A Chaste Maid in Cheapside by Thomas Middleton: Summary & Themes

Instructor: Jay Simons

Jay has taught college writing and literature and has a PhD in English.

In this lesson you will read about the romantic and not-so-romantic love lives of the characters in Thomas Middleton's 1613 play A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. You will also learn about some important themes in the play.

Act I: Romance and Adultery

The play begins in the goldsmith shop of Yellowhammer, where we meet him, his wife Maudlin, and their daughter Moll. Importantly, we learn that her parents are intending for Moll to marry Sir Walter Whorehound (whose name gives away his womanizing ways). However, she is in love with Touchwood Jr. Sir Walter has brought along his mistress, the Welsh Gentlewoman. He passes her off as a rich heiress in order to marry her off and be rid of her. One of his other mistresses is Allwit's wife, Mrs. Allwit, who has three children by him. Surprisingly, Allwit is fine with this arrangement, because in exchange, Sir Walter pays all the bills for the family.

Act II: Illegitimate Children and Their Fathers

Sir Walter prepares to act as godfather for the Allwits' newborn daughter. Touchwood Sr. (not Touchwood Jr.'s father, confusingly, but his older brother) also sleeps with a lot of women, and always gets them pregnant. Sir Oliver Kix has the opposite problem, as he has been unable to produce a child with his wife. As a close relative of Sir Walter, any male child of his would inherit Sir Walter's wealth. The obvious solution is to arrange for Touchwood Sr. get Lady Kix pregnant. The Kixes' maid suggests Touchwood Sr. help Lady Kix conceive, without really telling them how he will do it. The couple is all too happy to employ his services, at any cost.

Act III: The Path to True Love

While attempting to elope, Touchwood Jr. and Moll are prevented by the sudden appearance of Yellowhammer and Sir Walter. Yellowhammer forbids his daughter to see Touchwood Jr. again, and it looks like the lovers' hopes of being together have been dashed. Meanwhile, her brother Tim, a student at Cambridge, has returned home with his tutor. The two are interested solely in debating in Latin, uninterested in what's going on around them. The act ends with Touchwood Sr. sending Sir Oliver off so that he can provide 'fertility treatments' (wink, wink) to Lady Kix.

Act IV: True Love Can't Catch a Break

Maudlin sets up a meeting between Tim and the Welsh Gentlewoman, still ignorant that she is Sir Walter's mistress. When she speaks Welsh to him, he mistakes this for evidence of learning, and decides he would be happy to marry her. Allwit shows up to inform Yellowhammer of Sir Walter's immoral behavior, in an effort to get him to call off the knight's wedding to her. (If Sir Walter weds, Allwit is in danger of losing his financial support.) Yellowhammer agrees then privately confesses he will not prevent the marriage. When Yellowhammer finds out Moll has run off again to elope with Touchwood Jr., he vows to put an end to her shenanigans by making her marry Sir Walter the next morning. Touchwood Jr. and Sir Walter duel with their swords, wounding each other.

Act V: Fake Death, Find Love

Sir Walter survives his wound. Resultingly, he and the Allwits decide their arrangement, while mutually beneficial in a material way, is morally corrupt. Word is received that Touchwood Jr. has died, which makes Moll deathly sick with grief. While Sir Oliver celebrates the news that his wife is pregnant, everyone is distraught to hear that Moll has died. Her coffin, along with that of Touchwood Jr., is brought out. Touchwood Sr. gives a speech imparting guilt on those who kept the two lovers apart in life. As it turns out, he has helped them fake their deaths. The two spring up from their coffins, and all rejoice that they are alive and can now be married. Meanwhile, Tim has married the Welsh Gentlewoman, only to discover she was Sir Walter's mistress. He soon reconciles himself to a life with her, and the play ends happily.

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