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...
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