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"Researching The Dutch Lady:
The Unique Opportunities of Teaching a Primary Source in Manuscript"

By Dr. Joseph F. Stephenson, Abilene Christian University

(June 2018 Issue / PDF)

Teaching research methods to undergraduate and graduate students is difficult, and teaching students to rely on their own insights is a special challenge. For better or worse, students and scholars alike have learned to begin their study of a new text with a check of the library holdings and, if nothing is found, their favorite search engine. For The Dutch Lady, a seventeenth-century manuscript play held by the Boston Public Library, a search of the internet reveals a few references to productions in the United Kingdom in 2017, a link to images of the manuscript at—as well as a dairy company and a woman offering language lessons on YouTube. Even more sophisticated searches will yield only very few results, since the manuscript only came to light in 2017. An edition of the text—under preparation by this author—is not available at present, resulting in formidable challenges as well as truly rare opportunities for students’ original work in paleography and historical contexts, as well as influence and adaptation studies of a virtually unknown text.

Paleography is an area that few instructors include in the undergraduate classroom, though students find the idea quite exciting. Graduate students of early modern literature and history benefit greatly from exposure to reading manuscripts, however. In working with The Dutch Lady, paleography becomes not just an enjoyable way to spend an hour in class, but a sine qua non for further study of the text: until this author’s edition of the text is published (forthcoming, but perhaps a year or even two before any given institution’s library obtains a copy), transcribing the manuscript—or reading directly from it—will be necessary before any further study can take place.

Since it is unlikely that a class is going to take time to transcribe the entire manuscript of The Dutch Lady, Act I is an appropriate place to start the paleographic efforts that will allow further research, with the transcription continuing as far as time and interest permit. The play—by an author as yet undetermined as of this writing—has been, it seems, copied in italic hand by an unidentified professional scribe. The complete manuscript has been scanned, thanks to Jay Moschella, curator of rare books at the Boston Public Library.[1] Since the images are clear and the hand is neat, the text is ideal for beginners in paleography. Even if the instructor is not a paleographic expert, the vast majority of the words are unambiguous and rather easily read. After a demonstration lesson from the instructor or a guest presenter, individual students could work at home to transcribe a page at a time of the text, then consult in groups to help figure out any challenging words. Once the scribe’s particular quirks (an r following an initial consonant and an x are puzzling at first) are recognized, virtually all the words can be deciphered. If a word or two remains untranscribed or erroneously transcribed, it will not greatly affect the group’s further research of the text (though it will perhaps give them a heightened appreciation for textual editors).

The next logical step is for students to explore historical and cultural references they find as they transcribe the text. Even if a complete transcription of sections of text is not performed, students can scan the manuscript for names, many of which are key in helping locate the play’s cultural milieu. A key passage to when the play is set—not necessarily when it is written, of course—is found early in the play on folio 3v, where Amner refers to a time “some eight years past, when Treason first / Was call’d Affection to the Holy Cause.” The play also features references to the “Protector” (22v), and the elderly Sir Ralph boasts of having been knighted by King James. Undergraduate students should be able to use clues like these to get a basic idea of the time in which the play is set, even though, as with many plays, the precise date is a bit less clear that it would seem at first. With this knowledge of the time of the events depicted, students can then begin to research some of the less familiar names in the play. To pick just one example, a character mentions “the Wizard Lilly,” who views the conjunction of Mars and Venus “through a tube” (23r). Though the surname Lilly (or Lily or Lyly) is not uncommon in early modern England, the mention of astronomical events should lead students to a confident identification of this historical person.

For graduate students in particular, The Dutch Lady provides fruitful research opportunities in the field of influence and adaptation. Students of non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama should be familiar with Thomas Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One, which captured the imagination of many later writers. Several plays of the period are directly indebted to it, most notably Philip Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts.[2] In the Restoration, Middleton’s plot was adapted many times, and the device of uncle/nephew rivalry for an estate became something of a cliché.[3] As it turns out, The Dutch Lady is one of those Restoration plays that feature this plot—and not just the outline of the plot. Careful comparison reveals direct references to both Middleton’s original and Massinger’s adaptation in The Dutch Lady. Some other references are a bit more obvious, and, as students scan the manuscript for names, they will find many that are quite easily be traced to well-known characters and references in Shakespeare (especially Henry IV, Part 1).

On the other side of the influence card, as was pointed out in the Times Literary Supplement article that first announced the existence of the play, Aphra Behn was familiar with The Dutch Lady, and she used material from the play in two of her works of the early 1680s.[4] Students in a course on the works of Behn, Restoration Drama, literature influenced by the English Civil War, or images of Puritans in literature will find much to reward their research on The Dutch Lady. The character of the anti-Royalist preacher Dispensation Surfeit in The Dutch Lady captured the Royalist Behn’s imagination, and her use of Puritan stereotypes and anti-Cavalier rhetoric from The Dutch Lady in The Roundheads is fairly easily traced. In Behn’s The City Heiress (1682), the Puritan maid Sensure’s actions are based on some events in The Dutch Lady, and, more subtly, the main plot as well as the character of Lady Galliard in The City Heiress are colored by Behn’s reading of The Dutch Lady.

Instructors of Restoration drama (especially in courses including The Dutch Lady’s most famous reader, Aphra Behn) are especially recommended to teach The Dutch Lady, but instructors of more general courses on research methods and influence/appropriation studies will also find much to reward their efforts with this fascinating work. The chance for students of early English drama to study an unpublished manuscript play is a rare opportunity, both for undergraduate and graduate students. If an instructor happens to be teaching the appropriate courses to two groups in the same (or succeeding) semesters, different groups could even cooperate across levels or across semesters, with transcription work done by one group used by students in another group to study historical and cultural markers. Anyone who uses The Dutch Lady in class is invited to contact me. Your work (or your student’s work) may end up credited in my future publications on the play.


[1] The Dutch Lady [manuscript]: A Comedy.”

[2] Other Renaissance plays indebted to Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One include Lording Barry’s Ram Alley (1608) and John Cooke’s The City Gallant (1611).  

[3] See Douglas Canfield’s excellent study Tricksters and Estates: On the Idea of Restoration Comedy (1997, UP of Kentucky).  

[4] Joseph F. Stephenson, “’Beauty’s Grand Exemplar’: Unknown Since the Restoration, a Play with Links to Aphra Behn.” Times Literary Supplement, 27 July 2017.


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