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Although written nearly 400 years apart, Women Beware Women (1621) and Posh (2010) are both about sexual and political intrigue in high society. While Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women (at the National) is based on a true scandal involving Grand Duke Francesco I and his Venetian mistress at the end of the 16th century, the Royal Court's Posh imagines a present-day scandal in something akin to the latter-day Bullingdon Club at Oxford University. Both deal with an extreme feeling of entitlement among the aristocratic elite.

However, that is as far as the resemblance goes. Posh, whose limited run has ended but which deserves a further airing, is light entertainment, while Women Beware Women is a truly great play. Its language, bleakness, wit and psychological truths are largely as good as Shakespeare's, and sometimes even sharper in witty innuendo and bitterness. 

The duke's court is a place of extreme cynicism, sexual incontinence and betrayal. An uncle begins an incestuous affair with his niece, who is duped by her aunt into agreeing to it, and into marrying a vicious dolt to conceal it. A (different) bride of 16 is pimped to the duke by the same meddling aristocratic aunt — played exquisitely by Harriet Walter — who turns the betrayed young husband into her own gigolo. He then becomes the victim of an honour killing, set up by the duke. 

But if sexual licence turns into a nightmare, marriage and its terms seem little better: one intelligent girl, whose father insists she must marry (and give her dowry to) a brutal ignoramus, laments that "no misery surmounts a woman's. Men buy their slaves, but women buy their masters."

There is no shortage of wicked, stupid and greedy behaviour by men in this play despite its title. But the action is driven by the intrigue of the vicious Harriet Walter figure, who ruins both young women, and presumably Middleton meant something by choosing the title. The dying young Duchess Bianca warns women against women very clearly in her penultimate speech:

"Oh the deadly snares

That women set for women, without                                          pity

Either to soul or honour! Learn by me

To know your foes. In this belief I die:

Like our own sex, we have no enemy,     no enemy!"

  

Yet Marianne Elliott, the director of this otherwise inspired production, has chosen to cut this out. At first, I thought I'd simply missed it, as the final scene is a menacing triumph of theatre: at the duke's wedding ball, where terrible things happen amid semi-darkness and poisonous smoke and characters move in a wonderful rotating set in all directions towards their doom, it would have been easy to do. But these lines were deliberately cut.

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