Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 7, No. 2, 1994
Screening Cultural Studies
Edited by Tom O'Regan & Toby Miller

Material girls: Madonna and Women Beware Women

Joseph Roach

We're living in a material world,
And I'm a material girl.
(Madonna, "Material Girl")

Thomas Middleton, the bricklayer's son, rose to the office of Chronologer to the City of London in 1620. Women Beware Women, his double-plotted tragedy, measures the time it takes under capitalism, from early to late, to construct an illusion of social mobility by means of the exchange of women. In the plot of incest, dear uncle Hippolito, assisted by his dangerous sister Livia, marries off his niece and lover Isabella to the retarded Ward. In the complementary plot of misalliance, the low-born Leantio marries up to the Lady Bianca, who promptly beds the Duke of Florence instead. I find in this demented pastoral a chronotrope of cultural memory that links it across four centuries to another double-plotted exercise in the same genre, Madonna's 1985 MTV release "Material Girl". In the otherwise helpful commentary on "Material Girl" (Fiske, Goodwin, Kaplan, Tetzlaff), the ironic rootedness of Madonna's project in tradition is underestimated. For me it is a powerful example of how societies remember (Connerton), which is to say that it demonstrates how specialised is the form of their forgetting.

Any postmodern consumer reading Women Beware Women for the first time will be drawn to the play-within-the-play, the deadly court masque that ends the tragedy. Of such lurid Jacobean enthusiasm for metatheatrical disguise and ingenious carnage, Bert States has said: 'The die is cast, the cast must die'. The self-consciousness of Middleton's artifice may recall the critic's answer to the question "What did they die of?" - "They died of the fifth act. It is a most lethal disease." Dying of the fifth act while playing an onstage role within a role onstage is one of a number of stylistic demands that place this kind of theatre - and the artists who attempt it - above and beyond the sublunary realm of psychological realism, the well-made play, and the transparently well-motivated plot. This kind of theatre relies instead on performers alert to the play of convention and the manipulation of verbal and visual images - floating signifiers that draw attention to themselves as signs even as they point to other meanings. Its economy of signification is an economy of abundance.

A Cultural Poetics of the Pastoral

When Middleton wrote plays, the words "artifice" and "artificial" counted as terms of high critical approbation. Among the beloved artifices most familiar to his contemporaries, yet time-honored from remote antiquity, was the pastoral. A pastoral consists of a poem or play in which a highly sophisticated urban poet depicts the countrified love-lives of shepherds and shepherdesses, often ironically opposing their idealised rusticity to the complexities and corruptions of court and city. Middleton self-consciously introduces an explicit pastoral into Women Beware Women through the conceit of the interpolated masque. The easy-going argument of this pastoral-within-the-play, mordantly juxtaposed to the ornate fornications of the main plot, puffs its sylvan setting and tidy little erotic cross-purposes:

There is a nymph that haunts the wood and springs
In love with two at once, and they with her;

moreover, Hippolito and Guardiano, Florentine courtiers - the former the incestuous uncle, the latter the disgustingly predatory paternal marriage-broker - must enter disguised 'like shepherds' (Middleton 104, 107). Meanwhile, Hymen, propitiary deity of nuptial bliss, descends to solemnify the scene of treachery, vengeance, and lust, and (naively) to wish the murdering Duke and his adulterous bride, 'Love in thy bed, peace in thy mind' (105).

The pastoral, as William Empson showed long ago, constitutes an art of 'inversion', or 'putting the complex into the simple', by expressing complex ideas through simple personages, whether those persons are shepherds in a Renaissance bucolic or laborers in a proletarian novel (Empson 49). This power of inversion makes the pastoral an excellent mode in which to critique the class structure of society, and Empson, citing Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling as exemplary, demonstrates how pastoral dramas favor double-plots expressly to juxtapose the "high" and the "low" of the social hierarchy (45-8). As romances, pastorals also chart the cultural trajectory of personages at various social levels as they navigate toward their particular erotic destinies. The fact that these romantic fates frequently include mistaken identities and disguises, followed by mutual discoveries and appropriate marriages to one-another and to one-and-the-same, simply records the success of double-plotted pastorals as interrogations of deep cultural structures regulating matrimony and kinship. Such deep structures include endogamy (marriage within a particular caste, class, or group), exogamy (the permissibility of marriage outside the clan, family, tribe, or social class), and hypergamy (marriage specifically transgressive of caste or class).

The double plot of Women Beware Women plumbs each of these deep structures - endo-, exo-, and hyper-. The uncle-niece incest of Hippolito and Isabella represents radical endogamy, taboo in many cultures, including the one Middleton invents for Renaissance Florence; Isabella's contract with the Ward, however revolting, is more conventionally endogamous, an arranged marriage within the same social class. The morganatic marriage of Bianca to the Duke is exogamous, though shockingly irregular (as the Cardinal tirelessly points out), and the plot-initiating misalliance of Bianca to Leantio (rich girl marries poor boy) is hypergamy of the most transgressive sort - male hypergamy. Since social status in most western cultures derives from the male, Prince Charming is permitted to rescue his Cinderella from the soot and singing mice and still live happily ever after, but not the other way around - evidenced, for example, by the cruel fate of Antonio, the household steward who weds the title character of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. On the basis of Leantio's romantic posturing in the first scene alone, the Jacobean audience for Women Beware Women could have been expected to anticipate catastrophe, barring a tragicomic discovery (not unprecedented) that he is really the long-lost son of the well-born neighbors (the comic conclusion) rather than what he (tragically) is, a 'Factor', who, as an agent that accepts accounts receivable as security for short-term loans, actually works for a living.

I am writing this account within an approach to literature that increasingly looks to cultural anthropology for its theoretical paradigms. In literary and textual studies of the 1980s, the word culture entered with growing frequency into the lexicon of the "New Historicists", a term once used to describe a loosely confederated group of scholars associated particularly with the Berkeley journal Representations, especially Stephen Greenblatt. Speaking more recently of what he regards as the most powerful binary opposition exerted by a culture - constraint and mobility - Greenblatt calls for a 'Cultural Poetics', a method of interrogating canonical literary texts (Shakespeare appears frequently in his work) in light of their social position as both boundary-markers and media of exchange, circulation, and movement:

A culture [Greenblatt writes] is a particular network of negotiations for the exchange of material goods, ideas, and - through institutions like enslavement, adoption, or marriage - people. Anthropologists are centrally concerned with a culture's kinship system - its conception of family relationships, its prohibitions of certain couplings, its marriage rules - and with its narratives - its myths, folktales, and sacred stories. The two concerns are linked, for a culture's narratives, like its kinship arrangements, are crucial indices of the prevailing codes governing human mobility and constraint. Great writers are precisely masters of these codes, specialists in cultural exchange. (Greenblatt 229-30)

This 'Cultural Poetics', as perhaps most brilliantly realised by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986), suggests a continuous interaction between canonical texts by "great writers" and the everyday cultural experience of constraint and mobility.

The Circulation of Women

Madonna ironically enunciates the cultural foundation of the sex/gender and kinship systems, the conflation of money and sex, in the circulation of women. In "Material Girl", clad in a hot-pink chiffon Marilyn Monroe look-alike sheath, Madonna exudes the following lyrics:

Some boys kiss me, some boys miss me
I think they're O.K.
But it's the boy with cold, hard cash
Who makes my rainy day.
For we're living in a material world
And I'm a material girl.

Responding to a critique of "Material Girl" by some feminists, Madonna defended the video narrative on the historic grounds of male hypergamy within the pastoral romance plot: 'Tell Gloria [Steinem] and the gang to lighten up, get a sense of humor. And look at my video that goes with "Material Girl". The guy who gets me in the end is the sensitive one with no money.'

Madonna is mining a rich vein here. Deriving from Marcel Mauss's studies of the culture of gift exchange and Claude L­vi-Strauss's explanation of the origin of incest taboos in the exchange of female kin in marriage, feminist cultural anthropology has discovered powerful connections between gender oppression and cultural economy. In "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex", for instance, anthropologist Gayle Rubin notes that for much of human history women have been traded as semi-objects to establish and maintain kinship ties between men:

Far from being confined to the 'primitive' world, these practices seem only to become more pronounced and commercialised in more 'civilized' societies. Men are of course also trafficked - but as slaves, hustlers, athletic stars, serfs, or as some other catastrophic social status, rather than as men. Women are transacted as slaves, serfs, and prostitutes, but also simply as women.

How else to explain the 'curious custom by which a father gives away a bride'? Rubin, who has since revised her article but not replaced it, concludes: '"Exchange of women" is shorthand for expressing that the social relations of a kinship system specify that men have certain rights in their female kin, and that women do not have the same rights either to themselves or to their male kin' (Rubin 175-77).

I do not claim that the "circulation of women" - the trade in them as surrogated material objects with men as active subjects of exchange - exists transhistorically as universal and timeless human experience. I approach it rather as a very deep historical structure, available to Middleton and Madonna alike due to its persistence over what Fernand Braudel calls the longue dur­e, the slow rhythms of deep-rooted social custom overlain - sometimes disrupted and sometimes reinforced - by the incremental emergence of capitalism. In such a paradigm, circulation sub-divides into four interconnected processes: production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. In such a paradigm human beings may be commodities, traders, or consumers at different times according to circumstances. Capitalism promises individuals opportunities to participate freely in the benefits of circulation, even in their own.

Interpreting the historical development of capitalism in relationship to the concept of the unified subject in liberal humanism - the one who may freely elect his destiny - Catherine Belsey, in The Subject of Tragedy, locates in Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline drama a crucible in which the modern subjectivity of the unified "free individual" was formulated. She plays off the new tragic drama of the period from approximately 1576 to 1642 against the medieval mysteries and moralities in which subjectivity (to the extent that that word has any meaning at all applied to an earlier period) diffused itself in the allegorical struggle between good and evil. In part the stresses and fissures of Jacobean drama may be traceable to the uneasy assimilation of the secular-legal autonomous subject to long-standing forms, customs and religious commonplaces. In Women Beware Women, for example, Leantio's transgression is very much that of a "New Man", the literal and figurative agent of an emerging capitalist economy; the Cardinal's hell-fire speeches, by contrast, assert medieval cultural traditions: 'So where lust reigns', he concludes the play with a piety, 'that prince cannot reign long' (112).

Another problem noted by Belsey concerns the lack of practical integration of women into the new economic system and the new subjectivity. She writes:

While in theory all men are equal, men and women are not symmetrically defined. Man, the centre and hero of liberal humanism, was produced in contradistinction to the objects of his knowledge, and in terms of the relations of power in the economy and the state. Woman was produced in contradistinction to man, and in terms of the relations of power in the family. (9)

That such contradictions seem self-evident to us today may reflect the fact that we are still working through their consequences in the practices of our daily social life, in the forms of our debates over social policy, and in the nature of our representations.

Such a sense of continuity helps to make old plays seem not so old after all. The practice of placing human beings into circulation as commodities themselves, for instance, or of using them as erotic symbols to accelerate the circulation of material commodities, argues that social history is exceedingly frugal - it only reluctantly discards successful forms. Culture may mystify the origins of its deepest structures - we call this strategic forgetfulness "ideology" - but it patiently arranges for their transmission through history. Jacobean drama and MTV are only two among many media of such transmission - but especially interesting ones because they are also (at least potentially) media of criticism.

Material Girls

As a concise description of the material world of Middleton's Women Beware Women, one could do much worse than Gayle Rubin's 'traffic in women', partially qualified by the problematic introduced by Belsey's 'liberal subjectivity'. The scene of the play itself derives from Jacobean City Comedy and ultimately from Terence and Plautus - a socially mixed street with juxtaposed houses and families. The nominal setting, Florence, has significance as one of Europe's great banking and commercial centers. Moreover, the Florentine social strata converge in three spectacular scenes: the procession of state in Act I, scene ii; the banquet in Act III, scene ii; and the pastoral masque in Act V, scene ii. This staging helps Middleton to materialize the triple intersection of erotic desire, class relations, and commerce in kin.

The terms of the incestuous liaison between Hippolito and Isabella, masked by her arranged marriage to the idiot Ward, draw upon the cultural phenomenon described at length by Levi-Strauss in The Elementary Structures of Kinship: the predication of incest taboos on the need to reserve a stock of female kin for trade with men in other families, thus adding them as kin. ('What, would you like to marry your sister? [asks one of Levi-Strauss's informants] What is the matter with you? Don't you want a brother-in-law? Don't you realize that if you marry another man's sister and another man marries your sister, you will have at least two brothers-in-law, while if you marry your own sister you will have none?' (Cited in Rubin 174).) Similarly, Middleton's Livia, a deft procuress, initially chides her brother Hippolito for his desire to possess their niece:

Is the world
So populous in women, and creation
So prodigal in beauty and so various,
Yet does love turn thy point to thine own blood?
'Tis somewhat too unkindly. Must thy eye
Dwell evilly on the fairness of thy kindred,
And seek not where it should?
So he Heavens bounty seems to scorn and mock,
That spares free means, and spends his own stock.
(Middleton 26)

"Stock" was a term used in early capitalism to denote any kind of accumulated assets, as in "stock-in-trade" and "livestock". Guardiano, like Levi-Stauss's informant, recognises that to marry his Ward to Isabella is to add male kin: "...he that weds her/Marries her uncle's heart too" (63).

The convention of the dowry enlarges the stakes in the exchange of women generally and in the enforced marriage of Isabella particularly. She refers to her dowry as a "bribe": 'Men buy their slaves, [she continues] but women buy their masters' (Middleton 19-20). Isabella's father Fabritio reckons that his daughter is 'dear to my purse' as he tots up the total expense of raising a girl, including all the singing and dancing lessons 'That may commend her sex and stir her husband' (66-67). Such a system of breeding counts as a system of economic production - preparing a product of distribution, exchange, and consumption.

The Duke himself oversees the next step, what he calls Isabella's 'match-making rite, a marriage tender', while her father puts her body on display. In the process of circulation, this is the moment of distribution. In this scene and a later one with the Ward and Sordido, her teeth and legs are examined along with her breasts as the assembled onlookers, a kind of male chorus at an auction, put her through her paces of singing, dancing - even walking (68-70; 78-81). The materiality of the exchange of Isabella parallels and comments upon the exchange of Bianca: both transgress against the norm in their desires; both attempt to mask their transgressions by participating in their own exchange and consumption.

The idea that Bianca, Leantio's well-born bride, exists as a store of treasure, obsesses the Factor. He introduces her to his mother as a 'purchase', a 'treasure' and a 'theft' (Middleton 7-8). Because her wealthy parents disapprove of the elopement, she comes with 'little money' but her charms represent 'jewels kept in cabinets' (8). Middleton develops this image in the scene of Leantio's return from his business trip:

The treasures of the deep are not so precious
As are the concealed comforts of a man,
Locked up in woman's love. (54)

Bianca is 'a gem no stranger's eye must see' (57), and a secret chamber in Leantio's house becomes her vault: 'There will I lock my life's treasure up' (60). As he thus takes stock, Leantio's professional life (as an accountant) and his erotic life (as the owner of his wife) are both symbolically and psychologically imbricated. He summarises her as 'my life's wealth' (74). His stock of treasure, however, slips through his hands and into the lascivious Duke's, who steals Leantio's property through adultery as Leantio stole it initially from Bianca's father through hypergamy:

Here stands the poor thief now that stole the treasure,
And he's not thought on. Ours is near kin now
To a twin misery born into the world:
First the hard-conscienced worldling - he hoards welth up:
Then comes the next, and he feasts all upon't;
One's damned for getting, th'other for spending on't. (66)

The capitalist metaphor of circulation - getting and spending - illuminates the idea that cuckoldry is a sexual transaction performed by a man upon another man, using a woman as medium, in the process of defining a status hierarchy in the homosocial order (Sedgwick 49-66). That the Duke buys off Leantio with the Captaincy of Rouens citadel (Middleton 64) makes the Factor a feudal vassal and capitalist pimp in one bold stroke. The same gesture also reasserts the social order that Bianca's misalliance upset: Leantio first returns to his proper social place as a petty functionary in the medieval order, and the Duke succeeds him as a lover; then Leantio is further punished by death, and the Duke succeeds him as a husband.

Prior to that resolution, however, Middleton layers in another irony: Isabella's lusty Aunt Livia buys Leantio's services as a lover with her 'worldly treasure', ironically replacing the dowry that the nubile Bianca failed to bring with her (and conveniently joining the two plots of Women Beware Women in one interleafed narrative). Livia's transgression mocks the kinship system through which they all seek some kind of social mobility but by which they are all ultimately constrained (76). The pastoral idea of the possibility of movement between high and low, complex and simple, court and country finds its way into the scene between Bianca and the two Ladies, as she who has circulated from wealth to poverty and back to wealth again muses about how she will raise her own daughter's free of constraint:

If they be got in court
I'll never forbid 'em the country; nor the court,
Though they be born i'th'country. (83)

Like Touchstone, Shakespeare's "Material Fool", Bianca contracts her marriages in pastoral terms. She lives its social polarities in the persons of two men, the rich one doubling and displacing the poor one, transmuting romantic feeling into a longing for material possessions. She lists the 'cushion-cloth of drawn work,...silver and gilt casting bottle,...and green silk quilt' among the consumer goods and luxuries she considers hers by right of having made a 'free gift' of herself to Leantio (52-53). The Duke's seduction likewise proceeds in material terms, for she that falls into ducal favorr 'Lights on a tree that bears all women's wishes' (48). In her pastoral elopement with Leantio she had denied these wishes, but fixed by the Duke's enamored gaze she lets herself go, or perhaps more precisely, makes herself over. Middleton dramatises the fact of her agency in the negotiations concerning her own circulation. Bianca herself tells how she has always been good at getting her own way: 'And report went of me that I could wrangle/For what I wanted when I was two hours old' (53). The change she makes from self-abnegating wife to royal mistress, perhaps unprepared for in terms of psychological realism, makes clear-headed economic sense from the point of view of woman who would attempt to better the terms her exchange. "We're living in a material world", she might be saying, "and I'm a material girl".

Means of Production

Indeed, Madonna's lyrics might suggest a parallel capitalist agenda - agential control over the terms of her production, distribution, exchange, and consumption:

Some boys kiss me some boys hug me
I think they're OK
If they don't give me proper credit
I just walk away.
Boys may come and boys may go
And that's all right you see
Experience has make me rich
And now they're after me.

In "Material Girl" Madonna wittily stages herself within a double frame - a pastoral duologue. As the song itself camps its way through a Hollywood musical production-number - the staircase, the diamonds, the girl, the best friends - Madonna circulates through the hands of a male chorus of tuxedoed clones, each of whom could have stood on his own wedding cake. In pastoral terms, this mini-festival of retro-chic kitsch represents the super-sophisticated "court". Madonna really falls for the apparent poor boy backstage, however, played with insinuating charm by Keith Carradine, who offers her daisies instead of diamonds. This romance represents the "country", even down to their spontaneous elopement in an old Chevy pick-up that Carradine buys from a picturesque share-cropper.

In comparison to Women Beware Women, the supreme "artifice", the play-within-the-play, takes up most of the screen time, and it appears to exhaust the parodic vulnerabilities presented by MGM choreography, just as the elopement sends up the romantic Hollywood ending. Both the onstage performance and the offstage romance, however, are framed by another scene, a kind of prologue, which is mysteriously neglected in some commentaries about "Material Girl". In the prologue the Keith Carradine character is introduced to the viewer as the powerful producer of the musical in which Madonna is performing. He watches the rushes voyeuristically (image only - Madonna moves her lips unheard) while an astonishingly servile flunky asks when he wants to meet her. He answers emphatically, 'Now', cuing in the vocal.

The pastoral inversion of "Material Girl" has demonstrated a remarkable power to occlude the vision of its critics, even its most astute ones - testimony, I think, to its resilience as a form. John Fiske takes up "Material Girl" in an essay defining the interpretive strategies of media and cultural studies (subsequently revised). Although his general critique of Madonna is on the mark (I quote from it twice below), his synopsis makes significant omissions:

A poor, sensitive man sees her arrive at the studio, watches her performance, presents her with a simple bunch of daisies in her dressing room afterwards, and drives off with her in an old workman's truck, in which they make love in a rainstorm. The material girl has fallen for the non-material values of love after all. (Fiske 276)

We know, however, that this hypergamic escape is an illusion, a romp of the sort that rich and complicated people like to have, in which they figure themselves as poor and simple. Carradine and Madonna play out an ironic pastoral in which he pretends to be the simple shepherd and she pretends not to notice that he, the producer, owns the place - lock, flock, and barrel. So the video narrative, apparently at odds with the lyrics, actually recapitulates their depiction of courtship rituals and romance as endogamously class-specific material exchanges in an economy of highly specialised greed. In this system of sexual barter, Madonna becomes the symbolic medium of acquisition and consumption. She is the producer produced and the consumer consumed; and like Marilyn Monroe perhaps, whose body and mannerisms she quotes, Madonna consumes herself.

For Richer or Poorer

In a pastoral-romance gestus that illuminates Madonna, Middleton's Bianca is re-distributed (interpellated) into the upper-classes when the Duke's gaze catches her at her window. Like Keith Carradine viewing the rushes, the Duke becomes transfixed. In both the play and the video, the dramatization of the empowered male gaze may make the audience consciously or unconsciously aware of the privilege of its own spectatorial position. As the sycophantic Guardiano reports to Livia:

The Duke himself first spied her at the window,
Then in a rapture, as if admiration
Were poor when it were single, beckoned me,
And pointed to the wonder warily,
As one that feared she would draw in her splendor
Too soon, if too much gazed at.
Thus beyond your apprehension
How strangely that one look has catched his heart!
'Twould prove but too much worth in wealth and favour
To those should work his peace.

When the Duke's peace is subsequently worked, Bianca's erasure of Leantio disposes of the tedious fact of actual poverty that disturbs her pastoral fantasy of free movement between "court" and "country".

What is likewise interesting about Madonna's transparent pastoral fantasy of marrying the poor boy (Carradine embodies both the Duke and Factor in one role) is that it insists on making the viewer aware of the artifice of its attempts to mask the materialistic values on which the lyrics are predicated. Perhaps we are meant to see that power disguises itself, as the power-figure Carradine disguises himself, and perhaps we are invited, indeed reminded (as the lovers make-out in the pick-up) to "forget" we ever saw him that way. If this is so, then that kink of forgetting would be called "ideology". In her Summa contra Gloria [Steinem], Madonna herself perpetrated this masquerade when she insisted that the 'guy who gets me in the end is the sensitive one with no money'. Madonna remembered to forget that the Keith Carradine figure is merely disguised as the sensitive one with no money, and that he in fact represents the producer/Duke, the wolf and not the shepherd in the pastoral erotics of money and power.

Play within the Play

Perhaps the most engaging feature of Madonna's videos, indeed of the entire set of images of herself that she has fashioned, is best summarised in what Renaissance critical doctrine praised as "artifice". By constructing her images and meanings so self-consciously, she reminds her viewers of the pervasive constructedness of other images and meanings. Fiske argues that this artifice accounts for her subversive appeal: 'Madonna's videos constantly refer to the production of the image, and they make her control over its production part of the image itself. This emphasis on the making of the image allows, or even invites, an equivalent control by the reader over its reception' (279).

In this one respect at least the filmic conventions of MTV draw much closer to Jacobean stagecraft than they do to naturalistic theatre: in place of the slow uncoiling of the boa-constrictor of private psychology in the well-make play, there is the rapid, polyphonic juxtaposition of public incidents and images, multiple settings, multiple "plots", music, poetry (lyrics) and flashy tableaux, which do 'constantly refer to the production of the image'. Elizabethan staging made a commercial selling-point out of its deference to the spectator in the co-creation of meaning ('as you like it', 'Twelfth Night, or what you will'). As official Chronologer of the City of London, Thomas Middleton spent seven years of his career designing wagon-born pageants and parades - the closest equivalent to cinematic editing (in the sense of arranging moving images in persuasive sequences) before the invention of motion pictures. As a kind of pre-electronic mass medium, such spectacles, like the public theatre itself, mediated between official and popular culture.

In short, there exist certain formal connections, some common semiotic possibilities between an early-modern play and a postmodern video. But how might these be more rigorously thematised? In his remarks on "Material Girl", Fiske suggests a way of approaching this question:

This wrenching of the products of capitalism from their original context and recycling them into a new style is...a typical practice of urban popular culture. The products are purified into signifiers; their ideological signifieds are dumped and left behind in their original context. These freed signifiers do not necessarily mean something, they do not acquire new signifieds. Rather, the act of freeing them from their ideological context signifies their users' freedom from that context. It signifies the power (however hard the struggle to attain it) of the subordinate to exert some control in the cultural process of making meanings. (Fiske 278-9)

Such a statement offers some suggestive hints for the contemporary production of a play like Middleton's Women Beware Women. Perhaps these same hints might be derived from the text itself. This is not to collapse the historical context of the present moment into the first half of the seventeenth century, but rather to suggest the availability of continuous or at least partially connected relationships across time.

One of these is the self-conscious deployment of artistic conventions to direct attention to the artificiality of social conventions - to defamiliarize or de-naturalize what ideology makes seem normal, acceptable, and even inevitable. When Middleton turns over the plot of his play to the highly artificial form of the pastoral masque, he draws attention to the artifice of the sexual relationships the characters have enacted through the first four acts. The cycle of circulation - production, distribution, exchange and consumption - accelerates in the intensified action of the masque.

Livia, who earlier directed the couplings of Hippolito and Isabella, Bianca and the Duke, and herself and Leantio, superintends the masque and takes the part of the goddess Juno. She assigns the characters their roles. Taper-bearing Nymphs announce her entrance with a line that must have raised a horse-laugh:

Juno, nuptial goddess, thou that rul'st o'er coupled bodies, Ti'st man to woman, never to forsake her; thou only powerful marriage-maker. (106)

She descends from above in a flying machine. The ferocity with which she then exacts justice from her fellow players provokes Bianca's tag-line to justify the title of the play: 'Like our own sex, we have no enemy' (Middleton 111). Livia kills Isabella, a votary of Juno, 'dressed with flowers and garlands', by gilding her to death with molten gold poured from on high. Flying Cupids firing real arrows dispatch other malefactors, but not before Juno herself has perished from the fumes wafting from the pot of flaming gold. Bianca attempts to poison the Cardinal but the Duke drinks from the deadly cup instead. Guardiano falls through the trap-door he himself rigged to murder Hippolito when the Ward throws the lever on the wrong cue. One of the Cupids puts a dart into Hippolito, who, still in his shepherd's disguise, runs on a courtier's sword for good measure, while Bianca, a victim of the notorious Jacobean unreal death wish, polishes off the contents of the poisoned cup and falls dead across the body of the Duke.

On the allegorical medieval stage (or even on the earlier Elizabethan stage), such signifiers attached themselves to potent signifieds, and the Cardinal tries to recuperate the power of that kind of traditional moral representation: 'Sin, what thou art, these ruins show too piteously!' (111) But Middleton's campy engines of retribution hollow the concluding pieties with absence - 'their ideological signifieds are dumped and left behind in their original context', as Fiske has it. Into the space opened up by such public humiliation of once substantial conventions, the imagination of the spectators may flow more freely, inventing their own meanings and perhaps their own morals.

Madonna's appropriation of religious symbolism, annoying as it is to contemporary moralists, demonstrates some analogous effects. Her calculation of the cultural quotations that construct her image extends to every interview and appearance, taking into account the artifice of every stage of her circulation - production, distribution, exchange and consumption. In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, she makes use of a pastoral inversion to figure herself as Donna Reed, devoted to her marriage in the mode of the simple housewife travelling in the suburban bucolic. This disguised as the Faithful Shepherdess, she recounts her "great moments of wifehood":

"When I was married," Madonna said, "I did the wash a lot. I liked folding Sean's underwear. I liked mating socks. You know what I love? I love taking the lint out of the lint screen."

The lesser moments?

"When I lived with Sean, he loved to ball up clothes. I'd say, 'You twisted a Versace suit into a ball and I can't bear it'. I would follow him and take his things and hang them up."

Her happiest time?

"It could be right after the maid has left for the day. That's my favorite time in the world. Everything's perfect - no one's allowed on the bed, no one's allowed to drink out of a glass. I don't want anyone to come over, and I just stand around and look. And I think I'm in church, that I'm surrounded by holiness."

Madonna's endorsement of the maxim that Cleanliness is Godliness will not likely send low whistles of appreciation through the College of Cardinals - ditto her rhetorical insertion of lint screens into the liturgy where chastity and obedience once resounded.

Conclusion: Mobility and Constraint

The self-assertion inherent in the practice of self-fashioning, so tangible in Madonna's shimmering bubble of impudence, operates ambiguously in Women Beware Women. As bawd, Livia manages a black-market economy in the exchange of women and purchases a lover for herself - a dark parody of the circulatory economy of marriage and kinship. Her punishment is self-inflicted. Isabella defies convention by fornicating with her uncle and accepts convention by agreeing to her father's choice of bridegroom. For which is she punished in the end? Middleton does not say. Bianca marries out of her class for love, commits adultery, and marries again, this time for money. Strictly speaking, she is punished only for her attempted assassination of the Cardinal. Technicalities aside, the important thing seems to be that women should circulate, fear other women, and get punished. By contrast, Madonna seals it with a kiss.

The choreography of social life in both Middleton and Madonna certainly fills the stage and the screen with movement. The summary effect of all this bustle, however, is a sense of stasis. The dominant choreographic trajectory of both pieces is the return to centre, by which I mean to say that the actors traverse distances without changing positions. That is true, I think, because pastoral artifice disguises its constraints in a most ingenious deceit: social movement without mobility. Middleton and Madonna expose this historic illusion by putting it into play.

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New: 3 December, 1995 | Now: 23 March, 2015