A Mad World and Adultery

Through his work, A Mad World, My Masters, Thomas Middleton challenges the viewer’s perspectives on adultery by portraying it as comical, rather than starkly reproachable. During the first four acts of A Mad World, My Masters, the play seems to encourage the audience to support Penitent Brothel and Mistress Harebrain as they successfully carry out an affair unbeknownst to Master Harebrain, an emotionally abusive dupe. Despite the play’s comic take on the liaison, once Penitent Brothel and Mistress Harebrain actually have sex, the arrival of the Succubus brings a drastic shift in tone. With her appearance in Act IV, Scene Five, A Mad World, My Masters begins drawing parallels with supernatural tragedies like the works of Shakespeare released around the same time. One could argue that this incident is the catalyst for a change in the play’s viewpoint. However, through analysis of the liaison both before and after Mistress Harebrain and Penitent Brothel consummate their affair, I will argue in this essay that A Mad World, My Masters does not shift its viewpoint but in fact stays resolute in its stance that the affair between Mistress Harebrain and Penitent Brothel should be supported.

To begin, I will detail how the play presents the affair before Mistress Harebrain and Penitent Brothel have sex and explain how the depiction supports that A Mad World, My Masters ultimately does not change its viewpoint on the affair. The relationship is shown from the start to be based on love, not lust. Some argue that the numerous mentions of love in the dialogue could be interpreted as a synonym for lust. However, the text phrases these two emotions in different ways. Lust is written as the cause of a crisis of faith and of self. Those issues are not found in the love that Penitent holds for Mistress Harebrain. For example, after they have had sex, Penitent laments over what he has done and frets over holy retribution, making specific reference to lust. “What crown is kept for continence, what for lust,” he says, “To dote on weakness, slime, corruption, woman?” (4.1.15, 18). Compare this language, which, I emphasize, makes specific mention of lust, to the language used when Penitent speaks of love. In his first appearance, Penitent explains to the audience that he is planning on having an affair with Mistress Harebrain. In this passage, he makes a direct reference to loving her: “And such an appetite that I know damns me / (Yet willingly embrace it), love to Harebrain’s wife” (1.1.105-106). The sentiment is surprisingly ahead of its time: a man renouncing the responsibilities of faith to be with the woman he loves. The contrast in these examples serves to highlight how the affair should be supported by the audience. It is hard for the viewer not to support two people who appear to genuinely love each other.

Despite the relationship being presented as loving, some argue that Penitent manipulates her into the relationship. However, while Penitent does send the courtesan to persuade Mistress Harebrain to have sex with him, it is immediately mentioned that she already felt the same way. When the courtesan recounts how her meeting with Mistress Harebrain went, she says, “She [Mistress Harebrain] had wrought herself into the form of your love before my art set finger to her” (1.1.127-128). The text implies consent or that Mistress Harebrain has as much agency in the relationship as Penitent. Having agency is a complete departure from Mistress Harebrain’s marriage to her husband. There are many examples of how Harebrain emotionally abuses his wife. After the first on-stage interaction between Harebrain and the Courtesan, Harebrain details how he plans to treat his wife in order to keep her faithful: “I’ll keep her to her stint, / I’ll put her to her pension, / She gets but her allowance, that’s a bare one” (1.2.65-68). Given these circumstances, it is only fitting that the play would ultimately not change its view that the affair between Mistress Harebrain and Penitent Brothel should be supported.

Up until Penitent Brothel and Mistress Harebrain have sex, A Mad World, My Masters undeniably supports the affair between the two. However, with the arrival of the Succubus, it becomes debatable as to whether or not the play continues to view their relationship as acceptable. I will attempt to dissuade any notions that the play’s viewpoint changes. To begin, the arrival of the Succubus is not shown to be serious. Normally, the arrival of a supernatural being in a play written at this time would encompass grim imagery and dreadful tone. Here it is shown as something comical. While the Succubus makes unrushed attempts to seduce Penitent, he frantically rebuffs her. Given the way the scene is written, it becomes hard to take it seriously. The Succubus is noted to be singing and dancing harmlessly while Penitent shouts, “Devil! I do conjure thee / By that soul-quaking thunder to depart, / And leave this chamber freed from thy damned art” (4.5.68-70). Consequently, it becomes hard to believe that Penitent is truly being punished for the affair as he seems to believe.

Finally, I will address Penitent’s sudden change of character in the fourth act. One could see it as a showing of his true nature, but it’s far more likely that the play is characterizing him in this way to strengthen the audience’s support of his relationship with Mistress Harebrain. Upon review, it becomes clear that Penitent has suddenly taken on the worldview of Master Harebrain; not only do their views on women align by the end of the fourth act, but Master Harebrain even applauds his way of thinking after hearing the end of Penitent’s speech to Mistress Harebrain, saying, “Two dear rare gems this hour presents me with,/A wife that’s modest and a friend that’s right” (4.5.78-79). This is critical because it reaffirms that Mistress Harebrain’s affair is justified. With Penitent’s sudden shift to a more misogynist mindset, the audience is reminded of how they were meant to dislike Harebrain and support Penitent’s earlier actions. To compare, earlier in the play Penitent is seen openly praising females on the whole. During the Courtesan’s ruse of being ill, Penitent compliments her on her ingenuity in making Inesse and Possibility leave, saying, “Let me admire thee. / The wit of man wanes and decreases soon, / but women’s wit is ever at full moon” (3.2.174-176). These two ideologies being so close together must be intentional. This is supported further by Harebrain’s admiration, which is likely meant to cement the audience’s suspicion that Penitent’s out of character actions are purposeful. Given the evidence, it is almost certain that A Mad World, My Masters does not change its views on the affair between Penitent Brothel and Mistress Harebrain by the play’s conclusion.

A Mad World, My Masters does not shift its viewpoint on the affair between Mistress Harebrain and Penitent Brothel. It stays resolute in its stance that the affair should be supported even after the arrival of the Succubus. Evidence of this can be found before the two have sex, shown through the language used to describe the affair and how Master Harebrain emotionally abuses his wife, and after, shown through the appearance of the Succubus and Penitent’s sudden change in attitude. The play’s depiction of adultery and love not only dare to challenge the rigid morals of marriage at the time but also religion and the church as well. Its ability to endure and maintain relevance is owed to its bold subversion of expectation.