, and it should be added that both Jackson and Lake produce a great deal of evidence for Dekker’s authorship of that play. Both raise the possibility that Middleton wrote some passages which Dekker subsequently revised and thus made his: this is perfectly compatible with the thought that Middleton was acting as a minor assistant/apprentice rather than a true collaborator of importance. Furthermore, in a process of collaboration not characterised by a clear division of labour, each dramatist could readily (and to us confusingly) have borrowed language used by the other. Also, Middleton may in subsequent plays have repeated expressions which were actually first used by Dekker in this play and which are now wrongly thought of as evidence of Middleton’s presence when they are found in 1 The Honest Whore. In any case, there is not much proof of a sizeable contribution by Middleton. Jackson and Lake find Middletonian traces here and there, but locate the strongest evidence of Middleton’s presence in just two scenes: 1.5 and 3.1 . Even in these two scenes, the evidence is not uniform. Lake divides each of them in two parts, considering that in each case the first part is (mainly) Middleton’s, and the second Dekker’s.

    In the light of all the facts here assembled it seems to me fair to conclude that Middleton’s contribution to 1 The Honest Whore was quite slight, or at the very least that we have no evidence that it was more than that. There is no doubt that Middleton did write some of the material, and he may even have suggested ideas (something we shall never know). But it seems an exaggeration to see him as an important participant, and in the main 1 The Honest Whore is no doubt Dekker’s play, while 2 The Honest Whore is solely his. In so far as we can see the two together as a ‘play in two parts’ it should obviously be seen as essentially Dekker’s. He may, after all, have had the design for two plays in his mind, more or less clearly, from the beginning, though a decision actually to write 2 The Honest Whore would have been taken only after 1 The Honest Whore had proved itself on the stage.

    When 1 The Honest Whore did turn out to be a great commercial success Dekker probably wrote 2 The Honest Whore very soon after, in 1605. It is conceivable, that the play, as printed, alludes to a partial eclipse of the moon on 27 September of that year, and a total eclipse of the sun on 2 October: see 2 The Honest Whore, TLN 117n, ‘strange eclipses’. Gloucester’s phrase ‘late eclipses’ (Lear, 1.2.106) probably does refer to these events. If Dekker has these eclipses in mind, 2 The Honest Whore (or at least the passage referring to them) was written later – perhaps soon after. However, the connection is tenuous. Dekker’s Lodovico refers only to the moon, not the sun; also, many in the audience would have been aware of earlier eclipses of the moon, viz. those of 15 June and 9 December 1601, so the passage (leave alone the play) need not post-date 27 September 1605. Its most likely year of composition is in any case 1605.

    There is some further specific evidence to be found for the view that 2 The Honest Whore was written during that year. At 2 The Honest Whore, TLN 2805, the quarto text (printed in 1630) has a dash which is no doubt a substitute for ‘God’, the use of which would have been profane after 1605: in 1606, such a view was formalised in the Act of Abuses, which forbade mention of the Deity in play-texts. If the play was written and performed before that time, ‘God’ was presumably the word used. The presence of the dash may indicate that Dekker’s manuscript originally contained ‘God’ and was, in fact, written before 1606. In any case, no reference to the play is known prior to its being entered in the Stationers’ Register on 29 April 1608. Oddly, it was not printed until 1630.