Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Michaelmas Term

This play, by Thomas Middleton, was originally performed by the boy's company, the Children of Paul's, who did not have their own theater but acted either at court or at the St. Paul's Cathedral where they trained as choristers. The action is confined to the term of Michaelmas, one of the four times during the year when the inns of court (law offices, essentially?) are in session. And while there is only one lawyer in the play and he has little stage time, the play winkingly alludes to the corruption and selfishness of the law and of lawyers. Probably the young men of the Inns of Court were a large part of the audience of this show.

It is a play about financial cunning and street smarts. Quomodo, a draper, hears of a Master Easy, a young landed man who has come to London after the death of his father. Quomodo decides to fleece him and does it by having his servant (his "spirit") Shortyard pose as a wealthy young man (Blastlight) who ingratiates himself with Easy, who is very easily taken in. Easy begins to spend money wildly, spurred on by Blastlight, and soon needs a loan of money. Blastlight takes him to Quomodo, who cannot give them the money but who gives them some valuable cloth to sell, at which point both men sign that they will return the value of the cloth within a month. However, Quomodo arranges it so that they cannot sell the cloth to anyone but him, who buys it back at a much reduced rate. When the debt comes due, Blastlight is no where to be found and Quomodo holds Easy responsible for the debt. All his lands come into Quomodo's hands; however, after this win, Quomodo does a strange thing; he pretends to be dead to see what his family will do with the wealth. His son disowns him, his wife marries Easy, and all the lands go back to Easy. Quomodo, in disguise as a beadle, actually signs a paper to that effect before he realizes that his wife and Easy are married and that he has cheated himself.

At the same time, two young gallants, Lethe and Rearage, are competing over the hand of Quomodo's daughter, Susan. Lethe is a really dissolute character, who has left his Scottish mother in poverty, who has brought a Country Wench into London to be his mistress, and who offers his sexual favors to Quomodo's wife in order for her to favor the match with Susan. Of course he is foiled, made to marry the Country Wench, and Rearage and Susan are married, much to Quomodo's displeasure.

Quomodo is such a weird character in this play; he acts sort of like Shylock in some ways, and sort of like Volpone in others. However, he doesn't have any of the helplessness and pathos of Shylock or the likeability of Volpone. He is crafty and boasts of his craftiness; Leinwand, who introduces the play, suggest that perhaps the young lawyers in the audience are supposed to relate to his character. Maybe this is true, but the lawyers would have to have a dark vision of themselves to relate to Quomodos' thieving, lying, and unexplained hatred for Rearage.

The homoeroticism in the play is really fun; Easy and Shortyard become best friends for a while, sharing a bed and everything else. The fact that both would have been played by young boys, for an audience of young men, is somewhat suggestive. Neither show much interest in women; Easy marries Quomodo's wife, but I get the sense that he does it mostly for the money.

Ultimately, Lienwand asks if perhaps the characters are just "animated ideologies" rather than round characters; sort of walking stereotypes that Middleton puts on stage to show how "London thoroughly socializes character, pre-empting any chance of individuality." This is not my favorite Middleton play, but it is interesting how much he associates corruption with the law. This focus, and his allegorically named city characters, remind me a lot of Dickens. Middleton has a similar urge to expose corruption, but lacks the sentimentality of Dickens; his exposure is less to create a social change (ala Hard Times) and more to cause cynical laughter.

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