The moment you’ve all been waiting for: the Lessingham/Clare/Bonvile plot! And here comes the plot twist, just as advertised! (I think the highwayman and the sea battle are going to have to be a separate post. Sorry for the tease.)
But first, who are these people, and what’s going on with them?
To Kill a Friend
Lessingham is in love with Clare and has been longing for a chance to win her for ages. At the beginning of the play, Clare writes Lessingham a note that says, “Prove all thy friends, find out the best and nearest; Kill for my sake that friend that loves thee* dearest.”
*Or “the,” depending on whom you ask.
Despite the casual misogyny Webster’s characters drop elsewhere, here, Lessingham tries to work through possible different interpretations before assuming Clare is evil simply because she’s female.
Interpretation 1: Maybe there is no longer any such thing as friendship. This construction falls along the lines of “Young punks these days don’t know what friendship is any more!” Lessingham admits that so-called friends aren’t always there for you and speculates that Clare may have discovered this as well. Furthermore, if true friendship used to be rare even in the good ol’ days, then perhaps it is “now with justice banish’d th’earth.”
Indeed, when he then begins to test his friends, it looks as though he might be right. None is at first interested in serving as a second in a duel (he isn’t entirely forthcoming about the fact that he’s really looking for an opposite). Bonvile, who has just married Annabel, turns out to be the only one who loves him enough to do that, even though it means that he abandons Annabel on their wedding night in order to travel to Calais (a popular duelling location since it is not on English soil).
When Lessingham ‘fesses up to Bonvile about the real nature of the service he requires (tossing in plenty of misogyny such as his comment on her letter: “And ’tis a bad hand too: the most of ‘em [women] speak fair, write foul, mean worse”), Bonvile also attempts to re-interpret the command in the most favorable way.
Interpretation 2: She wants Lessingham to “kill” some vice he harbors as closely as a best friend such as “self-love or pride.”
After Lessingham shoots that down as a possibility, Bonvile says that he loves Lessingham so much that he will die for his happiness and refuses to defend himself, and Lessingham tries to persuade him to defend himself.
Interpretation 3: Bonvile thinks about it a little more and declares that Lessingham has already succeeded in his goal to kill his best friend because he cannot be Lessingham’s friend any more after this; therefore, Lessingham has killed their friendship.
In fact (and this isn’t the advertised twist yet), Bonvile begins to suspect that Lessingham is secretly in love with Annabel and trumped up the letter as an excuse to lure him away on his wedding night and kill him, and so he challenges Lessingham, thus introducing the topic of sexual jealousy in this plot. Lessingham refuses to fight, and Bonvile won’t kill a defenseless man any more than Lessingham would have, and so that conflict ends (for the moment).
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Annabel and Clare discover that the two men have left for Calais, and Clare reveals as an aside that, as both Lessingham and Bonvile suspected, they misread her command:
O fool Lessingham, thou hast mistook my injunction — utterly, utterly mistook it, and I am mad, stark mad with my own thoughts, not knowing what event their going o’er will come to! ‘Tis too late now for my tongue to cry my heart mercy! Would I could be senseless till I hear of their return; I fear me both are lost.
Lessingham returns and announces to Clare that he has slain his best friend and thereby won her:
By your own condition, I have been at Calais, performed your will, drawn my revengeful sword, and slain my nearest and best friend i’th’ world I had, for your sake.
Clare challenges him (not in the duelling way):
Slain your friend for my sake?
Yup, says Lessingham. (I paraphrase.)
And your best friend?
Yup, says Lessingham (paraphrase again).
Then of all men you are most miserable; nor have you aught furthered your suit in this, though I enjoined you to’t, for I had thought that I had been the best esteemed friend you had i’th’ world.
That’s what I see as the twist, and wow! It’s such a poignant comment on the nature of relationships at the time that it shakes me deeply.
All along, Lessingham has been considering his situation as though it’s one of the traditional controversiae that playwrights loved to write about where a man is placed in a no-win situation where he has to choose one loyalty over another. Now he discovers that he was alone in seeing a dichotomy between friend and lover while Clare had believed that there wasn’t one (which makes me think he had called her his best friend in so many words, or, if not, that she had reasonably concluded it from what he had said).
In just a few lines, Webster reverses the situation from being a tragedy for poor Lessingham, who thinks he has to kill his friend, to being a tragedy for Clare, who thought she was a man’s best friend. (Sorry — I know it’s hard not to think that means she’s a dog, but that really isn’t it.)
I would end there, focusing on the moving nature of the revelation, but I feel that in the interests of full disclosure I should probably just mention that Clare was in love with Bonvile and so was hoping that Lessingham would kill her so that she didn’t have to see him married to somebody else. (I know that wrecks the moment somewhat, but it’s important.)
Fortunately, there’s going to be a comic resolution, and I’ll get there soon. And there will (finally) be the highwayman! And the sea battle!