Jacobean and Caroline Drama

Summaries of major plays

The Knight of the Burning Pestle / Philaster; or, Love Lies A-Bleeding / The Maid's Tragedy / A King and No King / Beggar's Bush / The Island Princess / The Humorous Lieutenant / The Wild-Goose Chase / Rule a Wife and Have a Wife / A Chaste Maid in Cheapside / The Changeling / Women Beware Women / The Revenger's Tragedy / A New Way to Pay Old Debts / A Woman Killed with Kindness / The Shoemakers Holiday / Antonio and Mellida and Antonio's Revenge / The Malcontent / The Dutch Courtesan / The White Devil / The Duchess of Malfi / 'Tis Pity She's a Whore / The Broken Heart / The Cardinal

The Knight of the Burning Pestle
   a comedy by Beaumont

Set in a London theatre, where the actors are about to start a play called "The London Merchant". A grocer, George, and his wife interrupt from the audience and demand a play where their apprentice Ralph can have a part. He becomes a Grocer-errant (instead of Knight-errant) with a burning pestle on his shield, and rescues the prisoners of Barbarossa (a barber-surgeon). The original play continues at the same time, with the story of how a merchant's apprentice Jasper Merrythought wins his master's daughter Luce Venturewell.

Philaster; or, Love Lies A-Bleeding
   a romantic tragi-comedy by Beaumont & Fletcher

Set in Sicily. The deposed heir Philaster loves Arethusa, the daughter of the usurping king. She loves him but her father wants her to marry Pharamond, a prince from Spain. Philaster gives her Bellario, a page-boy he has found, to bring messages to him. When Arethusa responds coldly to Pharamond, he begins an affair with Megra, a naughty court lady. Megra spreads false rumours about Arethusa and Bellario that Philaster believes. He grows mad with jealousy and distrust. Finally, after he has tried to kill both of them in a forest, he realizes that they have been true to him. He marries Arethusa, and discovers that Bellarios was in fact the daughter of a Sicilian lord in love with him. She will never marry. The king restores his kingdom to Philaster.

The Maid's Tragedy
   a romantic tragedy by Beaumont & Fletcher

Set in Rhodes. The king asks Amintor to break his engagement to Aspatia and marry Evadne, who is sister to his friend Melantius. On their wedding night, Evadne reveals that she is the king's mistress, cannot sleep with him, wants him to pretend they are married. He later tells Melantius, who urges his sister, now repentant, to kill the king. The wretched Aspatia laments in famous lines: "And the trees about me, Let them be dry and leafless; let the rocks Groan with continual surges; and behind me Make all a desolation". She disguises herself as her brother, fights a duel with Amintor, who wounds her; as she is dying, Evadne arrives from killing the king, hoping now to be accepted by Amintor but he spurns her and she kills herself. Aspatia reveals her identity and dies. Amintor kills himself.

A King and No King
   a tragi-comedy by Beaumont & Fletcher

Mainly set in Iberia. Arbaces the king of Iberia has defeated Tigranes, king of Armenia, after long years of war. Arbaces wants Tigranes to marry his sister Panthea, who has grown up in his absence. Only Tigranes loves Spaconia, whom he sends ahead to Iberia to ask Panthea not to accept him. On seeing the adult Panthea, both men fall in love with her. The incestuous love of Arbaces is reciprocated. Disaster seems imminent. Suddenly Gobrias, who has been ruling the kingdom during the absence of Arbaces, confesses that Arbaces is his own son, and "no king", that Panthea is the true heir to the throne of Iberia. They are free to marry, Tigranes is reconciled with Spaconia.

Beggar's Bush (1622)
   a comedy by Fletcher & Massinger

Set in and around Bruges (Belgium). Florenz is heir to Flanders but does not know it; he is living as a rich merchant in Bruges. He loves Bertha; she is heiress of Brabant but does not know it; she has been stolen away and placed with the mayor of Bruges. Florenz's father, Gerrard, the earl of Flanders, has been driven from his lands by Wolfort and is living as the leader of a band of beggars near Bruges, while he watches over Florenz. Wolfort wants to marry Bertha in order to gain Brabant. He sends a nobleman, Hubert, to get Bertha for him; Hubert loves Jacqueline, Gerrard's daughter, who is living with her father among the beggars. He joins the beggars, helps Gerrard capture Wolfort, and all is well. Florenz and Bertha marry.

The Island Princess (1619)
   a heroic tragi-comedy by Fletcher & Massinger

Set in the Moluccan island of Tidore. The pagan princess Quisara's father has been imprisoned by a tyrant. She loves the Portuguese commander Ruy Dias but offers to marry whoever frees her father. Another Portuguese, Armusia, does this, however, and she urges Ruy Dias to have him killed. Armusia is so noble in his attitude that Ruy Dias repents and saves him from execution while Armusia, equally impressed by Armusia's virtue, is converted to Christianity and marries him. Her father is restored and the tyrant exiled.

The Humorous Lieutenant (1619)
   a comedy by Fletcher & Massinger

Set in Syria. A prince, Demetrius is in love with Celia, a prisoner, His father, Antigonus king of Syria also falls in love with her. Demetrius goes off to war, his father tries to seduce Celia in vain. She loves Demetrius. When Demetrius returns, Antigonus tells him that Celia is dead; he shuts himself up is despair. Meanwhile Antigonus tries to gain Celia's love by a love-potion but fails; he is finally so impressed by her loyalty and virtue that he restores her to his son. There is a subplot involving a comic lieutenant who is marvelously brave when he thinks he is sick, but his courage fails him when he is well. He drinks the love-potion intended for Celia and falls in love with the king.

The Wild-Goose Chase (1621)
   a comedy by Fletcher & Massinger

Set in Italy. Mirabell likes women but is not interested in getting married. He is the wild-goose who is chased by Oriana who tries various tricks to get him to marry her. She pretends to be mad for love of him, but he pierces her pretence. Finally she disguises herself as a rich Italian lady and traps him.

Rule a Wife and Have a Wife (1624)
   a comedy by Fletcher & Massinger

Set in Seville (Spain). Margarita is a rich heiress of easy virtue who wants to marry a pliant man who will simply serve to protect her reputation while she continues her various affairs. Her companion Altea has a brother, Leon, who hears of her plan and pretends to be a fool until after the marriage, when he drops the disguise, asserts his authority over her, and gains her affection.

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1611)
   a comedy by Middleton

Set in London. Sir Walter Whorehound disguises his mistress as his niece and tries to marry her to the foolish son of a rich goldsmith, Yellowhammer. This is finally achieved. At the same time, Whorehound hopes to marry Yellowhammer's daughter Moll. Only Moll is a sensible young girl with a good boyfriend of her own class, Touchwood. They struggle hard to avoid the plans of the greedy parents and finally succeed in getting married

The Changeling (1622)
   a tragedy by Middleton (written with Rowley)

Set in Alicant (Spain). Beatrice is daughter of Vermandero, the governor of the castle of Alicant; her father orders her to marry Alonso but she falls in love with Alsemero. She asks her father's villainous servant De Flores, whom she detests, to murder Alonso. He does so, but in return demands the right to take her virginity. She marries Alsemero but arranges to have her maid take her place on the wedding-night. De Flores kills the maid to avoid betrayal. Meanwhile there is a comic subplot (by Rowley, that gives the play its title) in which Vermandero's clerks Antonio (the Changeling) and Franciscus both pretend to be crazy in order to gain access to Isabella who is the chaste young wife of Alibius, a jealous old mad-house doctor. She rejects them both. They emerge from the madhouse and are charged with Alonso's murder which happened just as they vanished. The crime of Beatrice is suspected by Alsemero and she admits that she killed Alonso. But de Flores tells the whole story, wounds Beatrice mortally, then kills himself.

Women Beware Women (c. 1625)
   a tragedy by Middleton

Set in Renaissance Florence. The central character, Bianca Cappello, is a historical figure, she was mistress then wife of Francesco de'Medici (1541-87). There are two plots, a sub-plot involving the incestuous relationship of Isabella and her uncle Hippolito, which Isabella tries to hide by marrying a foolish heir. She is encouraged by Hippolito's sister, Livia. Livia is also an enabler in the main plot. The wealthy Bianca has secretly married an honest clerk, Leantio. The Duke sees her and seduces her while Leantio is absent and Livia is playing chess with her mother (cf. T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land). The Duke and Livia corrupt Leantio and get him to give up Bianca but on being scolded by his brother, a cardinal, the Duke arranges for Hippolito to kill Leantio. In the last act there is a masque (cf. The Spanish Tragedy) in the course of which everyone but the Cardinal is killed in various astonishing ways, including poisoned wine, poisoned incense, arrows shot by a row of cupids, and a trap-door.

The Revenger's Tragedy (1606)
   by Middleton

Set somewhere in Italy. The main character is Vindice (or Vendice) who lives away from the court. The Duke poisoned Vindice's beloved nine years ago because she resisted him. His father has recently died from the Duke's unkindness. Vindice learns from his brother Hippolito that the Duke's eldest son Lussurioso is looking for an unscrupulous servant. He disguises himself with the name Piato and gets the job, which he finds involves seducing for Lussurioso his and Hippolito's chaste sister Castiza (most names are figurative). The Duchess has had three sons by a previous marriage, the Duke has one bastard, Spurio. Her Younger Son has raped the wife of a lord, Antonio; the woman killed herself, the Son is now in prison. The Duchess is wooing Spurio. Vindice is happy to find that Castiza is incorruptible, shocked to find their Mother eager to change her mind (she later repents). He reports to Lussurioso that he overheard the Duchess and Spurio agreeing to sleep together; Lussurioso breaks into the bedroom but find the Duke, his Father, with the Duchess. He is arrested for attempted assassination. The Duchess's two other sons hate Lussurioso; they forge an order for their "Brother's" execution. Only the Duke has forgiven Lussurioso and set him free; the only "Brother" remaining in prison is their Younger Brother, who is duly executed. The Duke asks Vindice to find him a chaste woman he can corrupt. In a secret place, Vindice gets the Duke to kiss a mask containing the skull of his own dead lady. Poison is hidden in its mouth, and as the Duke slowly dies he sees his wife and Spurio together. Lussurioso sacks "Piato" for his mistake and Vindice offers to "take his place" under his own name. His first job is to murder Piato. He and Hippolito dress the Duke's body in Piato's clothes and Piato is assumed to have escaped after killing him. Lussurioso becomes Duke, banishes the Duchess, and throws a party. Vindice and Hippolito play a masque, during which they kill Lussurioso and his three companions. The Duchess's sons with Spurio, arriving with a similar plan, find Lussurioso dead and kill each other over their claims to be Duke. Antonio becomes Duke and tries to understand what has happened. Vindice hopes to be praised by Antonio, assuming that he too wanted revenge, and boastfully tells what they did. Antonio fears for his own life and orders their immediate execution.

A New Way to Pay Old Debts (c. 1621)
   a comedy by Massinger

Set in London. The central villain is the cruel, avaricious Sir Giles Overreach (the names are emblematic, and foreshadow those used in Fielding's Tom Jones) who has robbed his nephew Frank Wellborn of his property. A rich widow, Lady Allworth, helps Wellborn by pretending she will marry him; this changes Overreach's attitude toward him. Overreach has a daughter, Margaret, who is in love with Tom Allworth, Lady Allworth's stepson and page to Lord Lovell. Overreach wants Margaret to marry Lord Lovell. Lord Lovell pretends to agree, but tricks her father and in fact arranges for Tom Allworth to marry her. Overreach goes mad at this, and on being told that he must return Frank Wellborn's property. Wellborn becomes an officer in Lord Lovell's regiment, Lord Lovell marries Lady Allworth.

A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603)
   a tragedy by Heywood

Set in Yorkshire (England). Anne and John Frankford are happily married but Wendoll, a villainous friend, has no difficulty in seducing Anne while John is away. The servants inform her husband, who discovers them asleep in bed together after pretending to leave on another journey. Meanwhile a friend, Sir Charles Mountford, has been ruined and imprisoned after gambling with Anne's brother, Sir Francis Acton, who hates him yet desires Mountford's sister Susan. Acton pays Mountford's debt so that he can leave prison, Susan explains it is on account of his feelings for her. Mountford decides that honour demands he repay Acton at once, but he has no money and asks Susan to be the "pawn" or pledge and marry Acton. She accepts for honour's sake. Acton is overwhelmed at their sincerity and swears friendship to Mountford, true devotion to Susan. Discovered with Anne, Wendoll runs away while John Frankford confronts his wife with her guilt. She has no excuse. His response is deeply moving, not anger but tears. He sends her away to live in another house of his, forbidding her ever to see him or their children again. She is to take with her everything she ever used; after her departure a lute she played is found and sent after her. She plays it by the wayside, then has it broken. Wendoll reappears, Anne flees. He decides to go travelling abroad and then seek his fortune at court. Anne resolves to eat nothing. As she is dying, her husband comes for a last encounter in which they are reconciled in forgiveness. She dies.

The Shoemakers Holiday (1599)
   a comedy by Dekker

Set in London. Rowland Lacy is a relative of the earl of Lincoln. He loves Rose, whose father is lord mayor of London. The ear; disapproves, sends Lacy to France, but he returns disguised as a Dutch shoemaker and becomes a servant in the house of Simon Eyre who supplies shoes to the lord mayor. Cheerful and eccentric, Eyre is the play's central "character". The marriage of Lacy and Rose finally takes place, despite the parents' attempts to block it; the king pardons the young couple. Eyre becomes the new lord mayor of London.

Antonio and Mellida and Antonio's Revenge (1599)
   by Marston

Set in Italy. Antonio is son of Andrugio, duke of Genoa. He loves Mellida, daughter of Piero, duke of Venice. Venice defeats Genoa in war, Antonio and Andrugio flee, Venice offers a reward for their capture. Antonio comes to Piero's court in disguise to see Mellida and they elope, but Mellida is captured. Andrugio surrenders to Piero and asks Piero to accept the marriage. He seems to agree, the first part ends happily. In the second play Piero reveals his true nature. He kills Andrugio and arranges for Mellida to be dishonoured so that the marriage cannot take place. He plots Antonio's death and successfully woos Andrugio's widow. Mellida dies of a broken heart. Andrugio's ghost appears to Antonio, demanding revenge. Antonio pretends to be a fool; he kills Piero.

The Malcontent (1604)
   a tragi-comedy by Marston

Set in Genoa. The Duke of Genoa, Altofronto, has been banished and Pietro Jacomo has taken his place. Altofronto returns disguised as Malevole, a systematic "malcontent" or cynical observer of life. He tells Pietro that his wife Aurelia is deceiving him, to torment him. At the same time, he observes how the "Machiavellian" Mendoza is plotting to take power, banish Aurelia, whose servant he is, and even marry Altofronto's own wife, Maria. After much villainy, in which the court is shown in a very satiric way as full of lust, greed and corruption, Pietro comes to repent ever having made himself Duke; Altofronto reveals himself, they expose Mendoza and regain their wives.

The Dutch Courtesan (1604?)
   a comedy by Marston

Freevill is deeply involved with the "Dutch Courtesan" Franceschina but he is about to marry Beatrice, daughter of Sir Hubert Subboys and decides to break with Franceschina. He introduces her to his friend Malheureux who at once desires her. Humiliated, she promises to submit to him if he kills Freevill and bring her a ring he has received from Beatrice. The two friends pretend to quarrel, Freevill vanishes, the ring is brought to Franceschina. She goes off to inform Freevill's father and Beatrice's father of what has happened. Malheureux is arrested and condemned to die. At the last moment, Freevill appears and explains he has done this to cure Malheureux of his passion. Franceschina is whipped and imprisoned.

The White Devil (1612?)
   a tragedy by Webster

Set in Rome and Padua. Isabella is the sister of Francisco de'Medicis, the Duke of Florence. She is married to the Duke of Brachiano who is tired of her and loves Vittoria. Vittoria has a husband, Camillo, whom she despises. Her Machiavellian brother Flamineo arranges for the Duke to meet her but her mother interrupts them. The Cardinal and the Duke of Florence urge Brachiano to be reconciled with Isabella; she nobly declares that it is she who will no longer stay with him, and leaves for Padua. Wanting to get clear proof of Brachiano and Vittoria's adultery, the Cardinal arranges for Camillo to go to sea, on a boat also holding Vittoria's virtuous brother Marcello. In Padua, Isabella is poisoned by a doctor paid by Flamineo; Flamineo murders Camillo in the boat. At this, Flamineo, Marcello, and Vittoria are arrested and put on trial. Vittoria is the centre of the great trial scene, where she denies everything with great effect. She is found guilty of adultery, but not of murder. Her brothers are acquitted. News of Isabella's death reaches the Duke of Florence by Count Ludovico, who had loved her. The Duke of Florence writes a letter to Vittoria (enclosed in a house for penitent prostitutes), knowing that Brachiano is always going there and will see the letter. In the letter he declares (falsely) that he loves Vittoria and fears Brachiano may take her away and marry her. Brachiano does just that, as he had hoped. The Cardinal is elected Pope and learns by chance that his brother has persuaded Count Ludovico to swear to kill Brachiano. At the marriage celebration there is a Moor Mulinassar (The Duke of Florence in disguise) with two companions including Ludovico in religious disguise. Flamineo is scolded for his immorality by his brother Marcello; he kills him with his sword in front of their mother, who goes mad. Brachiano pardons him conditionally then slowly begins to die, thanks to a poisoned "beaver" (hat) prepared by Ludovico. Ludovico tells the dying man what has happened, and why the Duke of Florence has had him killed. Flamineo is found by Ludovico demanding money from Vittoria; he sends them off to die. Finally he too is taken off for punishment.

The Duchess of Malfi (1613-4?)
   a tragedy by Webster

Set in Italy. The widowed Duchess is told by her brothers Ferdinand (Duke of Calabria) and the Cardinal that she must not remarry; no reasons are given. She consents but is already in love with her steward Antonio. Ferdinand places a spy, Bosola, in the house. The Duchess and Antonio make solemn betrothal vows, longing to live a simple domestic life. A child is born in great secret but Antonio drops a horoscope made for it that Bosola finds. Her brothers think that Antonio is finding men for the Duchess's lust, they do not know of their love. They swear to punish the two sinners. Two other children are born. The Duchess mistakes Ferdinand for Antonio and talks in intimate terms, not seeing who is there. He is furious and leaves her a dagger. She tells Antonio to flee to Ancona. Innocently, she tells Bosola her plans and while Antonio with their son can escape to Milan, she is brought back to Malfi by Bosola. Ferdinand's revenge is a famous series of horrors. In a darkened room (he has sworn never to see her again) he offers her a hand, not his own as she expects but a detached dead hand he says is Antonio's. Then she is shown figures that seem to be the dead bodies of Antonio and their children. Finally madmen perform a masque showing how mad Ferdinand thinks she has been, before her coffin and ropes are brought in. The Duchess, her maid, and her two other children are all strangled. Ferdinand goes mad with licanthropia (he thinks he is a wolf) while Bosola repents, especially after the Duchess returns to life for a moment. Antonio in Milan, knowing nothing of this, plans to visit the Cardinal to ask for pity. Bosola arrives to find out if the Cardinal was also involved in the Duchess's death. He has the Cardinal's mistress, Julia, ask about the crime; he confesses what he has done, then makes her swear to keep it secret by kissing a poisoned book; she dies but Bosola has overheard. He pretends to serve the Cardinal. That night he comes; the Cardinal is expecting his mad brother and has told the servants to ignore all shouts. Antonio comes and Bosola stabs him in the dark by mistake. He dies. Bosola kills the Cardinal, whose shouts are ignored by the servants. Ferdinand comes in, wounds Bosola who then kills him before dying. The Duchess's last child is brought in.

'Tis Pity She's a Whore (c. 1630)
   a tragedy by Ford

Set in Parma. Giovanni and his sister Annabella love one another passionately. Their father wants Annabella to marry Soranzo, who is eager to marry her because his former mistress Hippolita's husband is dead and she wants him to marry her. He refuses. She is deeply offended by his refusal and plans revenge, using Soranzo's servant Vasquez. Actually, her husband is not dead but disguised as Richardetto, a doctor, preparing revenge against his wife. After the marriage, he also tries to poison Soranzo but the plan fails. At the marriage banquet, Hippolita dies of poison given her by Vasquez before she can poison Soranzo. Annabella is pregnant with Giovanni's child when they marry. Soranzo pretends to forgive her and Vasques discovers the truth. Soranzo prepares a birthday party at which he plans to take revenge. Annabella repents and send Giovanni a letter ending their relationship and warning him not to go to the party. Giovanni still goes. He kills his sister himself, to prevent Soranzo from doing it, and enters the banquet with her heart on his dagger. He tells what he has done, their father dies of a broken heart. Giovanni fights with Soranzo and kills him before being killed by Vasques.

The Broken Heart
   a tragedy by Ford

Set in ancient Sparta. Penthea is betrothed to Orgilus, they love one another, but her brother Ithocles forces his sister to marry a jealous lord who makes her life a misery; she goes mad. Ithocles returns from war and falls in love with the old and sick king's daughter Calantha, who equally loves him. Penthea finally dies, having starved herself. Orgilus traps and kills Ithocles in front of her dead body. During a feast, while Calantha is dancing people tell her of the death of her father, of Penthea, and of Ithocles. Nothing seems to affect her until the dance is over, when she becomes Queen and asks what happened. Orgilus admits to having killed Ithocles and asks to be allowed to open his veins; he dies. In the last scene she calmly puts everything in order before dying of a broken heart.

The Cardinal (1641)
   a tragedy by Shirley

Set in Navarre. The Duchess wishes to marry Alvarez but the Cardinal, the King's closest adviser, forces her into a contract with his nephew Columbo. She tricks Columbo into freeing her from the agreement and marries Alvarez but during a dance on the wedding night a group of masquers (Columbo in disguise) kill Alvarez. The Duchess pretends to be mad while preparing revenge. Hernando, a soldier whom Columbo has wronged, kills Columbo in a duel. Finally the Cardinal tries to rape the Duchess but she is saved by Hernando, who wounds the Cardinal and kills himself. The Cardinal, believing he his dying, claims that he has put poison in the Duchess's last meal but says that he has an antidote with him, because he feared he might die of poison. He drinks some of the antidote, the grateful Duchess drinks too. Then the Cardinal confesses that there had been no poison, the so-called antidote was a poison he had prepared for the Duchess. A doctor comments on his eagerness to die, explaining that his wounds were not fatal. The Cardinal sees the irony of his fate; he dies. The Duchess dies.

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