"No Better Than You Should Be"
Context: The end of the Elizabethan period of English literature, when James I, the first of the Stuarts, ascended the throne in 1603, found many dramatists still active. To their contemporaries, Beaumont and Fletcher occupied first place in popularity. Between 1616 and 1642, the King's Men, Shakespeare's company, performed 116 plays in London: forty-one by this pair, fifteen by Shakespeare, and seven by Jonson. Fletcher, the older of the collaborators, was the son of an impoverished clergyman and turned to playwriting to earn a living. Probably he met the wealthy law student Beaumont at Inner Temple, and they began writing plays for child actors. When the King's Men took over Blackfriars Theatre, the two were asked to provide the theater with plays. Fletcher was considered the better in plotting ability and in lyric skill; Beaumont was superior in handling tragedy. One of their first collaborations was The Coxcomb. Later came the tragi-comedy Philaster or Love Lies A-Bleeding (c.1609), with its sophisticated emotional appeal, varied plot, and smooth verse. Jacobeans considered it better than anything by Shakespeare. Their best serious play was The Maid's Tragedy (1610), with some of the best dramatic writing of the age. The Knight of the Burning Pestle (c.1608) is an outstanding comedy. The critic Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) disapproved of The Coxcomb, but John Donne (1573–1631) had earlier pointed out that a play should be judged by its effect on the audience, rather than for consistency or probability or dramatic propriety. Trying to summarize its plot, a reader can sympathize with the opinion of the Reverend Alexander Dyce, who edited the eleven-volume edition of Beaumont and Fletcher (London, 1843), that The Coxcomb is extravagant in plot, character, and incident. But at least it is the utterance of satirists about men and manners. There are really several interwoven plots. In one, Viola, in love with Ricardo (sometimes written Richardo), runs away from home because of the spying of her father, Andrugio. She is robbed of her dress and jewels by a Tinker and his trull, Dorothy, who leave her tied to a tree. Viola is rescued by a country gentleman, Valerio, but when she will not accept his invitation to replace his "clamorous wife," he sends her on her way. Two milkmaids invite her home with them where she can seek employment from their mistress, the mother of Antonio, the conceited Coxcomb of the other plot. The mother looks with suspicion at her uncalloused hands and thinks the girl must be a designing hussy. (March-pane is a soft confection of egg-whites, sugar, and ground almonds.)
MOTHERIs this the wench you have brought me? some catch I warrant. How daringly she looks upon the matter!MADGEYes, forsooth, this is the maiden.MOTHERCome hither, wou'd you serve?VIOLAIf it shall please you to accept my service, I hope I shall do something that shall like you, though it be but truth, and often praying for you.MOTHERYou are very curious of your hand methinks,You preserve it so with gloves; let me see it;I marry, here's a hand of march-pane, wenches,This pretty palm never knew sorrow yet;How soft it is, I warrant you, and supple;O' my word, this is fitter for a pocket to filch withalThan to work, I fear me little one,You are no better than you should be; goe to.VIOLAMy Conscience yet is but one witness to me,And that heaven knows, is of mine innocence. . . .MOTHERYou can say well: if you be mine, wench, you must doe well too, for words are but slow workers, yet so much hope I have of you, that I'll take you, so you'll be diligent, and do your duty: how now?