Chastity and Virtue in The Honest Whore

Thomas Middleton

Thomas Middleton

The Honest Whore Part 1 and 2 are a pair of Jacobean city comedies that work in concert to underline the hypocrisy of patriarchal standards of chastity; a system that demonizes women who are perceived as unchaste, while men who fail to practice abstinence face no social stigmatization and are indeed seen as the norm.  The first part, co-authored by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton (the writing team that also authored The Roaring Girl, which indulged in similar themes) in an insular play that sees the title character make too brief an appearance in the play, whilst the second part, attributed solely to Dekker, serves as a companion piece that reverses many of the roles from the first play.  Together, the two plays do well in demonstrating that chastity does not define virtue and that there exists and unreasonable double standard regarding sex in the era.

 

Thomas Dekker

Thomas Dekker

The first part starts off rather slow and seems to be a comedic imitation of Romeo and Juliet.  Two lovers from rival families, Infelice and Hippolito, fall in love.  Infelice, like Juliet, has a faux death brought on by a sleeping potion introduced by a doctor.  The difference is that her father induced this death-like state that her beloved might believe her dead and marry another.  A side story is introduced where middle-class business man, Candido, exemplifies patience and his wife is for some inexplicable reason frustrated by this and wishes to inspire anger in him, as do other in the play (a theme that is carried on to ill effect in the second play).  The ‘Honest Whore’ is not actually introduced until the second act!  I’m not sure about most readers, but if I’m reading a play titled “The Honest Whore”, I expect to see the “Honest Whore” sometime in the first act!

 

 

Jodie Foster as Iris in "Taxi Driver"  Foster plays an "Honest Whore" of sorts who has her chastity.

Jodie Foster as Iris in “Taxi Driver” Foster plays an “Honest Whore” of sorts who has her chastity.

Bellafront, the sex worker in question, is introduced as she agrees to a meeting in the evening with a group of men.  She is described by one client as ‘the prettiest, kindest, sweetest, most bewitching, honest ape under the pole”.  It is interesting that she is described as honest, despite being a sex worker; this allows her to display virtue despite her lack of chastity.   What is problematic is that she is also referred to as an ape.  This happens a number of times when the men of the play either objectify Bellafront, or use rhetoric that aligns her with the animal world.  We find though that when left alone with Hippolito, Bellafront finds her world view challenged by a man who does not seek to exploit her.  He is insulting, but he also notes that the sin present in her comes from the men who use her.  He states that her “body/ Is like the common-shore, that still receives/ All the town’s filth.  The sin of many men” (2.1.410-41), Hippolito notes, is within her.  It is masculine sin that is within her, not her own.  This is problematic from a feminist perspective in that it removes Bellafront’s autonomy; she is sin free because she cannot commit sin, but at the same time she is absolved of the sin and it is the men who exploit her who are seen as guilty.

 

Havery Keitel (left) as a fictitious pimp Sport in "Taxi Driver", and Heidi Fliess, Hollywood Mada: Dekker suggests, via Bellafront, that it is pandering that is the bigger sin.

Havery Keitel (left) as a fictitious pimp Sport in “Taxi Driver”, and Heidi Fliess, Hollywood Madam: Dekker suggests, via Bellafront, that it is pandering that is the bigger sin.

We see later in the play that the greater sin is that of the panderer or bawd.  When confronting her bawd, Mistress Fingerlock, Bellafront challenges her, claiming that “the whole world contains” (3.2.44) the sin of harlots, but that of all them, it is the panderer who “far exceeds… all the creatures/ That ever were created” (46-47) in baseness.  Fingerlock lives on “the dregs of harlots” (50).  This seems to be a sentiment echoed by George Bernard Shaw in his play Mrs. Warren’s Profession, where Mrs. Warren’s daughter, who begins to learn of her mother’s past, is understanding of her career as a sex worker, but what she takes issue with is how her mother graduated to panderer.  She, like Bellafront, sees the exploitation of women as the greater sin.  This is drawn out in part 2 as well where Bellafront speaks to how she was moved by poverty to indulge in the sex trade and how, “when the work of lust had earned [her] bread” (4.1.410), she “trembled, lest each bit… should choke” (411-412) her.  It is clear that Bellafront’s manner of earning a living did not rest well with her conscience, while no such conflict is present in the bawds presented in the two plays

 

Julia Roberts(right) plays another "Honest Whore" whose chastity is restored in "Pretty Woman".

Julia Roberts (right) plays another “Honest Whore” whose chastity is restored in “Pretty Woman“.

What is equally interesting is how Bellafront is presented as non-discriminating.  In a contemporary context, this would seem a flattering portrayal, however, when Hippolito say that Bellafront will “let a Jew get… with Christian/ Be he Moor” (2.1.424-425) or other ethnicity, and goes onto note that she will swallow: “English, Spanish… Dutch,/ Back-door Italian… [and] French”, men, he does not mean it as a compliment.  This scene does demonstrate that Bellafront is lacking the prejudices of the patriarchal system which demonizes her, and though a Jacobean audience likely did not interpret this passage as such, a contemporary audience can see how prejudices are absent in Bellafront and how she is in turn more virtuous that the system that oppresses her.  There is a degree of anti-Semitism in the play as well as Bellafront is Jewish and the subject of some harsh comments as a result. We see parallels between she and Jessica in Merchant of Venice, in that she marries a Christian, but this element of the play is not explored as articulately as it was in Merchant of Venice.

 

 

Monica Bellucci also played an "Honest Whore" in "Shoot Em Up"

Monica Bellucci also played an “Honest Whore” in “Shoot Em Up”

In both part 1 and part 2 we see the hypocrisy of the aristocracy.  The men who are seen as virtuous gentlemen are the ones who are exploiting the sex workers like Bellafront, with no consideration for the wellbeing of the women and often objectify and insult them.  They though, are morally corrupt.  This hypocrisy is strung throughout both plays, but in part 2 it becomes interesting in that the man who sought to restore Bellafront’s chastity in the first part, Hippolito, wishes to strip her of her new-found chastity in part 2.  It seems that when chaste, Hippolito strongly desires a women, but once the chastity is broken, his desire is diluted.  This leads to the most empowering scene of the two plays when Hippolito employs flawed reasoning to convince Bellafront to forgo her commitment to her husband and sleep with him.  After listening and considering his words, Bellafront launches into an argument of her own; one that is well reasoned, articulate and organized and easily trumps Hippolito’s argument (4.1.304-454).  Not only do we see that a woman is presented employing reason stronger than her male counterpart, but she is also the more virtuous of the two characters.

 

The title character of "The Honest Whore" may veyr well be a figurative love child of existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and feminist Virginia Woolf.

The title character of “The Honest Whore” may very well be a figurative love child of existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and feminist Virginia Woolf.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the narrative is its existentialist elements, or perhaps it is fairer to refer to them as proto-existentialist elements since existentialism wasn’t really introduced until the modern period.  The title character, who at the beginning of the play earns her living as a sex-trade worker, rescinds the job and embraces chastity.  She seeks to redefine herself and forgo her past and forge a new identity for herself.  She is met along the way by people who insist on defining her by who she was and not who she is, but we see in her a feminist/existentialist, (or an existfeminalist?) heroine.  She is perhaps the offspring of Jean-Paul Sartre and Virginia Woolf, transported back into Jacobean society.  By the end of the play she is recognized on her own terms and has broken the chains of her past.

 

Helen Mirren, who played "Honest Whore" Beaty Simons in "Hussy"

Helen Mirren, who played “Honest Whore” Beaty Simons in “Hussy

The plays are not entirely entertaining.  There are moments that work very well, but the plays seems disjointed.  Characters change drastically between the two plays.  Candido, whose narrative seems to utterly fail to function in concert with Bellafront’s narrative, lacks in many ways and the character is presented in a different manner the second part. Candido’s wife, Viola, loses her name in the second part of the play and is referred to simply as the ‘bride’.  Hippolito and Bellafront are polar opposites of themselves in the second part.  Where Bellafront strongly desired Hippolito in the first play, she seems indifferent to him in the second, while Hippolito, for his part, seems quite enamoured with her in the second play despite being outwardly disgusted by her in the second.  The second play fails to convince the reader that these changes are anything other than tools meant to serve a narrative function.  As far as plays on sex workers go, I greatly prefer Mrs. Warren’s Profession, though the two plays are very different, not only in narrative form, but also in eras.  I would have liked to see more time invested in Bellafront and a reduction of the secondary narrative, or at least a clearer connection between the two narratives, but overall the two plays complement each other and are not without merit.

Billie Piper stars as "Honest Whore" Belle in "Secret Diary of a Call Girl".  The above poster appropriates itself from the Mel Ramos painting 'Martni Miss'.

Billie Piper stars as “Honest Whore” Belle in “Secret Diary of a Call Girl“. The above poster appropriates itself from the Mel Ramos painting ‘Martni Miss’.

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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