A Chaste Maid in Cheapside

by Thomas Middleton

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2269

First produced: 1611

First published: 1630

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Farce

Time of work: Early seventeenth century

Locale: London

Principal Characters:

Sir Walter Whorehound, a man about town

Yellowhammer, a goldsmith

Moll, his daughter

Allwit, a complacent cuckold

Mistress Allwit, his wife

Touchwood (Senior), a man rich only in progeny

Touchwood (Junior), his younger brother


A CHASTE MAID IN CHEAPSIDE, the only play now extant known to have been acted at the Swan Theatre, belongs to that lively series of farcical comedies which Middleton produced between 1604 and 1612. Bawdy, skillful, and wholly laughter-provoking, it is notable for its exceptional freedom and audacity, even if not for its chastity. Its story interweaves most adroitly the affairs of several households, and it travels at a fast pace through wildly comic situations to a satisfactory conclusion. Despite the lightness of its subject matter, however, the drama is given some ballast by its incidental comment on contemporary manners and customs. In one hilarious sequence, Middleton sees to it that detested police informers are made ridiculous; in another, a realistic christening party provides certain pious Puritan ladies with an excuse for imbibing wine with a zeal over and beyond the demands of mere politeness.

The Story:

In the London shop of Yellowhammer, the goldsmith, a family discussion was taking place, a sharp, even quarrelsome exchange. Maudlin, the goldsmith's wife, was finding fault with Moll, her daughter. Moll, opposed to the distasteful marriage into which her parents were trying to inveigle her, was not attracted to the elderly libertine, Sir Walter Whorehound, whose suit the parents had encouraged. Nevertheless, her final consent was being taken for granted by her mother, who railed against Moll for her lack of enthusiasm for the match. So anxious were the Yellowhammers to achieve that connection with Sir Walter that they proposed to cement the family alliance in still another way. As a bride for their son Tim, a bemused student at Cambridge, they had approved Sir Walter's supposed niece, reportedly a Welsh heiress owning nineteen mountains. Actually, the Welshwoman was Sir Walter's mistress, whom he was conveniently preparing to discard as a preliminary to his marriage to Moll.

As the Yellowhammers argued, Sir Walter entered their shop, accompanied by his "niece." From all except Moll, the newcomers received a warm welcome. In the festivities which followed, the younger Touchwood made a casual entrance and, under the very nose of her father, slipped a note to Moll. To the latter, Touchwood posed as a customer, in the shop for the purpose of ordering a wedding ring. He said that he had forgotten the correct size, but he was sure that it would be satisfactory if it would fit the finger of the goldsmith's daughter.

In another household, that of Allwit and his wife, Sir Walter was also held in high esteem, but for very different reasons. Allwit, the nominal master of the household without being its breadwinner, was an arrant but satisfied cuckold whose wife had been Sir Walter's mistress for many years and the mother of Sir Walter's six children. At the time, in fact, she was expecting the imminent birth of a seventh. Allwit, anxiously awaiting Sir Walter's arrival and complacently reviewing the advantages of his singular situation, gloated over the fact that Sir Walter maintained the house, kept it stocked with food, begot Allwit's brood for him, and even—by being jealous of Mistress Allwit—relieved the husband of that irksome prerogative. The only cloud on the Allwit horizon was the possibility that Sir Walter might eventually...

(This entire section contains 2269 words.)

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grow restive and drift into marriage with someone younger and more attractive. Allwit had spiked such disastrous prospects before by making judicious hints to those rich widows and landed virgins who had found favor with Sir Walter. He intended to do the same again before parting with such a prize as his treasured benefactor.

Elsewhere in London, the older of the Touchwood brothers was persuading his disconsolate but understanding wife that they must separate from each other for a while. Touchwood Senior's infallible gift for acquiring paternity had brought their domestic establishment to the verge of financial ruin, and there seemed no other way to slow down the steady increase in the size of his family. This matter settled, Touchwood Senior—a generous man—prepared to help his younger brother, who had requested aid in securing a marriage license.

At the same time, Touchwood Senior was, unknown to him, the subject of conversation between Sir Oliver and Lady Kix, a childless couple who bewailed the fate that kept them without heirs, thereby diverting income and property that should be theirs into the coffers of Sir Walter Whorehound. To achieve parenthood, they had tried numberless remedies in vain, in the meantime endlessly debating the blame for their childless state. Their hope had been quickened when their maid recommended the services of Touchwood Senior, who reportedly worked wonders with a fabulously effective, though quite expensive, type of water.

Mistress Allwit gave birth to a fine girl and in preparation for the christening Allwit and Sir Walter collaborated in the choice of godparents. To allay suspicion, Sir Walter appointed himself, along with his fiancee, Moll; Allwit selected Touchwood Junior. At the christening, the latter was able to exchange a few hurried words with Moll, commenting with satisfaction on the fact that the goldsmith had completed work on the wedding ring.

A short time later Touchwood Junior and Moll met secretly to be married. Their plans were thwarted, however, when Yellowhammer and Sir Walter burst in and took Moll away. The goldsmith promised, henceforth, to keep his daughter under lock and key until her marriage to Sir Walter could be accomplished. Meanwhile, Touchwood Senior, motivated by the prospect of both revenge and profit, agreed to turn the tables on Sir Walter by bringing parenthood to Sir Oliver and his lady. Sir Oliver was induced to drink a dubious liquid and then was sent to ride horseback for five hours. In his absence, Touchwood acquainted Lady Kix with the measures connected with her part of the treatment.

Allwit, disturbed to hear of Sir Walter's wedding plans, told Yellowhammer some colorful details of Sir Walter's behavior. Although the goldsmith professed dismay at the disclosure, after Allwit's departure he reaffirmed his intention to give his daughter to Sir Walter. Moll, however, had once more proved resourceful enough to escape her father's house, only to be brought back dripping wet and dragged by the hair by her angry mother, who had overtaken the runaway after a chase along the river. Angry, Yellowhammer decided to forestall any additional attempts of the kind by setting the next day for Moll's marriage. Desperate at the thought of losing his sweetheart, Touchwood Junior forced Sir Walter into a duel in which they were both wounded.

Sir Walter, distraught, was carried to Allwit's house. His reception there, however, did not follow the usual pattern of unquestioning welcome. Bad news came thick and fast: one moment he heard the rumor that he was guilty of the death of Touchwood Junior; the next, his spirits sank at the news that Sir Oliver Kix's wife was finally pregnant. Allwit, sensing the turn in his benefactor's fortunes, decided to get rid of Sir Walter, even in his wounded condition. When he blusteringly threatened the old libertine with the law, Sir Walter woefully directed his servants to take him away. Left alone, Allwit and Mistress Allwit congratulated themselves on the profits they had gained from Sir Walter's past generosity.

Moll, ill from exposure and grief, received a letter purportedly containing a dying message from her lover. Swooning, she was carried out by Touchwood Senior and the servants of the Yellowhammers. Conscience-stricken, the goldsmith and his wife berated themselves for causing her death.

Later, in church, the coffins of Touchwood Junior and Moll were placed by separate doors. To the surprise of the mourners assembled, however, the supposed corpses rose from their coffins and revealed the lovers as alive and well. The goldsmith and his wife at last conceded defeat and agreed to the marriage of Touchwood Junior and Moll. Since his son Tim had just married the Welsh-woman, Yellowhammer consoled himself with the fact that one wedding feast could serve for the marriage of both his son and his daughter.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

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 Walter. She finds that chastity and a husband she loves are very dear indeed to keep and to possess. To keep her chastity and to possess her lover she has to resist the will of her parents, risk violence, and resort to subterfuge.

The man Moll loves and eventually marries is Touchwood, Junior. His character and that of his brother, Touchwood, Senior, fit their name. Like touchwood, which ignites easily, Touchwood, Junior, is readily incited to violence. He challenges Sir Walter to a duel, thus risking his life for Moll, who, it need hardly be said, does not come cheaply. Touchwood, Senior, on the other hand, finds that children come cheaply but money does not. The side of his nature that ignites too easily is passion.

What is most cheap in Cheapside is cant and hypocrisy, and probably the most amusing scenes in the play are those which satirize these vices in characters not part of the central plot: the promoters (or police informers) and the Puritan ladies. The promoters stop people in the street to search them for meat, which is forbidden at Lent, the time in which the events of the play take place. If the people who are stopped are carrying meat, they must hand it over to the promoters or risk exposure to the police, unless they are in league with the informers. The informers meet their match in a Country Girl, from whom they take a basket they think holds a lamb's head. Instead, they are left with an illegitimate child. The Puritan women are of course more concerned with appearances than realities; they talk more about temperance than they practice it. Middleton puts comicly ironic words into their mouths. One says, for example, that "Children are blessings, / If they be got with zeal by the brethren. . . ." The ladies are celebrating the christening of Mistress Allwit's latest baby fathered by the zealous Sir Walter Whorehound. Furthermore, the same Puritan lady who comments on children drinks so much on this occasion that she cannot stand unaided. These scenes reinforce the theme of cant and hypocrisy—of appearance versus reality—which runs through the play.

This theme is also exemplified in the Yellowhammers' son, Tim, who has come home from Cambridge a full-fledged pedant. He is perhaps too severely punished in having to marry the Welshwoman, who poses as an heiress but who is actually another of Sir Walter's mistresses. Middleton suggests, however, that marriage may change her.

Middleton's dramatic skill shows nowhere better than in his brilliant denouement, in which an apparent funeral is turned into a marriage. Sir Walter is in prison, and his intended bride is at last married to the one she really loves. Harmony has been restored. Swinburne, that enthusiastic critic of the English Renaissance dramatists, writes that A CHASTE MAID IN CHEAPSIDE is "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." If it is less thoughtful than THE MERCHANT OF VENICE or THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, A CHASTE MAID IN CHEAPSIDE is certainly not far removed in artistry and drama. It deserves our attention and acclaim.