A Trick to Catch the Old One, and No Wit, No Help Like a Woman’s

The drama of the early Jacobean period saw a switch between a satirical ‘city comedy’ genre, and works cast more in the tragi-comic mould. In both these type of plays the dramatist usually succeeds in summoning up the support of the audience for the (often roguish) characters who triumph in a duplicitous world. However, in both genres we also see a different achievement, wherein lies a perhaps more moral message than would appear from the sometimes purely materialistic victories of the clever individuals in both A Trick to Catch the Old One, and No Wit, No Help Like a Woman’s.

Thomas Middleton (1580 -1627) wrote a number of plays which could be described as the ‘city comedy’, a satirical work in which clever individuals navigate the loose morals and deceptions that characterise the City of London and its citizens. This New Comedy genre was based on morality plays and Roman intrigue comedy, as well as contemporary pamphlets and satire. The aims of the satiric ‘city comedy’ genre were threefold. Primarily, Middleton was a professional writer; the prevalence of so much satirical drama in the first decade of the seventeenth century – between 1599 and 1613 all but 12 of the 55 extant plays are satiric comedies1 – shows that the public taste was for this type of spectacle, and Middleton was thus deliberately playing on a fashion, and writing the type of play that would please his audience.

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Secondly, satiric ‘city comedy’ offered caricatures of the citizens found in England’s largest city, and showed how moral values in general were usually overturned by roguery, greed, and (self) deception. This theme was a highly topical one: London’s population had only recently exploded to beyond all recognition. Between 160,000 and 180,000 people lived in London in 1600; compared with the 20,000 population of Norwich (England’s second city) we can see that playwrights were trying to capture – and profit from- this new phenomenon, London.

The third facet of Middleton’s city comedies, is his insistence on the general corrupt and materialistic nature of humanity. This was linked to the growing population of the city, both poor and rich. From the Irish campaign of 1599, a large number of people had been given knighthoods, which I many felt had watered down the prestige of the nobility (as shown by Sir Amorous La Foole in Jonson’s Epicene). This combined with James I’s selling of titles, typified the new ease of social advancement, linked also with the emergence of London as an industrial centre. This meant an increase in trade, hence the prevalence of satellite professions such as usury, law, and prostitution: power could now be based as much upon capital as upon inherited wealth. Therefore, in the new urban London, there was a growing feeling that the old values were changing, and social climbing and power could be achieved by anyone with ambition.

It is against this background in A Trick to Catch the Old One that Middleton offers us a selection of individuals who are ambitious, often clever and who try to weave their way through the corrupt and sanctimonious world around them to achieve their own ends. Obviously, Middleton does not portray everyone in the same manner, and from all the characters who attempt to use the networks of corruption for their own ends it is only Witgood and the Courtesan who the audience will sympathise with.

How does Middleton manage to elicit the support of us, the audience, for two characters who are essentially criminal? The courtesan is merely a prostitute, yet she agrees to follow and support her ex-lover. His name, ‘Witgood’, embodies the playwright’s approbation of a clever individual, in contrast with the more unsympathetic characters who have names connected with their avaricious desires – such as Lucre, Hoard and Dampit. Indeed, Witgood seems only a few steps behind these old usurers, in the sense that his ambitions are as equally dishonest, materialistic and criminal. This is made plain in the opening scene of A Trick, where Witgood lists his material losses “all sunk into that little pit, lechery”, and shows that a woman’s material possessions are as important to him as her virtue “I lose a virgin’s love [and] her portion”. He admits he would accept criminal activity: “Any trick, out of the compass of law now, would come happily to me”.

In the following act when Hoard, his uncle’s enemy, cries joyfully “Happy revenge, I hug thee. I have not only the means laid before me extremely to cross my adversary … but thereby to enrich my state, augment my revenues and build mine own fortunes greater” there seems to be little difference between the two men’s ambitions. However what distinguishes the two characters is age. In the New Comedy, a stock plot device was generational conflict. For Hoard and Lucre “two old, tough spirits”, “their very anger be the fire / That keeps their age alive”. Dampit is explicitly referred to as “old Harry”, both old, and a manifestation of Satan, whose worship of Mammon “I kneeled by my great iron chest” has rendered him an abusive drunkard. In contrast, Witgood embodies the opportunism, wit, energy and sexiness of Mammon. He and the Courtesan are young, and succeed in outwitting the old – and this makes them more attractive to us. Importantly it is not their characterisation which encourages us to support them, Middleton satirizes the whole situation, to show their opportunistic motivation in what is an already corrupt and ugly world.

At the end of A Trick, it appears that Witgood has changed. “I rise / A reclaimed man, loathing the general vice” he proclaims in a formal, rhyming couplet, both the sentiment and the tetrameter rhythm oddly contrasting with his previous speeches in iambic pentameter. A clever hero has succeeded in foiling his avaricious uncle and Hoard’s social pretensions, marrying his love, and getting rich. In this way, the audience is left with a happy ending, with a somewhat facile moral message

It is easy to find sympathy with, and wish to support Mistress Low-Water in No Wit, No Help Like a Woman’s. The play was written in c.1611-1612. Unlike previous plays, which had relied more heavily on satire, drama in this period tended to be gentler, more romantic, falling broadly in to the tragic-comic genre. Satire diminishes as more complex plot devices and romance reign. Although in a similar way, to A Trick, the audience has sympathy with those who characters who manage to navigate their way through the confusion, the language is slightly more sentimental, and so too are some of the characters.

Middleton encourages us to support Mistress Low-Water (her name making reference to her low station in life) because she is “a distressed gentlewoman” fallen on hard times thanks to Lady Goldenfleece’s late husband. for Kate believes in virtue and a universal justice. “There is no happiness but has her season / Wherein the brightness of her virtue shines”. This type of pronouncement is parodied in the verbose and ridiculous Weatherwise, who is a comic device and whom the audience only laughs at.

Kate’s characterisation contrasts with that of Savourwit, who has no compunction about complying with Phillip to “[ease] our pockets into wenches aprons”, instead of paying Lady Twilight’s ransom money, or to subsequently invent an ability to speak Dutch and lie outrageously to Sir Oliver. He embodies a plot device (found in Roman comedy and also in the original text for No Wit, La Sorella) of the clever servant who outshines his rather dim master.

Savourwit is ‘clever’ and has sharp wits but unlike A Trick, where Witgood and the Courtesan are merely cunning and motivated by money, a degree of emotional engagement is encouraged with the duo of Savourwit and Philip. Consider the rather ambiguous scene where Philip is obliged to reveal to his mother how he has spent her ransom money. On one hand, Savourwit is goading him on from the side “fly to your mother’s pity, / for that’s the court must help you; y’are quite gone / at common law”. On the other, Philip is appealing for his mother’s pardon “Rather fall flat, I shall deserve yet worse”. However much this is a cynical display of affection to achieve his own ends, a pardon and the woman’s help mentioned in the title are indeed given.

Despite this ability of Middleton’s to construct plays, which muster audience support for sometimes the most unlikely characters and convoluted situations, it would be too easy to claim that this is the ‘achievement of the drama of the period’, or even Middleton’s drama. These characters, rather than being merely figures with whom we can identify and support, Middleton shows the audience that, in fact, nothing is what it seems. Mistress Low-Water herself couches much of her sentiment in the same materialistic terms as her adversaries “Has virtue no revenue … Was honesty / A younger sister without portion left?” Her aim is to avenge herself both on Lady Goldenfleece and Sir Gilbert Lambston and restore her material fortunes.

In a world where men are ostensibly in power, three pro-active women set themselves against a masculine network of male dominance. Lady Twilight returns to England, Lady Goldenfleece at least has her choice of suitors, and holds the secret of Grace and Jane, which permits the happy marriage ending. Mistress Low-Water reverses her fortunes thanks to her own subversive masculine disguise, and her machinations.

Similarly, Witgood and the Courtesan seem to repent of their crimes, yet this repentance seems hollow. Dampit remains as “a just judgment shown upon usury, extortion and trampling villainy”, a problem unresolved. Behind the device of the affable Witgood, the “loveable rogue”, is a biting critique of the power of money and the commodification of morality. Uncle is set against nephew in a row over money; marriage is oriented around prosperity “pray, is not a rich fool better than a poor philosopher?” and everyone has “a trick … to get us in our money” -what has been described as the “particularly disturbing sense that lies at the heart of Middleton’s tragedies.”

Similarly, the intricacies of the plot in No Wit, No Help – a play-within-a-play, the disguise, and the general confusion from Weatherwise’s convoluted prognostications to Lady Goldenfleece’s wooing surely reveal that Middleton is a man deeply concerned with the conflict between surface appearance and what lies underneath – often corruption – for example the child switching to enable “better fortunes”: things are never what they appear.

In conclusion, although I would agree that Middleton’s drama musters audience support of diverse characters as they grapple with the problems of corrupt city living and fortunes set against them, this must be qualified. His drama contains a high comic – and often satiric – element, interesting and usually gripping plots. Most importantly, Middleton is not a na�ve dramatist. He sees the corruption and confusion in the world around him and is not afraid to question the actions of the characters he portrays. It is up to the audience whether they see this, or, in supporting the characters, comply with them in their dishonesty and duplicity.