"O, how my offences wrestle with my repentance!": The Protestant Poetics of Redemption in Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside
Alizon Brunning
University of Central Lancashire

Brunning, Alizon. "O, how my offences wrestle with my repentance!": The Protestant Poetics of Redemption in Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.3 (January, 2003): 4.1-51 <URL:

  1. N.W Bawcutt has provided a body of evidence that refutes Margot Heinemann's assertion of Middleton's Puritan sympathies; however, he concedes that "Middleton undoubtedly had an interest in theology." [1] I do not wish to enter into the debate as to whether Middleton himself was or was not a Puritan sympathiser. The definition of such is beset with problems and much scholarly activity has been expended in defining the term. Gary Taylor suggests that Thomas Middleton's "literary practice and his representation of writers reflect a specifically Protestant poetics…The vocabulary and psychology of his major tragedies is strongly Calvinist." [2] Taylor's term Protestant poetics is more useful for this essay in the sense that it identifies dramatic 'structures of feeling' which may be paralleled with historical theological positions without tying the playwright to any personal doctrinal allegiance. However I would like to argue that it is not only in his tragedies that Middleton presents a Protestant poetics, but also in his comedies, particularly in his most popular comedy, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. Reading this play through a Protestant poetics reveals structural inconsistencies and contradictions which not only satirise an ungodly community, but also form a critique of the comic form itself.

  2. Middleton's comedy, like many city comedies, derives its structural form from many traditions. These include the Roman New Comedy and the native English comedy, which has its roots in the liturgy of the medieval church. The comic pattern of both these forms is two dimensional; it is linear in its movement from crisis and conflict to happy ever after, and dialectic in the interplay between high and low, flesh and spirit, the ideal and the real. Both the adopted structures are idealising forms of wish fulfilment and both involve the transformation of individuals and the renewal of community. On the surface A Chaste Maid appears to be an almost archetypal Christian structure in its employment of an idealising plot which moves through death to resurrection.

  3. The play's temporal location suggests a utilising of an explicitly Christian framework. The period of Lent is a time when both redemptive narrative and the dialectical conflict between flesh and spirit take on added significance. The tension between secular and sacred, between the material and the divine is inherent in the Christian story of Christ's incarnation as man, his bodily death and miraculous resurrection. The triumph of the purity of spirit over the sinful and corrupt body is recognised and celebrated in the sacrament of baptism which marks the rejection of the flesh and the rebirth of the individual made possible by Christ's sacrifice. This sacrament is foregrounded in the play's Christening scene and in the water motif that runs throughout the play. The Eucharist, which, like baptism, takes on an added dimension at Easter, is also invoked through a series of references to transubstantiation and to meat, particularly Lamb, which suggest the agnus dei, the Lamb of God.

  4. However, unlike the more spiritually allegorical genre of romance comedy, the focus of city comedy is on the mundane and the material, A Chaste Maid presents a community which appears to partake in the socially bonding rituals of baptism and marriage, but whose members are shown to be grasping and rapacious and unconcerned with salvation. The citizens are concerned only with material possessions and the carnal pleasure of eating and drinking. The incongruous juxtaposition of sacramental structures and a corrupt society has led to an interpretation of the play as a problematic comedy. George E. Rowe Junior argues that

    The play denies the most important source of meaning in comedy: the traditional association of comic structure with natural and spiritual rebirth. As a result it does not convey truths which seem to have a valid place in the world we inhabit. The play's form has no significance beyond itself. It is contrived and arbitrary...a comedy whose form is belied by its content ...a tissue of patterns and roles- social, linguistic, literary -which no longer have significance. It is a world of games which have no substance. [3]

    Rowe's argument is that the comic form has no value in a society of mercenary individuals who, while they are able to structure their lives through patterns, rituals and role play, are ignorant of the meaning of the spiritual origins of these structures.

  5. Rowe's argument is convincing. Middleton does show a society which operates by the superficial manipulation of signs, and I believe that he does critique the spiritual shallowness of a community in which religion has no meaning beyond the opportunity for celebration or the inconvenience of restraint. However I would disagree that "the play's form has no significance beyond itself." In creating an incongruous and grotesque hybrid of form and content I argue that Middleton is not only critiquing the materialistic society but also attacking the formal structure itself.

  6. In the play the comic form provides a superficial set of patterns and codes which are assumed without thinking. As in many of his plays, Middleton aims to disturb this easy complacency and makes us question the validity of the form, not only because its inherent values are meaningless in a materialistic society, but also because the form itself is meaning-less. This does not imply that it is arbitrary and contrived, as Rowe suggests, but that the liturgical structure points to a discredited form of worship: that of the Roman Catholic church. For in the polemic of many Protestants the fault with Catholic worship was that it was based around ceremonies and rituals which, to its critics, were observed automatically and without thinking.

  7. The presentation of Calvinistic ideas within a comic form which has its origins in the Catholic church creates a set of tensions and contradictions. These unsettle any straightforward readings of the play as one in which the citizens of London fail to live up to religious ideals of a traditional spiritual narrative. For the Calvinist Protestant the linear narrative of salvation and redemption is beset with fear and anxiety in which resolution can only take place after death. Thus the disjunction between Protestant poetics and Christian comedy and the disparity between the material and the spiritual results in a complex and many-layered comedy. These contradictions and inconsistencies will be read in Jonathan Dollimore's terms as "meaning-ful." [4]

  8. In the first part of this paper I will examine the almost self-conscious sacramental pattern of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. I will argue that through the employment of a liturgical structure and religious motifs Middleton criticises not only a community unable to transcend the material world, but also a sacramental system which itself encourages the observance of material signs. For Reformers it was the materiality of the Mass that led to superstition and idolatry and an inability to think beyond the sign to the thing signified. As the Protestant Northbrooke points out:

    Signes when they be applied to Godly things are called sacraments. Reasoning of Signes I say thus: let no man consider in them what they be: but rather that they be signes, that is to saye what they do signifie. In sacraments we see one thing and we understand another thing. The sacraments are the one thing, the thing of the sacraments another thing. In sacraments is to be seene, not what they be, but what they signifie. [5]

    I will argue that Middleton's play forces the audience/reader to read beyond the signs to that which is signified.

  9. In the second part of this paper I will examine the deconstruction of the sacramental structure of redemption by the presentation of an alternative Protestant poetics of conversion. I will argue that, rather than the idealising structure being presented as inappropriate to a corrupt society, the structure itself can be read as unsuitable when read from an alternative paradigm of redemption. The Protestant paradox of salvation makes a straightforward movement towards resolution impossible when, as Barbara Kiefer Lewalski points out, the individual is subject to

    considerable complexity and tension owing to the Protestant sense of the radical imperfection of the elect in this life: the soul in the state of grace still bears the marks (and the metaphorical association of its sinful state); and the Christian life can never be experienced as a steady, straightforward advance towards perfection. [6]

  10. In opposition to this, Middleton presents an alternative Protestant Poetics which shows the process of repentance, conversion and salvation to be a far more complex act. An act which relies not only on the outward observation of ritual ceremony, but also on inward introspection, not on a movement towards resolution, resurrection and redemption but on a painful and disturbing narrative of fear and despair. A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is very funny but its darkest moments come in the mis-recognition of human suffering and with the eliding of conflict by the resolute belief that if everything seems to be alright, then everything is. This paper then is about a play which alerts us to the danger of mis-reading signs, in particular the sacramental signs of salvation.


    The Sacramental Structure of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside

  11. O. B. Hardison has examined the dramatic structure of the Eucharist and its development into the cycle plays of the late medieval period. The Mass, he suggests, compacts the historical story of Christ's life and sacrifice into a ritual, dramatic re-enactment in which the individual can partake.

    The mythic event celebrated is rebirth not death, although it is a rebirth that requires death as its prelude. The experience of the participants is transition from guilt to innocence, from separation to communion. [7]

    The formal pattern involves a linear movement from "tristia to gaudium," from sadness to happiness; in other words it follows a comic structure. Hardison notes a similarity between the English liturgical comic pattern and Gilbert Murray's definition of ritual form which he says consists of six elements:

    An agon (a struggle or contest); a pathos involving suffering (including sparagmos or a 'tearing apart') and death; a messenger who announces the death; a threnos (lament); an anagnorisis and peripety (recognition and reversal); and a theophany (a period of joy occasioned by rebirth). [8]

  12. In the tristia phase of the Christian drama of the Eucharist the dialectic agon is in the conflict of good and evil figured in Christ's struggle with the devil. This leads eventually to the pathos of Christ's suffering, ultimate sacrifice and the sparagmos of the crucifixion which is then followed by a period of lament and mourning. This is followed by anagnorisis, or recognition, and then sudden peripitea, or immediate reversal; after this comes the resurrection which is marked by a sense of theophany - joy in Christ's appearance to his disciples and in his ascension. All these elements are re-enacted by the participants in the communion. According to Hardison, it is not only the structure of the Mass which has importance for dramatic form, but also the celebration of the Mass itself is significant:

    Just as the Mass is a sacred drama encompassing all history and embodying in its structure the central pattern of Christian life on which all Christian drama must draw, the celebration of the mass contains all elements necessary to secular performances. The Mass is the general case for Christian culture, the archetype. Individual dramas are shaped in its mold. [9]

  13. A Chaste Maid incorporates all these major elements of sacramental drama. Following the agonistic battle between Touchwood junior and Sir Walter Whorehound and the subsequent pathos of the young lovers' death comes a threnos or lament for the dead. Here the final act of the play is set in church for the funeral of the two lovers and the stage directions give instruction for the solemnity of the scene calling for doleful music and processions of crying mourners. The scene is brought to a climax with the hero's elder brother Touchwood Senior extolling the virtues of the couple and asking for the audience to respond to his praise. His rhetoric incites the congregation to a high state of excitement in which they all agree that they would have been joyful to witness the marriage of the pair. Thus in a form of anagnorisis they recognise the importance of the love match. The resurrection of the couple from their coffins is a sudden reversal or peripety that completes the move from sadness to joy both within this scene and within the play as a whole. This reversal is followed by the theophany or joy of the congregation and the word joy is repeated again and again in antiphonal response:

    Touchwood Senior: Give you joy brother (V iv 40)
    All: Joy, Joy to you both. (V iv 42)
    Touchwood Junior: My joy wants utterance (V iv 45)
    All: Never was hour so filled with joy and wonder. (V iv 50)

    The shrouds are turned into wedding sheets and the whole occasion is one of communal celebration. The plot moves therefore from tristia to gaudium, a transformation from sorrow to joy.

  14. The play directly maps on to Hardison and Murray's definitions of ritual and appears to have a sacramental structure; it follows an archetypal pattern of death and resurrection, it is set in the period of Lent and it involves the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. Yet the tone of Middleton's play is far from religious and the profane and blasphemous tone is particularly marked in the perversion of these sacraments.

  15. Out of the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic church the Anglican church retained only two: baptism and the Lord's Supper. George E. Rowe Junior has commented extensively on Middleton's presentation of the Lord's supper and baptism and the significance of the Easter setting of A Chaste Maid. Rowe argues that the "total lack of spiritual awareness inevitably leads the characters to mistake the true nature of Lent." [10] The juxtaposition of materialism and spirituality does reveal an unregenerate society blind to the true meaning of the church rituals. However, it is not only the carnality of the citizens which is attacked, but also the idolatrous danger of paying attention only to the material sign.

  16. The catechisms in the book of Common Prayer are to be learned by every adult wishing to take communion giving instructions about the sacraments in a simple question and answer form:

    Question: How many sacraments hath Christ ordained in his church?
    Answer: Two only, as generally necessary to salvation; that is to say Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.
    Question: What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?
    Answer: I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given to us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.
    Question: How many parts are there in a sacrament?
    Answer: Two: The outward visible sign and the inward spiritual grace.

    In A Chaste Maid in Cheapside the citizens are concerned only with the sign and not the thing signified. This focus on the material nature of the sign can be interpreted as ignorance or error, but perhaps more specifically with Roman Catholicism. The doctrine of real presence commingles the sacred, spiritual presence of God with the profane, man-made material elements of bread and wine. This commingling is seen by many reformers as a grotesque reduction to the base material level of human corporeality. The ingestion of the host is the focus of such anxiety, as Sarah Beckwith states:

    The centrepiece of the Catholic sacraments which bound believing Christians together in the body of Christ is seen as a profanation of Christ's body. To ingest it in the form of the host is not to join in the body of Christ but to defile and debase him by a passage through the most inward, the most profanely and profoundly dissolving of the body's mediums...that Christ's body was materially present in the blood and in the wine -rendered it abject, an object less of adoration than of debasement...Incorporation into Christ's body effected by means of incorporation of it in the act of swallowing the host, is seen as an abjection, a profanation of the spirit. [11]

  17. Eamon Duffy points out that the Catholic association of the Eucharist with both material and spiritual food became the focus of a number of critical attacks. He points out that in a book presented to Cranmer from the clergy in 1532 outlining "faultes and abuses...worthy of special reformation" appeared an attack in Lollard style, of the sacrament - the claim that holy water "is moore savorer to make sawce with... because it is mixed with salt...yea, if there be put an onyon thereunto, it is a good sawce for a gygget of motton." [12]

  18. In Act Two of A Chaste Maid this incarnational element of transubstantiation is satirised. Touchwood Senior is forced to reject his illegitimate child - "a half a yard of flesh" - because he faces financial ruin. The baby is subsequently bundled into a basket by its unfortunate mother. This might be seen as a parody of the story of Moses. However, while Moses' disguise saves him from the violence of Herod's spies, this baby is not so lucky and the woman is apprehended by government agents on the look out for the circulation of meat which is forbidden in Lent. Rather than revealing the true nature of the child the woman goes along with the promoter's suspicions, telling them that the basket is for her mistress who has the requisite medical certificate allowing her to eat meat in Lent. Promising to return with the document she makes the promoters promise to keep the basket. They of course are only too happy to oblige as they both begin to speculate on the possible profit to be made from the meat on the black market. One hopes for a quarter of lamb, the other for a shoulder of mutton and both are dismayed when the true discovery of the baby is made. Their exclamation "Here's an unlucky Breakefast" (II.ii.202) locates the baby as an object of consumption in a cannibalistic society in which spiritual food is effaced in favour of carnal satisfaction.

  19. Both George Rowe and William Slights have noted that this part of the play echoes earlier religious parodies such as that of Mak in The Second Shepherds' Play. [13] In the Wakefield Nativity Mak's attempt to steal a lamb results in his disguising of the lamb as his new born child. The association between lamb and Christ is prepared for first by grotesque parody and also a hint of cannibalism. Mak vows to eat the child if it is proved that he is lying about its origin. (Of course, as his very intention is to eat the lamb this creates a grotesque ambivalence.) Mak's cannibalistic intention parodies the Eucharist in which the agnus dei, the Lamb of God, is present in both flesh and spirit and which through the act of eating becomes a ceremony of communal incorporation. As Slights argues, the dead metaphor is poked into new life by a grotesque inversion and the audience are re-awakened to the true meaning of the ceremony. [14]

  20. Slights argues that the scene in A Chaste Maid fulfils a similar function of defamiliarisation. Acknowledging that Middleton's play is "a comic world from which God has apparently withdrawn" Slights nevertheless sees the triumph of the comic community over the anti-flesh forces represented by promoters and disapproving parents. [15] He argues that the defamiliarisation offered by this inversion leads to a form of comic anagnorisis caused by

    This "incarnational comedy," he argues, reveals "the potential for human triumph in the inseparability of body and soul, flesh and spirit." [17]

  21. Herbert Jack Heller suggests that while God may have withdrawn from the comic world, the plagoer would be attentive to "the religious symbolic vocabulary or emblem encoded into the text and performance itself." The spiritual meaning may not be apparent to the citizens but it would stand behind the text as a reminder of a different truth suggesting the possibility that

    however blind to spiritual dimensions the inhabitants of Cheapside
    may, be the locale is still suffused with references to neglected reality. [18]

    However, citing Rowe, Heller considers an alternative perspective: "that the play's mock nativity debases the original." [19] Both these readings have some validity. Heller's point that the audience might recognise the separation between flesh and spirit is a convincing one; however, I would agree with Rowe that within the play world there is no redemption for the citizens through the presentation of the agnus dei. The "juxtaposition of incompatible levels of metaphoric and literal language" does not necessarily lead to comic union and the recognition of the inseparability of flesh and spirit. In the Wakefield play the lamb is disguised as a baby and the subsequent nativity of the true Lamb reinstates the inverted world back to order and communion. In Middleton's play there is no sense in which the cannibalistic images of the scene are accompanied by metaphoric readings of the spiritual importance of the agnus dei. The literal and carnal reading prevails.

  22. In Act Two the barren Lady Kix, lamenting her childless and unfruitful state, is overhead by Touchwood Senior. As we have seen, Touchwood's dismissal of his own child as a carnal commodity predisposes him to misread Kix's groans and sighs:

    I hold my life she's in deep passion
    For the imprisonment of veal and mutton
    Now kept in garrets, now weeps for some calf's head now;
    Methinks her husband's head might serve with bacon

    The images of dismemberment and cannibalism in Touchwood's speech suggest a transgression of the limits of the body, a blurring between the human and matter. The bawdy play on "head" also suggests a further blurring between food and sex.

  23. The transfer from baby to meat, and from meat to sex brings together the motif of carnality abhorred by Reformers. Miri Rubin suggests that

    the body is always a complex image, and eating the body is particularly disturbing one especially that of eating a sacrificed body....the juxtaposition of eating with the holiest and most taboo-ridden of nourishments, the human body, associates acts and symbols which in any other contexts would be abhorrent and unutterable - cannibalism. [20]

  24. For Reformers the cannibalistic element literally em-bodied in the doctrine of transubstantiation was equally abhorrent. The Chiltern Lollard Elizabeth Stamforth had argued that

    Christ feedeth and fast nourisheth his church with his own precious body, that is, the bread of life coming down from heaven: this is the worthy word that is worthily received, and joined unto men to be unto one body with him. Sooth it is that they both be one: they may not be parted: this is the wisely deeming of the holy sacrament, Christ's own body: this is not received by chewing of teeth but by the hearing with ears and understanding with your soul and wisely working thereafter. [21]

    Protestants were anxious to emphasise the symbolic rather than the material nature of the sacraments. John Northbrooke warns against reliance on the visible sign.

    It is a dangerous matter, and a servitude to the soul, to take the signe instead of the thing that is signified...Visible sacraments are ordained to carnall men, that by the steps of sacraments, we may be led from the things that we see with the eye, unto the things that we understand. [22]

  25. The Christening scene in A Chaste Maid presents an ungodly community which is solely concerned with material rather than spiritual signs. However, it appears that in this scene, Middleton is not attacking Catholic rituals but Puritan anti-ritual. The christening, is carried out "without idolatry or superstition,/ After the pure manner of Amsterdam" (III.ii.4-5) which suggests a Puritan rejection of the sign of the Cross and other ceremonial additions such as the use of oil and chrisme. [23] The Puritans' hilarious argument in which each refuses to take precedent in entering the church suggests a further repudiation of ceremony. The Puritans are content as long as they think that they have observed the outward signs of their religion; they are ignorant of the true meaning of baptism.

  26. After the Christening Sir Walter returns to the Allwit house to present the child with the traditional gift of Apostle spoons. These silver spoons were often given in complete sets but poorer godparents might give one which would generally be of the Apostle associated with the child's saint. Walter gives two spoons, one which is made of gilt. The Puritans believe this to be the spoon of Judas because of its red colouring. The saint Mathius had replaced the Apostle Judas after the Resurrection but the Puritans are ignorant of this and reject the spoon for fear that it would pollute the child by giving her red hair. [24] Their Biblical ignorance and their superstition locate them within a framework of false religion.

  27. Their religious error is compounded by their drunken and lascivious behaviour on return from church. Here the gross carnality and greed of the women results in a profane corruption of the significance of the spiritual ceremony. They gossip, they eat, and according to Allwit, they "have drunk so hard in plate that they are in need of other vessels" (III.ii.169-70). The incontinence of the Puritans parodies the sacrament of the Lord's supper when the wine, instead of symbolising the blood of Christ, is turned by grotesque transubstantiation into urine. [25] Although the scene might be read as a satire of hypocritical Puritanism, the presentation of the ungodly in terms of scatalogical images and the association of these images with transubstantiation also locate this within a traditional polemic of Anti-Catholic abuse.

  28. The reduction of the spiritual significance of baptism in A Chaste Maid is accompanied by a subversion of the narrative of redemption. The second part of the catechism of Baptism outlines the regenerating structure of the baptism ceremony:

    Question: What is the inward and spiritual grace?
    Answer: A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness for being by nature born into sin, and the children of wrath we are hereby made children of grace.
    Question: What is required of persons to be baptised?
    Answer: Repentance whereby they forsake sin: and faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God made to them in the sacrament
    Question: Why then are infants baptised when by reason of their tender age they cannot perform them?
    Answer: Because they promise them both by their sureties:
    which promise when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform.

    In this christening the infant's spiritual welfare is in the hands of her Godfather Sir Walter who is actually her own illegitimate father. The moral depravity of this man results in a profanation of the sacraments and a subversion of the baptism ceremony.

  29. Middleton's play therefore undermines both linear and dialectic forms of comedy. The liturgical structure, which moves from death to resurrection and redemption, is shown to be meaningless to a society concerned only with the superficiality of signs. The dialectic agon between flesh and spirit is also stripped of its spiritual meaning when once again the symbolic signified is effaced in favour of a one-dimensional focus on the material sign. However I would argue that Middleton complicates this satire by presenting a conflicting narrative based around the incongruous conversion of the sinful Godfather Sir Walter Whorehound.


    The Protestant conversion narrative in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside

  30. Repentance is central to the Christian drama and an essential part of the baptism ceremony. As Hardison has noted, Murray's definition of ritual drama lacked one key element of significance to Christian drama: that of penance. For the Christian, the period of Lent leading up to Easter is one of repentance and alienation in which the celebrant identifies with Christ's temptation in the wilderness and reflects on his own separation from God and the subsequent carnal appetites that mark that separation. [26]

  31. As we have seen, the play is ordered around the liturgical structure of the sacraments, but is undermined by the inability of the citizens to recognise their loss of spirituality in favour of unbridled carnality. Allwit's retort "what cares colon here for Lent" (II.ii.79) demonstrates this privileging of flesh over spirit. Sir Walter's sudden and painful realisation of his sins, like that of Penitent Brothel in Middleton's A Mad Word My Masters, might be a significant element of the liturgical structure, but it threatens the stability of a community driven by the desire for accumulation rather than salvation.

  32. It could be argued that not only is Sir Walter's repentance out of place within the comic community, but also that his inherent sinfulness disturbs the comic drive towards redemption. Ruby Chatterji argues that "Sir Walter is …steeped so far in sin that it is impossible for him to save himself or reform others. His futile penitence and the lack of salvation become almost a tragic theme at this point." [27] However I want to argue that Walter's penance is futile not because he has no hope of salvation, but because his spiritual conversion is at odds with the teleologically driven comic movement of the play. Heller agrees to a point when he avers that "with its foreground of sin and corresponding absence of any efficacious offering of grace (up through Act 4), the play heads to wards a tragic resolution." [28] Heller suggests, though, that the final resurrection of the young couple restores the comic hope of redemption by offering hope and a suggestion of comic grace. I do not believe that the resurrection scene does offer hope, rather it emphasises the willingness of the citizens to participate in ritual ceremonies that have material form but no spiritual substance. It is to the repentance of Sir Walter that we need to look for edification. If Sir Walter's penance is taken out of the paradigm of the idealising narrative of redemption and read in light of an alternative poetics of salvation, another legitimate pattern of repentance is revealed: that of the Protestant conversion narrative. Chatterji's identification of Sir Walter's act as tragic is predicated on her belief that Sir Walter is too sinful to be saved. Here she, perhaps unwittingly, hits upon the conflict between the comic pattern of redemption based on liturgical rituals and Sir Walter's spiritual crisis. Within the Protestant paradigm of salvation all humanity is steeped in sin and the realisation of this renders the human experience on earth as unavoidably tragic.

  33. In her account of conversion narratives, Patricia Caldwell identifies a morphology of transformation which appears to have follow both the comic and Christian structures described above. These narratives follow a linear pattern, moving from fall to redemption through a process of trial and conflict which ends in spiritual rebirth. [29] In this process she suggests that there is "a downward and an upward movement and an outward and return journey." [30] According to the preacher Watkins the conversion experience is a movement from "peace to disturbance to peace again." [31] The charting of this process may adopt the form of a linear narrative of redemption but its emphasis is not on the resolution of conflict but on the continuation of the crisis of the fallen and sinful individual.

  34. In the Protestant paradigm of sin and salvation Barbara Kiefer Lewalski identifies two kinds of Biblical metaphors most often invoked to describe spiritual experience; those relating to the contrasting conditions of the soul under sin and under grace and those relating to the enduring experience of living the Christian life. William Haller describes these two experiential narratives as being essential to the preacher's role in relating doctrine to the individual and mostly uneducated masses.

    The Puritan imagination saw the life of the spirit as pilgrimage and battle. The images of warfaring and wayfaring which fill the Old Testament had been exploited by that fighting itinerant, Paul, and by generations upon generations of subsequent evangelists. [32]

  35. Haller argues that these evangelists lacked the power to enforce doctrine upon individuals and so developed strategies to ensure that the individual accepted responsibility for enforcing the ideals upon himself:

    They told him he that his soul was a traveller through a strange country and a soldier in battle. He was a traveller who, fleeing from destruction, must adhere through peril and hardship to the way that leads home. He was a soldier who, having been pressed to serve under the banners of the spirit, must enact faithfully his part in the unceasing war against carnal man. [33]

    This suggestion by both Haller and Lewalski of a master narrative of fall and redemption, an archetypal structure based on the idea of the journey towards the promised land and the struggle with the sins of the flesh, appears to correlate with the linear and dialectic narrative of redemption suggested by Hardison.

  36. The conversion narrative also seems to be similar to the structures of rites of passage which, critics such as Berry and Barber have noted, underpin many of Shakespeare's festive comedies. The rite of passage and the journey of conversion share the tripartite structure which involves

    an initial stage of separation, in which the individual is divorced from his familiar environment; a transitional stage in which his old identity is destroyed and a new one created; and a final stage of incorporation in which he is reintegrated into society in his new role. [34]

    However, the Protestant conversion narrative cannot achieve a final incorporation in this life, and the emphasis is thrown back on the central stage of the passage, the liminal or transitional stage, or in ritual terms the agon. This is a complex phase in which the individual undergoes trial and testing, experiences the conflict of flesh and spirit and undergoes a breakdown and blurring of his old identity before passing over to a new identity in Christ, an identity which is never free of its sinful former self until after death. As Jean Christophe Agnew suggests, for the Protestant "life already seemed a perpetual pilgrimage, a ceaseless cumulative experience of becoming." The evidence, he cites, is contained in the many diaries "where Puritans recorded their 'pilgrim's progress.'" [35]

  37. This progress or journey of conversion consists of up to ten identifiable stages in which the sinner's old and sinful self is broken down and the individual is prepared to receive God's grace. The two most important parts of the process are repentance and faith. In response to God's calling, Lewalski suggests that the Christian undergoes a conversion experience which is a crisis or turning point in his life. "As an essentially passive instrument acted upon by God's grace, he experiences a purging or mollifying, or breaking of the heart which prepares it for the gifts of repentance and saving grace." [36]

  38. Heller argues that "of all Middleton's penitents [Sir Walter] best exemplifies the unpredictable nature of Grace in Calvinist theology." [37] Two significant moments lead up to Sir Walter's realisation of his sin. The first is his standing as godfather to his own illegitimate child and the second is the battle with the force of 'good' Touchwood Junior. Sir Walter asks to stand as godfather to his daughter, despite the consternation of the familial 'father' Allwit. He assures Allwit that the assumption of this role will prevent suspicion of his paternity. At this time parents were not generally considered to be suitable to stand as godparents, although both Calvin and Knox had advocated the validity of parental sponsorship. [38] Sir Walter then suggests his future bride Moll to be the female godparent to which Allwit agrees, adding that he will ask Touchwood Junior to be the third. Thus the three godparents are brought together in an act which is to change them all.

  39. Sir Walter's involvement as a sponsor for his own child would not have required his own adult baptism or re-baptism. Only separatist sects such as the Anabaptists believed in adult baptism; re-baptism was generally unaccepted by all faiths. However it seems that standing as godparent causes Sir Walter to be called to remember the covenant of grace offered in his original baptism. The covenant was a sign or seal of God' s divine promise of salvation to the elect.

  40. Sir Walter's hybrid name suggests that he is both the sinful Whorehound in thrall to Satan and the regenerate sinner marked by the water of saving grace. His sinfulness would not preclude the possibility of his own infant baptism. Much debate, which centred on Romans 6, had taken place about the continuing sinfulness of baptised persons. According to Bromiley the individual might continue to be sinful despite the assurance of saving grace. He suggests that for many Reformers baptism was a "call to serious and life long warfare." [39] Citing Calvin, he suggests that "there is planted at baptism a seed of repentance and faith which will one day come to fruition in the definite act." [40]

  41. The doctrine of Calvinism, which stated that all men were sinners, even the elect, was derived from Pauline Epistles to Romans and Galatians which stressed the depravity of man through original sin, the blinding of the intellect and the bondage of the will. [41] According to Calvin "the mind is given over to blindness and the heart to depravity" and man cannot do anything to alter his condition. [42] The tenth of the thirty nine articles stresses that

    The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turne, and prepare himself by his owne naturall strength, and good workes, to faith, and calling upon God, wherefore we have no power to do good workes pleasant, and acceptable to God, without the grace of God preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that good will. [43]

  42. The moment of Sir Walter's regeneration follows after he has stood surety for his godchild and is accompanied by the death and resurrection of his two co-godparents Moll and Touchwood. Moll herself undergoes a form of re-baptism in her 'drowning' in the Thames, her subsequent death and final resurrection at the altar. Her true love Touchwood also receives a fatal wound from Sir Walter which leads to his 'death' and rebirth. However, it is the wound Sir Walter receives from Touchwood that has the most significant effect on the sinner's life.

  43. Before the fight, Whorehound has exulted that

    ere to-morrow noon
    I shall receive two thousand pound in gold,
    And a sweet maidenhead worth forty.

    However, half way through the fight, Sir Walter announces that he will "play no longer" as he has "certain things to think on, /Before I dare go further" (63-4). The wound that Walter has received is both physical in that it brings him near to death, and symbolic in that it is a sign from God that he must recognise his sinfulness. [44] Depravity is conceived in terms of mortal wounding, as William Perkins points out:

    every man is wounded with the deadly wound of sinne at the very heart: and he that would be saved....must see his sinne, be sorrowful for it... must see himself to stand in need of Christ, the good physician of his soul, and long after him...after this Christ Jesus will temper him with a plaister of his own heart blood. [45]

    The suddenness of conversion can also be seen as God's plan in the calling of the elect to repent which according to Luther involves

    God's awakening in him at whatever time God has appointed and by whatever means (sudden or gradual) such a sense of his desperate sinfulness but also of the gospel promises that he is prepared to receive the accompanying gifts of effective repentance and saving faith. [46]

  44. Protestant theology held that both elect and ungodly were all sinful, fallen individuals. Despite this sin God has chosen certain members to be saved. Those who were chosen by God were no better than reprobates except that by his irresistible grace the elect could be brought to hate their sin, as Sir Walter does. He begs for Allwit to leave him alone:

    Touch me not, villain! My wound aches at thee,
    Thou poison to my heart. (V.i.13)

    In his rejection of sin he charges the Allwits with corruption of his soul:

    Thou know'st me to be wicked, for thy baseness
    Kept the eyes open still on all my sins;
    None knew the dear account my soul stood charged with
    So well as thou; yet, like hell's flattering angel,
    Woulds't never tell me on't, lets't me go on,
    And join with death in sleep; that if I had not waked
    Now by chance, even by a stranger's pity,
    I had everlastingly slept out all hope
    Of grace and mercy. (V.i.25-32)

  45. Recognition of sin is followed by repentance, but this state, as Perkins shows, is accompanied by feelings of desperation and fears of damnation:

    When the spirit hath made a man see his sinnes, he seeth further the curse of the Law, and so he finds himself to be in bondage under Satan, hell, death, damnation; at which most terrible sight his heart is smitten with feare and trembling, through consideration of his hellish and damnable state. [47]

    The Allwits are worse than Satan because even the devil has the sense to recognise repentance and "parts in times of penitence, hides his face;/ When man withdraws from him, he leaves the place" (V.i.44-5). The sight of his illegitimate child compounds his fear of damnation, reminding him of his sinful state.

  46. At this point Sir Walter speaks of the dark and desperate feelings that accompany the sinner's terror that he will not be saved:

    O my vengeance!
    Let me forever hide my cursed face
    From sight of those that darken all my hopes,
    And stands between me and the sight of heaven!
    Who sees me now, her too, and those so near me,
    May rightly say I am o'ergrown with sin.
    O, how my offences wrestle with my repentance!
    It hath scarce breath;
    Still my adulterous guilt hovers aloft,
    And with her black wings beats down all my prayers,
    Ere they be half-way up. What's he knows now
    How long I have to live? O, what comes then?
    My taste grows bitter, the round world all gall now;
    Her pleasing pleasures now have poisoned me,
    Which I exchanged my soul for.
    Make way a hundred sighs at once for me!

  47. Sir Whorehound's association of the Allwits with Satan has been prepared for by their ungodly behaviour in the Christening scene. In particular Mrs Allwit's self-gratifying desire for the phallic pickled cucumbers, her employment of a wet nurse and her adulterous behaviour locate her as the antithesis of nurturing mother and as a far more negative type of the Whore of Babylon. This is reinforced by the earlier description of her confinement:

    there's her embossings,
    Embroid'rings, spanglings, and I know not what,
    As if she lay with all the gaudy shops
    In Gresham's Burse about her; then her restoratives,
    Able to set up a young 'pothercary,
    And richly stock the foreman of a drug shop.

  48. It is Revelation 18. which details the appearance and corrupting depravity of the Whore of Babylon. Verse two reports that "the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication" and verse four describes her as "decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of the abominations and filthiness of her fornication." Sir Walter Whorehound's second present to the baby is a "fair high standing cup" (III.ii.42) and it may this cup that Mrs Allwit uses to make a pledge and which one Puritan gossip demands:

    Bring hither that same cup, nurse:
    I would fain drive away this- hup!- anti-christian grief.

  49. It might be to go to far as to interpret the Allwit household in terms of the false church corrupting the true church. However such a speculation might see Sir Walter's rejection of the seven children as symbolic reference to the overthrowing of the seven-headed Beast of Babylon. Certainly the Allwits' rejection of repentance, their blasphemy of the sacred sacrament and their gross materialism, culminating in their intention to open a brothel, can be read in terms of Anti-Christian behaviour. Sir Walter's belief that Mrs Allwit has poisoned him with "pleasing pleasures" which now, like a mother weaning her child by placing wormwood on the breast, have made his taste bitter and transformed the world to gall reinforces his conversion as a rejection of the material world and recognition of the spiritual. This is confirmed by Sir Walter's last words,

    If ever eyes were open, these are they:
    Gamester, farewell, I have nothing left to play.

  50. Sir Walter's spiritual awakening is reinforced by a number of light and darkness images that pervade the play. As Lewalski points out, one of the chief metaphors of Christian literature is that of "sin as darkness or blindness and, Christ his Word, and the regenerate state as light." [48] As Sir Walter himself notes, the society he lives in is blind to the light:

    When man turns base, out goes his soul's pure flame;
    The fat of ease o'erthrows the eyes of shame.

  51. I have argued that in Middleton's play the narrative of comic redemption is made problematic in three key ways. Firstly, the juxtaposition of sacred structure and materialistic society reveals the format of Christian comedy to be no more than a superficial structure. The materialism of the citizens results in their inability to see beyond external signs and their carnal nature denies them the redemption promised by the liturgical structure. Both play-world and structure are held up to be at fault. Secondly, the foregrounding of sacramental ceremonies which should underpin the play's Christian form, is also profaned by a gross materialism. This reinforces the presentation of the citizens as unable to read beyond the sign to consider the thing signified; but there is also an implicit critique of the corporeality of some forms of sacramental ritual. Finally the incongruous conversion of Sir Walter Whorehound, which threatens the movement of Christian comedy towards inclusiveness and incorporation, can be read from an alternative protestant poetics. Such a reading would not see Whorehound's sinfulness as a disturbance of the comic form but might view the comic form itself as inadequate to express a more complex journey towards redemption.


1. N.W. Bawcutt, "Was Thomas Middleton a Puritan Dramatist?," Modern Language Review 94 (1999), 925-939.

2. Gary Taylor, "Forms of Opposition: Shakespeare and Middleton," English Literary Renaissance 24 (1994): 283-314, 289.

3. George E. Rowe, Jr., Thomas Middleton and the New Comedy Tradition (Lincoln: U of
Nebraska P, 1979), 132.

4. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984), xxii.

5. John Northbrooke, Spiritus est Vicarius Christi (1571), Fol 172/3.

6. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth CenturyReligious Lyric (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979), 87.

7. O. B. Hardison, Jnr, Christian Rite and Christian Drama in The Middle Ages: Essays in the Origin and Early History of Modern Drama (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1967), 284.

8. Hardison, 285.

9. Hardison, 79.

10. Rowe, 139.

11. Sarah Beckwith, Christ's Body: Identity, Culture and Society in Late Medieval Writings (London: Routledge,1993), 24.

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven: Yale UP, 1994), 391.

13. Slights, William 'The Incarnations of Comedy 'University of Toronto Quarterly vol. 51 1 (Fall, 1981), 13-27, and Rowe, Chapter 4 , 135-152.

14. Slights, 24.

15. Slights, 22.

16. Slights, 23.

17. Slights, 24.

18. Herbert Jack Heller, Penitent Brothellers: Grace, Sexuality, and Genre in Thomas Middleton's City Comedies (Delaware: U of Delaware P, 2000), 82.

19. Rowe, 138-9 cited in Heller 82.

20. Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991), 359.

21. Beckwith, 93.

22. John Northbrooke, Spiritus est Vicarius Christi (1571), Fol. 172/174.

23. G. W. Bromiley, Baptism and the English Reformers (London: Butterworth, 1953), 148-154.

24. It is interesting to note that Mathius is the patron saint of alcoholics.

25. Rowe, 135-139.

26. Hardison, 285.

27. Ruby Chatterji, "Theme, Imagery, and Unity in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside," Renaissance Drama 8 (1965):105-16, 113.

28. Heller, 83.

29. Patricia Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression (Cambridge: Cambridge UP), 1983.

30. Caldwell, 9.

31. Owen C. Watkins, Puritan Experience: Studies in Spiritual Autobiography (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul), 1972.

32. William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (Philadelphia: Columbia UP, 1938), 142.

33. Haller, 142.

34. Edward Berry, Shakespeare's Comic Rites ( Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986), 2.

35. Jean Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo American Thought (New York: Cambridge UP, 1986), 141.

36. Lewalski, 21.

37. Heller, 84.

38. Bromiley, 128.

39. Bromiley, 29.

40. John Calvin, Inst IV 16 18-20, trans. Henry Beveridge (Florida n.d.).

41. Although she acknowledges a complexity of theological positions Lewalski argues that in the first decades of the seventeenth century it was Calvinism which provided a detailed chart of the spiritual life (15).

42. Calvin, "Thirty Nine Articles," in Jean Calvin, Institutes , trans. Henry Beveridge (Florida n.d.).

43. Lewalski, 15-16.

44. Heller argues that the 'stranger' whose 'pity' awakens Sir Walter is 'God himself'. ,85

45. Lewalski, 88.

46. Lewalski, 16.

47. William Perkins, A Treatise Tending unto a Declaration whether a man be in the Estate of Damnation , or in the Estate of Grace, Works I 364, cited in Lewalski 21.

48. Lewalski, 89.

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).