“Thou weep’st for lust” : The ambivalence of tears in Middleton’s comedies

Abstract : In his early comedy, A Mad World, my Masters, Middleton builds an intricate web of connections between the image of tears and the different sexual endeavours or failings of his characters: the “false springs” of the Courtesan’s eyes are used to buy herself a husband, while Shortrod Harebrain’s frequent weeping points to his impotence, Mistress Harebrain’s alleged crying dissimulates her sexual enjoyment while her “tears true bred” accompany the act of repentance she is brought to by her lover, Penitent Brothel. Tears, dissembling and repentance make up an equally subtle background to The Revenger’s Tragedy, written the same year as Mad World, with which it unexpectedly shares much imagery and thematic material. In A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, the sexual undertones of tears are taken in yet other directions, as the barren Lady Kix weeps herself “to a dry ground” and her husband is led to “play the woman and weep too”. The dying Lord Whorehound asks his mistress “What tears are those?” before concluding that she “weeps for lust”. The reluctant Yellowhammers are tricked into consenting to let their daughter Moll marry the man she has chosen by watching a large company “seem to weep and mourn” for the supposed death of the young lovers in an elaborate parody of Romeo and Juliet. The ambivalence of tears is extended to other bodily fluids, as is exemplified by the incontinent Puritan women’s excessive drinking at the christening party of Whorehound’s bastard child. No Wit/Help like a Woman’s plays on the associations present in the mind of audiences familiar with John Dowland’s Lachrymae, only to portray the despair of an avaricious father unwilling to give his daughter a dowry, combining in a single simile irreverence, self-irony and a satirical sending up of the mercantile debasement of works of art given up to market circulation. This paper explores the polysemy of tears in a few of Middleton’s comedies. It will also attempt to show how the ambivalent status of weeping contributes to the plays’ questioning of social status and gender identities.
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Contributor : Chantal Schütz <>
Submitted on : Wednesday, February 15, 2017 - 11:09:31 PM
Last modification on : Wednesday, January 23, 2019 - 10:29:31 AM


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Chantal Schütz. “Thou weep’st for lust” : The ambivalence of tears in Middleton’s comedies. Not a Dry Eye in the House: Tears in Performance, Paris-Sorbonne, Mar 2014, Paris, France. ⟨halshs-01468913⟩



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