The play's subplot, which centers on Master Low-Water — and which was original with Middleton rather than borrowed from another source — had a long theatrical life over the coming centuries. It was adapted for the 1677 play The Counterfeit Bridegroom, or The Defeated Widow, a work variously ascribed to either Aphra Behn or Thomas Betterton. The Counterfeit Bridegroom in turn was adapted into William Taverner's The Artful Husband (1717), which then became George Colman the Elder's The Female Chevalier (1778), which became both Alicia Sheridan's The Ambiguous Lover (1781) and William Macready's The Bank Note, or Lesson for Ladies (1795).
SIR OLIVER Twilight, a rich old knight
PHILIP his son, servant to Mistress Grace
SANDFIELD, friend to Philip, servant to Mistress Jane
Master SUNSET, true father of Mistress Grace
Master LOW-WATER, a decayed gentleman
SIR GILBERT Lambstone, suitor to Lady Goldenfleece
Master WEATHERWISE, suitor to Lady Goldenfleece
Master PEPPERTON, suitor to Lady Goldenfleece
Master OVERDONE, suitor to Lady Goldenfleece
Master BEVERIL, brother to Mistress Low-water
SAVOURWIT, Sir Oliver's man
Peccadillie, Lady Goldenfleece's CLOWN
Six of Weatherwise's TENANTS
Lady Twilight, Philip's MOTHER
Lady Goldenfleece, a rich WIDOW
Mistress GRACE, Sunset's daughter, but supposed Twilight's
Mistress JANE, Twilight's daughter, but supposed Sunset's
In the masque, presenters of three of the Winds
Act 1, Scene 1: A street near Sir Oliver Twilight’s house
Master Sandfield is ready to kill his friend, Philip (Sir Oliver Twilight’s son), because he believes Philip has been courting the woman he loves, Jane (Master Sunset’s daughter). Twilight’s servant, Savourwit prevents Sandfield from killing Philip by explaining that the match between Philip and Jane is all Philip’s father’s doing—Philip had nothing to do with it; in fact, Philip is already married! A complicated story unfolds:
Sandfield congratulates Savourwit on his ‘invention’ and makes up with Philip. Savourwit tells the friends that they have a new obstacle to overcome; this leads to another story and scheme:
Lady Goldenfleece (a rich widow) enters, followed she by her suitors: Sir Gilbert Lambston (‘lamb’s testicle’), Master Pepperton, and Master Overdone. These are followed by the two old men, Sir Oliver Twilight and Master Sunset, and their daughters, Grace Twilight and Jane Sunset. Savourwit notes that Lady Goldenfleece’s recently deceased husband was a notorious usurer; he nearly doubled his wealth shortly before he died by seizing the property of a certain Master Low-water, a ruined gentleman. Lady Goldenfleece now controls the Low-water estate.
Lady Goldenfleece greets Jane and Grace and wishes them good luck in choosing husbands. She also mentions a ‘secret’ regarding the girls that she says she has vowed to preserve. They beg her to tell them what the secret is, but she refuses. In an aside, Jane says that she wishes Lady Goldenfleece would be more kind to her relatives, the Low-waters, whose former estate is now under Lady Goldenfleece’s possession. Everyone exits except Sir Oliver Twilight and Savourwit. Savourwit tells Sir Oliver that Sandfield is desperate to marry Grace. Sir Oliver is opposed to the idea at first, because he does not want to provide a dowry. Savourwit says Sandfield will take her without a dowry. Sir Oliver is pleased; he says he get rid of Weatherwise immediately. Savourwit exits; Weatherwise enters. Sir Oliver tells Weatherwise that he has changed his mind; he does not want Weatherwise to marry his daughter. Sir Oliver exits. Weatherwise says that he will become a suitor to Goldenfleece.
Act 1, Scene 2: A room in Low-water’s house
Mistress Low-water mourns her family’s ruin; she also curses Lady Goldenfleece, her ‘enemy’.
Jane enters to ask Mistress Low-water if she knows anything about the mysterious ‘secret’ that Lady Goldenfleece alluded to in 1.1. Mistress Low-water says that she isn’t certain, but guesses that the secret might have something to do with “some piece of money or land” that was bequeathed to Grace and Jane “by some departing friend on their deathbed”. Jane thanks Mistress Low-water and exits.
A footman enters with a letter for Mistress Low-water from Sir Gilbert Lambston, a wealthy knight who wishes to make Mistress Low-water his mistress. In the letter, Sir Gilbert says he will double his previous offer if Mistress Low-water will agree to become his mistress. He says that he expects to seal an engagement with Lady Goldenfleece soon (recall that Lambston was one of Lady Goldenfleece’s suitors), and will thus be able to pay for Mistress Low-water for her sexual services. Mistress Low-water says that Sir Gilbert’s villainy almost makes her feel sorry for her ‘enemy’ (Lady Goldenfleece). She swears that she will never become Sir Gilbert’s mistress, but says that the letter is “welcome,” hinting that she has some sort of a plan in mind.
Sir Gilbert enters. Mistress Low-water asks him to give her one day to consider his offer. He agrees and exits, certain that she will decide to become his mistress. Master Low-water enters. Mistress Low-water tells him that she thinks she has a way to restore them to their former wealth if he will go along with her plan (which is left undisclosed). Master Low-water agrees to go along with whatever she proposes.
Act 1, Scene 3: A room in Sir Oliver Twilight’s house
Sir Oliver says he will be very happy to have Sandfield as a son-in-law—he has no intention of providing a dowry, but will allow the new couple to lodge with him for three years. Philip says he is going to court Master Sunset’s daughter, Jane (the woman Sandfield truly loves). Sir Oliver instructs Savourwit to spy on Philip to see if he is any good at wooing. Savourwit exits.
A Dutch merchant enters with news form Sir Oliver’s wife: she wonders why Sir Oliver hasn’t sent a ransom for her yet. Sir Oliver is shocked to hear that his wife is still alive. He tells the Dutch merchant that he sent his son and servant with the ransom ten weeks ago—they brought his daughter back, but said that his wife had died. The Dutch Merchant vows that he has seen Lady Twilight alive within the past month and asks if he can see the ‘daughter’ that Philip and Savourwit brought back with them. Sir Oliver sends a servant to summon Grace.
Grace enters. The Dutch Merchant says that he has seen her before, at an inn in Antwerp. Grace worries that she has been found out. She tells the Dutch Merchant that he must be mistaken. The Dutch Merchant sees through Savourwit’s scheme right away. He tells Sir Oliver that it appears as though as though he has been deceived by his son and servant: his wife is not dead, and this is not his real daughter. Sir Oliver isn’t sure what he should believe. He sends Grace back to her bedroom. The Dutch merchant says that he must leave for a moment to attend to a business matter. He leaves his little son, who does not speak any English at all, in Sir Oliver’s care and promises to return soon. Sir Oliver promises to take good care of the boy. The Dutch Merchant exits. Sir Oliver reflects on the zaniness of the morning’s news:
Savourwit enters. Sir Oliver confronts him with the Dutch Merchant’s allegations. Savourwit denies all. To cover himself, Savourwit pretends to have a conversation in Dutch with the Dutch Merchant’s little son. The Dutch Merchant’s son speaks in a kind of pidgin English, which is almost decipherable. Savourwit’s ‘Dutch’ is almost pure gibberish (words such as “pisse” surface occasionally). Savourwit tells Sir Oliver that the boy has told him that the Dutch Merchant is crazy, and prone to telling wild tales. Savourwit exits. Sir Oliver is still uncertain what he should believe.
The Dutch merchant re-enters. Sir Oliver tells him that his servant, Savourwit, has spoken with his little son, who claims that the Dutch Merchant is crazy. After conferring with his son, the Dutch Merchant says that Savourwit is lying. Sir Oliver realizes he has been deceived by Savourwit. He invites the Dutch merchant to stay at his home.
Act 2, Scene 1: A room in Weatherwise’s house
Lady Goldenfleece is dining at Weatherwise’s home with her suitors, Weatherwise, Sir Gilbert Lambston, Master Pepperton and Master Overdone. Her fool, Pickadillie is also present. The suitors compete for Lady Goldenfleece’s attention.
Weatherwise is obsessed with almanacs (books that claim to be able to foretell the future by observing the weather, etc.), calendars, phases of the moon, the zodiac, etc. This obsession manifests in various ways, most notably in his dialogue, but also in the description of his home. For example, each seat at the dinner table is marked with an astrological sign.
Lambston is the most aggressive suitor; he gives Lady Goldenfleece a big kiss in front of everyone. Pepperton and Overdone secretly agree to work together against Lambston. Mistress Low-water enters, disguised as a ‘Gallant Gentleman’; her husband, Master Low-water, poses as her servant. The ‘gallant gentleman’ is invited to join the dinner party.
Lady Goldenfleece is immediately attracted to the ‘Gallant Gentleman’.
The ‘Gallant Gentleman’ calls Sir Gilbert a villain and gives Lady Goldenfleece the letter that Sir Gilbert wrote to Mistress Low-water (wherein Sir Gilbert offered to pay her to become his mistress). Lady Goldenfleece is shocked when she reads the letter. She thanks the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ and throws Sir Gilbert out. The other suitors are quite pleased to see Sir Gilbert eliminated.
Act 2, Scene 2: The street outside Sir Oliver Twilight’s house
Master Sandfield, Philip and Savourwit worry about what might happen to them now that their scheme has been discovered. Philip attempts to commit suicide, but Savourwit and Sandfield stop him.
Lady Twilight enters. She has recently been rescued from captivity by the scholar, Beveril, who accompanies her (Beveril is also Mistress Low-water’s brother). Philip greets his mother (Lady Twilight) warmly. Lady Twilight introduces him to Beveril. Philip thanks Beveril for rescuing his mother. Beveril asks Philip how his sister (Lady Low-water is doing). Philip regretfully informs him of the Low-waters’ recent misfortune.
On Savourwit’s advice, Philip takes his mother aside, and confesses how he faked her death and spent the ransom. After Lady Twilight agrees to forgive his transgressions, he begs her to pretend as though Grace is actually his sister (thus saving Philip and Savourwit’s necks). Lady Twilight agrees to protect her son.
Act 2, Scene 3: A room in Lady Goldenfleece’s house
Mistress Low-water and her husband (disguised as the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ and his ‘Servant’) are at Lady Goldenfleece’s house, waiting for an interview with Lady Goldenfleece. While they are waiting, the Low-waters keep an eye out for Lady Goldenfleece’s suitors (Weatherwise, Pepperton and Overdone). When the suitors arrive, the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ scolds ‘his’ ‘Servant’ loudly, acting as though ‘he’ is now the Lord of the house. The suitors immediately assume that the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ has married Lady Goldenfleece under their noses. They exit, disappointed.
Lady Goldenfleece enters and apologizes for making the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ wait. After a good deal of heated flirting, the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ promises Lady Goldenfleece that he has never slept with or courted any other woman (these oaths are, of course, ironically true). Lady Goldenfleece is swept off her feet. They kiss.
Lady Goldenfleece’s suitors (Weatherwise, Pepperton and Overdone) enter with renewed hopes—a servant has told them that Lady Goldenfleece and the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ haven’t married yet. Lady Goldenfleece is not happy to see the suitors. To get rid of them, she kisses the ‘Gallant Gentleman’, announces her intention to marry him, and exits. The suitors exit. Lady Goldenfleece’s clown, Pickadillie enters.
The ‘Gallant Gentleman’ asks Pickadillie if he knows of anyone who can write an entertainment for the wedding. Pickadillie tells ‘him’ that Lady Twilight has recently been brought home, ransomed by a scholar (Beveril). The ‘Gallant Gentleman’ instructs Pickadillie to summon Beveril. Beveril enters. Mistress Low-water (the ‘Gallant Gentleman’) recognizes him immediately (he is her brother); she is overjoyed to see him, but remains in character. Beveril tells the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ that he cannot compose an entertainment for the wedding because Lady Goldenfleece has wronged his sister. The ‘Gallant Gentleman’ encourages Beveril to withhold judgment until he has made Lady Goldenfleece’s acquaintance. Lady Goldenfleece enters. The ‘Gallant Gentleman’ introduces her Beveril. Lady Goldenfleece and Beveril are immediately attracted to each other.
Act 3, Scene 1: A street near lady Goldenfleece’s house
Lady Goldenfleece’s rejected suitors (Weatherwise, Pepperton and Overdone) meet Sir Gilbert Lambston on the street and tell him about Lady Goldenfleece’s engagement. They all take a vow to find some way to disgrace Lady Goldenfleece. Pickadillie (Lady Goldenfleece’s clown) enters and tells the suitors that Beveril has been contracted to compose an entertainment for Lady Goldenfleece’s wedding.
Beveril enters. Speaking to himself, he notes that he is having trouble composing the entertainment because he has fallen madly in love with Lady Goldenfleece. The suitors introduce themselves to Beveril and volunteer to perform in the wedding entertainment. Beveril thanks them for volunteering and tells them that there are four parts: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. The suitors say they are happy to take whatever parts whatever parts Beveril will assign them and exit—making plans to ‘poison’ the entertainment and disgrace Lady Goldenfleece.
Mistress Low-water and her husband enter (disguised as the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ and ‘Servant’) and overhear Beveril declaring his secret love for Lady Goldenfleece. Mistress Low-water is quite pleased. She says that she will work to bring her brother and Lady Goldenfleece together.
Act 4, Scene 1: A room in Sir Oliver Twilight’s house
Sir Oliver says he is very happy to have his wife back. He thanks Beveril for rescuing her and scolds Philip and Savourwit for faking her death. Lady Twilight says that rumors of her death were circulating around Philip and Savourwit’s arrival in Jersey (a lie) and begs Sir Oliver to excuse them because the whole mix-up was obviously a misunderstanding, not a scheme.
Sir Oliver raises the matter of the ‘minion’ (Grace) that Philip and Savourwit brought home to pass off as the Twilights’ daughter. Lady Twilight says that the truth of the matter can be easily discovered. She says that she will be able to recognize her true daughter immediately because she has seen her several times since the kidnapping (another lie). Sir Oliver orders a servant to bring Grace in. Grace enters. Feigning jubilation, Lady Twilight says that Grace is definitely her daughter. Sir Oliver apologizes to Philip and Savourwit and admits them back into his good graces. With all the problems out of the way, he immediately begins to make plans to marry Grace (Twilight’s supposed daughter) to Sandfield and Philip to Jane (Sunset’s daughter). Everyone exits except Lady Twilight, Grace, Philip and Savourwit.
Lady Twilight notes that there is something peculiarly familiar about Grace’s face; she asks who Grace’s mother was; Grace says she doesn’t know—she and her mother were kidnapped by Dunkirks and separated ten years ago; all she knows for sure is that her mother was an English gentlewoman. Lady Twilight realizes that Grace is her true daughter. Philip is horrified. He tells Lady Twilight that Grace is his wife. Lady Twilight becomes doubly certain that Grace is her true daughter when she discovers that Grace is wearing an earring that Lady Twilight gave her when she was a baby. Lady Twilight tells Philip that his sin (incest) was committed in ignorance, so it can be forgiven. She encourages him to repent. Lady Twilight and Grace exit.
Lamenting his ill-fortune, Philip says good-bye to Savourwit and says he is leaving home forever. Savourwit convinces him to stick around long enough to see Lady Goldenfleece’s wedding.
Act 4, Scene 2: A room in Lady Goldenfleece’s house
Pickadillie observes as servants make preparations for Lady Goldenfleece’s wedding.
Act 4, Scene 3: A room in Lady Goldenfleece’s house
Music plays. Lady Goldenfleece and the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ (now married) enter arm-in-arm. Sir Oliver twilight, Master Sunset, the Dutch Merchant, Lady Twilight, Grace, Jane Sunset, Philip, Savourwit, Master Sandfield and Master Low-water (disguised as the ‘Gallant Gentleman’s’ ‘Servant’) follow. Master Low-water tells his wife that Beveril is still deeply infatuated with Lady Goldenfleece. Mistress Low-water asks him if he has prepared ‘the letter’. Master Low-water says he has.
Beveril enters to introduce the entertainment. The entertainment begins. Lady Goldenfleece’s former suitors enter, dressed as ‘Fire’ (sir Gilbert Lambston), ‘Air’ (Weatherwise), ‘Water’ (Overdone) and ‘Earth’ (Pepperton). Rather than reciting the parts Beveril has composed, each suitor recites a speech insulting Lady Goldenfleece. When the entertainment is finished, the suitors reveal their true identities and exit, satisfied that they have fulfilled their vow to see Lady Goldenfleece disgraced. Beveril apologizes for the fiasco. Lady Goldenfleece forgives him. Lady Goldenfleece says good-night to Sir Oliver, Lady Twilight, etc. (all of the wedding guests will spend the night at her house).
Act 5, Scene 1: A room in Lady Goldenfleece’s house
Lady Goldenfleece urges her new ‘husband’, the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ (Mistress Low-water) to come to bed. ‘He’ resists her, claiming that ‘he’ cannot enjoy his marriage because ‘he’ knows that Lady Goldenfleece’s fortune was wrongfully acquired. Lady Goldenfleece begs ‘him’ to reconsider, but ‘he’ will not relent. She exits with a heavy heart.
Master Low-water enters and tells Lady Low-water (the ‘Gallant Gentleman’) that he has delivered the letter she wrote for Beveril. Beveril enters on the balcony, reading the letter aloud. The letter is supposedly from Lady Goldenfleece, but was actually written by Lady Low-water. In the letter, ‘Lady Goldenfleece’ tells Beveril that she is already disappointed in her marriage because the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ has forsook her bed without cause. She begs Beveril to come to her chamber to counsel her. Delighted with the letter, Beveril exits the balcony, on his way to Lady Goldenfleece’s chamber.
Sir Oliver Twilight, Lady Twilight, Master Sunset, Grace, Philip, Sandfield, Jane, the Dutch Merchant and Savourwit enter. The ‘Gallant Gentleman’ tells them that he has heard strange noises coming from his new ‘wife’s (that is, Lady Goldenfleece’s) bedroom and suspects that she is cheating on him on the night of their wedding. The door to Lady Goldenfleece’s chamber is forced open. Lady Goldenfleece is discovered inside with Beveril. Feigning rage, the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ swears that he will never admit Lady Goldenfleece to his bed for as long as he lives, banishes her from the house and claims all of her wealth as his own.
Following pleas for leniency from Sir Oliver, the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ eventually agrees to leave with a casket containing half of all Lady Goldenfleece’s wealth. As he prepares to leave, the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ says that, if ‘he’ wanted to, ‘he’ could release Lady Goldenfleece from her marriage contract with a few words, thus leaving her free to re-marry. Everyone present wonders how this could be possible. Lady Goldenfleece begs the ‘Gallant Gentleman’ to tell her how she can regain her freedom. The ‘Gallant Gentleman’ says ‘he’ will only tell her if she promises to re-marry immediately. Lady Goldenfleece promises.
The ‘Gallant Gentleman’ reveals that Goldenfleece’s marriage contract is void because… ‘He’ is already married! Lady Goldenfleece is shocked. In order to honor her promise to re-marry immediately—and to spite the ‘Gallant Gentleman’—she announces that her next husband will be Beveril. The ‘Gallant Gentleman’ feigns torment. Sir Gilbert, Sir Oliver and Beveril note that the ‘Gallant Gentleman’s’ days are numbered; the punishment for having two wives is hanging. The ‘Gallant Gentleman’ says that, although ‘he’ is already married, ‘he’ does not have two wives. To provide the solution to this riddle, ‘he’ reveals ‘his’ true identity (Mistress Low-water).
Sir Oliver decides that it is now time to draw up the marriage contracts for Sandfield & Grace and Philip & Jane. Lady Goldenfleece protests that Jane cannot marry Philip because she is, in fact, his sister! While everyone wonders what is going on, Lady Goldenfleece explains that Lady Sunset switched the girls when they were infants because she was worried that her husband would go bankrupt (this is the ‘secret’ that Lady Goldenfleece alluded to in 1.1). Philip is overjoyed—the woman he is married to is Sunset’s daughter (not Philip’s sister). Sandfield is also overjoyed—he gets to marry Jane (the woman he really wanted to marry all along).
Weatherwise ends the play with an epilogue filled with characteristic references to almanacs and the phases of the moon. Consulting his almanac, he predicts that the play will end with great applause.