Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1729

First produced: 1608-1610

First published: 1647

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Romantic comedy

Time of work: Early seventeenth century

Locale: England and France

Principal Characters:

Antonio, a foolish gentleman

Mercury, his former traveling companion

Ricardo, a young gentleman, Viola's sweetheart

Valerio, a country gentleman

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(The entire section contains 1729 words.)

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First produced: 1608-1610

First published: 1647

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Romantic comedy

Time of work: Early seventeenth century

Locale: England and France

Principal Characters:

Antonio, a foolish gentleman

Mercury, his former traveling companion

Ricardo, a young gentleman, Viola's sweetheart

Valerio, a country gentleman

Maria, Antonio's wife

Viola, a young lady in distress

Critique:

This play is a rather trivial compound of Jacobean comic commonplaces; it is perhaps one of the least happy of the Beaumont and Fletcher collaborations. The main plot and the subplot explore different aspects of love, but they are so tenuously related that neither reinforces the other, and a virtual act of violence is required to bring them together at the end. Not only is the plotting slovenly, but also the characters are so imperfectly drawn as to be almost completely unbelievable. Antonio, the coxcomb, is so poorly developed that his cuckolding seems more of a shabby trick played upon him than a just punishment for his foolishness, and Mercury appears more the betrayer of a genuine, though ridiculous, friendship than one who takes legitimate advantage of a fool. In spite of the dramatists' attempt to pass Maria off as a woman of wit and sophistication, her actions are little more than sordid. The young lovers of the subplot fare little better. Ricardo is fairly successful as the contrite youth who has lost his sweetheart through his own weakness, but Viola forgives him in the end not so much because she loves him as to extricate herself from an impossible situation. The minor characters are drawn directly out of the Elizabethan comic tradition, and nothing more is done with them than the tradition demanded. Nevertheless, the play seems to have been successful in its own time, perhaps because skilled actors were able to carry off the comic situations with farcical effect.

The Story:

Although carefully guarded by her father, Viola, a beautiful maid of sixteen, met and fell in love with handsome young Ricardo. Deciding to elope, they agreed to meet on a convenient street corner after Viola had provided herself with gold and jewels from her father's house. They had just reached this decision when Mercury and Antonio, two travelers home from an extended journey, appeared on the scene. Mercury, thoroughly sick of Antonio, tried to take his leave as graciously as he could so that he could proceed to his own home. Antonio, however, held him with protests: two travelers who had endured so much together could not part so casually—Mercury must visit for a few days. Overwhelmed by Antonio's extravagant courtesy, Mercury reluctantly accompanied him. At Antonio's house they found Maria, his handsome wife, entertaining at a dance a group of fashionable young people whom Ricardo and Viola had just joined. Before she was made known to him, Mercury was captivated by Maria's beauty; when he spoke with her he was further inflamed by her grace and wit. As the guests left and he prepared to go to his rooms, Mercury tried to still an irresistible desire to cuckold his ridiculous friend.

It now lacked only an hour until Ricardo's meeting with Viola. To pass the time, the young gallant went with a party of his friends to a nearby tavern, where one toast led to another so quickly that Ricardo became thoroughly intoxicated. About the time Viola fearfully left her father's house, throwing the key back through the window as a final gesture of farewell, Ricardo began to talk of seeking out wenches and perhaps beating up the watch as a culmination to the evening's sport. Leaving the tavern, Ricardo and his party reeled along the street; when they passed Viola, her lover in his blind drunkenness thought her to be a strumpet and attempted to throw her down in the gutter. Viola barely escaped as the watch came to take the revelers in tow.

Meanwhile, Mercury realized that the only way for him to overcome his desire for Maria was to separate himself from her. When he tried to leave secretly, Antonio discovered him and would not hear of his going. Pressed to desperation, Mercury revealed the truth, thinking that reason would cause Antonio to encourage him to leave. But to Antonio a wife was nothing in comparison with a friend; if Mercury wanted his wife, Antonio would woo her for him and thus gain immortality as the truest friend in history. Dumbfounded, Mercury got rid of his host only on the condition that he would seduce Maria with Antonio's approval.

Shocked, frightened, and too ashamed to return home, Viola by this time had fled to the outskirts of the city. There she fell in with a rude tinker and his trull, who robbed her and left her tied to a tree. She was discovered by Valerio, a country gentleman, who released her and agreed to help her by giving her a position as a maid. As they rode off together, he began to alter the terms of his proposal; she was not to be a maid after all, but his mistress. When Viola indignantly declined, Valerio left her and rode on.

It was now morning. In the city Ricardo, awaking, remembered the events of the night before and was overwhelmed with remorse for his actions. With the encouragement of Viola's father, he enlisted his friends to help him find her again.

Antonio, meanwhile, had attempted to further Mercury's suit by writing a letter reviling himself, signing Mercury's name, and delivering it to Maria in the disguise of an Irish footman. Maria, penetrating the disguise, decided to answer trick with trick. She had Antonio beaten and locked up; then she visited Mercury. To him she reported that Antonio was missing and doubtless murdered, and, pretending great grief, she requested that he take her to some place of retirement. Mercury suggested his mother's house in the country and the two departed, Maria still vowing secretly that she would be revenged on her husband for his foolishness. Learning that they had left the city, Antonio revealed himself to the servants who had kept him prisoner and declared that he would leave the two uninterrupted for a time so that Mercury could win his suit.

Having been abandoned by Valerio, Viola had fallen in with two sympathetic milkmaids employed by Mercury's mother; they took her to their mistress to seek work as a domestic servant. That honest but acerbic woman took Viola into the household, but her position grew more and more uncertain as she revealed her ineptitude for domestic tasks. Attention was diverted from her, however, by the arrival of Mercury and Maria. While Mercury told his mother of his travels, Maria retired to her chamber. There Antonio soon appeared, this time transparently disguised as a post-rider. Had he commanded his wife to return home, she would have done so; instead, he presented her with another ridiculously awkward letter in which he again advised her to favor Mercury. Maria, feeling that if he insisted on being such an utter ass she had little choice but to do as he wished, sent him to bring Mercury to her.

Ricardo's search had by this time led him to Valerio, who, after hearing the unhappy lover's story, allowed himself to be persuaded to help look for Viola. As the two rode through the countryside near the place where Valerio had left the maiden, they came upon her as she was going out to milk. When Ricardo abjectly threw himself upon his knees, confessed his faults, and begged forgiveness, Viola, who still loved him, yielded to his pleas. Meanwhile, Antonio's cousin, believing his kinsman murdered and Maria and Mercury probably guilty because of what seemed their precipitate flight from the city, arrived at the house of Mercury's mother with a warrant and a justice of the peace. As Mercury and Maria were about to be arrested, Antonio revealed himself, rather to the discomfiture of the justice, who had eagerly anticipated a hanging. Maria and Mercury, whose ardor for each other had cooled after their night together, pretended great joy at seeing Antonio alive. All celebrated at a banquet which Ricardo and Viola also attended.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

While it is true that THE COXCOMB fails as drama, except in a few scenes, it is also true that the play is not without interest to a twentieth century audience. Antonio, the coxcomb, is really not so foolish to our eyes as he was to the eyes of the seventeenth century. A willing cuckold (a "wittol" in the seventeenth century) was indeed a fool. But Antonio's motives, while unrealistic and not clearly established, are commendable. He wants his friendship with Mercury to be as famous as the friendships of Damon and Pythias and Orestes and Pylades. He has, however, chosen the wrong friend. But in view of his willingness to offer his wife to his friend, his feeling of closeness to Mercury, with whom he has been traveling three years, must have run very deep indeed. It is comic, though, that his motivation seems to stem more from a desire for fame than to please his friend. In addition, he is also foolish not to see that his wife does not want to commit adultery, but this hardly makes him a fool.

As a romantic comedy, THE COXCOMB is generally inferior. But the most interesting aspect of the play from a twentieth-century point of view is one which may have been largely unconscious on the part of Beaumont and Fletcher. This is the relative merits of the two sexes, and it comes out in both the main plot and the subplot, but especially in the subplot. Instead of the usual slurs against the female sex, which are typical of the period, the playwrights give us Viola, who bewails the evils of the male sex. She berates herself for having trusted a man "so lightly . . . so many being false." And her attitude towards men continually hardens with experience. Even her estranged lover, Ricardo, comes to admit "how rude" men can be, and that he has been "a kind of knave." While Viola's reversal—her forgiving Ricardo so quickly—is not fully prepared for, we are ready to accept Ricardo's statement, the last word in the play before the Epilogue, "that women want but ways/To praise their deeds, but men want deeds to praise."

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