A Mad World, My Masters, by Thomas Middleton

We read The Changeling last year, and weren’t so enthused, feeling it something of a failure; but A Mad World, My Masters – an early Middleton play – turned out a lot more enjoyable. It uses that same technique as The Changeling (as many, many Jacobean comedies) of having two plots run simultaneously, although unlike The Changeling, which had one tragic and one comic, A Mad World, My Masters simply has two comic plots (Middleton appears to have written almost entirely comedies early in his career). One of these plots is actually very similar to the comic plot in The Changeling (which is, curiously, the part generally attributed in that play to Rowley): a man disguises himself in order to seduce the wife of a jealous husband (this contrivance of disguise in order to bring about the meeting of two lovers of course pervades Jacobean comedy). Unfortunately there is no lunatic asylum here, and this whole episode is fairly uninspiring – aside perhaps from its outcome, when in some kind of waking dream the adulterer is visited by a demonic impersonation of the woman he’s just seduced (which was, I admit, not quite what I was expecting).

It’s the other side of the play though which is more amusing, and basically takes its central joke from its inversion of that classic comic character, The Miser. Traditionally, The Miser hordes his money, from his son/ nephew/ inheritor in particular, at the same time intending to marry said son/ nephew/ inheritor to an unpreferred female for the sake of a dowry; the comedy coming from attempts to extract money/ a change of heart from The Miser, and secure the path of true love. In this play, however, our Miser, Sir Bounteous Progress, only withholds money from his nephew/ inheritor, while at the same time being incredibly profligate with his estate whenever a lord turns up at his house. So the nephew, with his allies, decides a) to dress up in disguise as a lord and exploit his uncle’s charity; and b) simultaneously to dress up as a robber and rob his uncle. Anyhow, there’s some very amusing scenes in it, and some very fine writing from Middleton.

Well, there you are, I don’t know what kind of review that was: seems to me just like a summary of the plot.

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2 thoughts on “A Mad World, My Masters, by Thomas Middleton

  1. I’ve not read (or been to a play) in years, I’m afraid, so this review doesn’t seem any more muddled or action-packed (or whatever) than a novel’s plot summary might. Am curious whether you find reading plays more intrinsically rewarding than novels these days, by any chance? The demonic impersonation of the seduced woman sounds like a nice surprise twist, I have to say.

  2. Yes, pound for pound, I’m finding I prefer plays. Perhaps it is the fact that you can experience the entire artistic experience in one sitting (this was also Aristotle’s reason for preferring plays). It feels much more intense in that way. And I actually like the form: cutting out all the verbiage of description and psychological analysis.

    Also, I find myself considering that with novels we like to construct a dichotomy between the c19th and c20th centuries, and that is it: that’s the end and whole of art. But there are worlds of art and culture outside the novel, outside those centuries, which it would also be useful to reflect upon.

    So today a post about the difference between c17th and c18th plays.

    The demonic possession was certainly surprising; but Middleton is full of surprises – the madhouse in The Changeling is quite surprising too. And there’s another play of his I have – a late one – where all the characters are chess pieces.

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