Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Secular Morality of Middleton's City Comedies

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Secular Morality of Middleton's City Comedies

Article excerpt

In a book published in 2000, Herbert Jack Heller declared that "the debate on whether Middleton's works are immoral, amoral, or moral" is "now exhausted" (1) The announcement of the debate's demise, however, was decidedly premature. (2) It is difficult, in fact, to imagine how such a debate could ever end, given the provocations Middleton introduced into his plays, especially his city comedies. The most notorious scenes--the appearance of the succubus in A Mad World, My Masters, the Dampit scenes in A Trick to Catch the Old One, and Walter Whorehound's repentance in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside--are almost universally cited by scholars troubled by Middleton's inconsistent or "grotesque" treatment of ethical/spiritual values or of comedy itself. (3) While some readers manage to take comfort in embracing the apparent contradictions in tone and content, most (such is the human condition) attempt to rationalize the contradictions by imposing a coherent reading of the underlying values in the plays. Most attempts to produce a coherent ethical position by which Middleton can be defined, however, ultimately do violence to the plays themselves. Those who argue for a moral, Calvinist reading of the plays have to ignore the genuinely festive comedic quality of the city comedies, while those who argue for an amoral or immoral reading offer a portrait of Middleton as a dispassionate or cynical observer of "real life" that is equally at odds with the frequently serious ethical concerns of the plays.

Given the astonishing range of interpretive responses to Middleton's city comedies it is probably fair to say that no overarching thematic analysis will ever answer all the questions the plays raise, but there are elements in each of them that offer productive perspectives that have not yet been sufficiently appreciated. The modest goal of this essay is to identify these elements and explore their value as analytical tools.

The first step is to recognize that the interpretive dilemma posed by these notorious scenes is actually more complicated and more challenging than most scholars acknowledge. In the succubus scene in Mad World, for instance, most analyses address only the problem of the sudden shift in tone from "sardonic amusement to stern incrimination" with Penitent Brothel's access of remorse over his adultery. This shift is a problem for the audience because, as R. B. Parker says, "Having enjoyed the wiles of the rogues, it seems pompous, even hypocritical, for us to become suddenly indignant about them; yet without such indignation Middleton's punishments are too harsh and his indictments self-righteous." (4) If the problem were simply a single shift in tone, however, it would be easy enough to accommodate it as a clear (if heavy-handed) authorial intrusion, even if the reader's/audience's experience was ultimately that "the play splits in two." (5) Anthony Covatta, who finds the succubus an "unsatisfactory intrusion," nevertheless does not find it inexplicable: "Middleton wants us to consider adultery a hellish activity and puts a devil on stage to insure our getting the point." (6) Similarly, Brian Gibbons sees the succubus episode as a "gothic, melodramatic farce" but argues that Middleton "clearly felt the aesthetic balance of the farce as a whole, no less than the satiric ground base of the action, required this sin to be cruelly punished." (7)

If Penitent Brothel's dramatic repentance and the appearance of the succubus provided the final word on his adultery, then, they could be rationalized thematically even in the context of the surrounding comedy. This is not the final word, however. After the appearance of the succubus, Penitent Brothel goes to the home of the woman with whom he has just consummated an adulterous affair and repents to her and encourages her to repent. There's no reason to doubt the sincerity of the repentances, but the appearance of the cuckolded husband to witness the final lines of the exchange puts the effect of the entire scene in doubt by completely ironizing it. …

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