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Commentary on Women Beware Women

By Noctifer Apr 30, 2012 1257 Words
Middleton’s Women Beware Women is a Jacobean tragedy, which has a complex plot and deals with corrupted characters. This tragedy is about corruption in the court and life in general, love by money and how women can lead other women to destruction. As Tricomi states about the characters, they ‘are not wholly the product of their circumstances, but their circumstances condition their choices and propel them toward their destiny’.[1] Middleton, as other Jacobean playwrights before him, has managed to point out that ‘aristocratic life is brutal and corrupt’.[2] The focus of this commentary will be concentrated on marriage and to what can lead one to fall apart.

The first scene (Act I), deals with the characters of the play’s main plot: Leantio, Bianca and the Mother. In this scene, the readers come across with the insulting behaviour towards Bianca, where she is treated as an object. Leantio speaks of his wife with words of business, to him she is “the most unvalued’st purchase” (I.ii). He describes her as if she was a dangerous object that must stay hidden and safe, away from the sight of men. When he talks about her, it is obvious that Bianca is for him a treasure and he is the thief that now has to hide his “best piece of theft” (I.ii) in a safe place so no one will steal it from him. Such words describing a human being are rather cruel, especially when Leantio is talking about a person for whom he is supposed to have true and pure feelings of love.

Leantio is aware that Bianca’s family is rich, but he also knows that by marrying Bianca in secrecy and taking her away from them, Bianca will lose all of the property and money that belongs to her. He has also written over to her his house and put his mother in jeopardy. Although his act seems a romantic one and, even though he speaks of that relationship and feelings as being pure, his love is not mature; rather, it is one filled with jealousy.

In the beginning of the play Bianca could be characterised as the victim because she has a mother-in-law who is not fond of her and does not approve their marriage and she is now imprisoned in poverty and in home. However, Bianca is ‘as much a victim as perpetrator, and she is to be judged as a tragic protagonist with a vexing mix of virtues and flaws’.[3] As seen in the plot, the Mother aids and abets in Bianca’s meeting with the Duke. The Mother and Livia hatched up a plan for Bianca’s rape and she falls into the trap, as Isabella did, but the rape was almost enticed on her part. ‘The attitude towards Bianca is one of dehumanizing possession and manipulation’.[4] But Bianca, after that, changes drastically and soon enough she becomes one of the most corrupted characters, who along with others, brings about the downfall and the final bloodshed in the play. Bianca chose money over her marriage, although, she blames the other women for her disaster. ‘Treachery and betrayal [...] are Bianca’s terms of explanation for her downfall’.[5]

Bianca is seen by her mother-in-law as an added burden to her son’s finances. The Mother’s interest is focused only on money. For the Mother, Bianca as a wife has nothing to offer, she will only demand and receive. The Mother is sizing up the economics of their situation now that there are three members in the family. Leantio can barely support himself, and up until now he had to support his mother as well. The Mother doubts that her son is able to support a family of three. She claims that nothing can save him from this financial dead end by saying “My life can give you But little helps, and my death lesser hopes” (I.ii). The Mother thinks of Bianca, as for every other wife, that she will require from Leantio “maintenance” (I.ii) fitting to her “birth and virtues” (I.ii), but also gratification of her desire for “affections, wills, and humours” (I.ii).[6] Leantio then expresses his intentions towards Bianca, by replying to his mother’s words, pleading with her not to “teach her to rebel” (I.ii) now that “she’s in a good way to obedience” (I.ii). Leantio’s “assurance” (I.ii), of keeping his “jewel” (I.ii) locked away “from all men’s eyes” (I.ii), is his mother. She is the one who holds the “key” (I.ii) to his “treasure” (I.ii), and “old mothers” (I.ii) are “good to look to keys” (I.ii) when “sons lock chests” (I.ii). However, the irony here is that later on, it’s the Mother herself who pushes Bianca towards rape with the Duke, first to get rid of her, but then to accrue some of the benefits from the court life for herself and her son. Bianca is to Leantio nothing but an object of “great value” (I.ii), a “matchless jewel” (I.ii) that he has stolen. Because “temptation is a devil will not stick to fasten upon a saint” (I.ii), Leantio’s “gem” (I.ii) must stay hidden and locked. This is the “great policy” (I.ii) for Leantio in order to never lose a treasure; never “show thieves our wealth” (I.ii). Bianca is the “treasure” (I.ii), Leantio is the “thief” (I.ii), and the “key” (I.ii) to his happiness holds his mother, thus, it could be said that the chest with the key is symbolic of Leantio and Bianca’s relationship.

To conclude, this tragedy proves that women should beware women. Women lead other women to destruction, and are even responsible for another woman’s rape. Corruption and enemies are present everywhere but, as Bianca says in her dying breath, “Like our own sex, we have no enemy” (V.ii). ‘The play’s title, Bianca’s vulnerability, and her dying admonition all suggest that the Mother did scheme against her daughter-in-law’[7], thus, Bianca is after all partly right. Middleton, being a Puritan, had to blow up this world of corruption in the end and purify it with a huge bloodbath.


Primary Texts

Middleton, Thomas Women Beware Women (London: NHB, 2005)

Secondary Texts

King, Laura Severt ‘Violence and the Masque: A Ritual Sabotaged in Middleton’s “Women Beware Women”’, Pacific Coast Philology, 21:1/2 (Nov. 1986), pp.42-47.

Levin, Richard A. ‘If Women Should Beware Women, Bianca Should Beware Mother’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 37:2 (Spring 1997), pp. 371-389.

Taylor, Neil and Loughrey, Bryan ‘Middleton’s Chess Strategies in Women Beware Women’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 24:2 (Spring 1984), pp. 341-354.

Tricomi, Albert H. ‘Middleton’s “Women Beware Women” as Anticourt Drama’, MLS, 19:2 (Spring 1989), pp. 65-77.

Word count: 1,084 excluding the bibliography

[1] Albert H. Tricomi, ‘Middleton’s “Women Beware Women” as Anticourt Drama’, MLS, 19:2 (Spring 1989) p.74

[2] Laura Severt King, ‘Violence and the Masque: A Ritual Sabotaged in Middleton’s “Women Beware Women”’, Pacific Coast Philology, 21:1/2 (Nov. 1986), p.44

[3] Richard A. Levin, ‘If Women Should Beware Women, Bianca Should Beware Mother’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 37:2 (Spring 1997), p.383

[4] Neil Taylor, Bryan Loughrey, ‘Middleton’s Chess Strategies in Women Beware Women’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 24:2 (Spring 1984), p.348

[5] Ibid, p.350

[6] Levin, op.cit, p.374

[7] Ibid, p.385

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