A Chaste Maid in Cheapside
Most scholars believe that Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside was first performed sometime between 1611 and 1613, although it was not published until 1630, when it was published in a quarto edition in England. This play, like many of Middleton's other works, details several plots carried out by unscrupulous people in search of wealth, marriage, or sex—and sometimes all three. The chaste maid of the title would have been a joke for Middleton's audiences since Cheapside was infamous at the time for its prostitutes and other lascivious people, and a chaste maid would have been hard to find. Middleton was born into London's prosperous middle class and had some exposure to most other classes as well. As a result, his plays include characters from all social levels, offering an accurate portrayal of what life was like in London at this time. In fact, some critics have gone so far as to call Middleton a realist, since he, above many other playwrights of the time, was so adept at exposing the harsh, unromanticized reality of human vice and corruption. The play is intricately plotted and consists of several stories about many families which are ultimately resolved at the same time. Because of this masterful plotting and because the play was so audacious in its exploration of the depths of human depravity—which Middleton exploited for comic purposes—many critics consider the play to be one of his finest works. A current copy of the play can be found in the paperback edition of Five Plays, which was published by Penguin USA in 1988.
Middleton was born in 1580 in London, England. Although most scholars list April 18 as his christening date, most are unable to confirm his actual birth date. The playwright began writing at an early age, publishing at least three nondramatic pieces as a teenager. He attended Queen's College, Oxford, starting in 1598, but apparently left without a degree after two years. The first record of his dramatic work comes in 1602 with Caesar's Fall or The Two Shapes, which he wrote with Anthony Munday, John Webster, and Michael Drayton. Especially in the early part of his career, Middleton often collaborated with other playwrights as part of his work for the famous producer Philip Henslowe.
Because of his collaborations, some of Middleton's plays have only been fully attributed to him since the 1970s, when Middleton scholarship increased significantly. These include The Puritan (1607); The Revenger's Tragedy (1607); and A Yorkshire Tragedy (1608). Middleton's plays often feature a cast of characters who try to connive or deceive each other, as they do in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, which Middleton most likely wrote sometime between 1611 to 1613, and which was first published in 1630. Other well-known comedies include Michaelmas Term (1607) and A Trick to Catch the Old One (1608). However, while Middleton's comedies have been enjoyed by many, two of his tragedies—Women Beware Women (performed in 1621) and The Changeling (performed in 1621 and written by Middleton and William Rowley)—are often considered his two masterpieces.
Middleton wrote his plays during the late-Elizabethan period and was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, two playwrights with whom he is often compared. In his time, Middleton was an extremely popular playwright and was often commissioned to write and produce plays for noble or political clients. In 1620, Middleton started serving as city chronologer, a post he held until his death. Middleton died on July 4, 1627, in Newington Butts, Surrey, England.
Act 1, Scene 1
A Chaste Maid in Cheapside starts out during the season of Lent with a conversation between Moll Yellowhammer and her mother, Maudlin. The
latter is very critical of her daughter saying that she is not very feminine and that she should feel lucky that she is getting married. Mr. Yellowhammer, a goldsmith, comes in announcing the arrival of Sir Walter, an older knight who is Moll's intended husband. At the same time, the Yellowhammers receive a letter from their son Tim who is returning from college. In return for giving Sir Walter Moll's hand in marriage, Walter is bringing a woman to marry Tim. The Yellowhammers believe that this woman is Sir Walter's landed niece, a Welsh gentlewoman, but she is in fact a prostitute. The Yellowhammers present Moll to Sir Walter, who initially tries to flee, afraid of her impending marriage. Touchwood Junior, a young man who is in love with Moll, dupes Yellowhammer into making him a wedding ring. When Yellowhammer asks how big the intended bride's finger is, Touchwood Junior says that it is the same size as Moll's. He also says that he needs the ring quickly, as he is trying to steal his bride away from her father. Yellowhammer does not see through this speech to realize that Touchwood Junior means Moll.
Act 1, Scene 2
Davy, Sir Walter's poor relative and personal valet, comes across Mr. Allwit whose wife is expecting a baby. Allwit delivers a lengthy monologuePage 20 | Top of Article that describes how Sir Walter has taken care of the Allwits for many years. He alludes to the fact that Sir Walter has had a long-standing affair with Mrs. Allwit and that Sir Walter is the father of their children. Sir Walter enters and asks Mr. Allwit and two servants if anybody else has slept with Mrs. Allwit including Mr. Allwit. They all deny it and Sir Walter says that if anybody else does sleep with her, he will marry somebody else and leave them all without money. At this point the Allwits do not know about Sir Walter's intended marriage to Moll. Allwit tells the audience that he will fight to keep Sir Walter single, so that the knight continues to feel compelled to sleep with Mrs. Allwit and pay for all of the Allwits' expenses. Two of Sir Walter's sons by Mrs. Allwit, Wat and Nick, come in to say hello, and Sir Walter makes plans to get rid of them before his marriage by sending them off to be apprentices.
Act 2, Scene 1
Touchwood Senior, the older brother of Touchwood Junior, enters with his wife. They talk about the fact that they must live separately because Touchwood Senior is so fertile that his wife keeps having babies which they cannot afford to raise. Touchwood Senior's wife leaves and another woman, carrying a child enters. She says that it is Touchwood's bastard child and she threatens to announce this fact. Touchwood Senior gives her some money, and she leaves him alone. While Sir Oliver Kix and his wife—relatives of Sir Walter—watch from afar, Touchwood Junior comes to ask for his older brother's help in buying a marriage license for his desired marriage to Moll. They both exit and the Kixes note that while Touchwood Senior is financially poor, he is rich in children. They on the other hand, are rich but have been unable to conceive, a fact that makes both of them bitter and causes them to fight because they need an heir to claim the property that will otherwise go to Sir Walter. A maid breaks up their fight, saying that Touchwood Senior has a fertility water that he drinks, which could make Lady Kix pregnant. The maid says that if Sir Kix is willing to pay Touchwood Senior a lot of money, he will give them some of the fertility water.
Act 2, Scene 2
Allwit and Sir Walter talk about Mrs. Allwit's new baby girl. While Allwit refers to it as Sir Walter's when they are alone, when others come in, such as the wet nurse, they refer to it as Allwit's child. In fact, when it comes time to choose gossips or witnesses at the baby girl's christening, Sir Walter says that he will serve as one himself to prevent the suspicion that Sir Walter is the father. Allwit offers to get Touchwood Junior, whom Sir Walter does not know, to serve as another witness. Allwit spies two promoters, authorities who were given the power to take meat from citizens who were not supposed to be eating it during Lent. Allwit insults them. The promoters are upset but return to their watching and soon confiscate some meat from one man. Another man works for somebody who pays off the promoters so they let him go. Finally, the woman with the child from the previous scene walks by the promoters, blatantly carrying a basket of meat with the baby hidden underneath. When the promoters take the basket and the woman leaves, they realize that they have been had and that the woman has dumped her unwanted child on them.
Act 2, Scene 3
Allwit and Davy get ready for the christening of Mrs. Allwit's child. The various witnesses including Puritan women, arrive on the scene and get ready to go inside to the christening. Meanwhile, Touchwood Junior has picked up the ring that he had Yellowhammer make and he and Moll make plans to steal away and be secretly married. Sir Walter enters and is introduced to Touchwood Junior, who is supposed to serve as one of the witnesses. The women squabble over their line order for going into the christening.
Act 3, Scene 1
Meanwhile, Touchwood Junior sneaks away and joins with a parson, who is going to marry Touchwood Junior and Moll in secret. Moll arrives with Touchwood Senior and the secret ceremony begins but is broken up by Yellowhammer and Sir Walter. Yellowhammer leaves with Moll whom, he says, he is going to lock up. Sir Walter disavows any friendship with Touchwood Junior since he tried to steal Moll away from him.
Act 3, Scene 2
During the christening, the various women remark how much the large child looks like its father, meaning Allwit. They also note how gallant Sir Walter looks when compared to Mr. Allwit. Sir Walter gives Mrs. Allwit a very generous gift which the various women remark on, saying it is too rich. The nurse comes in bringing sweets and wine and Allwit notices that some of the women take more than their share. He also notes that if he were payingPage 21 | Top of Article for all of this, he would be broke from the Puritan women's obvious excess. However, since Sir Walter is footing the bill, Allwit has nothing to worry about. The men leave and the nurse lets Mrs. Allwit know that her son Tim has arrived. Tim comes into the room, sees all of the married women and leaves. The nurse drags him back in. Mrs. Allwit calls for Tim's tutor who has arrived with him from college. Tim suffers welcoming kisses from all of the married women. In a private conversation, Davy tells Allwit that Sir Walter is intending to marry Moll. Allwit vows to stop the marriage.
Act 3, Scene 3
Touchwood Junior tells his older brother about his plan to steal Moll away from Yellowhammer. Touchwood Junior also encourages his virile older brother to get Lady Kix pregnant so that Touchwood Senior can claim that it was due to the fertility water and make money out of the deal. Sir Kix and his wife enter, fighting about their inability to conceive. Touchwood Senior sells Kix the fertility water, which is really just almond milk, then tells the knight that he must ride for five hours to shake up the elixir and make it work. Sir Oliver gives Touchwood Senior one hundred pounds and then promises to give him another hundred when his wife gets pregnant, a third hundred when she is bedridden and a fourth hundred when she actually has the child. Sir Oliver leaves for his five-hour journey, and Touchwood Senior and Lady Kix go to her coach so that he can impregnate her.
Act 4, Scene 1
Tim and his tutor get in a semantic argument in Latin which is broken up by Maudlin Yellowhammer. Tim says he can prove anything by logic and says that he will prove a prostitute to be an honest woman. Maudlin sends the Welsh gentlewoman in to Tim, hoping to strike up a love affair between them while Maudlin and the tutor leave. Tim tries to speak to the woman in Latin, but she does not understand it and she thinks that he does not understand English. As a result, she tries to speak to him in Welsh, but Tim does not understand. Maudlin comes in and realizes that Tim's use of Latin has caused the confusion. Tim has heard that the Welsh gentlewoman can sing and asks her to do so in order to see all of his wife's qualities before he marries her. She sings and Tim is impressed. They all leave and Yellowhammer and Allwit have a private conference in which Allwit claims to be a relative. He also tells Yellowhammer that Sir Walter is a ladies man who has been sleeping with the wife of a man named Allwit for seven years. Since Yellowhammer does not know who Allwit is, he does not realize that Allwit is talking to him. Although Yellowhammer tells Allwit that he will not let Sir Walter marry his daughter, secretly, he says he will, since Yellowhammer himself has also kept mistresses. Maudlin comes in and says that Moll has escaped.
Act 4, Scene 2
Touchwood Junior and Moll attempt to escape across the river, but Maudlin jumps in the water and drags Moll back to land. Yellowhammer tells Sir Walter that they should be married first thing in the morning to prevent her from escaping again. In his grief over losing Moll again, Touchwood Junior draws his sword on Sir Walter and they fight.
Act 5, Scene 1
Davy goes to the Allwits, telling them that he thinks that Sir Walter's wounds from the fight may kill him. Sir Walter arrives, obviously hurt. Although Allwit first tries to help him, Sir Walter will have none of it and keeps accusing him and Mrs. Allwit of being his undoing. He says that they are the cause of his sin and that they have encouraged it. Now he wants only to repent and they keep showing him signs of his sin, such as three of the bastard children—Wat, Nick, and the baby girl—that he had by Mrs. Allwit. Allwit brings Sir Walter so that he can make his will, and Sir Walter savagely bequeaths curses, plagues, and other miseries to the Allwits. A servant enters and says that Touchwood Junior is dead, killed from the wounds given to him by Sir Walter. The Allwits suddenly change their tune and refuse to harbor Sir Walter now that he is wanted by the law as a murderer and can no longer be of any financial use to them. In addition, both of the Allwits refuse to acknowledge the fact that he has slept with Mrs. Allwit. Sir Walter leaves and the Allwits resolve to use the riches that they have acquired over the years from Sir Walter to get a house in the Strand, the most fashionable part of London.
Act 5, Scene 2
The Yellowhammers nervously attend to Moll who appears to be on her deathbed from a sickness she got while being dragged out of the water by her mother. Touchwood Senior enters with a letter from his younger brother, whom he says is dead. Moll appears to die and is carried out. YellowhammerPage 22 | Top of Article suggests that they miss Moll's funeral, so that they can go have Tim married to the Welsh gentlewoman. By doing this, they believe that they will get the riches that Sir Walter promised while not having to marry their daughter to Sir Walter, since he is wanted by the law.
Act 5, Scene 3
Sir Oliver speaks with his servants noting that his wife, Lady Kix, is newly pregnant. He instructs the servants to pay Touchwood Senior his next hundred pounds. The servants tell Kix about the impending funeral for Moll and Touchwood Junior.
Act 5, Scene 4
At the funeral, Touchwood Senior asks the assembled crowd if they would have been joyous to see Moll and Touchwood Junior married. The crowd says yes, at which point the two lovers rise from their coffins admitting that they faked their deaths and are married by the parson. Yellowhammer and Maudlin enter too late to stop the marriage. They also note that they have married their son Tim to the Welsh gentlewoman, who is a prostitute—a fact they learned too late. They talk about Sir Walter, who is in the debtor's prison for failing to pay all of his bills. Sir Kix tells Touchwood Senior that he and his family are free to live with Sir Kix and his wife, and that Sir Kix will support any children that the Touchwoods have. Tim and his new wife enter and Tim is upset that he has married a prostitute. However, Maudlin reminds him that he once said he could prove a prostitute to be an honest woman and now he has his chance. All of the guests retire to dinner where they will celebrate both new marriages.
Mr. Allwit knowingly lets his wife have an affair with Sir Walter Whorehound and in return, Sir Walter covers all of the Allwits' living expenses. Allwit is an example of a willing cuckold known as a wittol. For Allwit and for his wife, their marriage is more like a business arrangement than a traditional, romantic marriage. Allwit allows Sir Walter to be his wife's lover to the point where Allwit has lost the privilege of sleeping with his wife at all, as a scene with the jealous Sir Walter indicates. Allwit is also suspicious of Sir Walter, cautious that his benefactor may someday try to marry and no longer need Allwit's wife. When Allwit realizes that Sir Walter has come to town to marry Moll Yellowhammer, he tries to stop it by telling Mr. Yellowhammer that Sir Walter has had mistresses. Despite their strange arrangement, Allwit does genuinely enjoy his children—all of whom are bastards fathered by Sir Walter. When Sir Walter seeks redemption at the end of the play, thinking he is mortally wounded, Allwit tries to comfort him by bringing in two of these bastard children—Wat and Nick. However, when Sir Walter says that he will leave Allwit and his wife only curses in his will and when Allwit hears Sir Walter has killed a man and is a wanted fugitive, Allwit suddenly changes his tune and no longer wants anything to do with Sir Walter. He refuses Sir Walter sanctuary, and Allwit and his wife decide to use the possessions bought for them by Sir Walter to outfit a house in the Strand—the fashionable part of London.
With her husband's knowledge, Mrs. Allwit has an affair with Sir Walter Whorehound. In return, Sir Walter covers all of the Allwits' living expenses. Mrs. Allwit's marriage to her husband is more like a business arrangement than a romantic marriage. When the play begins, Mrs. Allwit is about to give birth to her latest child by Sir Walter. This fact and the event of the new baby's christening, give the play some of the most humorously ironic scenes—a fact noted by many critics. When Sir Walter seeks redemption at the end of the play, thinking he is mortally wounded, Allwit tries to comfort him by bringing in some of the bastard children that Mrs. Allwit has had by Sir Walter. This only makes Sir Walter more distressed, and he accuses Mrs. Allwit of helping to damn his soul by being his mistress. When Allwit tries to throw Sir Walter out after it is revealed that Sir Walter is a fugitive, Mrs. Allwit tries to intervene on Sir Walter's behalf at first. Ultimately, Mrs. Allwit sides with her husband. After they kick out Sir Walter, it is Mrs. Allwit who suggests they use their extra possessions to secure a house in the Strand.
Davy Dahanna is Sir Walter Whorehound's poor relative and personal servant. Throughout the play, Dahanna makes many humorous asides to the audience at the expense of Sir Walter and others. Dahanna is the one who notifies Mr. Allwit of Sir Walter's impending marriage. Dahanna is hopingPage 23 | Top of Article that if Allwit can stop the marriage and Sir Walter dies childless, Dahanna may gain the inheritance from his distant relation, Sir Kix.
Mrs. Kix, wife of Sir Kix, is distraught that they cannot conceive a child so she gets pregnant by Touchwood Senior. The Kixes are related to Sir Walter in an unspecified way, but the play does indicate that if the Kixes do not bear an heir, they will lose their fortune to Sir Walter. For this reason, the Kixes' childless state becomes a source of strife between them, and Mrs. Kix blames her husband, saying that she never had fertility problems before. After Mrs. Kix and her husband learn of the special fertility drink that Touchwood Senior can sell them, Mrs. Kix encourages her husband to buy it. While her husband drinks the elixir and is sent off on a long horseback ride—which Touchwood Senior says is the only way to make the drink work—the extremely fertile Touchwood Senior impregnates Mrs. Kix in her coach.
Sir Oliver Kix
Sir Oliver Kix is related to Sir Walter and the two are in competition to see who can produce the first legitimate heir and thus secure the Kixes' fortune; Kix unwittingly allows himself to be cuckolded. The Kixes' childless state becomes a source of strife between them, and Sir Kix blames his wife, saying she is barren—even though Sir Kix is an old man and is more likely culpable for their sterile condition. When Sir Kix hears about Touchwood Senior's fertility drink, he buys a vial of the drink from the latter. However, Touchwood Senior tells Sir Kix that in order for the drink to work, Sir Kix must take a long horseback ride to properly mix up the elixir. Sir Kix falls for this deception and, while he is gone on his trip, the extremely fertile Touchwood Senior impregnates Mrs. Kix. Sir Kix is so happy when his wife conceives that he offers to feed and house Touchwood Senior and all of his children including any other children that Touchwood Senior might have in the future.
Touchwood Junior is in love with Moll Yellowhammer, but her parents forbid her to marry him. The lovers try to marry in secret, but they are caught before they can be wed. Next, they try to run away together across the river, but Maudlin Yellowhammer jumps in the river, catches Moll, and drags her out. Finally, the two lovers fake their deaths. For Touchwood Junior, he fakes his by acting like he is mortally wounded in a duel with Sir Walter Whorehound. However, at the funeral for the lovers, Touchwood Junior and Moll rise up out of their coffins and get married before the Yellowhammers can stop them.
Touchwood Senior is an extremely fertile man who has more children than he can support and as a result, he and his wife plan to live apart before they have any more children. Touchwood Senior finds a benefactor for his children when he sells a fake elixir to Sir Oliver Kix, saying that it will make him fertile enough to impregnate his wife. However, while Kix is off taking the elixir, Touchwood Senior impregnates Mrs. Kix himself. Sir Kix is so happy that his wife is pregnant that he agrees to support Touchwood Senior and his family.
The Welsh Gentlewoman
The Welsh Gentlewoman is a prostitute whom Sir Walter Whorehound poses as his niece, who is to be married to Tim Yellowhammer in return for Sir Walter getting to marry Moll Yellowhammer. The Welsh Gentlewoman is married to Tim at the same time as the supposed funeral of Moll Yellowhammer. Although Tim is distraught when he finds out he has married a prostitute, she tells him that marriage makes her honest.
Maudlin Yellowhammer tries to help her husband force their daughter, Moll, to marry Sir Walter Whorehound as an exchange for having their son marry the Welsh Gentlewoman, whom they believe is rich. Although Moll is one of the few chaste characters in the play, Maudlin treats Moll like she is worthless especially when Moll tries on two separate occasions to escape her marriage to Sir Walter. On the second occasion, Maudlin literally drags Moll out of the river by her hair. When Moll uses this incident to fake her own death, Moll's parents mourn her loss but do not attend the funeral because they are too busy trying to marry their son Tim to the Welsh Gentlewoman before Sir Walter Whorehound finds out that his intended bride is dead. As a result, the Yellowhammers arrive too late to Moll's funeral—where Moll and Touchwood Junior reveal that they are alive—and are unable to stop Moll and Touchwood Junior from marrying.
Moll is the chaste maid of the play's title who wishes to marry Touchwood Junior, but her parents try to force her to marry Sir Walter Whorehound instead. Moll and Touchwood Junior try to marry in secret, but they are caught before they can be wed. Next, they try to run away together across the river, but Maudlin Yellowhammer jumps in the river, catches Moll and drags her out. Moll uses the incident to fake her death by acting as if she caught ill when her mother pulled her out of the river. At the same time, Touchwood Junior fakes his death by acting like he was mortally wounded in a duel with Sir Walter Whorehound. At the funeral for the lovers, Moll and Touchwood Junior rise up out of their coffins and get married before the Yellowhammers can stop them.
Yellowhammer is a goldsmith who along with his wife, Maudlin, tries to force his daughter, Moll, to marry Sir Walter Whorehound. Yellowhammer is blind to the fact that Touchwood Junior is having him make a wedding ring with which to steal Moll. However, Yellowhammer arrives in time to stop the two lovers' first attempt at marriage. When Allwit comes to see Yellowhammer, he poses as a relative who is trying to give Yellowhammer some advice. He tells Yellowhammer that Sir Walter is an adulterer and Yellowhammer tells Allwit that he will not have Sir Walter marry his daughter. However, when Allwit is gone, Yellowhammer notes that he himself has kept mistresses before, and that he still plans on going through with the marriage of Moll and Sir Walter. When Moll fakes her death, her parents mourn her loss but do not attend the funeral because they are too busy trying to marry their son Tim to the Welsh Gentlewoman before Sir Walter Whorehound finds out that his intended bride is dead. As a result, the Yellowhammers arrive too late to Moll's funeral—where Moll and Touchwood Junior reveal that they are alive—and are unable to stop Moll and Touchwood Junior from marrying. However, Yellowhammer realizes that it could be worse, as he has just married his son to a prostitute and finds comfort in the fact that he only has to pay for one dinner to serve both of his children's weddings.
Tim is a university student who is unwittingly led to marry a prostitute posing as the Welsh Gentlewoman. Tim is very dim-witted, but he thinks that his university education makes him smart. As a result, he tries to use Latin whenever he can, much to the dismay of his mother and the Welsh Gentlewoman who thinks he is insulting her. Tim thinks that logic can solve anything and spends much of his time locked in logical debates with his tutor. Although at first he is apprehensive about his intended union with the Welsh Gentlewoman, he grows to be very fond of her. When he finds out after they are married that she is a prostitute, he is distraught until his mother reminds him that he once said he could use logic to prove a prostitute to be an honest woman—and now he has his chance. Ultimately, Tim accepts his wife when she says that, despite her past, marriage makes her an honest woman.
In A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, it seems like everybody is either married or wants to get married. In fact, one marriage in particular, the intended marriage of Sir Walter to Moll Yellowhammer, creates the conflict in the play. Sir Walter has agreed to marry Moll and in return he has agreed to have Tim Yellowhammer marry his niece. This first arrangement also introduces the first deception. While Moll is in fact a chaste maid, as the title indicates, Sir Walter's niece—who is not his niece at all but a prostitute—is anything but the Welsh gentlewoman she pretends to be. As Sir Walter is riding into Cheapside with the Welsh gentlewoman, he instructs her in her deception. Sir Walter says, "Here you must pass for a pure virgin." Sir Walter also deceives the Allwits by not telling them that he is planning on getting married. He knows that if the Allwits suspect Sir Walter is getting married, they will try to stop it because, as a single man, he will continue to be their benefactor. When Davy tells Allwit that Sir Walter is intending to marry Moll, Allwit leaves hurriedly saying, "I have no time to stay, nor scarce to speak, / I'll stop those wheels, or all the work will break." By this, Allwit refers to all of the hard work that he and his wife have put into making money off of Sir Walter.
While Sir Walter intends to marry Moll, she is really in love with Touchwood Junior, whom she wants to marry. Their attempts to marry are thwarted on several occasions. The first time, Touchwood Junior dupes Moll's father, a goldsmith, by having him make the ring that he intends to place on Moll's finger. Touchwood Junior is very bold in this ruse,Page 25 | Top of Article telling Yellowhammer that he intends to use the ring to steal away a man's daughter. However, Yellowhammer does not suspect that he is that man and so criticizes any father who is so blind. Yellowhammer says, "And parents blinded so, but they're served right / That have two eyes, and wear so dull a sight." However, Yellowhammer breaks up the marriage of Moll and Touchwood Junior just in time before the parson can marry them. From this point on the Yellowhammers try to keep Moll under lock and key until she is to be wed to Sir Walter. Yellowhammer says, "In the meantime, I will lock up this baggage, / As carefully as my gold." With some help, Moll escapes again but is literally dragged back by her mother. Feigning a fatal illness, Moll "dies."
Her parents are so caught up with trying to marry Tim to the Welsh gentlewoman that they do not attend the funeral where Moll and Touchwood Junior rise from their coffins and are happily married. The parson says, "Hands join now, but hearts for ever, / Which no parent's mood shall sever." However, the Yellowhammers's "mood" is surprisingly calm and they support the marriage since Sir Walter has proven to be a debtor and is in prison and because they just found out that they have had Tim married to Sir Walter's prostitute. Yellowhammer says, "My poor boy Tim is cast away this morning, / Even before breakfast: married a whore." Tim is also distraught, until his mother reminds him of his own words, saying, "You told me once, by logic you would prove / A whore an honest woman, prove her so Tim." Tim accepts the challenge, but his new wife beats him to it, saying, "Sir if your logic cannot prove me honest, / There's a thing called marriage, and that makes me honest." Thus, both marriages turn out happily.
Besides references to marriage, the play is saturated with sex, most notably extramarital affairs. Many of the male characters in the play have engaged in extramarital affairs and so have some of the women. In the seventeenth century when a man slept with another man's wife, he was said to have cuckolded the woman's husband. Cuckoldry, which was depicted by multiple horns on the cuckolded husband's head, was often used to provide humor in plays like this. In the play, two men, Mr. Allwit and Sir Kix, are cuckolded. Mr. Allwit is aware of his cuckolding and allows it to happen, since Sir Walter pays for all of the Allwits's expenses in return for the privilege of sleeping with Mrs. Allwit. Allwit says about Sir Walter, "He gets me all my children, and pays the nurse, / Monthly, or weekly, puts me to nothing." In fact, the affair between Sir Walter and Mrs. Allwit is so strong that Sir Walter is jealous of Allwit. Allwit says, "I may sit still and play; he's jealous for me—/Watches her steps, sets spies—I live at ease."
Sir Kix, on the other hand, is unaware of his cuckolding although he unknowingly alludes to it at times. For example, in one passage Touchwood Senior, a very fertile man who plans on impregnating the barren Lady Kix—and attributing her pregnancy to the fake fertility drink that he sells to her husband—asks Sir Oliver if he remembers their deal. Sir Oliver says, "Or else I had a bad head." This comment, which can refer to Kix's memory, could also be taken by others to refer to the horns that Sir Oliver is about to gain through his cuckolding.
Besides marriage and sex, the characters in the play obsess about money. By marrying Moll, Sir Walter will get two thousand pounds in a dowry. Although it appears that he has enough money, the audience finds out at the end that he has been having a hard time paying his bills. As Yellowhammer notes, Sir Walter "lies i'th' knight's ward now." The knights ward was a special section in debtor's prison that was devoted to knights. Yellowhammer further notes, "His creditors are so greedy." So, while in the beginning it appears that Sir Walter is marrying Moll because he is interested only in marrying a virgin, at the end the audience can see that he also needed the dowry money to settle his debts. Many of these debts were probably gained from trying to support the Allwits. Through his long relationship with Mrs. Allwit, Sir Walter pays for the children they have, as well as all of the Allwits' living expenses. This certainly helps to drain his funds. As for the Allwits, in the end they use the property and possessions that they have gotten from Sir Walter to better their position in life. Allwit says, "We are richly furnished wife, with household stuff." Mrs. Allwit suggests that they "let out lodgings then, / And take a house in the Strand." In other words, they are going to rent out their house in Cheapside and use the money to buy a house in the Strand, the fashionable part of London.
Touchwood Senior and his wife also worry about money, since his extreme fertility keeps creating children they cannot afford to raise. However, after he dupes Sir Kix into believing that it was his fertility water—and not Touchwood Senior's affair with his wife—that got Lady Kix pregnant, Sir Kix offers to take care of whatever children Touchwood Senior has. Kix says, "Be not afraid to go to your business roundly, / Get children, and I'll keep them." After this point, Touchwood Senior and his family no longer have to worry about money.
The term Elizabethan period, named for England's Queen Elizabeth I, has not been defined in any concrete terms. While some only call dramas Elizabethan if they were written from 1558 to 1603, Elizabeth's actual reign, others call any drama up to 1642—when the theaters were closed—Elizabethan drama. For example, many scholars consider Thomas Middleton an Elizabethan dramatist even though the majority of his plays were written and performed during the Jacobean era. In any case, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside uses similar conventions as other Elizabethan dramas, and so is often included in this category. Elizabethan dramas were performed on stages that were vastly different from those used in classical and medieval times. Unlike medieval plays, Elizabethan drama used very few props or sets, putting the burden on the actors, the dialogue, and the actors' movements to communicate what was going on in the play. In addition, the playgoers were expected to pick up on these clues. Therefore, reading a complex Elizabethan drama like A Chaste Maid in Cheapside can be very difficult without footnotes since the reader must often determine from the dialogue alone what is going on.
Plays in the Elizabethan period were also often characterized by double entendres or double meanings. Writers like William Shakespeare, the most famous Elizabethan dramatist, were very adept at inserting these double meanings into the play through dialogue. So was Middleton. In A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, as in many of his other plays, Middleton's double entendres have sexual connotations. These double meanings show up in the very first exchange of the play when Maudlin Yellowhammer is scolding Moll for not taking her dancing lessons seriously. Maudlin remembers her own dancing lessons, saying, "I was kept at it; I took delight to learn, and he to teach me, pretty brown gentleman, he took pleasure in my company." By this dialogue, one can see that Maudlin was having an affair with her dancing teacher. This is one of the more tame passages in the play. Other more bold references include Touchwood Senior's warning to Sir Kix at the end of the play. Sir Kix has said that he will pay for any children that Touchwood Senior has. To this, Touchwood Senior responds, "Take heed how you dare a man, while you live sir, / That has good skill at his weapon." Touchwood Senior's "weapon" is a reference to his penis. He is skilled at using it because he is so fertile.
In addition to double entendres, which are spoken out loud in dialogue with another character, Middleton also makes use of asides—comments directed at the audience, which the other characters cannot hear. For example, when Sir Walter tells hisPage 27 | Top of Article prostitute that she must pass as a virgin, Sir Walter's valet, Davy, makes a comment to the audience. Davy says, "[Aside] Pure Welsh virgin, she lost her maidenhead in Brecknockshire." Davy knows that the woman is a prostitute, so he makes a joke about Sir Walter's comment saying that, technically, the woman is a Welsh virgin since she lost her virginity inside of Wales. Besides these jokes, Middleton uses asides in the play to apprise the audience about the various deceptions that the characters are playing on each other. For example, in another aside, Touchwood Senior holds up the fake fertility drink, saying to the audience: "Here's a little vial of almond-milk / That stood me in some three pence." Although the almond milk only cost a few pence, he is using it to dupe Sir Kix into paying him four hundred pounds. These types of deceptions happen throughout the play and they are often accompanied by asides.
Cheapside in the Early Seventeenth Century
Contemporary audiences would have recognized the joke in the play's title. In the early seventeenth century, the chances of finding a chaste maid in Cheapside were slim. Technically, Cheap-side—which was also known at various points as West Cheap or simply, Cheap—was the long, wide street that ran through one of the central sections of London. It served as one of London's marketplaces where merchants like Mr. Yellowhammer, the goldsmith from the play, peddled their wares. In this area, prostitutes also peddled their wares and the area itself had an unseemly reputation.
Catholicism versus Protestantism
The ambiguous morality in Cheapside and of England overall may have been the consequence of an ambiguous and constantly changing religious system. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, England underwent a Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation, huge theological battles between various Christian churches. The Reformation was an attack on the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church by various popes and many clergy members. Two strong Protestant leaders, Martin Luther and John Calvin, led the charge for reform, in the process creating two new Christian denominations, Lutheranism and Calvinism, respectively. In defense, the Catholic Church instituted a number of reforms and embarked on a religious renewal. During this time period, Pope Clement VII refused to annul the marriage of Henry VIII of England to Catherine of Aragon. In response, Henry passed several acts that established the Church of England as an individual church with Henry as its head. Up until then, the Church in England had been the English division of the Catholic Church and thus had the pope as its head, as other regional Catholic Churches did.
Although Henry intended for the Church of England to remain Catholic, his successor, Edward VI, introduced many Protestant reforms during his short reign. Then, to make matters more confusing, Edward's half-sister, Mary, a Catholic, assumed the throne in 1553 and persecuted Protestants during her short reign. When Elizabeth I became queen in 1558, she restored Protestantism in England, passing several acts that favored Protestants. However, Protestants thought she was not hard enough on Catholics, and Catholics—backed by the pope—thought Elizabeth a heretic. Elizabeth toed the line during her long reign, not willing to endorse either side totally and the religious tension increased. The Puritans were the most zealous Protestants and as their name implied, they sought to be the most pure and to enforce this pure way of life on others. The Puritan movement in the early seventeenth century ultimately led to a series of English Civil Wars from 1642 to 1651 and the establishment of a short-lived Commonwealth (1649–1660), which was abolished when the monarchy's power was restored in 1660.
Law Enforcement and Prisons
Amidst all of this religious strife, London had many legal systems in place that dealt with both religious and civil issues. The play features two examples of the legal system in London at this time. The promoters, hired spies who confiscated meat that was bought illegally during Lent, are one example of a government agency that enforced religious practices. The other major example is the imprisonment of Sir Walter at the end of the play. When Mrs. Allwit asks what has become of Sir Walter, Mr. Yellowhammer notes: "Who, the knight? / He lies i'th' knight's ward now." The knight's ward was a special section in London prisons that was reserved for knights, to separate them from others whoPage 28 | Top of Article belonged to different classes. One of Yellowhammer's other lines, "His creditors are so greedy," indicates that Sir Walter has been arrested because he spent all of his fortune on the Allwits. As a result, he would have been thrown into one of the debtors' prisons, the most famous of which was Newgate.
By the time Middleton wrote the play in the early 1610s, most of his comedies had been performed in front of private audiences. However, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside was written and performed for a popular audience. Charles Barber says in his critical introduction to the University of California Press version of the play, "This may help to explain the richness and exuberance of the play compared with its predecessors, and the fuller and more sympathetic handling of the romantic lovers."
In his own time, Middleton was a popular playwright with audiences, but was not held in as high esteem critically as was William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and other major playwrights of the Elizabethan and Jacobean time periods. Despite this fact, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside would certainly have been seen as a daring play in its time since it harshly satirized religious hypocrisy among groups such as the Puritans when the Puritan movement was gaining strength. The trend to ignore Middleton as one of the great dramatists of the seventeenth century continued throughout the next two centuries. There were exceptions to this, however. For example, in his 1887 essay on Middleton for The Best Plays of the Old Dramatists, Algernon Charles Swinburne argues that Middleton is a "genius," and calls A Chaste Maid in Cheapside "a play of quite exceptional freedom and audacity, and certainly one of the drollest and liveliest that ever broke the bounds of propriety or shook the sides of merriment."
In fact, Middleton's works did not earn a substantial amount of critical attention until this century, and even then his image suffered from the fact that he often collaborated with others. Scholars still debate which of his plays Middleton wrote alone, which ones he wrote in collaboration, and which ones were actually written by others. For the most
part, however, modern critics count Middleton as one of the great English dramatists and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside as one of the great English comedies. Many critics cite the play's deft combination of comedy and tragedy, especially as it serves to highlight humanity's vices. F. R. Mulryne says in his 1979 entry on Middleton for British Writers, "The play's gusto and seriousness, combined, make it one of theater's richest statements on money, sex, and society." Many critics note the realistic qualities of the play; it gives an astonishingly accurate portrayal of what real life was like for London citizens of the time. However, as Martin W. Sampson notes in his 1915 introduction to Masterpieces of the English Drama: Thomas Middleton, Middleton's realism differs from the realistic, or naturalistic, movement that took place at the turn of the twentieth century. Sampson says, "The Elizabethan with utter frankness reveals passions and prejudices, foolish, ignominious, or debasing, but he is free of bitterness and superiority."
In fact, the morality of the play—with its many tricks and deceptions—has elicited the most comment from critics. As Dorothy M. Farr notes of the play in her book Thomas Middleton and the Drama of Realism: A Study of Some of the Representative Plays, "We often meet greedy tricksters and false brides in Jacobean drama, but few so cleverly placed in relation to one another as these." Critics offer several explanations of the immoral behavior in the play which has sometimes elicited negative comments from critics. In his book Thomas Middleton's City Comedies, Anthony Covatta sums up the sentiment from these critics. According to Covatta, "For them the play's world is a very dark one indeed, its characters completely lacking in moral and religious conviction and in normal human love." Covatta is one of the critics who believes that the characters' motivations can be traced to a desire to help their families. Covatta says, "Characters step outside the boundaries of propriety and morality but do so because the real advantages to be gained outweigh the hypothetical benefits of maintaining sterile order."
Ryan D. Poquette
Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In thePage 30 | Top of Article following essay, Poquette discusses the ambiguous morality that Middleton demonstrates in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.
Modern readers may walk away from Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside shocked and appalled. The play takes place during Lent, a penitent time in some Christian denominations, but features several acts that are anything but holy. A husband willingly allows his wife to have sex with another man in return for financial security; another unwittingly pays for the opportunity to be cuckolded; and, a bastard child is wittingly donated to royal spies by being disguised as a basket of meat. With incidents such as these, Middleton's moral intent with the play has been widely discussed and challenged. Middleton was a Christian and has been labeled both a Calvinist and a Puritan by various critics. The latter may seem odd to a modern-day viewer since Middleton satirizes Puritans in the play. However, as Herbert Jack Heller notes in his book Penitent Brothellers: Grace, Sexuality, and Genre in Thomas Middleton's City Comedies, the outrageously immoral acts in the play can overshadow any moral message on the part of Middleton. Heller says, "a critic not sensitive to the religious perspectives of Middleton and his first audiences is likely to conclude that Middleton favors attitudes which he is, in fact, exposing." However, the play does have a moral center, albeit a shaky one, in the form of Moll Yellowhammer and Touchwood Junior.
From the very beginning of the play, most characters are depicted as being very immoral. Anthony Covatta says in his book Thomas Middleton's City Comedies, "It is beyond doubt that his characters are usually 'low,' both morally and socially. They are neither refined nor scrupulous." This is an understatement in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, which starts out immoral and gets worse. When Maudlin speaks to her daughter Moll in the first exchange of dialogue, Maudlin criticizes Moll for not being more like Maudlin was as a maid. However, as a maid, Maudlin was "lightsome, and quick, two years before I was married." This passage on its own could simply mean that Maudlin was excited and devoted to her feminine studies.Page 31 | Top of Article However, it is soon revealed through the use of double entendre that Maudlin is saying that, when she was young, she was sexually active with her dancing instructor. Right from the start, the play takes on sexual overtones, which remain throughout the work.
Certain characters seem to have codes of morality that are conveniently flexible. For example, for both Allwit and Mr. Yellowhammer, it is okay to sell the sex of one of their family members in order to preserve their financial stability. In the case of Allwit, he allows his wife to sleep with Sir Walter in return for having the knight support the couple. Allwit says, "I thank him, h'as maintained my house this ten years, / Not only keeps my wife, but a keeps me." Likewise, Mr. Yellowhammer thinks nothing of marrying his daughter to Sir Walter even though she is not interested because in return, Tim Yellowhammer will marry the Welsh gentlewoman and inherit her fortune. Yellowhammer says, "Tis a match of Sir Walter's own making / To bind us to him, and our heirs for ever." Even when Yellowhammer finds out from Allwit that Sir Walter has been having sexual affairs, he does not change his mind about having Moll marry the knight. Yellowhammer says, "The knight is rich, he shall be my son-in-law, / No matter so the whore he keeps be wholesome, / My daughter takes no hurt then, so let them wed." By "wholesome," Yellowhammer means free of venereal disease. In other words, as long as Sir Walter does not have any sexually transmitted diseases, Yellowhammer will overlook the knight's transgressions. As Dorothy M. Farr notes in her book Thomas Middleton and the Drama of Realism: A Study of Some of the Representative Plays, Allwit and Yellowhammer have specific moral codes that allow them to commit certain acts. Farr says, "In the code of both, greed excuses lechery."
Other characters have odd codes of morality that allow them to commit one immoral act but not another. One of the most famous examples from the play is the scene with the two promoters. These two hired spies demonstrate that they are willing to take meat away from the poor but will also turn a blind eye to anybody who bribes them enough. The first promoter says to his partner after letting a man sneak some meat by them, "Tis Mr Beggarland's man, the wealthy merchant. / That is in fee with us." However, when the country wench dupes them into taking her unwanted child, the two promoters have a moral dilemma since they unwittingly promised to keep it. Covatta says, "They are quite willing to use their post for personal profit but feel they cannot break their word."
Into this corrupt world, where almost everyone seems a villain, Middleton places two characters who help to balance out the immorality, at least a little bit. Charles Barber says in his critical introduction to the University of California Press version of the play, "The young lovers…. provide, even if sketchily, a norm of human relations by which we can judge the marketeering attitudes of the other characters." Moll Yellowhammer and Touchwood Junior are not entirely innocent of deception. Touchwood Junior at first appears very moral because he believes in chastity. As he remarks to Moll, "Turn not to me till thou mayst lawfully," meaning that they should wait until after they are married to have sex. Despite his own adherence to a chaste lifestyle, however, Heller notes that this good intention is offset by Junior's "active promotion of his senior brother's arrangement with the Kixes." Likewise, Moll engages in a series of tricks and deceptions to try to escape her upcoming marriage to Sir Walter and get married to Touchwood Junior without her parents' consent. However, despite the trickery of Moll and Touchwood Junior, their marriage is motivated by love, which makes them seem more moral than other characters.
In the end, all of the discussion over how moral the play is or even whether the play has a moral, may be a topic of interest only to modern readers and critics. Moral justification for the acts in the play was probably not an issue for many playgoers in Middleton's time since Elizabethan audiences found humor in situations that many modern viewers do not. As Martin Sampson notes in his introduction to Masterpieces of the English Drama: Thomas Middleton, "he who would understand the immensePage 32 | Top of Article vivacity of Elizabethan drama must come to perceive that our forbears saw the funny side of many things which to us are beneath or above contempt." Likewise, since Middleton's play has been noted by many critics to be representative of life in London at the time, many of the playgoers may have recognized the moral sacrifices that the characters make in order to survive in the city. As T. H. Howard-Hill notes in his entry on Middleton for Dictionary of Literary Biography, "There is small security in his comic world for any of them, and even the best, like Touchwood and Moll, can thrive only by their wits."
Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.
Wallace is a freelance writer and poet. In this essay, Wallace considers Middleton's deft investigation of truth and artifice.
In Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, nothing is quite as it seems. Wives act like whores. Whores pass for wives. Dunces spout Latin to prove their erudition. Middle class parents try desperately to marry their children into an upper class that tries desperately to hide the impending doom of poverty. Even the language Middleton chooses is rife with double meanings. Through all the complicated wordplay and the sometimes bewildering tangle of revelations and protestations, Middleton inexorably explores the difference between what truly is and what can be seen, and the human need for both truth and artifice.
Middleton's Cheapside is crowded with characters who would like to be something other than what they are. The Yellowhammer parents want nothing more than to be considered a step above their current station. Their son, Tim, wants to be considered a learned gentleman. Their daughter, Moll, wishes she were engaged to a different man. Sir Walter Whorehound wishes he possessed the wealth his title suggests he merits. Mistress Allwitt, who has borne him seven illegitimate children, wishes to appear a respectable matron. Touchwood Senior wishes for fewer children, Sir Oliver and Lady Kix for just one of their own. Touchwood Junior longs for the hand of Moll, which is forbidden to him, when the play opens, by the competing ambitions of her parents.
Allwitt alone in this mix is happy in his state and, it seems, in touch with reality. As the cuckolded husband whose household is entirely paid for by the generosity of his wife's lover, Allwitt not only fully acknowledges his position, but glories in it: "I pay for none at all, yet fools think's mine … he's jealous for me, watches her steps, sets spies; I live at ease, he has both the cost and torment: when the strings of his heart frets, I feed, laugh or sing." Allwitt's disdain for the fools who are tricked by the shaky artifice of his sham marriage is matched by what could almost be described as a strange zeal for telling the truth. Not only does he horrify Sir Walter with his directness about the reality of their relation, he seems to take glee in telling the truth in other instances as well: he trumps the promoters with the fact of his wife's childbirth, which exempts him from the penalty they planned to place on him for the crime of having meat during Lent. When it looks as though Moll's unhappy engagement to Sir Walter might end his comfortable arrangement, Allwit resorts not to artifice, but to truth, going to the girl's father, Yellowhammer, with the facts of Sir Walter's domestic situation.
Interestingly, Yellowhammer, one of the characters sunk most deeply in both self-deception and machinations to deceive the rest of the world, reacts to the truth with more artifice by pretending to be enraged at the news but actually filing it away as a bargaining chip in his negotiations with Sir Walter for his daughter. In Middleton's artifice-infested Cheapside, the simple truth can't seem to survive on its own. In fact, Middleton almost seems to question truth's usefulness by giving Allwitt, an extremely corrupt character, such concern for it. Why does Middleton give such seeming concern for truth to a character as corrupt as Allwittt? Middleton, whose vision while realistic is also highly moral, surely is not suggesting that lies are better than truth. He may be making a more complicated point: that a man with a conscience might want to hide parts of himself from the world because of his awareness that he has fallen short of his ideals. "The more slave!" Sir Walter exclaims of Allwitt. "When man turns base, out goes his soul's pure flame: the fat of ease o'erthrows the eyes of shame." Allwitt, although he seems committed to what is true, has actually lost something far more important: the ability to judge between not just truth and lies, but good and evil.
If Allwitt stands on the bottom rung of Middleton's moral ladder, Moll, the "chaste maid" of the title, and her reasonably virtuous lover, Touchwood Junior, cling somewhat clumsily nearPage 33 | Top of Article the top. The two lovers have done nothing wrong: even Middleton's loaded sexual language simmers down some in their speeches. The two of them want only to be joined in holy matrimony and are prevented by the avarice and artifice of those around them: Moll's parents, who want a daughter wed to a knight, and Sir Walter who wants Moll's parents' gold. Within this twisted world, the young lovers behave with as much honor as may be realistic: Touchwood properly buys a ring for his beloved and brings in a priest to consecrate their union. But, after two thwarted attempts at marriage, the young lovers resort to fighting artifice with artifice, faking their deaths to gain sympathy from both the public and their parents who are unable to stand against the tide of public opinion when the lovers are "resurrected" in the final scene. Their artifice, however, has a different edge to it than that of their parents, who work to obscure reality by pretending to be other than what they are. Instead, Moll and Touchwood Junior scheme only to reveal the deeper truth of their love.
Middleton's take on the usefulness of truth does not end with a simple preference for artifice over bare facts, however. In fact, although Middleton pairs Allwitt's zeal for revealing the naked truth with a deeply corrupt soul, Middleton is unsparing with his characters who refuse to see the truth when it stands clearly before them. Touchwood Junior buys Moll's wedding ring from her unsuspecting father, even telling the old man that he plans to deceive the parents of his intended in order to marry her, but Yellowhammer, blinded by greed at the sale, sees nothing. His blindness is ironically twosided: he is unaware of his daughter's true value, objectifying her as only a bargaining chip with which to advance in the world, with little to no thought for her happiness beyond concern for her physical well-being. At the same time, although her moodiness leads him to suspect she might love someone other than Sir Walter, Yellowhammer is absolutely unable to conceive of the possibility that she might muster enough spunk to deceive him and follow her heart. Even when Touchwood boldly claims that Moll is almost a perfect copy of his beloved and uses her finger in fitting the ring, Yellowhammer, perhaps blinded by Touchwood's guarantee of payment, regardless of whether the ring fits or not, remains unseeing. He even adds his own line of mockery to Touchwood's little farce declaring, "I wonder things can be so warily carried, and parents blinded so; but they're served right that have two eyes and wear so dull a sight."
If Middleton punishes those that refuse to see clearly, he also rewards those who are true to themselves, however imperfectly. The purest example of this is the young lovers, who refuse to betray their hearts, against strong odds. Middleton is also kind to Touchwood Senior, who, aware of his legendary fertility, uses his double-edged gift to bless Sir Oliver and Lady Kix with a child. In an absolute world, Touchwood Senior stands on very shaky ground, but Middleton uses him as the instrument to grant the wishes of Lord Oliver and Lady Kix, who then reward Touchwood by promising to provide for him and all his future children. On the other hand, the Yellowhammers, Sir Walter, and Tim, all of whom strive to be something which they are not, are those who are punished most severely, all three losing both money and prestige.
Within Middleton's logic of remaining true to oneself, the Welsh gentlewoman is an interesting aberration. Originally a whore, she passes for a maid and becomes a wife, serving as a foil to Mistress Allwitt who passes for a wife but serves as a whore. Middleton's insistence that his characters remain true to themselves would seem to necessitate her punishment for pretending to be something which she is not, which her marriage, and it's attendant rise to respectability, seems to contradict. But Middleton may be using her to make a larger point: that the categories of "wife" and "whore" are not defined by behavior alone, that the Welsh gentlewoman's true identity may not be completely defined by her past dalliances. But by no stretch of the imagination is she truly pure or honest, and Middleton is not absolutely benevolent with her: her marriage to Tim could be construed either as reward or punishment.
No matter how true or false Middleton's characters are to themselves, a vast gap remains for all of them between what they do and what they say. Throughout the play, character after character makes beautiful written and morally sound speeches on the way life ought to be—then goes on to belie this, sometimes with their very next act. Touchwood Senior's speech on marriage at the opening of act 2 is perhaps the best example. In his almost achingly lovely paean to marriage, he praises his wife's willingness to be separated from him until a time when they can afford the children their desire engenders. "Honest wife, I thank thee," he says as they part. "I ne'er knew the perfect treasure thou brought'st with thee more than at this instant moment. A man's happy when he's at poorest that has matched his soul as rightly as his body." As soon as Mistress Touchwood exits the scene, Touchwood's speech turns from praise of her character within half a dozen lines, to bitter ruminations on his inability to enjoy marital or extramarital relations without impregnating his partner—and then to an encounter with a woman who is likely the mother of one of his illegitimate children. Sir Oliver wishes his wife happiness at any price, then descends into recriminations about her fertility within half a page of dialogue. The gossips that attend Mistress Allwitt's lying-in offer strings of touching blessings on the likely doomed newborn while drinking so heavily they leave staggering. Even the addle-headed student Tim mouths a seemingly prescient nugget of advice on marriage, wondering that his parents "think I have no more care of my body than to lie with one that I ne'er knew, a mere stranger, one that ne'er went to school with me neither, nor ever play-fellows together"—but at the close of the drama, he's managed to marry, not just a stranger, but a whore.
What does Middleton mean to say by revealing the ugly ditch between what his characters say and the lives they lead? In the face of the worldly pressures which sympathetic characters like Sir Oliver, Lady Kix, Touchwood Senior, Touchwood Junior, and Moll face—poverty, society, biology—Middleton's realistic about the fact that it's almost impossible to live a life of absolutes and survive. Middleton does not seem to judge his characters for their inability to live up to their more noble dreams. He is not willing to give up on them, either. In fact, by linking Allwitt's corruption with his brash insistence on looking the truth square in the face, Middleton seems to suggest that some artifice may, in fact, be a necessity for the human race. To avoid sinking completely into depravity, Middleton's characters need those lovely speeches. While they can't live up to them, the fact that they can still speak of better things provides the proof that their human flame is still flickering.
Source: Carey Wallace, Critical Essay on A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.
Arthur F. Marotti
In the following essay, Marotti examines how Middleton leveraged the theme of fertility to great comic effect in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.
When Thomas Middleton wrote A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1611–1613), his finest and most complex comic drama, he was already a practiced and successful private theater playwright. In such plays as Michaelmas Term, A Mad World, My Master, and A Trick to Catch the Old One he had helped to perfect the form of city comedy that was so fashionable in early Jacobean London, reflecting, as it did, the intellectual sophistication, moral scepticism, and taste for irony of its educated audience. In composing A Chaste Maid for the public stage, he faced the problem of turning satiric comedy into popular comedy, or at least of merging the ironic vision of his coterie dramas with the festive spirit of that particular dramatic tradition which a play like Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday epitomizes. His solution was to utilize much of the thematic material he had handled in his earlier works—materialism and avarice, bourgeois pretensions, aristocratic degeneracy, religious hypocrisy, libertinism and prodigality—but also to expand his treatment of human sexuality to lay new stress on the theme of fertility and, hence, make Eros, not Momus, the god of his comic world.
This new synthesis is anticipated by certain elements in his previous plays, such as the marriages and festivities at the end of A Mad World and A Trick, comedies which avoid the sterner, judgment-scene conclusions of the earlier, more didactic pieces, The Phoenix, Your Five Gallants, and Michaelmas Term. The Family of Love is a particularly interesting case: like A Chaste Maid, it concludes with a celebration of marriage and the family and a clear affirmation of the goodness and power of human sexuality properly used, proclaiming the value of fruitful love in honest physical terms. The
love of Gerardine and Maria, the play's romantic hero and heroine, leads logically and naturally to sexual intercourse; and the child born to them in the course of the action is a symbol of the richness and vitality of their relationship. It is no accident that the play's loveless couples, the Purges and the Glisters, are childless, and the lecherous gallants, Lipsalve and Gudgeon, comically impotent in their sexual frustration. In any event, this comedy signals an interest on Middleton's part in the human reproductive powers—not merely because private theater audiences demanded sexual material, but also because he could make of it valid thematic use.
This interest in the theme of fertility is a continuing one for Middleton, especially apparent in the unusual number of pregnancies and onstage infants in his later plays. In A Fair Quarrel, a tragicomedy written in collaboration with William Rowley, the Fitzallen-Jane relationship bears a remarkable similarity to the Gerardine-Maria one: despite their use for the creation of some tragicomic responses, Jane's pregnancy and the onstage infant serve as a promise that the society of this play will once again be harmonious, that the quarrel between the Colonel and Captain Ager, who are unwittingly related because of the young lovers' precontracted marriage, will end "fairly," with the younger generation of characters enjoying life instead of thwarting it. In More Dissemblers Besides Women, Lactantio's cast-off mistress, disguised as a page to escape detection by the young hypocrite's antifeminist uncle, is visibly pregnant onstage before giving birth to their child. Aside from the broad comedy of the scene in which she is forced to improve her "manly" graces by taking dancing lessons which actually induce labor (the kind of farcical treatment of sex Middleton could not resist), she is striking evidence, in this play, of the power of fertile sexuality which the woman-hating Cardinal rejects, to which the widowed Aurelia (like Olivia in Twelfth Night) pretends to be immune, and which ultimately causes the discomfiture of the opportunistic Lactantio himself. In terms of the drama's festive conclusion, the child born to this anonymous girl is, as in The Family of Love, a sign of a languishing society's capacity for regeneration. In The Old Law, Agatha, who is sentenced to death under the outrageous edict stipulating that all men over eighty and all women over sixty are to be executed, makes a pathetic attempt at feigning pregnancy by hiding a cushion under her gown in order to be allowed to survive. Here, more obviously than in A Fair Quarrel and More Dissemblers,Page 36 | Top of Article pregnancy—even a counterfeit one—is a symbol of the life-force within nature and the human instinct to live.
As Shakespeare's sonnets testify, man's procreative powers had a more urgent importance in an age of high infant-mortality and short life-expectancy. Jonson's Hymenaei offers immediate conception as the ideal in human marriage; for fertility, as the conclusion of A Mid-summer Night's Dream and the wedding masque of The Tempest illustrate, is the greatest blessing a loving married couple can possess. In Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick comically remarks that marriage is a necessary institution because "the world must be peopled"—a commandment which is quite serious, considered against the background of all the immanent dangers to life and health in the medically primitive Renaissance. London, for example, lost more than 30,000 people in the plague of 1603–4; and man's only effective weapon against death was procreation. In Shakespeare's words to the young man of the sonnets: "nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defense / Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence" (Sonnet XII).
A Chaste Maid in Cheapside demonstrates that the theme of fertility can find its fullest expression in comedy, the one form of drama which best embodies the élan vital; for this particular play fuses this theme with its basic comic pattern. In its joyous celebration of man's procreative energies, A Chaste Maid is close in spirit to comedy's origin in phallic song—a virtually prototypical comic drama (in Susanne Langer's definition of the form), "erotic, risque, and sensuous if not sensual, impious, and even wicked." If Eros is the "presiding genius of comedy," he exists here in his properly comic avatar Priapus in the character of Touchwood Sr., who, in his enormous sexual potency, most vividly symbolizes the power of fertility present in Middleton's dramatic world.
Functioning effectively as a life-principle in a world threatened by moral and physical disease and death, he has the incredible—and comically magical—ability of having his every act of intercourse result in a pregnancy. He remarks with genial self-mockery:
… of all men
I am the most unfortunate in that game
That ever pleas'd both genders; I ne'er play'd yet
Under a bastard; the poor wenches curse me
To the pit where'er I come; they were ne'er serv'd so,
But us'd to have more words than one to a bargain:
I have such a fatal finger in such business,
I must forth with't; chiefly for country wenches,
For every harvest I shall hinder haymaking;
Enter a wench with a child
I had no less than seven lay in last progress,
Within three weeks of one another's time.
In this tissue of double entendres, there is a spirit of vitality and play that distracts the audience from the potential moral issues in such rambunctious sexuality. Middleton, in fact, seems only interested in this drama in quickening his audience's ethical awareness with reference to such things as avarice and callous selfishness, sins which have a negative, asocial character and which result in the frustration of love and the disruption of families. For him, the forces which aid Thanatos in its battle with Eros are the really dangerous ones. So Touchwood Sr. exists, in his erotic vitality, as a healthy counterbalance to anti-life activities like fanatical and hypocritical religious asceticism, ruthless social-climbing, and the stubborn pursuit of wealth for its own sake. But, in this play's comic society, his fertility is initially a victim of economic "necessity": he and his wife are forced into a temporary separation because they cannot afford to have more children. As he explains to her in the very first scene in which they appear:
… our desiresPage 37 | Top of Article
Are both too fruitful for our own barren fortunes.
How adverse runs the destiny of some creatures,
Some only can get riches and no children;
We only can get children and no riches …
… every year a child, and some years two …
In this action, love must be liberated from the tyranny of money, or at least there must be a reconciliation of Eros and Pecunia, a harmony toward which the play as a whole must move; for the drama's hero and heroine, Touchwood Jr. and Moll Yellowhammer, face a problem thematically related to that of the Touchwood Seniors' and the solutions in the two plot lines are causally interrelated.
The Touchwood Seniors' problem finds its answer through an operation of comic accident. Since Middleton builds a farcical symmetry into his play in assigning to Sir Oliver Kix and his wife a problem precisely opposite to theirs (wealth and childlessness), it is inevitable that the two should cancel each other out. Sir Oliver suffers from impotence, as Lady Kix's insult, "brevity," implies, and, in spite of his railing against his wife for her supposed barrenness, it is clearly his fault that they are without children. Lady Kix complains:
Every one gets before me; there's my sister
Was married but at Bartholomew-eve last
And she can have two children at birth;
O, one of them, one of them would ha' serv'd my turn …
Obsessed with their desire for a family, they are willing to "give a thousand pound to purchase fruitfulness," an offer tailor-made for Touchwood Sr.
In his erotic comedy Mandragola, Macchiavelli uses a fertility potion as a central device for his comic intrigue. Callimaco (who is, like Touchwood Sr., a witty schemer) poses as a doctor with a powerful conception potion derived from the aphrodisiac mandrake plant and persuades Messr. Nicia not only to allow him to administer it to his wife, whom he desires, but to engage the sexual services of an anonymous victim who is supposedly to die from the encounter, a role played by Callimaco himself. In A Chaste Maid, Middleton creates a similar comic action, but he eliminates some of the complexities of the plot Macchiavelli uses, though he utilizes not one, but two fertility potions. In the scene in which the Kixes spend their energies in mutual accusation, a maid tells them about a certain doctor's miraculous remedy for sterility; and, since this is in the same scene in which Touchwood Sr. has been introduced, the audience is in on the trick from the start:
There's a gentleman,
I haply have his name too, that has got
Nine children, by one water that he useth;
It never misses; they come so fast upon him,
He was fain to give it over
… he'll undertake,
Using that water, within fifteen year,
For all your wealth, to make you a poor man,
You shall so swarm with children.
Excited by this vision of abundant progeny, the Kixes immediately hire Touchwood Sr. to administer the "water." In an episode of untroubled farce, Touchwood Sr. gives Sir Oliver a vial of almond milk (totemically, the appropriate color liquid) and sends him out to ride on horseback for five hours to build up his sexual potency. When Lady Kix asks him how she should take her medicine, this "doctor," who has, incidentally, just finished a meal of aphrodisiac foods, tells her, "Yours must be taken lying," and leads her off to have intercourse—in her coach, if necessary. When the "water" has worked its magic and Lady Kix's pregnancy is verified, Sir Oliver thinks that he has sired a child with the help of Touchwood Senior's medical skills and is so rapturously happy that he proposes, with comic unconsciousness, that their two families live in a kind of symbiotic relationship. He tells his cuckholder-benefactor:
… I am so endear'd to thee for my wife's fruitfulness
That I charge you both, your wife and thee,
To live no more asunder for the world's frowns;
I have purse, and bed, and board for you:
Be not afraid to go to your business roundly;
Get children, and I'll keep them.
In the harmony that is reached between need and abundance, the force of fertility is finally liberated. In the play's other two plots, however, this goal is harder to achieve, for the problems they contain are more serious and complex.
In the Sir Walter Whorehound-Allwits plot, the comic action is more obviously satiric, since the fertility theme is subordinated to the moral issue of the bourgeois couple's adulterous relationship with their degenerate patron. Whereas Touchwood Senior's motives for his virtually amoral adultery with Lady Kix are healthy in the sense that he brings joy to the Kixes and reunites his own family, Sir Walter's relationship to the Allwits is a brutalizing one that strikes at the very foundation of marriage and the family. In fact, his ultimate expulsion from the play's reconstituted society is justified, in large part, by his pretense that his illicit relationship with Mistress Allwit carries with it the rights of a marital one—a mistake which Touchwood Sr., in his indiscriminate swiving, never makes. Middleton calls attention to Sir Walter's particular moral deformity by attributing to him the kind of thin-skinned jealousy we would expect of the husband, not the cuckolder: he thinks of Mistress Allwit as his rightfulPage 38 | Top of Article possession and is tormented because, as he says to the wittol, "I heard you were once offering to go to bed to her." His selfishness affects all three of the play's major plots; and so, after he has been wounded in his fight with Touchwood Jr., he justly deserves his virtual exile, becoming, like Dampit of A Trick to Catch the Old One, a scapegoat figure, carrying with him all the moral disgust the audience might feel for any of the play's other vicious characters.
In spite of the satiric material in this particular plot, the point of view of the Touchwood Sr.-Kixes' plot carries over to soften some of the moral outlines. For even here Middleton is able to affirm some aspects of a basically unattractive situation. This is evident in the (apparently) deliberate dramatic parallelism between Sir Walter's latest child by Mistress Allwit and the infant brought to Touchwood Sr. by the country wench: in each case, Middleton amplifies the theme of procreative vitality and uses the infants, not to condemn male libertinism, but to expose life-denying, anti-carnal religious hypocrisy.
When the country girl leaves him to fare for herself in Puritan London with his latest bastard (her fifth child), the impoverished Touchwood Sr. remarks to himself:
What shift she'll make now with this piece of flesh
In this strict time of Lent, I cannot imagine;
Flesh dare not peep abroad now …
The pun on the word "flesh" is elaborated dramatically in the subsequent scene in which we witness the corrupt promotors selectively enforcing "religious wholesome laws." These civil regulations against the consumption of meat in the city during the Lenten season are representative of the pharasaical denial of man's physicality that must be exposed, as it is, by the very "flesh" it seeks to humble. And this is precisely what happens in the episode in which the promoters, who confiscate meat only from those who have not bribed them, seize upon the girl's basket, in which the infant is sleeping, but which they think contains only a piece of mutton they covet, and find themselves with a "piece of flesh" they had not expected to gather. The flesh, which they actually serve, but puritanically pretend to despise, has its revenge on them.
The christening party scene, at the center of which is another child (the new Allwit baby), is thematically close to this one; for, like the promotors, the Puritan ladies suffer a betrayal by their own appetites. What begins as a display of bourgeois pseudopoliteness becomes an image of comic animality. The women glut themselves on comfits and get ludicrously drunk on the wine offered them, making sexual advances, in their hiccoughing overindulgence, at the first males to come into reach, Tim Yellowhammer and his Cambridge tutor. The infant, which, like the country girl's child, is a sign of the physical vitality within the world of A Chaste Maid, again occasions the unmasking of the animal appetites of religious hypocrites.
The Sir Walter-Allwits' plot, then, may raise some serious ethical questions; but, as is evident in the christening party scene and the strong presence of the fertility theme (much is made of Mistress Allwit's pregnancy and the Allwit household has a total of seven children), there is something comically alive about it. In the Touchwood Jr.-Yellowhammers plot the mood is darker: here Eros is clearly repressed and, as the symbolic deaths of Moll and her lover indicate, the greed and opportunism of the Yellowhammers are more potent anti-life forces. Money tyrannizes over love in the Yellowhammers' insistence that their daughter marry the profligate, but titled, Sir Walter Whorehound against her will. In a scene which is probably intended as a parody of popular theater romantic pathos, Moll is apparently killed by a combination of her parents' cruel insensitivity to her feelings and the news of her lover's supposed death. And the audience itself believes the young couple to have died; for it is probably meant to react to their resurrection in the final scene with a joyful surprise, jolted into a comic awareness of the value of life and love.
Eros is freed from bondage finally in the context of a conventional but highly theatrical device. After the coffins of the young lovers are brought onstage to file dirgeful music of recorders, attended by the play's major characters (with the exception of the Yellowhammers, who appear later, and Sir Walter, who is in a hospital recovering from his wounds), Touchwood Sr. delivers a funeral oration to enlist the sympathies of his audience, and then suddenly revives his brother and Moll: "Up then apace, and take your fortunes, / Make these joyful hearts; Here's none but friends." In a trick which Jacobean comedy borrows from the commedia dell'arte, the two lovers arise from their coffins and are married on the spot. This transformation of winding-sheets into wedding-sheets makes their caskets into life and fertility symbols: "Here be your wedding-sheets you brought along with you: you may both go to bed when you please too," Touchwood Sr. tells them, presiding over theirPage 39 | Top of Article resurrection and espousals (as he had over their earlier aborted wedding) like a benevolent fertility god. Even in this plot, love triumphs over all odds; and the double wedding with which the play concludes—Touchwood Jr. and Moll, Tim Yellowhammer and Sir Walter's Welsh courtesan—converts the mood of the comedy wholly into one of celebration, the avaricious Yellowhammer, despite a comic trace of stinginess, incongruously emerging as a joyful host to the younger generation:
So fortune seldom deals two marriages
With one hand, and both lucky; the best is,
One feast will serve them both: marry, for room,
I'll have the dinner kept in Goldsmiths' Hall,
To which, kind gallants, I invite you all.
This festive conclusion, like that of A Mad World, My Masters, not only regenerates the play's comic society, but it also ceremoniously reaches out into the world of the audience—a popular one in this case—to offer it the wholesome recreation of the spirits and the psychological cleansing that comic mirth can bring. A Chaste Maid, having exorcised its own narrowly moral concerns along with Sir Walter, whose absence is notable in this last scene, conveys to the spectators what Susanne Langer calls "the pure sense of life [which] is the underlying feeling of comedy," a feeling which has been implicit all along in the theme of human fertility.
Source: Arthur F. Marotti, "Fertility and Comic Form in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside," in Comparative Drama, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring 1969, pp. 65–74.
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Barber, Charles, "Critical Introduction," in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, University of California Press, 1969, pp. 3–4, 6–7.
Covatta, Anthony, Thomas Middleton's City Comedies, Bucknell University Press, 1973, pp. 34, 151–52, 158–59.
Farr, Dorothy M., Thomas Middleton and the Drama of Realism: A Study of Some of the Representative Plays, Barnes & Noble, 1973, p. 35.
Heller, Herbert Jack, Penitent Brothellers: Grace, Sexuality, and Genre in Thomas Middleton's City Comedies, University of Delaware Press, 2000, pp. 78, 80.
Howard-Hill, T. H., "Thomas Middleton," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 58, Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists, edited by Fredson Bowers, Gale Research, 1987, pp. 196–222.
Middleton, Thomas, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, edited by Alan Brissenden, Ernest Benn, 1968.
Mulryne, F. R., "Thomas Middleton," in British Writers, Vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1979, pp. 1–23.
Sampson, Martin, "Introduction," in Masterpieces of the English Drama: Thomas Middleton, American Book Company, 1915, pp. 3, 9.
Swinburne, Algernon Charles, "Thomas Middleton," in Thomas Middleton, edited by Havelock Ellis, The Mermaid Series: The Best Plays of the Old Dramatists, Scholarly Press, 1969, pp. vii–xiii, originally published in 1887–1890.
Friedenreich, Kenneth, ed., Accompanying the Players: Essays Celebrating Thomas Middleton, 1580–1980, AMS Press, 1983.
This book offers essays about Middleton from three different centuries, giving readers an overview of Middleton's critical reception throughout the years.
Porter, Roy, London: A Social History, Harvard University Press, 1995.
Porter's one-volume history of London examines the growth of the city from classical times to the present day.
Pritchard, R. E., ed. Shakespeare's England: Life in Elizabethan & Jacobean Times, Sutton Publishing, 1999.
In this book, Pritchard assembles a number of writings from Shakespeare's contemporaries, including excerpts from books, plays, poems, letters, diaries, and pamphlets. These writings detail each writer's view of what life was like in England in this time period. The book includes a selection from a longtime collaborator with Middleton, Thomas Dekker, who talks about Cheapside.
Steen, Sara Jayne, Ambrosia in an Earthen Vessel: Three Centuries of Audience and Reader Response to the Works of Thomas Middleton, AMS Press, 1993.
Steen examines how various audiences and readers have received Middleton's plays throughout the years.