Women Beware Women

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25.03.2021

By Thomas Middleton
Director Heather Fairbairn

The wealthy Bianca and the not-so-wealthy Leantio have eloped. Leantio is jealous and insecure, so when he heads off on a work trip, he leaves Bianca with his Mother, demanding that she keep her under lock and key. Later that day Bianca sees a colourful procession, featuring the Duke of Florence, passing by her window. She catches the eye of the lascivious Duke, who, with the help of a widow called Livia, contrives to meet Bianca. The two are introduced, and the Duke rapes Bianca.

Meanwhile, Livia’s brother Hippolito lusts after their other brother’s daughter, Isabella. Livia tricks Isabella into believing that she and Hippolito are not really blood relations. Uncle and niece start an affair, and to cover it up, Isabella agrees to marry a rich young idiot (known only as ‘The Ward’).

Bianca becomes angry and withdrawn. She starts a relationship with the Duke and when Leantio returns, she turns against him. Livia meanwhile finds herself attracted to Leantio, and the two start an affair.

Needless to say, all of the dirty secrets are uncovered and a torrent of retribution is unleashed. There is a masque. And when Middleton gives you a masque, you know there will be blood.

Thomas Middleton (1580–1627) was a Jacobean playwright, 16 years Shakespeare’s junior. He collaborated with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens, but he’s also known to have adapted a number of Shakespeare’s more famous plays, including Macbeth and Measure For Measure. In fact, the only authoritative texts we have of those two plays (in Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623) are almost certainly Middleton adaptations.

Middleton was born in London, the son of a wealthy master bricklayer. At the age of 18 he went to Oxford, but was back in the capital a few years later writing city comedies – scathing satires of contemporary London. These plays, including The Phoenix and A Mad World My Masters were written to be performed by companies of boy actors, which were very popular at the time. In 1606, Middleton turned his hand to tragedy, writing the chaotic The Revenger’s Tragedy. Revenger’s took the playwright’s trademark critique of modern-day corruption, hypocrisy and sexual transgression, and added poison, blood and guts.

In 1611–12 Middleton returned to comedy with The Roaring Girl, a dramatisation of the life of Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse, and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. His most famous tragedies, The Changeling and Women Beware Women, were written a decade later, and picked up on the misogyny and violence he had explored earlier in The Revenger’s Tragedy. Middleton’s final play, A Game at Chess (1624), was a political satire, and this one hit a little too close to home. The play was banned after nine performances at the Globe, and Middleton was prosecuted for allowing a living king to be portrayed onstage. Although he was ultimately acquitted, Middleton never wrote another play, and he died in London three years later.

With thanks to our Play In A Day Patrons Kimberly Cartwright and Charles Littrell