Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2008
“Hard by Pell-Mell, lives a wench cal'd Nell, / King Charles the second he kept her, / She hath got a trick to handle his . . . [prick] / But never lays hands on his Scepter. / All matters of State, from her Soul she does hate, / And leave[s] to the Pollitick Bitches, / The Whore's in the right, for 'tis her delight, / To be scratching just where it Itches.” Anonymous lampoon / From the moment the first British professional actress appeared on the London stage in 1661 she became an object of fascination. She was both admired and derided, desired and vilified. The very public sphere in which her craft was practised quickly led to parallels with prostitution in a patriarchal society employing the binaries of private/public, virgin/whore as constructs of femininity. Seventeenth-century society was enthralled by the actress's craft on stage and simultaneously engrossed by the stories surrounding her sexual liaisons off stage. The elision between her public and private identity, the visual spectacle of her acting body on stage and the availability of her sexually active body off stage, reveals a bifocal perspective that has captured the popular imagination, underpinned biographies and histories of the actress and, as the quotation above demonstrates, fuelled a lucrative trade in gossip for over three hundred years. Here, the cultural embodiment of the early actress, Nell Gwynn, is represented in her most famous role: the fun-loving whore of the 'Merry Monarch', Charles II. As one of His Majesty's Servants, Gwynn's public/private performance is focused on the pleasures of the flesh: her interest in and enjoyment of the private body royal, favourably set against interests in the public body politic enjoyed by the king's much-hated aristocratic mistresses, especially his French mistress, Louise de la Kéroualle.