This Jacobean drama is set in Italy, the background that, in tragedies of the period, implies luxury, vice, and violence. Within this framework, Thomas Middleton dispassionately and ironically records human—especially feminine—motivation and passion. As she dies from drinking a poisoned cup, Bianca exclaims: “Oh the deadly snares/ That women set for women . . ./ Like our own sex, we have no enemy, no enemy!” However, her judgment, like that expressed in the title of the tragedy, is false. The action of Middleton’s play proves quite the opposite: that women should beware men, who set the snares of money and power that destroy women. Livia schemes in behalf of her brothers Fabricio and Hippolito; her motives have nothing to do with selfish exploitation. When she takes a lover of her own choosing, Leantio, she is abused as sinful, and her lover is murdered so that the family “honor” may be restored. Set in the corrupt and libertine atmosphere of Renaissance Florence, the play shows, with cool detachment, the terrible effects of passions mingled with greed.
Middleton skillfully combines two separate stories that conclude with one explosive catastrophe. The Bianca plot was based upon the notorious true history of Bianca Capello, born in approximately 1548 to a family of Venetian nobility. In 1563, she eloped with a Florentine, Pietro Buonaventuri, who was not of the noble class; later she married him and gave birth to a daughter. The powerful Francesco de’ Medici soon favored her; she became his mistress, and her husband—doubtless on Francesco’s orders—was assassinated in 1569. Francesco and Bianca, in turn, died suddenly of a fever in 1587, under circumstances that, in the popular imagination, appeared suspicious; Francesco’s brother, the cardinal, succeeded him as grand duke of Tuscany. This story of lust and betrayal is combined with the Isabella-Hippolito plot. In its theme of adultery and deceit, the second plot corresponds to the first, emphasizing the moral object of the drama: to expose the ruinous effects of amorous plots and counterplots conceived through guile or greed.
In his moral vision, Middleton is different from the other great Jacobean tragedians. Unlike John Webster and Cyril Tourneur, in whose poetic drama horror is heaped upon horror, Middleton avoids melodramatic scenes of sheer terror until the final moments of the play, when the complications of the plot are resolved in a compressed action of mass slaughter. Unlike John Ford, who is masterful in pathetic scenes of sexual aberration, Middleton is a realist who avoids “abnormal” psychosexual behavior. Although Isabella willingly submits to the embraces of Hippolito—and thus commits incest—she is deceived by Livia into believing that her uncle’s bloodline is different from hers. As soon as she learns the truth about the relationship, she plots revenge on her betrayers. However, her passion for Hippolito, so long as she can deny to herself...
(The entire section is 725 words.)