In addition to the play's appearance in both folios, its belated entry in the Stationers' Register on June 29, 1660 also assigns it to Beaumont and Fletcher. The Epilogue to the play in the folios refers to a limited Fletcherian role in the play's authorship: "...if he but writ / An act, or two...." Yet the play itself indicates that Fletcher's contribution may be more minor than that; Fletcher's highly characteristic pattern of linguistic preferences (ye for you, 'em for them, etc.) is lacking in the play. David Lake confirms the presence of Middleton and Rowley that earlier scholars like Cyrus Hoy had detected. Where other critics had dated the play anywhere from 1609 to 1620, Lake favors a date in the later part of 1613 based on topical allusions.
Lake's analysis of the play's internal evidence yielded the following division of shares of authorship:
The overall division is one typical of Middleton/Rowley collaborations, in which Middleton took primary responsibility for the main plot, and Rowley for the comic subplot. References in the text indicate that the clown character Pompey Doodle is a fat clown, a kind of part that Rowley repeatedly wrote for himself to play.
The old knight is also the guardian of a Niece (otherwise unnamed, as is Middleton's recurrent practice in his plays). Sir Perfidious has arranged a marriage between his Niece and a local knight, Sir Gregory Fop. His name clues the audience that the intended bridegroom is a fool. Sir Gregory comes to meet his intended bride with a witty friend named Cunningham (the play text pronounces his name "cunning game"). As a practical joke — his idea of a witticism — Sir Perfidious lets his Niece believe that Cunningham is her future husband, before introducing her to the real Sir Gregory.
But the Niece and Cunningham instantly feel a powerful attraction to each other, much to the old knight's displeasure. The Niece is repelled by the idea of accepting Fop in Cunningham's place; but her uncle's threats to isolate her force her to conceal her real feelings and appear to comply — while ruthlessly berating, ridiculing, and manipulating Sir Gregory in private. She also flirts with Sir Gregory's clown, Pompey Doodle — so blatantly that Cunningham's jealousy is aroused, proving that he loves her. He then collaborates in her scheme. In the end, Fop's spirit is so beaten-down that he marries a poor woman who treats him with respect and consideration, rather the wealthy Niece who scorns and belittles him at every turn. This leaves the Niece free to marry the poor but desirable Cunningham.
Wittypate Oldcraft falls in with a group of cheats and con-men: Sir Ruinous Gentry is a "decayed knight," and Priscian is a "poor scholar." The knight's wife, Lady Ruinous, is the fourth member of the crew. The quartet pursue an escalating series of cons against Sir Perfidious that deprive him of more than two hundred pounds of his cash. Cunnigham joins and co-operates with the cheaters. In the end, Sir Perfidious realizes that Wittypate has cheated him repeatedly. Conceding that his son has done an excellent job of living by his wits, the old knight gives Wittypate the yearly income of £200 that he'd requested in the first place.
-Sir Perfidious Oldcraft, an old knight, a great admirer of wit.
-Wittypate Oldcraft, his father's own son.
-Sir Gregory Fop, a witless lord of land.
-Cunningame, a discreet gentleman, Sir Gregory's comrade and supplanter.
-Sir Ruinous Gentry, a decayed knight.
-Priscian, a poor scholar.
-Pompey Doodle, a clown, Sir Gregory's man.
-Mr. Credulous, nephew to Sir Perfidious, a shallow-brained scholar.
-Boy, a singer.
-Servant to Sir and Lady Ruinous Gentry.
-Servant to Sir Perfidious Oldcraft.
-2 Servants at a tavern.
-Niece to Sir Perfidious, a rich and witty heir.
-Lady Ruinous, wife to Sir Ruinous.
-Guardianess to Sir Perfidious's Niece, an old doting crone.
-Mirabell, the Guardianess's niece.
Act 1, Scene 1: Oldcraft's home
As his twenty-first birthday approaches, Wittypate asks his father, Sir Perfidious Oldcraft (the "Old Knight") for a two hundred pound allowance to live on. Oldcraft denies the request; he says he wants Wittypate to learn to "live by his wits" (a phrase that Oldcraft repeats ad infinitum throughout the play). Oldcraft is a self-professed connoisseur of "wit," which, in the context of this play, can mean "self-reliance," "cunning," "resourcefulness," "trickery," or a combination of all four. Wittypate exits. Oldcraft says he has a Niece whom he must find a husband for. He has made a secret deal to marry her to Sir Gregory Fop ("a witless lord of land"), who has agreed to allow Oldcraft to keep two-thirds of his niece's dowry for himself. (Note: Oldcraft's Niece does not have a name; she is referred to throughout the play as "the Niece.")
Fop enters with his companion (and dependant), Cunningame. Oldcraft says that his Niece will be down shortly. He suggests a practical joke: Fop should leave the room for a moment, and Cunningame should pretend to be the Niece's suitor. Fop agrees to play along with the ruse; he exits. The Niece enters with her Guardianess. Cunningame is immediately attracted to the Niece. To Oldcraft's surprise, the Niece seems to like Cunningame, too. Fop enters, and Oldcraft announces his big surprise: Fop--not Cunningame--is the real suitor. The Niece does not like the looks of Fop at all; she assumes that her uncle must be playing another joke on her. Cunningame courts the Niece's Guardianess (the first step in a plan to woo the Niece). Oldcraft insists that Fop is the Niece's true suitor. The Niece agrees to reconsider. Fop kisses the Niece's hand.
Act 1, Scene 2: A London Street
Wittypate confers with the members of his gang of con men, Sir Ruinous and Priscian. Sir Ruinous insists that his wife should have an equal share of the gang's most recent exploit, even though she did not participate in it. Wittypate begrudgingly assents. Oldcraft and Fop enter. Wittypate puts on a false beard to disguise himself. Posing as a "poor scholar," Priscian addresses Oldcraft in Latin and begs for money. Oldcraft is eager to show off his His Latin (which is terrible); he engages the "poor scholar" in conversation. Priscian's Latin is almost as bad as Oldcraft's. Wittypate encourages Ruinous to step forward. Posing as a "wounded soldier," Ruinous also begs for money. Wittypate comes forward (still disguised); he warns Oldcraft that the "scholar" and the "soldier" might be impostors. He conducts interviews with each of them and eventually decides to give each of them a bag of money. Feeling pressure to follow Wittypate's example, Oldcraft and Fop also make large charitable contributions; they exit. Wittypate tells Ruinous that his next scheme will involve his cousin, Credulous, a university student whom Oldcraft holds in high regard.
Act 2, Scene 1
Lady Ruinous delivers a speech mourning her position in life: circumstance has forced her to "live by her wits" (which, in this case, refers to her ability to cheat and steal). Her speech at the beginning of this scene is in direct contrast to Oldcraft's speech in praise of wit at the beginning of 1.1. Priscian enters and tells Lady Ruinous of her role in Wittypate's next scheme: she must pose as a "gentleman" who will be robbed. (Wittypate wants to make his cousin Credulous think that he has participated in a robbery so that he can pretend to arrest him and force Oldcraft to pay a ransom for his release). Priscian gives Lady Ruinous a bag of money and exits.
Act 2, Scene 2
Cunningame worries that his schemes have gotten out of control. The Guardianess is now totally in love with him, and he is not sure how he will be able to get rid of her. The Guardianess enters. Cunningame asks her if the Niece is in love with Fop. She tells him that the Niece seems indifferent to Fop, but was quite taken by Cunningame himself. Cunningame is pleased to hear this news. The Niece enters with Pompey Doodle (Fop's clown; he has been dispatched to woo the Niece on Fop's behalf). Pompey Doodle gives the Niece a ruff (a type of collar) as a gift from Fop (there is a bit of bawdy punning going on here; "ruff" could also mean "vagina"). The Guardianess scolds Cunningame for staring at the Niece. In an aside, the Niece wonders if Cunningame fancies her; she says will play a trick to "awake his wits" in order to discover his true feelings. She begins courting the clown, Pompey Doodle, to see if Cunningame will get jealous. The trick works; Cunningame gets extremely irritated. When the Guardianess tries to get him to calm down he shuns her, insults her, and admits that his love was always false.
The Niece is pleased to see Cunningame's rancour. Cunningame realizes he has been had. He vows to return the trick and exits. Pompey Doodle believes that the Niece is truly in love with him. He asks her if she would like him to come back that night. She responds by making him swear that he will stay away until she calls for him. The clown swears exits.
The Guardianess is heartbroken. The Niece scolds her for being foolish and tells her that Cunningame was only pretending to love her in order to court Mirabell, the Guardianess' niece. The Niece exits. The Guardianess expresses shock that her own niece (Mirabell) would try to steal her man. She vows revenge. Mirabell enters. The Guardianess scolds her for stealing Cunningame. Mirabell swears that she is innocent. Convinced by these protestations, the Guardianess changes her tone and asks Mirabell to help her get revenge on Cunningame by flirting with him, winning him over, and dumping him (just as Cunningame dumped the Guardianess). Mirabell agrees to cooperate with the plan.
Act 2, Scene 3
Pompey Doodle resigns as Fop's clown (because he wants to court the Niece, and thus become Fop's competitor). He hints that the Niece may be interested in "another party." Confused, Fop assumes that the clown must be "out of his wits" (crazy).
Act 2, Scene 4: A road outside London
Wittypate, Sir Ruinous, Priscian and Credulous (all with their faces disguised by scarves) 'rob' (or pretend to rob) Lady Ruinous, who is disguised as traveling gentleman. This robbery is staged to trick Wittypate's cousin, Credulous (Oldcraft's treasured scholar-nephew). Priscian and Ruinous exit with Lady Ruinous/'gentleman'. Credulous says he never imagined that he would participate in a real robbery. Wittypate (who is posing as friendly fellow traveller) scolds him for being such a sissy. Ruinous and Priscian re-enter. Wittypate says that they must now split up and meet again at a tavern called The Three Cups in Saint Giles (a notorious haunt of beggars and thieves northwest of Covent Garden). Wittypate gives Credulous the bag of money that was 'stolen' from the 'gentleman' (Lady Ruinous). Credulous promises that he won't open the bag until the gang re-convenes at the Three Cups. Credulous and Ruinous exit. Lady Ruinous re-enters. Wittypate congratulates her on a job well done and lays out the next phase of his scheme: Ruinous will pose as a constable and arrest Credulous, at which point Wittypate will enter--not in disguise--and swear that his father (Oldcraft) will pay double the amount stolen in exchange for Credulous' release.
Act 3, Scene 1: Beneath the Niece's balcony
Oldcraft gives Fop advice on how to court the Niece; he says he could force the Niece to marry if he wanted to, but thinks it is better to use persuasion. Fop tells Oldcraft that he is still a virgin. Oldcraft is surprised. Oldcraft exits. A boy with a viol enters. Fop has hired him to sing beneath the Niece's balcony. The boy begins singing. The Niece appears on her balcony, enchanted by the music. Fop sends the boy away and pretends as though he was the singer. The Niece heaps abuses on Fop and sends him away. Fop exits. Cunningame enters. The Niece tells him that Fop has won her heart (it is not clear here whether the Niece recognizes Cunningame and deliberately sets out to make him jealous, or whether she believes she is deceiving Oldcraft, via an informer, about her opinion of Sir Gregory). Cunningame exits, jealous and enraged. Fop brings Oldcraft to the Niece's balcony, complaining of her previous abuses. The Niece goes on declaring her love for Fop (she pretends to love Fop when Oldcraft is around). She lets her scarf fall and asks Fop to wear it. Oldcraft scolds Fop for summoning him unnecessarily and exits. The Niece resumes abusing Fop as soon as Oldcraft is gone. She tells him that the only reason she gave him her scarf was to send a signal to a "worthier gentleman" who will challenge Fop and take the scarf from him. She exits.
Fop is very frightened by the prospect of being challenged by the "worthier gentleman." Cunningame enters. Fop tells Cunningame about the "worthier gentleman" and the scarf. Cunningame realizes the Niece's trick right away: the scarf was intended for him, and he must use his wit to get it from Fop. He volunteers to wear the scarf in Fop's place in order to keep Fop out of danger. Fop is very grateful. Cunningame tells Fop that Pompey is the "worthier gentleman" who was supposed to challenge him for the scarf. Fop is shocked to learn that his former clown is now his sworn enemy. Cunningame takes the scarf.
Oldcraft enters, followed by the Niece. The Niece asks Fop what he has done with the scarf she gave him. Fop says he lost it. Oldcraft scolds Fop for losing his Niece's love token, but (seeing an opportunity to convince Fop to marry without requiring any dowry at all) he tells his Niece not to attach too much importance to the scarf. The Niece relents and gives Fop a new token: a diamond ring. When Oldcraft is out of earshot, she tells Fop that the "worthier gentleman" will take the ring, too. Fop is frightened, but remains silent for fear of offending Oldcraft. At Oldcraft's suggestion, Fop and the Niece agree to marry on the following Tuesday. The Niece and Oldcraft exit. Fop says he will never marry the Niece, and makes plans to get rid of the diamond ring as soon as possible.
Act 4, Scene 1: Oldcraft's home
Wittypate tells Oldcraft of Credulous' arrest. Oldcraft is upset and disappointed with his nephew, the scholar, whom he had high hopes for. Credulous enters with Ruinous (disguised as a "Constable") and Lady Ruinous (disguised as the "gentleman" who was robbed). Wittypate encourages Oldcraft to take it easy on Credulous. Lady Ruinous/"the robbed gentleman" swears to see Credulous hanged, but, after a bit of haggling, agrees to let him go for a sum of money. Ruinous/"the constable" is paid off as well. Ruinous, Lady Ruinous and Oldcraft exit. Wittypate lectures Credulous on the dangers of falling in with the wrong sort of company. A servant enters and informs Credulous that Oldcraft has ordered him out of the house immediately. He will be forced to take up new lodgings in Thieving Lane (a shabby street in Westminster, chosen by Oldcraft for its opprobrious name). Credulous exits with the servant.
Cunningame enters. Wittypate greets him and exits. Cunningame complains about Mirabell (the Guardianess' niece), who has been following him around. Mirabell enters. She tells Cunningame that her aunt has asked her to "dissemble with him" (lead him on) in order to get her revenge. Following this admission, however, she swears that her affection is, in fact, genuinely felt. Cunningame convinces Mirabell to transfer her love to Fop, whom he says would be a far better match (because he is a rich fool). Mirabell protests that she does not have the dowry required to attract a man of Fop's stature. Cunningame assures her that he can convince Fop to marry her for nothing. Mirabell agrees to Cunningame's plan. Cunningame gives Mirabell the Niece's scarf and tells her to wear it. Mirabell takes the scarf and exits. Fop enters. He shows Cunningame the diamond ring the Niece has given him. Cunningame tells him the ring is another signal for the "worthier gentleman." He offers to take it and wear it himself in order to protect Fop from challengers. Fop gratefully hands the ring over. Cunningame tells Fop that he is engaged to marry Mirabell, whom he describes as "mild" and "kind"--the complete opposite of Fop's "hellcat"; he charges Fop to keep news of the engagement secret. Fop swears the secret is safe with him. Cunningame gives Fop a letter with a jewel in it to convey to Mirabell; he warns him to make sure that the Niece does not see the letter (he expects that Fop will betray him and convey the jewel to the Niece--this is his way of letting the Niece know that he has received her tokens, and is also able to play along with her witty games). Fop swears to deliver the letter and exits.
Pompey Doodle enters and tells Cunningame that he has heard news that the Niece sent him a scarf and a diamond ring, but he hasn't yet received these items (the source of Pompey's information regarding these items is not explained). Cunningame tells Pompey that Fop has intercepted the gifts. Pompey says that he has been waiting for the Niece to send for him for two days. Cunningame encourages him to go to her himself. Pompey refuses--he has sworn to stay away until called for, and intends to honor his oath. He tells Cunningame that he will be waiting for the Niece's messengers at The New River at Islington (not far from London). Cunningame says he will direct the messengers to New River if he sees them.
Act 4, Scene 2
Fop tells the Niece about Cunningame's alleged engagement to Mirabell and gives her the letter with the jewel in it (just as Cunningame expected he would). The Niece reads the letter and immediately realizes the jewel is intended for her, not Mirabell. She abuses Fop terribly, pretends to be nice for a moment when she thinks she hears Oldcraft approaching, and then resumes her former abuse. The Guardianess enters and tells the Niece that Mirabell is wearing her scarf. Surprised, the Niece exits to see what if the Guardianess' report is true.
Act 4, Scene 3
Cunningame talks to a "woman" (supposedly Mirabell) who is masked with a broad hat and scarf (supposedly the Niece's scarf). This "woman" is actually a dummy. (Cunningame has cooked up a scheme to make the Niece jealous, a reversal of the trick the Niece played on Cunningame in 2.2.) The Niece quickly grows jealous when she sees Cunningame talking to "Mirabell"/the dummy. Cunningame is pleased to see that his trick is working. She attacks "Mirabell"/the dummy and realizes that she has been had. She commends Cunningame's wit. Cunningame and the Niece agree to get married.
Act 5, Scene 1
Wittypate and Cunningame make plans to cooperate in their respective endeavors (Wittypate will help Cunningame marry the Niece and Cunningame will help Wittypate hustle Oldcraft). Wittypate exits. Pompey Doodle enters. Cunningame tells him to stand by and bear witness as his "rival," Fop, is tricked into entering a betrothal contract with Mirabell. Fop enters. He thinks that Cunningame is going to help him win the Niece's affection. The "trick" in this scene involves a complicated bit of stage business: According to the stage direction, Cunningame and Fop "enter into a gown." Fop crouches under the gown, behind Cunningame, who holds his arms concealed by his sides while Fop reaches his own around him and out through the sleeves (thus the two men look like 'one man in a gown'; Cunningame's head and Fop's arms are the only appendages visible). Mirabell enters. Fop thinks Mirabell is the Niece (he cannot see her because he is hiding under the gown). Cunningame tricks Fop into entering into a "handfast" exchange of betrothal vows with Mirabell--this type of betrothal was regarded as legally binding when performed in front of one or more witnesses (in this case, Pompey serves as the witness). Fop emerges from under the gown and realizes that he has been tricked (he thought that he was entering into a handfast engagement with the Niece). He is angry at first, but Cunningame convinces him that he should be thankful because he has been spared the misery of marrying Oldcraft's tempestuous Niece. Mirabell swears to be a faithful,loving wife. Fop decides to accept Mirabell as his fiance. They kiss and exit. Pompey exits soon thereafter; he says that he will resuming waiting for th Niece to call for him.
Wittypate and Oldcraft enter. Wittypate and Cunningame tell Oldcraft that Fop is no longer interested in marrying the Niece. Oldcraft hopes to buy back Fop as a nephew-in-law by paying him an advance on the Niece's dowry (he has brought a purse of five hundred pounds with him for this exact propose). Wittypate and Cunningame tell Oldcraft that the Niece has fallen in love with a fool (Pompey), whom she plans to marry. Oldcraft says he will force her to marry Fop. Playing to his father's love of artful schemes, Wittypate suggests a plan: He tells Oldcraft that the Niece and Pompey are enjoying themselves at a masked party at that very moment; he suggests that they don masks, sneak into the party, and catch the Niece red-handed in a grand discovery. Oldcraft protests that there isn't enough time to prepare such an elaborate scheme. Wittypate tells him that he has already prepared the masquing costumes; Oldcraft will only have to do one thing: pay the musicians at the party. Oldcraft says that he will happily pay the musicians, no matter the cost. Cunningame, Wittypate and Oldcraft leave for the party.
Act 5, Scene 2: The masquing party
The Niece, Lady Ruinous, the Guardianess, Sir Ruinous and Priscian enter. They are all in masks. Sir Ruinous and Priscian pose as musicians. The Niece is not sure what is going on. She is anxious to see Cunningame; Lady Ruinous assures her he will arrive soon. Oldcraft, Wittypate and Cunningame enter. They are all wearing masks. They dance with the Niece, the Guardianess and Lady Ruinous. Cunningame sneaks out of the party with the niece (they are planning to run away and get married). The Guardianess follows them (she thinks that Cunningame is Fop). The Niece is worried that her uncle will follow them, but Cunningame tells her not to worry--he has planned for Oldcraft to be delayed.
The "musicians" (Ruinous and Priscian) stop playing. Oldcraft notices that the Niece is gone. He asks where she is. Wittypate tells him that he must now pay the "musicians," as he has promised. Oldcraft tosses the "musicians" a crown. Priscian and Ruinous (the "musicians") produce pistols and tell Oldcraft that their fee is much higher than a single crown. Oldcraft is thus forced to give them the five hundred pound purse he had planned to give Fop; he complains that the "musicians" are no better than thieves.
The Guardianess enters and tells Oldcraft the the Niece has married Cunningame and Fop has married Mirabell; Credulous performed both wedding ceremonies. Cunningame and the Niece (now man and wife) enter with Fop and Mirabell (also newlyweds). Credulous enters soon thereafter. Credulous says that he performed the wedding ceremonies because Wittypate told him that Oldcraft wanted him to. Pompey enters. The Niece cannot resist teasing him a bit. She claims that she sent for him several times, but he cruelly ignored her summons. Pompey protests that he never received any messages. The Niece refuses to believe him and sends him away. Pompey says that the Niece is crazy and concludes that he is probably better off without her.
Wittypate lays out all of the tricks he has played on his father: 1) the "scholar" and "wounded soldier" trick in 1.2, 2) the "robbery and ransom" trick in 4.1, and 3) the "expensive music" trick in 5.1. He says that the success of these three schemes is proof that he has learned to "live by his wits" as his father enjoined him to do in 1.1. Oldcraft agrees to pay Wittypate an allowance of two hundred pounds a year (which is the exact amount Wittypate asked for at the beginning of the play). Oldcraft ends the play on a note of festivity: