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Shakespeare among the Courtesans: Prostitution, Literature, and Drama,1500-1600.

Shakespeare among the Courtesans: Prostitution, Literature, and Drama, 1500-1600, by Duncan Salkeld. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. Pp. 206 + xiv. Hardback $99.95.


Courtesans have long exerted a powerful hold on the imagination. Associated with glamor and wit, they evoke a charged aesthetic power; as Duncan Salkeld writes, "The myth of the courtesan is that she transforms sex into art" (6). To many, their associations with autonomy, wealth, and influence over powerful men also suggest possible alternative models for female agency. Yet as Salkeld demonstrates in this richly researched monograph, historical realities fell far from these exalted visions: "the Renaissance was no golden age for courtesans" (20). Rarely fully distinct from either struggling prostitutes or passive victims of sexual exploitation, courtesans led contingent and unstable lives, and often tumbled quickly from the top of Fortune's wheel to its lowest rungs.

Salkeld resists framing his book as a broader cultural history of the Renaissance courtesan, undertaking instead "a series of studies--combining close reading with micro-historical enquiry--that seeks to identify shifting, often very ambivalent literary and social attitudes towards such women, and to locate aspects of Shakespeare's work within that context" (20). These studies have roots in a wide array of sources, from Italy as well as England. historical archives as well as imaginative fiction, drama as well as prose. After an Opening exploration of the myth of the courtesan, drawn from classical cultural and literary figures, the book includes chapters on the identification of lechery with syphilis in early English plays; sexual commerce and its consequences in London and Italy; English and Italian pornographic writings; dramatic representations of courtesans; and particular London courtesans who may have been personally known to Shakespeare and his contemporary playwrights. Throughout the book. Salkeld focuses on developing local insights from specific sources, while linking their stories to his broader claim that "the prevailing literary myth of the dramatic courtesan by and large departed from the historical reality of women's lives at the time" (15.8).

This book will be of considerable interest, to students as well as specialists. Much of Salkeld's terrain is uncharted, and his impressive array of archival findings produces compelling glimpses into untold London lives, as well as some intriguing readings of familiar works. Exploring records that suggest Shakespeare's probable familiarity with a Clerkenwell prostitute known as "Lucy Negro" or "Black Luce" leads Salkeld into a fascinating account of the charged light and dark imagery linked with Shakespeare's depictions of characters named Luciana, Luce, and Courtesan in Comedy of Errors: it also fosters a renewed argument for Black Luce's identity as the Dark Lady of the sonnets. In a discussion of Bellamira, in Marlowe's Jew of Malta, Ithamore's offhand reference to knowing a courtesan by her attire give rise to a wealth of archival documentation attesting to the affinity between courtesans and taffeta, including the colorful case of a "Taffety Meg" prosecuted for lewd behavior (111). As Salkeld demonstrates, onstage references to taffeta take on rich meanings in light of this association.

Salkeld has a good eye for these mutually illuminating conversations between dramatic and historic texts, and the resulting insights support his fervent defense of an "archival turn' in early modern studies" (158), which he defends against skepticism towards "historical facts ... from those who see them as naive, reactionary and--perhaps worst of all--'old historicist'" (157). His commitment to his archival evidence is impressive, and yields satisfying discoveries. Yet at times more guidance through this material would be welcome. There is room for more discussion about linking together elite courtesans and struggling prostitutes (Salkeld writes that "the distinction should no longer distract us" [23]), as well as the relationship of both groups with women who seem to have willingly bedded men on the illusory promise of marriage. Some of the latter uncannily evoke Shakespearean heroines in their attempts to pursue their men; a 1606 legal clerk's records tell of one Frances Hudson, "beinge with childe by John Goulser dutchman and as she sayeth is gone away by Sea. And afterwards she put her self in mans apparel and so would have followed him" (60). This astonishing fragment of a story raises fascinating questions about the imaginative possibilities explored by ingenious and desperate women, but without further context it is not clear that it illustrates the London sex trade. Here, as elsewhere, Salkeld's horizon moves beyond courtesans and sexual commerce towards a larger interest in the instability of women's lives in the period, and especially the hazards resulting from female sexual experience. This is compelling territory, but its contours would benefit from more specific sign-posting.

The book's widely ranging material leaves other questions unanswered as well. Although Salkeld discusses both Italy and England, he largely resists drawing distinctions between courtesan culture in the two countries, suggesting instead that "At the most general level, we can assume that what went on in Italy similarly went on in England despite the different cultural and historical conditions that prevailed" (66-67). Salkeld's accounts of sexual traffic in and between the two countries certainly make a case for reciprocity, but more detail here would be useful. Similarly, relationships between dramatic and real characters are at times blurred. Arguing that The Spanish Tragedy's Bel-Imperia is modeled after a notorious Roman courtesan nicknamed Imperia, Salkeld asserts, "Kyd was the first early English dramatist to present a real prostitute on the Renaissance stage" (100). Imperia's shadow offers a provocative context for reading Kyd's depiction of a passionate and assertive female protagonist, but the aristocratic Bel-Imperia is not a literal prostitute, and her relationship to a possible namesake must be more complex than this formulation allows. The connections that Salkeld draws are suggestive enough to deserve attention without being forced into artificial equivalences; as he observes, the historical and literary will not always align" (158). Yet despite moments that would benefit from more nuanced analysis, Salkeld's extensive research and productive reflections make for rewarding reading. With its excavations of invisible lives and thoughtful attention to their literary resonances, this book is a substantial achievement.
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Author:Pollard, Tanya
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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