Thomas Middleton

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside

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A Chaste Maid in Cheapside Summary

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A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is a Jacobean comedy play by Thomas Middleton. First published in 1630, it is widely regarded as one of the best Jacobean comedies ever written, and among Middleton’s most commonly staged plays. The play follows the humorous chain of events set off by a maid and a nobleman subjected to an arranged marriage. An esteemed Jacobean poet and playwright, Middleton is known for writing tragedies and comedies with equal success. Typically, he satirized the legal profession and took a dim view of humanity.

The central character is Moll Yellowhammer. Her father is a popular goldsmith and they both live in Cheapside, London, with Moll’s mother, Maudlin. Maudlin is very hard on Moll, always complaining that Moll doesn’t dress girlish enough and it would be a miracle if anyone plans to marry her. Never feeling that she is good enough, Moll constantly tries to live up to other people’s expectations.

The play begins one morning during Lent. On this day, Moll meets the knight Sir Walter. He is the man she is expected to marry, despite her protests. She fancies Touchwood Junior. Touchwood doesn’t have much money, and her father won’t let her marry him. Touchwood plans to steal Moll away and marry her in secret.

After meeting Molly, Sir Walter goes home and speaks with Allwit. Allwit knows that Sir Walter sleeps with his wife regularly. He doesn’t care because Sir Walter pays for their estate and their lavish lifestyle. Allwit worries that, if Sir Walter loses interest in his wife, then Sir Walter won’t pay them money anymore. He doesn’t know yet that Sir Walter plans to marry Moll.

In the meantime, Touchwood Senior, Junior’s brother, leaves his wife. She keeps getting pregnant and they can’t afford another baby. Senior sleeps with an older woman Lady Kix who has trouble conceiving. If she conceives, then Sir Walter, her relative, won’t inherit any money from her estate because it will go to her child. Lady Kix thinks that Sir Walter is an imbecile and she doesn’t want him to inherit the family fortune. Lord Kix doesn’t mind the tryst because he doesn’t want Sir Walter to inherit anything, either.

Soon after the tryst between Senior and Lady Kix, Junior orders Moll’s father to forge a wedding ring. Junior doesn’t tell him that it’s for Moll and that he plans to elope with her. None the wiser, Moll’s father makes the wedding ring and Junior goes looking for Moll. He can’t find her because she is busy fussing over a local baby’s christening.

Finally, Junior finds Moll and they prepare for their secret wedding. They don’t get far before Moll’s father interrupts the proceedings. He threatens to throw Moll in a locked room for shaming the family and humiliating Sir Walter. Sir Walter tells Junior that he will never do any favors for his family again after this grievous insult.

Meanwhile, Allwit finds out about Moll and Sir Walter. He will stop their marriage because he can’t lose his luxurious lifestyle. At the same time, Junior tells Senior about his elopement plans. Senior offers his full support and tells Junior what he is doing with Lady Kix. Junior thinks this is wonderful because it will ruin Sir Walter and then Moll can’t marry him. In the meantime, Moll’s brother, Tim, wants to marry a young woman. He thinks that she comes from a noble and rich family, but she is a prostitute.

In the background, Moll paces around her locked room, looking for a way out. She finds one when a servant leaves the door unlocked. Fleeing with Junior, they make for the river. If they can cross the river, there is a chance they’ll escape undetected. Maudlin hears the commotion and jumps in after Moll. Sir Walter vows to marry Moll in the morning so that she doesn’t sleep with Junior and ruin everything.

Junior decides to win Moll’s hand honorably. He fights Sir Walter, wounding him badly with his sword. Everyone fears for Sir Walter’s safety, including Moll, because she didn’t want anyone to get hurt. No one realizes that Junior’s wounds are worse until it’s too late, and he dies.

Now, everyone brands Sir Walter a murderer. He loses his wealth and can’t support the Allwit family anymore. Sir Walter asks Allwit for some money back because he looked after them all these years. Allwit claims that he doesn’t know what Sir Walter is talking about. He retires to a rich suburb in London with his wife and they never see Sir Walter again.

Meanwhile, Moll falls ill from a disease she contracted in the water. She dies suddenly. All her father cares about is marrying Tim to a rich woman because, otherwise, the family has no money left; Moll marrying Sir Walter had been their last hope. In the end, Moll and Junior rise from their respective graves. They faked their own deaths to fool everyone. The local pastor quickly marries them. They complete the ceremony before anyone can stop it. Tim marries the prostitute, thinking that she is a rich woman. She admits that she is a penniless prostitute and she duped everyone. Tim loves her anyway.