A Chaste Maid in Cheapside by Thomas Middleton (1613)

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is universally agreed to be the best of the half dozen or so comedies Middleton wrote or co-wrote. It is yet another comedy about sex and class and money, about corruption and greed and adultery – all the usual subjects – in fact the oppressively narrow range of subjects which Jacobean comedy dealt with. Elizabethan comedy is generally mirthful, while comedy under James I (came to the throne in 1603) becomes more and more disgusted.

These plays are saturated in an atmosphere of sex – not only are the plots about legal and illegal couplings (i.e. marriage and adultery) but right down at the verbal level, almost every word in Jacobean English was packed with sexual double meanings and innuendo.

This thick fog of sexual meaning radiates from just the cast list, before the play itself has even begun. As a little academic exercise I was going to keep a record of the sexual ambiguities mentioned in the notes, but there are four or five on every page and the play is 100 pages long, so it almost immediately became unmanageable.

Cast

Master YELLOWHAMMER, a goldsmith
MAUDLIN, his wife
TIM, their idiot son
MOLL, their daughter – heroine of the play
TUTOR to Tim
SIR WALTER WHOREHOUND, a suitor to Moll who has, for years, been sleeping with and impregnating Allwit’s wife
SIR OLIVER KIX, and his wife LADY KIX – endlessly argue because they can’t get pregnant
Master John ALLWIT, and his wife MISTRESS ALLWIT, whom Sir Walter keeps i.e. he pays for their entire London establishment on the agreement that he can sleep with the wife whenever he’s in town, and has sired on her no fewer than seven children!
A WELSH GENTLEWOMAN, Sir Walter’s whore, who he brings up to London to marry off to dim Tim
WAT and NICK, Whorehound’s bastards by Mistress Allwit
DAVY DAHUMMA, Whorehound’s man
TOUCHWOOD SENIOR and his wife MISTRESS TOUCHWOOD – helpful older brother to…
TOUCHWOOD JUNIOR – the ‘hero’ of the play, in love with Moll, the two young lovers who feature in all these plays
TWO PROMOTERS i.e. officials paid to police the city’s Lent policy i.e. buying, cooking or eating meat is forbidden
Three or four WATERMEN, who get involved in Moll and Young Touchwood’s attempts to escape the City by river
A WENCH carrying Touchwood Senior’s bastard, who confronts him in the street
Jugg, Lady Kix’s MAID
A DRY NURSE and A WET NURSE for Lady Mistress Allwit’s baby
TWO PURITANS, the first named Mistress Underman
FIVE GOSSIPS, a word which means both middle-aged wives and godmothers
A PARSON – drafted in to hurriedly marry Young Touchwood and Moll in Act 5
SUSAN, Moll’s maid – who is instrumental in the final plot

Smut

The play opens with Moll playing on the virginals – nudge nudge – and her mother, Maudlin, chastising her for missing her dancing classes, commonly associated with sexual opportunity. Page two starts with a pun about the size of women’s vaginas (‘When I was of your bord’, Maudlin tells Moll, where bord derives from ‘bore’ as of a rifle, i.e. when I had a nice young ****), then goes on to talk about imperfections, cracks and rents in smart fabrics, ‘cracks’ which need to be filled up by a husband, fnah fnah…

And on it goes, three hours of unrelenting smut and obscenity. Every mention of entering, before and after, up and down, standing to attention and so on, are drenched in sexual overtones, her mother tells Moll she’ll have to get used to kissing her husband ‘when he enters’ and using her hand ‘before and after’ and ‘waving her body’ i.e undulating up and down as in sex – not to mention the wealth of Jacobean slang terms for aspects of sex which crop up in the oddest places – ‘nock’ was a slang term for the female genitals. I don’t think I’ve ever read the words ‘c***’ and ‘f***’ and ‘penis’ used so often in the notes of any text.

The plot

Critics discern five plots in the play:

1. Young love A straightforward young-couple hampered-love story, namely Moll Yellowhammer (the chaste maid of the title) is the daughter of a wealthy Cheapside goldsmith and his wife. She is in love with dashing Young Touchwood, but her ambitious parents want to marry her off to Sir Walter Whorehound, who has just arrived in town, accompanied by a young woman, his ‘landed niece from Wales’ who they don’t realise is his whore.

2. Tim nice but dim The Yellowhammers have a son, Tim, who returns from Cambridge with his Latin tutor. Much piss is taken out of his low level classical learning, with Tim and the tutor given a scene where they speak to each other in pig Latin (Act 4 scene 1) and later he speaks to the Welsh niece in Latin and she replies in Welsh so they merrily speak at cross purposes for a bit before servants come in and misinterpret both their speeches.

Anyway, the idea is that Tim will be married off to the landed niece, and he is promised 19 mountains and 2,000 runts (there is much unsubtle wordplay on a rude word which rhymes with run) and indeed, at the end of the play dim Tim and his Welsh whore do get married, in an obvious parody of the happy wedding of the heroes Young Touchwood and Moll, and discovering she has no mountains and no runts, although she does have a ….

3. Whorehound’s arrangement In the most interesting because most genuinely original storyline, Whorehound has been paying Allwit and his wife to live in luxury, in a house with all mod cons, with food on the table every day and a bunker full of Newcastle coal, purely and simply so that he can sleep with Allwit’s wife every time he is in London. Allwit doesn’t mind, he’s been kept in very fine style for ten years! He has a soliloquy (Act 1 scene 2) in which he sings the joys of being a kept cuckold, not for him any worries or cares as long as Whorehound carries on shagging his wife. And his wife is quite happy with the arrangement, too, an occasional loaning out to Whorehound in return for a loving marriage and financial security.

In fact she has proceeded to bear no fewer than seven children to Whorehound, some of whom are 12 or 10-years-old and going to school. They are proudly presented to him on his arrival at the Allwit house and he promises them all financial support.

The other plotlines – frustrated young lovers, idiot young man duped into marrying a whore – these are boringly familiar. But the Whorehound-Allwit plotline feels as if it breaks new ground, and takes things into an entirely new realm of (entertainingly) cynical depravity.

4. The prolific Touchwoods Meanwhile, Touchwood Senior (the elder brother of Moll’s true love, Young Touchwood) has a scene (Act 2 scene 1) where he tearfully takes leave of his wife. His problem is that he is prodigiously fertile and impregnates any woman he sleeps with, but he is poor. Thus the couple have had umpteen children each one of which impoverishes them further.

we must give way to need
And live awhile asunder, our desires
Are both too fruitful for our barren fortunes.

Little more is heard of Touchwood Senior’s wife, and most of his energy goes, in the second half of the play, into helping his young brother organise eloping with beautiful Moll.

5. The barren Kixes Finally, there is yet another couple, the Kixes, an aging couple who are the mirror opposite of the Touchwoods in that they have been trying for years but cannot conceive. The result is an endless cycle of recriminations and arguments in which they blame each other for being barren or sterile before bursting into tears and falling into each others’ arms – as Touchwood witnesses on an embarrassing visit to their house.

As so often, fertility is directly connected with money across a web of relationships, because if they die without an heir, Whorehound will inherit their estate. He is so confident this will not happen that he has been living beyond his means for years, banking on inheriting and paying off his debts. Unfortunately for him, the Kixes’ maid, Jugg, tells them that Touchwood Senior has a special fertility potion which will soon see Lady Kix pregnant and in a sly scene (Act 3 scene 3), Touchwood Senior inveigles his way into Lady Kix’s bed, waves his magic wand and lo! she becomes pregnant.

So those are the five storylines which Middleton confidently and stylishly weaves together to make a play which is brilliantly crafted, and benefits from a really confident and mature interweaving of blank verse, rhymed verse and prose – but which I found utterly unfunny and unmoving. It is brilliantly made – but sterile.

The way the five storylines are interwoven becomes very complicated, but the key highlights are:

– There is an immensely long scene after Mistress Yellowhammer has given birth to another baby, her eighth child by Whorehound and – this is what makes it so long – a large retinue of ‘gossips’ i.e. local merchants wives, and several Puritan neighbours, are all called in to attend what we’d nowadays call a baby shower. The mickey is taken out of the gossipy ladies, and of the two Puritans who get blind drunk, at extreme length. Most modern productions of the play cut the entire scene as it isn’t part of any of the five plotlines and a lot of the force of its contemporary satire has evaporated.

– Similarly, seven pages are devoted to two ‘promoters’, officers who were set to enforce the new and more strict laws enacted under James I to ban the buying, cooking or eating of meat during Lent. Their scene exists solely to demonstrate how utterly corrupt they are, as we see them bullying citizens, all the time keeping the meat they confiscate either to sell to rich patrons or for their own families – until they get their come-uppance when a woman pretends to be caught red-handed with a basket full of meat, only for the promoters to discover a crying baby at the bottom of it for which they thereupon become legally responsible (and it is a hanging offence to abandon or kill).

Like the Puritans in the baby shower scene, it feels as if the promoters have been thrown into the play solely to get the audience laughing, mocking and jeering these popular hate figures.

– There’s a cooly cynical scene where Allwit presents himself to Yellowhammer as himself a remote member of the Yellowhammer family and says he has come to visit out of the goodness of his heart because he knows that they plan to marry their fine daughter off to Sir Walter Whorehound and he (Allwit posing as a Yellowhammer) has the sad duty to inform them that Sir Walter has for many years kept a married woman as whore in London and fathered a brace of bastards by her. Yellowhammer acts shocked and Allwit goes his ways rejoicing that he has scuppered Sir Walter’s plans for getting married (which means that he, Allwit, will remain in the life of luxury because Whorehound will continue swiving his wife indefinitely). What he doesn’t realise is that Yellowhammer doesn’t mind – he still thinks the marriage will bring his family social advantage and, after all, he casually tells the audience, he kept a whore when he was young and fathered a bastard on her (Act 4 scene 1).

– After an initial attempt to elope with Touchwood Junior, Moll is locked up in her room until the wedding with Whorehound. The day before the wedding, she manages to escape through a small hole and flee her parents’ home again – hooray! – but is once again caught just as she was getting into a waterman’s boat to go upriver to meet Touchwood Junior – boo!

Moll is dragged onstage by Yellowhammer’s furious wife, Maudlin, half-soaked from his riverside capture, locked up again and falls into a sickness, partly from the cold water, partly from despair (Act 4 scene 2). Eventually, while Touchwood Senior is visiting, she appears to collapse and to actually expire. Touchwood Senior takes her into the other room to tend her along with a maid. Later it will emerge that he has paid the maid a handsome fee to conspire to pretend that Moll is dead, get her laid in a coffin and brought onstage as if dead in the final scene.

– Touchwood Junior and Sir Walter encounter each other in the street and, as rivals for the hand of Moll, draw swords and fight. They manage to wound each other and stagger off in opposite directions.

– Believing he is dying, Sir Walter staggers to Allwit’s house where he surprises the complaisant couple by sincerely repenting his sins and attacking the Allwits for leading him on to damnation (Act 5 scene 1). Whorehound’s repentance is delivered in a long speech in powerful verse, and I found it the most moving thing in the play.

Still my adulterous guilt hovers aloft,
And with her black wings beats down all my prayers
Ere they be half way up; what’s he knows now
How long I have to live? O, what comes then?
My taste grows bitter, the round world all gall now,
Her pleasing pleasures now hath poisoned me,
Which I exchanged my soul for;

Which makes it all the more bitter when news arrives that Lady Kix is pregnant (hang on, didn’t she only have sex with Touchwood Senior about half an hour ago? No-one cares about timeframes or plausibility, this is the theatre). The point is that the advent of an heir to the Kixes spells financial ruin for Sir Walter and so the Allwits, in a gesture of breath-taking cynicism and cruelty, order their servants to kick Whorehound out onto the street, in fact to get him arrested for murdering Young Touchstone (news of whose demise also arrives by messenger). Super-cynically, they coolly plan to rent out the big house (I think the implication is to turn it into a brothel) and themselves move to a smaller one in The Strand.

– As mentioned above, Moll continues very sick and when Touchwood Senior brings word that his brother has died (as a result of wounds incurred in the duel with Whorehound), she faints and appears to die. Her parents are distraught and, with wild improbability, allow Touchstone Senior and her servant to look after the body. This is where they cook up the plan to convey her in a coffin to the same place where the coffin conveying Young Touchwood will go.

– Thus the climax of the play is reached when, to doleful mourning music, the two coffins are borne onstage containing Moll and Young Touchwood and Touchwood Senior asks the assembled cast whether they would do anything and forgive anyone to see the two young people alive again? Like the audience at a pantomime, everyone shouts ‘Yes’ and so Touchwood Senior orders the young couple to arise from their coffins – and the two young lovers spring up large as life. Hooray!

Now to tie up all the loose ends: 1. Young Touchwood and Moll are married and her parents finally give their blessing, as parents in all these plays eventually do. 2. Dim Tim is married to the Welsh niece, discovers she is a whore, and is jokily challenged by his mother to prove his Latin learning and logic to transmute her into a chaste wife. 3. Lady Kix, as we saw, is now pregnant so she and Sir Oliver are so delighted they promptly promise to support the family of Touchwood Senior, so he’s sorted out. 4. Finally, Touchwood announces that Sir Walter has recovered from his wounds but is now confined to the debtors prison where he is likely to say for a very long time.

Which is a shame because the shamelessness with which he carried out his scandalous arrangement with the Allwits – and then the blistering sincerity of his fear of hell and damnation when he thinks he is dying – were, for me, by far the most vivid and memorable moments in the play.

Thoughts

As with The Roaring Girl I don’t know whether it’s me or Middleton, but I didn’t find any of the characters or any moments in the play actually funny, and the whole thing left an acrid, metallic aftertaste. This was caused by at least two things:

1. The extended scene where Sir Walter thinks he’s dying and calls down genuine and powerful curses on the Allwits head is very vivid – and then is compounded when they, hearing he is no longer of financial value to them, kick him out on the street, ordering their servants to fetch officers to arrest him, this adds sulphuric acid onto sump oil.

2. The sad music, the slow procession, the widespread weeping and moaning of the cast, of the many gossips and mothers and bystanders at the double funeral of Young Touchwood and Moll was genuinely doleful and depressing, it had real emotional and dramatic impact. So much so that when the lovers then suddenly sprang to their feet and were reunited in a happy marriage, this seemed somehow trivial and superficial. The bleaker narrative felt more true to the play’s tone of rancid cynicism.

So, for me, a page or so of ‘happy ending’ in no way counters the much harsher and bleaker notes struck earlier in the play. It felt like the harsh vision of human nature demonstrated in Ben Jonson’s plays but without the energising zaniness of the fox or the alchemist which redeems his plays.

Middleton is solicitous to please his audience with what they expect; but there is underneath the same steady impersonal passionless observation of human nature. (T.S. Eliot on Thomas Middleton)

A final, fairly obvious thought is that the play is titled A Chaste Maid in Cheapside but, of course, the chaste maid – Moll, the young lover – is in many ways the most minor of all the characters; she is easily overshadowed by the cynical Allwits, by her dim brother, and by the monstrous but somehow dramatically powerful figure of Sir Walter Whorehound. I realise that that is the intention, to show how a chaste maid in Cheapside is overshadowed and dwarfed by the corruption all round her. Just highlighting how very much that is the case.


Related links

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

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