Posts Tagged ‘John Webster’

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).

The Twist

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!


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Bonvile and Annabel; aka The Age of Reason Comes Early

As I mentioned last time, sometimes the characters behave better (i.e., more rationally or with more psychological realisism) than you might expect, which continues here.

For instance, Bonvile’s behavior is, at least from a certain perspective, quite rational. In a culture that highly prized friendship, he lives up to those ideals, and he rationalizes his behavior. He says:

I still prefer my friend before my pleasure,
Which is not lost forever, but adjourned
For more mature employment. (1.2.158-60)

Speaking of mature, you have to be a really good friend to give up your wedding night, even if it was more common in the early modern period not to consummate the wedding on the first night of the wedding celebrations. (I can’t find a citation for this practice right now, but I swear I remember reading it at some point, and it coincides with what is often said in early modern works about postponing consummation, as in The Maid’s Tragedy.)

And Annabel, despite being given a fantastic excuse to leap to conclusions, behaves as though she had some reason to trust the man she has just married. (I know my students would like that part; they get easily fed up with Shakespearean characters who fly off the handle at the least hint of improper behavior without so much as communicating with their loved ones.) She reassures her father:

… I have questioned with my meditations,
And they have rendered well and comfortably
To the worst fear I found. Suppose this day
He had long since appointed to his foe
To meet, and fetch a reputation from him
–Which is the dearest jewel unto man.
Say he do fight, I know his goodness such
That all those powers that love it are his guard,
And ill cannot betide him. (2.4.65-73)

Even if this seems a little more “stand by your man” than “stop him from engaging in dangerous behavior because it’s fundamentally selfish,” and thus maybe a bit more mid-twentieth century than twenty-first century, it focuses on the rational more than the emotional. She does not respond purely with instinct or emotion but says that she has questioned with [her] meditations and compared them to her worst-case scenario.

(Worst-case scenario fans, note that her worst-case scenario is pretty much on the money.)

I’m not really going to defend the end of her speech as being brilliantly rational, but it at least gets chalked up on the side of her not assuming the worst.

Furthermore, when Lessingham insults Annabel to her father, her father assumes she’s innocent rather than guilty, but he also asks for evidence and then refutes it. (Leonato in Much Ado could take notes.)

However, if all of the characters were consistently rational, we’d be a little short on conflict. As a result, this play may be open to the imputation that some of the characters are inconsistent – but in what early modern play is that not true?

My favorite plot twist is still ahead.

Also, there will be a highwayman and a sea battle. What could be better than that?

Bonus quote (from Woodroff, Annabel’s father, urging people to be merry at the wedding festivities when the celebrating has died down because of Bonvile’s disappearance):

Fie, gentlemen, within
The music plays unto the silent walls,
And no man there to grace it. When I was young,
At such a meeting I have so bestirred me,
Till I have made the pale green-sickness girls
Blush like the ruby, and drop pearls apace
Down from their ivory foreheads; in those days
I have cut capers thus high. (1.1. 125-32)

On the one hand, when you come right down to it, it’s a description of sweat.

On the other hand, the high rhetoric here contrasts so beautifully with the content that it ultimately renders it humorous — and yet it still feels genuine and moves me.

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A Cure for a Cuckold, John Webster and William Rowley (and Heywood?)

John Webster’s reputation is built almost entirely on his two great tragedies, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, both of which I think are excellent plays, both as literature and in performance (to tell the truth, I’ve only seen The White Devil in performance, but it blew me away).

However, I think Webster (with assistance) writes a mighty fine tragicomedy as well. (I’d argue A Cure for a Cuckold can be read as a tragicomedy, though I understand there are claims that it’s a city comedy as well, which I can see as well.)

Unfortunately, unlike Webster’s tragedies, the free text is not available at Project Gutenberg, but you can find A Cure for a Cuckold fairly cheaply and in a reasonably good edition (by René Weis) in the Oxford World’s Classics series.

Spoiler warning

Anything written for this blog is likely to have spoilers. It’s hard to convince somebody a play’s worth digging into without giving away some of the best bits. If there are any really big surprises, I might hold back, I suppose, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Long attention span warning

I’m into the details, and you know how that goes – first you’re just jotting down a few notes, and pretty soon, you have seven single-spaced pages that not even your mother would wade through. So, following the advice of my blog mentor, michael5000, I won’t tackle all of this (or possibly any) play in one post.

Adult content warning

I don’t think there’s anything particularly controversial in this play, but these are early modern plays. Plus, I was on a roll with all the warnings.

All right. Down to business…

The Story

I divide this play into three plot threads, centered around three characters: Lessingham, Compass, and Rochfield. Despite the fact that Lessingham is almost inarguably the central plot by any normal standard, I’d like to start with the Compass thread.

Here’s why I’m so smitten with Compass: he’s not like all those other men. You know, the Shakespearean ones. If you’re familiar with Shakespeare, you’ll know that the jealous man becomes almost a running gag (except it’s not necessarily funny) by the end of his career: Claudio, Othello, Posthumus, Leontes… I can’t decide whether the fact that the women are never* guilty when the men are convinced that they are is hilarious or tragic. At any rate, men’s willingness to believe that their wives are sleeping with other men demonstrates a virtual obsession with the fear of cuckoldry, which is a staple of discussions of early modern English attitudes towards sex.

*Not counting Queen Margaret and one or two other teeny tiny examples.

In contrast, Compass is a sailor who has been at sea for four years. Before that, he and his wife had been unsuccessful at having kids. The first thing that Compass hears when he comes back is that his wife had a kid about a year ago.


If Compass were a Shakespeare character, he would have had three venom-filled diatribes against women by the end of the act. (There’s plenty of misogyny in this play, but it doesn’t come from Compass.)

Instead, he immediately claims the boy as his own and has a joyful reunion with his wife even though he knows she has been sleeping with another man. Eventually, he even declares himself willing to enter into a potentially long and expensive lawsuit against the biological father in order to gain full legal custody, where Compass shows his passion and his wit while employing as many double entendres as most quibble-fond could desire.

My Favorite Compass Passages

Speaking to some apprentices who give him the news about his wife as soon as he arrives in town, Compass immediately defends his wife, Urse:

Compass: … here with us at Blackwall, our children come uncertainly, as the wind serves. Sometimes here we are supposed to be away three or four year together; ’tis nothing so: we are at home and gone again, when nobody knows on’t. If you’ll believe me, I have been at Surat as this day; I have taken the long-boat — a fair gale with me — been here abed with my wife by twelve o’clock at night, up and gone again i’th’ morning and no man the wiser, if you’ll believe me.

Jack:    Yes, yes, gaffer, I have thought so many times: that you or somebody else, have been at home. I lie at next wall, and I have heard a noise in your chamber all night long.

Compass: Right, why, that was I, yet thou never saw’st me. (2.3.50-61)

Shortly, here’s what Compass says when he sees Urse, his wife, again:

O Urse, give me leave to shed. The fountains of love will have their course. Though I cannot sing at first sight, yet I can cry before I see. I am new-come into the world, and children cry before they laugh, a fair while. (2.3.82-85)

(I just thought that was sweet and rather appropriate, given the focus on children here.)

And here’s the discussion with Urse about the baby:

Compass: I hope my boy’s well, is he not? I looked for another by this time.

Urse: What boy, husband?

Compass: What boy? Why, the boy I got when I came home in the cock-boat one night about a year ago! You have not forgotten, I hope? I think I left behind for a boy, and a boy I must be answered. I’m sure I was not drunk; it could be no girl.

Urse: Nay then, I do perceive my fault is known. Dear man, your pardon.

Compass: Pardon? Why, thou hast not made away my boy, hast thou? I’ll hang thee, if there were ne’er a whore in London more, if thou hast hurt but his little toe.

Urse: Your long absence, with rumour of your death—
After long battery, I was surprised.

Compass: Surprised? I cannot blame thee. Blackwall, if it were double black-walled, can’t hold out always, no more than Limehouse, or Shadwell, or the strongest suburbs about London, and when it comes to that, woe be to the City, too!

Urse: Pursued by gifts and promises I yielded.
Consider husband, I am a woman,
Neither the first nor last of such offenders.
‘Tis true, I have a child.

Compass: Ha, you? And what shall I have then, I pray? Will not you labour for me as I shall do for you? Because I was out o’th’ way when ’twas gotten, shall I lose my share? There’s better law amongst the players yet, for a fellow shall have his share, though he do not play that day. If you look for any part of my four years’ wages, I will have half the boy.

Urse: If you can forgive me, I shall be joyed at it.

Compass: Forgive thee? For what? For doing me a pleasure?

That passage stuns me every time. On the one hand, I recognize that it must be intended comically; for Compass to allow this behavior reveals him as not only a cuckold but a wittol — that is, a man who knows about but doesn’t mind his wife’s infidelity — and “wittol” was also a word used for a person without all his senses.

On the other hand, it makes the scene somehow even more poignant that the man who seems intended as the butt of the comedy achieves more generous and noble behavior than the gentlemen in this play do. Compass portrays a touching humanity where the affectionate relationship between a husband and wife is more important than husband’s pride. Whether or not this response was intended by the authors, I find it very moving.

Perhaps “They don’t seem as screwed up as lots of Shakespeare characters!” is damning a little with faint praise, but I enjoy this aspect. Also, this is not the only example in the play, which is a point I plan to come back to in another post on the play.

Webster, John. A Cure for a Cuckold. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

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