Questions of Genre

10The general tendency is to view 1 and 2 The Honest Whore (either together or as separate plays) as belonging to the genre of ‘city comedy’. In a loose kind of way, the term works well enough as indicating something like ‘a comedy portraying life in the city of London’. Douglas Bruster points out that R.C. Bald appears to have been the first person to use the term ‘city comedy’, in 1934.[7] Many readers will not find themselves surprised to see Jean E. Howard write the following in a distinguished essay about 1 and 2 The Honest Whore (which she defensibly refers to as, in effect, one play, The Honest Whore). She lists, in addition to The Honest Whore, plays like Measure for Measure, Westward Ho, etc., and remarks:

The genre of city comedy to which these plays belonged became popular after 1598 [when William Haughton’s Englishmen for my Money appeared] for its depiction of urban life, especially the life of England’s own burgeoning metropolis, London. Rather than highlighting the aristocratic figures who dominate the main plots of tragedy and of historical drama, city comedy focuses attention on merchants and shopkeepers, their wives and apprentices, along with city gallants and the occasional court figure or low-life type such as the prostitute or canting rogue.[8]

In general, with perhaps some minor reservations, one can see 1 and 2 The Honest Whore as fitting Howard’s description well enough. Her definition is a fairly broad one of subject matter, and usefully excludes authorial attitudes. To many people, however, ‘city comedy’ means something more specific, and, one would have to say, more narrow. Bruster, with justification, observes that it was in 1968, and as a result of Brian Gibbons’s ‘highly influential Jacobean City Comedy, that “city comedy” earned official status as a Renaissance subgenre.’ He goes on to state that in his study Gibbons insists that ‘City Comedy may be seen as a distinct dramatic genre with a recognizable form and conventions of theme, setting and characterization’, and that ‘the plays are all satiric and have urban settings, with characters and incidents appropriate to such settings; they exclude material appropriate to romance, fairy tale, sentimental legend or patriotic chronicle’. Bruster also mentions that one of Gibbons’s primary goals was ‘to show that the dramatists of Jacobean City Comedy articulated a radical critique of their Age’.[9]

It will be seen that in comparison with Howard’s definition, Gibbons’s does not fit 1 and 2 The Honest Whore, and it is therefore not surprising that these plays are not included in his book. They are not in any significant sense satiric, and they do include material appropriate to romance: indeed, of the three plots in 1 The Honest Whore, one may appropriately be designated as romantic. There is no doubt that there is a group of plays that can with great accuracy be described in the terms which Gibbons uses, and there is an excellent match between his definition and his examples. To him, Jonson, Middleton, and Marston are the writers who produced city comedy. A difficulty that has nevertheless in practice arisen – to some extent, at any rate – is that, as we can see, different critics do not use the term ‘city comedy’ in one and the same way. Even Howard’s definition poses somewhat of a problem for the first Honest Whore play, in that the romantic plot does include aristocrats. While in Part 2 a romantic component is much less prominent, both the Duke and Hippolito (who plays a major part) are aristocrats, and to that extent are not typical of ‘city comedy’.

Or, one may add, of ‘citizen comedy’. This was a term introduced by Alexander Leggatt, writing a little later than Gibbons.[10] In general, Leggatt’s concept of ‘citizen comedy’ includes more than does Gibbons’s definition of ‘city comedy’. Thus Leggatt presents material on 1 and 2 The Honest Whore in his Citizen Comedy (1973), as well as in his later Jacobean Public Theatre (1992), which in theory can include any play, such as 1 and 2 The Honest Whore, which is Jacobean and belongs to the world of the public as distinct from the private theatre. His work on the Honest Whore plays, in both books, is excellent.

In his earlier book, Leggatt explains that by ‘citizen comedy’ he means primarily ‘comedy set in a predominantly middle-class social milieu’.[11] For the most part, 1 and 2 The Honest Whore fit this criterion, especially because Leggatt’s concept of ‘the middle class’ is quite broad (including even gallants). Once again a problem is that our plays do include the aristocracy: however, Leggatt evidently sees the aristocracy as not having a very central role in these plays, and that view is perhaps not unreasonable. A very minor problem is that Milan (the setting for our plays) is not London, but the presence of the Bedlam and Bridewell scenes points to London, and in many other important respects ‘Milan’ is in effect equivalent to ‘London’. Dekker takes great delight in offering us scenes that very clearly suggest, in a supposedly ‘realistic’ manner, the vibrancy of London city life as he knows it.

15Leggatt insists far less on the satiric as a ‘marker’ than does Gibbons. He does include 1 and 2 The Honest Whore among his citizen comedies. In general, he takes a commendable interest in a number of comedies which end up in a neglected zone if we classify as ‘comedies’, during this period, only plays that are either (a) Shakespearean and seen as ‘romantic’, or (b) non-Shakespearean and considered ‘satiric’. The late morality tradition, associated with the public theatre, is also given more attention by Leggatt. Thus his public theatre plays do not only include Ben Jonson’s satiric plays, but also an interesting group of quite different plays to which 2 The Honest Whore in many ways belongs.

As Leggatt explains, the smaller private theatres between 1604 and 1611 feature racy comedies in which satire, sex and financial intrigue are the main ingredients. These are typically the kind of plays, along with those by Ben Jonson, which Gibbons sees as ‘city comedies’. The public theatre ‘citizen’ comedies, which catered for large audiences, are fewer in number but offer a distinctive and separate development. For example, when they comment on society they do not use a sardonic manner, but such direct statements as we associate with the moralities.[12] Inasmuch as 1 The Honest Whore has a link with this genre of comedies we may note that, in tune with the tradition, Hippolito lectures Bellafront in a blunt moralistic manner, without satire. He does not show the slickness of a sardonic gallant, and the tone is serious rather than one of wit.

This group of public theatre plays features action so arranged as to teach an erring protagonist – usually a prodigal, like Mattheo in 2 The Honest Whore – the error of his ways and to bring him to a morally proper frame of mind. In fact, in 1 The Honest Whore Bellafront can, I would tentatively suggest, be viewed as, to an extent, a female equivalent, in being an extravagant sinner, and in need of similar correction: she is converted, and permanently so. Alexander Leggatt discovers, in plays like these, a debt to the continental and ancient prodigal tradition, which was not only concerned with e.g. lavish spending, but dissolute behaviour in general: it included bawds, for example, as well as those who behave like the prodigal son in the Bible. Thus the tradition of ‘New Comedy’, that of Plautus and Terence, had a strong influence on Renaissance prodigal plays.[13]

A further important point that distinguishes this group is that the moral basis of the play is usually very clear, and often explicit: the faults of Bellafront and Mattheo are quite obvious, explained at length, and we are left in no doubt as to how they should behave. Some of the plays in this group are How a Man May Choose a Good Wife From a Bad (c.1602), The Fair Maid of Bristow (c.1604) and The London Prodigal (also c.1604). As Leggatt points out, ‘the moral earnestness, and the grave dangers which some of the characters run, produce a seriousness of tone that takes us, at times, close to domestic tragedy; indeed, these plays have sometimes been called tragicomedies.’[14]

It is interesting to note that, before Citizen Comedy was written, Michael Manheim had already, in 1965, drawn attention to the same three relatively unknown plays as having kinship with 2 The Honest Whore. He sees the period of this type of (very popular) domestic comedies – a term which he himself uses – as extending from around 1600 to 1608. They contrast seeming and actual virtue, chiefly in sexual matters. These comedies use tests to reveal hypocrisy and deceit (which are condemned) and virtue and patience (which are glorified). Perhaps Angelo and Hippolito are guilty of lack of self-knowledge as much as the more serious faults which Manheim justifiably imputes to them. The heroine (Bellafront) is typically a patient and long-suffering wife (in the Patient Grissil tradition). The hero (Mattheo) is a prodigal husband – not necessarily just evil, but irresponsible and incapable of dealing with incredible bad luck (as in gambling). Some of the plays (including 2 The Honest Whore) show us a youth who is overcome with lust for the patient wife (as is obviously true of Hippolito). All three characters are tested: the wife doubly so (by both the prodigal and the would-be lover), and she is the only one who passes the tests. However, at the end (and this does happen in 2 The Honest Whore) the youth and the husband repent.

20A further feature of these plays is at times the presence of a disguised protector, like Orlando, or the Duke in Measure for Measure, who at least in theory guarantees the audience that eventually all will end well. One major trial Bellafront needs to overcome is that men continue to believe that she is a whore long after she has abandoned that calling, and Orlando is instrumental in helping her, finally, to establish a spotless reputation as a redeemed woman.[15]

From what Leggatt and Manheim say, we can conclude how 2 The Honest Whore, at least, fits, as a particular type of drama, into the historical development of English Renaissance plays. It is part of a subgenre of comedies which developed from around 1598 justifiably called ‘city comedies’ or ‘citizen comedies’, although the presence of aristocratic characters makes the example perhaps less than pure in this case. More importantly, however, we can determine that this comedy does not fit the Gibbons mould of city comedy, which is much associated with private theatres (though Jonson wrote for the public stage), but a different branch of city/citizen comedy which may suitably be called ‘domestic comedy’, intended to be performed in a public theatre. Partly, especially if we think of Mattheo as a dominant character, 2 The Honest Whore is of course also a ‘prodigal play’. In addition, it is not at all inappropriate to think of it as a tragicomedy, in that the action much of the time suggests that it is moving towards a tragic conclusion, which is however averted: the ending is definitely that of comedy, characterised by general contentment, harmony and reconciliation. Not, of course, for everyone: for example, Bots is punished for his misdeeds, but such an event is not at all incompatible with the idea of a happy ending for those who are deserving. The Merchant of Venice has a happy ending for the Venetians but not for Shylock, and at the end of Twelfth Night Malvolio exits with the statement ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!’ (Internet Shakespeare EditionsTLN 2548). Even though he may be persuaded to change his mind he is hardly likely to see the outcome of events as, for him, a happy one.

1 The Honest Whore does not fit the category of ‘domestic comedy’ nearly as easily. However, it, too, is a city comedy that belongs to a small group of plays that are not covered by Gibbons’s definition. In this case the element of romance is quite unmistakably present, and the aristocracy definitely plays a part. Also, the play is not satirical. It has a strong grounding in the morality tradition, notably in relation to Bellafront’s conversion, and it is mostly serious in tone, though a farcical element is present in the Candido scenes. The play is not strongly unified in a ‘continental’ fashion: rather, the three plots create a great deal of variety in a way which is often thought of as very ‘English’. It is unmistakably created for the public theatre. Like 2 The Honest Whore it does offer an element of tragicomedy, in that at various points there is the seeming danger of a tragic development, but, again like 2 The Honest Whore, the ending offers an image of reconciliation, harmony, and hope. I now turn to a more detailed consideration of the two plays.[16]