January 28 – March 31, 2016

Family betrayals, romantic infidelities, and false friendships abound in Women Beware Women, where the ladies of the Florentine court must play to win in a deliciously wicked game of lewdness and lies or else risk the ultimate loss, their lives. Middleton’s searingly wicked play is as provocative now as it must have been 400 years ago.

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Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens in the play
  • Leantio, a Florentine merchant’s clerk, marries Bianca, a beautiful and well-born Venetian, and brings her to his mother’s house in Florence. He worries his beautiful bride will not be content without her luxurious lifestyle.
  • Nearby, Livia hosts her brother Fabritio (father of Isabella) and Guardiano (uncle of a rich youth called the Ward) and they discuss the proposed marriage of their charges. Livia, a widow, protests against loveless marriages and declares she intends never to remarry.
  • Isabella opposes marrying the Ward. Her dear friend and uncle, Hippolito, confesses he loves her romantically; Isabella, upset and confused, leaves him.
  • Leantio leaves Bianca at home with his mother, which upsets Bianca. Excitement and revelry on the streets of Florence distract Bianca from her grief and attract her to the Duke of Florence, who takes great interest in her as he passes by her balcony.
  • Meanwhile, Livia conspires to help Hippolito begin an incestuous relationship with Isabella by tricking Isabella into believing she and Hippolito are not actually related. Isabella consents to an affair with Hippolito, and decides to wed the Ward to conceal her transgression.
  • Not content to end her matchmaking, Livia decides to win Bianca’s heart for the Duke, who fell in love with a mystery woman after spotting her on the balcony. Livia challenges Bianca’s mother-in- law, who doubles as her guard, to a game of chess, using the game to discover Bianca’s presence.
  • The Duke summons Bianca to his home, where he tries to woo her. She initially refuses, pleading on behalf of her honor and virtue, though she is pleased at his attention; however, she is eager to have revenge on Livia.
  • Bianca grows more and more frustrated in her situation – her mother-in-law is eager for Leantio’s return. Upon his return, expecting a loving reunion, Leantio is surprised by Bianca’s anger and coldness. Before long, Bianca fully betrays her husband for the Duke.
  • Lust, betrayal, poisonings, and more poisonings ensue.
Dr. Ralph's Brief

1. When was the play first performed?
Uncertain, some time between 1620 and 1624.

2. Where was the play first performed?

3. Who wrote it?
Thomas Middleton (1580 – 1627), sixteen years Shakespeare’s junior, son of a bricklayer (like Ben Jonson). Middleton went to university (unlike Shakespeare or Jonson). He wrote almost every kind of thing from pamphlets to poems and every kind of play from pageants to tragedies. Interest in his work has grown exponentially since the appearance of Gary Taylor’s Thomas Middleton: the Collected Works. The ASC has so far produced seven of Middlelton’s plays.

4. How is this playwright like Shakespeare?
Like Shakespeare, Middleton seems never to judge his characters. Like Shakespeare, he creates women characters that seem as strong or stronger than the men around them.

5. How is this playwright unlike Shakespeare?
To put it in terms that a single malt drinker would understand: there’s a lot more flavor of peat in a dram of Middleton than in Shakespeare… and perhaps less blend.

6. What do scholars think about this play?
They admire Women Beware Women for the tightness of its plot and the relentlessness of its drive toward its finish; and they consider it is one of Middleton’s most powerful and – some would say – most cynical works. In that regard, this play shares more with Measure for Measure than the diacope of their titles: both are deeply suspicious of love, and this play looks at love not merely as “a madness” – but as lust corrupted by ambition and greed.

7. Does any controversy surround the work?
The misogyny of the play – its very title warns women against other women – is disturbing, and feminist critics have little trouble finding a negative view of women elsewhere in Middleton’s plays. To which Middleton might argue that the men in his plays are without scruple and equally obsessed with ambition and self-gratification, and thus his work is an equal opportunity scourge of the viciousness in the world.

8. What characters should I especially look for?
The Ward. NB: Dr. Ralph confesses he bases this answer on Simon Russell Beale’s hilarious performance at the Royal Court in 1986, where he played the clueless, rich, young heir.

9. What scene should I especially look for?
Act Two, scene 2, in which Middleton gives us a split screen view of Livia playing chess with the Widow on the stage, to help the Duke surprise and seduce the Widow’s daughter-in-law (Bianca) on the balcony above.

10. What is the language like?
Gnarly and muscular.