Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

La Négation

Stéphanie Bonnefille
Sébastien Salbayre

Poétique et esthétique : de la négation au négatif

“Neither maid, widow, nor wife”. The prostitute in English Renaissance drama: ostracism through negative definition

Frédérique Fouassier


The prostitute embodies the figure of the unsettling Other par excellence—paradoxically enough, precisely because she is disturbingly similar. She represents, indeed, everything the representatives of the dominant early modern English discourse (i.e. white male Protestant aristocrats or burghers) repress in themselves and try to ignore, that is to say, the physical, the instinctive and the irrational—potentially anarchic forces constantly threatening to overflow. The prostitute puts these men face to face with their “dark side”, with their own contradictions, which they desperately try to hide.
This is the basic paradox that I will explore in my study with reference to a selection of plays, mainly city comedies, in which the prostitute is a character nearly impossible to omit, belonging as she does to the urban landscape. I will particularly focus on the speech of the characters embodying, reporting or parodying the dominant discourse, and of the expressions of negation within this speech.
Since the prostitute is so much within, the dominant discourse obsessively tries to keep her without, and it does so with the aid of negative definition, constructing our character as Other by defining her as “non-“. The paradoxical result of this attitude is the creation of a new category through the exclusion of other categories (one must remember that classifying and labelling constitute the main ways in which the Renaissance mind operates). The only way to designate this unsettling Other who transgresses the boundaries of known and stable categories is to enunciate what she is not.
The prostitute is accordingly first defined as a non-Londoner, and although there were street-walkers within the city, they were repeatedly referred to as dwellers of the suburbs. The geographical exclusion is often extended, and the prostitute portrayed as non-English, but, first, Welsh or Irish, then from continental Europe (France, Italy, the Low Countries), and even from Africa and the Middle-East. The question of the prostitute’s nationality will also lead us to consider the debate over the origins of syphilis, a burning issue at the time. Difference may also extend to religion: the prostitute is recurrently accused of being a Catholic, a Jew, a Muslim, even an atheist, in short, everything but a Protestant. In the most extreme accusatory speeches, our character is even seen as non-human: she is an object or an animal—or, more disturbingly, a witch or a devil.
The prostitute does not fit legal categories either. But does being “neither maid, widow, nor wife” (Measure for Measure, V, i, 180) necessarily come down to being “nothing”? May it not mean, on the contrary, being everything? By pertaining to none of these categories, the prostitute may indeed very well belong to all at the same time. When the heroine at the dénouement of Measure for Measure proclaims her non-identity in these terms, she intends to pose a riddle whose solution will affirm the validity of all these categories. But the play’s voice of subversion interjects an unsuspected and unwanted answer: he suggests that she may indeed be something—namely, a prostitute

Texte intégral

1The prostitute embodies the figure of the unsettling Other par excellence. She personifies everything the representatives of the dominant early modern English discourse (i.e., white male Protestant aristocrats or burghers) repress in themselves and try to ignore, that is to say, the physical, the instinctive and the irrational—potentially anarchic forces constantly threatening to overflow. The prostitute puts these men face to face with their own contradictions, which they desperately try to hide.

2Since the prostitute is so much within, the dominant discourse obsessively tries to keep her outside, and it does so with the aid of the negative definition, constructing our character as Other by defining her as “non-”. The paradoxical result of this attitude is the creation of a new category through the exclusion of other categories. The only way to designate this unsettling Other who transgresses the boundaries of known and stable categories is to enunciate what she is not. This way, the threat the prostitute constitutes to the ideal of a perfectly ordered society seems brushed aside.

3This is the basic paradox that I am going to explore in this study, with reference to a number of plays, mainly city comedies, i.e. a genre very popular at the turn of the century, which castigated citizens’ follies, mainly greed. In these plays, the prostitute is a character nearly impossible to omit, belonging as she does to the urban landscape. In my first section, I will concentrate on the prostitute as “non-”, in terms of geography, religion and humanity. I will then explore more specifically legal categories: if the prostitute is “Neither maid, widow nor wife”, as Lucio says in Measure for Measure (1604), she may be all at the same time—and, in turn, all other women might be prostitutes.

4Since the prostitute does not conform to measures of social and feminine order, she must be immediately identifiable, so that the threat she constitutes can be controlled. As she cannot fit into usual categories, she is defined by what she is not, so that the resort to what is reassuringly known and familiar is still possible. The relentless effort to define our character corresponds to the will both to contain and to keep out what is impossible to grasp.

5This is first realized in terms of space. One witnesses in the history of London a constant desire to keep prostitution out of the city walls. Prostitutes were recurrently referred to as belonging to the suburban space. The “sinfully polluted suburbs”, as Dekker called them in The Wonderful Year (1603), were seen as a place where vice throve; they were thought to gather the scum of society and to be a running sore always on the brink of contaminating the body of London. Hence the allusions in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Dekker’s The First Part of the Honest Whore (1604) to laws ordering that brothels be put down in the suburbs, as James I actually decided in 1603. In Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614), the bawd Ursula defines herself as “a plain plump soft wench o’the suburbs” (II, v, 77-78), and Smithfield as a “purleius” (IV, iv, 199), i.e., a suburb. In The Second Part of King Henry IV (1598) by Shakespeare, Falstaff and Shallow allude to a certain Jane Nightwork, whose name leaves no doubt as to her trade, who worked in St George’s Field near Southwark.

6Another reproach commonly made to the suburbs was that they sheltered a large number of foreigners. The religious troubles in France and the Low Countries had fostered immigration to Britain. Theatre fuels the sense of community, and plays were thus filled with derogatory remarks about strangers. Prostitutes were often identified as foreign, for it was very convenient to stamp vice as coming from somewhere else, in order to avoid questions about its real causes. In Bartholomew Fair, Overdo refers to Ursula with the Biblical phrase “strange woman” (II, iv, 65), thus associating prostitution with alterity. The designation of the prostitute as a stranger can sometimes be limited to the boundaries of the Bristish Isles, and what were seen as their uncouth provinces: in Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (c. 1611-13), we do not even know the courtesan’s name, but we know that she is Welsh; in Bartholomew Fair, the pander Whit is Irish. But the geographical scope can be further extended, and numerous plays present an exotic vice in a more or less remote country (Malta for Marlowe’s Jew of Malta (1589), Italy for The Honest Whore), but there are in them constant references to the relevance of this representation for the contemporary audience. Italy and France were seen as places of lasciviousness and debauchery. Flemish and Dutch brothels were an institution in England, and a guarantee of quality. One cannot but think here of Franceschina, the heroine of Marston’s Dutch Courtesan (1605), whom Freevill calls “Dutch Tanakin” (I, i, 150), the diminutive of Anna, the generic name for Dutch and German women. Far from enhancing Franceschina’s qualities as an exotic, foreign courtesan, Marston’s decision to cast her as Dutch makes her a common whore with a ludicrous accent, a stock scold’s temperament and a lofty attitude. Such choices contribute to the play’s comedy, but severely darken our perception of Franceschina.

7The prostitute’s alterity also operates on the level of religion. She is recurrently designated as non-Christian, and, more specifically, non-Protestant. In The Dutch Courtesan, the word “publican” is used as a synonym for “prostitute” (I, i, 87). When paganism is not concerned, other religions, considered heretical, are alluded to. In The Second Part of the Honest Whore, Turks are referred to (IV, ii, 21), a commonplace to evoke heresy. In The Jew of Malta, the representatives of all creeds are equally vile and abominable, be they Muslim, Jewish or Catholic. The figure of the prostitute allows dramatists to attack the Catholic Church to reinforce the legitimacy of the Protestant dogma. The Catholic clergy is regularly criticized for its debauchery and its venality. But the most recurrent reference to a non-Protestant doctrine is undoubtedly the designation of prostitutes as Jewish. Antisemitism was very common in the Renaissance, more for theological than for racial reasons. Jews and prostitutes shared the function of scapegoat. “Jew” is used several times as a synonym for “prostitute” in The Honest Whore. It is above all in The Jew of Malta that this assimilation occurs, through the character of Abigail, who is engaged in a symbolical relationship of prostitution with her father.

8The process of ostracism striking the prostitute goes one step further when she is defined as non-human. She is often reified in the speech of other characters, a phenomenon aided by the fact that what she has to sell is her own person. When bawds try to sell their employees’ services, they use the techniques of merchants in the marketplace. Act IV, scene ii of Shakespeare’s Pericles (c. 1607-08) is particularly striking in this respect. The bawds try to find customers in order to make up for previous losses, due to their being “too wenchless” (5) and “out of creatures” (7); they must buy “fresh whores” (10), new “stuff” (18). Prostitutes and bawds are compared to a host of objects: a cittern (The Second part of The Honest Whore V, ii, 171), a statue (Measure for Measure III, i, 43), a prize or a trophy (The White Devil by Webster (1612) I, ii, 54; Pericles IV, i, 93). This is also visible in the syntax, since they often have the function of direct objects in sentences, as it is the case for the Welsh courtesan of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. The reification of the prostitute is also effected through the metonymical relationship she has with her clothes: a red petticoat, a waistcoat or a green dress were often enough to stamp a woman as a prostitute, and such clothes also allowed the audience to identify the character immediately on stage.

9When they are not reified, prostitutes lose their humanity by being assimilated to animals. Nearly the whole of the animal kingdom is evoked, but the most common images are those of birds, horses, water animals and cats. Prostitutes are often compared to meat, and bawds to merchants: descriptions of prostitution thus resemble those of meat markets or cattle fairs. Animal images sometimes have a darker, more worrying connotation, especially when they are linked to hunting images, conveying ideas of trapping, treachery and death. These images are often linked to those of dogs and vultures. The White Devil, for instance, is fraught with such allusions.

10When the prostitute’s loss of humanity is at its most extreme, she is placed on the “dark side”, that of the devil and his followers. The construction of our character’s image is all the more easily achieved because of the common archetype of the witch. The comparison of the prostitute to a witch has the enormous asset of removing the guilt from the conscience of men who yield to these temptresses’ power: they cannot be considered responsible for their deeds, since they were bewitched by these devilish creatures, these women “of foul soul”, as Freevill says of Franceschina. After Freevill’s treachery, Franceschina declares: “[there is] no spirit but divla in me” (IV, i, 188). Ursula in Bartholomew Fair is the epitome of the Antéchrist, since, according to Zeal, a caricature of a Puritan preacher, in her, the World, the Devil and the Flesh, i.e. the three enemies of man, are gathered. These creatures are inhabitants of hell, and they threaten to drag men along with them. Obviously, it is their enemies’ discourse that turns these women into witches. They are never seen practising black magic on stage. According to the Jungian analysis of witches, these creatures exist much more in the imagination than in fact. Men who see witches everywhere have not made peace with Woman in the world, the family or themselves. The “witch” is above all a woman defying the role attributed to her by nature, or rather, what men have decided to be nature.

11The following dialogue involving the Duke, Mariana and Lucio in Measure for Measure (V, i, 171-80) perfectly illustrates the fundamental problem of the categorization of the prostitute:

Duke: What, are you married?
Mariana: No, my lord.
Duke: Are you a maid?
Mariana: No, my lord.
Duke: A widow, then?
Mariana: Neither, my lord.
Duke: Why, you are nothing then. Neither maid, widow, nor wife?
Lucio: My lord, she may be a punk. For many of them are neither maid, widow nor wife.

12As this conversation illustrates, there is no legal category in which to place the prostitute. She can only be defined by what she is not. Women are systematically put into categories, and each role has economic, social and moral implications. Chastity sanctions order not only in the family, but also in society and in the State. Hence the highly problematic status of the prostitute. Her status as an outsider exemplifies the problem of gender roles, and especially of the frequent identification of women with forces threatening or questioning patriarchal power structures. As Catherine Belsey points out, the insistence on meaning as single and fixed is a way of reaffirming existing values. This is exactly what the dominant discourse tries to do with the prostitute. But the insistence on order always speaks the other and more troubled scenario it is designed to exclude.

13Being neither maid, widow nor wife is a paradox crucial to Measure for Measure. In the Renaissance, marriage constituted a woman’s vocation, and her chastity the patriarchal family’s basic virtue. The structural organization of Measure for Measure’s latter part is directed at reinstating Mariana within the parameters of permitted sexual relationships. Indeed, she threatens order because she disrupts the paradigm crucial to the legal conception of woman, but also because sexually, she occupies the position of wife, since she has had only one sexual partner, and, what is more, a legal one (Angelo had solemnly promised to marry her). At the end of the play, the duke shows a strong will to reincorporate characters who were on the margins, especially those epitomizing the subversive eschewing of marriage: the nun and the whore. The female typography established by the play is made up of five, not three, categories. This shows that the legal definition of women is far from being obvious, and in this light the categories appear somewhat arbitrary. Their boundaries are not hermetic, and they all seem to blur. So that in the end, the whore may not be “nothing”. She is perhaps, on the contrary, “everything”; in the patriarchal logic, all women may appear as whores. While institutions tried to identify and control sexual transgression as a threat exterior to existing moral, social and economic structures and practices, that threat often proved difficult to distinguish from otherwise acceptable behaviour, like courting and flirtation.

14Mariana comes across as a sexual monster, outside the matrix of normal social roles. She kneels down as if she were a culprit, whereas she has been perfectly chaste, silent and obedient. Though the list of female roles mentioned by the duke may seem exhaustive, Lucio points out a further option, the prostitute, which may be lurking behind the veil that Mariana is wearing to conceal her identity. What is more, the social indeterminacy of her relationship with Angelo contradicts the duke’s presumption that the categories he has mentioned are mutually exclusive. Measure for Measure’s female characters apparently elude tidy, conventional, male-oriented categories. They resist contanining and defining strategies by occupying the overlapping and contested gaps between virgin and wife, between wife and whore. In Shakespeare’s Vienna, sexuality is rampant, and wives are referred to in the same terms as whores. Juliet’s intermediate marital status may have no fixed name, but her pregnant body indicates a sexuality marring her reputation. She is neither maid nor wife, yet she is in danger of becoming a widow. The virgin Isabella is on her way to becoming a wife, a status that will cancel the threat constituted by her very lack of sexuality. In these conditions, the virgin and the whore appear as two sides of the same coin. The image of femininity is cleft in two in the play, split between degradation and idealization. But these two images, far from being exclusive, are aspects of one and the same reality. This is exemplified by the figure of Isabella. This immaculate woman provokes violent desire in Angelo, and her refusing to submit to it makes her as unsettling as the one doing so with excessive haste. Under Angelo’s gaze, the nun is transformed into a sexually provocative woman. Kate Keepdown, the play’s only professional whore, is thematically present at the end, and this suggests that women are all vile whores in potentia. Beneath the reassuring exercise of law and justice, one perceives the mock trial of women characters, demonstrating that even virgin novices and patient Griseldas may turn whores. The virgin and the wife, the novice and the whore are all collapsed into one figure, a phenomenon aided by the fact that all kinds of feminine transgression are cast in the language of whoredom. What is more, the action of the play revolves around the notorious bed-trick, representing women as physically exchangeable commodities.

15Throughout the play, the normative category of wife, the middle term of the system, is unstable and challenged. Mistress Elbow is the only legal wife in Measure for Measure, but she never appears on stage. She is only referred to as a pregnant wife, whose desire for stewed prunes led her into a brothel, which makes her sexuality questionable. At the end of the play, Mariana, Juliet, Isabella and Kate Keepdown all get married. But these are different from the typical happy marriages one gets at the end of comedies: they are what one may call “amendment” marriages. Such a resolution appears fictive.

16Other plays, notably those of Jonson and Middleton, go further in the blurring of female categories, to the point that prostitution merges with other more acceptable social behaviour, such as arranged marriages. Prostitution for Jonson falls into a general class of vicious and incontinent behaviour, and he does not single it out as an especially gross scandal. In conventional Renaissance comedy, the whore has a polar opposite in the virtuous woman the hero eventually marries. But the similarities between Jonson’s whores and his middle-class women are more obvious than their differences. Middleton’s comedies also illustrate the Jacobean playwrights’ tendency to diminish the courtesan’s role while transferring her whorish qualities to women pretending to respectability. Yet the dramatists’ position is far from being completely clear, and city comedies often contain speeches denouncing the prostitute for her sexual licentiousness and end with her reformatory marriage, thus creating a tension in their message.

17Purveyors of the dominant discourse make great efforts to keep the prostitute out of their world; by referring to what they know, they define her as “non-”, to make sure she remains at a safe distance and does not bring them face to face with their dark side, that part of themselves repressed by Judeo-Christian morality and the need for an ordered society. But since the prostitute represents a constitutive element of man, attempts to construct her as “Other” are doomed to failure, mainly because of the hypocrisy underlying the dominant discourse’s attitude. Geographical boundaries such as the city walls turn out to be porous, and all social classes are in fact involved in prostitution. As Lucio states in Measure for Measure, fornication is impossible to eradicate because it belongs to instinct. Of course, the treatment of the character varies according to playwrights; if the condemnation of the prostitute is carried out in a very serious and solemn way in the plays of Wager, Webster, Dekker and Shakespeare, the ridicule of the characters uttering such condemnation in Jonson and Middleton cannot but make the audience wonder about its truth. It is then only a small step for the magnified Other the prostitute embodies to become a scapegoat, as it is very easy for the dominant discourse to unload onto her the responsibility for all the ills of the times.



Blakemore Evans G., ed., The Riverside Shakespeare, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Burford E. J., Bawds and Lodgings. A History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100 –1675, London, Peter Owen, 1976.

Desmet Christy, “‘Neither Maid, Widow, nor Wife’: Rhetoric of the Woman Controversy in Measure for Measure and The Duchess of Malfi” in Kehler, Dorothea and Susan Baker, eds., In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, London, The Scarecrow Press Inc., 1991, 71-92.

Digangi Mario, “Pleasure and Danger: Measuring Female Sexuality in Measure for Measure, ELH, 60:3, 1993, 589-609.

Fiedler Leslie Α., The Stranger in Shakespeare, Frogmore, St Albans, Paladin, 1972.

Hillman Richard, William Shakespeare. The Problem Plays, New York, Twayne, 1993.

Howard Jean E., “Prostitutes, Shopkeepers, and the Staging of Urban Subjects in The Honest Whore”, The Elizabethan Theatre XV: Papers Given at the International Conferences Held at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, in the 1990’s, 2002, 161-79.

Jonson Ben, Bartholomew Fair, Manchester, Manchester UP, 1960.

Marlowe Christopher, The Jew of Malta, Manchester, Manchester UP 1978.

Marston John, The Dutch Courtesan, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

McLuskie Kathleen, “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure” “in Dollimore Jonathan, ed., Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, Manchester, Manchester UP, 1985, 88-108.

Middleton Thomas, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, London, Ernest Benn Ltd, 1968.

Riefer Marcia, “‘Instruments of Some More Mightier Member’: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare Quarterly 35, 1984, 157-69.

Webster John, The White Devil, London, Ernest Benn Ltd, 1966.


Has just completed her PhD on the representations of female transgression on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage at the Centre des Etudes Supérieures de la Renaissance in Tours. She teaches translation and English literature at the English department of the University of Tours. She was awarded a prize from the Société Française Shakespeare for her MA dissertation on the Renaissance female theatre audience in 2000 and got the agrégation in 2001, after a year spent as a teaching assistant at the French department of the University of Bristol, UK

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2006

Conditions d’utilisation :


Volume papier