Women Beware Women

by Thomas Middleton

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

The themes of Women Beware Women include obsessive desire, the inconsistency of human beings, and the struggle of dealing with passion as people try to live their lives.

Obsessive desire is a problem for many of the characters, but the most notable couple is Hippolito and Isabella, the uncle and niece who are in love. Livia also experiences an uncontrollable attraction to Hippolito, leading her to plot against the other characters, which ultimately results in her painful death from inhaling poisoned smoke during the masque (play-within-a-play) in act 5, scene 2. Most of the main characters experience an intense longing that leads them to extreme actions.

The play also showcases how inconsistent human beings really are. Bianca is a good example of this. Before the play starts, she elopes with Leantio, and in the first scene, she says that she is content with this situation. However, she easily gets angry at Leantio: they fight over his ventures to his business and her decision to go to the Duke's banquet. Newlyweds fighting is not terribly inconsistent in itself, but Bianca's public embrace of the Duke's love in act 3 certainly shows a big change from her contentment in act 1. This inconsistency in Bianca is part of what leads to her complete collapse at the end and her ultimate decision to drink from the poisoned cup.

Even though most of the characters in this play are not great people, Middleton invites us to sympathize with them as they struggle with their passions. Livia is devious—she is the woman whom the title warns other women to "beware"—but she acts out of her love for Hippolito. Bianca leaves her husband, but we see enough of his foolish behavior to understand why. We also learn about the advantages that come from her getting together with the Duke. Even the incestuous characters are portrayed sympathetically as they wrangle with their sinful feelings.

Ultimately, Middleton's play explores human nature from a compassionate perspective. He shows people acting in outrageous and horrifying ways, but he also demonstrates why they do these things. Though the play ends in chaos and many deaths, the passions he portrays are simply extreme, exaggerated versions of the same feelings ordinary people experience day by day. Middleton reflects back to us our own natures as we struggle with the passions that threaten to rule our lives. He warns us about what will happen if we let them get out of control, but he is also very understanding about why that might take place.

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