Women Beware Women

The series on Jacobean drama continues because I haven’t found time to sit down and write something new up.

Raw Feed (1989): Women Beware Women, Thomas Middleton, Jacobean Tragedies, ed. A. H. Gomme, 1969.Jacobean Tragedies

This play features some of the best poetry of any Jacobean play, an intriguingly complicated plot (which begins to falter at the end of the fourth act), some very realistic dialogue, and an intriguing (at least I consider her such) villainess in Livia, and an amazing lack of virtue on anyone’s part.

Even Leantio, victim of Bianca’s betrayal with the duke, seems all too eager to take his promotion and start committing adultery with Livia. Likewise Isabella is deceived into committing incest with Hippolito but turns all too readily to adultery with the Ward.

The Cardinal, usually ecclesiastical figures are corrupt, is the only voice of virtue in the play, and he is more of a symbol than a real character.

As usual this play featured murder and sex aplenty including the theme of incest again.

However, I found this play hard to read.

Many of the humorous lines and much of the bantering I did not get the significance of (particularly where Leantio’s mother and Livia were playing chess). I found the language particularly difficult.

I also found some of the plot very puzzling, and the lack of stage directions, particularly in the fifth act, didn’t help.

Why does Guardino want to revenge himself on the Duke and Bianca when he knows Livia is the one that deceived him into accepting Isabella?

Where did the “poisoned cup” Bianca drinks come from? How does Isabella die? Her own poisoned incense?

Nevertheless, Middleton puts the device of the dramatic aside to extensive and good use. Usually it is only used for the villain or hero. Here almost everyone uses it.

Middleton also does some complex staging (with heavy use of the above stage) especially in the celebrated chess scene.

Middleton has good characterization particularly in the way Bianca reacts to being seduced by the Duke (“likes the treason well, but hates the traitor” — Guardino), the Duke’s reaction at the thorough scolding by his brother the Cardinal (rationalizing his actions by murdering Leantio and marrying Bianca — as if adultery was worse than murder), and Isabella’s reaction at being told she has committed incest.

It was also interesting to note that the Ward, though foolish, seemed to sense more of Isabella’s corruption (at least sometimes) than anyone else. It was also interesting to see the Jacobean standard of female beauty — already much like ours.

In short, this play is about lots of people rationalizing their immorality and realizing their corruption and dying for their sins.

This play certainly has one of the more vitriolic views of women (and not just in the title).

It also has a clear and typically Jacobean moral message: lust kills.

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