Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a fortnightly publication about things I’ve read

“Fools will serve to father wise men’s children”: Thomas Middleton, Women Beware Women (c. 1621)

 |  2034 words

I’ve already written about three plays wholly or partly by Middleton: A Fair Quarrel, The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Changeling. The first and third of these are works of joint authorship with William Rowley, who wrote the comic subplots — and in The Changeling the long final scene in which the two plots were tied together — while Middleton was responsible for the main plots. I’ve suggested that the tragicomic subplot of The Revenger’s Tragedy carries more weight and significance, and is more interesting, than the formulaic and conventional main plot.

In Women Beware Women both plots are tragic and they’re more tightly integrated than those of any of the other three plays I’ve mentioned. The connection between them is Livia, a 39-year-old woman who has been widowed twice and is now well off. When one of her two brothers describes her as “a sweet lady … and a witty”, she disclaims the clumsy compliment.

LIVIA: A witty! O the bud of commendation
Fit for a girl of sixteen! I am blown, man.
I should be wise by this time … (I.ii.47–9)

Fabritio clearly meant “witty” as an adjective; Livia’s response might suggest that she takes it as a somewhat disparaging noun. At any rate, her subsequent actions show that she is not ready to give up wit in exchange for wisdom. When her other brother, Hippolito, confides in her that he is in love with his niece Isabella (who is Fabritio’s daughter), Livia tells him “I must bestir my wits for you” (II.i.62).

Isabella is despondent because Fabritio wants her to marry a wealthy idiot, and she feels duty bound to obey her father, though the prospect repels her. Without giving any hint that she knows about Isabella’s and Hippolito’s feelings for each other, Livia tells her with feigned reluctance that Fabritio is not really her father, but that her mother, who died nine years earlier, had successfully concealed an affair with “that fam’d Spaniard, | Marquis of Coria” (II.i.143–4). This is a blatant lie. Livia presents it to Isabella as releasing her from the obligation of obedience to her father, knowing that it will also permit her to overcome her qualms about sexual relations with her uncle, whom she now wrongly believes to be no blood relation.

Ironically, Isabella immediately changes her mind about obedience to Fabritio’s wishes: the marriage will serve as excellent cover for her relationship with Hippolito, who to everybody but her appears in his true guise as her uncle. Livia congratulates herself on her deviousness.

Who shows more craft t’undo a maidenhead,
I’ll resign my part to her. (II.i.178–9)

It’s worth remarking that she assumes that the hypothetical expert in this particular skill will inevitably be female — though it might be thought that men have more of an incentive to perform the task well!

So, Isabella feels obliged to obey her father, as long as she believes him to be her father, but has no compunction about deceiving and betraying her idiot husband. This is a pattern of behaviour that recurs in Middleton’s plays. Later in this one, the Duke of Florence, having been upbraided by his brother, the Lord Cardinal, about his adulterous relationship with the beautiful Bianca Capella, resolves to repent. After his brother has left, the Duke sums up his situation.

She lies alone tonight for’t; and must still
Though it be hard to conquer. But I have vow’d
Never to know her as a strumpet more,
And I must save my oath. If fury fail not
Her husband dies tonight, or, at the most,
Lives not to see the morning spent tomorrow;
Then will I make her lawfully mine own
Without this sin and horror. Now I’m chidden
For what I shall enjoy then unforbidden … (IV.ii.266–74)

What he conveniently leaves out is any acknowledgment that the death of Bianca’s husband, Leantio, will be the wholly foreseen outcome of the Duke’s own actions. After Bianca left him, Leantio became the kept man of Livia, a fact of which he boasted to his estranged wife. She in turn told the Duke that Leantio was boasting far and wide — not just to her — about his improved fortunes and the reason for them. She did this knowing that the Duke would most likely take steps to silence Leantio, and so to forestall her husband’s threatened revenge on her.

The Duke, probably believing Bianca’s exaggerations, told Hippolito that Leantio had been besmirching his sister’s reputation, knowing that Hippolito would react with violent anger against Leantio. The Duke did not order the death: indeed, he claimed to be telling Hippolito about Leantio’s boasts only so that Hippolito would warn Livia, and allow her to protect her reputation:

Give her good counsel, make her see her error.
I know she’ll hearken to you. (IV.i.165–6)

But the Duke understands well that Hippolito’s first impulse will not be to give good counsel, but rather to punish Leantio and see him off. So, his manipulation of Hippolito has a lot in common with Livia’s of Isabella: each imparts (inaccurate) information for one professed purpose, in the expectation that the outcome will be something else entirely.

It might be said that the Duke and Isabella both have distorted or incomplete moral codes. She tries to avoid incest and disobedience to her father, but happily embraces adultery and spousal deception; he strains at breach of his vow but swallows complicity in murder. It doesn’t seem that either of them is being deliberately hypocritical, but rather that they have gaps in their understanding. The Duke’s priorities are very similar to those of Vindice in The Revenger’s Tragedy who, as we saw, commits multiple murders but has a genuine horror of being forsworn, even though his adhernce to an immoral oath risks his sister’s safety and reputation.

I said at the start that the two plots of this play are tightly integrated. I’ve refrained, till now, from calling them the main plot and subplot. Most commentators see the Bianca/Leantio/Duke triangle as the central business of the play. It takes up many more lines than the incest plot (Hippolito/Isabella — and Livia) and dominates the action. But, though it’s dramatically effective and well handled, the Bianca story is a familiar one: a powerful and wealthy man, unused to having his desires thwarted, entices away the young (Bianca is “about 16”: III.i.180), very beautiful and dissatisfied wife of a much poorer man, with tragic consequences. The other strand is more interesting, and I found that I had inattentively been thinking of it as the main plot.

For one thing, it raises an intriguing question about Livia’s motivation. Years ago, I provoked unexpectedly spirited dissent in a seminar by suggesting that, when she goes to the trouble of setting her brother up with his (and her own) niece, this is a vicarious expression of her own incestuous feelings for Hippolito. After she has promised to “bestir my wits” on his behalf, she reflects on what she is about to do and why.

LIVIA: Beshrew you, would I lov’d you not so well!
I’ll go to bed and leave this deed undone.
I am the fondest where I once affect,
The carefull’st of their healths, and of their ease, forsooth,
That I look still but slenderly to mind own.
I take a course to pity him so much now
That I have none left for modesty and myself.
This ’tis to grow so liberal: y’have few sisters
That love their brothers’ ease ’bove their own honesties,
But if you question my affections
That will be found my fault. (II.i.63–73)

The emotions impelling her behaviour would appear to be stronger than any she acknowledges here. Nor does it seem that it is merely pride in her “craft t’ undo a maidenhead” that motivates her actions. In any case, it is clear that she has a much greater affection for Hippolito than for her other brother, Fabritio. Early in the play, she greets Hippolito:

My best and dearest brother, I could dwell here;
There is not such another seat on earth
Where all good parts better express themselves.
HIPPOLITO: You’ll make me blush, anon.
LIVIA: ’Tis but like saying grace before a feast, then,
And that’s most comely: thou art all a feast,
And she that has thee, a most happy guest. (I.ii.143–9)

In contrast, she treats Fabritio with contempt, making his own daughter believe that he’s a cuckold and a fool. She dismissively says that he seems “To toil as much as if his cares were wise ones!” (II.ii.74). The Ward, whom Fabritio intends for Isabella’s husband, has only his wealth to recommend him and is described by various other characters as “simple”. As his uncle and guardian tells the Duke, “His parts consist in acres” (earning the reply “O wise-acres!”: III.ii.114). Livia cruelly points out a resemblance between him and his future father-in-law:

They’re both allied in wit before the marriage;
What will they be hereafter, when they are nearer?
Yet they can go no further than the fool:
There’s the world’d end in both of ’em. (II.ii.77–80)

By the end of the play, though, Livia’s feelings towards Hippolito have changed dramatically. She has in the meantime fallen hard for Leantio, Bianca’s rejected husband. When Hippolito kills him, she is consumed by a desire for revenge, and makes public his shameful secret: his incest with their niece, revealing to Isabella that she had lied about her paternity. Livia, Hippolito and Isabella all pretend to apologize for the injuries they’ve done each other and to forgive the injuries done to themselves. Livia and Isabella at least are dissembling and use the pause in hostilities to plot against each other. Livia also plots with Guardiano, the Ward’s uncle, who is furious at Hippolito over his humiliation of his nephew and, by extension, himself. (Guardiano is presumably unaware of Livia’s role in facilitating Isabella’s relationship with her uncle.)

Livia and Isabella kill each other on stage, during the performance of a masque for the Duke’s marriage to Bianca. (Isabella uses poisoned incense and Livia molten gold.) Furious at the death of Isabella, Hippolito accidentally springs the trap that Guardiano had set for him, and Guardiano himself falls into it. Guardiano had a backup plan, though, which promptly puts paid to Hippolito. In the meantime, Bianca has plotted to poison the Cardinal, whom she believes to have been motivated by envy in trying to turn his brother against her, and to remain a threat even though they are now married. The cups get mixed up and her new husband drinks the poison. She immediately finishes off the cup and dies too.

So, at the end of the play all the main characters are dead, having variously murdered each other. This complicated business doesn’t read all that well on the page but has clearly been carefully put together and I suspect that it would be much more effective in performance. (I’m sorry to say that I’ve never seen the play put on.) The final scene is reminiscent of the end of The Revenger’s Tragedy, where murders are committed under cover of a dramatic performance. That scene, too, probably works better on stage than it does in print.

Edition: I’ve used Thomas Middleton, Five Plays, ed. Bryan Loughrey and Neil Taylor, Penguin Classics, 1988 (all ellipses added).


Since I moved Talk about books from Substack to, there hasn’t been a straightforward way for people to comment on or argue with my posts. (I did get one email, about Coetzee’s Disgrace, for which I’m very grateful.) I’ve had it in mind for a while that I ought to provide an obvious way to continue the discussion. If you’d like to have your say, I’d encourage you to send email to my direct email address for this publication. You’ll find the address and link on my Contact page.

If you know of somebody you think might like this post, don’t hesitate to forward it to her/him. If you haven’t already signed up, but would like to be sure of receiving these posts every two weeks, the sign-up page is here. And, finally, this is where you can get the RSS feed.

Thanks for reading.