Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483
“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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