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First produced: 1613-1617

First published: 1616

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Comedy of manners

Time of work: Early seventeenth century

Locale: London

Principal Characters:

Elder Loveless, a suitor to the Lady

Young Loveless, a prodigal man about town

Savil, Elder Loveless' steward

Welford, another suitor to the Lady

Morecraft, a money-lender

The Lady, Elder Loveless' beloved

Martha, her sister

Abigail (Mrs. Younglove), the Lady's waiting-woman

The Widow, Morecraft's beloved


Of all of Beaumont and Fletcher's comedies, THE SCORNFUL LADY was the most popular during the Restoration period, undoubtedly because it contains just those characters and situations which were most palatable to late seventeenth-century audiences. The play skillfully combines a number of favorite theatrical ingredients. The main plot, the pursuit of the sophisticated and independent Lady by Elder Loveless, has strong overtones of the eternal battle of the sexes; the subplot, the gulling of a usurer by a young prodigal who repairs his ruined fortunes by marriage to a rich and beautiful widow, was later to become one of the heartiest commonplaces of the English comedy of manners. As in other Beaumont and Fletcher plays, there is a fairly careful balancing of characters in the two plots: Elder Loveless is contrasted with his profligate younger brother (these two are, in fact, only different stages in the development of a Jacobean gallant) and Elder Loveless' mistress, the unreceptive Lady, is contrasted not only with the overamorous and aging Abigail but also with the complaisant widow who married Young Loveless. The dialogue is racy and suggestive, and the plot complicated enough to provide the intricate exchanges so dear to the heart of the Jacobean theatergoer. Extremely noticeable is a strong vein of sexuality, but the matter is too artificial to be obscene. On the whole, THE SCORNFUL LADY is a good play of its kind, particularly interesting because of the preview it offers of the tinsel world of Restoration comedy.

The Story:

Elder Loveless, who had fallen out of favor with his mistress because he forced her to kiss him in public, humbly begged her pardon and urged her for the hundredth time to marry him. She was adamant, however; for penance he must travel for a year abroad. Dejectedly Elder Loveless prepared for his journey, leaving his house and income to the none too tender mercies of his dissolute younger brother, who had already squandered his own lands and rents. Immediately after the door closed on his elder brother, Young Loveless and his four cronies—a Captain, a Traveler, a Poet, and a Tobaccoman—began their carousing. Over the protests of his brother's faithful steward, Savil, Young Loveless surveyed his good fortune and delightedly anticipated the unlimited supply of drink and doxies his brother's estate would buy.

At the same time, a new suitor for the Lady's hand, Welford, arrived at her house. Because of his generosity and good looks, he was warmly received by Sir Roger, the Lady's curate, and Abigail, her aging and lecherous gentlewoman; however, he got but cold favor from the Lady herself, for in spite of her harsh treatment of Elder Loveless, she had actually given him her heart.

His vows to his mistress notwithstanding, Elder Loveless did not take ship. Instead, he disguised himself and returned in order to test his brother and his sweetheart by reporting his own death. He arrived at his house to find his brother in the midst of another round of debauchery. Young Loveless took the sad news with amazing calmness: he commended his brother's soul to God, filled a bumper,...

(This entire section contains 1622 words.)

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and drank with the company to his elder brother's demise. And as soon as the disguised brother left, Young Loveless rejoiced at the prospect of running through the estate he had just inherited.

Elder Loveless then delivered the news of his death to the Lady. The reception was at first all that he could wish. The Lady burst into tears; but as Elder Loveless continued to berate her for her cruelty to her lover, she penetrated his disguise and retaliated by pretending affection for Welford, who was considerably startled but pleased by the Lady's sudden change in attitude toward him. Exasperated, Elder Loveless threw off his disguise, whereupon the Lady, revealing that she had known him all along, bade him fulfill the task she had set him if he ever expected to enjoy her favor. Elder Loveless retired in confusion. Welford then attempted to press the advantage he believed now offered him, but the Lady, once again drastically altering her tone, ordered him to be on his way. When Abigail offered herself as second choice, Welford, thoroughly disgusted, insulted her and called for his horses.

Meanwhile, Young Loveless had been hard at work disposing of his brother's estate. From Morecraft, the usurer who had bilked him of his own fortune, he obtained _GCP_6,000 after promising to consummate the sale later. Morecraft was delighted with the bargain; from its profits he expected to obtain a knighthood and the hand of a wealthy and beautiful widow.

When Morecraft and the Widow met Young Loveless to take possession of Elder Loveless' house, Young Loveless and the Widow were immediately attracted to each other. Before the keys could be delivered to Morecraft, however, Elder Loveless reappeared in his own person. Young Loveless, who was equal to any shift in fortune, greeted his supposedly dead brother with his usual equanimity. Although the usurer declared the sale void, Young Loveless, refusing to return the money, told Morecraft to regard his hard luck as a fair requital for the cozening he had been responsible for in the past. The Widow applauded Young Loveless' shrewdness, whereupon she rejected Morecraft and struck up a match with the clever young wastrel.

Elder Loveless, equally determined not to travel and to win his lady, tried another gambit. Visiting her once more, he adopted a scoffing tone, made light of her former domination of him, and declared that he loved her no longer. The Lady, not so easily tricked, countered with that feminine ruse, a feigned swoon. As the remorseful Elder Loveless rushed to comfort her, she burst into laughter and ridiculed him for attempting such a transparent deception. But she carried her ridicule too far. Elder Loveless, now really angry, left, ignoring her earnest pleas that he return to her.

His love, however, was stronger than his anger. Together with Welford, who was quite as willing to have Martha, the Lady's lovely younger sister, as the Lady herself, Elder Loveless planned a last desperate ruse to win his mistress. Welford was disguised as a woman, and Elder Loveless presented him to the Lady as his future bride. This time the Lady was thoroughly taken in. When Elder Loveless compared her treatment of him with the homely virtues of his new sweetheart, the Lady, believing that she had lost her faithful lover, attempted to save the situation by offering to marry him immediately. Elder Loveless accepted her proposal and Martha, pitying Elder Loveless' supposedly abandoned sweetheart, took the still disguised Welford to bed with her.

The next morning the men had the last laugh as Elder Loveless revealed the plot to the Lady. Welford and the embarrassed Martha hurried off to church. Young Loveless and his new bride appeared on the scene; Sir Roger and Abigail were united, and Morecraft, transformed from usurer to rake, drank to the general happiness of all and distributed money among the servants.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

The team of Beaumont and Fletcher left behind a rich legacy. While they were living, they enjoyed immense popularity—a popularity that surpassed even Shakespeare's. Court records kept of performances indicate that for every one of Shakespeare's plays, ten of Beaumont and Fletcher's were being given. THE SCORNFUL LADY shared in this popularity. Not only was THE SCORNFUL LADY a hit with the Elizabethan audiences and twentieth century critics, it was also, and perhaps more importantly, a hit with the audience of the Restoration period. John Dryden in AN ESSAY OF DRAMATIC POESY (1668) revealed just how popular when he wrote, "Their plays are now the most pleasant and frequent entertainments of the stage; two of theirs being acted through the year for one of Shakespeare's or Jonson's." Although some of the comedies of the Beaumont and Fletcher canon underwent alterations, THE SCORNFUL LADY remained unscathed and was produced between 1660 and 1719 at least twenty-seven times.

Beaumont and Fletcher in THE SCORNFUL LADY set the stage for a number of techniques that were to be used frequently in Restoration comedy. When the Elder Loveless feigns death in THE SCORNFUL LADY, he prepares the way for the frequently-used stock situation of Restoration comedy in which a lover pretends a physical ailment in order to gain the sympathy of a servant or mistress. The disregard for morality; the concept of marriage as imprisonment for men, and a release from chastity for women; and wit, in the form of quick repartee and double-entendre that appeared in Restoration comedy had a precedent set in THE SCORNFUL LADY. It is perhaps the spicy flavor of the wit of THE SCORNFUL LADY that made it most popular.

It would appear that the only characteristic of THE SCORNFUL LADY that was not borrowed by the Restoration comedy was its setting, which has little of the local color, attention to realistic details, and allusions to contemporary people and places found in the comedy of manners written by the Restoration dramatists. That the Restoration dramatists borrowed as much as they did is a boon to the reader of today. If it had not been for THE SCORNFUL LADY, we might not today be able to read and enjoy that famous china closet scene in William Wycherley's THE COUNTRY WIFE.