Plays & Poems Research article

Women beware women? Introducing Middleton’s complex female characters

  We take a look at the role of women in Thomas Middleton’s tragedy Women Beware Women and Early Modern England

5 minute read

The first scenes of Women Beware Women set up a contrast between the three major life stages for a woman in early modern England: a virgin, a wife, and a widow. Bianca, newly married, is passed immediately into isolation her mother-in-law’s custody while her new husband leaves town. She cannot follow him, or indeed do anything, because he has ordered that his mother-in-law keep her close.

Isabella, a wealthy young woman, is faced with a betrothal to a fool she can’t stand. She dreads the marriage, but knows she ‘must submit unto a father’s will … If he command, I must of force consent’.

Thalissa Teixeira is Bianca

But then there’s Livia – ‘an experienced widow’, as her brother puts it. The contrast between Livia’s position and that of the other two young women is stark. Where Isabella and Bianca are talked about, their futures decided while they stand silently watching, Livia’s brothers actively solicit her opinion, and Livia doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind. In a play where young and poor women continually find themselves hemmed in by patriarchal power, only Livia is able to manipulate these systems, radically defying social convention for her own gain – and at the expense of other women.

‘Where Isabella and Bianca are talked about, their futures decided while they stand silently watching, Livia doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind’

Livia’s chaotic presence echoes the challenge widowhood itself could pose to the early modern social order. Widowhood could be catastrophic for women without the means to support themselves and their families. But many middle-class widows stepped into their former husbands’ roles as heads of the family and of businesses: London’s trade guilds would recognize the widows of their members in a semi-formal capacity.

 

Olivia Vinall is Isabella

Despite its reputation as a boys-only sphere, the world of the theatre offers ample evidence of the participation of wives and widows in the playhouse business. It also demonstrates, however, that even business-minded widows were vulnerable to exploitation. One of the key figures in the history of London’s most famous early playhouse, The Theatre, is Margaret Brayne. She took over her husband’s business interests after his death, a venture that found her involved in a protracted court battle against James Burbage and, after his death, future Lord Chamberlain’s Men sharers Cuthbert and Richard Burbage. She was continually slandered during the process, accused of adultery and even murder, and both she and James Burbage died before the matter could be resolved.

In a similar case, Thomasina Ostler inherited her husband’s shares in the Globe and the Blackfriars when he died, but was forced to sue her own father, John Heminges – a fellow sharer famous for helping to compile Shakespeare’s First Folio – in an attempt to reclaim them. The outcome of the lawsuit is unknown.

Aristocratic and wealthy widows were a slightly different proposition. Livia and her family are wealthy and powerful, as her connection to the Duke demonstrates. Liberated from the legal status of a feme couvert – which meant that a woman was very literally subsumed into, or ‘covered’ by her husband, with no legal status or rights independent of him – Livia displays the freedom of movement and speech that could theoretically be afforded to a widow who did not need to worry about supporting herself or a family financially. It is a vision of emancipation that Women Beware Women presents as a source of both fascination and dread.

Tara Fitzgerald is Livia

Livia’s position allows her unparalleled access to the private lives of both men and women, a freedom many of the play’s characters (especially the men) are eager to take advantage of. This ability to function as a go-between exemplifies her in-between status, neither as contained as the play’s wives and never-married women, nor quite as free as the men. Her power depends on both groups continuing to trust her, on never stepping so far that she is entirely exiled from society – and thus she must walk a delicate line to maintain her position.

‘Livia’s position allows her unparalleled access to the private lives of men and women, a freedom many of the characters are eager to take advantage of’

Thus, Livia also demonstrates that navigating a patriarchal society as a single woman was never simple – nor was it generally as empowering as today’s reader or viewer might hope. Livia’s defiance of the social order is consistently in service of reinforcing other women’s subjugation to men; she maintains her liberty by allying herself with the patriarchal powers-that-be. In that respect, she is as confined as any of the women she manipulates. Ultimately, the seeds she plants bloom into catastrophe, the structure of the play itself condemning the dangers of women uncontained by marital propriety – even as characters voice scepticism about the bargains women are forced to strike to find safety and security.

Women Beware Women sheds a complex light on a complex category of early modern womanhood. As with so many Jacobean tragedies, we are invited to both enjoy and deplore the characters’ bad behaviour. Livia’s transgressions in particular highlight the way writers could spin everyday cracks in the social order into the stuff of bloody tragedy.

FINIS.

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