To read a comedy by Middleton—or indeed by almost any of the Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights—is to set in relief the greatness of Shakespeare. Excellent and competent as Middleton is, he seldom reaches the lightness, the mellowness, the vivacity, or even the profundity (if we include THE TEMPEST) of the great Shakespearean comedies. Nor does Middleton equal the poetry of Shakespeare at its best. But, judged on its individual merits, A CHASTE MAID IN CHEAPSIDE must be considered an artistic and dramatic success. It pretends to be nothing more than what it is: a romantic comedy, which nevertheless adds social comment to its frivolity. The plot, of course, is hardly believable: as with all good literature, we willingly suspend our disbelief, while in this case, we allow the playwright to give us a slice of the world of Cheapside.
Actually, there is little that comes cheaply in Cheapside, unless it be cuckoldry and children. Even children do not come cheaply to the Kixes. Women seem to come cheaply, at least to Sir Walter Whorehound. But Sir Walter must pay highly for his women. He has to keep the Allwits living lavishly and take on the support of each new child begotten on Mistress Allwit. Allwit, a satisfied cuckold (a “wittol”), is not really witty, but he is smart enough to know when he has a good deal going for himself. Sir Walter is, for him, the “founder” of his happiness:
I’m like a manFinding a table furnished to his hand,As mine is still to me, prays for the founder—Bless the right worshipful the good founder’s life!
Because of his willing cuckoldry, Allwit wants for nothing, except for dignity and self-respect. His cuckoldry comes cheaply, but at a price far too high for most men.
Sir Walter finds that, while whores are easy to come by, wives are not, at least not chaste ones. Conversely, the Yellowhammers find that rich husbands are not easily gotten. Their daughter, Moll, is the chaste maid; she is also a chased maid, chased by Sir...
(The entire section is 887 words.)