Part 1: The ‘Romantic’ Plot

The ‘romantic’ plot involves the Duke, Infelice, Hippolito, and the Doctor (Benedict). In tune with the hierarchical stratification of Dekker’s society, the very first scene is dedicated to leading members of its aristocracy, and the Duke, the most important nobleman in Milan and its head of state, is the first speaker. Infelice, as his daughter, is at much the same social level; and Hippolito, as a count, is also a high-ranking member of the nobility. At the beginning of the play we are, therefore, far removed from citizens or others typically thought of as city-dwellers. As well, the mode of presentation is not that of comedy, but rather tragedy, especially Shakespearean tragedy. Scene 1 opens in a grand, spectacular manner, combining the appearance of a comet with well-dressed aristocrats and gallants. The tragic Shakespearean note is struck by the presentation of the Hamlet-like Hippolito, dressed in black and behaving in an eccentric, high-strung manner, caused both by his own character and the occasion: the funeral of his beloved Infelice, of whom he on the one hand claims that she is not dead (TLN 31), while on the other hand he accuses the Duke of having killed her ‘by your cruelty’ (TLN 49).

This intriguing phrase probably implies that in Hippolito’s view Infelice has died as an indirect result of the Duke’s cruel behaviour towards her. I would infer from later events that Hippolito alludes to the Duke’s opposition to Infelice becoming his wife. Thus, the potentially tragic situation is ultimately more like that of Romeo and Juliet than that of Hamlet. In 1.3 the Duke says: ‘I must confess / Hippolito is nobly born – a man, / Did not mine enemies’ blood boil in his veins, / Whom I would court to be my son-in-law’ (TLN 338-41). Both Hippolito and Infelice are at risk of becoming the victims of a family feud like that of the Montagues and Capulets.

25However, the Duke may be a schemer (his ‘Italianate’ ways are probably one reason why the play is set in Milan), but he goes about his business in a curious way. Rather than as a matter of priority plotting to have Hippolito killed, he made Doctor Benedict administer a poison to Infelice, very much of a Romeo and Juliet kind, which would make her appear dead, but only for a set time. This is revealed (not, of course, to Hipolito) in 1.3 , when she wakes up. Although the effect is not farcical, the sudden and unexpected revival of what we had assumed to be a dead young woman creates an extravagant, exuberant effect, almost humorous like a conjuring trick. The audience is taken out of a tragic mode into a comic one, at least in the sense that it is made to feel relief. This particular situation of a near or seeming disaster which in the event is avoided is just one of many such instances in the Honest Whore plays which on a minor scale prepare the audience for an ultimately happy ending.

Infelice is presented as a tough young lady, who has no illusions about her father, but is sent to Bergamo (some distance from Milan and Hippolito), in the belief that Hippolito is dead. Indeed, she is told that it was the news of her lover’s death which caused her temporary sickness, from which she has now recovered. At the end of the scene, when alone with the Duke, the Doctor informs the Duke that it would be easy for him to poison Hippolito and thus to cause his real death, a plan which the Duke is keen to see implemented.

In contrast to Romeo and Juliet, where, as in Roman ‘New Comedy’, lovers take steps to thwart hostile parents, we see in this romantic plot an anti-romantic Duke who, with the aid of a supportive Doctor, seems all too likely to succeed in his efforts to thwart the young lovers. However, the Doctor is perfectly capable of acting on his own initiative and of scheming on behalf of the youngsters, which he proceeds to engage in. At the beginning of 4.4 he pretends to the Duke that he has poisoned Hippolito. The Duke, though pleased, banishes him from the court as a potential danger to himself. Dekker makes it seem as though the Doctor now turns against the Duke, but it soon becomes obvious that the Doctor was on the side of the young lovers all along. He has written to Infelice in Bergamo to tell her about her father’s deceitful and evil behaviour, and now tells Hippolito that Infelice is alive and that it will be possible for the couple to get married at Bethlem Monastery. He also explains to Hippolito in TLN 2247 that the Duke had ‘chambered’ him up (i.e. had shut him up in a chamber) after the fake death of Infelice, and that for that reason he could not help the lovers before.

Thus we now see, in this romantic plot, good acting against evil, and comedy in the ascendancy over tragedy. In Act 5 the Duke is told about the planned marriage and decides to hasten to Bethlem to prevent it. It is to take place in the afternoon, but Fluello, one of the gallants, forestalls the Duke and warns the lovers. Hence the Duke is confronted with a fait accompli. Father Anselmo, who has married the young couple, explains to the Duke that he was moved by the wish to reconcile two feuding families – the Duke’s and that of his enemies (TLN 2799-812). Fluello points out, moreover, that the Duke can do nothing other than accept what has happened. As he says, ‘there’s now no remedy’ (TLN 2813): even a Duke cannot untie a valid marriage.

The way Dekker brings matters together at this point in 5.2 is characteristic of his procedure: there is a strong moral and emotional reason for the Duke to accept what is inevitable, and, as well, he has in practice no choice anyway. However, convenient though all this is, one can also see good reasons why any sensible Duke would indeed accept what has been arranged. The Duke not only realises that he has no alternative, but also that Father Anselmo is right, as the marriage will indeed bring about harmony between the two feuding families. Hence, in a play which in general is concerned with the transformation of bad into good, the Duke from here on, and without hesitation, becomes permanently converted to better ways. He yields to the happiness of the couple, and adopts a different, constructive mindset, which is of course beneficial to the society of which he is the head, and which helps along the general goal of conversion, reconciliation, and unification towards which the play is directed. Hence this romantic plot has distinct importance for the play as a whole, not least in turning the Duke into a better man, for the wellbeing of all. In principle, Dekker implies, there is no reason to doubt that the Duke, Infelice, and his son-in-law will face a bright future.