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The crux in A Cure for A Cuckold: A cryptic message, a doubtful intention, and two dearest friends.

There is a major difficulty in the text of A Cure for a Cuckold (1661), the partly 'pleasant comedy' that John Webster wrote in collaboration with William Rowley and (probably) Thomas Heywood in the mid-1620s. Lessingham loves Clare, who declares in a letter that in order to win her he must kill 'that Friend that loves thee dearest' (I.1.119). (1) Lessingham puts his companions to the test, telling them that he is engaged to fight a duel in which he must have a participating second. They all make excuses for absence, except for Bonvile, who has just married Annabel. Bonvile, willing to risk his life on Lessingham's behalf, even before he has consummated his marriage, seems clearly to be Lessingham's 'best and nearest' (I.1.118) friend. When, at the appointed time and place, he discovers that he and Lessingham are to be opponents, Bonvile relieves his friend of his horrible task by averring that Lessingham's behaviour has ensured that they are no longer friends but are now foes: between them 'All friendship dyes' (III.1.136). But before that, when Lessingham shows Bonvile Clare's letter, Bonvile suggests that Clare's message must have some kind of figurative meaning: 'You cherish in your breast | Either self-love, or pride, as your best friend, | And she wishes you'd kill that' (III.1.87-89).

Certainly Lessingham has misinterpreted in some way, because Clare, hearing that Bonvile and Lessingham have gone off to fight (though the general belief is that they are in league against unknown adversaries), exclaims in an aside: 'Oh fool Lessingham, | Thou hast mistook my injunction utterly, | Utterly mistook it' (III.3.13-15), having already suspected earlier that 'Lessingham's mistaken, quite out o' the way | Of my purpose too' (II.4.36-37). When Lessingham, equivocating, informs Clare that he has 'Performed your will, drawn my revengful sword, | And slain my neerest and best friend i'th world | I had, for your sake' (IV.2.11-13), she repeats her private statement that Lessingham has misunderstood, first saying 'I had thought | That I had been the best esteemed friend | You had i'th world' (IV.2.20-22), and then, upon Lessingham's announcement that it is Bonvile whom he has slain, exclaiming: 'Know sir, that you have slain my deerest friend, | And fatalest enemy' (IV.2.53-54). She goes on to explain:

You urging your Suit to me, and I thinking

That I had been your onely friend i'th world,

I heartily did wish you would have kill'd

That friend your self, to have ended all my sorrow,

And had prepared it, that unwittingly

You should have don't by poison.

(IV.2.75)

Hopelessly in love with Annabel's bridegroom, Bonvile, Clare had, she claims, intended to make Lessingham the ignorant agent for her suicide.

Lessingham leaves Clare, and Bonvile promptly arrives, announcing that Lessingham 'has kill'd me for a friend' (IV.2.153), even though he is physically unscathed. Therefore, Bonvile says, 'you may now | Go and embrace him, for he has fulfilled | The purpose of that Letter' (ll. 154-56), returning to her the letter from Clare that Lessingham had shown him. She gives Bonvile another 'which I meant to have sent you | An hour 'fore you were married to your wife' (ll. 158-59). Had she done so, 'the Riddle had been construed' (l. 160), presumably referring to the riddle posed by her enigmatic directive to Lessingham. This new, previously undelivered letter evidently expressed her 'violent affection' (l. 163) for Bonvile, who, after perusing it, remarks:

Violent indeed; for it seems it was your purpose

To have ended it in violence on your friend:

The unfortunate Lessingham unwittingly

Should have been the Executioner.

(IV.2.164)

Clare endorses Bonvile's explication: "Tis true' (l. 168).

This last passage, quoted here with the exact wording and punctuation of Quarto (F4r), (2) contains the major textual crux of the play, and has perplexed editors and commentators. Rupert Brooke and Lucas take 'your friend' to mean Bonvile, and point out seemingly insuperable problems of interpretation. (3) Clare is here apparently agreeing that she instructed Lessingham to kill Bonvile, although she has repeatedly denied that Lessingham's interpretation of her message was correct. Furthermore, Lessingham could hardly kill Bonvile with a sword 'unwittingly', since he would be 'witting' of both Clare's instruction and his execution of it. Moreover, the dialogue which follows between Clare and Bonvile does not sort well with the idea that she has planned to have Lessingham dispose of him, on a feminine counterpart of the Wildean principle that 'each man kills the thing he loves'. Lucas, therefore, adopted Rupert Brooke's emendation of the Quarto's 'on' to 'and', and repunctuated:

Violent indeed; for it seems it was your purpose

To have ended it in violence: and your friend,

The unfortunate Lessingham unwittingly

Should have been the Executioner.

(IV.2.164)

This emendation allows the first line and a half to refer to Clare's intended suicide, and the rest to make clear that Lessingham would have played his part 'unwittingly'. Either this, or Brooke's alternative emendation of 'friend' to 'self ', seemed to Lucas the only way to save the plot from 'complete chaos' (Lucas, p. 117).

Brooke, Lucas and other critics are clearly right that for Clare's riddling verse to accord with the rest of the play, 'your friend' should refer to Lessingham, but 'violence' should not mean that she wished Lessingham's death. Are critics and editors correct, however, in interpreting Quarto's 'your friend' as having to be read as referring to Bonvile? There is no reason for Bonvile, when speaking to Clare, to refer to himself in the third person; and it was the first letter, not this second one, that he (as well as Lessingham) interpreted as requiring his death. Indeed, the syntax supports reading lines IV.2.166-67 about Lessingham in Quarto as an appositional clause elaborating on 'your friend' (l. 165). Lucas proposed a solution to this: that 'violence on your friend' be taken to mean 'making your friend Lessingham, against his will and without his knowledge, become the agent of your death'. Although Lucas rejected this as 'a quite desperate remedy' (Lucas, p. 117), it is in fact the meaning that is needed, and that is achieved by Brooke's emendation. Although 'violence on' does seem an extreme expression to use when little more than 'doing wrong to' is required, it is worth noting that it is the third use of the word 'violence' in three lines and Bonvile must be in effect consciously quoting the word. Therefore, since 'your friend' cannot mean Bonvile, and since it can and should mean Lessingham, there is a case for retaining Quarto unemended (as Dyce and Rene Weis). (4) Furthermore, both Quarto and the Brooke/Lucas emendation mean the same thing: that Clare's intention was that Lessingham should 'unwittingly' have killed her. This is not the end of the matter, however.

Lucas comments that, even with the emendation of IV.2.164-67, 'the motivation of the play as a whole' does not 'become satisfactory', adding: 'Brooke failed to note, when he tried to make suicide Clare's one idea, that she could not possibly describe herself as the friend that loved Lessingham dearest: for it was very far from being the case.' Lucas objects that 'it would be hard even for her peevish logic to call Lessingham a fool for not giving her words a sense they could not possibly bear'. He concludes 'either that Clare is meant to be utterly hysterical, not knowing her own mind from one moment to the next; or that the plot was muddled by the author or authors' (Lucas, p. 117). Forker wonders if 'Webster simply wished to cloud the whole question of Clare's intention', or if the explanation may be textual corruption. (5) If we go back to Clare's original letter to Lessingham in Act I, we do find one relevant textual difficulty. Lucas, along with all other commentators, is wrong in supposing that, as the Quarto prints it, Clare's riddling letter is incapable of bearing the meaning that she alleges she intended. Lessingham reads it out twice (it is italicized in the Quarto, B2r (I.1.118-23)). As first printed it runs:

Prove all thy friends, finde out the best and nearest,

Kill for my sake that Friend that loves thee dearest.

Then Lessingham reads it again:

Prove all thy Friends, finde out the best and nearest,

Kill for my sake that Friend that loves the dearest.

Lucas alters 'the' in the last line quoted above to 'thee', as do Dyce and Weis. Certainly 'the' is a possible seventeenth-century spelling of 'thee', though it was usually avoided because of the obvious risk of confusion with the definite article. But what would be the meaning if 'the' were correct? In Lessingham's second reading, 'that loves the dearest' might mean 'that loves most passionately' or 'that loves the dearest person' (referring to Bonvile). Either way, Clare, who loves Bonvile with a 'violent affection' and who accounts him 'the dearest man' alive, could be referring to herself. Throughout the play, Webster plays on the Elizabethan-Jacobean ambiguity in the word 'friend', which could cover romantic relationships, so as to mean 'lover' or 'beloved', as in Lucio's remark about Claudio and the pregnant Juliet in Measure for Measure: 'He hath got his friend with child' (I.4.29). (6) There are cogent reasons, however, for rejecting this hypothesis. Although the pronoun 'thee' occurs in its normal spelling forty times in A Cure for a Cuckold, there is one occasion, besides the one at issue, on which Lucas changes 'the' to 'the[e]', and that is at V.1.375, where Woodroff, challenging Lessingham to fight, says 'Prepare the[e] Slanderer': there 'thee' is clearly needed, and compositorial or scribal error seems likely. Furthermore, Lessingham makes no comment in the second reading of the letter suggesting realization that he misread it the first time, and Bonvile also reads the letter in Act III, Scene 1, and interprets it precisely as Lessingham did. Although there are many instances of riddling letters in other plays of the period (for example, Ferdinand's letter in The Duchess of Malfi, III.5.27-39 requiring Antonio's 'head in a businese'), (7) all rely on the evident equivocation in the letter, not mistaken reading by the recipient.

Forker's suggestion that Webster may have 'simply wished to cloud the whole question of Clare's intention' brings us back to the underlying problem not only of the textual difficulties, but also of reconciling Clare's motivation and characterization with the apparently arbitrary convolutions of riddle and plot. How can Clare describe herself as the friend that loved Lessingham dearest, when in fact she was in love with Bonvile? Is Lucas right that the only explanations are 'either that Clare is meant to be utterly hysterical [...] or that the plot is muddled'? Careful analysis of Clare's motivation, set alongside what the audience understands of the plot, will demonstrate that, when viewed separately, both character and plot have a coherence that resolves most of the questions raised by critics. The difficulties that remain seem to derive from a failure fully to integrate the emotional and narrative convolutions.

The play starts with Clare 'melancholy' (I.1.56, 89), a fact evident to Lessingham, to other wedding guests, and, given Jacobean acting conventions, undoubtedly to the audience. This love-melancholy for Bonvile, whom she has just seen married to Annabel, becomes, as we discover later, suicidal melancholy, and is the motivational root of all that follows. She is, in addition, aware that Lessingham loves her, and when she says she will send him a message revealing the 'one onely road [...] To my fruition' (I.1.63-64), she must know that he will think his love is finally reciprocated. This point is vital; when the first riddling letter is delivered to Lessingham by Clare's maid, both Lessingham and the audience have been led to believe that Clare will now love Lessingham. The letter itself says:

Prove all thy friends, finde out the best and nearest,

Kill for my sake that Friend that loves thee dearest.

(I.1.118)

At this point the plot requires a divergence between what Lessingham, the audience, and in due course Bonvile think it means ('test your male friends, and, in order to win my love, kill the most loyal one'), and what, we find later, Clare intends it to mean ('think hard about whom you love, and who will love you for killing her, which you will understand after the event'). Her intention is to send a riddle which will both explain her suicide and exculpate him once she is dead. Naturally, however, Lessingham and the audience take the message to involve the sort of romance test of the closely related intrigue of Massinger's Parliament of Love, (8) or of 'Kill Claudio'. (9) The plot requires a misinterpretation, and Clare's motivation is possible without resort to Lucas's suggestion that she is 'utterly hysterical'.

That Clare has initiated a train of events she did not intend, and which it is now too late for her to alter, is soon revealed to the audience. When she discovers that both men have abandoned the wedding party, she correctly guesses that Lessingham has misinterpreted her message and is intending to kill Bonvile: 'Lessingham's mistaken, quite out o'th way | Of my purpose too' (II.4.36-37). Again, in Act III, Scene 3, Clare says that Lessingham has 'mistook my injunction utterly' (III.3.14). Significantly, she adds 'I fear me both are lost' (III.3.20). An alert audience is given the first indication that Clare does not want either man dead: an important clue that the generic expectations of comedy may be fulfilled in respect of Clare and Lessingham. This explains, structurally, the rather odd sequence that immediately follows in which Raymond starts to court Clare, and even embrace her, but is summarily rejected (III.3.25-40). Forker suggests that this episode 'demonstrates Clare's powers of attraction' (p. 183); this it does, but it has a more important function. It demonstrates to the audience, just at the moment she indicates concern for Lessingham, that Clare is not interested in alternative suitors.

Now to return to the difficulties of Act IV, Scene 2: Lessingham comes back and reports to Clare that he has slain his 'neerest and best friend' (IV.2.12). The audience knows this is only true in a metaphorical sense, but Clare at this point believes that her all-too-easily misread equivocation has resulted in Bonvile's death. She accepts, therefore, that 'I enjoyn'd you to't' (IV.2.20), and that he has carried out the erroneous task 'in being true to me' (IV.2.35). When she says 'I had thought | That I had been the best esteemed friend | You had i'th world' (IV.2.20-22), she speaks from her knowledge of Lessingham's declared love (in I.1). Lessingham then leaps to the true interpretation of the riddle, though he does not yet believe it: 'Ye did not wish I hope, | That I should have murder'd you?' (IV.2.23-24). Clare's reply, 'You shall perceive | More of that hereafter' (IV.2.25-26), obliquely confirms the truth for the audience. She goes on to explain to Lessingham:

I thinking

That I had been your onely friend i'th world,

I heartily did wish you would have kill'd

That friend your self, to have ended all my sorrow,

And had prepared it, that unwittingly

You should have don't by poison.

(IV.2.75)

Clare has reasoned, as we have shown, that Lessingham would conclude that she was his 'Friend that loves thee dearest'; and the riddling letter would have been clear to him after her death, once he understood her reliance on him as the instrument of her suicide. For the audience, as for Lessingham, this is the explanation of the riddle. It will be reinforced by Clare's subsequent explanation to Bonvile, and her second, delayed letter. Whether we follow Quarto in reading:

it was your purpose

To have ended it in violence on your friend:

The unfortunate Lessingham unwittingly

Should have been the Executioner

(F4r)

or to accept the Brooke/Lucas emendation:

it was your purpose

To have ended it in violence: and your friend

The unfortunate Lessingham unwittingly

Should have been the Executioner

(IV.2.164)

the meaning is the same. Clare's statement that she intended her initial riddling letter to direct Lessingham's thoughts to her, and that she would engineer events so that he unwittingly poisoned her, is consistent with her words, intentions, and characterization. The plot requirement that Lessingham, Bonvile and the audience understand it in a different sense is also consistently maintained. If there is confusion, and clearly there has been, it lies not in plot or character independently, but in the particular language chosen to extend the equivocation while maintaining divergent plot and character consistencies. There may be a danger that an audience will either be resentful of being deliberately misled (as is Lessingham) until Act iv, and/or lose sympathy for Clare because her motivation seems so determined by plot contrivances. The dramaturgy evidently gambles that the actors can hold sympathy, and that audience curiosity, and pleasure in Fletcherian tragicomic narrative artifice and surprise, will do the rest.

Both plot and thematic elements tend to lead the audience towards acceptance of comedic closure. Bonvile's steady praise of Lessingham carries more weight than Lessingham's increasingly wild and vindictive attempts at scandal and revenge in Act V. This is reinforced by the role played by the young gentleman, Rochfield, whom Annabel has befriended and saved from sinking into criminality. He is instrumental both in thwarting Lessingham's final plot, and in calming Annabel's father. Indeed, the lessons in trust and generosity that Rochfield has received from Annabel may serve as a touchstone for the varieties of friendship in the play. The misinterpretation of Clare's riddle depends on Lessingham's and Bonvile's assumption that the term 'friend' can denote only comradeship and loyalty between men. Their friendship is temporarily dissolved by Lessingham's willingness to serve (as he thinks) the commands of love. Lessingham even cites Cicero on friendship at the start of Act I, Scene 2 as he concludes:

'Twixt Love and Friendship 'twill be a brave Fight,

To prove in man which claims the greatest right.

(I.2.29)

Bonvile's slide into jealousy of Annabel is parallel. The recuperation of both men is reinforced by the irruption onto the stage during the final scene of Compass and his wife Urse in their wedding procession from the boisterous and jovial titular main plot. Compass has avoided stereotypical cuckold's jealousy over Urse's illegitimate child by being friend as well as husband: 'come kiss, Urse, all friends' (IV.1.205). The friendship Annabel fashions with Rochfield is also atypical, demonstrating a model relationship, free of sexual intrigue or tension, between a man and a woman. This is, in fact, the kind of friendship that Clare initially claimed of Lessingham, and which by the end of the play has blossomed into love. Clare and Lessingham seek forgiveness of each other, and it will be clear on stage that as they have 'overthrown the fury' (V.1.445), just as Bonvile and Annabel and Compass and Urse have done, their imminent marriage (the third in the play) brings to completion the project of the comedy: 'All's now as at first | It was wisht to be' (V.1.451-52).

(1) In The Complete Works of John Webster, ed. by F. L. Lucas, 4 vols (London: Chatto and Windus, 1927), III, which preserves the Quarto spelling and punctuation. The 1661 Quarto ascribes A Cure for a Cuckold to Webster and Rowley; Lucas summarizes the evidence for Heywood's participation.

(2) Quarto sets the speech as prose rather than verse, but that is not material to the current discussion.

(3) Rupert Brooke, John Webster and the Elizabethan Drama (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1916), pp. 255-69 (esp. 258-64); Lucas, p. 117, Textual Note to IV.2.165.

(4) The Works of John Webster, ed. by Alexander Dyce, rev. edn (London: Routledge, 1857), and The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays, ed. by Rene Weis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

(5) Charles R. Forker, Skull Beneath the Skin: The Achievement of John Webster (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), p. 551 n. 5.

(6) Shakespeare quotations are from the Riverside Shakespeare, ed. by G. Blakemore Evans and others (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

(7) The Works of John Webster: An Old-Spelling Critical Edition, ed. by David Gunby, David Carnegie, and Antony Hammond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995-), I (1995).

(8) Discussion of influence, by Brooke, by Lucas, and by the Oxford Massinger editors, has recently been superseded by evidence that A Cure for a Cuckold was allowed for performance on 26 July 1624, several months earlier than The Parliament of Love: see The Control and Censorship of Caroline Drama: The Records of Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels 1623-73, ed. by N. W. Bawcutt (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 153.

(9) Much Ado About Nothing, IV.1.289.

<ADD> DAVID CARNEGIE VICTORIA UNIVERSITY OF WELLINGTON

MACD. P. JACKSON UNIVERSITY OF AUCKLAND </ADD>
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Author:Carnegie, David; Jackson, Macd. P.
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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