If Women Should Beware Women, Bianca Should Beware Mother
Levin, Richard A., Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Oh the deadly snares That women set for women, without pity Either to soul or honour! Learn by me To know your foes. In this belief I die: Like our own sex, we have no enemy.
Albert H. Tricomi interprets Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women as an anticourt drama in which a corrupt court system is portrayed from a "censorious citizen perspective."(1) According to Tricomi, the court is an "over-sophisticated, morally effete institution," whose veneer the play gradually strips back to reveal the "sordid . . . reality" of lust and greed.(2) Tricomi rightly identifies aspects of court culture criticized in the play, yet when he calls Women Beware Women a "hammering homiletic,"(3) his tendency to narrow and tidy up an ambiguously shaded social world becomes apparent. For him, the play moves to a day of judgment: "[t] he marriage-become-death masque is the final unveiling of the divine reality that shines through . . . all attempts to make sophisticated courts and urbane courtiers the measure of human value."(4) Certainly many would agree that the revenges perpetrated under the cover of the masque lead to deaths in symbolically apt forms. However, critics have often avoided a simple moral calculus and seen the end of the play either as inconsistent with the earlier part or as involving not only moral retribution but some form of tragic devastation. It seems desirable, then, to refashion Tricomi's approach, retaining the importance he gives to defining the play's social setting but refining his understanding both of that setting and of the play's implied attitude toward it.
Only two scenes of Women Beware Women are set at court; the play's primary focus is the upper gentry and the few from above and below who intersect their lives.(5) Though the court is an influence, it is worth attending to the social world put before us and to the distinctive personalities which may be more or less explainable in terms of societal patterns. It is informative to compare Livia and her houseguest Guardiano. They are on terms of equality, yet they are unlike. Guardiano, a sycophant with respect to the duke, is rude, abusive, and exploitative when he has a position of advantage. Livia has some of his faults (they are collaborators, we shall see) but also attractive strengths. She is intelligent, witty, wise, traits she shares with Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing; like Beatrice, her merriment mixes with a sympathetic strain of melancholy. She is unfulfilled, in part, it seems, because she has been a superior spirit in an inferior world.
Livia introduces into the play another focus beyond class: gender. She remarks as a feminist on the "injustice" done to "maids" whose marriage choices are determined by men (I.ii.29-37); she expands her criticism by noting that marriage favors men, for women owe them "obedience," "subjection," and "duty," and men do not reciprocate (line 42). Livia's niece, Isabella, develops the feminist perspective, incisively observing of women's lot in marriage that "men buy their slaves, but women buy their masters" (I.ii.176). A little later, Bianca ruefully reflects on what led her to elope and then be unfaithful to her husband. She makes a promise to herself not to impose "restraints" such as those which prompted her own rebellion on any daughters she may have (IV.i.30-6). By voicing these sentiments the women do not necessarily imply they should be forgiven their transgressions; if we heed their words, whether we forgive or not, we become subtler and more sensitive observers. It is also noteworthy that, though Livia, Isabella, and Bianca share feminist thoughts and perhaps traits the play associates with their sex, they are also very different from one another, and they certainly are not allies - women, after all, are to beware women.(6) Bianca further complicates the play's social world by being foreign born. Though she shares a great deal with those of her class in Florence, they regard her, and she regards herself, as a stranger in their midst. …