30Part 1: The ‘Morality’ Plot

What I have described as the romantic plot shows us a well-organised narrative that makes sense on its own. Dekker’s evident purpose is to reveal to us how the anti-romantic Duke was scheming to prevent a marriage he does not want to occur, and how his effort is frustrated. At the end he has become a more acceptable leader of his society, and a better family member, as a result. Infelice has proved to be sturdy and sensible. Hippolito has displayed signs of a rather excessive temperament, but after 1.1 we have not seen much of that, in the romantic plot which we have considered.

However, what our summary has not made plain is that Hippolito, after 1.1 and before 4.4 , curiously has become part of another plot, namely the morality plot in which Bellafront is the central character. In fact, Hippolito provides the major link between the romantic plot and the morality plot, and if we consider the romantic plot on its own, as we have done, we are not aware that in a way Hippolito leads, in this play, something like a double life. This is not a matter of deceit. Rather, his role in the romantic plot seems quite separate from, and not influenced by, the part he plays in the morality plot. Ultimately this is due to the fact that although his role in the morality plot is active while it lasts, it does not appear to affect him personally. He remains mentally loyal to Infelice’s memory to begin with, and to the thought of his intended marriage with her once he is made aware that she is still alive.

But his role in the morality plot is of major importance, even if it affects him – at least in the short term – far less than it does Bellafront. In 1.1 , Hippolito is presented as a very high-strung young man, totally preoccupied with the loss of Infelice. While his sense of bereavement is in principle natural enough, it is striking that he does not actually share his grief with others, but feels that he – and only he – ‘owns’ Infelice’s body, saying to attendants: ‘Set down, / Villains, set down that sorrow; ’tis all mine’ (TLN 20-21). His attitude shows a remarkable degree of self-centredness, emotional excessiveness, and lack of appropriate interaction with others. These traits in his character are strongly evident also at the end of the scene, where he declares that he will never on ‘woman’s beams ... throw affection / Save her that’s dead’ (TLN 148-49), and that every Monday, ‘being locked up / In my close chamber, there I’ll meditate / On nothing but my Infelice’s end, / Or on a dead man’s skull draw out mine own’ (TLN 140-43). It is, of course, unnatural for a healthy young man to declare loyalty exclusively to a dead woman: it reveals a failing to engage with life as it is, and a wish to escape into some other world. The more down-to-earth Mattheo predicts that he will find Hippolito in a brothel within ten days (TLN 157-58).

In 2.1 what Mattheo predicts actually happens, though one must add that this is due to his taking Hippolito to Bellafront’s house (so the initiative is not actually Hippolito’s own, but he does accompany Mattheo). Bellafront in effect runs her own very comfortable establishment as a whore, with her pander Roger, and occasionally also drawing on the bawd Mistress Fingerlock (presented in 3.2 ) for an exceptionally good catch. We are introduced to both Bellafront and a number of her regular visitors, who from all the evidence also appear to be clients. They are a group of gallants. Among these Mattheo turns out to be the most prominent, and we shall pay due attention to him later. For the moment, it is worth noting that her relationship with Mattheo is obviously closer than with the others, in that she and he present themselves as being in an amorous/sexual relationship in which she is the ‘mistress’ (TLN 872) whom he ‘serves’. In what seems to be a realistic mode, we see plenty of lively, and apparently happy, social interaction at the beginning of this Act .

But from the moment of his entrance with Mattheo, Hippolito, the newcomer and outsider, is aloof. Presumably he has some sense of where he has been taken, and in any case he has declared himself interested only in the deceased Infelice, not in any living women. He asks Fluello some questions about Bellafront and from the answers concludes rapidly that she is no doubt ‘some sale courtesan’ (TLN 927). Here we see the emergence of his total disapproval of whores, which in practice at least the other men do not share. But what is also striking is that in part his questions are prompted by Bellafront’s beauty, and he comments that she is a good-looking creature (TLN 922).

35Bellafront in her turn is intrigued by this unexpected visitor and asks a number of questions about him. It is obvious that he is not the sort of man she is used to, and she even describes him as a ‘sullen picture’ (TLN 946). Hippolito’s distaste for her as a whore is such that he finds an excuse to leave prematurely, but he promises Mattheo to return. When he does so he finds Bellafront alone. Mattheo, who is a wastrel, does not come back as promised. As a result Bellafront and Hippolito find themselves together in one room, and this leads to one of the most exciting and interesting scenes in 1 and 2 The Honest Whore. During this scene (TLN 993-1223), Hippolito in essence becomes part of Bellafront’s world, and thus of the morality plot. Major moral matters are raised, and, as well, Hippolito’s mind for the time being swerves from Infelice and the romantic plot, towards which, however, he will return. Dekker presents his conduct as totally convincing and (given Hippolito’s psychology) consistent in both of the plots in which he is pivotal. Thus, Dekker, through Hippolito, links those plots firmly and naturally.

Usually critics describe the great Bellafront-Hippolito scene (taking up the remainder of Act 2) with much emphasis on the way he lectures her, and some vague sense of her falling in love with him. What he has to tell her about the vices of prostitution, which largely speaks for itself, is of course important, but to my mind ultimately less interesting than the interaction between the two characters and their psychology.

One thing generally overlooked is the subtle way in which the interaction between them commences. Hippolito immediately wants to leave when he finds Mattheo absent. Clearly he strongly condemns Bellafront, but he also seems to display a degree of fear of her. She invites him to sit, but he puts down his rapier and says ‘I’m hot; / If I may use your room, I’ll rather walk’ (TLN 1000). The unrest he shows is surely the result of her strong physical impact on him. He feels ‘hot’ because he is sexually aroused: there is no other cause implied, and, physically speaking, walking will only make him the hotter. In fact his interest in Bellafront as a woman is obvious from his ensuing comment: ‘I perceive my friend [Mattheo] / Is old in your acquaintance’ (TLN 1004-05). The word ‘acquaintance’, here, is a euphemism for ‘sexual acquaintance’. Obviously he is beginning to wonder whether he might become her ‘acquaintance’ himself. Bellafront is, in fact, encouraging, and not just, it seems, because he is a potential customer. She shows her intelligence in subtly drawing Hippolito out when he asks whether he might play ‘Mattheo’s part’ (TLN 1011). She might have said, for example, ‘I shall be happy to have you as a client’. But instead she invites Hippolito to explain himself further, and when he makes his sexual wishes known, she tells him that she is ‘in bonds to no man’ (TLN 1015).

Hippolito is unambiguous about his desire for ‘pleasure’ (TLN 1020); indeed, in his typical self-centred fashion he insists that he would tolerate no ‘sharers’ (TLN 1018), but would monopolise her. What he is talking about is not a marriage or something like it, but a situation in which Bellafront would be his mistress, and his alone. There is no promise of loyalty on his side, or of anything like love: he desires to be her absolute sexual possessor. This does not alienate Bellafront, who in fact declares that she has longed to be absolutely loyal to a ‘kind gentleman / That would have purchased sin alone, to himself’ (TLN 1026-27). But, while she still insists that she would like such a person to be attractive as well, and to receive a ‘reasonable’ allowance (TLN 1030), one suspects that what appeals to her above all is the idea of a relationship with just one man. With part of her mind, she does want something like a marriage, as subsequent evidence will make clear. However, as soon as she declares herself willing to be loyal to Hippolito (TLN 1032-33), he shows his characteristic suspicion that the other party will let him down. He wonders to ‘how many men’ (TLN 1038) the same promise has been made, just as in 2 The Honest Whore, TLN 200, he asks Antonio Giorgio, a poor scholar who is seeking his patronage, ‘To how many hands besides hath this bird flown?’ In both cases the people in question are serious and reliable, but Hippolito appears to want exclusive ‘rights’ and evidently fears that he will be deceived. Dekker implies that there is a touch of paranoia mixed with selfishness in his character.

So strong is his fear that he does not seize his opportunity, offered to him here in Act 2 , to establish a relationship with Bellafront, even though the moment is one when the two seem in some ways well-matched. Instead, he reveals his strong hatred of all whores, and accuses her of falseness in that he has seen letters of hers addressed to Mattheo in which she has said similar things to his friend (i.e., has promised utter loyalty). She admits this at once: ‘Mattheo! That’s true’ (TLN 1062). However, her having approached Mattheo in this vein merely confirms that she would prefer to have a relationship with one man: it does not show that she is unreliable, as Hippolito thinks. Nor does she lie when she says ‘my eyes no sooner met you / But they conceived and led you to my heart’ (TLN 1063-64). Her long-standing relationship with Mattheo is, we shall see, a matter of historical accident: with Hippolito her feeling is that of love at first sight.

40We can hardly avoid speculating about what Dekker wants us to see as her reasons for that feeling. Some suggest – plausibly, I believe – that she is swayed by the fact that she has never before met a man who has treated her the way Hippolito does: one who on the one hand showed no immediate interest in her, yet on the other wants her exclusively. There is also clearly a physical response on Bellafront’s part, and a financially-inspired one. But Bellafront is exceptionally honest among the characters in 1 and 2 The Honest Whore, and I think her most important motive is the one she voices herself later in the scene. Thoroughly infatuated, she urges him to love her but at once adds: ‘Yet do not neither, for thou then destroyst / That which I love thee for – thy virtues’ (TLN 1217-18). She has never yet met a man who rejected her life as a whore because of his belief in moral purity, and that, more than anything, provokes her love for him. Admittedly, the men she is used to morally also reject her as a whore, but they are themselves impure, so they cannot seriously appeal to her as offering something magnetic, as Hippolito does.

Hippolito’s lecturing on why prostitution is evil in the eyes of God, damaging to the soul and body of the whore herself, and to others, is utterly persuasive to Bellafront, as he expresses what deep down she herself believes but has never heard uttered, and certainly not with such passion, intellect, and integrity. It must come across to her as the utterance of a profoundly serious and pure man who does care for her wellbeing, and to an extent this is an assessment that she and the audience are no doubt correct in making.

But we must also note more negative elements which Bellafront does not perceive. Hippolito rejects her more because he distrusts her, i.e. for selfish reasons, than because of care for her. Indeed, his strident criticism of whores does include, after all, direct and vehement disapproval of her. He does not suggest that if she changes her ways he will love her. In many ways, to the extent that he offers a form of help to her, it is as a preacher who is trying to convert a sinner from a position of superiority and condescension, not respect or affection of any kind. Moreover, he at no point rebukes himself for having talked to her as a potential mistress. As well, his harping on sexual sins shows a peculiar fascination with them which is almost obsessive. He sounds like a man who is strongly attracted to Bellafront but is afraid of the potency of his own sexual feeling, which unconsciously he tries to repress by making her seem abhorrent. I feel that this is the more likely because ultimately he does not succeed in that effort: in 2 The Honest Whore, his lust does, after all, drive him towards her, and uncontrollably.

At the end of Act 2 , Hippolito just in time saves Bellafront from committing suicide when she has decided that he hates her because she is a whore. She would prefer him to kill her, but he inflicts an ultimate insult on her by, as Bellafront puts it, killing her with disdain.

It seems to me that Bellafront’s conversion is entirely understandable, not least because she is obviously intelligent and can see the force of Hippolito’s arguments. In 2 The Honest Whore she reveals to him what she used to feel herself when she was still a whore (TLN 2014ff.). I think we must note that in the course of human history vast multitudes of people have been converted by those who persuaded them to adopt a different belief or way of life. If, moreover, one is in love with the preacher anyway, or falls in love with him because of his preachings, one’s conversion is the more likely to occur. In Bellafront’s case love may well be the dominating element in the mix. As Lois Potter puts it: ‘Bellafront’s conversion is initially caused less by Hippolito’s moralistic harangue than by her love for him, which she then sublimates into self-abasement.’[17] In some ways Bellafront was happier when a whore, and her acceptance of Hippolito’s criticisms inevitably wounds her deeply, causing a loss of self-esteem. Yet she never wavers, once converted. Although Hippolito is not Christ, his influence on Bellafront is enduring, like that of Christ on Mary Magdalene (according to what was commonly believed). The play is, indeed, often seen as in some ways ‘a Magdalene play’, but it does not rely on a specific source, although in Robert Greene’s Disputation between a He Cony-catcher and a She Cony-catcher (1592) there is a narrative called ‘The Conversion of an English Courtesan’ which features some striking similarities to Bellafront’s.[18]

45The question for Bellafront now becomes: where to turn from here? The most immediate effect of her conversion, and also the most tenacious one, is that many do not believe her, or at least take the view that such a metamorphosis is impossible, apparently on the basis of the maxim ‘once a whore, for ever a whore’. Hippolito is in this respect by no means the worst, and does encourage her to persist, saying for example ‘’tis damnation / If you turn Turk [= whore] again’ (TLN 1888-89). Others disapprove strongly; particularly, it seems, those who themselves are part of the ‘trade’ or support it, and who feel that a convert like Bellafront shows them in a negative light. Fluello, though often a kindly person, blames her for her instructions, admonitions and caveats, and threatens her with his scabbard (TLN 1638-39), so that Mattheo (as her main protector, physically) comes to her rescue.

But although Mattheo has a special place, and one of long standing, he is also ultimately the person who caused Bellafront to become a prostitute, and who cannot believe that she could ever be anything else. There are, of course, special reasons for his disbelief: to accept Bellafront as a convert would amount to admitting that he treated her badly (i.e. that she could have been a ‘pure’ woman). To understand his attitude more exactly, we must be aware of the hints which Dekker provides about the origin of their relationship. The best way to do this is by studying telling statements in 3.3 , and to realise that c.1600 most people in London had very different attitudes to the morality of sex, marriage, etc. from those prevalent today. After a row with Mattheo, Bellafront is on stage alone after he exits at the end of 3.3 , and she says in a reflective soliloquy:

Go thou, my ruin,
The first fall my soul took. By my example
I hope few maidens now will put their heads
Under men’s girdles. Who least trusts is most wise;
Men’s oaths do cast a mist before our eyes.
My best of wit be ready! Now I go
By some device to greet Hippolito.
(TLN 1694-700)

This speech clearly looks back at the time when Mattheo seduced her. When Bellafront says ‘Who least trusts is most wise; / Men’s oaths do cast a mist before our eyes’ (TLN 1697-98), she obviously alludes to a promise of marriage Mattheo made but did not keep. In the previous sentence she expresses the hope that she will provide an example to those who are currently maidens not to lose their maidenheads to unreliable men. The ‘first fall’ (TLN 1695) which her soul took refers to her sexual fall which was also a fall of the soul as it was not legitimised by a proper relationship: it should have occurred within marriage, or else at the least should have been followed by that. It has turned out to be the first of many sinful falls which have damaged her soul.

A very important point here is that although sex was seen as in theory appropriate within marriage alone, a ‘fallen’ woman could redeem herself by marriage, especially if the husband was the person who deflowered her. In this respect Mattheo throughout most of 1 The Honest Whore has a unique status in Bellafront’s eyes: he is the person to whom she should have been married when she lost her virginity, or, as a second-best alternative, who should have made her his legitimate wife after the act of seduction. Hence, a little earlier, she reminds Mattheo in TLN 1665-66: ‘you were the first / Gave money for my soul’ (i.e. ‘instead of marrying me’). He thus, by refusing to marry her as a fallen woman, and to provide for her, placed her on the path of prostitution. This does not mean that Bellafront is not herself culpable, but that a major portion of the guilt lies on Mattheo’s shoulders. As she says: ‘I was led / By your temptation to be miserable’ (TLN 1667-68). Accordingly, and particularly because she has now chosen the path of virtue as a convert, she asks him: ‘For all your wrongs / Will you vouchsafe me but due recompense, / To marry with me?’ (TLN 1684-86).

His answer is staggering: ‘How, marry with a punk, a cockatrice, a harlot?’ (TLN 1687-88). This is not the sole time that this type of exchange between them occurs. Invariably, he rejects her as unworthy, because she is a prostitute. At no time does it occur to him that her becoming so was largely his doing. He flatly rejects any responsibility, and staunchly maintains that the one at fault is only she.

50Critics at times seem to see Bellafront’s attitude after her conversion as strangely hesitant or inconsistent, thinking that, quite illogically, she cannot choose between Hippolito and Mattheo. In fact, however, the situation is quite straightforward, and her attitude is perfectly proper. Originally, if Mattheo had been a decent person, she would have become his wife. As he left her in the lurch, she no longer has any responsibility of loyalty towards him, and he cannot possibly blame her for becoming a whore, as he himself has strongly influenced that outcome. When she meets Hippolito, she does hope to establish a loyal relationship with him, but he rejects her, though he does convert her. Transformed, and opting for decency, Bellafront logically turns to Mattheo to ask him to get married to her. Not only does he have that moral duty anyway, but there is the more reason for him to do so once she is no longer a whore, and his calling her that does not make her so. As he rejects her, she then decides, at the end of 3.3 , to approach Hippolito as a potential partner.

At the beginning of Act 4 , we find Hippolito meditating upon Infelice, a skull, and death. Both the situation and the language used remind us, in a very theatrical way, of Hamlet. Hippolito’s earlier decision, in Act 2 , to avoid Bellafront, with her vibrancy and love, is clearly paralleled here not only by his fascination with a picture of Infelice (whom he believes to be dead), but yet more so by his arriving at the conclusion that ultimately a skull offers a more important reality than a portrait. Death, he feels, is ultimately ‘the best painter’ (TLN 1786), creating something which lasts in the form of pictures ‘without colour’ (TLN 1790). A person preoccupied with thoughts of this kind is hardly in a mood to enjoy what is about to happen. Bellafront has decided to visit him, disguised as a page. As happens often in Shakespeare’s plays, such a step on the part of a woman suggests initiative and an admirable ability to display ‘male’ as well as ‘female’ qualities, but Hippolito’s reaction is extremely negative once Bellafront reveals herself. All he can do is rebuke her for disturbing him while he was moving to heaven and Infelice ‘on meditation’s spotless wings’ (TLN 1856).

Accordingly, Bellafront, the former whore who has now embraced a new way of life, finds herself rejected by the two men who in their different ways are of crucial importance to her as potential partners: Mattheo and Hippolito. As she no longer earns any money, she contemplates returning to her father, to remove the anger which he has felt towards her since she became a whore: ‘He cannot sure but joy, seeing me new born’ (TLN 1910). She does not implement this plan, which has led many to believe that Dekker intended a different sequel from the one he came to write. I see the matter differently: I believe we are to conclude that, in Dekker’s view, Bellafront momentarily contemplates the plan, but abandons it in order to seek a way of compelling Mattheo to marry her.

By the end of Act 4 , we know that Hippolito and Infelice are to be married at Bethlem Monastery (which is also a hospital for mad people). News of this gets out, because Mattheo (who is close to Hippolito) tells others about it. Early in Act 5 , Castruccio informs the Duke of the marriage, in the presence of a great many people. Obviously it is reasonable for the audience to assume that Bellafront, too, knows of this planned wedding; Mattheo is in fact with Hippolito and Infelice when these two plead (at the beginning of 5.2 ) with Father Anselmo to tie the wedding-knot. What Bellafront needs to find is a ruse that enables her to trap Mattheo. She does this by posing as a mad woman. This disguise is appropriate in a mental hospital and enables her to move around with ease, unrecognised by most, at a time when various people, including the Duke, the young married couple, and others, are all together in the same place. She manages to present herself as a fortune-teller, and, in public, tells the Duke that she had a fine jewel once, which was stolen by Mattheo. Queried by the Duke, she explains that the jewel was her maidenhead. As a result, the Duke orders Mattheo to marry her. Mattheo obeys this command, though with considerable reluctance, the consequences of which we shall see in 2 The Honest Whore.

However, Bellafront has achieved her goal. While at the end of 4.1 she was a reformed woman without a man to support her, she will now get married to the man who originally promised to be her husband but deceived her. Thus the potential for tragedy that existed at the time when she was a whore, and after that when she seemed doomed to a friendless existence, has been removed to make place for an apparently happy ending which is, in terms of genre, fitting for a comedy. Her status will, at least in theory, be that of a respectably married woman. As she says: ‘Mattheo, thou first mad’st me black; now make me / White as before. I vow to thee, I’m now / As chaste as infancy, pure as Cynthia’s brow’ (TLN 2866-68). Thus we are offered a practical, satisfactory ending to a plot which, deriving ultimately from the tradition of morality plays, is concerned with weighty moral issues and choices. Bellafront, in particular, is a highly moral character, who inherently carries Dekker’s ‘bourgeois’ approval. The plot does not use such morality abstractions as the ‘Vice’, but presents characters that seem to me to be constructed as in the main realistic and psychologically convincing. Inasmuch as we see Bellafront falling in love with Hippolito there is a potentially romantic component, but at the end that has made way for her very ‘realistic’ marriage to Mattheo. To the extent that this ending is happy, this moral plot has to be seen as appropriate for a comedy.