Saturday, January 14, 2012

Anything for a Quiet Life

Another play that comments extensively on the woman question, this one written in 1621 by Middleton and Webster (of all people) borrows a lot from Dekker's The Patient Grissill and Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. It centers around three couples where the wives want to teach the husbands a lesson.

The first couple, the Cressinghams, are newlyweds. Sir Cressingham is old, landed, and dabbles in alchemy. His wife, Lady Cressingham, is young, beautiful, and demanding. She browbeats him (withholding sex) into giving up alchemy, gaming, and an old family manor so that she can use the money to buy some new property in London which will give them more revenue with rents. She is a canny businesswoman and once the deal is done, treats her husband like a child and gives him an allowance. She is also a harsh and unloving stepmother to his children, sending the two young ones away and selling the land that is to be the eldest son's inheritance.

In the end, though, it is discovered that she has reverse-Patient Grisel'd this guy, pretending to be harsh and demanding to get him to give up his bad habits, but actually willing to be guided by him. He gets his lands back and they are reconciled. I have to wonder, though, how true her repentance can be. She's willing to be guided by him, but only after she's guided him away from all the bad stuff in his life? It seems more likely that the repentance is a ploy to continue to gain her husband's and step-son's favor in the future.

The second couple, the Camlets, are housing Cressingham's younger children. The wife, Rachel, is upset at this. She is a loud, complaining woman who is certain that their two wards are actually bastards of Camlet's. She leaves him, swears to never sleep with him again, and only comes back when Camlet's resourceful employee George tricks her into believing that Camlet is going to divorce her and marry a new woman (echoes of Grisel again!). She comes back, penitent, and agrees to many demands, one of which is that she keep her voice low and doesn't use harsh words like "rogue" or "rascal." She agrees, and this is the play's tamed wife--tamed not by the husband, though, but by the tricky servant.

The third couple, the Knavebees, are playing out (with a different ending) the wittol subplot of Chaste Maid. Sib Knavesbee is beautiful and intelligent; her husband, though, is a dolt, a lawyer who asks a nobleman for a promotion. The nobleman, Sir Beaufort, agrees on the condition that he gets to sleep with Sib. Knavesbee is excited at this prospect, agrees, and tries to trick Sib into it by telling her that he has been unfaithful to their marriage (thus motivating or condoning her unfaithfulness?). He says a bunch of hilarious stuff, like after this bit of sex with Beaufort, that their relationship will begin again, fresh and new, and it will be like a totally faithful marriage.

Sib doesn't agree or disagree to the plot; instead, she gets angry at her impending prostitution and decides to trick both men. She tells Beaufort that she will sleep with him if she also gets to sleep with his page. He is upset and leaves. She then tells Knavebee that she slept with Beaufort and now, having slept with a knight, she is no longer interested in her husband sexually. Both men are repaid for trying to prostitute her out and, after threatening to kill himself, she and Knavesbee are reconciled.

I think it's interesting that a bit of with-holding sex enters into each plot here (as in Lysistrata and The Tamer Tamed). It doesn't work out so well for Rachel Camlet; this is, after all, a play for the masses and we must have a shrew-taming somewhere, right? Keep those women in their place? And while we can't be certain about Lady Cressingham's motives, at the end she is restored to a normative position within her hierarchical marriage. It seems like the play dramatizes a spectrum of spouse-taming tactics and effectiveness. As long as the marriage bed is kept pure (Camlet and Knavesbee) and there is enough money to go around (Cressingham), women are content to stay within the cage (to use Julia's term from The Patient Grissill) of marriage, even if that means being (or seeming) dutiful and quiet or, in Sib's situation, staying with an idiot wittol of a husband. Which dramatizes another point that Moll Cutpurse makes in The Roaring Girl about the fact that sometimes women, who are the fish to men's fishermen, are actually the fish consuming the male bait from a gilded hook. Women gots to get fed, and whether they do it by staying an unsatisfactory marriage or by taking other measures, it's not entirely true that they are being completely controlled by the system.

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