City Comedy

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Plays

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is Middleton’s masterpiece of Jacobean city comedy, rich in irony and wordplay. Middleton welds together the themes of corruption, money and sex into a complex whole, in which comedy is mingled with disgust.

Moll Yellowhammer is in love with Touchwood Junior, but her avaricious parents have betrothed her to the rich knight Sir Walter Whorehound, just as they have set up their son Tim to marry a rich Welsh heiress. Sir Walter is conducting an open affair with Mrs Allwit, while her happily cuckolded husband congratulates himself on finding an adulterer to support his household. Meanwhile, Sir Oliver Kix and his wife hope to get their hands on some of Sir Walter’s property, but Lady Kix has been unable to conceive, so they employ the ceaselessly fertile Touchwood Senior (the brother of Moll’s lover) to make Lady Kix pregnant any way possible.

The play signals its ironic nature even in the humorously ironic title: Cheapside maids were not noted for their chastity. London’s busiest commercial area is shown to be a crucible of mercantile greed, where money is more important than either happiness or honour, the most coveted commodities to be bought with it are sex and social prestige, and even true lovers must trick their way to marriage.

The play was probably first performed in 1613 at the Swan theatre, possibly by the Lady Elizabeth’s Men and the Queen’s Revels together.

The Devil is an Ass

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Ben Jonson's play The Devil is an Ass is a Jacobean comedy first performed in 1616 by the King's Men and first published in 1631.

The play opens in Hell, with a junior demon called Pug persuading his master Satan to let him spend a day in London doing the Devil's work of tempting men to evil. Satan thinks Pug isn't up to the job; the world has grown so sophisticated in its vices, especially in the moral cesspool of London, that a simple devil like Pug will be severely out of his depth. Pug pleads his case, however, and Satan sends him into the world, specifically to plague an eccentric and foolish gentleman named Fabian Fitzdottrel. Taking over the body of a recently hanged thief, Pug persuades Fitzdottrel to take him on as a servant. The squire doesn't believe that Pug is a devil, despite Pug's insistence that he is, but is happy that he asks no wages. Meanwhile, Fitzdottrel is the target of various conmen, who befriend him hoping to take advantage of his eccentric foolishness and to seduce his beautiful young wife. Pug, in looking for opportunities for villainy, is beaten, manipulated, and generally abused, and ends up in Newgate Prison, from where he is rescued by Satan, triumphant in his prediction that London was more than Pug could handle. Fitzdottrel, discovering that Pug was a devil after all, abandons his new friends, exposing them as the conmen they really are.

This edition of the text, edited by Peter Happé and introduced by Simon Trussler, was published in 1995 by Nick Hern Books in its Drama Classics series.

Eastward Ho!

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A collaboration between Jonson, Chapman and Marston, Eastward Ho! is a masterpiece of city comedy. Unique among the ‘coterie’ city comedies written for boy players, Eastward Ho! gives all classes a full satiric treatment simultaneously didactic, ironic, and triumphantly comic.

Touchstone is an upright London citizen, a goldsmith. He has one modest and one ambitious daughter, and one righteous and one disreputable apprentice. He marries his respectable daughter to his respectable apprentice, but his wilful daughter is determined to become a lady and marries herself off to a lord of doubtful finances, while his other mercurial apprentice casts aside his indentures in order to climb the social ladder. A series of chaotic accidents ensures that virtue is rewarded, and ruthlessness comes to grief – receiving a drenching in the muddy Thames.

Eastward Ho! was performed at the Blackfriars playhouse in 1605. The play may well have been provoked by Dekker and Webster’s Westward Ho!, produced by Paul’s Boys in 1604; Eastward Ho! parodies the earlier play’s form.

Epicoene or The Silent Woman

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Jonson’s buzzing satire on gender and language enjoyed enormous prestige for more than a century after its first performance. The central figure is Morose, who hates noise yet lives in the centre of London, and who, because of his decision to marry a woman only because he is duped into believing she is silent, exposes himself to a fantastic cacophony of voices, male, female and – epicene.

The title signals Jonson’s satiric and complex concern with gender and performance: the play interrogates sexual decorum and the performance of gender, asking how men and women should behave both as fit examples of their sexes and to one another. The characters – knights, barbers, female collegiate and tricksters – present a cross-section of wrong answers, enabling Jonson to create riotous entertainment out of lack, loss and disharmony. Jonson is fascinated by the denigration of language into empty chatter or furious abuse: it is teeming with idiomatic vitality.

Epicoene was first performed in 1609 or 1610 by a children’s company. This text is based on the only authoritative text, from the 1616 folio Works.

The Tamer Tamed

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed acts as a sort of ‘sequel’ to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590-4). Written nearly twenty years after Shakespeare’s violent Padua comedy, Fletcher’s city comedy relocates the ‘tamer’ Petruchio to London for his remarriage to the seemingly docile Maria, after the death of his shrewish first wife, Katherina. Maria, however, turns the tables on Petruchio and quickly takes control of all aspects of their marriage, from sexual relations to interior décor. Meanwhile, her sister Livia attempts to avoid marriage to the elderly Moroso and win back her nervy fiancé, Roland.

Recent decades have seen a desire to bring Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s plays together in performance, such as Greg Doran’s 2003-4 RSC productions, which changed the names of some of the later play’s character in order to heighten the continuance of the narrative, and thus highlight Petruchio’s rise and fall and the similarities of the social backdrops of London and Padua.

Whereas Shakespeare’s play focuses on the ‘taming’ of an individual ‘shrew’ (a wayward, over-talkative, sexually available woman), Fletcher’s reworking reaches out to the wider cultural co-ordinates of early modern misogyny and proto-feminism. Written at a time when the London theatre scene was abounding with plays about ‘excessive’, transgressive women, shortly before the battle of the sexes would heat up with the ‘pamphlet wars’ of the 1610s, the play inverts commonplace gender hierarchies to put women – at least, temporarily – on top. Maria and her fellow ‘shrews’ dominate the stage spatially, verbally, and sexually. Dramaturgically mimicking rural customs such as the charivari and the skimmington, the coming-together of the city and country wives in support of Maria overturns the play’s patriarchal agenda with a jubilant carnival of women’s noise. In the face of this seeming celebration of female empowerment, then, critics and theatre-goers alike have found the play’s ending, as that of Shrew, hard to swallow: Maria vows to Petruchio that she will dedicate her life ‘in service to your pleasure’.

City comedies (also known as citizen comedies) were Elizabethan and Jacobean plays that satirized the manners, social customs, and financial dealings of London’s new prosperous merchant class. This popular genre attracted such leading playwrights as Thomas Dekker, Philip Massinger, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Heywood, Francis Beaumont, and John Fletcher. The period was one of economic and social upheaval in which a trading class of entrepreneurs developed into an established middle class. Accordingly, citizen comedy is characterized by plots about social-climbing and greed, with characters marrying for money, tricking heirs out of their fortunes, and dreaming up schemes to get rich quickly. There is much good-natured moralizing. Typical examples of the genre include The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1599) and Old Fortunatus (1600) by Dekker; Eastward Ho! (1605), a collaboration between Marston, Jonson, and Chapman; Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607); and Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1611). The political conflict between Charles I and Parliament led to darker themes in citizen comedy and its decline prior to the Civil War and Interregnum.

from Jonathan Law ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011)