Middleton: Women Beware Women

May 18, 2022

Women Beware Women
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2000) [c.1620]
55 p.

Lust is bold,
And will have vengeance speak ere’t be controlled.

Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women ranks, by reputation, as one of his finest tragedies for the English stage. It is a play in which lust, unruly and illicit, leads all to destruction. It’s a play with a high level of disturbing content, and not something you’d want to take your grandmother to.

It will be worthwhile to look in some detail at the plot, both for clarity’s sake, and because it will give us an opportunity to look at a few examples of the very fine verse. Essentially we have a double plot in which two young women, Isabella and Bianca, become enmeshed in illicit sexual affairs with older men, both through the corrupt dealings of an older woman, Livia.

**

Let’s begin with Isabella, who is Livia’s niece. She has attracted the wanton affections of her uncle (Livia’s brother), and Livia, for reasons not entirely clear, offers to help him seduce her:

LIVIA: You are not the first, brother, has attempted
Things more forbidden than this seems to be.

That “seems” tells us a lot about her. She convinces Isabella that her uncle isn’t actually her uncle, and that an affair with him would lead to certain advantages. Isabella, gullible, takes the bait.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to a newlywed couple, Leantio and Bianca. She has left a wealthy family to marry a humble man, for love, and their new life seems to be one of happiness and harmony. Departing on a business trip, however, Leantio asks that Bianca remain locked up at home while he is away, lest she inflame the desires of other men. This seems excessively controlling and neurotic, but, actually, turns out to be sensible and prudent — although insufficient!

She consents, but, following her husband’s departure, ventures to the window to see the Duke passing by, and, seen by him, is summoned to the castle where, maneuvered by Livia into being alone with the Duke, she is raped. The Duke offers her riches if she’ll consent to be his mistress.

This trauma brings about a dramatic change in Bianca’s character. Feeling herself despoiled by the Duke, she, in an act of apparent self-loathing, decides to throw all away and accept the Duke’s offer:

Yet since mine honour’s leprous, why should I
Preserve that fair that caused the leprosy?
Come, poison all at once.

Livia, the successful pander, seeing this transformation, but sensing a certain anguished reluctance behind it, tells us that

Her tender modesty is sea-sick a little,
Being not accustomed to the breaking billow
Of woman’s wavering faith, blown with temptations,
‘Tis but a qualm of honour; ’twill away;
A little bitter for the time, but lasts not,
Sin tastes at the first draught like wormwood-water,
But, drunk again, ’tis nectar ever after.

I’m not convinced this tells us much about what is actually the case in Bianca’s heart, but it does reveal that we are dealing, in Livia, with a seriously reprobate woman, if we had any doubts.

As Leantio returns home from his trip, he is given a speech on the joys of marriage which, in context, must come across to the audience as ironic and tragic, or perhaps darkly comic, depending on how the lines are delivered:

What a delicious breath marriage sends forth
the violet bed’s not sweeter. Honest wedlock
Is like a banqueting-house built in a garden
On which the spring’s chaste flowers take delight
To cast their modest odours; when base lust
With all her powders, paintings, and best pride
Is but a fair house built by a ditch side.
When I behold a glorious dangerous Strumpet,
Sparkling in Beauty and Destruction too,
Both at a twinkling , I do liken straight
Her beautifi’d body to a goodly Temple
That’s built on Vaults where Carkasses lie rotting,
And so by little and little I shrink back again,
And quench desire with a cool Meditation,
And I’m as well methinks.

That starts out quite beautifully, but there’s something wrong with it. He spends more time thinking about the strumpet than about his new wife, and seems to be struggling still to quench a wayward desire. In any case, even the modest odours of married love are about to take on unpleasant overtones (if, perchance, odours can have overtones). He finds her suddenly discontented with the humble status of his household:

Wives do not give away themselves to husbands
To the end to be quite cast away; they look
To be the better used and tendered, rather,
Higher respected, and maintained the richer.

She announces that she is leaving him to live with the Duke. Leantio’s ode to marriage comes back, but in full reverse:

O thou the ripe time of man’s misery, wedlock;
When all his thoughts, like overladen trees,
Crack with the fruits they bear, in cares, in jealousies,
O, that’s a fruit that ripes hastily
After ’tis knit to marriage. It begins,
As soon as the sun shines upon the bride,
A little to show colour. Blessed powers,
Whence comes this alteration? The distractions,
The fears and doubts it brings are numberless,
And yet the cause I know not. What a peace
Has he that never marries! If he knew
The benefit he enjoy’d, or had the fortune
To come and speak with me, he should know then
The infinite wealth he had, and discern rightly
The greatness of his treasure by my loss:
Nay, what a quietness has he ‘bove mine,
That wears his youth out in a strumpet’s arms,
And never spends more care upon a woman
Than at the time of lust; but walks away,
And if he find her dead at his return,
His pity is soon done, he breaks a sigh
In many parts, and gives her but a peace on’t!
But all the fears, shames, jealousies, costs and troubles,
And still renew’d cares of a marriage bed,
Live in the issue, when the wife is dead.

Pretty grim stuff.

Meanwhile, as Leantio is coming to terms with his wife’s departure, he himself catches the eye of Livia, who makes him an offer that parallels the Duke’s offer to Bianca: become my plaything in exchange for wealth and status. Leantio thinks briefly of his wife (“Why should my love last longer than her truth?”) before he, too, throws away fidelity and takes up the offer.

At this point, in the play, therefore, we have three illicit affairs underway, two adulterous and one incestuous. Although Leantio’s infidelity is, in most respects, parallel to Bianca’s, and is arguably worse for not having been initiated by sexual assault, when he next meets her he has withering words for her:

Why do I talk to thee of sense or virtue,
That art as dark as death? and as much madness
To set light before thee, as to lead blind folks
To see the monuments, which they may smell as soon
As they behold; marry, ofttimes their heads,
For want of light, may feel the hardness of ’em;
So shall thy blind pride my revenge and anger
That canst not see it now; and it may fall
At such an hour, when thou least seest of all:
So to an ignorance darker than thy womb,
I leave thy perjur’d soul: a plague will come!

In addition to being fine verse, this is a noteworthy speech because it signals a transition in the play from prevailing lust to prevailing violence. Indeed, shortly afterward Isabella discovers that she has been carrying on an affair with a man who is actually her uncle. Horrified, she too vows revenge:

If the least means but favour my revenge,
That I may practise the like cruel cunning
Upon her life, as she has on mine honour,
I’ll act it without pity.

And so the play launches into its last act, where sickly feints at romance give way to blood-letting, and lots of it.

It begins in a rather unexpected way: with the introduction of a new, righteous character. The predatory Duke, it turns out, has a brother who is a Cardinal, and this Cardinal (implausible as it may seem to us) is not a hypocrite or a pervert or a criminal, but, it appears, a genuinely good man who grieves over his brother’s sins and urgently calls him to repentance:

’tis a work
Of infinite mercy you can never merit
That yet you are not death-struck; no, not yet:
I dare not stay you long, for fear you should not
Have time enough allowed you to repent in.

And the Duke, much to my surprise, takes his brother’s reproof to heart. Maybe this is a point where the psychology of the play betrays itself as superficial, but he immediately resolves to bring the adulterous relationship to an end. The trouble is that, as in the case of David and Bathsheba, he proposes to stop the adultery but not the relationship; he resolves to kill her husband!

I have vowed
Never to know her as a strumpet more,
And I must save my oath. If fury fail not,
Her husband dies tonight.

Die he does, and the stage is set for a bloodbath at the marriage feast of the Duke and Bianca. I’ll spare the details, but in short order Isabella and her uncle and Livia and Bianca and the Duke — all the principal characters — are dead, and bodies litter the stage in true tragic fashion.

***

On first reading, it strikes me as a very good play, though these things are admittedly hard to judge merely from the page. The story develops surely and comprehensibly, the characters are distinctive, the villainy is clear but clothed in suavity, and, not least, the lucid verse is a pleasure to read. The principal weakness that I see is that the story relies on several abrupt changes of character, in Bianca first, and then in both Leantio and the Duke. Of these, Leantio’s is handled most ably and convincingly, but still seemed too tidy to me.

Rumour is that Middleton’s next project was to meddle with a play called Measure for Measure as it was being prepared for publication. An honour, surely, but in retrospect one that might have been better left alone.

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