Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One has one of my favourite courtesans. The dynamics of the relationship between Middleton’s Courtesan (as she is named) and the prodigal Witgood are almost identical to those between Freevill and Franceschina in The Dutch Courtesan. As both plays open, the men are attempting to “break up” with their courtesans. But the Witgood-Courtesan relationship remains amicable and the play itself ends in a relatively happy way with two marriages. A Trick to Catch the Old One‘s happy end seems to depend on both Witgood and the Courtesan holding the same ideas of the latter’s social value. From the very first act the Courtesan mostly accepts that — when it comes to marriage — she does not possess the same social or economic value as a chaste maid like Joyce. She does express dismay when Witgood decides to leave her in order to get married, and points out the obligation he owes her: “I have been true unto your pleasure and all your lands / thrice wracked, was never worth the jewel which I prodigally gave you, my virginity” (1.1.34-36). Middleton’s Courtesan differs from Franceschina, however, in that she is more upset by the fact that Witgood has lowered her social value and now intends to leave her (in contrast, Franceschina is mainly upset that Freevill does not love her).
The Courtesan and Witgood each seem to understand that because they are both in an economically disadvantageous position, their relationship cannot extend much beyond sex and friendship. The Courtesan does acknowledge Witgood’s initial tactless accusation that he has spent all his money on her, conceding that “I have been the secret consumption of thy purse” (42). Both the Courtesan and Witgood seem to understand that the Courtesan can only represent a financial loss for Witgood, and that she will not bestow the same levels of fortune or social respectability on Freevill that Joyce will; conversely, the prodigal Witgood cannot bestow the same economic security on the Courtesan that the ageing Hoard can. Despite recognising the limits of the Courtesan’s social and economic value, however, both chracters also understand — as Freevill decidely does not — that these limits do not mean she can or should be easily discarded — any more than Witgood himself should be discarded by his uncle. Witgood accepts her argument that “I do thee wrong / To make thee sin and then chide thee for’t” (38-39). He also recognises that the Courtesan is clever, and that his schemes to obtain both Joyce and his inheritance depend on her: “Fate has so cast it that all my means I must derive from thee” (47-48). And so the two of them work together to find a match for the Courtesan that will bring her good reputation and eventual wealth. The pair end up united as a successful con-artist duo rather than at murderous odds like Freevill and Franceschina, with the result that the Courtesan, unlike Franceschina — but very like the male prodigals in both plays — can have sex and still find a place in London society.
1 May 2013 ~ Hamilton
Middleton, Thomas. A Trick to Catch the Old One. Ed. G.J. Watson. London: Ernst Benn, 1968.