The Naked Truth: Life of A Courtesan

The Naked Truth: Life of A Courtesan

The History of the Courtesan and Its Evil Twin; The Mistress.

According to Knight, "The term Courtesan originated around 1540, and meant literally a woman of the court. A courtesan is a glorified prostitute, a paramour to the royal, noble and wealthy men of society" (1).  The courtesan attains intelligence, and woos her client through her education, talents, and charm. This is the fine line between the courtesan and a traditional prostitute. A courtesan charges high dollar, yet does much more than entertain the man she is with, rather she will provide companionship at the same time. Knight claims through her research that, "A courtesan may even accompany a man to a social function, taking the place of his wife. By the mid 18th century, courtesans were accepted on some level in society, but prior to this they were persecuted heavily at times, even being accused of witchcraft, which resulted in imprisonment and execution" (1). Thus portraying the societal shifts within the notion of payed sex.

However, there is a significant difference between a mistress and a courtesan. These terms often get confused and misinterpreted. What differentiates the courtesan from the mistress is the notion of companionship and status. "The Courtesan sold herself, body and mind, as a career. A mistress gave away her love, and often had children with her lover, strictly for the purpose of having an affair. Now that’s not to say a courtesan couldn’t become a mistress, but then she wouldn’t be a professional courtesan anymore" (Knight, 1).  A courtesan could seduce a man with her intelligence and her sophistication. Commonly a courtesan would go from one lover to the next. With a brief look into history prior to early English society, "the most famous of courtesans came from France and were known as the demi-monde. However, they weren’t necessarily born in France" (Knight, 1). France was much more open about women and sex, than anywhere else. Although more popular in France, when a courtesan came to England, it was considered scandalous. However, how did one become a courtesan? Knight explains that "these women came from all walks of life. Some grew up poor, and headed for a town where they learned to sell themselves, not just for sex, but sell themselves as a woman with much more to offer. Others were actresses, who continued to perform both on stage and off. Widows, divorcees, even women of the upper classes attempted to search for the courtesan lifestyle. She may start as an assistant or companion to another courtesan, learning the ways of the trade, or she could simply start out as a mistress to a wealthy man" (1). Women began to realize what they could gain by being a courtesan, and that was freedom; independence from a patriarchal perspective. A very successful courtesan could be extremely wealthy, embellished with jewels, and even entertain parties at places they owned themselves. The Courtesan life was considered a lavish life. "However, when the courtesan began to reach an age where she was no longer considered young, beautiful, and desirable, some women still maintained a high volume of clientele, because they were knowledgeable and engaging" (Knight, 1). Others didn’t have such luck and withered into the background, forgotten for their trade. Other courtesans would retire to a “normal” life by getting married or even dying alone.

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Debut of The Feign'd Courtesans



About This Exhibit


Veronica Ilg


This museum will explore Aphra Behn’s interpretation of the English courtesan in her written play entitled “The Feign’d Courtesans.” Henceforth, the history of the 17th century courtesan will be unraveled and themes of sexuality and feminine identity will be explored. Through the use of scholarly excerpts and portraits, the courtesan will be defined and compared to its misinterpreted sister, the mistress.

What, courtesan! Why, 'tis a noble title, and has more votaries than religion; there's no merchandise like ours, that of love, my sister; and can you be frightened with the vizor which you yourself put on?

"Whores, sir, and so ‘tis ten to one are all the kind; only these differ from

the rest in this, they generously own their trade of sin, which others deal by stealth

in: they are courtesans.”

                                BEHN'S INTERPRETATION OF THE COURTESAN

Motivated by feminine writing strategies designed to outline the differences between Behn and her male contemporaries,  tensions are revealed between Behn's female characters and the roles they play in this male-dominated narrative The Feign'd Courtesans. Composed during the popular sexual Restoration stage among this time period, Behn’s play deals with desirable cavaliers and disguised women. Lowe explains "As a female playwright in a competitive marketplace, Behn drew on theatrical models that challenge conventional morality through its celebration of sexual expression. Behn then presumes the conclusion in which “the beautiful people are married with the blessing of their guardians'"(93).  Like those of her male peers, Behn’s comedies featured jaunty and charming heroes and their intent on sexual conquest regardless of social consequences, such as in The Feign'd Courtesans. At the same time, Behn created proactive female characters who display independence, intelligence ,and sexual desire of their own; in which mirrors the intelligence, sexual prowess, and freedom of real courtesans within English society. "Behn’s female characters are subject to the social and sexual stigmas of that time and the sexual politics of the society they inhabit by demonstrating a sexuality that is responsive to their own desire"(Lowe, 93) as well as to the needs of men as portrayed by the cavaliers in this Restoration comedy. "The Feigned Courtesans offers an opportunity to explore Behn’s representations of gender differences and sexuality in relationship to prevailing moral codes within 17th century England" (Lowe, 93). 

Additionally, Dominguez analyzes another perspective that Behn draws on considering her Courtesan protagonists is the ideaology between the prostitute and the honest woman in The Feigned Courtesans. "Allegedly the disguises that the sisters adopt is meant to hide them from their guardian and their lovers. As such, it is simply one more disguise, which offers them a relative sense of freedom that the modest woman, who proves her virtue by silence and seclusion, cannot easily claim in her own person. However, the line between honesty and whoredom is, from the beginning of the play, rather blurred" (Dominguez, 131). When Marcella and Cornelia first become courtesans, they encounter obstacles and realize that this masquerade was not their forte. They realize that this period of independence must soon draw to an end. Although Octavio’s quote that is mentioned above is a misogynistic remark, I believe it is a crucial statement in the play. Behn’s purpose seems to be a method of portraying that there is some truth in Octavio's quote, even if she undermines its misogynistic intent. Behn seems to suggest that "patriarchy makes all women, in one way or the other, commodities for sale"(Dominguez, 131) , an item used strictly for pleasure or for lust, a quick fix or a distraction, as compared to the honest woman who cherishes chastity, prudence, and modesty. Hence, she outlines the difference between honest women and prostitutes with a patriarchal lens that emphasizes marketing the “goods” and services these courtesans offer as opposed to a long term commitment that inherits stability through an honest lady-like companion. "This is why the play recurrently engages the notions of marriage and sincere love (often proclaimed by the tender Fillamour)  while contrasting the notion of 17th century prostitution and lust" (Dominguez, 131).  (often exclaimed by the raunchy Galliard).

                                                                    Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. The Feign'd Courtesans. Digital image. Google Images. N.p., 4 Oct. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

Cranach, Lucas. Old Man Beguiled by Courtesans. Digital image. Google Images. Sotheby's, 9 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.

Dominguez, Cuder Pilar. “Pretty Contradictions: The Virgin Prostitutes of Aphra Behn’s The Feign’d Courtesans (1679).” Universidad De Huelva. Web. 30 November 2016

Howe, Tonya. Digital image. Google Images. N.p., 4 Oct. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2016

Knight, Eliza. "The Life of a Courtesan." History Undressed. 09 Aug. 2009. Web. 30 November 2016.

Lely, Peter. Portrait of Aphra Behn. Digital image. Google Images. Yale Center for British Art, 18 Nov. 2005. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Lely, Peter. Portrait of Nell Gwyn. Digital image. Google Images. National Portrait Gallery, 21 May 2006. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

Lowe, L. "Gender and (Im)morality in Restoration Comedy: Aphra Behn's The Feigned Courtesans." Theatre Symposium, vol. 15 no. 1, 2007, pp. 92-106. Project MUSE. Web. 1 December 2016. 

Rogal, Samuel J. “Aphra Behn.” Critical Survey Of Poetry, Second Revised Edition (2002): 1-7. Literary Reference Center. Web. 7 December 2016.

Steen, Jan. Die Kurtisan. Digital image. DusselDorfer Auktionshaus, n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2016. <>.

Aphra Behn

cropped to image, recto, unframed

Want to Walk Through the Life of Aphra Behn?

"Born with the given name Ayfara Amis on July circa 1640 in Kent, England is the acclaimed Aphra Behn, who was considered a restoration poet and playwright due to her success during the restoration period under King Charles II. Although Aphra Behn wrote more than a dozen separate pieces of fiction that critics of her day called novels, only a portion may legitimately be labeled as such. During her lifetime, Behn established her literary reputation by writing for the London stage, creating more than fifteen plays. In her public verse, Behn had to compete with a large number of poets who tended to be more skilled mechanics and versifiers than she, and all of whom sought the same limited patronage and political favors as she. She found herself at a disadvantage because of her sex, which meant, simply, that her occasional verse did not always reach the widest possible audience. By 1665, the young woman was established in London, married to a wealthy Dutch merchant (or at least a merchant of Dutch ancestry) who may well have had connections in or around the court of Charles II. In 1665 came the Great Plague and the death of Behn’s husband; his death proved disastrous for his widow. With attempts to create a stable life of her own, Behn was hired as espionage in the war against the Dutch. Afterwards, political quarrel, threats, imprisonment and severe financial difficulty halted her success until late December of 1670 at the New Duke’s theater in London. However, due to political confrontation during the religiopolitical controversies of 1678, Behn was forced to leave again placing her in financial despair. Aphra was able to find other outlets for her artwork in her popular fiction when her Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister and Poems Upon Several Occasions took flight amongst the public. Behn fortunatly returned to the Stage in 1686. She continued to write fiction and verse, but sickness and the death of her one true artistic friend, Edmund Waller, occurring in October, 1688, did little to inspire confidence in her attitudes toward life or art. Five days following the coronation of William III and Mary, on April 16, 1689, Aphra Behn died. Nevertheless, she had risen high enough to a merit burial in Westminster Abbey."  (Samuel J. Rogal)

Location: Westminster Abbey, London, United Kingdom.

"Here Lies a Proof that Wit can never be defence enough against Mortality"