Women Beware Women Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First produced: c. 1621-1627

First published: 1657

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Tragedy

Time of work: Early seventeenth century

Locale: Florence, Italy

Characters DiscussedThe duke of Florence

The Women Beware Womenduke of Florence, a lecherous, ruthless ruler. Capturing Leantio’s wife with the aid of Livia and Guardiano, he takes her partly by force and partly by seduction. Later, having sworn an oath to his brother, the Lord Cardinal, that he will no longer live with her in adultery, he carries out his promise by having her husband killed and marrying her immediately thereafter. There is poetic justice in his death, for his new wife prepares poison for the good brother and a servant mistakenly serves it to the duke. He dies in agony.

The Lord Cardinal

The Lord Cardinal, the duke’s brother. He preaches morality with vehemence and at length but has little or no effect on the multipresent evils of the corrupt court. He remains alive to deliver a last blast of morality after the holocaust at the play’s end.


Fabricio (fah-BREE-chee-oh), the father of Isabella. A foolish, ineffectual man, he insists on marrying his daughter to the rich ward of Guardiano. He is stunned with horror in the final scene but is alive at the play’s end.


Hippolito (eep-POH-lee-toh), Fabricio’s brother. Devoured by incestuous lust, with the aid of his sister Livia he corrupts his niece. He kills Leantio for family pride after the duke has let him know that Leantio and Livia are having an illicit affair. Just before his own death, he speaks lines that give the tone of the play: “Lust and forgetfulness has been amongst us,/ And we are brought to nothing.”


Livia (LEE-vee-ah), the sister of Fabricio and Hippolito. The essence of evil in a play crawling with evil, she aids the duke in his plan to ravish Bianca. She lies to Isabella, telling her that she is not the daughter of Fabricio and therefore not the niece of Hippolito. She is swept away by obsessive lust for Leantio, whom she takes as a lover and showers with wealth. Her rage at his death is boundless. She has Hippolito and Isabella shot with poisoned arrows in a wedding masque for the duke and Bianca; she is herself slain by poison fumes that Isabella has planted in a censer she carries in the masque.


Guardiano (gwahr-dee-AH-noh), the uncle of the Ward. Unscrupulous, depraved, and ambitious, he aids Livia and the duke in entangling Bianca. He also is enthusiastic about the marriage of his ward with Isabella, but after the marriage, when he finds out that she has been corrupted by her uncle, he plots the death of Hippolito. Through the Ward’s stupidity, Guardiano is killed instead of his intended victim.

The Ward

The Ward, a rich, stupid heir. He is brought to marriage with Isabella only after much labor and persuasion by Guardiano. After the marriage, even his stupidity is insufficient armor against the horror of the disclosure of her sins.


Leantio (lee-AHN-tee-oh), a merchant’s agent. He steals away from her family a beautiful girl, Bianca, whom he marries and adores immoderately. When he returns from a business venture to find her the duke’s arrogant and contemptuous mistress instead of the submissive and loving wife he left behind, he is swept by helpless fury. Partly for revenge, he takes evil Livia as his mistress and indiscreetly boasts of this affair to his wife. She tells the duke, who informs Hippolito to have him kill Leantio and thus make way for Bianca’s second marriage.


Bianca (bee-AHN-kah), Leantio’s wife. A beautiful and innocent girl when she runs away with Leantio, she rouses keen pity during her betrayal and helplessness. After her seduction, however, instead of being a Lucrece, she becomes as evil as her corrupters or nearly so. Like Herodias, she decides to kill her critic, the Lord Cardinal. Her passion for the evil duke has become so great that when her poisoning plot miscarries and he is killed, she takes the remaining portion of the poison and dies with him.


Isabella (ee-zah-BEHL-lah), the daughter of Fabricio. Finding the Ward repulsive, she resists her father’s efforts to bring about her marriage to him. When her aunt Livia convinces her that her passion for her handsome and accomplished uncle is not incestuous, however, she decides to marry the Ward as a cover for her affair with Hippolito. When Livia, in her agony over the loss of Leantio, tells the truth about the whole situation, Isabella plans revenge on Livia and murders her with the poisoned censer; she herself dies the victim of her victim.

The mother of Leantio

The mother of Leantio, a well-meaning, gullible old woman. She plays into Livia’s hands by having Bianca come to Livia’s house and plays chess with her hostess, all the time unaware that her daughter-in-law is being violated in another room in the house. She and the Lord Cardinal are exempt from the horror or contempt that the other principal characters arouse, but they are not calculated to arouse much sympathy in a beholder or reader.


Sordido (sohr-DEE-doh), the servant of the Ward.

BibliographyDawson, Anthony B. “Women Beware Women and the Economy of Rape.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 27, no. 2 (Spring, 1987): 303-320. Argues that Middleton presents female characters as trapped in an economic hierarchy that reduces them to commodities for male use. This presentation is complicated by a need to maintain a conventional Elizabethan perception of women as naturally corrupt.Holmes, David M. “Women Beware Women and The Changeling.” In The Art of Thomas Middleton. Oxford, England: The Clarendon Press, 1970. Places the play within the context of Middleton’s late work. Asserts that Bianca is vulnerable to seduction because of a repressive upbringing that does not prepare her for a morally corrupt world.Kistner, A. L., and M. K. Kistner. “Women Beware Women: Will, Authority, and Fortune.” In Middleton’s Tragic Themes. New York: Peter Lang, 1984. Asserts that Middleton insists upon the individual moral responsibility of his characters. Characters ignore their awareness of sin in order to satisfy their overriding will, thus bringing on catastrophe.Ribner, Irving. “Middleton’s Women Beware Women: Poetic Imagery and the Moral Vision.” Tulane Studies in English 9 (1959): 19-33. Investigates the play’s characterization, action, and imagery; concludes that the play is an incisive social commentary on the destructiveness of avaricious ideals.Wigler, Stephen. “Parent and Child: The Pattern of Love in Women Beware Women.” In “Accompaninge the Players”: Essays Celebrating Thomas Middleton, 1580-1980, edited by Kenneth Friedenreich. New York: AMS Press, 1983. Examines three dominant love relationships of the play, which demonstrate a similar parent-child incest pattern and explain the stylistic shift in the final act. Suggests that a possible source lies in Middleton’s biography.
Categories: Characters