Commodity Fetishism in Richard Brome’s A Mad Couple Well Matched and its Sources

Bradley D. Ryner
Arizona State University

Ryner, Bradley D . "Commodity Fetishism in Richard Brome’s A Mad Couple Well Matched and its Sources". Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 4.1-26<URL:>.

Winner of the 2008 Literature Online Prize



  1. Until now, no one has identified the non-dramatic source of Richard Brome’s A Mad Couple Well Matched (1639).[1]  The central proposition of this paper is that Brome adapted the play’s “follow the money” plot—in which Lady Thrivewell recovers the £100 that Alicia Saleware charged her husband for sex—from a narrative tradition that J. W. Spargo has termed the “lover’s gift regained” story.  In such narratives, according to Spargo, “a lady’s favors can be won only through a gift, which the lover regains from her through a trick” (27).  Peter Nicholson adds to this definition the fact that the lover often “exploit[s] the presence of [the woman’s] husband or another figure in order to have his gift returned” (207).  A succinct example of this tradition is the short poem titled “Versus de Mola Piperis” [“Verses on the Pepper-mill”], which survives in a thirteenth-century English manuscript containing Latin verses “based on vernacular tales, proverbs, and similar forms” (Benson and Andersson 281).  Larry Benson and Theodore Andersson provide the following translation:
    A clerk seduced the wife of a nobleman for the price of his cloak,
    And secretly carried away her pepper-mill.
    The next day he returned, bringing back the pepper-mill, and in the husband’s presence
    He said, “Give me back my cloak; I bring back your pepper-mill.”
    “Give it to him,” the husband said; the wife answered, “I will
    Give it to him, but he will not grind again in our pepper-mill.”  (280-1)
    Variations on the “lover’s gift regained” story were transmitted orally throughout early modern Europe, and the narrative survives in Italian, French, German, and English texts.

  2. We cannot say for certain how many versions of the narrative Richard Brome knew.  What is evident, though, is that Brome’s A Mad Couple Well Matched revises several of the narrative’s key features.  Brome’s most noticeable innovation was to make the lover’s wife, rather than the lover himself, the one who recovers the price of the sexual encounter.  In most traditional versions of the narrative, an apparently licit transaction authorized by the male characters supersedes an illicit arrangement between a male and a female character.  In the “Verses on the Pepper-mill,” for example, the cloak’s actual function as currency to pay for the noblewoman’s sexual favors is superseded by its fictitious function as collateral to ensure the safe return of the pepper-mill.  Because the wife cannot provide a similarly legitimate-sounding account of how she received the cloak, she loses out on the profit she expected to make by prostituting herself.  In what follows, I examine the ways in which Brome’s reworking of this narrative calls into question the boundary between legitimate business arrangements and scandalous sexual arrangements.  I begin by looking at the ways in which this boundary is formulated in early versions of the story by Giovanni Boccaccio, Giovanni Sercambi, and Geoffrey Chaucer.  I then turn to Brome’s A Mad Couple Well Matched, which, I argue, represents the distinction between financial and sexual transactions as completely meaningless in a desire-driven consumer culture.

    Reprisal and Taille

  3. The first story of the eighth day in Boccaccio’s Decameron (c. 1353) is fundamentally similar to the “Verses Concerning the Pepper-mill,” as the brief plot summary that precedes the story demonstrates:

    Gulfardo [a German soldier] borrows from Guasparruolo [a Milanese merchant] a sum of money equivalent to the amount he has agreed to pay the latter’s wife [Ambruogia] in return for letting him sleep with her.  He gives her the money, but later tells Guasparruolo, in her presence, that he has handed it back to his wife, and she has to admit it.  (587) [2])

    Nicholson’s nearly exhaustive examination of the “lover’s gift regained” tradition has demonstrated that Boccaccio’s major innovation was to make his characters members of the “mercantile bourgeois,” who trade in money rather than the “miscellaneous objects of barter,” such as the pepper-mill, common in earlier versions of the narrative (217).  Because the money-form, in Marx’s words, is a socially agreed upon “universal equivalent” that allows all other commodities “to represent their values as magnitudes of the same denomination” (188), it operates equally well in Gulfardo’s above-the-boards dealings with Guasparruollo and in his under-the-covers dealings with Guasparruollo’s wife.  The presence of money in the narrative provides a means of implicating the husband directly in the exchange between his wife and her lover without forcing Boccaccio to worry about selecting a commodity that the merchant would be likely to lend Gulfardo and that Ambruogia would also desire.  To this extent, Nicholson is correct in arguing that “commerce and sex” are “closely allied” in the Decameron (218).  Despite this close allegiance, however, the narrative depends on a sharp differentiation between the legitimate business transaction between Gulfardo and Guasparruollo and the illicit transaction between Gulfardo and Ambruogia.

  4. The gendered component of this differentiation is stressed by the story’s narrator, Neifile.  Whereas the stories of the seventh day concerned “the tricks… women have played upon their husbands,” the eighth day is devoted to stories of “the tricks that people in general, men and women alike, are forever playing upon one another” (521, 587).  Neifile begins by clearly announcing that her audience is meant to side with the male character in the story:  “I should like to tell you of [a trick] which was played by a man upon a woman, my intention being, not to censure the man for what he did or to claim that the woman was misused, but on the contrary to commend the man and censure the woman” (587-8).  She views Ambruogia’s willingness to “[stray] from the path of virtue for monetary gain” as unforgivable and argues that Gulfardo’s actions “should not be termed deception [beffa], but rather a reprisal [merito]” (588).  Neifile’s distinction between “deception” and “reprisal” suggests that her narrative will show the triumph of equitable exchange over deceit.

  5. True to her word, she delivers a tale in which the characters are paid precisely what their objects of exchange and actions are worth.  Gulfardo is genuinely in love with Ambruogia, and he petitions her “to grant him the sweet reward of his devotion,” promising that he is “prepared to do whatever she might ask of him” (588).  Ambruogia, however, does not return the sincere love proffered to her in kind.  Instead, she proposes a commercial arrangement, telling Gulfardo “that since he was well off and she wanted to buy something for herself, he was to give her two hundred gold florins, and then she would always be at his service” (588).  Disillusioned, Gulfardo sets out to punish Ambruogia for her “rapacity” and “lack of decorum” (589).  Because Ambruogia saw the opportunity for an illicit business transaction in Gulfardo’s vows of love, it is fitting that his revenge depends on making Ambruogia misconstrue a legitimate business transaction for an illicit one.  Shortly before Ambruogia’s husband leaves for Genoa on business, Gulfardo borrows the two hundred gold florins from him, agreeing to pay the customary interest.  However, before any interest can accrue on the debt, Gulfardo returns the money to Ambruogia.  In front of a witness, he proclaims, “Here, take this money, my lady, and give it to your husband when he returns” (589).  Ambruogia, who believes that Gulfardo is trying to disguise the fact that “he was giving [the money] to her by way of payment” accepts it and places “her person freely at his disposal” (589-90).  Only upon Guasparruolo’s return, does she discover that Gulfardo legitimately owed the money to her husband and that she has effectively given her body to Gulfardo “free of charge” (590).  Ultimately Ambruogia’s mistaking of Gulfardo’s noble love for ignoble lust is punished as a result of her mistaking a licit commercial transaction between Gulfardo and her husband for an illicit transaction between Gulfardo and herself.  In this way, the logic of “reprisal” works to exculpate Gulfardo, who has returned Guasparruolo’s money to him and given his wife no more than her just comeuppance.  In order to view the ending as just, we must do precisely what Ambruogia has failed to do—separate business from sex.   

  6. Likewise, the wife in Giovanni Sercambi’s novella, Of Avarice and Lust, is rebuked for not recognizing the difference between sex and business.  Sercambi’s tale is very similar to Boccaccio’s.[3]  In it, a German soldier named Bernardo borrows 200 florins from an Italian merchant named Pircosso and uses the money to purchase an evening of sexual favors from Pircosso’s wife, Sofia.  Bernardo then tells Pircosso that he has given the money to Sofia to cancel his debt.  When Bernardo arrives to inform Pircosso that he repaid the money to Sofia, he brings with him a gift:  a tench (a carp-like fish) and several large eels.  Presenting the sexually suggestive gift, he says:
    You know that you lent me two hundred florins when you departed, for a certain transaction of mine, and I, not being able to spend them, brought them to lady Sofia, your wife, as you told me, in the presence of this servant of mine; and since this was a great service to me, although I did not spend them, I want you and Lady Sofia to accept these eels and this tench and enjoy them for my sake, not because of the service but for our friendship. (Benson and Andersson 317)
    By contrasting objects given as compensation for “service” [servizio] with objects given out of “friendship” [domestichezza], Bernardo distinguishes the domain of economic obligations from the domain of emotional obligations, to which sex ought to belong.  He thus mocks Sofia’s belief that she had successfully moved sex from the latter to the former domain by making it a vendible service.  In actuality, the only “service” that has legitimately been sold at the end of the story is short-term money lending.  Bernardo makes this clear by subsequently repeating that Pircosso did him “a great service [servizo]” for which he “will always be obliged” (Benson and Andersson 317).  Sofia attempts a coded assertion of the validity of her arrangement with Bernardo by replying, “Dear me, don’t be obligated thus; you know that I am Pircosso’s wife and therefore you should be obliged to me as well as to him” (Benson and Andersson 317).  However, Bernardo denies being under any obligation to Sofia by virtue of her gender.  He says, “Lady, in our regions the husbands wear the trousers and reverence is owed to them, and I wish to observe the law of my country; and therefore I will always be obliged to Pircosso and not to you for the borrowed money” (Benson and Andersson 319).  In this way, the licit agreement between the male characters explicitly supersedes and voids the illicit agreement between Sofia and Bernardo.  As in the Decameron, the female character is punished for commodifying sex by having her control over that commodity alienated from her.

  7. These clear distinctions between sex and business and between the licit and the illicit are blurred in Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale.[4]  In this tale, a merchant of Saint Denis regularly invites a monk to revel at his house.  When the monk discovers that the merchant’s wife owes 100 francs for clothing that she has purchased, he agrees to pay her the same amount for sex.  As in other versions of the story, he borrows the money from her merchant husband and subsequently tells the husband that he has repaid the loan to the wife.  The wife’s response upon being confronted by her husband, however, is unique to Chaucer.  She claims to have thought that the monk gave the money in recompense for “for beele cheere [good cheer] / That he hath had ful ofte tymes here” (409-500), which is ironically true.  She then tells her husband that she has already spent the money on clothes, but promises that if he will “score it upon [her] taille” (with a pun on tally and tail), she will pay him back “abedde” (416, 424).  Whereas Sercambi’s and Boccaccio’s tales insist on the rightness of separating the commercial sphere from the sexual sphere by punishing the female characters who try to conflate the two, Chaucer’s tale ends with the wife successfully defining her sexuality as a marketable commodity.

  8. Before addressing the moral implications of Chaucer’s conflation of sex and money, I would like to focus attention on what the tale discloses about Chaucer’s understanding of the nature of commodities.[5]  John Ganim notes that “it is difficult to avoid the temptation to read the tale as an allegory of creative bookkeeping” (298).  However, as R. H. Parker demonstrates—using the parlance of modern accounting—everyone’s books seem to be in order:
    The merchant has purchased services from his wife for cash; the monk has received the same services as a donation; the dressmaker has made a credit sale and received the cash therefore; and, most interesting of all, the wife has effectively ‘sold’ her services twice, once in return for clothes (a fixed, but depreciating asset) and once in the form of a donation.  (103-104).
    All of the characters’ books balance in the end not because of “creative bookkeeping,” but because of the unique nature of sex as a commodity.  The wife can sell herself twice, under different circumstances, to two different men.  In her agreement with the monk, her body is given a cash value.  The monk concludes this agreement by saying, “I wol brynge yow an hundred frankes.” / And with that word he caughte hire by the flankes” (198-202).  Just as this pun converts the wife’s “flanks” into “francs,” the pun on “tail” and “tally” that concludes her agreement with her husband converts her body into credit.[6]  Upon being given a value, her body is metaphorically transformed into currency before dissolving into the abstraction of credit.  Helen Fulton, who makes convincing connections between the tale’s sexual transactions and the practice of selling money via bills of exchange that was coming into use in England at the time Chaucer was writing, argues that “the plot of the Shipman’s Tale rests on a commercialism which is so over-determined that it becomes humorous—the buying and selling of goods leads to the buying and selling of money, from where it seems a small step to the buying and selling of anything at all, including wives, friends, and sexual favours” (318-319).  I would argue that whereas Boccaccio’s major innovation was to bring money into play in the narrative, Chaucer’s innovation was to make the transformability of one commodity into another (a process that is central to monetary economies) central to his narrative.  Especially when compared to its predecessors, the ease with which the wife’s body is transformed into a vendible commodity is shocking in the Shipman’s Tale.

  9. The shocking interchangeability of people, commodities, sex, and money, is also at the heart of Marx’s critique of capitalism.  When describing the act of bringing commodities to market, Marx juxtaposes two seemingly contradictory sentences:  “Commodities are things, and therefore lack the power to resist man.  If they are unwilling, he can use force; in other words, he can take possession of them” (178).  If commodities really are just things, how can they be “unwilling”?  Marx gives us the answer in a characteristically coy footnote following the second sentence:
    In the twelfth century, so renowned for its piety, very delicate things often appear among these commodities.  Thus a French poet [Guillot de Paris] of the period enumerates among the commodities to be found in the fair of Lendit, alongside clothing, shoes, leather, implements of cultivation, skins, etc., also ‘femmes folles de leur corps’ [‘wanton women’].  (178 n. 1)
    In the marketplace, everything—including people who lack the power to resist market forces—has a price.  In this account, as in Boccaccio’s and Sercambi’s stories, the act of commodifying sex results in losing agency, “lack[ing] the power to resist man.”  Anything that lacks power to resist becomes interchangeable with everything else—clothing, tools, and sex can be transformed into any other commodity by the people who possess them.

  10. Marx terms the celebration of such transformability “the fetishism of the commodity” (163).  Peter Stallybrass wryly observes that the concept of “commodity fetishism” is one of Marx’s “least-understood jokes” because it “reverse[s] the whole history of fetishism,” shifting opprobrium from the veneration of objects to the veneration of abstract value (184).  Marx does not accuse members of the capitalist economy of fetishizing individual commodities (material things), but of fetishizing the commodity-form (the notion of exchangeability itself).  According to Marx, the true origin of the values of commodities, which derive from “the social characteristics of men’s own labour,” is occluded in such a way as to make it appear that their values are “objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves” (Marx 164-165).  We fail to recognize in a commodity the “congealed labour-time” of its creators; instead, we see only its possible transformation into other commodities (Marx 130).  The owners of commodities “can only bring their commodities into relation as values, and therefore as commodities, by bringing them into an opposing relation with some one other commodity, which serves as the universal equivalent” (Marx 180).  This universal equivalent, of course, is money.  Once money has occluded specific commodities (which, themselves, occlude the labor that went into their production) anything seems to become magically convertible into anything else:
    Since money does not reveal what has been transformed into it, everything, commodity or not, is convertible into money.  Everything becomes saleable and purchaseable.  Circulation becomes the great social retort into which everything is thrown, to come out again as the money crystal.  Nothing is immune from this alchemy, the bones of the saints cannot withstand it, let alone more delicate res sacrosanctae, extra commercium hominum.  (Marx 229)
    To clarify what he had in mind by the res sacrosanctae, extra commercium hominum [consecrated objects, beyond human commerce], Marx tells us in a footnote:
    With the Phoenicians, a trading people par excellence, money was the transmuted shape of everything.  It was, therefore, quite in order that the virgins who at the feast of the goddess of love gave themselves to strangers should offer to the goddess the piece of money they received in payment.  (229, n. 41)
    We should, of course, be skeptical of Marx’s armchair-anthropologist reading of ancient Phoenician ceremonies, but the historical veracity of this narrative is less important than the ends to which Marx puts it.  The story is a parable of the capitalist economy, in which even things that should remain personal, singular, irreducible—sex and religion—are made into exchangeable commodities.  In this way, Marx’s exploration of “commodities and money” in Part I of Capital, like Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale before it, is designed to produce shock at the ease with which commerce erodes the distinctions between sex, money, and commodities.

    The Price of Lust

  11. The interchangeability of sex, money, and commodities that is produced as a scandalous revelation in Chaucer’s and Marx’s texts is largely treated as de rigueur in Brome’s A Mad Couple Well Matched.  When the perceptive Lady Thrivewell convinces her husband to come clean about his illicit relationship with Alicia Saleware, he does so reluctantly at first.  He seems genuine in his claim that the “hid knowledge” of the “deadly injury” he has done wife “feed[s] upon [his] Heart and Liver;” nonetheless, his unwillingness to reveal his infidelity stems from his certainty that his offence is so unforgivable that it cannot help but move his wife to take “just revenge” on him (15).  Eventually, Lady Thrivewell cuts short her husband’s tormented explanation of his crisis of conscience with the curt imperative:  “Leave these perambulations; to the point: / You have unlawfully lyen with some woman” (16).  After he has admitted this fact, she mocks his solemnity:
    Ha, ha, ha.  Here’s a busi[n]esse!
    Would somebody heard you faith: nay of five hundered
    That now might overheare us (I meane not only
    Gallants, but grave substantiall Gentlemen)
    Could be pick’d out a twelve good men and true,
    To finde you guilty, I would then condemne you,
    But such a Jury must be pannell’d first.  (16)
    Claiming that adultery is a universal vice, Lady Thrivewell only becomes outraged when she learns that her husband has been grotesquely overcharged for indulging in this vice.  “[A] hundred pound a time?” she exclaims incredulously, “How rich would Citizens be, if their wives were all so paid, and how poore the Court and Country!” (17).  Lady Thrivewell’s point of view is perfectly in keeping with the play’s other characters, all of whom view sex primarily through an economic lens and secondarily, if at all, through a moral lens.

  12. In the course of recounting the terms on which Alicia Saleware consented to have sex with Thrivewell, he and his wife make reference to nearly every possible permutation of the traditional “lover’s gift regained” story.  Although one cannot say with any certainty how many “lover’s gift regained” stories Brome was familiar with, the knowledge of the genre that he demonstrates in complicating its traditional features suggests that he knew not only Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale but other versions as well, either from literary or oral sources.  Lady Thrivewell conjectures that Mistress Saleware might have wanted Thrivewell to “send her husband Venison,” an exchange of “flesh for flesh” that would have been perfectly at home in pre-Boccaccio tellings of the story, which feature the barter of goods rather than the exchange of money.  Additionally, she suggests that Alicia Saleware may have wanted Thrivewell to “bring good custome to her shop,” a narrative possibility that—to the best of my knowledge—is not realized in any extant version of the tale, though it is similar to the arrangement the Salewares desire with Lord Lovely later in the play.  As it turns out, Mistress Saleware was tempted neither by meat nor by the possibility of increased foot traffic to her husband’s shop.  Instead, she sold herself for 100 pounds, an amount that Brome seems likely to have borrowed from Chaucer’s version, in which the merchant’s wife charges 100 francs for her services.  Thrivewell, we learn, misunderstood the terms of his agreement with Alicia Saleware:  “having paid so great a fine, and Tane possesion,” he “thought after to deale Rent-free” (17).  Such an agreement is not unprecedented in the history of the story.  In The Decameron, Ambruogia promises to “always be at [Gulfardo’s] service” for a one-time fee of 200 gold florins (588).  For 100 francs, Chaucer’s monk receives sexual favors for the duration of the merchant of Saint Denis’s trip to Bruges.  Although Sercambi’s Bernardo, who feels cheated by the high price, only gets one night with Sofia for 200 florins, he is allowed to “joust” with her “both early and late” so that by mourning he has “struck more than six blows with his lance” (317).  Compared to his predecessors, Thrivewell gets by far the worst deal.  When he petitions Alicia Saleware for a second sexual encounter, he learns that she expects him to “make it a new purchase at the same former rate, and so for all times after” (17).  When Lady Thrivewell learns that her husband hoped to “deale Rent-free” after paying the initial £100, she jokes that he might have been charged “A pepper-corne a quarter, if shee be Pepper-proofe” (17).  The joke here involves multiple puns on “peppercorn rent,” a conventional term for a “nominal rent” (OED adj., C2), and “pepper-proof,” meaning either “not easily offended” or “able to resist being attacked” (OED “Pepper” n., C2).  As “pepper” was a slang term for sex in the period, Lady Thrivewell may be suggesting that, if Alicia Saleware does not have delicate sensibilities, she could be paid in sex every quarter (OED v., 5b).  Alternatively, she may be suggesting that Alicia Saleware should only charge a nominal rent if she is resistant to sex.  It is also possible to understand “pepper” as slang for “infect[ing] with venereal disease,” in which case Lady Thrivewell is suggesting that, if Alicia Saleware is disease free, her husband could infect her every quarter (OED v., 5a).  It is impossible to limit the joke to one primary meaning in part because its inclusion is so gratuitous, even for Brome, who often goes out of his way to make an obscene pun.  Perhaps the joke is a sly homage to the puns on “pepper” that suggest themselves in the popular version of the story preserved in the “Verses on the Pepper-mill.”

  13. Brome’s playful exploration of possible variations within the “lover’s gift regained” paradigm continues when Lady Thrivewell confronts Alicia Saleware.  Brome’s most obvious innovation was to stage the commercial exchange between two female characters while receding the role of the male character—precisely the inverse of the story’s traditional gender dynamic.  Rachel Poulsen, who has examined the strongly homoerotic nature of this dynamic, draws attention to the ways in which the play eroticizes the fungibility of commodities and, thereby, identity.  She argues:
    If objects are granted the power to create and define erotic identity, as they are in city comedy, then the greatest aphrodisiac of all is the power of the object in its most abstract form:  cash.  In the play, female homoeroticism is simply another example, extreme for being previously untapped, of the ways people exploit one another for economic advantage.  Money tropes sex, just as sex tropes money.  (30)
    This statement perfectly describes those elements of A Mad Couple Well Matched that follow Chaucer in emphasizing the convertibility of cash, goods and sex into one another.  However, it is also important to note the elements of the narrative that Brome adds to problematize this convertibility.

  14. The first impediment to a seamless conversion is the problem of determining the fair value of a commodity.  Early modern men and women negotiated this problem through a process of bargaining every time they went shopping—which, according to recent scholarship, they did quite frequently.  Craig Muldrew suggests that the “consumer revolution” regularly acknowledged by historians as inaugurating the long eighteenth century (c. 1680-1800) truly began around 1550.[7]  Linda Levy Peck has thoroughly documented the extraordinary rise in luxury consumption among the most well-to-do members of seventeenth-century English society and has suggested that the “cultural mentalities and political strategies that supported luxury consumption” produced the desire to consume in all members of society (2).[8]  According to Peck, bargaining “was a skill important enough to be taught,” and “[t]he commodity that emerged from these negotiations depended on availability, fashion, and information provided by agents and merchants, who claimed superior knowledge” (27).

  15. Brome stages the complexities of such negotiations when Lady Thrivewell goes to Alicia Saleware’s shop, determined to return with commodities equal in value to the £100 her husband has spent.  After Lady Thrivewell has settled on a selection of fabrics, Mistress Saleware vouches for their quality:  “All Cheape-side, and Lombard-streete, Madam, could not have furnish’d you with a more compleat bargaine, you will find it in the wearing, and thanke me both for the goodnesse of the stuffe, and of the Manufacture” (19).  However, the price Lady Thrivewell will pay depends not only on the quality of the fabric, but also on who she is and how she intends to pay.  She indicates her intent to pay the lowest possible price for the goods based on the fact that she will pay “ready-money” and, therefore, should not be charged the same amount as “an under-ag’d heir or a Court-Cavalier,” who may never make good on his promise to pay (19-20).  Even with this discount, she argues that “five [shillings] and ten pence an Ounce” for gold lace “is deare” (20).  In defense of the price, Alicia Saleware claims that the lace would normally not be available at all “within London walls,” were it not for the fact that it “was bespoken, and agreed for at six shillings the Ounce by a very great person” who was ultimately unable to produce the ready money to purchase it.  Mistress Saleware’s strategy here is to get Lady Thrivewell to accept the price by emphasizing not only the commodity’s scarcity, but also its fashionability, evidenced by the willingness of “a very great person” (later identified as Lord Paylate) to pay even more for it than Lady Thrivewell is willing to give.  Ultimately, Lady Thrivewell agrees to pay “an hundred pound eight shillings four pence, halfpenny” (20).

  16. The preciseness of this sum—calculated to the halfpenny by Lady Thrivewell, who makes Alicia Saleware promise to refund the difference if it turns out she has made a mistake in the math—stands in comic contrast to the highly subjective negotiations by which we have seen the unit price of the fabric itself was determined.  Before paying, Lady Thrivewell calls for the store’s “Gold-weights,” reassuring Mistress Saleware that she knows a good shopkeeper will “take no Gold but what is weight” (20).  By including this detail, Brome reminds us that, even once a price has been agreed upon, a shopkeeper’s profit margin could still grow or shrink depending on the metal content of the coins used to pay for the items.  The value of coins, like the value of the other goods in the shop, is subject to negotiation, and a coin only becomes current once the parties involved in the exchange reach a consensus about its value.  The comic payoff in the scene, of course, comes once Lady Thrivewell, having scrupulously weighed 8 s. 4 ½ d. worth of coins, tells Mistress Saleware that her husband has already paid the remaining £100.

  17. If the pains Lady Thrivewell took to calculate the price of her commodities to the halfpenny seemed humorously absurd given the willingness of both parties to haggle over the unit price before these calculations were made, her refusal to take more than £100 in goods seems even more so.  On the surface, this transaction seems to confirm that sex has a quantifiable, fair market value.  Adultery cost Sir Thirvewell £100; therefore, his wife cannot justly demand a halfpenny more.  At the same time, though, the audience is shown the subjective process of negotiation by with such apparently objective values come into being.  To gain the commodities, Lady Thrivewell must craft a narrative to which Alicia Saleware will agree.  Therefore, she claims that her husband did Mistress Saleware a “good turne” by loaning her £100 in ready money and agreeing to be repaid “in wares” (22).  Furthermore, she suggests that she will accuse Mistress Saleware of receiving “another kind of good turne” from Thrivewell if she disputes the debt, whereupon Mistress Saleware acquiesces to the fiction (22).  The two women establish the price of adulterous sex in the same way that they established the price of the fabric:  by mutually endorsing a narrative of value.  In each case, the narrative purports to disclose true, objective value, but it actually discloses the willingness of the two parties to agree to a certain price and to uphold the fiction that this price is set by the material qualities of the object bought and sold, rather than the subjective desires of the buyer and seller.

  18. In an effort to balance the books (both literally and metaphorically), Alicia Saleware crafts two subsequent fictions.  She tells her husband that she received “a hundred pounds, and somewhat more” for the commodities she sold Lady Thrivewell, but she has “dispos’d of the money… for apparrell… and other accommodations for myself” (29, 30).  This lie reverses Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale, in which the wife of the merchant of Saint Denis actually did sell sex in order to purchase clothes.  Here, Mistress Saleware claims to have purchased clothes, but she has actually been duped into paying for the sex she intended to sell.  The double entendre both in the claim that the money has purchased “accommodations” for her and in her husband’s disappointment that the money he had hoped would “stop a gap” in his finances “has stopt a gap already” prompts us to read the commodities Mistress Saleware has lost as payment for sex (30).[9]  As in the Shipman’s Tale, sex is differentiated from other commodities by the fact that it can be sold twice over.  In A Mad Couple Well Matched, the very same sex act is paid for twice:  once by Thrivewell, who pays Mistress Saleware £100 in ready money for pleasure, and once by Mistress Saleware herself, who pays Lady Thrivewell £100 in commodities for the adulterous use of her husband.  Her lie about purchasing clothes helps to keep the true nature of this transaction secret from her husband, but she is not content with breaking even financially—she wishes to make herself morally even with Lady Thrivewell, as well.  Her scheme to do so requires another lie.

  19. This lie is told to Lord Lovely’s page, Bellamy, who is ostensibly trying to procure Alicia Saleware’s sexual services both for his master and for himself.  Having observed Lady Thrivewell scrutinizing Bellamy as they passed in the shop, Mistress Saleware tells Bellamy that she has agreed to be Lady Thrivewell’s “Pandaresse” and offers herself to Bellamy, provided he will have sex with Lady Thrivewell first (28).  With this lie, Mistress Saleware hopes to get even with Lady Thrivewell.  In return for revealing—however tactfully—that Alicia Saleware is an adulteress, Lady Thrivewell seems to face the threat of becoming one herself.  I say “seems” to face the threat because, as it turns out, Bellamy is actually belle Amy, a woman in disguise, whose actual goal is to prevent her love object, Lord Lovely, from seducing Mistress Saleware.  Alicia Saleware’s lie about Lady Thrivewell’s sexual desire combines with Amy’s lie about her identity to produce subsequent fictions about the circulation of money in the play.  Amy (as Bellamy) regales Mistress Saleware with a fictitious account of sexually satisfying Lady Thrivewell, for which, Amy claims, Lady Thrivewell has gratefully sent Mistress Saleware £100 (57).  Because the audience is not aware of Bellamy’s true identity, they are left unsure whether or not Lady Thrivewell has actually cheated on her husband.

  20. If the play were to follow the trajectory of the non-Chaucer versions of the story, it would end by diverting the money to a positively grounded revenging character, thereby punishing the negatively grounded character who tried to conflate sex and money.  If it were to follow the trajectory of Chaucer’s version, it would end by producing shock at the failure of such punishment to occur.  To a certain degree, Brome’s play does both.  The conclusion gestures towards separating the licit economic world from the illicit sexual world, but also ironically undercuts the effectiveness of the gesture, suggesting an unsettling inability of the characters to disentangle the erotic from the economic.

  21. The series of events that leads to the play’s dénouement is set in motion when Thrivewell finds his wife in a compromising position with his nephew Careless, the prodigal rake of the play.  Careless believes that he has just spent the night with Lady Thrivewell (in fact, he has been the victim of a bed-trick and has merely been with his own whore, Phoebe), and he is in the middle of propositioning her again when Thrivewell enters.  In anguish, Thrivewell exclaims, “O you prodigious monsters / That have betwixt you made me monster too! / What’s to be done, but that I kill you both / Then fall upon my sword[?]” (78-79).  His wife counters by likening his “shame” and “affliction” to what she had to “suffer” when he admitted to having paid Alicia Saleware for sex (79).  She asks, “How was life a torment / To me then thinke you?” (79).  Catherine Shaw singles out this moment as the one time in the play that a character actually learns a moral lesson.  She claims that Thrivewell “come[s] to realize that confession does not mitigate injury, that what is sauce for the gander can be sauce for the goose, and that friendship and trust are as much a part of marriage as are practicability and heir-getting” (88).  Nonetheless, as Shaw argues, the moral wholesomeness of the play’s conclusion is sharply qualified:  “The only admirable character is Lady Thrivewell, and even she is forced to deal with immorality on its own terms and at its own level in order to outwit both Alicia and Careless,” neither of whom seem to “learn a lesson” or “show any signs of reform” (89).  As a result, a feeling of immorality clouds the play’s final scene.  Similarly, Ira Clark is troubled by the degree to which the play undercuts the “deep sympathy” it displays for women dealing with a societal double standard regarding marital infidelity “by rewarding rake Carelesse with a wealthy, willful, wanton widow, by placing Ally Saleware beneath her citizen merchant wittol again, and by granting the whore (with dowry) to Carelesse’s lecherous sly servant” (35).

  22. Matthew Steggle has argued that “Brome does indeed produce an immoral play, which inverts the standards, expectations and conventions of his own previous style” (142).  He reads A Mad Couple Well Matched as a “destructive satire by close imitation” that undermines the apparent moral foundation of early modern comedy.  He explains, “The plot devices that ought to indicate an underlying moral order in comedy, many of which Brome has himself previously used in the service of such a moral order, are subverted one by one” (144).  The play is filled with the “techniques and mechanism by which Renaissance comedy of intrigue achieves its happy and moral endings:  mistaken letters, bed-tricks, cross-dressing, long-lost relatives, and so on,” but “[n]one of these is shown to be remotely effective in changing the position of the characters or the outcome of the action” (148).  To Steggle’s insightful and theatrically well-informed reading, I would add the observation that Brome is not only defeating the generic expectations raised by city comedy but also those raised by the dominant tradition of “lover’s gift regained” narratives, which ultimately separates the economic from the sexual.

  23. In the final scene, the stage is set for the casting up of accounts that should determine the rightful distribution of the £100.  The amount is mentioned first by Mistress Crosstill, a rich widow who is masochistically drawn to the horrible treatment she receives from Careless.  Crosstill offers Phoebe (whom, convention dictates, should end up with Careless) “a brace of hundred pounds” to relinquish her claim on Careless (93).  The appearance of justice and equitable exchange that traditionally culminates other versions of the “lover’s gift regained” depends on a mathematical balance in which the same amount of money paid out in the beginning is recouped in the end.  Brome thwarts this mathematical equality by raising the stakes from the £100 the audience expects to “a brace of” (two times) this amount (£200).  As in Lady Thrivewell’s haggling with Alicia Saleware over the price of commodities, price is shown to be contingent on desire.  Rather than witnessing the triumph of just and equitable rules of exchange, we see the triumph of perverse and irrational desire epitomized by Crosstill’s inexplicable “humour.”

  24. Characteristically of Brome’s play, this desire only finds its fulfillment after a process of economic negotiation.  At first, Phoebe refuses to take the money, but Careless’s servant Wat intervenes, revealing that he, too, has had a sexual relationship with Phoebe and proclaiming that “if her Friends will make her brace of hundreds a leash [£300] i’le marry, and honestifie her”  (93).  At this point, Lady Thrivewell intervenes, offering to pay the additional £100 herself.  She justifies her offer by proclaiming, “[the money] shall be in lieu of the hundred I tooke in Commodity of [Phoebe’s] kinswoman Mistris Saleware, which would never thrive with mee (as it may properly with them) as ’twas the price of lust” (93).  What is most immediately striking about Lady Thrivewell’s gesture is how contrived it is.  An additional £100 is only necessary because of Wat’s greedy angling, and it is not at all clear that he would not have settled for less or that Crosstill or Phoebe’s relatives would have been unable to supply the sum themselves.  The capriciousness of Lady Thrivewell’s offer vitiates the aura of poetic justice normally present at the end of “lover’s gift regained” narratives.  She pays lip service to the genre’s traditional distinction between licit economic transactions and illicit sexual ones by labeling the money “the price of lust,” naturally due to the play’s low character, not to herself.  However, the absurdity of her claim is evident when she asks her husband to consider “how untowardly things have chanc’d” between them since the money has been in her possession and promises that he “shall see how sweetly all will be reconcil’d” (93-94).  In fact, the only challenges to her marriage since she regained the £100 have been those that she herself has staged (by duping Careless with a bed-trick and conspiring with Amy to give the impression that she has had an affair with Bellamy), and these conflicts—along with the other plotlines in need of resolution—are already well on their way to concluding happily by the time Lady Thrivewell makes this speech.

  25. Strictly speaking, the £100 she gives away at the end is not even the same £100 she received from Mistress Saleware.  She dispenses £100 in ready money to Phoebe to facilitate her marriage to Wat.  This £100 is materially different from the £100 worth of commodities that she collected from Mistress Saleware as compensation for Mistress Saleware’s adultery with her husband.  Likewise, this £100 worth of commodities is not identical to the £100 that Thrivewell paid in the first place for the pleasure of Mistress Saleware’s body.  In Lady Thrivewell’s narrative, these three different markers of £100 value appear as a single, unified object (a “price of lust” that has circulated among the characters of the play).  Lady Thrivewell’s final account of the £100 is no more objectively true than Amy’s earlier account of the entirely fictitious £100 that Lady Thrivewell supposedly sent Mistress Saleware for serving as a pander between her and Bellamy.  By extension, the moral propriety that Lady Thrivewell tries to impose upon the final distribution of money is, also, a transparent fiction.

  26. Throughout the play, Brome foregrounds the role that accepting a common narrative plays in establishing value—from Mistress Saleware getting Lady Thrivewell to agree on a fair price for fabric, to Wat getting the other characters to agree on the amount he deserves for “honestifying” Phoebe, to Lady Thrivewell getting her husband to agree to the moral valence of the money she gives to Phoebe.  By having Lady Thrivewell designate the £100 “the price of lust,” Brome may have been glancing nostalgically back at earlier versions of the “lover’s gift regained” narrative that were capable of readily differentiating illicit sexual transactions from licit economic ones.  Like Chaucer before him, though, Brome fails to punish those who make sex into a marketable commodity.  Instead, it is Lady Thrivewell who seems either laughably naïve or cunningly disingenuous in her efforts to measure the play’s transactions by a moral yardstick.  After all, she exists in a world where people and products, sex and services can all be converted into amounts of money—in other words, in a world that fetishizes the empty commodity form.

I would like to thank James Dean for his guidance on what I thought at the time was going to be an essay on subjectivity in Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale and Franklin’s Tale, but which ultimately became part of this article.  I am also grateful for the chance I had to discuss my ideas for this article with members of the 2006-2007 Arizona State University Institute for Humanities Research faculty seminar on “Trading Values,” directed by Juliann Vitullo and Diane Wolfthal, and with members of the “Richard Brome and Caroline Drama” seminar directed by Eleanor Lowe and Lucy Munro at the 2007 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America.  This article benefited greatly from suggestions made by its two anonymous readers.

[1]Spove finds “no obvious literary source for the incidents in A Mad Couple,” but speculates that “like some of Middleton’s realistic comedies, the play probably draws on jest-books, rogue-pamphlets, and anecdotes, as well as real people and events” (v).  Steggle examines the play’s relationship to the genre of comedy as a whole.

[2] The first, second, and tenth stories of the eighth day of the Decameron are all versions of the “lover’s gift regained” narrative.  However, I focus exclusively on 8, 1 because it has the most in common with A Mad Couple Well Matched.

[3] Scholars have long debated the possible relationships between Sercambi’s tale and those by Boccaccio and Chaucer.  Although two eighteenth-century documents suggest that some of Sercambi’s novelle (perhaps including Avarice and Lust) may have been in circulation as early as 1374, the earliest extant collection of Sercambi’s Novelle cannot be dated any earlier than 1400 (Scattergood 569).  My choice to discuss Sercambi between Boccaccio and Chaucer is based on the thematic development of my argument, not the chronological sequence of the texts.

[4] Carol F. Hefernan provides a succinct overview of the, now largely discredited, argument that the Shipman’s Tale was based on a lost French fabliau and argues persuasively for the direct influence of Decameron 8, 1 on the Shipman’s Tale.  See also Nicholson 220-222.

[5] For debates over the moral coloring of Chaucer’s representation of exchange, see Adams, Fulton, Patterson, Schneider, and Silverman.  Rogers and Dower argue that whether one sees the story as celebratory or critical of the market will largely depend on whether one follows Marx in seeing value as ultimately grounded in human labor or whether one follows the Austrian School in seeing value as ultimately subjective.

[6] Dale and Elizabeth Buckmaster have noted that the medieval reader would have associated ‘taille’ and ‘taillynge’ with the “obvious and lewd image” of “the commonly used six-inch or longer tally stick,” and that a more sexually explicit association might be made if one envisioned the “forked tally,” which was cut to grip a companion tally stick (115).

[7] He notes that the market activity of both rich and poor increased as the average person’s lifespan increased because households were able to engage in production and consumption “for a longer period, permitting more opportunity for the accumulation of goods and for the credit of individual households to expand without being interrupted so often by death” (36).

[8] She notes that “[l]uxury commodities circulated throughout society from the merchant who imported them, to the retailer who sold them, the purchaser who bought them, the client who presented them to his patron, and the poor who wore them as second-hand goods” and that “[s]hopping offered agency and sociability to men and women of all incomes” (2, 27).

[9] Cf. similar bawdy puns on “stop that gap” and “accommodated” in Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (I.ii.109) and Shakespeare’s 2 Henry IV (III.ii.61-73) respectively.

Works Cited

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