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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.

Whoops.

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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