The seventeenth century was a bad time for women.  They had no autonomy, no rights.  They were treated as the property of men; they had to obey their husbands and fathers.  Fathers would promise their daughters to men they didn’t love for political advantage. Husbands would keep their wives locked away from temptation. Lords and wealthy landowners could seize anybody they fancied whether they were married or not. Rape was commonplace; men were rarely punished for it, but for women, it was disastrous; they were ruined.  Adultery and lust were just about the worst  sins a woman could commit; the penalties could be dreadful, whereas it was taken for granted that boys would be boys.

 A woman had to be sharp to survive,  she had to be adaptable, use all her feminine wiles to exploit the susceptibilities of men.  There was a lot of pretence.  Men feared this.  Seductive women were often accused of witchcraft.  In 1620, King James issued instruction to his clergy to ‘inveigh vehemently against the insolence of our women’.   

Thomas Middleton was a contemporary of Shakespeare.  His play ‘Women Beware Women’ explored this fear of women.  So when Bianca is raped by the Duke, she quickly sees advantage in this and abandons Leantia, who allows himself to be Livia’s toy boy and is richly rewarded for it.  And Isabella quickly learns to pander to the lusts of the fool she is betrothed to while all the time continuing her passion for her uncle, Hippolyta.  And Livia pulls the strings.  It is she who convinces Isabella that she is not really related to her uncle and removes the restrictions on her passion.  It is she who invites, she invites Leantia’s mother and her daughter in law, the newly-wed Bianca to her house, where she is taken by Guardino and shown erotic sculptures before being locked in and raped by the Duke.  It is not for nothing that Leantio’s mother, playing chess,  observes that Livia is cunning at the game. She finds it exciting and is favoured by the Duke.     

Accused of lust by his brother, the Cardinal, the Duke tells Hippolyta that his sister has been dishonoured by Leantia, who must be killed, freeing Bianca for marriage.  In her grief, Livia reveals Isabella and Hippolyta’s incest.  In a grotesque masked ball to celebrate the Duke’s marriage, Isabella is raped and dies, Hippolyta is murdered.  The Duke drinks the poison meant for his brother, the Cardinal.  Bianca drains the cup and dies.   The Cardinal is the only one left standing.  Good prevails in the end and the Cardinal inherits the throne. 

 Sexual politics in the seventeenth century is more about lust and greed, compromise and corruption.  Love doesn’t come into it, but fear does; the fear of condemnation by the people and excommunication from the church.  The moral of the play is simple.  Greed and lust never work, even if you are a Duke.   Even today, those with power and money, cannot get away with everything they want.  John Terry found this out.  So did Tiger Woods. 

‘I convinced myself that normal rules did not apply.  I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted.  I felt I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me.  I felt I was entitled.  Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them’. 

Linda Davies, a former investment banker, draws parallels with the financial crisis.  The Bankers were able to exploit their investors’ greed and lust for power to create an illusory wealth and politicians, reluctant to kill the golden goose, turned a blind eye.  The result; disaster on a global scale.

Women Beware Women is currently playing at The National Theatre.  Not a must-see!   

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