|Women Beware Women|
Title page of the first published edition (1653)
|Written by||Thomas Middleton|
The date of authorship of the play is deeply uncertain. Scholars have estimated its origin anywhere from 1612 to 1627; 1623–24 has been plausibly suggested. The play was entered into the Stationers' Register on September 9, 1653 by the bookseller Humphrey Moseley, along with two other Middleton plays, More Dissemblers Besides Women and No Wit, No Help Like a Woman's. In 1657 Moseley published Women Beware Women together with More Dissemblers in an octavo volume titled Two New Plays. Both the Register entry and the first edition's title page assign Women Beware Women to Middleton — an attribution which has never been seriously questioned and which is accepted by the scholarly consensus. No performances of the play in its own era are known. The octavo text of the play is prefaced by a commendatory poem by Nathaniel Richards, author of The Tragedy of Messalina (published 1640).
Middleton based the plot of his play on actual events. Bianca Cappello was first the mistress and then the second wife and Duchess of Francesco I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The story of Bianca's elopement with her first husband, her affair with the Duke, her first husband's death and her marriage to the Duke, is adapted by Middleton for his play. The subplot of Hippolyto and Isabella in Middleton's play is strongly similar to the plot of a French novel that was published in 1597 but not translated into English until 1627, the year of Middleton's death. Scholars are divided as to whether Middleton was familiar with the novel in manuscript form prior to its 1627 printing, or whether the translator of the book was influenced by Middleton's play.
The device of the chess game exploited by Middleton in Women Beware has an obvious commonality with his own A Game at Chess — but the same chess-game device also appears in John Fletcher's play The Spanish Curate, which was acted in 1622. Here again, scholars are divided as to which play preceded and influenced which. It is also possible that both writers independently derived the chess device from the same source. T. S. Eliot, a student of Jacobean drama, refers to the Women Beware Women chess game in The Waste Land, Part II, line 137.
Little is known of the play's performances and reception in Middleton's time; Nathaniel Richards, who wrote a preface to the 1653 edition, stated that he had seen it, but no other records of performance survive.
For modern critics, Women Beware Women has regularly been paired with The Changeling as constituting Middleton's two noteworthy late achievements in the genre of tragedy — though Women Beware has usually been judged the lesser of the two works. The bloody masque that concludes the play has been called a "ridiculous holocaust." With growing critical attention over the years, however, the estimation of Women Beware Women has intensified; the play is now judged to be among Middleton's greatest works. "Women Beware Women displays Middleton's maturest understanding of the relation of power to desire, and of political culture to civil society."
A modern adaptation by Howard Barker at the Royal Court Theatre in 1986, in which the first two-thirds of Middleton's play were preserved but the ending was entirely revamped; among other changes, Sordido rapes Bianca before her wedding. Barker stated that he was rejecting Middleton's Jacobean Puritanism, writing in his programme note that "Middleton says lust leads to the grave. I say desire alters perception ... Middleton knew the body was the source of politics. He did not know it was also the source of hope."