The Secular Morality of Middleton’s City Comedies


Derek B. Alwes


This is a contribution to the long-standing and ongoing debate about whether Middleton's plays are moral, immoral or amoral. Whatever Middleton's religious beliefs and intentions were, it is clear that the world depicted in his comedies is one that has been abandoned by God. Insofar as there is a moral center that prevents that world from imploding it can only be found in purely human virtues—sympathy, a sense of humor, and personal honor. Of particular interest is the efficacy of oaths, the value of one's word, which often redeems the potentially tragic situations in the plays. Once one notices the significance of oaths in Middleton's plays, one discovers how structurally important they are. They often represent the only source of certainty in a benighted world.

This emphasis on human virtues, on secular morality, offers new insights into the notorious cruxes in Middleton's comedies such as the Succubus scene in It's a Mad World, My Masters, Whorehound's sudden repentence in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, and the Dampit scenes in A Trick to Catch the Old One.

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