The Honest Whore, Parts I and II

by Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker
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Further Critical Evaluation of the Work, Part 2 (Masterplots)

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531

THE HONEST WHORE, PART TWO, continues in a more realistic, indeed often cynical fashion the story of THE HONEST WHORE, PART ONE. As is true of many literary sequels, in the second play Dekker changes his concept of the characters in order to satisfy the demands of his different plot. In PART ONE, Count Hippolito was the melancholy but faithful lover of Infelice; Gasparo Trebazzi was the inflexible father-tyrant who crossed the young lovers until the concluding scene; and Bellafront was the whore reformed through her unrequited but pure love for Hippolito. In PART TWO Hippolito, now married to Infelice, is no longer the melancholy saint of love: “turned ranger,” his passions are roused by Bellafront’s beauty; Gasparo is judicious instead of rancorous; and Bellafront is a model of wifely virtue, deaf to Hippolito’s seductive entreaties. Only Candido, the patient linen draper, remains quite the same in both plays. His “humor”—an exaggerated meekness and forbearance—is tested by his young skittish bride (his former wife Viola, the shrew, having fortunately expired), by pranksters, a bawd, a pander, and by assorted whores and knaves at Bridewell prison. The single important new character, Orlando Friscobaldo, who is Bellafront’s father, is intended to arouse in the audience sentimental affection, but his meretricious disguise and mean intrigues serve only to make his motivation appear inconsistent, and he is ultimately unsympathetic.

To be sure, the major difference between the plays is the change from romantic tragi-comedy approaching comedy of humors in PART ONE to tragi-comic realism in PART TWO. So far as we can judge from what remains of Dekker’s many plays, the author’s talents would not appear to run toward authentic tragedy. He is at his best with comic scenes of London lower class or lower-middle class life. In PART TWO, he is most convincing when he treats Candido in the linen shop, fretted by apprentices; or when he brings all his characters, in the final scene, to Bridewell Prison. Like the conclusion of PART ONE in Bethlem Monastery (a madhouse), the Bridewell scene is vivid with caricatures of the denizens of London’s sordid underworld. Unlike such dramatists as Marston, Chapman, or Jonson, who often flail these wretched creatures with indignant satire, Dekker sees them as amusing although pitiful. His humanity rather than moral power is most clearly displayed in the play.

In the character of Matheo, Dekker’s failure in moral vision seriously weakens the otherwise happy ending. In PART ONE, Matheo was a minor figure, a friend of the count. In PART TWO, as Bellafront’s husband, he is an evil, scheming, luxurious brute. Contrasted to Hippolito’s amateur philandering, Matheo’s studied lust and depravity are the greater vices. Yet Matheo is pardoned at the end, thanks to the intercession of Bellafront, who dutifully forgives her husband. Thus the patient generosity of the wife nearly matches the patience of Candido. Nevertheless, for modern audiences, Bellafront sacrifices too much of her self-respect for her worthless spouse; his reformation, it would seem, is only temporary, and he is likely to abuse her afterward—a destiny that any woman, even an “honest whore,” should not have to endure.

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Further Critical Evaluation of the Work, Part 1 (Masterplots)