Women Beware Women:
Reinterpreting Middle Age moral values in today's terms. Play based on a Jacobean tragedy written by Thomas Middleton in 1657
Woman Beware Women by Thomas Middleton is not simply a fashionable Jacobean tragedy about intrigues and decadence at the Italian court. There is a deep religious subtext to his work. The idea of inherent wickedness of the human kind runs through the entire play: every character is corrupt in his or her own way and each has to pay for their sins in the end. However, since the 17th century moral values have changed considerably. Even if the scripture’s seven deadly sins remain the same, people have a different attitude towards them, disregarding some and emphasizing others. For example, the ideal feminine qualities of the Jacobean period (chastity, silence, and obedience) would not complement a 20th century woman, and it would be hard for the modern audience to understand why the main female characters are being punished for wanting love. This explains why the director Marianne Elliott decided to transport the events of the play into the 1950s and give it a slightly modern twist to make the play more relatable to the audience. Without changing the subject of the play (sin and its punishment) the director updates the play’s moral lessons that by altering the meaning of the original text with emotional and cultural nuances.
Bianca’s struggle against and submission to the Duke is at the centre of the play’s theme of women falling to lust. But in the production this episode assumes a different quality than in the text. Middleton presents it as a personal moral battle of Bianca: “Make me not bold with death and deeds of ruin/Because they fear not you; me they must fright” (351-2). In the same scene she also speaks about thunder, which is an allegory for moral consciousness. Bianca’s main temptations (as Middleton demonstrates in the play) are lust and greed. The author continually refers to Bianca’s sexual hunger and Leantio’s words are a proof of that: “After a five-days’ fast/She’ll be so greedy now” (96). And greed for material things is suggested by the Duke himself: “But I can give you better in exchange: wealth, honour” (369). The second is might be even a greater deciding factor for Bianca, since she came from a wealthy Venetian family and Leantio cannot provide her with all the luxury she is used to. The scene ends with a monologue in which the Duke promises riches and glory, after which the Duke and Bianca walk off stage together—from that we can infer that his verbal persuasion finally swayed Bianca toward sin.
In the production, however, the Duke obtains Bianca in a very physical way that can be considered rape. The production introduces a new theme – abuse of power. It is very much in tune with our notions of good and evil, but would be misunderstood in the 17th century when the entire social structure was divided into the privileged and the disempowered, who had to obey their masters. This idea was reinforced by religious institutions and implanted in the mindsets of people from their birth, who thought it natural and god-given. But since the French Revolution the doctrine of “liberte, egalite, fraternite” has become prevalent in our worldview and therefore abuse of power is absolutely unacceptable in our society. The feminist movement also changed our perception of women’s rights (especially, sexual freedom). Violence towards women seems so appalling to us that by displaying it in the production the director was bound to arouse moral indignation of the entire audience. The emphasis is therefore shifted from Bianca’s sin of lust and greed (according to Middleton) to the Duke’s fault of being abusive and manipulative and therefore ruining this young woman.
Another key difference between the play and the production is the final act. The original intention of the final Masque was to draw attention to the hypocritical nature of this entertainment. In Middleton’s age Jacobean masques were very fashionable at the court of James I. Therefore, the author of the tragedy had a particular type of audience in mind, that is, a courtly one. Middleton’s spectators would be quite familiar with all the symbolism and mythology used in the final act. Keeping this in mind, he used this “play within a play” device to reinforce the moral message of the tragedy. An educated reader can easily pick up on the ironic discrepancy between what is being proclaimed by the masque and what is happening in the reality of the play. At the same time as Juno, the goddess of marriage, blesses the Duke and his new wife, the play’s characters show absolute disregard for marriage and family values – the very alliance in which honor the masque is staged is built on violence, treachery, and blood. The masques of James the First were extremely lavish and flamboyant, and therefore the set would again point out excessive preoccupation with luxury. Considering that theatre in general was regarded as a sinful diversion, this final scene with its outcome of unexpected death of all the negative characters would provide the audience with a very clear moral message: condemnation of lust and greed.
While this theatrical device would be familiar to Middleton’s contemporaries and they would be able to decipher its symbolism and pick up on the irony, modern audience would be utterly confused by the sudden change of setting and characters’ appearance. Instead of the idea of a decadent spectacle, most people would probably interpret the majestic masque as a profound ceremony – with all the references to classical gods and the elevated language. Marianne Elliott’s solution to this problem is to rewrite the 5th act to make it more understandable in context of the present-day cultural background. The annihilation of the institution of marriage is not so apparent in the production as it is in the masque scene of the play, because although by convention people still bind themselves with wedding vows, the conditions of marriage are not so strict as they were four centuries ago. Instead the director the presents the final scene as an infernal ball where lawlessness and lasciviousness rule.
Almost every character is wearing masks – a symbol of promiscuity, everyone dances with everyone (an allusion to sexual encounters), and the loud accelerating music combined with the lack of dialogue aggravates the atmosphere of pre-apocalyptic chaos. The rotating stage creates an illusion of a whirlpool of sin: once you step in it, there is no way out. The waiters in the costumes of black angels have another important function besides serving the drinks: they dance around the main characters, enveloping them with clouds of smoke. These demon-like creatures represent temptation and deception. The main characters are being intoxicated by the poisonous smoke, they cannot see their own corruption and consequently fall victims of their own moral deterioration. The production creates the impression that the characters die as a punishment for this abstract concept of demoralization rather that for concrete reasons which Middleton’s text presents: lust, greed, and revenge. This also reflects a trend in the modern society where the moral borders have been blurred due to the partial abolition of religious catechisms which in Middleton’s times determined with accuracy what was good and what was wrong.
These are not the only examples where Marianne Elliott needed to adapt the 17th century text to the current cultural and moral context. Other instances include Livia kissing Hippolito (as if her wickedness was not apparent enough) and Hippolito cynically shooting unarmed (but for a knife) Leantio. Our society is much less judgmental of the a vices that Middleton was trying to chastise in his play, so the director had to bring out different ones to convince the audience of the dark nature of the tragedy’s characters. If the director tried to keep true to the text in every detail, it would be a very dull spectacle appealing perhaps only to early modern historians. The production only benefits from these alterations: it becomes more stylish, historically eclectic, which gives it more of a timeless meaning rather than a rigid historical context. It is a wonderful way to resurrect a outdated play.