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  • Base Trade: Theater as Prostitution
  • Joseph Lenz

A predominant metaphor for the practice of the theater in Shakespeare’s age was prostitution, an image the professional actor, playwright, and theater-owner helped to define and were defined by and to which they responded with ambivalence. From the beginning of the professional theater in the 1570s until its prohibition in 1642, its opponents—Stephen Gosson, Robert Greene, William Prynne, among many other—consistently associated the theater with prostitution. “Poets in theatres wound the conscience,” wrote Gosson in 1579, “they arrange comforts of melody, to tickle the ear; costly apparel, to flatter the sight; effeminate gesture, to ravish the sense; and wanton speech, to whet desire to inordinate lust.” 1 At particular risk are the young, whom the theater preys upon for profit: at the “mercenary” theaters “Good Citizens Children under Age, were inveigled and allured to privy and unmeet Contracts” John Stow reports in A Survey of London. 2 Even as late as 1729 John Disney condemned the sexually provocative example of romantic comedy, “whose Argument is generally some lewd Intrigue of Fornication or Adultery; the Wit and Language made up of Profaneness, Double Entendres of obscenity, and the contempt of whatever is grave and serious; the main drift, to instruct people in the Arts of debauching and the opportunities of being debauched.” 3 Like a brothel, the theater houses “some lewd intrigue of Fornication”; like a bawd, it advertises its product with effeminate gesture and costly apparel; like a prostitute, the motive is the same—money. Thus, the theater is a brothel, a pander, a whore, a way toward debauchery and a site for it.

While accusations of this kind are nothing new (Gosson’s fears about the seductive powers of illusion obviously echo Plato), we have not sufficiently examined the reality behind the rhetoric that sees the Elizabethan stage as prostitution, nor have we scrutinized the shaping influence the analogy had for the theater or, for that matter, the role the theater played in shaping the analogy. The fears of Gosson and his confederates may strike us as quaint, particularly in light of the honored place Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists have in our literature, but, precisely because of that “place,” the historical and cultural significance of the theater’s former environs has been lost on us. Certainly the work of Steven Mullaney, Jean-Christophe Agnew, Laura Stevenson, and Theodore [End Page 833] B. Leinwand has done much to restore that significance. 4 Still, two sets of questions need to be examined, one having to do with the effect the analogy to prostitution had on the theater, the other on the causes of that association in the first place. Simply put, what does it mean for the theater to be thought of in terms of prostitution?

This essay is divided into two sections. In the first I will examine the intercourse, if you will, between the theater and prostitution, looking at the causes, both circumstantial and ontological, that led them to be associated in the minds of their spectators. In the second, I will glance at Troilus and Cressida as a representation of the theater’s problematic connection to prostitution, a troubled and troubling exposition on the “base” nature of any exchange or transaction, whether sexual, economic, or aesthetic.


It is the constructive power of association that is the topic of this essay. Of course, other essays have addressed this topic in a far more theoretical way than mine will. Clifford Geertz, for instance, illustrates “Blurred Genres” with sociology’s habit of describing social behavior through various metaphors—as a game, as drama, as text. As Geertz argues, “social behavior” is a complex, abstract, and ambiguous concept; seen as a game, however, with a specified set of rules, behavioral codes, uniforms. and conflicts, it becomes familiar and concrete. But the beauty of the analogy is also its danger. The conceptual model can slide too easily into a working model, and business or marriage or politics become games, with no “real world” consequences. The instructive analogy thus becomes both restrictive and reductive, and the only way to escape it is to invent a new one, so drama gets substituted...

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