Comedy, Carnival, and Class: A Chaste Maid in Cheapside
Rick Bowers
University of Alberta

Bowers, Rick. "Comedy, Carnival, and Class: A Chaste Maid in Cheapside." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.3 (January, 2003): 1.1-22 <URL:

  1. By its very title, Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside signals social and behavioural edginess, a facetious, even somewhat modern flippancy built on antithetical terms and powered by unremitting irony. Herein, material social conditions determine individual consciousness within tough and unsentimental comic truths: Life is cheap. Desire is expensive. Both are pursued exhaustively. I will argue that Middleton's comic action foregrounds character conflict to assert a realist, urban grotesque: a Bakhtinian assertion of the lower bodily stratum combined with dramatically reversible possibilities of gender, class, and situation.

  2. Indeed, Middleton's recklessly carnivalesque critique asserts itself so fully as to be almost a reversal in itself: The setting is London--at once inner city Cheapside and the salons of the Strand. The time is Lent--at once personal abnegation and delirious consumerism. The action is marriage--at once a blessed idealist union and a sordid battleground of sexual distress. Such constant irony evacuates the space usually taken up by authority and replaces it with comic contingency.

  3. Consider class. Near the end of his discussion of Jacobean city comedy, Leonard Tennenhouse decries the contrived patriarchal endings of Middleton's plays, noting that despite their veneer of realist situational comedy, Middleton's dramas conclude with aristocratic values inevitably reasserted at the conclusion. A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is considered a case in point, and Tennenhouse quotes Sir Oliver Kix's offer of reward to Touchwood Senior, the debased gentleman-Lothario who has administered "magic waters" to Kix's wife and successfully impregnated her. Touchwood achieves a form of highly remunerative sexual patronage, as Kix encourages him:

    I have purse, and bed, and board for you:
    Be not afraid to go to your business roundly,
    Get children, and I'll keep them. (5.4.81-83)

    Tennenhouse appraises this conclusion at face value in medical and genealogical terms, declaring, "However uncomfortable the modern reader might feel with this arrangement, as a conclusion to a play riddled with sexual disease and greed, it nevertheless fulfills the Jacobean conditions for comic resolution. Sir Oliver declares the child his, and the child assumes its position within a genealogical system of descent" (170).

  4. But precisely such a genealogical system of descent has been parodied throughout Middleton's play. The "big" secret of noble birth perpetuates the "big" lie of aristocratic ascendancy. And such ascendancy continues to be lampooned even at the conclusion, as Sir Oliver contrives the sexual situation of a complaisant cuckold, a situation parallel to that of Allwit at the beginning of the play. The "modern reader" need feel no more discomfort than Allwit's servants do when Allwit concludes his self-satisfied itemization of carefree cuckold disinterest by launching into song: "La dildo, dildo la dildo, la dildo dildo de dildo." The first servant incuriously asks, "What has he got asinging in his head now?" And the second servant is just as disrespectful: "Now's out of work he falls to making dildoes" (1.2.57-59). His servants consider Allwit to be nothing but a dildo in either contemporary slang sense--of "nonsense refrain" or "fake penis." And Middleton alone, according to the OED, asserts both of them. Indeed, his servants consider Allwit to be less than a dildo. So much for noble genealogy.

  5. The servants in Middleton's play represent an underclass that lives and thrives by irony, especially the irony of noble birth. And in Middleton's drama the irony is unremitting, as in the other unions that conclude A Chaste Maid in Cheapside: Tim the Cambridge undergraduate proves a whore to be an honest woman by logic and then marries her. The whore herself (referred to throughout as a "Welsh Gentlewoman") embraces marriage to the idiotic schoolboy as proof of her "honesty." Tim has effectively jilted his tutor who is no doubt eager to begin cruising again. Tim's sister Moll has married Touchwood Jr., younger and doubly-impoverished brother of Touchwood Sr., to complete the romantic centre of the play. In so doing she has defied the wishes of her parents who would have had her marry up in society by wedding the notorious Sir Walter Whorehound. Lady Kix's pregnancy, however, disinherits Whorehound whom the Allwits immediately and self-righteously reject. As a consequence, Mr. and Mrs. Allwit move on to high-class prostitution in the Strand. In A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, genealogy and noble birth equals high-class prostitution with an insatiable desire for gain and a limitless capacity for both exploitation and self-delusion. But Middleton's play refuses moral conclusions in a new spirit of horizontal time and space that refuses medieval hierarchy. As Bakhtin famously observed of the post-Rabelais world: "The vertical line of the soul's ascent is here completely suppressed; there remains the bodily horizontal, the passing from one abode to another, from the old to the youthful body, from generation to generation, from the past to the future" (405). In A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Allwit declares the only possible moral in game-play terms that are as dispassionate as they are fatalistic: "There's no gamester like a politic sinner, / For who e'er games, the box is sure a winner" (5.1.179-80).

  6. Indeed, any birth signals introduction to an amoral, but nonetheless social and comical game. Middleton's play enacts an urban Darwinism to illustrate survival of the fittest complete with necessary social mutations to ensure that survival. Allwit might seem to be a case in point. But all the characters are effortlessly mutated in terms of self-interest. Enter The Promoters, a pair of corrupt minor officials selectively enforcing the vegetarian statutes of Lent. They confiscate veal from a decent poor man trying to feed his family. Bribed, they let a wealthy merchant pass by with half a lamb. Enter next, as Middleton's stage direction puts it: "a WENCH with a basket, and a child in it under a loin of mutton" (2.2. 145 sd). Confronted, the Wench exacts a promise from each of the Promoters to care for her basket and then vanishes into the City having effectively abandoned her unwanted child. The scene continues with the Promoters drooling over their booty, one of them feeling in the basket what he is sure is a lamb's head only to reveal an infant. They are both so offended that they officially resolve to spend the rest of the day drinking in the Checkers Inn at Queenhithe, a well-known riverfront tavern. Carnival and Lent collide and reconfigure themselves with unsentimental comic tension. The Kixes would pay handsomely for the same package that the Wench abandons and that the Promoters reject merely as bad meat.

  7. As Theodore Leinwand puts it, Middleton's social solutions are "unsavory" (135). But a comic edginess constantly cuts short any convenient comic solutions. In Middleton's city comedy there are NO solutions, few satisfactions, and only ironic possibilities. At the same time as this nameless bastard child is abandoned, the Allwit/Whorehound child--itself illegitimate--is about to be christened, marking the scene as central to the play in terms of class and carnivalesque irony.

  8. The very middle of the play--Act 3, scene 2--brings together Mrs. Allwit abed with child lately-delivered in the company of six Puritan women gossips, a Nurse, Lady Kix and Maudlin Yellowhammer. This carnivalesque scene bodily (and bawdily) celebrates transformative Renaissance realism as observed in general terms by Bakhtin:

    Two types of imagery reflecting the conception of the world here meet at crossroads; one of them ascends to the folk culture of humor, while the other is the bourgeois conception of the completed atomized being. The conflict of these two contradictory trends in the interpretation of the bodily principle is typical of Renaissance realism. The ever-growing, inexhaustible, ever-laughing principle which uncrowns and renews is combined with its opposite: the petty, inert "material principle" of class society (24).

    At this point in the play, folk culture of Lenten abnegation and christening joy collides with mannered personal interaction and judgmental asperity. Herein the women collectively take over the action in complicated subaltern terms of "gossip" status. Noting derivation from the Old English "godsib" meaning "godparent," Linda Woodbridge observes that "its transferred meaning, `familiar acquaintance,' was probably acquired through women's frequently-satirized habit of congregating at christenings" (224). The gossips of A Chaste Maid are satirized too but in a distinctly ironic way wherein their unofficial "folk" status becomes official.

  9. In a recent monograph on Middleton, Swapan Chakravorty specifically adduces Bakhtin, identifying the scene in the tradition of "caquets" (101). Bakhtin describes this cultural meeting as "the usual female gathering at the bedside of a woman recovering from childbirth, . . . marked by abundant food and frank conversation at which social conventions were dropped" (105). Within this gendered democracy--and even in the presence of Lady Kix--the women are free to express themselves. It is significant that prior to the exits of Allwit and Sir Walter Whorehound the women are gauche and self-conscious, enduring Allwit's contempt and remarking on Sir Walter's dignified manners and appearance. Commanded to sit by Sir Walter, the women are all obedient acquiescence. Alone among themselves they do as they please, their overindulgence and recklessness registering itself as a measure of carnival protest, as an exercise (albeit circumscribed within patriarchy) of gender freedom.

  10. In anthropological terms, Middleton dramatizes a scene of oppressed female interaction that has its linguistic counterpart in the little-known Chinese form of nu shu or nonsense writing. Ethnologist Yao Souchou identifies nu shu as "an esoteric script by women to express their inner world of feminine friendship, patriarchal repression and domestic practicalities" (194). She describes an example from the southern Hunan province of China: "the coded writing is used by women for recording ritual performances, celebrating `sisterhood' formed outside the family, and above all, for she ku or `telling bitterness'" (194-95). All this is staged by the Puritan women of Middleton's play: they affiliate with each other as "neighbour," "gossip," and "sister" throughout this ritualized association. Unlike males, they require a ritual form within which to drink and carouse. And they "speak bitterness" through their reckless and unashamed female bad behaviour. Bakhtin almost describes the scene directly in gendered terms of "public" (hence permissible) male and "private" (transgressive) female interaction: "This female cackle is nothing but gossip and tittle-tattle. The popular frankness of the marketplace with its grotesque ambivalent lower stratum is replaced by chamber intimacies of private life, heard from behind a curtain" (105).

  11. And who's listening? The petty, "inert," exploitative misogynist Allwit. Some feminist commentators take Allwit at his word, insensitively viewing the gossips' scene through his judgmental eyes. Thus Ingrid Hotz-Davies in her analysis of the satire: "The christening scene is important because it is the only scene in which we see a community of women, and hence this would be the ideal place for a powerful feminist statement. Instead, we see a load of drunken old women accompanied by Allwit's choric and not altogether misleading descriptions of what is going on" (32). Allwit's observations, however, are both misperceived and misleading. The gossips' scene is a scene of fun where Allwit has no influence. Within the unthreatening environment of a female party, these women enjoy themselves, express themselves, and indulge excessively. Their interaction is un-selfconscious and inoffensive. Within the patriarchal comic confines of Middleton's scene, such behaviour is all that is permitted them. And yet their behaviour is freely exercised. Allwit condemns it. But Allwit is snide and full of contempt, an idiotic killjoy totally lacking in assertive power.

  12. In her analysis, Gail Kern Paster inadvertently, promotes Allwit to the status of choric commentator at the same time as she degrades the Puritan women into "infantile gluttony and incontinence" (55). However, the gossips are only figuratively incontinent, their "wetness" linked to drinking, eating, slobbering, kissing, crying, talking. After a few drinks Third Gossip reveals that her daughter is "too free" (3.2.111) in that she "cannot lie dry in her bed" (113). This admission represents the only evidence of literal incontinence and it is considered unusual. The women themselves are experiencing the freedom of open discussion, of noncondemnatory interaction. They are "too free" only within the patriarchal confines of the scene. In terms of carnival, they are perfectly and appropriately "free" as women and celebrants. Focusing on a newly-christened baby girl with reckless hopes and best wishes, the women do indeed see "a small version of themselves" (55) as Paster observes. Sadly, they are infantilised by the Bakhtinian "tittle-tattle" of their scene. But to focus, as Paster does, on gender demarcation at the expense of carnival is again to confer normative values on to Allwit and misrepresent the sharp comedy involved. As in nu shu the bodies of these silenced women "speak" at a level both above and below social contact. Bakhtin states: "The body discloses its essence as a principle of growth which exceeds its own limits only in copulation, pregnancy, childbirth, the throes of death, eating, drinking, or defecation. This is the ever unfinished, ever creating body" (26). Allwit, as pathetic early modern patriarch, would deny this productive body. Middleton's drama asserts it.

  13. The clearest example in the play of male-female confrontation involves the ongoing marital dispute of the Kixes. Lord and Lady Kix have everything: wealth, power, good looks, even a curiously co-dependent relationship. But they do not have a child, and Lady Kix's grief is unrestrained as she moans: "O, O, O, / To be seven years a wife and not a child, O not a child!" (2.1.135-36). She is in obvious pain. They are in desperate straits. And Kix spares no expense in trying the most recent and most costly reproductive technologies. Of course the wealthy couple has an economic motive for producing an heir: the disinheriting of Sir Walter Whorehound. And yet they wail together with all the emotional longing of the unfulfilled infertile couple. Their emotional highs, lows, and irrational blame-laying spices each scene in which they appear.

  14. In fact the mood swings of the Kixes provide deep comic movements in the play, their hurtful recriminations stabbing each other for maximum effect. Cruelly punning, he calls his baroness "Barrenness" (3.3.42). She calls her undersexed lord "Brevity" (2.1.151). In the heat of bickering, Kix alleges that Lady Kix had absolutely nothing before he met her. "Singleness confound her," he declares, "I took her with one smock" (3.3.76-77). Lady Kix responds immediately "But indeed you came not so single, / When you came from shipboard" (79). And Kix thereby positively wilts in abashed self-consciousness. Indeed the image of Kix coming ashore years before, hand-in-hand with an older Navy officer, parallels Tim's appearance in the previous scene, hand-in-hand with his Cambridge Tutor. The Kixes reconcile momentarily before launching into verbal assaults again: at the end of the scene, she calls him "Grub" (114); he calls her "Pox" (115).

  15. Lord and Lady Kix make no more sense as a couple than Tim and the Welsh Gentlewoman do when they attempt to converse at Latin and Welsh crosscurrents. To Tim's Latin fertur and abundundis, the Welsh Gentlewoman responds: "He mocks me sure, and calls me a bundle of farts" (4.1.118). Tim, of course, thinks that she might be speaking Latin at a level above him. In Middleton's comedy, communications are as twisted as personal motivation, social possibility, class contingency, and situational reversal. A knight named "Whorehound" is a trusty benefactor. The Yellowhammers of Cheapside have Oxfordshire relatives easily impersonated by an inner-city pimp. Sims the porter from Cambridge cleverly translates Latin for fun and profit. The Thames watermen--not known for sensitive perceptions--collectively accuse Mrs. Yellowhammer of being a bad mother. At news of his wife's pregnancy by another man Kix declares in ludicrous triumph: "I am a man for ever" (5.3.1). Nothing herein makes sense.

  16. Within Middleton's unremittingly ironic perspective, Lord Kix has been a success all along. Forget social precedence. Marketplace power, material wealth, and individual prerogative circumscribe a newly emergent reality within London and within Middleton's city comedy. Yet Leinwand sees Kix as a self-admitted failure, declaring, "Sir Oliver Kix is impotent. He represents the total dissolution of the gentry (no progeny) as he sheepishly offers to `make good deeds my children'" (133-34). He further observes: "By settling for `the erecting of bridewells and spittlehouses' (2.1.[146]), Sir Oliver admits his failure." (135). Perhaps. But only momentarily and within a surprisingly enlightened vision of contemporary social service. Besides, in Middleton's comedy the momentary represents everything--even social possibility. In a sense, Kix takes his wife at her word when she challenges him: "Give me but those good deeds, and I'll find children" (2.1.149). Her ensuing success in getting pregnant by Touchwood ensures Kix's ironic success as a noble, an individual, and a man.

  17. Women characters within Middleton's drama, however, convey the most in terms of normative significance and possibility. In her article titled "Consuming Mothers/Consuming Merchants: The Carnivalesque Economy of Jacobean City Comedy," Shannon Miller observes the power of maternal imagery: "with representatives from the gentry, middle, and lower classes, the play demonstrates the ubiquity of the producing woman" (81). Indeed situationally cross-class possibilities in the comedy are signalled by the separate birthing experiences of the Country Wench, Mrs. Allwit, and Lady Kix. But childbirth represents problematic wealth throughout, wealth literally and figuratively and beyond the tally sheet of material expense or family genealogy. In childbirth, as in everything else, Middleton excises the morality to foreground production.

  18. And yet Miller declares: "At the play's close, Lady Kix's `blossoming' belly reminds the audience that her virtue is no longer intact" (82). But it never was. Nobody's virtue ever is. In Middleton's comedy, virtue is strictly situational and contingent. Lady Kix has doubtless had previous pregnancies as she herself declares in her own defence: "I barren! / 'Twas otherways with me when I was at court" (3.3.55-56). Otherwise full of reproductive morality, Yellowhammer himself has another son mentioned only in a moment of sentimental rationalization:

    I have kept a whore myself, and had a bastard,
    By Mistress Anne in Anno-
    I care not who knows it; he's now a jolly fellow,
    H'as been twice warden, so may his fruit be,
    They were but base begot, and so was he, (4.1.272-76)

    This, at the same time as he arranges his daughter's enforced marriage with Sir Walter Whorehound. Throughout, Yellowhammer is central to Middleton's manipulations of comic deception rather than romantic recognitions of hope. In fact, Middleton's comedy examines behaviours with an amoral sense of big-city reportage. Incidents that would have enraged the morality of satirists such as Ben Jonson or John Marston are, for Middleton, a matter of current events. In her essay on Middleton titled "Against Moralizing Jacobean Comedy," Joanne Altieri recognizes the comic art of A Chaste Maid as "naturalistic, low-keyed, completely unexaggerated in its representation of what is, after all, a most exaggerated situation" (184).

  19. How exaggerated? one might well ask. Betrothed--even sexually active already--Moll Yellowhammer and her boyfriend Touchwood Jr fake simultaneous deaths to choreograph an outrageous final deception involving the reversal of Moll and Touchwood rising from their coffins to turn their burial sheets into wedding sheets. In a horizontal rationalization worthy of Kix or Allwit, Yellowhammer expresses thrift-conscious relief that one feast will suffice for funeral and marriage. In Middleton's comedy, marriage is not romantically realized; it is as contrived as playing dead or of making a whore "honest" through logic or matrimony. Throughout, Middleton grasps and theatricalizes the exaggerated emotionality of teenage love in constant dialogue with adult rationalizations, idiotic interventions, and family business practices. The deeply regenerative folk humour observed by Bakhtin gives way to ironic interactions of materialist one-upmanship.

  20. Whether or not Middleton read Aristophanes, he is rightly considered by Altieri to be an Aristophanic comedian. His detached irony disallows emotional reaction masked as gender consideration, as in Hotz-Davies or Paster, or formalist relief, as in Rowe's conclusion: "As enjoyable as his play may appear, Middleton ensures that we cannot accept the game of comedy that it portrays" (149). Middleton, however, "ensures" nothing, especially not the relentlessly Christian interpretations of Herbert Jack Heller, as argued in his recent book with the picturesque title Penitent Brothellers. To conclude that: "The grossness of A Chaste Maid is revealed from a Christian perspective, one which also suggests the value of repentance, regardless of Sir Walter's imprisonment" (Heller 47) is to operate in an irony-free zone. Middleton's Christianity is doubtless operative at some level in his drama, but in city comedy he is a playwright first. His meanings assert themselves as utterly theatrical, carnivalesque and comic, with an irreverently ironic grasp of alterity and self-delusion. Slights observes the effect shrewdly as a Jacobean comic countergenre: "A new and persistent note had been struck in plays such as Middleton's A Chaste Maid, in which fertility is as much a curse as a blessing and the comic society exists in fragments as remote and often uninviting as Wales, Cambridge, and the stews of London" (89-90).

  21. How uninviting? Forget about the puny misdemeanours of your neighbour. Big-city London contains at best unusual behaviour, at worst perversions unimaginable, wherein a character such as Allwit represents a moral black hole. To him, pimping, extortion, and confidence exploitation of all kinds is reconfigured in altruistic terms. Throughout, Allwit thinks that he is providing a service for others as well as, of course, for himself. His particular carnival is as out of control as urban sprawl, as grotesque as the emotional contortions of human interaction, and as reversed as the accusation that he has been actually sleeping with his wife! He re-inflects indignation throughout, but the audience must never forget who is speaking as Allwit summarily declares, "What cares colon here for Lent?" (2.2.86). Anything goes--especially the nonpermissible. In Middleton's comic world, such a position--at once self-interested and all-purpose--could be declared of anything.

  22. As the great comic actress Doris Day once said, in a moment of bittersweet self-reflection (and I quote her from her "A & E" biography special): "I don't know if there's a heaven. I guess this is heaven. Where everything is going right is heaven. Isn't it?" Middleton's dramatic world is more truthful. In this world, characters do not look up to heaven. Instead, they look around at each other. The rich get richer, the poor get children, a loathed relative gets disinherited, and a part-time pimp even learns to love (as well as reinvest) his wife. Everything within the comical urban grotesque of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside goes "right"--but only because it's wrong to begin with.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)