Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 17; 7 July 2021

Middleton and Rowley, A Fair Quarrel

“Coward do more than bastard?”

Thomas Middleton and William Rowley cowrote several plays in the early seventeenth century, notably The Changeling (1622), which combines a tragic main plot (dealing with the murder of an inconvenient betrothed) with a cruelly comic subplot about the suspected infidelity of a younger, beautiful wife. As was usual in their collaborations, Middleton wrote most of the main plot and Rowley, who was a comic actor as well as a playwright, was responsible for the subplot.

In A Fair Quarrel (1617), similarly, Middleton wrote the main plot and Rowley the subplot, but in this play both plots are “comic”, in that neither ends tragically. Middleton’s tale, which gives the play its title, is by some measure the funnier of the two stories. It centers on Captain Ager, a young gentleman who has carefully studied the rules of duelling and is acutely aware of the requirements of “honour”. When his friend, known simply as “the Colonel” says that Ager is “the son of a whore” (I.i.346), Ager immediately wants to fight him, but is unable to do so because both gentlemen have been persuaded by Russell (Ager’s uncle and father of the subplot’s Jane) to give up their swords.

Later, when Ager tells his mother (Lady Ager, Russell’s sister) about the insult to her honour, she is at first so outraged that she accuses him of lying and strikes him, but she immediately reverses course on learning that her son means to fight a duel with the Colonel. She tells Ager that she had been “false” to his father (II.i.181, 183, 189, 196). This is a lie, designed to prevent her son from risking his life in defending her (supposedly ill deserved) honour. It is clear that the lie cost Lady Ager dearly: in the space of a few lines we see her change from being incensed at the imputation against her to resigned acceptance that her reputation is of less value than her son’s life.

Believing that the Colonel has indeed spoken the truth, Ager concludes that he doesn’t have “a fair quarrel”: a legitimate ground to fight. Instead, he tries to make peace with his opponent:

Thousands have made a less wrong reach to hell,
Ay, and rejoiced in his most endless vengeance —
A miserable triumph, though a just one.
But when I call to memory our long friendship,
Methinks it cannot be too great a wrong
That then I should not pardon. Why should man,
For a poor hasty syllable or two,
And vented only in forgetful fury,
Chain all the hopes and riches of his soul
To the revenge of that, die, lost forever?
For he that makes his last peace with his Maker
In anger, anger is his peace eternally:
He must expect the same return again
Whose venture is deceitful, must he not, sir? (III.i.76–89)

When the Colonel responds by describing the captain as “a base submissive coward” (III.i.111), Ager does an about-face as sudden as his mother’s earlier one. In the Colonel’s imputation on his courage, he now has his just cause and can fight with a clear conscience. Ager’s seconds don’t know what to make of this. One of them exclaims “Impossible! Coward do more than bastard?” (III.i.118). Ager wounds the Colonel seriously — though not, as it turns out, fatally.

On hearing about the duel, Lady Ager is distraught that her lie did not have the intended effect of keeping her son safe. She tells the captain the truth (IV.iii.40–51), only to find that he is now hoping for the Colonel’s full recovery — so that he can fight him again over the original insult! This second duel doesn’t take place, however, because the Colonel, thinking he may be about to die, and wishing to make amends, alters his will in Ager’s favour and compels his sister to promise to marry the captain. She is not happy about this, in part because she holds Ager responsible for her brother’s condition, but she holds to her promise. It could be argued that the Colonel overcompensates for the initial injury, and in the process wrongs an innocent party by extracting from his sister a promise that she is loath to keep but does not feel she can honourably break.

When I heard about the main plot of A Fair Quarrel, but before I had read the play, I was struck by the apparent parallel between Captain Ager’s notion of a fair quarrel (in a conflict between individual “gentlemen”) and the idea of a just cause for war (between sovereigns or nations) that was being given currency at the time in the writings of Hugo Grotius and others. However, the dates don’t match. Grotius’s De iure belli ac pacis was first published in 1625 (and first appeared in English, in a very abridged translation, in 1649) while A Fair Quarrel was performed in 1617. Earlier works of Grotius had appeared: De iure praedae (On the Law of Spoils/Prize, 1604) and De antiquitate reipublicae Batavicae (On the Antiquity of the Batavian Republic, 1610). The first of these, in particular, foreshadowed some of Grotius’s arguments about what might constitute a just cause for war.

Perhaps more to the point, Grotius had been preceded (and influenced) by Alberico Gentili, Regius Professor of Civil Law at Oxford from 1587 until his death in 1608. Gentili had published his own De iure belli in 1589. In paragraph 38 of his Prolegomena to De iure belli ac pacis, Grotius acknowledged the importance of Gentili’s earlier work, but suggested that the earlier writer’s approach to the just causes of war was less systematic than his own.

At the time when Middleton was writing, duelling was seen as something particularly to be discouraged. James I of England personally licensed Middleton’s pamphlet against the practice, The Peacemaker (1618). So, the play’s main plot is perfectly explicable as a cautionary tale against duelling, without any wider implications for the the law of war, or relations between nations. And yet, Middleton seems to be conscious of the parallels. He has Ager’s second friend draw the comparison:

War has his court of justice, that’s the field,
Where all cases of manhood are determined,
And your case is no mean one. (III.i.6–8)

The field (of battle) is the court of justice in war precisely because there was at that time no tribunal or arbiter who could adjudicate conflicting claims. So, publishing a few years later, Grotius would write that the only just causes of a war are the punishment of a wrong, the redress of an injury or the vindication of a right: exactly the kind of things one might seek in the ordinary courts of justice. The second friend unintentionally reminds us that the ordinary courts are available to Captain Ager and the Colonel: by choosing to assert their rights in combat rather than in court, they are behaving as if they were sovereigns, not subject to the ordinary law.

Grotius also said that, though a just cause of war was a necessary requirement for a lawful war, it was not enough. No country, government or monarch goes to war merely because they have a good cause — they also need a reason, such as a policy consideration; usually there will be something they hope to gain or achieve, something that will make the considerable expense worthwhile and at least make a plausible attempt at justifying the loss of life.

I suggested above that, in this play, Middleton’s plot is funnier than Rowley’s. The humour is to be found in the way Ager and the Colonel are held up to ridicule. Ager’s punctilious insistence on fighting only when he has adequate grounds, while at the same time ignoring the claims of the law and the courts to be the legitimate arena in which to resolve his claims, is risible, as is the way he switches instantly from pacifism to joyous belligerence once he has been accused of cowardice. Similarly, the Colonel’s extravagance in showering his erstwhile opponent with wealth and an unenthusiastic marriage partner, suggest that he has completely lost his sense of proportion, and perhaps forgotten that he is the one who nearly died.

Rowley’s subplot is about a secret marriage or promise to marry. Russell is a wealthy merchant or citizen who has a daughter named Jane, whom he wishes to marry off to a Cornish landowner, Chough. (The fact that Russell is a citizen and his sister a “Lady” implies that she was similarly married to a member of the gentry in the previous generation.) In the opening scenes, Jane is concealing a pregnancy, and she’s delivered of a child before Act III.ii.

The Physician who attends her tries to blackmail her into having sex with him by threatening to reveal that she’s had a child, but Jane thinks she might be able to make use of him: his disclosure of her condition can be expected to repel her unwanted suitor Chough and at the same time let her father know about the child without her having to tell him herself. Before the birth, she has confided to the Physician’s sister, Anne, that

… this deed was done
When heaven had witness to the jugal knot;
Only the barren ceremony wants,
Which by an adverse father is abridged. (II.ii.85–88)

This is confirmed by the child’s father Fitzallen in the play’s final scene, but not before he has persuaded Russell to pay an extra “thousand pieces” in addition to Jane’s dowry. Fitzallen says:

… Sir, this is mine own child,
You could not have found out a fitter father;
Nor is it basely bred, as you imagine,
For we were wedded by the hand of heaven
Ere this work was begun. (V.i.353–7)

Rowley’s subplot therefore deals with a situation similar to that of Claudio and Juliet in Measure for Measure, a play revised by Middleton after Shakespeare’s death. In both plays, there is a secret marriage (or agreement to marry) without witnesses. But, while in Measure for Measure, Claudio’s life is in danger, it is clear that in A Fair Quarrel the stakes are significantly lower. Even if the claimed marriage between Jane and Fitzallen is irregular, or indeed invalid, it is at least a binding agreement to marry, which the parties are in any case keen to abide by.

Some commentators have detected a third plot in Chough’s attempt to learn “roaring”. However, it hardly amounts to a whole plot, but can better be seen as a link between the main plot and the subplot. Chough’s search for honour in an ability to confront, insult and bewilder strangers is a parodic counterpart to Ager’s enthusiasm for duelling, while his primary role in the drama is to function as Russell’s preferred suitor for Jane.

Updated on 6 November 2021 to add line numbers from the New Mermaids edition (1974), ed. R V Holdsworth.

Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 07–Jul-2021.