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A Trick to Catch the Old One

A Trick to Catch the Old One is a Jacobean comedy written by Thomas Middleton, first published in 1608. The play is a satire in the sub-genre of city comedy.

The play was entered into the Stationers' Register on Oct. 7, 1607 by the printer George Eld, and published by him in quarto in the following year, 1608. The title page of Q1 states that A Trick was acted by the Children of Paul's, one of the companies of boy actors popular at the time. The play was probably written and first acted ca. 1605.

The play was popular; a second quarto was issued in the same year, printed by Eld for the bookseller Henry Rocket. The title page of Q2 attributes the play to "T. M." and states that A Trick was acted by both the Children of Paul's and the Children of the Chapel (then called the Children of the Blackfriars), the other major troupe of boy actors of the era. (The Children of Paul's had stopped performing plays around 1606, and the Children of the Chapel/Blackfriars may have acquired the play from their defunct competitors.) Q2 also states that the play had been acted at Court before King James I the previous "New Year's night. A third edition followed in 1616, printed by Eld for the stationer Thomas Langley; the title page assigns the authorship to "T. Middleton."

Two decades after its authorship, Philip Massinger used A Trick to Catch the Old One as a model for his most popular play, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, premiered in 1626 and published in 1633. Massinger's version of the plot would go on to become one of the most successful plays in English-language theatre.

Summary

The play's protagonist, Theodorus Witgood, has mortgaged his estates to his uncle Pecunius Lucre, a covetous London merchant. Witgood is in love with Joyce, the daughter of another London merchant, Walkadine Hoard. Lucre and Hoard are rivals; Hoard resents Lucre because Lucre has shown himself to be an even more ruthless swindler than Hoard is himself. Witgood persuades a former mistress to masquerade as a rich country widow and his new fiancée. Lucre, delighted at the prospect of a rich match for his nephew, provides him with £50 and a vague promise to make Witgood his heir. Similarly and for the same reason, Witgood's creditors stop dunning him and offer him more credit. Conversely, rival suitors for the "rich widow" arise, including Walkadine Hoard.

Witgood advises his past mistress to accept Hoard's proposal and so fix herself for life. She allows herself to be spirited away by Hoard, with Lucre in hot pursuit. The "widow" agrees with Lucre to resist Hoard if Lucre restores Witgood's estates, and Lucre reluctantly agrees. But Witgood's creditors, angry over his apparent loss of a rich match, have him arrested; Witgood, however, claiming a pre-contract with the "widow," cons Hoard into paying his debts. Witgood marries Joyce in secret; at the banquet celebrating Hoard's marriage, it is revealed that Hoard's new rich wife is Witgood's poor ex-mistress. But the courtesan kneels to her new husband and promises to be a good wife, and Witgood joins her in repentance and rejection of his former sensual and spendthrift ways.

Characters

THEODORUS WITGOOD, a gentleman in debt

JANE (COURTESAN), Witgood's mistress

HOST, friend to Witgood

Witgood’s Three Creditors

PECUNIUS LUCRE, Witgood's uncle, a usurer

JENNY, Lucre’s wife

SAM FREEDOM, son of Lucre's wife and suitor to Joyce

FIRST and SECOND GENTLEMEN, friends to Lucre

GEORGE, Lucre's servant

WALKADINE HOARD, usurer and rival to Lucre

JOYCE, Niece to Walkadine and Onesiphorus Hoard

MONEYLOVE, suitor to Joyce

ONESIPHORUS HOARD, brother to Walkadine Hoard

LIMBER, friend to Onesiphorus Hoard

KIX, friend to Onesiphorus Hoard

SERVANT to Walkadine Hoard

ARTHUR, another servant to Walkadine Hoard

LADY FOXSTONE, friend to Walkadine Hoard

LAMPREY, a gentleman

SPITCHCOCK, a gentleman

HARRY DAMPIT, a usurer

AUDREY, Dampit's servant

GULF, a usurer and acquaintance of Dampit

SIR LANCELOT, acquaintance of Dampit

Drawer, Vintner, Boy, Scrivener, Sergeants, Tailor, Barber, Perfumer, Falconer, Huntsman

Synopsis

Act 1, Scene 1: A town in Leicester, probably on a street
Theodorus Witgood, a ruined gentleman, enters and tells how, after foolishly wasting away all his money on brothels and drunkenness in the city, he has lost all of his lands to his uncle, Pecunius Lucre a usurer. According to Witgood, Lucre’s motto is: “He that doth his youth expose / To brothel, drink and danger /Let him that is nearest kin / Cheat before a stranger.” Witgood says that he must now find some way to make a living for himself, and hints that he may not be averse to activities “out of the compass of the law” (i.e., illegal). Witgood’s Courtesan (kept lady) enters. Witgood scolds her for being the cause of his ruin. The Courtesan replies that the ‘jewel’ she gave him — her virginity — was worth much more than all the lands he has lost. Witgood lays out a plan to get his lands back from his uncle. The plan involves going to London (where his uncle is now located), and passing the Courtesan off as a wealthy widow whom Witgood intends to marry. The Courtesan agrees to the plan.

As Witgood and the Courtesan exit, Onesiphorus Hoard (a usurer) enters with his friends, Limber and Kix. Onesiphorus says that his brother (Walkadine Hoard) and Witgood’s uncle (Lucre) have been mortal enemies for several years. He tells how Walkadine Hoard was recently on the verge of cheating a young heir out of his property, but, at the last minute before the deal was closed — and after a lot of bargaining on Walkadine Hoard’s part—Lucre slipped in and cheated the heir himself. Onesiphorus also says that Walkadine Hoard’s niece, Joyce might marry Sam Freedom (Lucre’s wife’s son from another marriage), however, the match has not yet been confirmed. Joyce has two suitors: Sam, a rich idiot, and Moneylove, an impoverished scholar. Onesiphorus says that Joyce is currently in London with Walkadine, where she is learning how to become a gentlewoman so that she can catch a wealthy husband.

Act 1, Scene 2: Another street in Leicestershire
Witgood tells his friend Host (an innkeeper) that he is about to marry a wealthy Widow whom he plans to take to London so that she can be introduced to his uncle (the ‘Widow is actually Witgood’s Courtesan). He asks the Host to pose as the ‘Widow’s’ servingman while they are in London. This favor is necessary, Witgood claims, because when she ran away with him, the ‘Widow’ abandoned all of her servants; in order to convince his uncle of her wealth, appearances have to be maintained; she will have to have at least one servingman. The Host agrees to fill the role. (Note that the Host is only partially informed of Witgood’s plan: He knows that Witgood intends to trick his uncle, but he does not know that the ‘Widow’ is, in fact, Witgood’s Courtesan.)

Act 1, Scene 3: A street in London
Walkadine Hoard (Onesiphorus’ brother, hereafter referred to as ‘Hoard’) and Lucre (Witgood’s uncle), the two old rivals, meet and exchange insults. Hoard is angry at Lucre for intercepting his ‘deal’ with the young heir he meant to cheat (see 1.1). He vows revenge.

The rivals exit, leaving Sam Freedom (Lucre’s wife’s son from another marriage; the ‘rich idiot’ who is suitor to Joyce, Hoard’s niece) and Moneylove (Joyce’s other suitor; the ‘poor scholar’) alone on-stage. Sam tells Moneylove that he plans to challenge him to a duel in a month’s time. Moneylove readily agrees to the duel, strikes Sam and exits.

Act 1, Scene 4: A street in London
Witgood and the Host arrive in London. The Host assures Witgood that the ‘Widow’ has been been provided with good lodgings. Dampit and Gulf (two usurers) enter. Witgood tells the Host that Dampit is “the most notorious usurering, blasphemous, atheistical, brothel-vomiting rascal that we have in these latter times.” He also says that, although Dampit dresses like a beggar, he is, in fact, very rich — he earned all his money with the devil’s help, by cheating and trampling the law. Dampit greets Witgood and rhapsodizes about his rise to wealth, repeatedly referring himself as “a great trampler of time.”: “Thus was poor Harry Dampit made rich by others’ laziness, who, though they would not follow their own suits, I made ‘em follow me with their purses.” Witgood says he is pleased to make Dampit and Gulf’s acquaintance once again.

Act 2, Scene 1: A room in Lucre’s home in London
Posing as a ‘servingman’, the Host calls on Lucre and reveals the wealthy ‘Widow’s’ plans to marry Witgood — pretending that he is unaware that Lucre is Witgood’s uncle. Hoping that he might be able to profit from a union between his nephew and a wealthy Widow, Lucre tells the ‘servingman’ Witgood is a “gentleman of the inestimable quality.” The ‘servingman’ asks if Lucre knows anything about Witgood’s financial status — because the ‘Widow’ may not marry him if he is not as wealthy as he has led her to believe. Lucre assures that Witgood’s finances are sound. The ‘servingman’ says that he has heard a rumor that Witgood had mortgaged all his property to an uncle in London. Lucre reveals that he is Witgood’s uncle, and assures the ‘servingman’ that the rumors are false. Feigning reluctance, the ‘servingman’ tells Lucre where Witgood and the ‘Widow’ are lodging and exits. Lucre instructs his servant to call on Witgood at his lodging and tell him that his uncle wishes to see him immediately. Witgood enters soon thereafter.

Lucre scolds Witgood for not telling him about his engagement. Witgood apologizes and says that he wanted to maintain a low profile because he was worried that his London creditors might catch up with him. Lucre persuades Witgood to send for the ‘Widow’. He also lends him fifty pounds for the wedding. Mistress Lucre (Lucre’s wife) enters with Sam (her son from another marriage). They greet Witgood warmly. The ‘Widow’ (Witgood’s Courtesan) enters. Lucre gives her a welcoming kiss. Sam tries to give her a welcoming kiss too, but is rejected (and thus offended).

Lucre tells the ‘Widow’ that he plans to leave everything he owns to Witgood; he instructs Witgood to “show the Widow around the house” (i.e., take her upstairs and have sex with her). Witgood and the Courtesan exit. Lucre tells Sam that he should follow Witgood’s example and find himself a wealthy widow instead of wasting time on Joyce. He exits. Feeling that her son has been slighted, Mistress Lucre lays a plan to foil Witgood’s engagement. She tells Sam to forget Joyce and gives him a gold chain and a diamond to present to the ‘Widow’, hoping that he might be able to steal her away from Witgood.

Act 2, Scene 2: A street in London
Moneylove tells Hoard that he has decided to give up courting Joyce (Hoard’s niece). He also says he has heard a rumor that a rich Widow has come to town. He asks Hoard to visit her on his behalf and recommend him to her. He feels that his chances of marrying her are good because her only suitor is the profligate rascal, Witgood, nephew of Hoard’s greatest enemy. Realizing his chance to get his revenge on his Lucre, Hoard agrees to visit the Widow on Moneylove’s behalf soon. As soon as Moneylove exits, Hoard calls him a fool and makes plans to discredit Witgood and marry the Widow himself, thus increasing his estate and crossing his enemy in a single stroke.

Word of Witgood and the ‘Widow’ has apparently spread quite quickly: three of Witgood’s creditors enter, on their way to Witgood’s lodgings. Hoard decides to follow them.

Act 3, Scene 1: The common room in Witgood’s inn
Witgood’s creditors confront Witgood to collect on their debts. Witgood tells them to be patient — as soon as he manages to marry the ‘Widow’, they will all be paid. He even convinces them to lend him further funds to help his courtship along. They agree to supply him with whatever he needs and exit. The Courtesan enters and tells Witgood that she has received gifts from several suitors, including Hoard, who has promised to prove that Witgood is a riotous, ruined scoundrel. Witgood encourages her to play her hand for all it is worth. He says that he would be genuinely pleased to see her snag a profitable marriage to Hoard. He exits.

Hoard enters with his friends, Lamprey and Spitchcock, and the Host (who is posing as the ‘Widow’s’ servingman). After being introduced by Hoard as gentlemen of reputation, Lamprey and Spitchcock tell the ‘Widow’ that Witgood is a riotous, ruined scoundrel. ‘Shocked’ the ‘Widow’ renounces Witgood on the spot and plans to part with him. Hoard suggests that the ‘Widow’ should marry him instead. She tells him that she doesn’t have any money or property at all. Assuming that she is only testing him, Hoard says that he has more than enough money of his own — he only wants to marry her for love. The ‘Widow’ agrees to the marriage — but how will she rid herself of Witgood and his uncle, whom she is scheduled to dine with at a tavern that evening? Hoard says that he will meet the ‘Widow’ at the tavern, whisk her away under Witgood’s nose, and take her to Coal Harbor that night to marry her. (Coal Harbor was a disreputable area near London Bridge where a wedding could be performed quickly, without fuss). The ‘Widow’ agrees to the plan.

Hoard, Lamprey and Spitchcock exit. Witgood enters, laughing because he has overheard Hoard’s plan. The Courtesan (‘Widow’) exits. Lucre pops in on Witgood to ask how things with the ‘Widow’ are progressing. Witgood says that things are going well, but he is worried because the ‘Widow’ has so many suitors. Lucre tells Witgood not to worry—he intends to do everything in his power to impress the ‘Widow’ (and thus secure her promise to marry Witgood) that night at dinner.

Act 3, Scene 2: A room in Hoard’s house
Hoard tells his niece, Joyce that he will find a good husband for her soon. After he exits, Joyce notes that it is unlikely that he will match her with the man she truly wants to marry the most: his enemy’s nephew, Witgood. Lucre’s servant, George, brings Joyce a private letter and exits. Joyce reads the letter, which is from Witgood, who pledges love to her and urges her to disbelieve any rumors she may hear about him. Joyce says she will trust Witgood.

Act 3, Scene 3: The common room of a tavern
Hoard thanks Spitchcock and Lamprey for helping him court the ‘Widow’. Spitchcock and Lamprey bicker over which one of them helped more. They enter a room at the tavern. The Courtesan enters the tavern with Witgood and the Host. Witgood exits to inspect the kitchen. The Courtesan sends the Host back to her lodging to fetch a ring, which she says she forgot. As soon as she is alone, she instructs the tavern boy to inform Hoard of her arrival. Hoard enters with Lamprey and Spitchcock. They take the ‘Widow’ away to get married.

Witgood enters. He asks the owner of the tavern to take special care with the dinner—he is dining with his uncle and prospective bride and wishes to make a favorable impression. The tavern boy tells Witgood that the ‘Widow’ is gone, carried off by Hoard & co. Witgood feigns surprise. The Host re-enters, saying that he could not find the ring. Witgood tells him that the ‘Widow’ has been stolen. Lucre enters with his two friends, Limber and Kix. Witgood tells him that his mortal enemy, Hoard, has stolen the ‘Widow’. Lucre is infuriated. They all rush off to Coal Harbor without delay.

Act 3, Scene 4: A room in Dampit’s house
Dampit is drunk at his home. His landlady’s servant, Audrey begs him to go to bed. He heaps abuse on her and refuses to retire until she brings him a glass of beer.

Act 4, Scene 1: The common room of the tavern at Coal Harbor
Hoard and the Courtesan (‘Widow’) are now married. They enter the tavern to celebrate, accompanied by Lamprey and Spitchcock. Lucre bangs on the door and demands to be let inside. Hoard wants to ignore him, but the ‘Widow’ begs them to admit him so she can play a trick on him to disgrace him further. Hoard agrees to grant her request.

Lucre enters, accompanied by Limber, Kix and the ‘servingman’ (Host). He takes the ‘Widow' aside to speak with her in private. Unaware that she has already married Hoard, Lucre begs the ‘Widow’ to return to Witgood. The ‘Widow’ replies that, although she loved him, she broke with Witgood because she discovered that he is a ruined rascal who mortgaged all of his lands to his uncle — not the wealthy gentleman he pretended to be at all. Willing to do anything to upstage his enemy, Lucre promises to restore all of Witgood’s lands and make him his heir if the ‘Widow’ will reconsider. The ‘Widow’ agrees to the deal.

Act 4, Scene 2: A room in Lucre’s house
Vowing to do anything to see Hoard humiliated, Lucre gives Witgood all of his lands back. Witgood vows that he will never be foolish enough to let his property slip out of his hands again.

Act 4, Scene 4: A room in Hoard’s house
Gloating over his good luck, Hoard anticipates the pleasure of rubbing his enemy’s nose in his new fortune. A tailor, a barber, a perfumer, a huntsman and a falconer enter. Hoard has all hired them to serve him, believing that he will soon be rich enough to live in the manner of a wealthy gentleman. He assigns each of them a task to perform. They exit. The Courtesan (‘Widow’), who is now Mistress Jane Hoard, enters. Hoard asks her if she would rather have the wedding dinner in the country or the city. She says she prefers the city.

The Host (‘servingman’) enters with a private letter from Witgood for the ‘Widow’. He tells Hoard that the letter is bad news. The ‘bad news’ is a little bit complicated; it consists of two related revelations: A) Witgood had a ‘precontract’ with the ‘Widow’ (a precontract is a legally binding betrothal that would nullify Hoard’s marriage); B) Witgood has been arrested by his creditors, and blames Hoard for his failure to pay up because Hoard has detained the ‘precontracted’ marriage that would enable him to pay his debts.

Realizing that Witgood is in serious trouble, and realizing that she has no choice but to help him out, the ‘Widow’ tells Hoard that she did, indeed, make a precontract with Witgood, and faults herself for her foolishness. She urges Hoard to pay off Witgood’s ‘paltry’ debts immediately so they can be rid of the rascal forever. Hoard order the ‘servingman’ to summon Witgood and his creditors immediately.

Witgood and his creditors enter. Hoard offer to settle all Witgood’s debts if Witgood will agree to release the ‘Widow’ from the precontract. Witgood agrees to the deal. With his debts thus absolved and his property reclaimed, Witgood makes plans to marry Joyce immediately.

Act 4, Scene 5: Dampit’s bedroom
Dampit is in his bed, sick from too much drinking (but continuing to drink). Lamprey and Spitchcock enter and ask to borrow some money, Dampit denies them. Lancelot (another gentleman) enters. Dampit greets him warmly. Lancelot marvels at Dampit’s advanced decrepitude. As a jest, Lancelot pretends to leave the bedroom. Dampit begins to curse him as soon as he is gone. When Lancelot ‘returns’ to say good-bye one more time, Dampit blesses him and wishes him well. As another jest, Lancelot pretends to be a poor man from the country; he tells Dampit that he has lost all of his land to a usurering villain who has cheated him out of his family home. Dampit advises him avenge himself by setting the house on fire.

Hoard and Gulf enter to visit Dampit. Lancelot tells them that Dampit is almost dead. Gulf says that Dampit’s current suffering is the price he must pay for a lifetime of usury and cheating. Dampit calls Gulf a hypocrite and a coward for insulting him when he is in a weakened condition. He challenges him to a fight and showers him with insults. Gulf draws a dagger and prepares to fight; the other men calm him down; they say that the fight isn’t worth the trouble because Dampit will soon be dead.

Act 5, Scene 1: A room in Lucre’s house
Hoard has invited Lucre to his wedding dinner in order to rub his enemy’s nose in his good fortune. Witgood encourages him to attend the dinner and reveals that Hoard has, in fact, married a whore. He also announces that he and Joyce are now man and wife.

Act 5, Scene 2 The wedding dinner; a room in Hoard’s house
Hoard welcomes his guests, who include, among others, Onesiphorus Hoard, his brother from Leicestershire, who is eager to meet his brother’s new wife. Onesiphorus recognizes the ‘Widow’ from Leicestershire and regretfully informs Hoard that he has married a whore — Witgood’s whore. The Courtesan apologetically confirms Onesiphorus’ allegation, but is quick to point out that she told Hoard that she didn’t have any money when he first proposed. Hoard is infuriated.

Witgood and Lucre enter. Hoard calls them villains and orders them to leave his house. The Courtesan and Witgood both make speeches pledging to renounce their former way of life now that they are married. Hoard ends the play on a note of reconciliation: “So, so, all friends. The wedding dinner cools. Who seem most crafty prove oftentimes most fools.”

Notes

References

  • Brown, John Russell, and Bernard Harris, eds. Jacobean Theatre. Edward Arnold Ltd., 1960.
  • Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923.
  • Heller, Herbert Jack. Penitent Brothellers: Grace, Sexuality, and Genre in Thomas Middleton's City Comedies. Newark, DE, University of Delaware Press, 2000.
  • Martin, Matthew R. Between Theatre and Philosophy: Skepticism in the Major City Comedies of Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton. Newark, DE, University of Delaware Press, 2001.

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