Chessmaster of None

A little late as usual (Apologies!), but let’s jump right to it. Our class has spent the majority of the week discussing Middleton’s Women Beware Women and its contributions to Eliot’s The Waste Land. But I’d first like to review an intermediary text that provides additional linkage between the Middleton’s tragedy and Eliot’s poem: an essay entitled “Thomas Middleton” that was Eliot’s own critique of several Middletonian texts. Eliot distinguishes Middleton immediately from other Elizabethan/Jacobean poets, claiming that Middleton’s “realistic portrayal of women” in plays like The Changeling and Women Beware Women elevates him above the dramatists of his era. From what I could gather,  Eliot’s praised Middleton for his depiction of “the real human passions of [Women Beware Women‘s] Bianca,” and “correctly” evaluating Bianca (and women like her) as creatures inspired by a so-called “Elizabethan vanity.” Bianca, as he rationalizes it, is a woman who marries well-below her social position in an act of pure foolhardiness; later, her paramour with the Duke is a means for her to reacquire her lost status and retain some dignity. But does the “passion” that Eliot sees refer to the lust for her husband or her fellow fornicator, or both as I expect? Does he see the pursuit of vanity, material wealth and a prominent social position her only true “love?” Because the more this discussion entrenches itself among these problematic definitions, the harder it becomes to take Eliot’s perception of women seriously.

I’m seriously not well-versed enough on Elizabethan literature and culture outside of the mainstream, so it’s hard to tell how objective Eliot could have been with regard to women in his culture, yet the Modernist, English-oriented ideal of the Makings of A Woman must have been influenced by the artistic and sociological movements that preceded it (Edwardian, Victorian, and Elizabethan). And as Eliot positions himself in proximity to authors like Thomas Middleton, his authorship of The Waste Land proves that he holds women to many of the same standards within his poem. The women in the second half of The Waste Land’s “A Game of Chess” mimic the figurative “game” the women of WBW play with each other. To Eliot, the game is at one level a simple act of manipulation; recall that Livia, the games-master or strategist of the drama, is responsible for most of the nebulous romantic liaisons within the play. For a scene in Act IV of the tragedy, she and the Mother of her lover Leantio play at a game of chess, yet the two women of The Waste Land play a mental game of strategy similar but not identical to chess and the scene in WBW. In Eliot’s “A Game of Chess” (conspicuously similar to the title of a play by Middleton called “A Game At Chess”), one conspires to “win” the husband of another, acting on the grounds that the latter woman is not sexually gratifying her husband (in a world where there was not an over-abundance of able-bodied men). Here some critics would invoke the title of Middleton’s play as a warning to the folks of The Waste Land and the denizens of a post-war Europe.

This has become a difficult discussion for me, because I’m left with a lot of questions I feel unfit to answer. I really wish I better understood some of the arguments of modern feminism, because I think that a better author could identify and broker connections between the past conceptions of both English poets alongside a contemporary understanding  of women in modern fictive literature. This sort of ends my discussion prematurely, and relegates this analysis to  mere speculation: still, it’s given me a lot to consider over the next few days, and hopefully soon I’ll have some answers to the questions I’ve been asking.

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