Women Beware Women was written by Thomas Middleton in the early 1600s; a precise date is difficult to afix due to the scarce records that even mention the play. It is thought to be one of his later plays because it shows evidence of a mature, experienced author. Middleton, like several playwrights of his time, had been born to lower-middle class parents; however, he had the benefit of attending the University of Oxford. This he left to join the theatre, where he was enough of a success to be appointed to a goverment position to write and to direct the official entertainments for the City of London. Women Beware Women was written during this time of Middleton's prosperity.
For the play's story, Middleton adapted an historical incident from 16th century Italy and expanded upon it to weave a story of corrupted lives. The characters, wealthy and commoners alike, forgo all bonds of love and family when offered wealth and power. In a time when, if one wasn't born into a powerful famliy, the only way to social advancement was to curry favor from the influential and gain patronage from the wealthy, Women Beware Women offered a cautionary tale of the tragic results of sheer materialism. Middleton depicted the resulting chaos when his characters turn their backs on all that is good in people and cyically lie, double-cross, rape, and plot murder in order to gain material advantage.
Two plots intertwine to make the play. In one, Leantio, a middle class man, returns home to Florence with his new bride Bianca, an heiress who has run away from her wealthy Venetian family. In the other, Isabella is about to be unwillingly married to the rich and moronic Ward. Bianca abandons her husband when the Duke forcefully professes his admiration for her and offers her a life of luxurious ease. Leantio is distressed only momentarily; when the wealthy widow Livia approaches him, he callously agrees to be her lover in exchange for her financial support. Meanwhile, Isabella quits resisting her arranged marriage once she realizes she can use it as a cover to conduct an affair with her true love, Hippolito. All the deceit culminates in the deaths of the main characters during a play within the play performed in front of the Duke.
Love is not portryaed favourably in Women Beware Women. This is not to say that heatfelt love does not exist int he play; however, it is subverted by the characters' stronger desires for gain. The lessened importance of love is shown in the powerlessness of women in the play and the control exerted over them by the men. Love is also a function of lust. A perception of women as sexual possessions and playthings recurs throughout the story: when women are commodities, the value of love and fidelity is negotiable for other values.
We see an example of the objectification of women right from the beginning, when Leantio brings Bianca home to his mother. Leantio is overjoyed at his good luck to marry a beautiful woman who is above his station, but he repeatedly refers to her in ways that show her to be a prize to him, not a person. He introduces Bianca to his mother thus: "And here's my masterpiece. Do you now behold her! Look on her well, she's mine; look on her better -- Now say, if't be not the best piece of theft that ever was committed" (p. 8). Later, he refers to her as a precious jewel that requires hiding from others, lest they desire to steal it: "The jewel is cased up from all men's eyes: who could imagine now a gem were kept, of that grat value, under this plain roof?" (p. 12). Leantio is happy with his prize, but his fears of losing Bianca to another are later realized. Bianca has also married him to escape her bourgeois family; this may be one reason why she accepts his grasping behavior. She is using his desire for her as a ladder to go up in the world and to escape the control of hard parents.
Still for her part, Bianca at first displays great love and willingness to sacrifice comfort for ther husband, Leantio. When they marry, she says that she doesn't care about the deprivations of her new home as long as she can be by Leantio's side. However, her courtesy to her mother-in-law vanishes along with her affection for her husband after she is forcefully seduced by the powerful Ducke By the play's end, she has switched her love so fully and is so fearful that she commits suicide when her protector and provider, the Duke, is murdered by her own treachery gone awry. Endurng love is not a supreme virtue among any of the play's characters.
Elsewhere, other characters augment this less than noble view of love. In the case of Isabella's impending marriage, Isabella protests that she does not love the Ward. Since she is a woman, however, her views do not count for much when her father decides against her. He views love as something that can be created to fit the need, and if Isabella does not love the Ward now, perhaps she will later: "Marry him she shall then", her father Fabritio says, "Let her agree upon love afterwards" (p. 180. The more important mater is the marriage and the money the Ward will bring to Fabritio: love is unimportant in a marriage as far as the authority figures of this play are concerned.
The one true example of a mutual and deeply felt love is that of Hippolito and Isabella for one another, which, because of their familial relationship (uncle and niece), is a perverse and forbidden love. Hippolito is at first ashamed of his feelings, and Isabella horrified when he divulges them. When her aunt, Livia, conspires to match them up by lying, by saying that Hipplito is not really a relation, and their love not incest, uncle and niece joyfully indulge in a physical relationship. Before kissing him, she hails him as the "comfort of my life" and swears, "I will keep you fast now, and sooner part eternally from the world than my good joys in joy" (p. 32). This expression of love is stirring, yet disturbing, not least in its insistence on the physical lustful basis of the relationship. The reader, along with Hippolito, is not fooled: Isabella is Hippolito's niece. In addition, their relationship would not have flourished if Livia had not treated Isabella as a gift to be hadned to her brother.
The notion that women can be brought, traded, and given away regardless of their relationship to a man affects the patterns of sex in the stories. The sexual conquest of women is viewed as a positive value by the male and some of the female characters. By arranging such a conquest for a friend, one can hope for material rewards. No consideration is given to the female partner of such an arrangement: Livia is twice guilty of conspiring to make available a desired woman, and she delights in her abilities. To please her brother Hippolito, she deceives her niece, Isabella, so that Isabella might be sexually available for him. Of this Livia boasts, "Who shows mor craft t'undo a maidhead, I'll resign my part to her" (p. 32). Later she and Guardiano set up Bianca so that the girl is alone with the Duke. They have hopes to gain from this favor. When Guardiano first mentions the Duke's desire for Bianca, he states, "'Twould prove but too much worth in wealth and favor to those should work his peace" (p. 34). After Bianca is (in effect) raped by the Duke, Garudian shows no feeling towards her immediate anguish, so long as the Duke got his way: "Well, so the Duke love me I fare not much amiss then" (p. 50).
That women are just pawns for the advancement of those who can manipulate them, and exist as objects for the gratification of men, is plainly mirrored in the chess game that Livia and Bianca's mother-in-law play while Biance is betrayed. The Duke's forceful seduction of Bianca epitomizes the attitude toward sex in the play: it is a thing to be taken by force or trickery from a woman. The Duke's offer of wealth and ease makes the act more palatable to Bianca once she reflects on her situation, but the threat of violence and the dominion of men over women is underscored in this scene. We also know that she was bored by Leantio as he had locked her up. It is true that one of the most ruthless seducers of the play is Livia, a woman (thus the play's title), but she acts on behalf of men, is paid by them, and herself is as aggressive as a man. Leantio's mother acts as a warden for him over his wife when he is out at work.
Another example of sex as a commodity is illustrated by Livia's seduction of Leantio. This scene is oreshadowed when Livia rcounts a stroy fo a forty-nine year old woman who, despite her lessened attractiveness to men, was able to porcure a lover, but "she paid well for him" (p. 40). This is exactly how Livia retains Leantio's services. Leantio is made much more willing to become Livia's sexual plaything when she promises, "Now by this kiss, my lvoe, my soul and riches, 'tis all true substance. Come, you shall see my wealth, take what you list" (p. 76). Clearly, money buys sex. No one in the play is immune or idealistic.
Middleton portrays a world in which love and sex are not virtues, but negotiable goods. His characters display the loss of their humanity and dignity when power and wealth are dangled before them. These choices are, however, condemned: these are not stories in which the characters get away with their crimes or end up happily. At play's end, they have preyed on one another unto their deaths. The black comedy of the play within the play is a mirror writ large of the play's actions.