The Chaste Wanton

three playsThe Chaste Wanton is the second drama contained in the volume Three Plays: The Early Metaphysical Plays of Charles Williams, published in 2009 by Wipf & Stock. It is a reprint of an edition published by Oxford University Press in 1931. In addition to The Chaste Wanton, it contains two other plays—The Witch and The Rite of the Passion—as well as five random Arthurian poems and an admirable foreword to the 2009 edition by Arthur Livingston.

This is a very strange play. I suppose that goes without saying by now, but the oddness of it strikes me again as I look through it again now. Yet it is also a beautiful, powerful play. The poetry is masterful, and I am reminded again and again of how much CW has been overlooked and how little his works deserve to be relegated to the literary ash heap. The characters are complex and believable, if living on a higher plane than our ordinary human acquaintances. I do hope you read it, and I hope that I get to see (perhaps participate in) a performance of it someday (hint, hint, Players of the Stage).

The title The Chaste Wanton is a bit misleading. The main character is an Italian Duchess who has thus far in her life refused marriage, although she is beset by suitors. On this anniversary of her coronation, she has decided to hold a rhetorical competition, “court of oratory on love.”

Much of the body of the play is taking up with the various characters’ definitions of Love. The Duchess believes Love = War; she says

Love is the change
in the weariness of womanhood, the breach
’twixt slender arms, smooth cheeks, tones too like mine,
where the spark glows, the fire of the mine, the rush
of the inviting and repelling battle
within the narrow climax of two hearts
disposed to chivalrous challenge.

The Bishop believes Love = Surrender: “a compete / passionless evacuation of the will.” The Duchess’s secretary, Andria, believes that Love = Delight, “only delight, marvelling delight.” Her captain, Raoul, believes that Love = Survival: “Love is but the care life has / for its own prolongation.” Her court poet, Adrian, claims that Love = the Via Negativa: “Love is denial / of all our manners and modes of habitation. / Unless it be rejected it is naught.” One of the courtiers, Donatello, seems to think that Love = Competition.

A visiting alchemist, Vincenzo, comes to the court in time to hear the oratory, and the audience learns about the Duchess’s nature through how all the gentlemen of the court praise her to Vincenzo. She is reputed to be the fairest and wisest lady: “she hath tempted all,” as if flirting with wantonness, yet none has caught her own heart, and so she remains chaste. Adrian emphasizes her purity, while Donatello laughs and says that each man of the court has enjoyed her smiles, the touch of her hand or lips, and some time in a corner with her. And thus her reputation is a motley one.

This alchemist, Vincenzo, who is said to be second only to the great Nicholas Flamel in his mystical art, has his turn too to speak about love. He knows that Love = ecstasy = transmutation = God. About his science, he says:

All is significant that undergoes
process and transmutation; all that flies,
obedient or rebellious, into change,
whether in the unknowledgeable salt of earth
or the knowledgeable spirit of a man.

modern-alchemy-morrisson-coverThis is fascinating. One of the most important scholarly books I’ve read in the past few years was Modern Alchemy by Mark Morrisson. I’ll write more about it on here someday, d.v. One of its main topics of exploration was the difference at the beginning of the 20th century between practical alchemists—those who thought they could literally change other metals into gold and spiritual alchemists—those who believed that transmutation occurred in the soul, not on the physical level. Vincenzo is clearly more of the metaphorical type. Indeed, the Duchess agrees. She says: “We have somewhat here that is in need of change / if you looked deep.”

And so the alchemist stays at the Duchess’s court, and a deep love grows between them as he teaches her to transmute her soul. In a powerful combination of Romantic Theology and an occult worldview, these two practice love as a hermetic ritual that catalyst of spiritual change. She tells him: “You have / made all my life one revolution; now / I move to a new orbit.” He says about her: “She is already / become the Way; she is high up the mountain / and I a stumbler.”

This play is a startlingly clear piece of Rosicrucian writing. I’d put it up there with CW’s most occult writings ever. And its ending is even more startling than its beginning—spoiler alert. The alchemist gets in an argument with the Bishop and knocks him down. Then he’s arrested for assault and condemned to death. In a moving, confusing scene, the Duchess decides that although—or because— “I was blind: you touched me, and I saw,” she will sign his death warrant. She does, and the play ends with Vincenzo being lead off to death and the Duchess saying: “Before life comes again, farewell.”

Sometimes I read books by CW and they are just more of the same: more of his signature profound spirituality and distinctive themes. But then sometimes I read one and it opens out my knowledge of his ideas. It shows how enormous his ideas were, how wide-ranging this thoughts. He was not just a man of a small collection of idiosyncratic thoughts. He could inhabit other ideas, other people, other times and places, in his imagination. This play is one of those, which is yet another reason it should be more widely read and appreciated. I hope it will be.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a PhD student in English and Presidential Scholar at Baylor University. She also serves as Chair of the Language and Literature Department at Signum University, online. Her latest publication is an academic essay collection on "The Inklings and King Arthur" (Apocryphile Press, December 2017). Her interests include British Modernism, the Inklings, Arthuriana, theatre, and magic. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina blogs about British poet Charles Williams at The Oddest Inkling, wrote the introduction to a new edition of Williams’s "Taliessin through Logres" (Apocryphile, 2016), and edited Williams’s "The Chapel of the Thorn" (Apocryphile, 2014). As a creative writer, Sørina has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" (2007) and "Caduceus" (2012).
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5 Responses to The Chaste Wanton

  1. mallorb says:

    I think I’m going to be checking this out; I love the title of your blog—Charles Williams is indeed the oddest inkling, at least to me, since I’ve never actually heard anything about him.


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:


    Do also try reading – or, reading again if it’s been a while – the chapter of The Inklings where Humphrey Carpenter imagines a plausible meeting of the Inklings, using published and unpublished sources for what they say – it gives a lively sense of Williams ‘fitting in’. (As I remember, Humphrey once very kindly let us do a dramatic reading of it at an Oxford Lewis Society meeting – which worked quite well.)

    I’m not yet familiar with your blog, but if you like Shakespeare – and even various of his contemporaries, like Webster – you may find this play not unlike something you might run into among the latter playwrights – that’s what I remember of my impression of it, but this post is making me keen to try it again!


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Happy New Year (in a couple hours)!

    “This play is a startlingly clear piece of Rosicrucian writing.” I am not sure how much ‘we’ know about the exact dating of this play, but this post brings home to me both how long and high Williams had gotten in the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross before he wrote it, and, how it was written between the original draft and the version revised for publication of Shadows of Ecstasy, with all its attention to ‘transmutation’. I still have not dug up my copy of Three Plays, but this makes me keen to do so!

    A New Year – a final twelve months before “I hope that I get to see (perhaps participate in) a performance of it someday” will be a lot easier to accomplish in most of the world, as most of what Williams published during his lifetime comes out of copyright 70 years after the year in which he died. I do know there are some exceptions where the U.S. is concerned, but not their exact details. I wonder if, come January 2016, it would be possible to organize a LibriVox free audio production of The Chaste Wanton, for example? (Maybe even something like a Players of the Stage Podcasting Corporation – with an Online Williams Festival – would be a future possibility?)


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Wishing you joy of this Feast of the Epiphany, I see that LibriVox has an audio-dramatic-reading of The Duchess of Malfi, which might give a sense of the virtues and limitations of their technical approach of weaving together/making a mosaic of separately recorded rôles by way of a play apt (at the least) for juxtaposing with The Chaste Wanton.


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