I was attracted by this woodcut (quite unfamiliar to me) to read Heywood’s play to find out what is going on in the picture.
I suppose there must be discussion of the play in McLuskie’s book. Certain plays by Heywood are getting lots of critical attention (always A Woman Killed with Kindness, The Late Lancashire Witches, while The Fair Maid of the West has had a good run of late because of Bess’s travels to the eastern end of the Mediterranean). But A Mayden-head Well Lost, which no-one seems to have devoted an article to, has plenty to be said for it. Heywood had written in his Golden-Silver-Brazen-Iron Ages sequence the raunchiest dramas of the early English stage. But there he had the excuse of classical antiquity. This play’s bold title shows that the old boy was up to his old tricks.
In the picture the chaps sitting round the dinner table have just had an illegitimate baby served in them in a covered serving dish (though the artist - to use the term loosely - has made it look like a portrait picture with hinged side-panels). The mother of this baby, Princess Julia of Milan ought to be at the table with her father and his followers. The father is for the moment off-stage; in the right hand-panel is a mild illustration of the kind of hanky-panky that leads to these little moments of family embarrassment. On the right of the main group, in his motley coat, is the play’s clown (and he’s not a bad example of the type). The Duke of Milan had been unable to have his errant daughter killed when she confessed to him that she was pregnant, but the baby boy had been abandoned by a roadside (where it was instantly taken up by its father the Prince of Parma, who has bedded Julia on the usual grounds of verbal agreement to marry afterwards. Julia reminds him “Yet ere I yielded, we were man and wife, / Saving the Churches outward Ceremony”).
Urged on by the villain of the piece, Sforsa, the Duke of Milan presses his errant daughter into an urgent match with the Prince of Florence. But this potential bridegroom has heard enough about Julia (for Parma writes to him anonymously) to make threatening stipulations that she must prove to be an intact virgin. He is anyway in love with the other girl in the play, Lauretta, but she is only the daughter of a general who has died of grief at Milan’s ingratitude in regard to his greatest victory.
The inevitable bed-trick has to be played (Heywood seems to have been following Middleton closely). Sforza has learned where Lauretta and her mother are in impoverished exile, and he has 500 gold pieces for her if she agrees to act as the substitute bride.
So, here’s the central melodrama. Lauretta is in love with the Prince of Florence, and he loves her, though he faces the dynastic marriage to her morally doubtful rival. Along comes Sforsa to persuade her to go to bed with the man she loves:
Sforsa Ever rejoice faire Virgin, for I bring you
Gold, and Enlargement; with a recovery
Of all your former loss, and dignity,
But for a two hours labour: Nay, that no labour
Nor toil, but a mere pleasure.
Lauretta hears what the conditions are, and hangs tough:
Doe you not blush, when you deliver this
Pray tell the Duke, all Women are not Julia ,
And though wee bee dejected, thus much tell him,
Wee hold our honour at too high a price,
For Gold to buy.
Her Mother backs up her apparently firm resolution: “If thou consentest to this abhorred fact, / Thy Mothers curse will seize on thee for ever”.
Sir bee answered,
If Julia bee disloyal: Let her be found
So by the Prince she weds: Let her be branded
With the vile name of strumpet: She disgrac’d
Me, that ne’re thought her harms; publicly struck me,
Nay in the Court: And after that, procur’d
My banishment: These Injuries I reap’t
By her alone, then let it light on her.
Now see your error,
What better; safer, or more sweet revenge,
Then with the Husband? what more could woman ask?
My blood rebels against my reason, and
I no way can withstand it: 'Tis not the Gold
Moves me, but that dear love I bear the Prince,
Makes me neglect the credit and the honour
Of my dear Fathers house: Sir, what the Duke desires
I am resolved to doe his utmost will.
Oh my dear daughter.
Lauretta, like Shakespeare’s Helena, will get from the Prince of Florence an array of tokens (rings, the indenture for Julia’s marriage dowry). The Prince of Florence will discover that he has been in bed with the woman he really loves; and Lucetta can explain that she did it only to save him from marrying the unchaste Julia:
“Only the love I ever bare your honour,
Made me not prize my own. No lustful appetite
Made me attempt such an ambitious practice,
As to aspire unto your bed my Lord.”
And so through to the final couplet of the play: “And let succeeding Ages, thus much say: / Never was Maiden-head better given away.” Lauretta skates through to a complete victory, Julia and Parma settle down together, and the villain is left to reflect on the error of his ways: “Who would strive, / To bee a villain, when the good thus thrive?”
So, a pleasingly racy play (for its time). The clown is occasionally allowed to point out what underlies the fine sentiments:
Oh let me lie
As prostrate at your foot in Vassallage,
As I was at your pleasure.
Your Lordship hath bin up already, when she was down: I hope if the thing you wot of go no worse forward then it hath begun…
Reading the play made me wonder if there was any connection between two ‘faults written on the body’ sentiments. In early modern plays, no man, no matter how inexperienced with women, can be deceived about her virginity; the knowledge is inescapable. And if he discovers that his new bride is not a virgin, he acquires cuckold’s horns, the invisible signs that all men can somehow see.
I took a quick read through of a set of maidenhead ballads too. This was my favourite:
The loyal maids good counsel to all her fellow-maids. To be careful of wanton young men, They'll promise they love you again and again: But if they get their will of you before you are wed You may look a new sweetheart and a new maiden-head: And believe no false young men that will dissemble and lye, Lest they send you away with salt tears in your eye. To the tune of, Come hither my own sweet duck 1685-1688.
It is a warning about the lies men will tell so as “to bring bobbing and hey ho to meet”. The final stanza is very strange: it professes to be a personal testimony by the author, a woman, about chastity till marriage as the best course in life:
“She was a Maid that did set out this Song,
she was thirty before she was Wed,
She had great care of every one,
to save her Maiden-head
At last their came an honest Man
and made her his own dear Wife
If she had yielded to some that came before
she had been undone all the days of her life.”
Was this meant seriously? To persuade? Till thirty?