ABSTRACT Middleton's Women Beware Women seems both to address itself particularly to women and at the same time to stigmatise them. The implied misogyny of the title can perhaps be seen as justified by the behaviour of the play's central manipulator, Livia, but equally the degree of concentration on Livia alone could be read as suggesting that she is a uniquely corrupt individual, rather than a means for the playwright to condemn all women. This essay, though, argues for a less recuperative reading, proposing that Livia is in fact seen precisely as generic, since she figures the role of mother. The emphasis in the play on parent-child relationships has often been noted; less well documented is the fact that Livia, though literally childless, is repeatedly imaged as a mother, whose fault lies not in selfishness but in an inability to discipline the desires of her offspring. Lacking a strong father-figure, the play thus presents, a la Peter Lilley, a nightmare vision of single parenthood.
The title of Thomas Middleton's play Women Beware Women (ca 1620-1625?) seems clearly related to the marked vogue for titles drawing attention to the notable female characters of plays, such as Webster's The White Devil (referring to Vittoria Corombona) and The Duchess of Malfi, Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy, and Thomas Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness. Middleton's title, however, does not, as is often the case in Renaissance drama, offer merely a convenient description of the play's principal characters or concerns; while 'women beware women' could be a simple indicative statement, the equally probable option of reading it as an imperative also marks it as prescriptive. As such, it is unusual not only in its form but also in its overt assumption (or recognition) of a female audience: centuries before the invention of the 'woman's film' or 'women's novels', we appear to be confronted with a perhaps unexpected acknowledgement of women's importance as consumers of fiction, which would seem to offer strong support for Linda Woodbridge's view that, for a time at least, women in the audience 'were strong enough and assertive enough to influence the drama's image of womankind' (Woodbridge, 1984, p. 286; see also Howard, 1994; and McLuskie, 1989). Moreover, the title's explicit exclusion of men might well be seen as inviting a considerable degree of intimacy, indeed collusion, between the dramatist and these favoured addressees.
What the beginning of the title apparently holds out, however, the end abruptly cancels. The seemingly benevolent warning signalled by the first two words, 'Women beware', is abruptly turned back on itself as the object of the verb is paradoxically revealed as a duplicate of the subject: women must beware themselves, suggesting the necessity not only of avoiding other members of one's sex but also of a psychological splitting equivalent to the fragmented sense of self which marks the collapse of Shakespeare's Richard III. Intimacy and benevolence are both revoked, to be replaced, as so often in Renaissance ideologies of the female, with the impasse of a double-bind.
Such a glossing of the text as a piece of thinly-veiled misogyny might appear to be supported by the lines 'Upon the tragedy of My Familiar Acquaintance Tho. Middleton', by Nathaniel Richards, which are printed at the beginning of the play:
Women beware Women: tis a true text
(Gill, 1968, p. 3)
Richards' rather doggerelly verse provides a depressing picture, and one rather at odds with the notion of a play primed to please a female audience: the play, he implies, was received as being hostile to women, was thought to be justly so, and was much applauded for it.
Indeed even a modern audience might well be tempted initially to concur with such a reading, for the play provides us from an early stage of the proceedings with a woman so manipulative that it would be mere common sense to beware of her. Livia not only outrages the proprieties of 17th-century womanhood by taking a toyboy and planning a murder; she is also a direct danger to her own sex, as she singlehandedly betrays Bianca to the duke, and abuses the confidence of her niece Isabella to trap her into unwitting incest with her uncle. One might well feel, however, that her career of lust and violence is so egregious as to make her hardly representative of her sex in general; on this reading, Women Beware Woman might perhaps have been a better title, and such a reading strategy could possibly serve to make the play seem marginally less obnoxious to a feminist reader (little critical attention has been paid recently to the play as a whole, and still less to Livia in particular, so the question of possible feminist responses to it remains largely a theoretical one). I would like, however, to propose a rather different, less recuperative reading, and to suggest that this most woman-oriented of plays is in fact one of the most reactionary, since it is equally possible to see Livia as being presented to us not as an aberration, but as absolutely typical of woman in one of the most basic of all her aspects--as a mother, or, more properly in the case of Livia, as a substitute mother (though see Dodson, 1948; Batchelor, 1972; Loomba, 1992, p. 46).
The image of the early modern mother was a culturally conflicted one, not least because any woman who attempted to define it found herself caught in a double bind, as Elizabeth Jocelin exemplified when she tried to suggest how her daughter should be educated in The Mothers Legacie, To her Unborne Childe (1624):
her bringing up may be learning the Bible, ... good housewifery, writing, and good workes: other learning a woman needs not ... But where learning and wisdome meet in a vertuous disposed woman, she is the fittest closet for all goodnesse. Shee is like a well-ballanced ship that may beare all her saile. She is--Indeed, I should but shame my selfe, if I should goe about to praise her more. (Trill, Chedgzoy & Osborne, 1997, p. 6)
Jocelin is hamstrung by her very identity: she cannot praise a learned woman because it would have the appearance of boasting; the true goodness of a woman must be kept--suggestive term--in a 'closet'. A similar sense of the unfitness of publicly expressing oneself is paradoxically articulated by the heroine in Elizabeth Cary's tragedy Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry (Belsey, 1985, p. 175; Ferguson, 1991, 236; Purkiss, 1994, p. xix). But if mothers were silenced and disadvantaged, mother-substitutes were excoriated. Lady Elizabeth Clinton rails against wet-nursing (Trill, Chedgzoy & Osborne, 1997, pp. 119-124), as also do Erasmus (Aughterson, 1995, pp. 105-106), William Gouge and Henry Smith (Keeble, 1994, p. 213); particular concern was focused on Irish women who wet-nursed English children and were thus thought to prevent them from developing a fully English identity (Highley, 1990, p. 97). Mothers might be suspect, but those who mothered children to whom they were not biologically linked were even more so. This is precisely the category into which Livia falls.
In Women Beware Women as a whole, as Inga-Stina Ewbank points out, family relationships are crucial: 'the ordinary appellations of kinship are used with more than ordinary care and point' (Ewbank, 1969, p. 202). In particular, images of motherhood abound throughout the play. Its opening lines are spoken by a woman identified throughout the text only as Mother (the source narrative provided Leantio with a father as well, but Middleton has removed him) (Batchelor, 1972, p. 211), and her words draw explicit attention to her role:
Thy sight was never yet more precious to me;
(I.i. 1 - 16)
This may well read as a celebration of motherhood, with its emphasis on the unique event of childbirth which sets a mother's experiences apart, but it also contains an ominous warning about the nature of the link which both enables and bedevils mother-child relationships: when the Mother looks at her adult son, she still sees her baby. The very bond which gives her her importance to him may, in short, prevent her from apprehending him realistically in his later life.
The mother is a relatively rare figure in Elizabethan drama (though see McLuskie, 1989, pp. 136-137), but there are, interestingly, also hints of such an attitude in the most famous exemplar, Shakespeare's Gertrude: her remark that Hamlet is 'fat, and scant of breath' (V.ii.290) could well be read as typical of embarrassing things which mothers are apt to say about their children in large public gatherings. Critics' careful glossings of 'fat' as 'sweaty', and their comments about Richard Burbage's advancing years, rarely obscure the fact that what Gertrude says about Hamlet here simply does not correlate with the impression formed of him from the rest of the play; her apprehension of him is, it seems, qualitatively different from that of others.
After the play's striking opening, the idea of motherhood is invoked repeatedly. The Ward is complained of by a protective mother whose child he has hurt (I.ii.94-97); Fabritio reminisces at length about Isabella's mother getting ready for parties (II.ii.65-70); Bianca describes the Mother's house as paying her the duty of a child (III.i.42-46), and the Duke, in his seduction of her, invokes the idea of her mother (II.ii.373-374). Indeed, the sexual initiations of both Bianca and Isabella are almost immediately followed by a general presumption that they themselves will shortly be mothers, in ways that seem insistent even given a general Renaissance tendency to suppose that sexual activity is inevitably followed by childbirth. In Bianca's case, this ranges from Leantio's promise to his mother at the beginning that he will 'make you a grandmother in forty weeks' (I.i.109), to Guardiano's 'Much good may't do her--forty weeks hence, i'faith' (II.ii.462), to Bianca's own 'Here's a house/For a young gentlewoman to be got with child in!' (III.i.29-30). Bianca also says, 'If you call't mischief,/It is a thing I fear I am conceived with' (III.i.234-235), and vouchsafes her thoughts on how she would bring up a daughter (IV.i.34-40).
Isabella even before she is married is the subject of similar comment:
Isabella herself takes up the theme in her talk of couvade (III.ii.127-128) and in her song, 'She that would be/Mother of fools, let her compound with me' (III.ii.153-154), and towards the end of the play pointedly comments, 'Well, I had a mother,/I can dissemble too' (IV.ii.180-181). Perhaps most oddly of all, Leantio figures the adulterous relationship between his wife and the Duke as one of mother and child: 'There's no harm in your devil, he's a suckling;/But he will breed teeth shortly, will he not?' (IV.i.78-79).
Amongst this matrix of references to motherhood, it is Livia who can be read as the arch-mother. On a literal level she is, of course, childless; nevertheless, there are many aspects of Middleton's portrayal of her that bring motherhood forcefully to mind. Her name, for one thing, is resonant of one of the most famous of all politically-minded wives and mothers, the consort of the Emperor Augustus, who according to the historian Suetonius schemed throughout her marriage for the sole purpose of ensuring that her son by her first marriage, Tiberius, should be included in the succession; she was eventually successful, with Tiberius following his stepfather in the Purple. Livia's appearance in the masque as Juno serves explicitly to link her further with ancient Rome, and her intrigues are certainly reminiscent of the kinds of plots described by Suetonius, so that an informed audience might well be rendered particularly receptive to the possibility of a reference. Juno, moreover, was in mythology the wife of Jove and the mother of several of his children, so that Livia's choice of this particular persona for the masque would also serve to underline such associations, while adding the ironic resonance that Livia, the destroyer of marriages, should be playing the part of the goddess of marriage. Certainly such an association between the two Livias seems to have been suggested to the mind of Una Ellis-Fermor when she remarks of Middleton's character that '[w]e might have met her in Augustan Rome or modern London' (Ellis-Fermor, 1936, p. 143). Given Jessica Benjamin's theory that psychoanalysis reworks oppositions previously expressed in the language of myth--embodied specifically in the figures of Apollo and Dionysus (Kaplan, 1992, p. 53)--the use of a mythological mother-figure here might well seem doubly interesting.
More obviously than this, however, Livia presents herself as a motherly figure. At her first appearance, she describes herself, unusually enough, as advanced in years:
Livia here proposes to exercise a restraint very rare amongst the middle-aged women of Renaissance drama. Unlike Webster's ageing flirts and Shakespeare's amorous Gertrude, she seems ready to renounce her sexuality and to take her place as one of the older generation rather than among the still-marriageable. She does this to the extent of readily aligning herself with the Widow, who is, as Leantio informs us, 'threescore" (I.i.117) to Livia's own, freely confessed, 'nine and thirty' (II.ii.157); and her initial attraction to Leantio is expressed in the suggestive question, 'Is that your son, widow?' (III.ii.62).
Even more strikingly, though, it is directly through mothers and images of mothers that Livia attacks her victims. She lures Bianca to her house in the apparently safe company of her mother-in-law, and its as the supposed confidante of her niece Isabella's mother that she is able to trick the younger woman into incest:
You are no more allied to any of us,
Your mother was so wary to her end;
The repeated invocation of the dead mother here guarantees her psychological ascendancy over her niece and ensures that Isabella is thoroughly duped into the affair that will eventually cause both her bitter self-disgust and her death.
In this way, Livia, while not a mother herself, repeatedly offers herself as an effective surrogate to entrap younger women. Her troubled relationships with Bianca and Isabella can thus be seen in the light of the first and potentially either most rewarding or most fraught of all connections between woman and woman, the mother-daughter relationship (Chodorow, 1978, pp. 114-124; Kaplan, 1992, pp. 36-37, 44). This is a relationship which receives little comment in Renaissance theories of motherhood, though 'there is some evidence that mother/daughter bonds were the strongest forged' (Keeble, 1994, p. 171); as with Freud in our own century, commentaries on mother-child relationships tend to assume that the child is male (Kaplan, 1992, p. 45), and the picture that emerges from contemporary commentaries on mothers' treatment of their children is not a pleasant one, with considerable stress placed on both the length and the difficulties of infancy. In particular, the common practice of putting children out to nurse generated a recurring and disturbing cultural motif of maternal abandonment, seen by Janet Adelman in her powerful account of Shakespeare's treatment of the theme, Suffocating Mothers, as profoundly informing at least one Renaissance dramatist's views of motherhood (Adelman, 1992, pp. 4-6). While little commented on in many theories of mothering, however, the mother--daughter link, with its problematics of identification and differentiation, is the staple stuff of imaginative fictions: fairy-tales, with their classic disjunctions between the good, dead mother and the bad, living stepmother, endlessly rework the theme.
Livia's literal childlessness and metaphorical surrogacy actually enable her to ring the changes on both these parts. Her initial presentation of herself as a motherly figure seems motivated primarily by a desire to be associated with the apparent asexuality of the good mother, but her involvement with Leantio also leads her to take on the threatening sexuality of the bad stepmother who traditionally usurps the affections of the virtuous, unmarried heroine's father. Moreover, her lack of actual children may be taken as profoundly emblematic of that other, physical lack--that of a penis--which in traditional Freudian psychology becomes the primary characteristic of a mother, and which in Lacanian theory debars her from the role of phallic signifier reserved for the nom-du-pere.
While fairy-tales frequently deal in such psychologies of motherhood, however, tragedy rarely does so. Though mother-son relationships--Hamlet and Gertrude, Oedipus and Jocasta--may figure prominently, convention and the small number of boys available to take women's parts mean that there are so few women in Renaissance tragedies as a whole that by the time the dramatist has written the parts of hero's mother and hero's love-interest there is hardly likely to be room, either actantially or in terms of plot, for the heroine's mother to come along too. Gratiana in The Revenger's Tragedy and Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet prove rare exceptions to this general rule, and the former of these actually features primarily in the more usual capacity of hero's mother.
Where there are mothers in other Renaissance plays, moreover, they tend to function very differently from the ways in which Livia habitually operates. Not only do they have actual rather than symbolic children, but in many cases there is less an ambivalence between bad and good than a marked preponderance of bad. Gertrude and Volumnia both cause massive psychological disturbance in their sons and must ultimately bear much of the blame for their deaths; Emilia in The Comedy of Errors threatens to be the least accommodating of mothers-in-law, and even the Duchess of Malfi, though undeniably affectionate to her children, can be seen as tainted by the sexuality that led to their existence. Anne Frankford, in A Woman Killed with Kindness, is banished from her children as a consequence of her adultery; Gratiana in The Revenger's Tragedy turns pandar to her daughter, and Hermione in The Winter's Tale, although clearly completely blameless, is nevertheless rendered suspect in her husband's eyes as he agonises over the paternity of the child she carried. In almost all these cases the mother is a figure of a frightening and unrestrained sexuality, often exacerbated by the fact that she is a widow, affording her an independence which caused considerable unease to the patriarchal ideologies of the seventeenth century (Jardine, 1983, pp. 68-102); in the words of Sir Thomas Overbury, the only virtuous widow is one who 'thrives not after supplanting of her husband' (Keeble, 1994, p. 253). Volumnia is the only exception, but she is hardly a comforting one, since she explicitly rejects the values of motherhood in her preference for the blood of a warrior over the milky breasts of Hecuba.
Women Beware Women, then, offers an unaccustomed emphasis both in the number of its older women and in the manner of its portrayal of them. One of the more obvious effects of this actantial dislocation is sharply to alert us to the relative paucity of alternative authority figures in the play. There is only one metaphorical reference to fatherhood (though see Foster, 1979; and Wigler, 1983), in contrast to the many to motherhood, and it is wholly negative, as Leantio muses,
But all the fears, shames, jealousies, costs and troubles,
As for literal father figures, neither the Duke, in the secular sphere, nor the Cardinal, in the religious, offers effective leadership; Fabritio's influence over his daughter is clearly negligible compared with Livia's; Hippolito is too emotionally involved with the younger generation of his family to provide a role model for it, Guardiano is a venal pandar, and Leantio's father is dead. This failure of patriarchal authority is strikingly underlined by the fact that this play, like so many of the later generation of revenge intrigues, has no ghost come from the grave to warn the living, incarnate the authority of the father, and provide clear proof of the existence of a spiritual dimension to human destiny. Pointedly, Livia even usurps the traditional force of the nom-du-pere by inventing and naming an alternative father for Isabella, whose imaginary authority will utterly displace the incest prohibition instituted by her real one; moreover, her figuring of the deathbed scene in which 'penitent confession' (II.i.154) supposedly led Isabella's mother to tell her secret effectively casts Livia herself into the fatherly role of confessor.
In the absence of the control exerted by the father both in the practical realities of seventeenth century family life and in the theories of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, then, the mother runs rife, with disastrous consequences both for herself and her offspring (Kaplan, 1992, p. 47). Differentiation and socialisation would fail to occur; initiation into the symbolic order would be replaced by infinite fusion with the body of maternal plenitude. In one sense, such a vision might of course sound attractive; but, utterly unaware of the reality principle, it would prove totally impracticable in daily life. Such a vision is, I would argue, precisely what Livia represents.
One of the most striking aspects of Livia's character and actions is that her 'crimes' are neither for her own profit nor, in one sense, obviously intended to harm her victims. If the old test of 'cui bono' were to be applied, it would prove impossible to pinpoint Livia as the source of the mischief: what has she to gain from the affairs either of Isabella and Hippolito or Bianca and the Duke? Her own relationship with Leantio is clearly presented as an unforeseen spin-off, after the fact. In a bizarre way, indeed, her actions could almost be presented as altruistic, for she puts herself to a fair amount of trouble and effort simply to give other people what they want (or perhaps, in the case of Bianca, what she thinks they ought to want); Ann Christensen sees her as 'conspir[ing] with domestic openings to grant other women a certain mobility' (Christensen, 1995-1996, p. 499). The Duke wants Bianca? The Duke shall have her. Isabella and Hippolito want each other? It can be arranged. Both families want the union of Isabella and the Ward? That, too, is feasible. As for Leantio, she positively outdoes herself in supplying him with clothes and money. It is interesting, in view of Isabella's remark that 'Well, I had a mother,/I can dissemble too' (IV.ii. 180-181) and her comments about 'She that would be/Mother of fools' (III.ii.153-154), that the first thing that we hear about Livia should be that she is witty (I.ii.47); in the persistent games-playing atmosphere of the play, Livia, effectively trying, like her Roman namesake, to jockey for the best possible positions for her surrogate children, can indeed be seen as a 'mother-wit', rather than, as she herself says she should be, 'wise by now' (I.ii.48).
Like some fairy godmother gone mad, Livia in fact represents impulses not so much of uncontrolled evil as of uncontrolled gratification, and, in particular, the archetypal desire of all self-sacrificing mothers, the wish to gratify others. This is, indeed, precisely how she sees herself: as a toiling mother. She says to Hippolito,
I can bring forth
Here, bring forth', 'teeming' and 'fruits' all point directly to images of gestation; but the positive force of 'this I can do' may well be seen as less traditionally maternal, and as indicative of the potential for disruptions of the norm posed by one who takes on the role of mother without any of the usual social, psychological or--most tellingly, in this play--economic handicaps customarily associated with the practicalities of motherhood.
A little while later, in soliloquy, she stresses the lack of personal gratification produced by her efforts, as she apostrophises the absent Hieronimo:
Beshrew you, would I loved you not so well!
Livia's lack of literal children of her own body also serves to underline the striking absence of the personal in her motivations.
But her plans to make everyone happy go horribly wrong, and they do so primarily because she never thinks of the consequences. The mother who indiscriminately indulges, the uncontrolled pleasure principle, needs to be reined in by the reality principle, or, in Lacanian terms, the all-powerful Name of the Father. Livia, who has not even the name of mother, cannot hope to supply this. As Leantio puts it, 'love that is respective of increase/Is like a good king, that keeps all in peace' (I.iii.46-47). In one way, this is what the Cardinal supplies, when he invokes a restored order in the name of the most powerful of all Fathers:
Sin, what thou art, these ruins show too piteously!
The stern morality of this pat summing-up elides the truth, however: the contest has not been between two kings, but between men and women, and, even more, between women and women. Kings, with their decisive legislation, have in fact been noticeably absent.
The other primary reason for Livia's failure is something of which she has no understanding; her position as would-be surrogate mother blinds her to it just as the Mother's memories of Leantio's babyhood interfere with her apprehension of the man he has become. Livia sees herself as the provider of all needs; but in the economy of desire, the object desired must constantly shift, and certainly does not for long remain identical with the mother. Indeed, as Ann Kaplan points out, in Lacanian thought it is the mother herself who is the inaugurator of this slippage of goal: 'it is the mother who introduces the child to lack, castration, representation' (Kaplan, 1992, p. 32). Attempting to present herself to her would-be children as the reincarnation of the mother who has been for so long missing from their lives, Livia, like the Mother, seems to have no inkling that, for them, time has not stood still, and that their goals have moved on. Leantio's 'I desire no more/Than I see yonder' (I.iii.16-17) and Bianca's 'Kind mother, there is nothing can be wanting/To her that does enjoy all her desires' (I.i.125-126) will both inevitably give place to a newer, more restless quest, which the mother cannot assuage.
Ultimately, then, this tragedy which begins when a son trusts his mother with the care of his wife demonstrates the dire effects of an untrammelled motherhood: Livia's fatal desire to gratify everyone's wishes, to allow free access to all bodies and to abolish such traditionally male-guarded institutions as naming, property rights and ownership in marriage serves as a crushing indictment of empowered mothers and seems starkly to underwrite the necessity of the many contemporary ideologies which sought to impose control on women, but also, and more profoundly, probes the tragedy of a woman who learns through bitter experience that the trajectory of desire is always to carry it away from what the mother can supply, leaving her redundant and despised. What women most need to beware of, it seems, is this fundamental aspect of their own womanhood, seen as so deeply rooted in the feminine psyche that it manifests itself as a mothering instinct even in the literally childless.
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By LISA HOPKINS