Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887
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...
(The entire section contains 887 words.)
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