Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1094
The author of THE WOMAN’S PRIZE , John Fletcher, was born in 1579 into a well-placed family. He was the son of Richard Fletcher, the Bishop of London, and the cousin of the poets Giles and Phineas Fletcher. Little is known of his early life, but his father’s death left...
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- Critical Essays
The author of THE WOMAN’S PRIZE, John Fletcher, was born in 1579 into a well-placed family. He was the son of Richard Fletcher, the Bishop of London, and the cousin of the poets Giles and Phineas Fletcher. Little is known of his early life, but his father’s death left debts and a large family, and the young Fletcher must have needed to provide for himself.
By the early years of the seventeenth century, Fletcher had become connected with the King’s Men, one of London’s leading dramatic companies. He remained their most productive playwright until his death of the plague in 1625. His output was enormous by any standard: in 1679, a folio of fifty-two plays was published, of which fifteen were written by Fletcher alone, and at least thirty others were the result of his collaboration with other authors.
Fletcher is chiefly remembered in conjunction with Francis Beaumont with whom he wrote at least eight plays, but he also co-authored HENRY THE EIGHTH and THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN with William Shakespeare, and collaborated with Philip Massinger (among others) after Beaumont’s retirement. To form an idea of his productivity, one should note that he worked on more than four plays a year for the last twelve years of his life.
THE WOMAN’S PRIZE shows Fletcher’s unaided work at its best. As the subtitle suggests, the play is a sequel of sorts to Shakespeare’s THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. The continuation of the story of the woman-taming Petruchio, it is recorded that Fletcher’s play was better liked than Shakespeare’s when both were played at court in 1633, and after the Restoration, THE WOMAN’S PRIZE was revived.
But Fletcher’s play is more an extension of Shakespeare’s main idea than a simple continuation of the story. Only three of Shakespeare’s characters remain—Petruchio, Tranio, and Bianca—and the scene has been shifted from Padua to London. There are occasional references to the action of the earlier play, mainly concerning Petruchio’s reputation as a master at bending spirited women to his will, but Fletcher succeeds entirely in giving a different direction to his story.
Fletcher conceived of the idea of furnishing Petruchio with a wife who could tame him as effectively as he had tamed Katharina, Shakespeare’s “shrew.” We are told, as the play opens, that Kate has died, and Petruchio has remarried a gentle girl named Maria. Through the main action of Maria’s subjugation of Petruchio is skillfully woven a wholly new subplot, the successful resistance of Livia to an arranged marriage to an old man.
The plot of THE WOMAN’S PRIZE immediately invites comparison with Aristophanes’ LYSISTRATA, where women likewise overrule their husbands by withholding their favors. But the full-scale engagement in Fletcher’s battle of the sexes, the siege of Maria’s chamber, ends with the second act, leaving the stage free for the single combat of Maria and Petruchio. In their struggle, Maria wins every skirmish, and is completely victorious in the end.
The play sounds exceptionally modern in this time of Women’s Liberation, since Maria demands complete equality in her relationship with her husband and settles for nothing less. When Petruchio insists on obedience as his right in justice, she answers:
That bare wordShall cost you many a pound more, build upon’t;Tell me of due obedience? What’s a husband?What are we married for, to carry sumpters?Are we not one piece with you, and as worthyOur own intentions, as you yours?* * *Take two small drops of water, equal weighed,Tell me which is the heaviest, and which oughtFirst to descend in duty?(Act III, Scene iii, lines 95-103)
Maria successfully counters all of Petruchio’s devices: shouts, the orders of her father, the pretended illness of Petruchio, his threats of violence, even his feigned death, a piece of fakery that is concealed from the audience until it fails.
Fletcher’s comedy derives from two sources: first, there is the comedy of incident. Several scenes are exceptionally good theater: the women barricaded in their stronghold, appearing at the window of an upper floor to bargain with the men below is a comic situation seldom equalled; and the scene in which Petruchio, locked in his room and abandoned by friends fleeing his “sickness,” breaks through the door with pistol in hand is a masterpiece.
The second source of humor is Fletcher’s language. Ironically, the language may have kept the play from frequent performance. The speeches are often bawdy, and what is more surprising, the language of the women is as frank as that of the men. Fletcher seems to have felt that such speech from gentlewomen might be thought excessive, since he attempts to explain it. After an explicitly sexual statement by Maria, he has Livia ask, “Dear sister, / Where have you been you talk thus?” Maria answers, “Why at Church, wench; / Where I am tied to talk thus: I am a wife now.” (Act I, Scene ii, lines 83-86).
Despite Fletcher’s claim of greater license in speech for wives than maidens, there is a deeper justification for the often open sexuality we find. Fletcher’s play concerns how a man and woman live together in marriage. In the society of the time of the play (and for centuries afterward), a wife’s body was not just her main weapon, but often her only one. Hence the characters discuss their anatomy as a soldier might talk about his armament.
When the play was revived in 1633, it attracted the attention of the Master of the Revels, the official censor for the government. He demanded a copy of the play to be presented to him, and he then purged it of what he considered blasphemy, profanity, and obscenity. The play was much more drastically cut for an eighteenth century performance. In fact, the editors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often seem to show an embarrassment at the franker language of the play. In our own time, T. M. Parrott and R. H. Ball have claimed that “the jesting is rather broad for modern taste” (A SHORT VIEW OF ELIZABETHAN DRAMA, New York: 1943). So rapidly though has that taste changed that no one who sees today’s motion pictures would be offended by THE WOMAN’S PRIZE.
All things considered, Fletcher’s comedy is a play rich in wit and humor, with well-developed characters, a fast-moving plot, and a theme relevant to our time. Unlike many comedies of its day, it fully repays its readers in enjoyment.