(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Sir Philip Luckless, engaged to marry the rich widow, Mistress Fitchow, refused to listen to the protests of his companion, Master Tridewell. Tridewell insisted that the lady was too old and too domineering for the match to be successful, but his warning made no impression upon his friend and kinsman. Doubts did begin to enter the mind of Sir Philip, however, when he was presently brought face to face with Master Widgine, the foolish brother of his bride-to-be, and with Widgine’s equally foolish tutor, the braggart Anvile.

The encounter between this pair and Sir Philip was soon interrupted by the abrupt arrival of a stranger, Mistress Traynwell, who upset Sir Philip by the charge that, in marrying Mistress Fitchow, he was ignoring a prior marriage contract with a young girl under Mistress Traynwell’s care. To strengthen this accusation, the gentlewoman handed him a note signed with the single name, Constance. Sir Philip, confused, immediately thought of a prostitute named Constance Holdup, with whom he had had some previous acquaintance; he hastily assumed that Mistress Traynwell was the prostitute’s unscrupulous agent and unceremoniously dismissed her, calling her a bawd.

Meanwhile, Tridewell boldly decided to intervene in the affairs of Sir Philip by paying a visit to Mistress Fitchow. Hoping to find some way to block the impending marriage, he began to criticize the character and habits of Sir Philip; but Mistress Fitchow proved too clever to be taken in by his line of attack. Instead, she assumed an attitude of such sweet reasonableness and such devoted constancy to her lover that Tridewell, completely deceived, found himself falling in love with the woman whom he had previously scorned.

Sir Philip, still nervous from his interview with Mistress Traynwell, decided to forestall what he considered blackmail by hastening his marriage. Consequently, he took a coach to the house of his fiancee and sent in word of his desire to wed immediately. Somewhat surprised, but not unwilling, Mistress Fitchow made preparations to leave the house and join her lover in the coach. While completing her toilette she took the necessary time to inform her brother Widgine of her desire to marry him to a northern lass named Constance, the niece of Sir Paul Squelch, a well-known justice. Widgine, though he had never even heard of Constance before, became enthusiastic when he learned that the girl would receive a large dowry from her childless uncle.

The attractive subject of this conversation, the northern lass, was meanwhile being questioned by her governess, Mistress Traynwell. To the latter’s chagrin, she discovered that the young girl had mistaken flowery compliments from Sir Philip for an actual marriage proposal. As they talked, they were disturbed by an odd train of events which they eventually perceived to be a hoax planned by Pate, Sir Philip’s servant. Pate, having observed his master’s treatment of Mistress Traynwell and concluding that she was of the same ilk as Constance Holdup and therefore to be held in light regard, had prompted the boorish Anvile to call upon Mistress Traynwell and make improper advances to her. Constance and her governess, resenting the affront, tricked him into entering a closet, where they held him prisoner while awaiting the arrival of Tridewell. The latter,...

(The entire section is 1361 words.)