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.”