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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1725

First produced: c. 1605

First published: 1608

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Comedy of intrigue

Time of work: First years of seventeenth century

Locale: London

Principal Characters:

Witgood, a young prodigal of good family

A Courtesan, Witgood's mistress and accomplice

Pecunius Lucre, Witgood's miserly uncle

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(The entire section contains 1725 words.)

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First produced: c. 1605

First published: 1608

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Comedy of intrigue

Time of work: First years of seventeenth century

Locale: London

Principal Characters:

Witgood, a young prodigal of good family

A Courtesan, Witgood's mistress and accomplice

Pecunius Lucre, Witgood's miserly uncle

Walkadine Hoard, a rival miser to Pecunius Lucre

Taverner, Witgood's friend and accomplice

Joyce, Walkadine Hoard's niece, pretty and wealthy

Critique:

Thomas Middleton, next to Ben Jonson, was the greatest realist among the dramatists writing during the reign of James I. The realism is not reinforced in Middleton's work by a close attention to the structure of the drama, as is so noteworthy in the Jonsonian plays. Middleton, a commoner himself and holder of a post for many years under the Lord Mayor of London, was exceedingly interested in the life of the people who lived within the city, rather than in the people of the court and the fashionable world. Where Middleton got the plot for this play is not known; possibly he gathered it out of incidents that actually occurred in London. On the other hand, the influence of this play on Philip Massinger's A NEW WAY TO PAY OLD DEBTS is obvious. The greatest merits of the Middleton play are its intrigues, its hustle and bustle of incident, and its propensity to give good fun.

The Story:

Theodorus Witgood, a young man of quality, had been so prodigal with his fortune that he had lost it all. Even his country estate had been mortgaged to his uncle, Pecunius Lucre, a miserly man. The cause of Witgood's downfall was a Courtesan, a young woman on whom he had wasted his fortune after seducing her. Fortunately for Witgood, the girl really liked him and was anxious to help him. When Witgood conceived a plan to regain his fortunes, a plan that required her help, she readily promised to help her lover.

Witgood's plan was to take the Courtesan to London and pass her off as a rich widow. With the aid of a tavernkeeper, who gave Witgood his services as a servant and the use of his horses, the plan was put into execution. Witgood even hoped to get back the mortgage from his uncle. As soon as Uncle Lucre heard about the rich widow, his miserly instincts were aroused. Taken in by his nephew's story, he hoped to promote the marriage and eventually gain the widow's money and estates.

Uncle Lucre invited Witgood and the supposed wealthy widow to his home, where in spite of his real feelings toward Witgood he praised the young man to the skies. In addition to his uncle, the creditors to whom Witgood owed money were anxious to help his marital efforts, for the creditors realized that a good marriage would enable them to collect the money he owed them.

When word of the wealthy widow spread through the town, many suitors came to woo her. Among them was Walkadine Hoard, a rival miser who was pleased at the prospect of wooing a widow of fortune and so keeping that fortune from falling into the hands of Uncle Lucre. The situation was to Witgood's advantage, and he filled his uncle's ears with talk of the jointures that other suitors were willing to give the widow. His hope was that his uncle would take the hint and restore his estates and money to him in the belief that he should shine as well as the other suitors in the supposed widow's eyes. The plan was only a ruse, however, for Witgood had no intention of marrying the Courtesan and making an honest woman of her. Witgood's real love was Joyce, the daughter of Hoard's rich brother. Lest Joyce think he had forsaken her, Witgood sent her a letter telling her to keep faith with him. They had to keep their love secret, for Witgood's wild ways and prodigality, plus the enmity between their respective uncles, prevented their marriage.

In the meantime Hoard plotted to get the widow for himself. Accompanied by several gentlemen, he went to her and told her the truth about young Witgood. His friends also represented Hoard as an ardent suitor. Witgood, in another room, heard all that was said. At his first chance he advised the Courtesan to go ahead with her deception and marry old Hoard, a marriage which would give her a place in the world and restore her lost reputation. Hoard's proposal was a piece of luck that the plotting pair had not foreseen. She promised to meet Hoard at a tavern and elope with him. When she confessed that she had no estates, Hoard, thinking she was only teasing him, refused to believe her.

The Courtesan went to the tavern, where the old miser met her. To entertain his uncle, Witgood then went and told him that Hoard was being married off to a prostitute. Uncle Lucre was immensely pleased. Discreet Witgood did not tell the uncle that the prostitute was the supposed wealthy widow.

Witgood's creditors, getting wind of what was happening, secured a bailiff and had him arrested for debt. After much talking he persuaded them to take him first to Hoard's house. When they arrived there, Witgood informed Hoard that he had an earlier marriage contract with the widow, a contract which could not be nullified until both parties agreed to break it. Old Hoard was horrified, for the bond meant that his new wife's property, if any, was not his. Pretending to save the day, the woman suggested that Hoard buy off Witgood by paying the young man's debts. The creditors, paid by Hoard, went their way. Then Witgood and the widow confessed the woman's true identity. The bridegroom fumed, realizing too late that the supposed widow had told him in the presence of witnesses that she had no fortune. Hoard had been gulled into taking another man's mistress as his wife.

Meanwhile the tavernkeeper, acting as servant for Witgood and the Courtesan, had convinced Uncle Lucre that his nephew could marry the widow only if he had a fortune or an estate. The uncle, hoping to use the young man to get the supposed widow's fortune in his hands, gave up the mortgage on Witgood's estates. The tavernkeeper hastened with the papers to Witgood, who was extremely pleased with the way his plans were working out.

Before he left Hoard's house, Witgood, once more in control of his estates, received a message in which Joyce told him that she would meet him a short time later.

Old Hoard tried to pass off his wife as she had been passed on to him. He ordered a great wedding supper and invited, among other guests, his rival and also his brother. Everything went off well until Hoard's brother recognized the bride as Witgood's former mistress. In the confusion that followed the bride fell on her knees and asked forgiveness, telling her husband that she repented her previous sins and would make him a good wife. She pointed out that it was better for a man to have a wife whose sins were behind her instead of before her. Witgood also helped her reputation by saying that he had been her seducer and only lover.

Witgood himself then declared that he, too, had reformed. He promised to put aside his old habits of prodigality as the first step in winning consent to his marriage with Joyce, the girl he truly loved.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

"How should a man live now that has no living?" asks Witgood in the opening speech of the play. A solution to this perennial problem of the prodigal young wit in comedy is, in comedy, the invention of a "trick." Snowballing in its effects, this trick not only extricates Witgood from his financial problems, but thwarts the greedy old fools who bar his happiness. He is even extricated from the amorous demands of his cast-off mistress (to the satisfaction of both), and this leaves the way clear for a marriage to his true love. The ingenious plotting of the intrigue, the robust lifelikeness of the characters and the contemporary scene, and the brisk and racy dialogue help make this one of Middleton's best comedies.

The success of Witgood's trick depends on the mutual hatred of Lucre and Hoard (all the characters have significant names, of course) and on their frantic efforts to outwit and be revenged upon each other, not realizing that in working to further their own advantage, they are being exploited by Witgood and furthering his fortunes. As Hoard remarks ruefully at the end, "who seem most crafty prove ofttimes most fools." But if the losers are the crafty and the foolish, the winners—Witgood and his Courtesan—are hardly paragons of virtue themselves. It seems that Middleton is tacitly endorsing trickery; and indeed, the praise of many critics (including T. S. Eliot) for the play has been counterbalanced by the concern of many others for the dubious morality of the action. There seems here to be no ethical norm of behavior. Certainly the earnest protestations of reform by the hero and heroine at the end would satisfy only the most credulous spectators that morality has triumphed. On the other hand, Middleton draws all the characters with an irony that is constantly working to undermine chicanery of all kinds more effectively than a crudely appended moral could do; and the audience and readers are left to draw their own conclusions.

Middleton's fecundity of invention results in a few loose ends. For instance, he introduces the idea of a rivalry between Sam Freedom and Moneylove for the affections of Joyce. Later there is a counterplot by Lucre's wife to get Sam (her son by her first marriage) married to the widow, eliminating Witgood, the other suitor. Neither of these motifs comes to anything. And there is an embryonic subplot involving the usurers Harry Dampit and Gulf which bears only the most tenuous relationship—a thematic one—to the main action. This side issue is enjoyable mainly for the vigor of Dampit's braggings, cursings, and ravings. But overabundance of material is always more excusable than poverty of invention; and Middleton's exuberant spectacle of two gullible old rogues gleefully digging their own pits to the tune of the likeable young rogue makes for hearty and satisfying comic fare.

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