The School of the World: Trading on Wit in Middleton’s Trick to Catch the Old One
Central Connecticut State University
Leonidas, Eric. "The School of the World: Trading on Wit in Middleton’s Trick to Catch the Old One". Early Modern Literary Studies 12.3 (January, 2007) 3.1-27<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/12-3/leontri2.htm>.
Now I begin to set one foot on the land. Methinks I am felling trees already; we shall have some Essex logs yet to keep Christmas with, and that’s a comfort. (2.3.331-33)Quomodo has surprising plans for his new acquisition. What seems jarring, however, is less his desire to transform the land by cutting down its trees than his intent to consume the wood for his personal “comfort.” Quomodo lives in the urban world of markets, exchange value, and risk. The “comfort” he notes in his moment of reverie thus suggests both a physical sense of cozy warmth and the prospect itself, a fantasy of holiday and natural plenty that remains secure from the contingencies and defined quantities involved in trade. But it is Quomodo’s command of economy that has brought him the hefty return in the first place. Given the depths of the commercial duplicity Middleton draws, Quomodo’s desire to escape into the old ideological values associated with land is understandable. Nevertheless, his mental flight divides his character and sets him up to lose what he has won. Theodore Leinwand points to Quomodo’s effort to create a “chiastic” exchange of his financial drive for Easy’s “gentlemanly” leisure and suggests that what seems oddest about Quomodo’s “intimation of gentility is the degree to which he defeats our expectation that, given the chance, he would play the improving landlord.” Instead, the once pragmatic mercantilist indulges in fantasies of rural fertility and festivity. At the same time, the previously oblivious Easy sets aside his running concerns for his public “credit,” construed solely as a gallant reputation, and marries Thomasine, Quomodo’s widow, once he hears of the draper’s death. That is, Easy gives up his status as constituted by symbols and gestures for institutionally backed contracts and bonds. It is the citizen Quomodo, then, who draws the sharper division between gentleman and commoner. Having achieved an estate, by the play’s end he will abandon the social, psychological and financial experience on which he has relied for the ostensible concerns of a gentleman: the integrity of his estate and name. When Easy recognizes that these depend more on mercantile forces than the ideological order he has taken as granted, he willingly emerges himself in commercial society and comes out ahead. In Michaelmas Term and a second “cozening” city comedy, A Trick to Catch the Old One, Middleton is less concerned with lamenting commercialization, commodification and overly free exchange than delineating the specific skills and habits of mind that can provide financial prosperity and social stability. No matter one’s status, Middleton shows, economic passivity and social complacency are debilitating attitudes; the only recourse is to begin cultivating the practices and intellectual mindset of mercantilism.
Only good confidence did make him foolish,Social, moral and political propriety are taken for a granted by a gentleman-scholar steeped in traditional learning. Prompted by the gallant Blastfield (in fact Quomodo’s disguised assistant), Easy readily accepts that one’s confidence establishes credit. “Master Easy,” Blastfield boasts, “let a man bear himself portly, the whoresons will creep to him o’their bellies, and their wives o’their backs; there’s a kind of bold grace expected throughout all the parts of a gentleman. Then, for your observances, a man must not so much as spit but within line and fashion” (2.1.90-94). The parody of conduct guides marks the gap both between court and city and between literary ideas and the actual demands of a credit economy. Easy is concerned that having gambled away his cash, he will disappoint the gallants he has invited to supper. He fears a lack of generosity and display will redound to his “everlasting shame” (2.3.27). Easy insists that “it stands upon the loss of my credit tonight if I walk without money” (2.3.147-48). Ironically, gentlemen and citizens alike are already wary of Easy for being overly free and generous (1.1.53, 121). His financial nonchalance is noted as a dangerous ignorance. But his misassociation of credit and profligacy also underscores a lack of real connection to the society he has decided to visit. He may be “free” in that he is unencumbered by the financial and social links that burden the native Londoners, but he is equally free of the helps and opportunities that such links provide. “Freedom” in the play also describes the citizens themselves (1.2.42), whose financial “independence” is learned through experience in a craft or trade. Such “freedom” depends on the stability of a social order itself increasingly dependent on intermeshed economic and social obligation instituted by contract. By contrast, Easy’s sense of his credit is merely a hazy idea of social standing ungrounded by quantitative or institutional measure. His financial and technical ignorance results in social myopia, a “gentry-fault” described as “bad in man, worse in woman” (1.1.54-55). Easy’s utter misunderstanding of credit is most acute when he cosigns a bond “for fashion sake” (3.4.48), having been told that it is a “custom” for a second signatory to secure a gentleman’s debt (2.3.238). In guaranteeing a loan he has no intention or capacity to repay, Easy violates a social notion of “trust” as much as the men who manipulate him into the ruinous obligation in the first place. Later, he will bail himself out of the debt by thoughtlessly mortgaging his land to two apparent citizens (again, Quomodo’s servants in disguise), creating further social networks he would remain aloof from. Easy’s overconfident identification with his land and its rent amounts to an obliviousness to credit is it stands now, measured in the play in real quantities and indicative of clear obligations. He fails to see that for him, as for everyone, freedom is based on his economic potential, which in turn is founded not on small, face-saving social gestures but on command of salable things, skills, or knowledge. Since the values of commodities, services, debts, and even relationships change, moreover, individual and collective security in the play depends upon the integrity of contractual obligations.
And not the lack of sense—that was not it;
‘Tis worldly craft beats down a scholar’s wit. (4.3.15-17)
A fine journey in the Whitsun holidays, I’faith, to ride down with a number of citizens and their wives, some upon pillions, some upon sidesaddles, I and little Thomasine I’th’middle, our son and heir, Sim Quomodo, in a peach-colour taffeta jacket, some horselength or a long yard before us; there will be a fine who on’s, I can tell you; where we citizens will laugh and lie down, get all our wives with child against a bank and get up again. (4.1.70-76)In his “sweet inventions” Quomodo loses all sense of economy—of the buying and selling, the gains and losses, the fluctuations and impermanence—which necessarily governs all the play’s men of wealth. Quomodo lets slip the objectivity that serves him in his pursuit of assets and becomes consumed by conventional worries over his identity—how his fellow citizens, heir and wife will regard him after his death, and the fate of his new estate (the estate that he himself transformed into an exchangeable commodity). In the course of feigning his death to test others’ views of him, Quomodo decides it would make a “lively jest” to sign his name to a seemingly small receipt that, later, will be accepted as a binding contract discharging Easy of his original debt. Quomodo’s ultimately blasé attitude toward the institutions and practices of credit leave him, predictably enough, publicly discredited, with all the attendant social and financial consequences.
Why, are there not a million of men in the world that only sojourn upon their brain and make their wits their mercers; and am I but one amongst that million and cannot thrive upon’t? Any trick, out of the compass of law now, would come happily to me. (ll. 21-25)In comparing his art to a mercer, Witgood defines his intelligence as an alloy of knowledge, practice and experience that can serve as a utilitarian social connection, a resource to trade on for personal accommodation. Far from the divine and inherent recta ratio, wit is an alienable good that can be amassed and exploited. To emphasize the point, the “trick” that develops is not a sudden illumination; it is an improvisatory response to social phenomena, a playing along in search of advantage. In this case, Witgood’s courtesan arrives and prompts an idea.
Hoard: Why, are not debts better than words, sir?If promises can be bought out, negotiated and devalued, a financial relationship can also indicate social obligations that, however malleable or exchangeable, must be acknowledged. They cannot be erased at a whim. Conceiving of promises as debts reinvests speech with the weight it has lost to transactions.
Witgood: Are not words promises, and are not promises debts, sir? (4.4.181-82)
Witgood: ...what trick is not an embryon at first until a perfect shape come over it?... Courtesan: Though you beget, ‘tis I must help breed. Speak, what is’t? I’d fain conceive it. (1.1.52-57)Later, Witgood adopts a paternal tone in urging the Courtesan to marry Hoard, speaking of his comfort and care in seeing her advantageously bestowed. The marriage, then, benefits Witgood and the Courtesan both psychologically and financially. If it assuages Witgood’s guilt, it also allows the Courtesan an open and public role to redeem her from the riotous name she earned with Witgood. Because Hoard is so deluded when wooing the Courtesan she can openly promise that she has nothing (3.1.212; 5.2.96-97), and the financial opportunity he presents is once again a chance for moral and social commitment. Whatever her past sins, she says, once Hoard pays off Witgood and frees her of that entanglement she can turn to Hoard fully and in all sincerity: “Though I have sinned, yet could I become new, / For, where I once vow, I am ever true” (4.4.124-35).
If every man that swells in maliceHis plan to use a processional down to the country to sting Lucre is easily converted to rubbing his new achievement in at the banquet, thus perverting its socially constitutive function. A revenge narrative would literally overwhelm a comic paradigm. In the event, though, Hoard’s brother, who is familiar with the Courtesan, reveals her prior life and reputation to Hoard. But the thwarting of Hoard’s revenge plot does not destroy the romantic one. The Courtesan once again takes the opportunity to articulate social bonds that are consonant with material and moral self-interest. “Despise me, publish me,” she challenges Hoard. “I am your wife; / What shame can I have now, but you’ll have part” (5.2.123-4). The traditional notion of “one flesh” applies. Hoard realizes he must “embrace shame to be rid of shame.” Whatever its initial intent, sustaining his commitment allows him to maintain friends and a public role (5.2.145-47). In effect, as well, the Courtesan plays the true prodigal, announcing her moral conversion and making an open plea for forgiveness and acceptance (5.2.134-43).
Could be revenged as happily as I,
He would choose hate and forswear amity. (4.1.97-99)
Thou soul of my estate, I kiss thee,But it is worth noting that Witgood’s misplaced erotic language here signals a moral transformation. The commodification of desire certainly strips it of idealism and pushes it into a rapid and seemingly free-flowing economy, but it does not strip it of power or render it insignificant. It rather subjects desire to legal and financial regulations which, in Middleton’s world, seem more capable of governing behavior and beliefs than conventional moral discourse or social tradition. At the beginning of the play, Witgood wishes simply to avoid the financial entanglements of London, but to do so risks losing Joyce, and with this “virgin’s love” also “her portion, and her virtues” (1.1.19-21). As we’ve seen, if romantic desire is cheapened by commodification, so financial pursuits also indicate a necessary social connectedness. In his letter to Joyce, Witgood insists that his love (like his debts) has not waned with his fortunes, which reassures her (3.2.14-20). What stands between them, however, is not only the practical matter of Witgood’s indebtedness, but also the divisive quarrel between the uncles. Here, Witgood succeeds because his promissory obligations forge the widest and strongest social network. Distracted as Hoard is by his pursuit of the widow and his lands, distracted as Mistress Lucre is by winning the widow for her son, and distracted as Moneylove is by his prospects with the widow, Witgood manages to marry his true love. Along the way Witgood had already won a pledge from Hoard to eternal friendship (4.4.233-34). In revealing to Hoard the marriage to Joyce, he alludes to a tangle of new kinship relations that both recalls and forecloses sexual ones: “by marrying your niece, I have banished myself forever from [the Courtesan]. She’s mine aunt now, by my faith, and there’s no meddling with mine aunt, you know—a sin against my nuncle” (5.2.152-54).
I miss life’s comfort when I miss thee.
Oh, never will we part again,
Until I leave the sight of men. (4.2.88-91)
 Citations of Michaelmas Term and A Trick to Catch the Old One refer to A Mad World, My Masters and Other Plays, ed. Michael Taylor (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995). John Lehr notes the association of the name Ephestian and “hearth” or “home” and suggests the name signals the inherent illegitimacy of Quomodo’s aspirations for a country estate. See “Two Names in Middleton’s Michaelmas Term,” ELN 18 (1980-81): 15-19.
 Theatre, Finance and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999), 59.
 Both Tawney’s distinction between the “gentry” and a conservative aristocracy as well as his account of the role of such a gentry in precipitating the civil wars have been challenged, but the rationalizing methods of landlords, whether adopted from merchants or developed on their own, remain well-established. See J.H. Hexter, “Storm over the Gentry, Reappraisals in History: New Views on History and Society in Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979), 117-162; and Robert Brenner, “Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism,” The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial England, ed. T.H. Aston and C.H.E. Philpin (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985), 246-58.
 The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987), 159-69. See also Tawney, 14; Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1965), especially 199-272; and Robert Brenner, “Bourgeois Revolution and Transition to Capitalism,” The First Modern Society: Essays in English History in Honour of Lawrence Stone, ed. A.L. Beier, David Cannadine and James M. Rosenheim (Cambridge: Cambridge UP), 271-304.
 See Jonathan Barry, “Bourgeois Collectivism? Urban Association and the Middling Sort,” The Middling Sort of People: Culture, Society and Politics in England, 1550-1880, ed. Jonathan Barry and Christopher Brooks (NY: St. Martin’s, 1994), 84-112.
 “Estates, Degrees and Sorts in Tudor and Stuart England,” History Today 37 (1987): 17-22.
 “The Metropolis and the Revolution,” Culture and Capital: Property, Cities, and Knowledge in Early Modern London, ed. Henry S. Turner (NY: Routledge, 2002), 139-92.
 Ceri Sullivan shows that in 16th- and 17th-century England credit, seen as “unreal property,” could only be guaranteed by connection to the specific personal skills and qualities of the successful merchant. See “Silly Money, Fantastic Credit, Writing and Fantasy, ed. Ceri Sullivan and Barbara White (NY: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999), 123-36.
 For the role of credit in creating social interdependency, see Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (NY: St. Martin’s, 1998). In “Economies of Obligation in Eastward Ho!” (Ben Jonson Journal 11 : 21-40), Jill Phillips Ingram argues that city comedies such as Jonson, Chapman and Marston’s collaboration pointed to the socially binding effects that can come of “self-interested, profit-oriented motives” (25). Leinwand explores emotional responses to the increasing functions of credit in Theatre, Finance, and Society in Early Modern England.
 Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992), 38-43.
 Objectivity in the Making: Francis Bacon and the Politics of Inquiry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998).
 Jonathan Gil Harris discusses a number of Renaissance comedies as “mercantilist drama,” plays that explore the influences and effects of “foreign” elements on the emerging conception of an English economy. Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare’s England (Philadelphia: U of Penn P, 2004). In The Roaring Girl (written with Thomas Dekker), Harris finds, Middleton turns away from an earlier aversion to exchange, and economic “consumption” is recuperated as a socially beneficial practice (163-85). I argue that Middleton’s ideas about market participation are much more ambivalent in the earlier plays.
 Elizabeth Rivlin describes the cultural value of literacy, its many forms, and the increasing opportunities to obtain them in “Theatrical Literacy in The Comedy of Errors and the Gesta Grayorum,” Critical Survey 14 (2002): 64-79.
 “There’s Meat and Money Too: Rich Widows and Allegories of Wealth in Jacobean City Comedy” ELH 72 (2005): 224.
 For an analysis of the ideology of commerce in Elizabethan and Jacobean “chronicle comedies,” see Jean E. Howard, “Competing Ideologies of Commerce in Thomas Heywood’s If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody, Part II” in Turner, ed., Culture of Capital, 163-82.
 Alexander Leggatt, Citizen Comedy in the Age of Shakespeare (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1973), 55-59; Charles Barber, ed., A Trick to Catch the Old One (Berkeley: U of California P, 1968), 4-7; R.B. Parker, “Middleton’s Experiments with Comedy and Judgement,” Jacobean Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies I (London: Edward Arnold, 1960), 185-88.
 See Roma Gill, “The World of Thomas Middleton,” “Accompaninge the Players”: Essays Celebrating Thomas Middleton, 1580-1980, ed. Kenneth Friedenreich (NY: AMS, 1983), 26-29; Anthony Covatta, Thomas Middleton’s City Comedies (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1973), 99-119; Joseph Messina, “The Moral Design of A Trick to Catch the Old One,” “Accompaninge the Players,” 109-132; George E. Rowe, Thomas Middleton and the New Comedy Tradition (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1979), 76-92.
 “The ‘[Un]reclaymed forme’ of Middleton’s Trick to Catch the Old One,” SEL 31 (1991): 259-72. Scott Cutler Shershow also believes Middleton is universal in his social critique and deliberately frustrates moral readings of his characters. See “The Pit of Wit: Subplot and Unity in Middleton’s Trick to Catch the Old One,” Studies in Philology 88 (1991): 363-81.
 Between Theater and Philosophy: Skepticism in the Major City Comedies of Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton (Newark: U of Delaware P, 2001), 78.
 The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991). On the ideology and practice of usury, see Norman L. Jones, God and the Moneylenders: Usury and the Law in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989).
 See Norman Freeman Foster, The Politics of Stability: The Rulers of Elizabethan London (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977).
 See Rowe, Thomas Middleton and the New Comedy Tradition, 72-76.
 Messina argues that Witgood’s moral advantages are natural and inherent, over and against the “grotesque” Dampit. See “Moral Design,” 122. In a fine reading of Much Ado about Nothing, Ian Munro describes the process through which a courtly, improvisational, and “natural” wit is privileged over a wit appropriated as mere commodity from cheap print (“Shakespeare’s Jestbook: Wit, Print, Performance,” ELH 71 : 89-113). In Middleton, however, wit is something of the opposite, the means by which humanist rhetorical abilities, taken from and practiced upon texts, are turned to commercial advantage.
 “City Comedy’s Sardonic Hierarchy of Literacy,” SEL 29 (1989): 339.
 On the humanist sense of logic as a practical art, see Lisa Jardine, “Humanist Logic,” The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, ed. Charles B. Schmitt and Quentin Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988), 178-198; for an exploration of the link of humanist and mechanical forms of knowledge, see Paolo Rossi, Philosophy, Technology and the Arts in Early Modern Europe, trans. Salvator Attanasio (NY: Harper & Row, 1970), and Pamela O. Long, “Power, Patronage, and the Authorship of Ars,” Isis 88 (1997), 1-41. For a reconsideration of the epistemological dimensions of print in the early modern period, see Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1998).
 The Works of Thomas Middleton, ed. A.H. Bullen, 8 vols. (NY: AMS, 1964), 8:64.
 In stark contrast to Carrithers’ notions of literacy, Scott Shershow believes Witgood’s improvisations suggest “a certain lack of authorial premeditation,” implicitly opposing text and theater (“The Pit of Wit,” 370).
 On the disparity between stage usurers and actual lending practices in early modern history, see Leinwand, The City Staged, 39-43.
 The parable of the prodigal is in Luke, 15:11-15:32. George Rowe contrasts the Christian values of the narrative and the values associated with sons in Roman New Comedy in Thomas Middleton, 75-76.
 Between Theater and Philosophy, 91-92.
 In surveying the prodigal theme in early modern English comedy, Ervin Beck finds that the narrative’s most salient moral is the hero’s recognition of his links to his community, rather than his rejection of his prodigality. See “Terence Improved: The Paradigm of the Prodigal Son in English Renaissance Comedy,” Renaissance Drama, n.s. 6 (1971): 107-22.
 Barber, 3-4; Martin, 81. Richard Horwich explores the economic implications of connubial and promiscuous love in “Wives, Courtesans and the Economics of Love in Jacobean City Comedy,” Comparative Drama 7 (1973-74): 291-307.
 Swapan Chakravorty points out that the term “courtesan” is not strictly deserved, and that it really points to women’s sexual role as conduits through which money can circulate. She believes that the “socio-sexual” constructs the usurers create out of their desires, such as the idea of the rich widow, are essentially fruitless, but it is through the manipulation of such desires that a kind of equilibrium is reached. See Society and Politics in the Plays of Thomas Middleton (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1996), 57-61.
 Barber, 4; Shershow, 376; Martin, 82.
 While “portion” refers primarily to Joyce’s dowry, it can also indicate one’s lot or destiny. In laying claim to her money, then, Witgood simultaneously commits to her experience in the world. See the entry for “portion” in the OED.
 Parker, 188; Barber, 7; Messina, 118; Levin, 131-32.
 “The Pit of Wit: Subplot and Unity in Middleton’s Trick,” 368-74; see also Mount, 262.
 For example, G.J. Watson, ed., A Trick to Catch the Old One (London: Ernest Benn, 1968), xxii; and Mount, 261.