I’ve written about the early 17th century playwright Thomas Middleton in four previous posts:

A Fair Quarrel;
The Revenger’s Tragedy;
The Changeling; and
Women Beware Women.

All but the first of these are considered tragedies — though I’ll have more to say about that classification in my conclusion below. Two are works of joint authorship, written with William Rowley: The Changeling (probably the best of the tragedies) and A Fair Quarrel, which I chose to write about first because it raises interesting questions.

Now, I’d like to write something about his “city comedies”, particularly A Trick to Catch the Old One, which was entered on the Stationers’ Register in 1607 and was very popular in performance. The action of the play centers on the activities of Theodorus Witgood, who is described in the first stage direction as “a gentleman”, a characterization immediately confirmed in the first line of his own first speech: “All’s gone! Still, thou’rt a gentleman, that’s all; but a poor one, that’s nothing” (I.i.1–2). He formerly possessed meadows, “goodly uplands” and downlands, but these have now passed out of his ownership into that of his uncle, the usurious, elderly Pecunious Lucre.

Lucre is one of several characters who are described as usurers. Walkadine Hoard is Lucre’s hated rival who blames Lucre’s sharp practice for depriving him of the opportunity to gull some unfortunate:

… when I had beaten the bush to the last bird, or, as I may term it, the price to a pound, then like a cunning usurer to come in in the evening of the bargain and glean all my hopes in a minute; to enter, as it were, at the back door of the purchase, for thou ne’er cam’st the right way by it! (I.iv.16–19)

Harry Dampit is a lawyer as well as a moneylender, and a diabolic figure: Witgood addresses him as “Old Harry”, and his servant, Audrey, implies that he might have cloven hooves. The play’s fourth usurer is Gulf, Dampit’s associate, who ends up berating Dampit on the latter’s deathbed, and threatening him with violence.

Nobody has a good word to say about Dampit behind his back, but most (including Witgood) are fawningly complimentary to his face. Dampit and Gulf aren’t directly relevant to the plot but are included in the cast partly to give the impression that the city is full of predatory moneylenders taking advantage of foolish and gullible borrowers. It’s also arguable that Dampit’s character, which bears some resemblances to Witgood’s, performs the function of warning the audience against perceiving Witgood — who is attractively ingenious and enterprising — as a heroic or admirable figure.

Witgood is angry that his own uncle has dispossessed him on foot of Witgood’s mortgage, but Lucre takes the view that, if his nephew had been about to lose his wealth anyway through his dissolute, spendthrift behaviour, it was better to keep the property in the family. Clearly, Witgood had inherited his estate from Lucre’s older brother who had since died. Lucre, as a younger son, had gone into the business of moneylending — possibly, like Dampit, via the law. Nobody should be surprised if, in those circumstances, the uncle should resent seeing the family estate frittered away by the fortunate heir of the previous heir, who had been more fortunate than he.

We see then that the system of inheritance of landed wealth hardly changed at all between the early seventeenth century, when this play is set, and the late eighteenth and early nineteenth, when Jane Austen was writing. While the legal framework was the same, the options open to younger sons seem to have become more restrictive with the passage of time. In the later period, they were effectively limited to becoming lawyers, clergymen or soldiers, whereas Lucre and his contemporaries could thrive on the strong demand for money to borrow.

However badly Lucre may have behaved, it’s clear that Witgood has greater debts than those which were satisfied by his uncle’s foreclosure on the mortgage. Even after that, he dares not go too far abroad for fear of arrest. Witgood is attributing more of the blame for his own predicament to Lucre than the latter deserves. But he has a plan to restore his fortunes, and largely at Lucre’s expense. In this he needs the help of his former mistress, who is referred to in the stage directions simply as the Courtesan, but is called “Jane” by her eventual husband. She and Witgood will pretend that she is a wealthy widow from the country, unknown in London, who is willing to marry him, provided he turns out to be the man of substance he pretends to be.

Witgood intends to use this prospect to work on his uncle, to persuade the usurer to put him back into possession of his lands and estate. The old man thinks that this will be a purely temporary arrangement, just until Witgood secures the hand of the supposed widow, though of course Witgood has no intention of returning the land to him once he has recovered it.

In the meantime, rumour of a previously unknown rich widow spreads fast. Hoard, delighted at the opportunity to put one over on Lucre, resolves to woo her himself. He succeeds in persuading her to marry him. Lucre, unaware that she is now married to his rival, promises her before witnesses that he will immediately hand over the mortgage to his nephew, in return for her promise that she will “keep yourself as you now are at this present” (IV.i.92).

At the banquet to celebrate their wedding, the Courtesan is recognized by friends of her new husband who know who she really is. She faces the embarrassment of exposure with impressive self-possession and composure:

Nor did I ever boast of lands unto you,
Money, or goods, I took a plainer course,
And told you true I’d nothing.
If error were committed, ’twas by you;
Thank your own folly. Nor has my sin been
So odious but worse has been forgiven;
Nor am I so deform’d but I may challenge
The utmost power of any old man’s love.
She that tastes not sin before, twenty to one but she’ll taste it after; most of you old men are content to marry young virgins and take that which follows; where, marrying one of us, you both save a sinner and are quit from a cuckold forever. (V.ii.119–30)

Although she’s referred to by various characters as a “whore” and a “quean”, its clear that she has not been, as Hoard thinks at first, “A common strumpet!” (V.ii.108) but rather Witgood’s kept mistress (whom he wishes to discard to live a more respectable life within his means in future — and to marry Hoard’s niece.) Witgood reassures Hoard:

Alas, sir, I was prick’d in conscience to see her well bestow’d, and where could I bestow her better than upon your pitiful worship? Excepting but myself, I dare swear she’s a virgin; and now by marrying your niece I have banish’d myself forever from her. (V.ii.138–40)

Hoard accepts his marriage with relatively good grace. Each of the three plays I looked at in preparing this post features a similar situation in which an overeager or incautious man finds himself married to a woman described as a “whore” and/or a “quean”. The situations are not identical: Middleton works a number of variations on a common theme.

In A Mad World My Masters, it is the “witty” central character, Follywit, who ends up married to the courtesan, Mistress Gullman. Both parties to this marriage are more morally questionable than their counterparts in A Trick to Catch the Old One. Follywit is a thief who organizes a home invasion and terrorizes servants, while his eventual bride is earlier seen encouraging and coaching Mrs Harebrain, a citizen’s wife, in how best to deceive her husband.

Follywit is another young gentleman without money. In his case, the problem is not his uncle’s cozenage but his grandfather’s longevity. His grandfather, Sir Bounteous Progress, has already outlived Follywit’s father, who would have been the heir, and is still in rude good health. (Mrs. Gullman is his longstanding mistress.) So Follywit steals from the old man, repeatedly, and sometimes in disguise.

In the fifth act, Follywit is posing as the leader of a group of players, supposedly performing for the guests being entertained by Sir Bounteous. He has already duped his grandfather into “lending” him his watch, jewellry and a valuable chain, on the pretext that he can use it as a chain of office while he plays a justice. When Follywit’s escaping accomplices are caught by the constable and brought back to the house before Sir Bounteous and his guests, Follywit acts the part of justice and treats the constable as a character in the supposed play. The constable naturally insists on addressing the householder, but Sir Bounteous assumes that he’s just a bad actor, and urges him to address himself to the character of the justice instead.

When I wrote about the tragedy, Women Beware Women, I said that I thought the bloody masque in that play’s final act would be more impressive in performance than it appears on the page. I suspect that the same is true of the constable/justice/audience business in A Mad World My Masters which, even when merely read, comes across as a remarkable coup de théâtre.

When Follywit saw the constable coming with the other “players”, he was appalled at the prospect of being unmasked: “What’s to be done? I shall be sham’d for ever, my wife here and all” (V.ii.49–50). With the constable sent away, he thinks the crisis has passed. He leaves the stage and comes back on, no longer in disguise, but as himself. Almost immediately he’s given away by the chiming watch, which is still in his pocket. He asks, “Have I ’scap’t the constable to be brought in by the watch?” (V.ii.251). (There’s a lot of that kind of wordplay throughout the drama; that’s my favourite example, silly though it is.)

His new wife is horrified at the realization that she has married a thief, until her mother reminds her “thou art beforehand with him, daughter” (V.ii.255). Sir Bounteous is understandably furious, till he learns that his larcenous grandson has married his own former mistress. His amusement at this takes the sting out of the betrayal. Both the newlyweds repent their former misbehaviour.

COURTESAN: What I have been is past, be that forgiven,
And have a soul true both to thee and heaven. (V.ii.285–6)

The third play is yet another variation on the themes of these two. In A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, the character with “wit” in his name isn’t a quickwitted risk-taker like Witgood or Follywit, and he’s not at the centre of the action. Allwit’s name is an inversion of “wittol”: he has in effect been pimping out his wife for years to Sir Walter Whorehound, by whom she has several children including a newly-born daughter. Allwit and his wife have long been dissolutely living off Sir Walter’s bounty, but now their comfortable existence is threatened. Sir Walter wishes to marry the title character, the daughter of a wealthy goldsmith named Yellowhammer. She, true to the formula, is set on marrying a younger, poorer man, Touchwood Junior. Unusually, his name comes quite far down the Dramatis Personae, below his elder brother’s. His role turns out to be significant but relatively passive.

Allwit sees that his only hope is to stymie Sir Walter’s intended marriage, so he approaches Yellowhammer and tells him exactly what kind of man his prospective son-in-law is. Yellowhammer is undeterred: he still wants the marriage to go ahead. Sir Walter is hoping to inherit lands from relatives of his, Sir Oliver and Lady Kix, who are childless. They are advised to seek the assistance of Touchwood Senior, who is unnaturally fecund. He and his wife are reluctantly living apart because they can’t afford any more children.

Sir Oliver clearly doesn’t understand that the proposed solution to their fertility problem will require Touchwood Senior to have sex with Lady Kix. She appears not to have grasped that fact either, though she might be pretending. (I suppose the role could be played either way.) If she doesn’t understand what Touchwood’s about to do, then of course the conception of her child (her husband’s heir) will be the result of a rape.

The problem of the chaste maid, Moll, and her love for Touchwood Junior, is resolved by a comic version of the device used at the end of Romeo and Juliet. With the help of Moll’s servant, Susan, and the elder Touchwood brother, the two lovers pretend to be dead, but both rise from their coffins at the end of the play to be married.

In this play, unlike the other two, the man who ends up married to a “whore” is not one of the main characters. He’s Tim, Moll’s brother, a student at Cambridge, and rather an absurd personage. He and his tutor go around exchanging Negatur argumentum and Sic probo, and attempting to argue rationally. Tim marries the so-called Welsh widow, who is really another mistress of Sir Walter’s. The old knight, like Witgood in A Trick to Catch the Old One, is concerned to provide his discarded lover with the security of marriage to a man of some means. Sir Walter himself is not so fortunate. No longer having the Kix inheritance in prospect, he is arrested and imprisoned for debt.

Like Hoard and Follywit in the other plays, Tim promptly resigns himself to making the best of his marital situation. He puts forward an unconvincing maxim (Uxor non est meretrix: V.iv.113), which his new wife expands upon: “There’s a thing call’d marriage, and that makes me honest" (V.iv.115).

It’s striking that all three plays end on the trope of the bride who is less than she appears. In this, the plays seem to be in some kind of dialogue with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (which is thought by some to have been revised by Middleton after Shakespeare’s death), in which Lucio complains that being forced to marry “a punk … is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging” (Measure for Measure: V.i). Unlike Lucio, Middleton’s duped grooms soon come to be reconciled to their situations.

The comedy in these plays is notably cruel. Sir Bounteous Progress has a lot to forgive in Follywit’s behaviour, including the invasion of his home. However harshly the goldsmith Yellowhammer may have treated his daughter, it is surely callous of her and her accomplices to allow him, her mother and other relatives to believe that she has died, and to expect them to arrange a funeral. In the same play, two greedy “Promoters” are tricked into promising to look after an unwanted baby (apparently another of Touchwood Senior’s superfluous offspring). While I was reflecting on this, it struck me that the plays I’ve been describing as tragedies also mix comedy and cruelty in unusual ways. Perhaps it’s a mistake to think of them as tragedies rather than as particularly heartless comedies?

When I wrote about The Changeling, I noted that, though it looks like a revenge tragedy, the would-be avenger is surprisingly ineffectual, really just a peripheral character. The revenge plot (supposedly the tragic “main” plot) in The Revenger’s Tragedy is oddly inert, whereas the real business of the play is to be found in the “comic” subplot. Women Beware Women culminates in a gory though hilarious farrago of “purposes mistook, fall’n on th’inventors’ heads”. Perhaps I need to look at these plays again, but as bloody comedies, rather than as tragedies.

Editions: A Trick to Catch the Old One and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside are both cited from Thomas Middleton, Five Plays, Penguin Classics, 1988; and A Mad World My Masters from Four Jacobean City Comedies, Penguin Classics, 1975.