The School of the World: Trading on Wit in Middleton’s Trick to Catch the Old One

Eric Leonidas
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:>.


  1. Although English Renaissance city comedy presents a host of unscrupulous merchants in pursuit of a gentleman’s patrimony, Thomas Middleton sketches an unusually complicated picture of the cozener’s interests in Michaelmas Term (c. 1604-05).  The wealthy citizen Ephestian Quomodo, having just conned one Richard Easy out of his estate, quietly exults:
    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)[1]
    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.[2]  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.

  2. In his famous claims for the emergence of a powerful gentry, R.H. Tawney described a group of land-owning entrepreneurs committed to industry, agricultural efficiency, land improvements, and a general accumulation of value.[3]  Reviewing the “gentry debate” that followed Tawney’s arguments, Michael Mckeon argues that these agricultural capitalists shared a quantitative approach to commerce with urban merchants, in contrast to the more conservative estate management practices of “rural rentiers.”[4]  If we cannot yet speak of a fully evident class consciousness among the gentry and merchants, we can see the beginnings of a mutual identity, founded less on traditional forms of civic participation (many of which continued to sub-divide broad economic and regional categories) and more on a shared desire for commercial and social advancement.[5]  Keith Wrightson argues that late in the 16th century “sort” grew to prominence as an alternative social category to “estate” or “degree.”  The advantage of “sort” was that is was radically general, dividing people into better and worse depending on economic capability and its consequence, social influence.[6]  The division among sorts was simply more practical than that between gentleman and commoner, allotting to the “richer” sort not only the traditional gentry but also “the local notables of England’s towns and villages, those with the prominence in local life which property gave them and a growing part also in the government and administration of their parishes and towns” (21).  David Harris Sacks reminds us of the real heterogeneity bubbling within even within carefully created social designations.[7]  Still, playwrights did not shy away from the broad shorthand of types, even as they recognized that these did not necessarily carry stable social, economic, or ethical meanings.  Middleton’s plays, for instance, still feature Quomodos, rich urban upstarts with pretensions to gentility, but their moral dispositions are not reducible to their desire for property and advancement.  Nor, by contrast, do the threadbare gentlemen who seek wives or maintenance among the citizenry worry much about social standing, recognizing that the loss of wealth already incurred has done more damage to their credit than will association among tradeswomen.  Middleton seeks practical distinctions within a class of men (and the occasional woman) who are all to some degree shrewd, acquisitive, theatrical, and self-conscious.

  3. Michaelmas Term’s two main figures, Easy and Quomodo, both suffer from an exaggerated belatedness.  Easy is not an idiot, but he seems strikingly ignorant of England’s commercial and social changes, which are written everywhere in the play.  Unlike the foolish Andrew Lethe, Easy is not unschooled.  One of his cozeners observes,
    Only good confidence did make him foolish,
    And not the lack of sense—that was not it;
    ‘Tis worldly craft beats down a scholar’s wit.  (4.3.15-17)
    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.[8]  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.[9]  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. 

  4. Oddly enough, in his pretensions to gentility the formerly shrewd Quomodo lapses into the same mistaken sense of place and self as Easy.  If Easy is blithely ignorant of the growing interdependence of citizens and gentry, Quomodo can only envision the association as predatory.  His stereotypical idea of mutually opposed classes (registered in “proverbial” couplets, 1.1.108-09 and 135-136) ignores the institutional connections that pervade the play.  Landlords flock to London to adjudicate their cases (the theme of the induction and of the discussion, between Salewood and Rearage, that opens the play); Rearage pursues Quomodo’s daughter in marriage; and Quomodo’s wife, thinking him dead, marries Easy.  Lacking any commitment to the entailments and obligations of doing actual business, Quomodo imagines Easy’s estate as an escape.  When he is not profligately dreaming about consuming his land for his own pleasure, Quomodo romantically rhapsodizes about the land’s power to provide him the social legitimacy and productivity his bogus “trading” cannot.  He envisions access to a source of order, prestige, and timeless sexual potency:
    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.

  5. Accounting for the striking role of possessions and exchange in Renaissance drama generally, Douglas Bruster argues that the “materialist vision” playwrights present reflects a growing cultural fascination with material things.  To revitalize the conceptual—to give it the shape, heft, and impact associated with the “real”—writers embodied it in exchangeable objects.  Inevitably, such objects took on the role of indicating identity, and so ensued the “commodification of the personal.”[10]  In Jacobean farce, “Rings, moneybags, and other chattel served as the tabulae rasae on which plays literally wrote the personal, subjectivity thus becoming tightly involved in the cultural status of property.  The drama shows a related interest in, even an obsession with, the personal side of loss and gain” (45).  In these terms, we can see both Easy and Quomodo’s personal overinvestment in land, an asset that, in the economic climate of the 17th century Middleton portrays, has become as much a commodity as the cloth in the draper’s shop.  Bruster also draws a loose association with the “objectivism” of Francis Bacon, but Bacon sought a separation of minds and material world.  Modeling his natural philosophy on the “self-distancing” of successful merchants, Julie Solomon shows, Bacon called for a disinterested approach to things, at least among those doing the actual investigating, reserving to the courtly elite the power to transform discoveries into knowledge and to ascribe use and value.[11]  Solomon’s purpose is to describe the Jacobean court’s institutional effort to exploit the successes of mercantilism but limit merchants’ access to the power amassed through exchange.  The mercantile mindset she describes, however, is the practical basis of prosperity for Middleton’s dramatic protagonists, and equally in need of circumscription.  For Solomon, the ideological cast given mercantilism was intended to link the private pursuit of wealth with the public weal, which was embodied in the monarch.  Increasingly, she argues, writers on mercantilism describe merchants as doing the business of state; writings on the topic thus created a discourse promoting a “consensual, rather than a regulatory, form of disinterestedness…” (73).  Such a consensus, though, was not exclusively the product of pamphlets and treatises on commerce.  Michaelmas Term points out the need for a mercantile mindset to secure social stability and establish trust but also suggests how quickly an irresponsible mercantilism can damage these.  A Trick to Catch the Old One, probably written a few months later, offers a more positive contribution to the effort to fashion a beneficial conception of mercantilism.[12] 

  6. Like Bacon’s notion of mercantilism, the play calibrates the interests and collective value of the pursuit of money and status.  But rather than figure the collective in the person of the king, Middleton allows received moral narratives to embody social value and threat.  To an extent that a character can pursue his or her self-interest within the loose outlines of a traditional and socially constitutive plot—here, the prodigal son and the romantic quest—his or her fate will feel tied to the institutions that ensure social stability.  Social trust is figured not as a direct commitment to others so much as a willingness to take part in unifying fictions.  Even though a spectrum of writers at the time are calling such narratives into ideological service to legitimize new economic realities, Middleton uses these plots to reserve cultural currency to those who, like many of the early modern dramatists themselves, can combine a humanist’s textual knowledge and practices with an entrepreneur’s interest in material gain.[13]

  7. The prodigal son narrative ideologically allows for financial recklessness to be compatible with acquisition and social cohesion.  The prodigal can represent “inchoate, emergent economic possibility that does not correlate with existing social positions or available courses of action,” as it does in the “widow-chasing” comedies Elizabeth Hanson analyzes.[14]  Conversely, as in Michaelmas Term and Trick, the narrative can suggest savvy spending and investment as a prerequisite for maintaining and augmenting what one begins with—giving away to get more, Easy begins unknowingly but, in marrying Thomasine, quickly recognizes the profitability of desires for more than simple maintenance of the status quo.  Trick’s Witgood fully takes his role of prodigal in hand and contractually gives away apparent gain to secure even greater wealth, the reconciliation of rivals, the marriages.  At the other extreme are Middleton’s mercantilists, concerned only for their own status.  Far from the great contributors to London’s economic and social vitality or the exemplars of humble virtue and generosity found in less satiric city comedy, Middleton’s merchants Quomodo and Lucre are secretive, envious and unproductively acquisitive.[15]    Ignorant of or unaccommodated to narratives that would figure their vitality in social institutions, they slip in and out of cultural desires and pursuits.  Quomodo, for instance, is by turns Horace’s urban man yearning for green thoughts in a green shade, an unforgiving father of a prodigal, and a garish citizen upstart.  Trick’s Lucre is at once the prodigal’s father and the devourer of the son’s riches.  In both cases, their desire for wealth is only a problem to the extent that it manifests itself in solipsism and a doubt of institutions, as represented by narrative inconsistency.   Middleton doesn’t seem to ask for great building projects or other obvious contributions to civic life.  Rather, he requires characters to acknowledge a link between individual lives and communities.  His demand for a degree of collective mindset in economic actors suggests that these cozening plays are intended neither to lament the growing forces of economic change nor to celebrate the civic benefits of commerce.  Instead, they affirm the inevitability of market life in early 17th-century London.  Knowledge of markets is critical and comes from experiential participation in economic exchange, which requires wide circulation among the entrepreneurial class.  At the same time, if a social order that admits so much change and exchange is to sustain itself, commercial practices need to meet some specific communal obligations as figured in received patterns.

  8. In A Trick to Catch the Old One, social transformation and the amoral potential of capital are again the norm, but since the ostensibly good characters are as deceptive and manipulative as the obviously unsympathetic ones, grounds beyond Michaelmas Term’s disinterestedness must be sought upon which to make moral distinctions and project social resilience.  No one enjoys Easy’s social or financial innocence.  Some readers have argued that Middleton has simply become more genial in his satire.[16]  Others believe he presents the reclamation of fallen but essentially virtuous characters in realistic or natural terms, or that the regeneration is only partial.[17]  David Mount sees Middleton expanding the scope of the satire but also thinks the play is particularly trenchant in its social vision.  Rather than gently mocking of everyone, Middleton’s critique is sharp and pessimistic, especially toward the characters identified as virtuous.  The difficulty we have distinguishing the gallant Witgood and his courtesan from the other social plotters is emblematic, Mount argues, of a society in which the values of typical comedy, including Middleton’s own, no longer have any pull.  Middleton laments the utter liquification of property and other social markers, and he deplores the exchange of knowledge for capital, which is then hastily spent.[18]

  9. Mount’s reading helpfully shifts emphasis to what Witgood and his courtesan share in common with the other cheats in the play, and he recognizes Middleton is troubled by the uses and misuses of “textual” intelligence, but his reading does not explain why characters are awarded varying degrees of success, nor does he give credit to the perseverance of traditional plotting and its consequent reinforcement of normative social values and institutions.  Mathew Martin does focus on the play’s conventional narratives, but he believes they are emptied of meaning.  Characters deploy paradigms such as the prodigal son or romantic quest simply to aid their pursuit of purely economic ends.  In the hands of Witgood and his courtesan, the narratives become “contingent and manipulative positions,” and in the process their implicit priorities and beliefs are thoroughly subordinated to the quest for financial security.[19]  Martin is certainly right that we need to question the epistemological status of the conventional dramatic or textual elements that find their way into city comedy, but in his reading of Trick he presumes that Middleton sets the play against an official social ideology—collective salvation.  Citing Hooker and the Tudor governments’ moral opposition to usury, Martin argues that we need to see Witgood in particular as dangerously privileging his economic status before the spiritual health of a Christian commonwealth (79-81).  A less loftily stated if equally vital social goal of Elizabethan and Jacobean social life, however, was simply stability, as Ian Archer has explored and which the various political compromises on the matter of usury suggest.[20]  The city of London, run essentially by a mercantile elite, was remarkably adept at safeguarding financial privileges and opportunities.[21]  In self-consciously combining the prodigal narrative and the plotting of romantic love, Witgood ensures that an outcome financially beneficial to himself also makes moral and social sense to his immediate community.  Rather than simply defer to an idealized past, or to its current articulations in civic ideology, Middleton suggests that the bright young men schooled in the traditions associated with texts—but who are also informed by practical economic, legal and social experience—have a role in channeling economic and sexual individualism into communally acceptable forms. 

  10. Witgood opens the play by offering a fundamental truth: the title “gentleman” counts for little anymore.  “All’s gone!” he exclaims.  “Still, thou’rt a gentleman, that’s all; but a poor one, that’s nothing” (1.1.1-2).  Authority has shifted from title to capital.  Witgood himself has exchanged one for the other in mortgaging his lands to his uncle Lucre, but he profligately spent the cash he raised and now has neither.  In this inverted society, moreover, moral authority attends financial power.  Witgood realizes that his uncle’s avarice can be easily construed as a just punishment for a nephew’s unrestrained taste for “brothel, drink and danger.”  Witgood lacks even a place to go.  He is essentially homeless in the country, and in London, where his uncle lives, a “plague” awaits him: his own debts.  By beginning the play after Witgood has spent his fortune, Middleton softens his picture of the prodigal.[22]  But he also leaves Witgood virtually indistinguishable from the three most acquisitive characters in the play—Lucre, his rival Hoard, and the usurer Dampit.  Nor in planning a course does Witgood call upon an essential nobility or inherent sense of distinction.  His given name, Theodorus Witgood, suggests he has divine resources to fall back on, but he casts himself in very different terms:
    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.[23]  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.

  11. The “trick” in question is both a simple scam and a highly literate conception.  Its simplicity lies in its recognition and exploitation of a society governed by the practice of usury—people in Trick’s world will invest heavily but foolishly if they expect significant return of financial or social capital.  Witgood will talk up his courtesan as a rich, propertied country widow.  His uncle will deliver cash, at the least, to secure a marriage for his nephew, all with an eye to bilking him of the new lands.  The potential for easy and lucrative return also helps Witgood win the aid of a friendly “host” (his local barkeep) and to obtain advances, in cash and valuables, from three gentlemen creditors to whom he is already in debt.  Thus the trick is a version of the legacy scam familiar from New Comedy and, in the Jacobean era, Jonson’s Volpone.  But it bears an important difference.  Middleton’s version requires almost no props, teasers or elaborately performed subterfuge.  Witgood sets the whole thing in motion with a brisk tale: “I’ll to mine host with all possible haste, and with the best art and most profitable form pour the sweet circumstance into his ear, which shall have the gift to turn all the wax to honey” (1.1.94-96).  He regales the host, who declares himself “conjured” and agrees to supply money, horses, and his own service (1.2.21-22).  The only bit of proof ever offered is a group of spurious “writings” testifying to the widow’s claim of £400 per year (1.4.3; 2.1.33). 

  12. The trick, then, grows out of Witgood’s superior literacy.  Gale Carrithers has argued that such skills are closely tied to print culture: “London was unevenly and uneasily shifting from predominantly oral-aural-memorial culture to increasingly textual-substantial culture which might comically-shockingly spatialize and instrumentalize language and persons.”[24]  Witgood manipulates signs and alters meanings, as though they were so many cards in the tarot.  But such manipulations of one’s environment, and many of the analogous claims made for print, are rooted in a practical conception of the world, itself associated not only with humanists but with artisans (and artists, by extension), explorers, merchants, and scientists.[25]   The experience of living in the world—especially among merchants, lawyers, artists, and artisans—informs ideas of textuality as much as text provides models of re-ordering the world.  In Middleton’s pamphlet Father Hubburd’s Tales, an ant pleading to a nightingale for his life promises to tell rich tales for having been human before suffering transformation to an insect.  The gathered company of ants becomes an informed audience, and the narrator himself begins to “stalk like a three-quarter sharer” in a theater company, telling “tales out of the villanous school of the world, where the devil is the schoolmaster and the usurer the under-usher, the scholars young dicing landlords, that pass away three hundred acres with three dice in a hand....”[26]  In Middleton’s theater, old types serve to identify and color social conflicts and experience, but they cannot serve as substitutes.  One must nevertheless attend, and attend to, the school of the world and to put that knowledge into service.  Otherwise, one is likely to be devoured by another singer of songs.

  13. Witgood himself combines traditional and more experiential forms of knowledge, “a firm scholar and an understanding gentleman,” as one of Lucre’s friends observes (4.2.16-17).[27]  From his own social transformation, from his hypothetical sense of “a million of men in the world that only sojourn upon their brain” (1.1.21-22), as well as from his evident familiarity with conventional tricks and plots, Witgood believes he can shape others’ convictions about the world and create for himself his “rightful” place in it.  Early on he alludes to his confluence of textual and practical knowledge in a complex pun on his courtesan as his “best invention” (1.1.40).  He has made her, in the sense that he turned her from country maiden to his sexual companion, and now he hopes to use her as the critical part of his nascent plot.  She also enters the play just as he begins searching his wit for an idea.  Thus she answers both a rhetorical and mechanical notion of invention—she will serve in a commonplace plot to win back his money and possessions, and she will serve as a solution to a problem, something created and manipulated for a particular purpose.

  14. The economy of A Trick to Catch the Old One is notably more opaque than that of Michaelmas Term, which makes the rhetorical efforts of self-invention, self-representation and social plotting all the more effective.  Quomodo is a draper eager for the status that an estate would provide him.  The two old rivals in Trick, Lucre and Hoard, though financial dealers, have worked to obscure their origins.  Lucre has achieved gentility.  Sam Freedom, Lucre’s stepson, brags as much in noting that, with his mother’s marriage, he too can claim to be a gentleman.  But what that means to these newly-minted men is not clear, as reflected in their shifting language.  Freedom notes he is a gentleman by his step-father’s “occupation,” and in invoking his status to kiss the hand of the widow he thinks entirely in the terms of a guildsman: “I see no reason but I may kiss a widow by my father’s copy; truly, I think the charter is not against it” (2.1.283-84).  In rehashing his quarrel with Hoard (over who was entitled to cheat a young gentleman), Lucre wields the discourse of a canny merchant: “I got the purchase, true; was’t not any man’s case?  Yes.  Will a wise man stand as a bawd, whilst another wipes his nose of the bargain?” (1.2.11-13).  Hoard lets out that his father was a fishmonger (5.2.21-22); Lucre is less specific, though in noting that his wife worked in an “alderman’s kitchen” he admits that “most of our beginnings must be winked at” (4.2.76-77).  Thus characters reveal and conceal themselves and seek to move others in various registers as opportunities present themselves.  The conniving lawyer Dampit is brazen in celebrating his rise from nothing, eagerly telling the tale of how he arrived in London with only 10 shillings and is now worth “ten thousand pound” (1.4.38-40).  What is more, he insists that Witgood “report it.”  His notoriety is itself a commodity, an advertisement of his industry and craft that will win him additional clients.  The value of Dampit’s self-narrative sets practical need against any supposed moral reservations his culture might hold toward creditors or socially ambitious citizens.  It is certainly accurate to label Lucre, Hoard and Dampit as usurers, yet doing so obscures not only their facility with the discourses of trade, law, and finance but also their command of the benefits of social association and distinction.[28]  These men of shadowy status readily tie and untie themselves to different social groups.  They use their technical and experiential knowledge to gain wealth, but they also manipulate their own representations as a valuable resource.  The point isn’t merely that language is commodified.  Middleton’s shows rhetorical skill to be a powerful mechanical philosophy, a means of forging an identity and shaping the world to accept it.  What sets Witgood’s skills apart is not proficiency so much as an awareness of collective textual traditions.  Even in the school of the world, lettered men—educated playwrights, for example—have a special role.

  15. Perhaps Witgood’s greatest achievement comes in his deft control of the rumor mill.  Having conceived his plot, produced his documents and sent his host to tip off Lucre about the wealthy widow, he steps back and allows the news to circulate.  The host himself suggests the value of his information (2.1.116-18), but in Lucre we see it increase.  Rumor is another commodity, and as it is desired and exchanged it grows.  In his first moment alone after hearing of the widow, Lucre “recalls” other information about her: “Four hundred a year!  Beside, I hear she lays claim to a title of a hundred more” (2.1.152-53).  Witgood feigns astonishment when he learns that his uncle is alert to his marriage plans, but Middleton’s larger purpose is to call our attention to a community knit together and activated by such rumors.  The news is passed to Lucre’s wife, who begins to draw up her own “plot” to secure a marriage for her son (2.1.335-45), and within “three hours” of plot time Moneylove and Hoard are also scheming to wed the widow (2.2.11-12).  The joke, of course, is that everyone is perpetually on the make, but Middleton also establishes the shaping power of seeming intangibles.  In the deeply competitive society Middleton portrays, with little visible production and few real assets, whoever controls the dissemination of information has enormous speculative advantage.  Upon hearing the news of Witgood’s good fortune, for instance, the three creditors looking to take action against him for his defaults suddenly compete to extend more cash and valuables in hope of still greater return. 

  16. In contrast to his fellow acquisitors, who grasp at textual fragments in an attempt to script a starring role, Witgood quietly manipulates two powerfully constitutive literary story lines that guide his acts, govern others’ perceptions of him, and chart his own goals.  Early on he speaks of his wit, his art, his invention, and his plotting.  Certainly he is self-conscious of himself as an artist, though he is not the only one openly self-aware in his scheming.  Hearing of the widow, Mistress Lucre also chases the main chance by inventing a “plot.”  Sam stupidly asks whether it is comic or tragic.  The joke here is that sophisticated Londoners, and presumably London audiences, are far beyond so basic a sense of theater as entertainment and are more alert to the pursuit of individual advantage.  Mistress Lucre’s plot, she insists, will “vex” Witgood by showing a superior command of what’s really valuable.  She reminds her son that he is worth 200 pounds a year, “beside thy good parts,” and is recognized among “all the twelve companies” (2.1.338-44).  But Witgood’s eventual triumph over such versions of commercial self-appraisal reveals that the spurning of conventional theatrical values for a supposedly hard-headed sense of desire is itself limited and unworldly.  Lucre makes a show of adopting the role of the prodigal’s father but confides to the audience that he has no intention of re-investing Witgood with his patrimony and that he hopes to have even more from him (2.1.158-63).  Hearing of Moneylove’s interest in the widow, Hoard self-consciously plots against the rhetorical traditions of romance:  “I’ll mar your phrase, o’erturn your flatteries, / Undo your windings, policies, and plots, / Fall like a secret and dispatchful plague / On your secured comforts” (2.2.46-49).  The creditors likewise pretend to help Witgood in his pursuit of the widow, but after they are paid they quickly confess “’Twas a trick we have amongst us to get in our money” (4.4.260-61). 

  17. For his part, Witgood succeeds because he can manipulate and even create equilibrium among the desires of a larger group of people—Lucre, Hoard, the Courtesan, and of course his own needs—and because he does so through the use of the traditional theatrical plotting Sam misunderstands.  As prodigal, Witgood returns to his uncle, a comically inadequate surrogate father, in need of help.  Whereas the typical prodigal narrative reaffirms the values of an older, wiser generation, here Witgood begins to negotiate spaces of common—though hardly universal—advantage.[29]  Thus his acceptance by his uncle comes not in the form of forgiveness, reconciliation, and reaffirmation of the status quo, but in opportunity: Lucre accepts Witgood as an investment.  For his part, Witgood is happy to go along with the arrangement, linking his own moral transformation to the recovery of his property: “Oh, that I had the mortgage from mine uncle as sure in possession as these trifles.  I would forswear brothel at noonday and muscadine and eggs at midnight” (3.1.88-90).  In other words, both men are following the contours of the prodigal narrative, as Martin has argued, even if it has little sense of universal meaning.[30]  Nonetheless, Witgood does promise a change, however unnecessary for his immediate success.  He recognizes the moral emphasis of the prodigal narrative and its concern for the stability of social relationships, and he seeks to promote those by structuring his prodigal plot so that it ties up a number of loose social ends.[31]

  18. Witgood’s riotous life did great damage to his wealth and reputation, but it also made vulnerable his courtesan.  If the comic plot seems to slight his romantic pursuits in favor of his pecuniary ones, it does busy itself significantly with the social status of the Courtesan.  Marrying the principals off remains important, though for unconventional reasons.  Witgood recognizes both a legal and moral commitment to the young woman he seduced, and his “trick” will seek to satisfy both of these.  He acknowledges “’twould ease my concience well to see thee well bestowed; I have a care of thee i’faith” (3.1.114-15).  These commitments, in fact, are emphasized by her inclusion in the scheme.  That is, critics have observed that desire in the play is almost entirely for commodities.[32]  Witgood deploys his courtesan as an instrument to help him achieve his inheritance, but money also serves as marker of social obligation:
    Hoard: Why, are not debts better than words, sir?
    Witgood: Are not words promises, and are not promises debts, sir?  (4.4.181-82)
    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.

  19. Presumably, Witgood seduced the Courtesan away from a life as a country maid.  “I have been true unto your pleasure,” she tells him, “and all your lands thrice racked was never worth the jewel which I prodigally gave you, my virginity” (1.1.32-34).  He tries to spurn her at first but immediately recognizes that his sexual relationship and whatever promises he made have created a connection as potentially powerful as that with his creditors.  In using her to provide his own security, the figurative associations suggest, he becomes obligated to provide for hers.  Witgood and the Courtesan employ their implicit social connection by shaping it into a fictional precontract and using it to blackmail Hoard.  The reality of their relationship, if not its specifics, now stands in the way of Hoard’s marriage to the Courtesan as wealthy widow, and he responds by paying off Witgood’s creditors in exchange for the dissolution of her invented pledge.  Hoard obtains a written release that codifies his right to the widow’s non-existent property and that frees Witgood of any interest in her.  Witgood’s sexual claims, then, have essentially been purchased, but the transaction also ensures the stability of the relationships that will follow.

  20. Perhaps the most morally laudable course for Witgood would be simply to marry the woman he corrupted, but Middleton makes us aware that such a choice, now that Witgood’s money is gone and his lands stand in the possession of his uncle, would have little practical or social benefit.  Instead, the relationship between Witgood and the Courtesan takes on greater flexibility to achieve more expansive ends, and it borrows discursively from both marital and paternal relationships.  In devising their trick, Witgood and the Courtesan speak of it in the terms of their social obligation as a wedded couple—parenthood:
    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.[33]  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).

  21. Hoard asks whether she wants her wedding feast in the country or city.  Earlier he had fantasized about reveling in his newly achieved status of country gentleman, which he could lord over Lucre.  But the Courtesan insists on celebrating in London: “Here you were married, here let all rites be ended” (4.4.78-79).  She enters openly into her new life, stressing her socially sanctioned link to Hoard and even her larger embeddedness in the community.  She may be allowing Hoard to be deceived, but these two characters also represent competing conventional narratives, and hers is by far the more constructive.  Hoard is entering into the marriage to gain social capital, but above all to enjoy public revenge over his rival Lucre:  “Ha, ha, ha,” he laughs at Lucre,
    If every man that swells in malice
    Could be revenged as happily as I,
    He would choose hate and forswear amity.  (4.1.97-99)
    His 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).

  22. Witgood’s own romance—deep in the background, he pursues and marries Hoard’s niece, Joyce—is often viewed as a perfunctory stock device.[34]  At best, whatever interest Witgood shows in her seems to focus on her fortune, and even that sexual energy is less than what he shows for the mortgage on his own land.  Holding the document, he swoons,
    Thou soul of my estate, I kiss thee,
    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)
    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.[35]  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).

  23. Thus if Witgood’s romance is attenuated, the point is not cynicism but Middleton’s notion that such pursuits unfold within a larger, more significant collective need for social stability and interconnectedness.  Those who can integrate existing moral narratives and who can satisfy multiple desires are simply more successful in Middleton’s world than those who cannot.  Perhaps the starkest evidence of that is the contrast-in-similarity that runs throughout Trick between Witgood and Dampit.  A number of critics of have found little point to the subplot, involving the demise of Dampit, beyond providing some diverting comic energy or lightening our responses to the less socially damaging usurers Lucre and Hoard.[36]  In fact, as Scott Shershow has shown, Dampit is a neat inversion of Witgood and shares some of his past habits and figurative identifications.[37]  Our doubts about Dampit thus complicate our feelings for Witgood, Lucre and Hoard.  The similarities, however, ultimately emphasize the sociability and constitutive roles of the main plot’s characters, especially their recognition that financial and sexual links create social obligations.  Dampit is by far the most self-conscious and libertine alterer of traditional social narratives, but it is this disregard for collective social “texts” that forces him to the margin.  Middleton focuses our attention in particular on Dampit’s singular language and his conspicuous rejection of a romance narrative.

  24. A “trampler of time,” Dampit is a go-between, an intermediary, someone who shuttles among parties or places as an attorney yet in doing so also asserts command.  He has literarally trampled social distinctions in his rise from destitution to a man of wealth and power.  Along the way, he has bilked countless gentlemen who come down from the country and depend on his knowledge of the social apsects of the legal system (1.1.46-61).  Witgood admits that he himself turned to Dampit and incurred some loss (1.4.30).  Dampit is obviously a man of enormous ingenuity, industry and even knowledge.  The specificity of what he knows and his individual ability to wield it, moreover, are registered in his inventive language: “trampler,” “fooliaminy,” “infortunity,” “gernative,” “mullipood.”  Dampit’s speech is familiar, colloquial and alien at once.  His penchant for neologisms in conventional, if energetic, exchanges highlights the oddity of his role in the community: he is successful within the law but operates beyond its bounds; he is widely known but close to no one.  Indeed, a language that suggests intimacy or at least shared experience is most often used to berate his companions or insist, as with the knight Lancelot, that he has no need for “crawling love” (4.5.79).

  25. If Dampit’s trickery and verbal ingenuity align him with Witgood, their romantic trajectories cleanly divide them.  Witgood seduced one woman, briefly thought of casting her off, but finally bound himself to her in a mutual financial pursuit.  His link to Joyce also combines financial and moral interest.  As Dampit slowly collapses, the one comfort left him (once drink fails) is his connection to his companion Audrey (presumably the servant to Dampit’s landlord).  Yet he flamboyantly spurns her attentions, and does so in terms that emphasize his remoteness.  Entering drunk and thoroughly addled in act three, he seems perplexed by Audrey’s presence, her observations and her offers of aid.  Their exchange over whether one o’clock in the morning is early or late vaguely recalls the festivity of Twelfth Night, and perhaps even the muted mutual attraction of Toby and Maria, though with none of the poignancy.  Dampit struggles to understand and “answer” Audrey’s remarks about his excessive drinking.  He mistakes her plain insight for “cony-catching devices” and announces “I never did trust thee” (3.4.38).  The man of splendid rhetorical singularity can marshal only an empty ad feminam attack in response to her concerns.  Where Witgood manages to team up with his courtesan and expresses continued care for her financial well-being, Dampit insists he will not “give a louse” for Audrey’s fortunes (ll. 45-46).  He ultimately declares her “answered,” but the rhetoric that previously has marked out a unique energy emerges as an indicator of damaging isolation.

  26. In his final scene, Dampit approaches his end, continuing to insult Audrey ingeniously but now breaking with his own surrogate son, Gulf.  His acquaintances mock him and moralize on the emblematic fate of the usurer, empty words all.  The knight Lancelot pretends to be a country gentlemen unjustly cheated out of his family home.  Dampit counsels either fighting the cozener through a seven-year course in law or setting “fire a’th’house and so get him out” (4.5.114-20).  Thus Dampit conspicuously fails to do so many of the things Witgood finally accomplishes—recovery of a patrimony, rehabilitation of a name, achievement of stable unions, reconciliation of rivals, public celebration.  Dampit’s desire to speak his own language and to cut a personal narrative out of whole cloth, paradoxically, allows others to write him into some of the most conventional moralizing and allegorical patterning to be found in the play.  The simple identification of Dampit as a devil in chains is inflexible and inert, entirely lacking in any practical social effect.

  27. If critics have had a difficult time deciding whether Middleton’s socially observant comedy is morally critical or passively amused, it is not without reason.  While a younger generation manages to outfox an older one, the young characters put on much of the social awareness of the older ones and share their desires for prosperity and self-affirmation.  The play, in the end, does not draw a coherently festive or remotely Christian social picture.  Instead, it offers a practical incentive to balance individual social and erotic desire with greater communal stability.  That Michaelmas Term and Trick, written within months of each other, suggest a growing accommodation with social manipulation reflects Middleton’s grudging recognition of the legitimacy of a practical and even commercial intelligence.  The Roaring Girl, written with Thomas Dekker in 1610, will virtually celebrate social circulation and practice as a means of creating knowledge and using it to ensure a beneficial social order.  Likewise, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613), with its decentralized plot structure and array of schemers, will assume close social observation and the creative pursuit of self-interest to be inevitable and even constitutive.  Thus Trick’s Witgood provides an early instance of the integrated and applied knowledge that comes to be so vital a principle in Middleton’s city comedy.  Middleton’s play proposes that the key to negotiating commercial London is wit.  But wit is not a natural gift inherently capable of recognizing and restoring a natural order so much as an improvisatory skill, a cultivated knowledge that enables one to exert force on the world around him.  And it is effectively amoral.  In the end, Witgood and his Courtesan each kneel and spend some lines declaring their intention of living morally upstanding lives.  Several readers have noted the emptiness of these remarks.[38]  They are, in fact, remarkably full—full of close observations intended to convey experiential knowledge.  The speeches are satirical inventories related in couplets; a threateningly discrete and disjointed world is appropriately molded into rhetorical finality.  The lines are not intended to convey moral conviction so much as the process by which moral knowledge is to be constructed out of what can be seen, heard, felt, or read in Jacobean London.  Middleton is far too savvy to celebrate an exuberant youthful festivity in the tradition of New Comedy, and he is far too satirical to defer to the conventions and values of traditional narratives, outmoded as they obviously are in the financially and socially mercurial city.  Knowledge of such narratives, though, can serve as a guide to what ends the socially savvy employ their wit.   

[1] 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.

[2] Theatre, Finance and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999), 59.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] “Estates, Degrees and Sorts in Tudor and Stuart England,” History Today 37 (1987): 17-22.

[7] “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.

[8] 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.

[9] 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 [2004]: 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.

[10] Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992), 38-43.

[11] Objectivity in the Making: Francis Bacon and the Politics of Inquiry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998).

[12] 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.

[13] 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.

[14] “There’s Meat and Money Too: Rich Widows and Allegories of Wealth in Jacobean City Comedy” ELH 72 (2005): 224.

[15] 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.

[16] 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.

[17] 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.

[18] “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.

[19] Between Theater and Philosophy: Skepticism in the Major City Comedies of Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton (Newark: U of Delaware P, 2001), 78.

[20] 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).

[21] See Norman Freeman Foster, The Politics of Stability: The Rulers of Elizabethan London (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977).

[22] See Rowe, Thomas Middleton and the New Comedy Tradition, 72-76.

[23] 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 [2004]: 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.

[24] “City Comedy’s Sardonic Hierarchy of Literacy,” SEL 29 (1989): 339.

[25] 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).

[26] The Works of Thomas Middleton, ed. A.H. Bullen, 8 vols. (NY: AMS, 1964), 8:64.

[27] 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).

[28] On the disparity between stage usurers and actual lending practices in early modern history, see Leinwand, The City Staged, 39-43.

[29] 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.

[30] Between Theater and Philosophy, 91-92.

[31] 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.

[32] 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.

[33] 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.

[34] Barber, 4; Shershow, 376; Martin, 82.

[35] 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.

[36] Parker, 188; Barber, 7; Messina, 118; Levin, 131-32.

[37] “The Pit of Wit: Subplot and Unity in Middleton’s Trick,” 368-74; see also Mount, 262.

[38] For example, G.J. Watson, ed., A Trick to Catch the Old One (London: Ernest Benn, 1968), xxii; and Mount, 261.

Works cited

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