Women Beware Women

"Women Beware Women" is a Jacobean tragedy written by Thomas Middleton, and first published in 1657.

The date of authorship of the play is deeply uncertain; scholars have estimated its origin anywhere from 1612 to 1627. [Logan and Smith, p. 71.] [Dorothy Farr dates the play to 1623–24; Farr, pp. 125-7.] The play was entered into the Stationers' Register on September 9, 1653 by the bookseller Humphrey Moseley, along with two other Middleton plays, "More Dissemblers Besides Women" and "No Wit, No Help Like a Woman's". In 1657 Moseley published "Women Beware Women" together with "More Dissemblers" in an octavo volume titled "Two New Plays". Both the Register entry and the first edition's title page assign "Women Beware Women" to Middleton — an attribution which has never been seriously questioned and which is accepted by the scholarly consensus. No performances of the play in its own era are known. The octavo text of the play is prefaced by a commendatory poem by Nathaniel Richards, author of "The Tragedy of Messalina" (published 1640).

Thomas Dekker's play "Match Me in London" (written c. 1612, but printed in 1631) has a plot that is strongly similar to "Women Beware," though with a happy ending rather than a tragic conclusion. [Logan and Smith, p. 16.]


Middleton based the plot of his play on actual events. Bianca Cappello was first the mistress and then the second wife and Duchess of Francesco I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The story of Bianca's elopement with her first husband, her affair with the Duke, her first husband's death and her marriage to the Duke, is adapted by Middleton for his play. The subplot of Hippolyto and Isabella in Middleton's play is strongly similar to the plot of a French novel that was published in 1597 but not translated into English until 1627, the year of Middleton's death. Scholars are divided as to whether Middleton was familiar with the novel in manuscript form prior to its 1627 printing, or whether the translator of the book was influenced by Middleton's play. [Farr, pp. 73-4 and 135.]


The device of the chess game exploited by Middleton in "Women Beware" has an obvious commonality with his own "A Game at Chess" — but the same chess-game device also appears in John Fletcher's play "The Spanish Curate," which was acted in 1622. Here again, scholars are divided as to which play preceded and influenced which. It is also possible that both writers independently dreived the chess device from the same source. [Farr, p. 135.] T. S. Eliot, a student of Jacobean drama, refers to the "Women Beware Women" chess game in "The Waste Land," Part II, line 137. [Farr, p. 90.]

Critical Reception

"Women Beware Women" has regularly been paired with "The Changeling" as constituting Middleton's two noteworthy late achievements in the genre of tragedy — though "Women Beware" has usually been judged the lesser of the two works. The bloody masque that concludes the play has been called a "ridiculous holocaust." [Logan and Smith, p. 60.] When a modern adaptation was staged by Howard Barker at the Royal Court Theatre in 1986, the first two-thirds of Middleton's play were preserved but the ending was wholly revamped. [Dutton, p. viii.] With growing critical attention over the years, however, the estimation of "Women Beware Women" has intensified; the play is now judged to be among Middleton's greatest works. [Dutton, p. vii and ff.] "Women Beware Women" displays Middleton's maturest understanding of the relation of power to desire, and of political culture to civil society." [Chakravotry, p. 128.]



* Chakravotry, Swapan. "Society and Politics in the Plays of Thomas Middleton." Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996.
* Dutton, Richard, ed. "Thomas Middleton: Women Beware Women and Other Plays." Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999.
* Farr, Dorothy M. "Thomas Middleton and the Drama of Realism." New York, Barnes & Noble/Harper & Row, 1973.
* Lake, David J. "The Canon of Thomas Middleton's Plays." Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1975.
* Logan, Terence P., and Denzell S. Smith, eds. "The Popular School: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama." Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1975.

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