A Chaste Maid in Cheapside

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 746

Characters Discussed

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer, a goldsmith. Eager to see his children rise in the world, he betroths his daughter to Sir Walter Whorehound, giving heed to the man’s title but not to his reputation, and arranges for his son to wed the nobleman’s supposed niece, who proves to be a...

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Characters Discussed

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer, a goldsmith. Eager to see his children rise in the world, he betroths his daughter to Sir Walter Whorehound, giving heed to the man’s title but not to his reputation, and arranges for his son to wed the nobleman’s supposed niece, who proves to be a Welsh prostitute and Sir Walter’s mistress. His harsh refusal to allow Moll to marry her sweetheart, Touchwood Junior, nearly brings tragedy on his family.

Maudlin

Maudlin, his loquacious wife. She scolds her daughter for her sluggishness, regaling the girl with tales of her own gay youth, and she embarrasses her university-trained son by fussing over him before his tutor and many of her friends. She is as distressed as her husband when she learns that her stern treatment of Moll apparently has caused her death.

Moll

Moll, their daughter, whose languid attitude is simply a cloak for her love for young Touchwood. She is never quite successful in her attempts to elude her parents long enough to marry, until her clever maid arranges for her feigned death and reunion with her lover.

Timothy

Timothy, her learned, self-confident brother. He comes home from Cambridge with his tutor to impress his family and friends with his knowledge of Latin. Tricked by Sir Walter into marriage with a prostitute, he is consoled by her wit and physical attractions for the loss of the nineteen Welsh mountains he hoped to acquire as her dowry.

Sir Walter Whorehound

Sir Walter Whorehound, a loose-living gentleman who tries unsuccessfully to bring about at one time his own marriage with Moll, Timothy’s with his Welsh mistress, and the christening of his son by Allwit’s wife, without having his duplicity discovered. His plans are thwarted. Wounded in a duel with young Touchwood, he learns that he will not be Sir Oliver Kix’s heir, and he is promptly deserted by the Allwits.

Allwit

Allwit, a contented cuckold who allows Sir Walter to bed his wife, father the children who bear his name, and maintain his entire household. Unwilling to lose all his worldly comforts, he judiciously spreads gossip about his patron’s character whenever he suspects Sir Walter of considering marriage. Once the knight’s fortunes change, Allwit leaves him to his late fate without a qualm, planning with his wife to live comfortably off the possessions Sir Walter has given them over the years.

Mistress Allwit

Mistress Allwit, his wife. She is happy to bear Sir Walter’s children and accept the compliments of her friends on their looks and accomplishments, but, like her husband, she has no qualms about deserting her lover when he falls into difficulties.

Sir Oliver Kix

Sir Oliver Kix and

Lady Kix

Lady Kix, a devoted couple who spend much of their time quarreling and making up after their disagreements. Their great source of trouble is their unfulfilled desire for a child. They are completely taken in by the scheme of Touchwood Senior, who ensures that an heir to the Kix fortune is conceived.

Touchwood Senior

Touchwood Senior, a poor but prolific gentleman who is forced to separate from his wife to limit the size of their ever-increasing brood. His good services for Sir Oliver and Lady Kix enable him to be reunited with his family, for Sir Oliver promises to support them.

Mistress Touchwood

Mistress Touchwood, his wife, who obligingly agrees to live apart from him, in spite of her fondness for her husband.

A country girl

A country girl, the mother of one of Touchwood’s many children.

Touchwood Junior

Touchwood Junior, Moll’s husband to be, a brother of the older Touchwood. He plans his elopement and thoroughly enjoys having his bride’s father make the ring with which his daughter intends to deceive him. After his marriage plans have been twice thwarted, he is severely wounded by Sir Walter in a duel and writes to Moll as if he were dying. He is, however, miraculously revived, and, at the third try, his wedding takes place, much to the delight of all concerned.

Davy Dahanna

Davy Dahanna, Sir Walter’s servant, a “poor relation” from Wales.

Susan

Susan, Moll’s maid, who plans the counterfeit death and marriage of her mistress and Touchwood Junior.

A Welsh girl

A Welsh girl, Sir Walter’s mistress, who becomes Timothy’s bride. She counters her husband’s philosophy with her own wit, arguing that her past is blotted out; her marriage makes her honest.

Critique

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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.

Historical Context

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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, Cheapside—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 who belonged to different classes. One of Yellowham-mer'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.

Literary Style

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Elizabethan Drama
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.

Double Entendre
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.

Aside
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 his 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.

Compare and Contrast

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Early 1610s: Despite the morally ambiguous lives that many citizens lead in London, they still must keep adultery and other immoral acts hidden from the public eye, for fear that they may lose social or political favor.

Today: London is famous for its tabloid newspapers, which frequently root out and publish salacious rumors and facts about others, especially the English royal family.

Early 1610s: Protestants who belong to the Church of England follow the doctrine of The Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Today: Although the Church of England still uses The Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles to inform its doctrine, it also relies on other sources, including the Bible.

Early 1610s: English people live in a time of civil and religious unrest, as various political and religious groups vie for power. England is one of the major imperial powers of the time period.

Today: English people live in anticipation of war as the result of its alliance with the United States—the driving force in the campaign against Saddam Hussein and Iraq, which United States President George W. Bush claims has weapons of mass destruction. The United States is generally acknowledged as the world's strongest superpower.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
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.

For Further Reading
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.

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