For Thursday: Middleton. A Chaste Maid at Cheapside, Acts 1 and 2

General Synopsis of the Play, from Shakespeare's Globe: 

Under the Lenten laws, the buying and seeling of all flesh is forbidden. The avaricious goldsmith, Yellowhammer and his wife, Maudlin, plan to marry their daughter, Moll, to the decadent knight, Sir Walter Whorehound and their son Tim to the knight's supposed Welsh cousin. However, Moll is in love with Touchwood Junior and Tim seems too naive to wed the Welsh gentlewoman.

Sir Walter, meanwhile, has secretly sired six children by the wife of Jack Allwit, who is very happy to earn an easy living from the knight. Mistress Allwit is about to give birth to her seventh child. Sir Walter's cousin, Sir Oliver Kix, is unable to have children. The cousin knights are competing for an inheritance that will pass to the first child, born within marriage, that either manages to produce. Promiscuous Touchwood Senior, elder brother of Moll Yellowhammer's suitor, to made aware of the Kix's situation and offers them a remedy - at great expense - that he guarantees will end their childless plight...

Answer TWO of the following:

Q1: The play takes place at Cheapside, once a famous marketplace in London; this allows us to see various classes mixing in one place (much like a theater) with all the comedy inherent in this mixing of classes. Discuss a scene where we see Middleton satirizing a specific class or type of person in a way that might have delighted Londoners (who all knew these types--and some of whom WERE these types).Consider some of the types of people who mingle in the first two acts: Puritans, goldsmiths, maids, gentlemen, promoters, gossips, etc.

Q2: Unlike all of the previous plays in class, A Chaste Maid at Cheapside is an almost documentary account of the people who really lived in London just outside the theater doors. What strange customs or realities does the play reveal about early 17th century England that we could never otherwise see or know? What makes this such a strange, energetic environment?

Q3: Comedies require more translation than most plays, since most of the humor is topical and easily lost on a modern audience. Discuss a brief scene where you were completely lost without the footnotes, and show how the footnotes help restore some of the sense and humor to the play. Or, what are you still confused about? Why doesn't the scene 'play' in your mind?

Q4: In a play about the lower strata of society, the play has surprisingly little prose (though it often does lapse into prose). Why do you think Middleton had some many of his characters, even the Wench in Act 2, Scene 1, speak in verse? Discuss a brief scene where the use of verse is important to what is being said and who is saying it. 


  1. Marilyn Kull
    Q1: I think Middleton is satirizing the lower class that is attempting to move up in the world. It is amusing because we see the difference in speech between their private conversations and their public / watched speech. The family is amusing to watch because they literally mention sending him a silver spoon so that he would fit into the upper class in Cambridge. The joke here is that they are in a play and Tim is also acting. He's also making fun of them using the Porter's part. They don't know the Latin from their son's letter and fumble around foolishly, ultimately giving money to the Porter because they want to look great and educated in front of an audience.

    Q4: Much like I mentioned in question 1, everyone is attempting to look better than they really are. Their lines in verse add to their attempts, especially with a character like the wench (who is very low on the totem pole). I think the point of the verse in Act 2, scene 1 is meant to show the "devotion" of the Touchwoods. I could be wrong, but Touchwood senior is being unfaithful to his wife, and Mistress Touchwood is also being unfaithful (T Senior with the wench, and Mistress T with Sir Walter). It's hilarious to see them act so "goodly and educated" with one another despite their unfaithfulness.

  2. Nick Johnson
    In the scene from act 1 were Yellowhammer and his wife receive a letter from their son at Cambridge. In this scene, their son has written a letter in Latin, but of course the parents cant read it, and they pretend to be able to read because of the porter present. They are trying to put on airs for the sake of not appearing low class for a servant. The porter understands this and uses their ignorance of Latin and their desire to be pompous to connive money from the witless couple.

    I think that without this play, that the goings on of Cheapside, at least on a lower level, would have probably been lost to history. The truth of the matter is that most works were written for the upper crust and the low class stuff would probably not have flown well. Such things as the promoters seizing meat on Lent, and the apparent mockery of puritans, as well as the goose fair and the amount of prostitutes. A good piece of history from a source close to the ground.

  3. Q1: Throughout the play thus far, readers can see Middleton poke fun at those who from a lower class who are attempting to move up in society, but they don't really understand what that mean and often get it terribly wrong. This is most evident through the Yellowhammer family. It is easy to see that their language shifts, moving form a very informal tone to that of iambic pentameter. This is also satirized with the scene concerning the Porter. Middleton pokes fun at the family's attempt to speak Latin. The Porter also brings up another example of this, their son Tim. The family sent him to Cambridge, a very learned school, however, they are also having him act the part of an equal and a educated man to further advance themselves.
    Q4: Similar to my answer above, throughout the play we are constantly reminded that people are trying to act higher and more important than they really are. This is very evident with the Touchwood family as we see multiple affairs throughout the family, as well as a short snippet of the Wench, Mr. Touchwood's lover. We see that the Wench attempts to be more important, and a proper lady, when she is in the presents of her lover, however, within society she is the lowest of the low. This is deeply comedic becuse we don't know weather to laugh at her or feel sorry for her.

  4. Q2: People in the early 17th century were very concerned about social class and the many nuances of upholding and portraying your social class. I'm sure that we have social nuances in modern society, but I do not think that they are as complex as those in the 17th century. I would not be worried about who goes in the door first, and we are certainly coming away from gentlemen opening the door for ladies. We do not collectively celebrate lent (although my family does, you get to choose what you give up. We are not Catholic, but come from a Methodist based doctrine). There are a lot of parallels though. I know a lot of people who have "baby mama drama" and you can mingle with all ages and social classes at Wal-Mart. I also know people who live outside their means, and while some people cannot see it, to others it is painfully obvious. I think that this environment is so energetic and lively because there is a lot going on and people have plans and ambitions going on at every turn that rival other characters' plans.

    Q3: Humor is so based in language- both verbal and non-verbal. I think that it is safe to say that the annotator of this play has a mind that is pretty lost in the gutter. I was very uncomfortable with his careless and frequent use of the c-word, to be quite honest. On a more positive note, I found the part in act one, scene one confusing when Touchwood Jr. came to call on Moll. Especially the part in which Yellowhammer asks Touchwood Jr. what his posy is. I think of posy as a flower. After reading the footnotes, I realized that Jr. was buying Moll a ring and dissing Yellowhammer on the ring-which Yellowhammer was going to have to inscribe. That is funny no matter who you are.

  5. Elyse Marquardt
    Q1) In act 1, scene 1, Middleton has a lot of fun with the characters who are trying to raise themselves up in the world. The Yellowhammers are a family of fairly poor class, a goldsmith and his wife and daughter. Middleton makes fun of the wife as she strives to teach her daughter how to catch a good man; but the wife’s words make it hard to tell whether she is advising her daughter in how to marry well, or how to sell herself. Mr. Yellowhammer is also a pompous fool who tries to please everybody he meets by pretending to be at their level of intelligence and social status. Middleton is bringing out the worst, most sniveling characteristics of these people. But in so doing, he makes it obvious that his audience is really surrounded by these kinds of people all day long, and perhaps some people in the audience are in fact these characters.

    Q4) Also in the first scene of act 1, we see the language change as the Yellowhammer family discusses the various ways that they can rise up through the levels of society. They fall into poetry whenever they are plotting how to marry their son off to a woman of high importance, as if such a topic is only suitably discussed in verse. Mr. Yellowhammer’s language also changes when the porter comes in from Cambridge; Mr. Yellowhammer begins speaking with proper nouns and pronouns, such as “thou” and “thee.” This makes him sound more educated than he actually is. By having low commoners speak high verse, Middleton is pointing out the irony of their actual situation versus their mental situation; they suppose themselves to be much higher than they actually are. But by using poetry, Middleton is also casting an aura of fantasy and other-worldliness over the play so that it will still be appealing to his audience. If he simply portrayed his make-believe world as a world that was exactly like real life, the play would be boring and upsetting to the audience. In order to keep his audience satisfied, Middleton has to use some sense of trickery. His poetry is one way to accomplish this.

    Elyse Marquardt

  6. Q1. The entire play is a satire in one way or another, but an especially amusing scene is the one in which the porter brings Yellowhammer and Maudline a message from their son. The son, pretentiously decides to write the letter in Latin, a language his parents cannot speak. This scene contains an interesting mix of languages and language styles. Before the porter arrives, Yellowhammer and his wife are having a discussion in prose. However, when the porter arrives they don their high class personas and begin to converse in poetry. The language is heightened even more when they "read" the Latin message. This scene is making fun of this lower class family attempting to act like high society.

    Q3. There are several things ,involving characters and setting mainly, that I did not quite understand initially. First off, there are several dated puns woven into the names of the characters. "Kix" for example. Or "Touchwood". If it weren't for the footnotes or class discussion I wouldn't have understood the wit in Kix's name. I did, however, understand the potential sexual pun in Touchwood, but didn't think that it may be taken as "tinder". It is also very helpful to have background info on the setting of the play. The name Cheapside sounds somewhat self explanatory, but I was unaware that it was mainly a market district. This clears up why so many classes are mingling together.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Q2: In these times, everyone was always trying to be someone else. Social class was very important. What makes it energetic is how hard everyone tries to look and be more sophisticated and uppity than they actually are. I've seen other people use this talk about this, but a great example is in Act 1 where Yellowhammer and his wife receive a letter in Latin, and rather than actually attempting to find someone to translate it so they could know what it said, instead they decided to act like they understood Latin, so as not to seem unintelligent and uncultured.

    Q3: a line in Act 1 Scene 1 really stuck out to me. I don't really know if people found the wording very comical back then, but when I read it, I had to do a double-take and read it again. It's the line where Touchwood Junior says to Moll- "shall I make bold with your finger, gentlewoman?" Before reading the footnotes, I was repulsed by the wording. It turns out that it was just Middleton's attempt at a pun on wedding rings. It still deeply confuses me, but the footnotes have helped me understand a little better.

    Lauren Trimmer


Post a Comment