Directed by José Zayas
Featuring Juliana Canfield, Kathleen Chalfant, Robert Cuccioli, Zachary Fine, Sam Lilja, Matthew Rauch, Julia McDermott, Laila Robins, and more to be announced!
A playful parody of serious sexual games, this wicked social satire speaks with a shockingly contemporary voice about abuse of power and the effects of gender inequality.
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ABOUT THE PLAY
Women Beware Women: what a strange title. Are we to read it as an imperative, as “women, beware women”? Such is the lesson learned too late in the play by Isabella, Bianca, and Leantio’s Mother, who find themselves betrayed by the trust they have placed in Livia. Or does “women beware women” carry the force of a (misogynist) proverb, as if to say that only women can truly know the vices of which their sex is capable? This reading seems to glance at the naivety of Leantio, who believes that his new wife, Bianca, will remain contentedly at home, a “matchless jewel” to be seen and enjoyed by him alone. With terrible efficiency, however, Livia arranges for the Duke to seduce Bianca, and Leantio suddenly finds his wife cold and dissatisfied with her modest surroundings. In a single scene, Leantio shifts from regarding marriage as a source of fathomless bliss to envying the “infinite wealth” of peace enjoyed by unmarried men.
In Women Beware Women, Middleton links a domestic tragedy about a failed marriage to a revenge tragedy about a corrupt court. Like John Webster in the similarly woman-centered tragedy The Duchess of Malfi (1614), Middleton explores the hazards faced by strong women subjected to the desires and ambitions of powerful men, whether family members or political rulers. In the Duke’s seduction of Bianca, Middleton shows how effortlessly the ruler can deform moral standards that he is supposed to embody and uphold. Realizing the threat to her chastity, Bianca cries, “Oh treachery to honor,” but the Duke simply redefines “honor” as the favor that is his to dispense or withhold: “She that is fortunate in a duke’s favor / Lights on a tree that bears all women’s wishes.” Bianca appears to yield, but what does consent mean when the Duke can “command” what he initially requests? Is Bianca wrong in trying to reap some benefit from a loss that seems inevitable? Perhaps not, but in playing by the Duke’s rules, Bianca finds that she has been corrupted from within as well as without: “Yet since mine honor’s leprous, why should I / Preserve that fair that caused the leprosy? / Come poison all at once.”
Though caught in different circumstances, Isabella makes a similar decision to take what pleasure she can despite the imposition from without of an unwanted sexual relationship. Her father, determined to marry Isabella to the idiotic Ward, insists that she “shall love him.” Middleton introduces Livia, Isabella’s aunt, as an advocate for Isabella’s right to enjoy a loving marriage. When Hippolito, Isabella’s uncle, confesses to Livia his desire for his niece, Livia voices the usual moral objections to incest, but, motivated by pity and affection for her brother, she simply brushes away those objections, promising Hippolito that she will trick Isabella into accepting his love. And she succeeds. Later, when Livia seduces Leantio, Hippolito rages that Leantio (unlike Hippolito himself) lacks the “conscience” to hide his illicit sexual relationship. The salient distinction for Hippolito and Livia is not between sin and virtue but between open sin, which brings the dangers of public scrutiny, and secret sin. Chastised by the Cardinal for openly keeping a strumpet, the Duke does not relinquish Bianca but marries her in a cynical attempt to transform an illicit relationship into a “lawful love.”
The play reserves its greatest sympathy for those characters who recognize how much of their best selves they have sacrificed in seeking affection and advancement on others’ terms. Leantio reasons that he can no longer love Bianca once she has lost the virtue that made her good, but he then imitates Bianca in taking an aristocratic lover. Yielding to Livia’s offer— “Do but you love enough, I’ll give enough”—Leantio resigns himself to her conditions of exchange: “I’ll love enough, and take enough.” In a bitterly humorous scene, Bianca and Leantio ironically compliment each other on the finery they have received from their lovers. Once tender and playful, Bianca and Leantio have become cruel and petty. Middleton also gives Bianca a poignant soliloquy in which she reflects that her own sheltered upbringing merely incited her rebellious will; she resolves never to raise a girl of her own so strictly. Bianca’s determination to be a more humane, wiser parent than those we see in the play cannot, however, be accommodated by the violent demands of tragic justice. Whatever the Duke’s confidence that his political power can redeem Bianca, transforming her from a “sensual woman” into “lawful wife,” the play is neither as optimistic nor as forgiving.
Mario DiGangi, Professor of English, Lehman College and the Graduate Center, CUNY
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) was one of the most prolific and important playwrights of his age. Born the son of a London gentleman and bricklayer, Middleton attended Oxford University, but did not take a degree. Instead, he began a career as a professional writer, publishing two poems while still a student. By 1602 he had begun writing plays for the Admiral’s Men in London, and shortly after was producing comedies for the all-boy playing companies at St. Paul’s and the Blackfriars. For the King’s Men, he collaborated with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens and apparently revised both Macbeth and Measure for Measure after Shakespeare’s death. Like Shakespeare, Middleton produced major works in all four major dramatic genres: comedy, history, tragedy, and tragicomedy. Often hypothesized to be the Anonymous author of The Revenger’s Tragedy, he was particularly known for satirical comedies set in contemporary London—including Michaelmas Term; The Roaring Girl, co-authored with Thomas Dekker; and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside—as well as tragedies of courtly vice, such as Women Beware Women and the wildly popular A Game at Chess, which created a political controversy that ended Middleton’s playwriting career. Middleton also participated in the political and civic life of London, writing one of the speeches for the “Magnificent Entertainment” that greeted the new King James to London in 1603 and publishing pamphlets describing the effects of plague and of poverty on Londoners. Beginning in 1613, Middleton wrote several Lord Mayor’s Pageants, the public, civic equivalent to the kind of private court masque that concludes Women Beware Women, and in 1620 he was appointed City Chronologer, a post he held until the end of his life.