Title: THE "[UN]RECLAYMED FORME" OF MIDDLETON'S A TRICK TO CATCH THE OLD ONE ,  By: Mount, D.B., Studies in English Literature (Rice), 00393657, Spring91, Vol. 31, Issue 2
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For T.S. Eliot, Thomas Middleton was the playwright without a personality, and in a 1927 essay he concluded that Middleton "has no message; he is merely a great recorder." While recent critics are generally less concerned with seeing through Middleton's texts to the "personality" behind them, they often end up echoing Eliot's assessment. Thus, in the critical discussion of A Trick to Catch the Old One, what is often noticed is Middleton's apparent moral detachment from his clearly amoral universe, and the main issue becomes how to locate the play's standards and methods of judgment. R.B. Parker, for example, notices that while all of the play's major characters are dishonest, "retribution is kept to a minimum." Charles Barber agrees and finds that characters are criticized instead through the play's sustained dramatic irony, regardless of their social rank. In his Citizen Comedy in the Age of Shakespeare, Alexander Leggatt credits A Trick with adding social criticism to the simple financial trickery plot, but seems finally to have as much difficulty as anyone else in locating this criticism specifically; he characterizes the play, as others have, as simply "good-tempered," a play which does not arouse any "deep sense of moral outrage against the world it depicts." George Rowe in Thomas Middleton and the New Comedy Tradition shows how one source of the play's ambiguity is Middleton's discomfort with the tradition of Roman New Comedy and explains the moral uncertainty in A Trick as a representation of the inadequacy of comic values for dealing with the Teal world of the early seventeenth century.[1]

The existing criticism of the play might be categorized very broadly, then, as taking two different approaches. The first is simply to view the play as a general sort of satire, with no specific object, and to delineate the degree to which everyone is guilty, while the second seeks to locate a moral center, whether positive or negative. The first approach often tends not to do justice to Middleton's intelligence and complexity, making the play seem superficial--I think, for example, it is more than "good-tempered." The second can lead to somewhat artificial overemphasis of whatever theme or, more often, character is chosen as moral touchstone. Witt-good and the Curtizan, as the play's most obviously successful tricksters, are most often elected to this role, and, indeed, are given strenuous rehabilitations by Rowe, as well as Anthony Covatta and Joseph Messina.[2] Another possibility is to see the wholly corrupt lawyer, Harry Dampit, whose three scenes are so curiously sealed off from the rest of the play, as a kind of negative touchstone, by comparison with whom the other characters are implicitly judged. I will have recourse to both of these approaches but will take them in what I hope is a new direction. I want to agree with the first approach, but extend it to show that evil in a Trick is so thorough-going that--in response to the second approach--it is impossible either to say that Witt-good and the Curtizan are uncontaminated by it, or that real evil is bracketed and kept separate in the Dampit scenes. Evil is, in fact, so pervasive in the play as to suggest that the world it represents has no moral center. The field of Middleton's satire seems instead of moral to be socio-economic--an emphasis that can be seen quite clearly in two of the other "financial trickery" plays he wrote for Paul's Boys, Michaelmas Term and A Mad World, My Masters. The fact that the satire in A Trick is more covert than in these two plays is a sign, I will argue, both of a subtler and more fully realized critique, directed at a slightly different sort of society, and a reflection of the shifting audience allegiances and economic conditions of the Paul's company itself.

Since Rowe probably makes the most limited claims for Wittgood and the Curtizan's regeneration (he sees them as finally failing to bring about the larger social regeneration expected in comedy), I would like to take his reading as representative of this general critical trend and show how it overlooks some crucial elements of the play. Rowe cites the play's first scene as evidence that Witt-good and the Curtizan have compassion and are thus to be associated, in his scheme, with the redemptive forces of the Prodigal story and of comedy itself.[3] Here, Witt-good unfairly insults the Curtizan as the cause of his downfall, but when she reminds him that she gave him her virginity, he asks and receives her forgiveness: "Forgive I do thee wrong / To make thee sinne, and then to chide thee fort" (I.i.38-39). It is clear, however, from Witt-good's next line that his apparent contrition was not entirely sincere, for he calls her his "best invention" (I.i.41); a few lines later he admits even more frankly that "Fate has so cast it that all my meanes I must derive from thee" (I.i.48), suggesting that he has no choice but to conciliate her. It seems, then, that Witt-good, as we would expect from such a skillful trickster, can simulate emotion when he stands to gain something. In fact, as the play progresses Witt-good begins to look incapable of any sort of unfeigned emotion, and it is precisely because of this detachment that he succeeds where others fail.[4] Rowe's reading of the scene in which Witt-good advises the Curtizan to marry Hoord as proof that he is truly striving to be "worthy of her trust" is similarly problematic.[5] Again, Witt-good's saintly claim that "`twould bee a great comfort to me to see thee do well ifaith," is quickly followed by a more practical motive: "first, I am sure it can be no harme to thee, and there may happen goodnes to me by it" (III.i.116-21).

In these two scenes the Curtizan doesn't come off so badly--her affection for Witt-good may indeed be sincere. But in the final repentance scene, which in Rowe's scheme functions as a "rebirth" for them both,[6] I think it is also possible to suspect at least the importance and probably the sincerity of both their actions. While their separate repentances and following marriages are certainly, as Rowe claims, steps towards "social respectability,"[7] this may be all they are: the change in their outward respectability is not necessarily tantamount to inner regeneration. This is strongly suggested in the first lines of the Curtizan's speech: "Lo, Gentlemen, before you all, / In true reclaymed forme I fall" (V.ii. 157-58). She seems here to emphasize the performance aspect--the "form" of her repentance, rather than its inner reality. There is also the obvious pun on the word "fall": she literally "falls" to her knees, the traditional sign of penitence, but she also "falls" even as she claims to be saved. That Middleton was conscious of this irony is suggested by his exploitation of it in Michaelmas Term, when Hellgill the pander observes, "Women ne'er rise but when they fall" (I.ii.40).[8] And this similarity also suggests one further cynical implication in Curtizan's use of the word, for as she "falls," she is at the same time rising socially, just as Hellgill promises the Country Wench she will do if she becomes Lethe's whore.[9]

Witt-good's repentance is even more clearly a performance, and difficult to read as anything more than a mockery of the Old Ones to whom he is playing. First, he follows the form of the Curtizan's speech precisely, while describing even more luxuriously the sins he is renouncing; this suggests Witt-good is either parodying her, were she serious, or recognizing and continuing the game she initiated, were she not. In addition, his repentance does not come about spontaneously. Only after his uncle Lucre says of the Curtizan's speech, "A, heres a lesson Rioter for you" does he begin, and even then only with the preface "I must confesse my follyes," as if coerced, or at least willing to play his part now that he has regained his inheritance. (Simply calling his dissipations "follyes" suggests that he doesn't take them very seriously.) As he kneels he says "Ile downe to" in clownish imitation of the Curtizan's more decorous performance (V.ii.179-80).

One final way in which the play works against our making Witt-good into any kind of hero is by subtly associating him with the evil Harry Dampit, and these associations, in turn, suggest that Dampit's evil is an integral part of the play's world. For instance, while Dampit is often thought to be morally insulated from Wittgood in the way his decline counterpoints Witt-good's rise, as Richard Levin first noticed, his squalid death also dramatizes the consequences of isolation.[10] Witt-good is isolated in the sense that he doesn't need emotional ties with other human beings; and this, like Dampit's more obvious isolation, is one key to his success. Also striking is the way Witt-good, upon first meeting Dampit, characterizes him in terms that will become familiar as part of the litany of abuse in which other characters habitually describe Wittgood himself: "that Dampit sirrah . . . is the most notorious, usuring, blasphemous, Atheisticall, Brothell, vomiting rascal!, that wee have in these latter times now extant" (I.iv.11-14). Later, Hoord and Monylove use terms like "a spendthrift--dissolute fellow," "A very Raskall," "A mid-night surfetter," and "The spume of a Brothel-house" (II.ii.31-35) to describe Witt-good, and in Act IV the Second Creditor uses similar ones to Witt-good's face: "He [marry] a rich widdow? who a prodigal!, a dayly Rioter, and a nightly vomiter, he a widow of account?" (IV.iii.21-22). And while Witt-good certainly has no illusions about his own virtue, it is ironic that in their scene together he seems to think himself Dampit's moral superior (I.iv). This is one of Dampit's important functions, and one further way his foulness leaks through the scene divisions and into the play proper: many of the play's rascals lull themselves into a false sense of their salvation by comparing themselves with him. In the same scene, for example, the play's representative of decadent aristocracy, Sir Lancelot, pompously intones, "For thrice his wealth, I would not have his brest" (IV.v. 187).

This deathbed scene, often taken as the play's single instance of overt moralizing, is problematic as a moral center for other reasons. It is Lamprey--Hoard's henchman and, I will argue, a character ridiculed for his social pretension-who preaches the deathbed sermon, and this qualifies its moral effect: "here may a usurer behold his end, what profits it to be a slave in this world, and a devil ith next" (IV.v.61-62).[11] Also, the sorts of precepts with which Dampit is denounced in this scene might remind us of the platitudes to which Witt-good sometimes refers satirically while pursuing his fortune, such as "He that nere strives, sayes wit shall nere excell" (III.iii.130). And, finally, it seems that Middleton obscures any remaining overt moral the scene might have by giving the last word of condemnation to Gulf, Dampit's fellow usurer, whose judgment repeats almost verbatim Lamprey's already ambiguous one: "Is this the end of cut throate Usury, Brothell, and blasphemy? now maist thou see what Race a Usurer runnes" (IV.v.159-61).

But if the play's values seem difficult to define in moral terms, there is evidence that Middleton is making social discriminations against this background of general moral culpability. As in most city comedy the play is pervaded with the language of class consciousness and aspiration, and it contains many class types, some familiar from Middleton's other comedies of this period. Hoord, for example, has much in common with Quomodo of Michaelmas Term--they are both wealthy citizens[12] lusting for the land that will make them gentlemen--though their functions are finally quite different. But Sam Freedome's scenes are, I think, the most important loci for the play's citizen satire simply because his rank is spelled out so baldly; he seems to exist in the play primarily to represent his class by contrast with his cousin Witt-good. Sam is the stepson of Witt-good's uncle Lucre but clearly has no part in Lucre's fortune. His mother--who Lucre points out was raised by her first marriage "out of an Aldermans kitchin" and is herself socially ambitious (IV.ii.80)--thus urges him to lay siege to the wealthy "widow Medler," both to advance his fortune and to spite Lucre. On the one hand, Sam conforms to the type of the pompous citizen--his mother claims he is known "among the right worshipfull; all the twelve companyes" (II.i.359-60) and his name identifies him as being in the "freedom of the city," that is, a guild member and an employer.[13] But Sam isn't content with this illustrious position; he also has class pretensions, for as Barber points out, Sam's stepfather, Lucre, is "the younger son of a land-owning family who has gone into business," and this gives Sam a tenuous claim to gentility.[14] In Act II he justifies his intention of kissing the widow with this aside: "I am a Gentleman now too, by my fathers occupation, and I see no reason but I may kisse a widdowe by my Fathers Coppy" (II.i.297-99). We also see him ineptly trying to act the role of the gallant early in the play when he challenges Monylove to a duel over "the love of Mistresse Joyce" (I.iii.60), and later we see how he seems to be taking the language of chivalric romance as a model for the way he should speak in his new station, when he expansively welcomes Wittgood to London: "Couzen Wit-good? I rejoyce in my salute, your most welcome to this Noble Citty govern'd with the sword in the Scabbard" (II.i.279-81). His use of the term "Noble" here might to contemporaries have seemed an especially glaring impropriety.

It may be possible to read Sam's use of these terms as a sign that Middleton is involved in some way in the kind of mockery of citizen tastes in literature and drama so prominent in Beaumont and Fletcher's Knight of the Burning Pestle. This literary association is, in fact, brought to the foreground when Sam asks his mother towards the end of this scene whether her scheme is "a tragedy plot, or a comedy plot" (II.i.349-50). And once we notice the motif here, we can see it working also later in the play--for example, in some of the scenes involving Lamprey, who speaks in a style that recalls the pompous chivalric romance manner that Rafe affects in Knight. Barring the door from Lucre he threatens, "Hee comes upon his death that enters here," and when told that Lucre has assistants scoffs, "Tut, nor him nor them we in this action feare" (IV.i.13, 16). And Lamprey's speeches are only the most obvious examples of a mock heroic strain that runs through this entire rescue scene. Lucre's assistants, for example, vow to help him retrieve the widow like good knights errant because

it is a wrong to us,
To see you injur'd in a cause so just:
Weele spend our lives, but we will right our friends.

(III.iii. 123-25)

Elsewhere, the whole business of the romance between Wittgood and Joyce, which Barber sees as "perfunctor[y],"[15] might also be read as a jab at the true lovers so common in the plays of the public theaters, especially the Globe--a slightly different kind of literary satire. Joyce is not ridiculed personally, but there is certainly humor in the incongruity of her two little scenes with the rest of the play. She seems, in fact, to have wandered over from a different play altogether and Witt-good barely acknowledges her. From the beginning of the play his motivation has clearly been to repair his own status, to revivify his title, which without money is meaningless: "ALL's gone! still thou'rt a Gentleman, that's all but a poore one, that's nothing" (I.i.1-2). So when he considers Joyce's love, it is more as an asset he is afraid of losing; we never have any sense that he loves her: "by that meanes [visiting the city] I loose a Virgins love, her portion and her Vertues" (I.i.20-21). For Witt-good, as for the speaker of Donne's "perfume" elegy, it is the hope of her father's "goods," that is "Thy beauties beautie, and food of our love" (Donne, line 10).[16] While Joyce is a faithful lover, then, there seems to be a certain ridicule of the type she represents implicit in the way she is inserted, with no comic adaptation, into this highly cynical context.

So far we have seen the moral ambiguity of Middleton's universe, and seen how, while there is no clear moral center, he does through the portrayal of certain recognizable character types and literary modes suggest some kind of social satire. We need now to try to define more specifically just what the purpose of this social aspect is and to see if it can somehow be connected to the moral level. This can best be done by comparing the play to Michaelmas Term and A Mad World, My Masters, since in these plays Middleton's satire seems simpler and more conventional, and therefore easier to locate. The first key difference is that these two plays very clearly authorize a lament for blurring of social boundaries, while A Trick does not. Quomodo's enterprise in Michaelmas Term, to bilk the gentleman Richard Easye out of his ancestral lands, is clearly meant to be seen as contemptible and subversive. In A Trick, Hoord, the corresponding character, is ridiculed more for his personal vanity and greed. Quomodo, like many characters in the play, is more a straight "type," while Hoord has some individuality, as several critics have observed, most recently Joseph Messina.[17] We can see Quomodo's symbolic function in the way he is made to draw morals from his own actions that don't really make sense dramatically and thus sound more like intrusive authorial commentary than functional dramatic irony. When planning how he will pass Easye's lands down to his son, for example, Quomodo reflects, "Thus wee that sildome get Landes honestly, must leave our heires to inherit our knaverie," and it would seem difficult to read these as words consistent with Quomodo's character, which elsewhere shows little disposition to self-criticism (II.iii.94-96). Quomodo's aspirations are again judged as his wife watches, horrified, while he tricks Easye into signing the contract by which he will eventually lose his lands, as well as simply in Quomodo's eagerness not only to possess but also to destroy those lands by turning them into firewood: "Now I begin to set one foote uppon the land, mee thinkes I am felling of Trees alreadie; wee shall have some Essex Loggs yet to keepe Christmasse with, and that's a comfort" (II.iii.373-76). John Lehr describes Quomodo's position quite astutely, I think, as being at the heart of a more general social breakdown in the play, wherein, "the old `natural' order is being subverted and destroyed by money-men who are temperamentally unsuited to perpetuate the society whose virtues and pleasures they irreverently and ignorantly aspire to."[18]

The difference in A Trick is that we know from the beginning that the lands to which Hoord aspires are illusory, and thus his plans can be no threat to the social order. Quomodo, on the other hand, very nearly achieves his object. Further, the closest A Trick comes to commenting on the breakdown of class distinctions is in a line like Lucre's lament that "since blew coates have beene turn'd into cloakes, wee can scarce knowe the man from the Maister" (II.i.145-47). But unlike Michaelmas Term, the sentiment is not supported by any system of similar references in the play as a whole and is also compromised by its source, for if we know anything about Lucre it is that his opinions change with the financial winds. Indeed, the statement is contradicted rather precisely when Lucre allows that "most of our beginnings must bee winckt at" (IV.ii.81-82).

This difference in satirical shading can be explained if we view A Trick as taking place in a world where the transition from a land- to a cash-based economy is slightly more advanced than in the other two plays. Middleton seems to draw our attention to this by beginning the play with Witt-good's assumption that because he is poor, his title is meaningless: social position is clearly less important than cash (I.i.1-2, quoted above). In such a world, the trickster's function becomes slightly different, as can be seen in the way Witt-good is allowed to be so much better equipped for success than the tricksters in the other two plays, Follywit and Shortyard, from whom their creator seems to have found it necessary to withhold certain virtues which might have insured their success. These two plays support the social hierarchy and must punish those who violate it. A Trick seems to begin from the assumption that it has already broken down: retribution, therefore, is pointless. In Michaelmas Term, Shortyard makes the following distinction between his own shrewdness and Easy's learning:

but for Easie,
Onely good confidence did make him foolish,
And not the lack of Sence, that was not it,
Tis worldly craft beates downe a Schollars wit.


At the end of the play, however, it is precisely for his "craft" that the Judge reproaches Shortyard: "Craft once discovered shewes her abject line" (V.iii.86). Follywit in A Mad World has the opposite flaw. Though renowned as a trickster like Shortyard, he is also a gentleman and scholar, and he receives his comeuppance through an idealistic credulity that has more in common with Easy: he drops his guard long enough to fall in love with Frank Gullman, the Curtizan. The fact that this development so wrenches the play's logic suggests that Middleton thought it important to include. Witt-good, in these terms, combines craft with learning--he is described in Act IV by the Second Gentleman as "a firme scholler, and an understanding Gentleman"--and thus becomes a nearly invincible trickster (IV.ii.18).

The minimal retribution of the play in general, which Parker and others speak of, becomes even more striking when compared with the two other plays. At the end of a Mad World, when he realizes he has been gulfed by a "queen," Follywit says, "Is's come about? Tricks are repaid, I see" (V.ii.321).[19] In a Trick, however, tricks are conspicuously not repaid, and the moral is implicitly inverted. The difference in these two plays' points of view becomes even clearer in the sharply contrasting contexts and meanings of their nearly identical closing lines. When Sir Bounteous Progress sums up thus, in a Mad World, he is accurately describing the retribution Follywit has just received:

Come, gentlemen, to th' feast, let not time waste;
We have pleas'd our ear, now let us please our taste.
Who lives by cunning, mark it, his fate's cast;
When he has gull'd all, then is himself the last.


At the end of a Trick, Hoord thinks he is doing the same thing for Witt-good, but is instead ironically describing his own fate:

So, so, all friends, the wedding dinner cooles, Who seeme most crafty prove oft times most fooles.

(V.ii. 196-97)

Witt-good has achieved, through cunning, or "craft," exactly what he set out to, at the minimal cost of having to "down" and pretend to repent, as we saw earlier; he certainly has not proved a fool. Hoord, on the other hand, has attempted to be crafty in winning the Curtizan and proved doubly a fool: first, by allowing himself to be deceived and, second, by thinking Witt-good's repentance an adequate compensation. Similarly, Witt-good escapes the fate of Lethe in Michaelmas Term, who is condemned to marry his whore. By helping the Curtizan to provide for her "reclamation" Witt-good, in effect, is allowed to blot out the sin from society's book of judgment.

One thing I think these differences show is that there may be reason for considering A Trick the latest of these three plays, as Bald argued in 1937.[20] And to the evidence of the increased complexity we have just seen could be added the fact that A Trick is clearly more controlled dramatically and more "realistic." As Barber puts it, "Everything arises out of the original impersonation, and situation after situation is developed from it, the whole thing moving along with tremendous pace and verve."[21] The tricks in both Michaelmas Term and A Mad World, on the other hand, seem to play themselves out by the end of the third acts, and both go on to resort to rather unconvincing fourth-act expedients: Quomodo's staged death in Michaelmas Term and Follywit's love for the Curtizan in A Mad World. Also, by keeping Witt-good behind the scenes, as it were--that is, by having him act through the Curtizan's agency--A Trick avoids having to rely so heavily on the disguises the tricksters in the other two plays use. Finally, in the printed editions the other two plays are advertised on their title pages as having been performed only by "the Children of Paul's," while A Trick boasts performances at BlackEriars' and before the King on the title page of what George R. Price argues is a second issue of the first edition: "A Trick to catch the Old-One. As it hath beene often in Action, both at Paules, and the Black-Fryers. Presented before his Maiestie on New-yeares night last."[22] This suggests that the other two were performed before the Pauls company dissolved, while A Trick was in performance at the time of transition and then transferred to Blackfriars.[23]

But whether or not the play was latest, there can be little doubt that in it Middleton's concerns were manifestly different than in the other two. Specifically, I think that its unique features are signs, first of a specific socio-economic insight and second, of peculiarities in the conditions of the play's production. The reason Witt-good needs such formidable powers and such complete impunity is that he has more symbolic work to do than his counterparts in the other plays. For when he gulls the elders, he does not simply reveal their personal vices and vanities, he also seems to bring out the fundamental contradictions of the rising capitalist society they represent. As we have seen, the play begins with Witt-good realizing that nobility without money is meaningless. In doing so he accepts a fundamental premise of a cash-based society--that value resides only in the actual, the material, and that all spiritual ideals, like "aristocracy," are unprofitable mystifications. What he finds, however--and this is the reason he succeeds--is that while the city as a system does indeed work by this principle, its all-too-human residents forget it periodically and, in fact, seem to have a certain nostalgia for the old myths. Witt-good, then, prevails time and time again by playing on their weakness and trading his insubstantial but powerfully seductive words for actual goods and services.

That words have an exchange value is first only suggested when, as they are framing their plan and the Curtizan makes a joke about old men, Witt-good says "I owe thee for that Jest, bee gone, here's all my wealth" (I.i.94-95). (He does make an initial investment, then.) But he quickly puts the idea into practice in the next scene, trading the Host a mere tale for horses, money, and the Host's personal assistance: "Marke mee what I say, Ile tell thee such a tale in shine eare, that thou shalt trust mee spite of thy teeth, furnish me with some money, wille, nille, and ride up with mee thy selfe Contra voluntatem et professionem" (I.ii.8-11). And while the Host might seem himself to be a fairly profit-minded character, if also a gullible one, there are signs that he also maintains certain fictions which allow Witt-good to play on him. He asks if Witt-good will "trust" him, for example--a concept that clearly has no relevance to the strict accumulation of profit. More revealingly, in his bawdy pun on how Witt-good will be likelier to win the Widow with his greater than his lesser "tongue"--with sex, rather than rhetoric--he draws attention to the way Witt-good, at least for the duration of the play, if not in his previous life, is invulnerable to passions in general; he does proceed by "pure" rhetoric, and any character who underestimates its power is at a disadvantage. The quarrel between Hoord and Lucre works similarly: it shows the basic inefficiency of these two arch-capitalists. While ostensibly hard-nosed materialists, they are nevertheless slaves to their emotions. The paradox is emphasized in the way each vows to spend his "wealth" to get even with the other (III.iii. 110, IV.ii.38).

Near the end of the play, Witt-good explicitly formulates the principle by which he operates: "Are not words promises, and are not promises debts sir" (IV.iv.19S-96). Witt-good recognizes that ideals and emotions are ultimately only rhetoric, and if the play has any consistent standard of judgment it is that of rhetorical sophistication. This is especially conspicuous, again, with Hoord and Lucre, who are both extremely self-conscious in their use of language, implying again their inferiority to Witt-good as business competitors. Hoord at one point awkwardly explains a metaphor, using phrases like "as I may terme it" and "as it were" and later has to have the colloquialism "Dutch widow" explained to him (I.iii.16-21, III.iii.15-18). Lucre, too, pedantically and needlessly translates his witless pun on the word "Aunt," and a little later finds himself tongue-tied, which is perhaps the most dangerous sort of lapse a character can have in this play: "Hum, see like a Beast if I have not forgot the name, puh" (II.i.95). The extent of Witt-good's rhetorical power, on the other hand is seen in the way the citizen Creditors arm themselves against him as if he were some kind of magus: "we know you have too faire a tong of your owne, you over-came us to lately, a shame take you" (IV.iii.36-38). Again, the concept of "shame" is another of those unprofitable myths which mean nothing to Witt-good, while the Citizens later imply it is characteristic of their class: "we[']re not ordaynde to thrive by wisdome, and therefore wee must be content to be Trades-men" (IV.iii.41 -42).

But Witt-good's success does not, of course, mean that his methods are authorized by the play. While using him to expose these contradictions Middleton at the same time builds into the play Witt-good's judgment and his sentence. We should remember first that Witt-good's invulnerability to emotion is, as I mentioned earlier, repeated and extended to its logical conclusion in the complete isolation of Harry Dampit and his pointed refusal of Audrey's efforts to comfort him. Beyond this, there is the emphasis on the magical quality of Witt-good's power of language: he is always "conjuring" his wits. This power is unreal, that is, impossible in the real world, and it is also temporary. It arose from his need and it will depart when that need is satisfied, as is clear from his final invocation: "I perceive I must crave a lisle more Ayde from my wits, do but make shift for me this once, and Ile forsweare ever to trouble you in the like fashion hereafter, Ile have better employment for you, and I live" (IV.iii.52-55). One can well imagine that once assimilated into society he will lose the privileged position he enjoyed while on its fringes and, perhaps, become as blind as anyone else.

If this is the "message" of A Trick to Catch the Old One, it is interesting how well it fits what we know about its conditions of publication and performance. Andrew Gurr has argued that the Paul's company, for which all three of the plays I have discussed appear to have been written, "lacked the narrowness of the `select' social allegiance for which the BlackEriars boys consistently catered."[24] Their audience seems instead to have been a broader cross section and the company "seems to have expected a strong citizen presence at their plays" (p. 75).[25] The curiously covert and elusive values of this play, especially as compared to the relatively straightforward Michaelmas Term and a Mad World, My Master, may be due, then, to a greater sense on Middleton's part of the variety of tastes he would have to please. More specifically, the play's criticism seems directed at an economic phenomenon which affected all classes, but instead of blaming a specific class, it begins by assuming the phenomenon exists and goes on to expose its contradictions, its basic heartlessness. And while Middleton could not have known what a varied performance history the play would have in the years after it left his hands, the broader terms in which he framed it might have had much to do with its success at Blackfriars and in court.


[1] T.S. Eliot, Essays on Elizabethan Drama (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Harvest Books, 1960), p. 94; R.B. Parker, "Middleton's Experiments with Comedy and Judgment," Jacobean Theatre, 5th ser. 22 (1967): 187; Thomas Middleton, A Trick to Catch the Old One, ed. Charles Barber, Fountainwell Drama Texts no. 8 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968), pp. 5-7; all subsequent quotations are from this edition, with plays cited by act, scene, and line. Alexander Leggatt, Citizen Comedy in the Age of Shakespeare (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1973), p. 59; George E. Rowe, Jr., Thomas Middleton and the New Comedy Tradition (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1979), p. 91.

[2] Anthony Covatta, Thomas Middleton's City Comedies (Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1973); Joseph Messina, "The Moral Design of A Trick to Catch the Old One," in "Accompaninge the Players": Celebrating Thomas Middleton, 1580-1980, ed. Kenneth Friedenreich, AMS Studies in the Renaissance no. 8 (New York: AMS Press, 1983), pp. 109-32.

[3] Rowe, p. 73.

[4] It is useful to contrast A Trick to a Jonsonian humors play, for while it contains "humorous" characters-Lucre and Hoord are choleric, for example-its main character, Witt-good, could be defined as having perfectly balanced humors, and being all the more dangerous because of it.

[5] Rowe, p. 74.

[6] Rowe, p. 87.

[7] Rowe, p. 75.

[8] Thomas Middleton, "Michaelmas Term" and "A Trick to Catch the Old One": A Critical Edition, George R. Price, ea., Studies in English Literature, vol. 91 (The Hague: Mouton, 1976); all subsequent quotations from Michaelmas Term are from this edition.

[9] There is also the implication that the "fall" for her might simply be one into bourgeois conventionality. The "wants" she promises Witt-good she will disguise in adopting the identity of the widow Medlar might not only be personal defects but also sexual desires; she will disguise them in order to infiltrate the sexually repressive citizen order:

I will so artfully disguise my wants,
And set so good a courage on my state,
That I will be believed.

(I. i. 74-76)

[10] Richard Levin, "The Dampit Scenes in A Trick to Catch the Old One," MLQ 25, 2 (June 1964): 140-52, 148.

[11] This is one of the play's many prominent biblical allusions, and they can be seen, I think, to provide some ironic commentary on the characters who speak them. Here, for example, Lamprey changes the emphasis of Christ's question, "For what is a man profited, if hee shal gaine the whole world, and lose his own soul?" Lamprey seems to be implying that while Dampit did not gain enough to make the sale of his soul a good bargain, it might have been possible if he hadn't been so servile (Matt. 16:26). Other significant echoes occur at IV.ii.25, "vengeance is your Uncles," and IV.iv.284, where Witt-good tells his creditors, "he that beleeves in you, shall nere be saved."

[12] John Lehr notes that this citizen identification is latent in Quomodo's seldom-mentioned first name, "Ephestian," which Lehr glosses, from the Greek, as "one who is at the hearth or at home . . . has a fixed dwelling"; "Two Names in Middleton's Michaelmas Term," ELN 18, 1 (September 1980): 15-19, 17.

[13] Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987), p. 52.

[14] Barber, p. 2.

[15] Barber, p. 4.

[16] John Donne, The Complete Poetry of John Donne, ed. John T. Shawcross, (Garden City: Doubleday, Anchor Books, 1968), pp. 49-51.

[17] Messina, p. 115.

[18] Lehr, p. 19.

[19] Thomas Middleton, The Selected Plays of Thomas Middleton, ed. David L. Frost, Plays by Renaissance and Restoration Dramatists (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1978); all subsequent quotations are from this edition.

[20] R.C. Bald, "The Chronology of Middleton's Plays," MLR 32, 2 (January 1937): 33-43, 36-37, 43.

[21] Barber, p. 2.

[22] Standish Henning, "Introduction" to Thomas Middleton, A Mad World, My Masters, Regents Renaissance Drama Series (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1966), p. ix; Richard Levin, "Introduction" to Thomas Middleton, Michaelmas Term, Regents Renaissance Drama Series (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1966), p. ix; George R. Price, "The Early Editions of A Trick to Catch the Old One," The Library, 5th ser., 22, 3 (September 1967): 205-27, 223.

[23] This was Chambers's hypothesis, according to Price, though he also cites the opinion of Hillebrand that the play was written for the BlackEriars and then taken by Edward Kirkham, with other manuscripts, when he moved to Paul's over the Eastward Ho! controversy; Price, pp. 222-23.

[24] Gurr, p. 163.

[25] Gurr, p. 75.



David Mount is a graduate at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is currently working on a dissertation of John Donne's funerary writings.