"Play-making, Domestic Conduct, and the Multiple Plot in The Roaring Girl,"

Critic: Viviana Comensoli
Source: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring 1987, pp. 249-66.



[(essay date 1987) In the following essay, Comensoli contends that the three plots of The Roaring Girl together "convey the concern at the heart of the play with the degeneration of marriage and the family, a tension sustained in the antithesis between the household (consistently portrayed as the seat of spiritual and emotional stasis and confinement) and the city (the hub of multifariousness and freedom)."]


Moll Cutpurse, the central character of Dekker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl (c. 1608-1611), is based on the notorious roarerMary Frith who frequented the Fortune Theater in man's apparel. Mary was described by a contemporary as "a very Tomrig or Rumpscuttle" who "sported only in boys' play and pastime," scorned girlish endeavors such as "sewing or stitching," and showed "rude inclinations."1 While Moll Cutpurse does many of the things her real-life counterpart did--she wears men's clothes, carries a weapon, and mixes in taverns with members of the underworld--she also punishes lecherous gallants through her skillful sword-fighting and promotes the love-marriage of Mary Fitzallard and Sebastian Wengrave. T. S. Eliot was the first to praise The Roaring Girl as "one comedy which more than any other Elizabethan comedy realizes a free and noble womanhood," an achievement compensating for the play's rough plotting: "we read with toil through a mass of cheap conventional intrigue, and suddenly realize that we are ... observing a real and unique human being."2 Since Eliot's assessment the citizen-plot, with its commonplace motif of lusty gallants chasing citizen wives, has been largely viewed as a ponderous distraction from Moll's fascinating duality. Cyrus Hoy, for one, expresses a common sentiment when he laments the conventional comedy in the play, "with its seemingly compliant citizens' wives and the impecunious gallants who would like to seduce or live off them," but praises "the bold and often brilliantly original" portrait of Moll.3 The Royal Shakespeare Company's 1983 production of the play, the first major production since the play's première at the Fortune,4 portrayed Moll as a commendable virago but tampered considerably with the other plots in order to bring Moll's role into sharp focus.5

The few critics who have commented on the play's structural merits have stressed the orthodox design of the comic action and its progression toward a society renewed by married love. In 1970 David Holmes referred to the play as a "nexus of plots with a common motif," namely "the dignity of marriage."6 More recently, some attention has been paid to the Sebastian Wengrave-Mary Fitzallard action in connection with Moll's role in bringing about the young lovers' marriage. Patrick Cheney, analyzing Moll's dual identity, links the marriage to Moll's symbolic function: because Moll "combines in her person both feminine and masculine traits, and uses her remarkable powers to unite other couples in love," she is suggestive of Renaissance representations of the hermaphrodite-figure, "a supreme symbol of two souls becoming one--particularly within the context of married love."7 For Larry Champion, the play is "a complex pattern of schemes and counter-schemes" set in motion by Sebastian, whose feigned passion for Moll Cutpurse prompts his father to agree to his son's marriage to Mary Fitzallard, just as in the citizen-plot the gallants "set their practice upon the citizen-wives."8 The plots are "effectively interwoven" to sustain a comic perspective and "a continuing assurance of the ultimate success of love and right reason" leading to "a happy ending."9 Mary Beth Rose, in her analysis of the play in the context of the Hic Mulier/Haec-Vir controversy, acknowledges a certain amount of ambiguity in the dramatic portrayal of Moll, but also stresses the conventional nature of the comic ending.10 Despite the pamphlet's late date, Moll is considered a direct dramatic parallel of the transvestite in Hic Mulier, where "the figure of the female in male attire" inspires "simultaneous admiration, desire, abhorrence, and fear."11 While we detect authorial sympathy with "sexual non-conformity, female independence, and equality between the sexes," the play, argues Rose, ultimately resists Moll's integration into society: "having served as the instrument who brings about the happy ending," Moll "is nevertheless excluded from the renewed comic society of married couples which forms on the stage at the end of the play."12 The "desirable social norm in the play" is thus not Moll's transvestism but the conservative "relationship and opinions" of Sebastian and Mary.13 A full evaluation of Moll's relation to the multiple plot, I propose, must accommodate two significant qualifications: 1) while Moll does assist in ushering in the typical comic ending, she unequivocally renounces for herself the conventional values embodied by Mary and Sebastian, a choice which the audience is invited to condone; 2) although Moll and her roarer-companions reject conventional behavior, they are never excluded from the reformed society sketched in the denouement; instead, their presence during the final two scenes provides a compelling alternative to the ideal marriage. Moreover, the idealistic conclusion of the Sebastian-Mary action must be considered in relation to the dramatists' cynical treatment of marriage in the citizen-plot and its realistic treatment of conjugal malaise. Both Moll's misogamy and the citizens' domestic conflicts counterpoint the Sebastian-Mary action, indicating that the ideal marriage is a possibility not wholly realized, even in a transformed society.

Taken together, the three plots convey the concern at the heart of the play with the degeneration of marriage and the family, a tension sustained in the antithesis between the household (consistently portrayed as the seat of spiritual and emotional stasis and confinement) and the city (the hub of multifariousness and freedom). The multiple-plot structure is thus loosely unified through the careful arrangement of setting, so that altogether six scenes are set within various households and five in the city streets and fields around London. The world of the money-hungry social climbers and of the sycophantic gallants and self-satisfied citizens is ruled by the single pursuit of materialistic values. These characters are invariably either in their shops (notably architectural extensions of their homes) where they accumulate wealth, or at home where deception and bawdy innuendo underscore the deterioration of domestic life. The younger generation, represented by Sebastian Wengrave and Mary Fitzallard on the one hand, and by Moll Cutpurse and her roarer-companion Jack Dapper on the other, is removed from the world of the elders. Prior to their marriage, Mary and Sebastian are associated neither with the domestic sphere nor with the city, but stand apart in their idealism. For Moll and Jack, both the world of the elders and the idealism of Mary and Sebastian represent denial and limitation. Neither Moll nor Jack has or wants a home; their space is the street, the world of thieves, beggars, and drifters. Moll's contradictory behavior attests to the play's central paradox in that the resolution upholds both the ritualized cleansing of the domus through Mary and Sebastian's love-marriage and the roarers' rejection of that sphere in favor of the polymorphism of the city.

In the shift from one perspective to another, the spectator participates in a process of creating a multifaceted society as varied and paradoxical as the play. The tension agrees with the dramatists' idea of playmaking as a protean activity. Fashionable plays, argues Middleton in his address "To the Comicke Play-readers, Venery, and Laughter"14 which prefaces the quarto, cater to popular taste: likening "The fashion of play-making" to "the alteration in apparell" (lines 1-2), Middleton observes that the time now being one "of sprucenes," plays are fashioned after the folly of "our Garments, single plots, quaint conceits, letcherous iests, drest vp in hanging sleeues" (lines 6-8). Middleton advises the audience that the play he and Dekker have written goes beyond popular fashion in denying easy solutions, a sentiment echoed in the Prologue, where we are cautioned against coming to the theater expecting to view a polished work, "a booke, / Compos'd to all perfections" (lines 2-3), which will gratify our preconceived notions of experience:

                                                            each one comes
And brings a play in's head with him: vp he summes,
What he would of a Roaring Girle haue writ;
If that he findes not here, he mewes at it.

(lines 3-6)

Whereas fashionable plays are neatly packaged, closed systems, The Roaring Girl is methectic and open-ended, its emphasis on multiplicity and variability challenging the audience's complacency.


The play opens upon a typical conflict in city comedy; the father, Sir Alexander Wengrave, is determined to impede his son's marriage for reasons which are purely materialistic and self-serving. A recently-dubbed knight, Wengrave scorns Sebastian's love for Mary Fitzallard, whose dowry of five thousand marks renders her "but a beggars heire" (I.i.82). While the expository details are set forth Wengrave's house forms an obtrusive setting. The direct alignment of the two scenes comprising Act I draws our attention to the house's subdivisions, a fairly recent architectural phenomenon. During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, subdivided homes became indicative of status among the gentry and yeomanry.15 This development corresponded to the increase in domestic comfort, as evidenced by improved methods of construction favoring well-lit open spaces and terraces16 and generating a variety of household effects including upholstered furniture, chairs, draw tables, and beds with decorated frames. The new emphasis on domestic comfort represented "an important move towards the notion of individuality and sexual privacy."17 The design of the Wengrave household confirms Wengrave's successful climb to the landed gentry, while his status-seeking is the focus of the play's sharpest satirical attack. Scene i, where the disguised Mary Fitzallard secretly visits Sebastian, is set in the foyer, situated near the "hall" or servants' quarter (I.i.16) and the "buttry" (line 21). In scene ii we enter "Th'inner roome" (I.ii.6) of the house where Wengrave is hosting a dinner party. Proud of his possessions, Wengrave subjects his guests (and the audience) to an extensive and disquieting tour of each room. We are led from the separate dining area which, ironically, is "too close" (line 6), to the cooler "Parlour" (line 7). From there, we proceed to the "galleries" in the center of the house (line 14) where a grotesque mosaic covers the walls, intensifying the claustrophobic atmosphere--"Within one square a thousand heads are laid / So close, that all of heads, the roome seems made" (I.ii.19-20)--and where the trompe-l'oeil effect of the floor waving "to and fro, / ... like a floating Iland" (lines 30-31) projects an image of a world distorted by illusion.

As the dinner-party scene unfolds, the household is depicted essentially as an extension of a money economy. The adulteration of the once sacred bond between host and guest, for instance, is underscored by Wengrave's calculating advice to Greenwit upon learning of the young man's desire to leave sooner than decorum permits: "Your loue sir, has already giuen me some time, / And if you please to trust my age with more, / It shall pay double interest: Good sir stay" (I.ii.36-8). Wengrave's metaphor from commerce is a signal to the young man of the ethic that now rules the host-guest relationship, the guest's function being to defer to the host's pride and social status in exchange for patronage. As Wengrave dispenses wine during post-dinner formalities and grandly displays the furniture, which "Cost many a faire gray groat ere it came here" (line 12), his makeshift hospitality and the guests' hypocrisy are revealed through a series of double-entendres and vicious sexual innuendoes:

Alex. Pray make that stoole your pearch, good
Maister Goshawke.
Gosh. I stoope to your lure sir.


Alex.furnish maister Laxton
With what he wants (a stone) a stoole I would say,
A stoole.
Lax. I had rather stand sir.


The image of the household as the center of concupiscence links the Wengrave action and the citizen-plot where feeding, bawdy word-play, and sexual inadequacy form a complex configuration. Wengrave's feast is directly mirrored by the citizens' equally disquieting dinner party (III.ii). The scene opens upon a domestic squabble between the hosts, Prudence and Master Gallipot, disrupting the festive mood. Prudence enters "as from supper, her husband after her" (s.d.), and inveighs against Gallipot's uxorious behavior. On the surface the exchange is farcical, but broad comedy is restrained by the urgency of the language which alerts us to the couple's emotional and sexual dissatisfaction. Prudence is angry because her husband dotes on her as an infant dotes on its mother: "I thinke the baby would haue a teate it kyes so, pray be not so fond of me, ... I'me vext at you to see how like a calfe you come bleating after me" (III.ii.2-5). The source of Prudence's frustration is Gallipot's refusal to "vp and ride" (line 9), provoking her lusty pursuit of the gallant Laxton.18 The couple's conjugal problems are coherently sketched through an extended pattern of food imagery. Gallipot, whose virility is dubious--"Vp and ride, nay my pretty Pru, thats farre from my thought, ducke" (lines 10-1)--importunes his termagant wife to behave more decorously toward their guests, and attempts to appease her through proverbial food lore: "thy minde is nibbling at something, whats ist, what lyes vpon thy Stomach?" (lines 11-2). Suspecting that Prudence may have a lover, Gallipot articulates his suspicion through another barrage of food imagery: "I smel a goose, a couple of capons, and a gammon of bacon from her mother out of the country" (lines 70-1). Throughout the exchange Gallipot's need for oral gratification is strongly implied.19 His inability to distinguish between feeding and love, his persistent whining--"the baby would haue a teate it kyes so"20--and his dependence on non-sexual contact are the source of Prudence's strongest reproach: "your loue is all words; giue mee deeds, I cannot abide a man thats too fond ouer me, so cookish; thou dost not know how to handle a woman in her kind" (lines 22-4).

The scene culminates in Prudence and Laxton's jest, whereby the gallant poses as the wife's original suitor who has come to reclaim her. Gallipot's uneasiness over having to relinquish his source of gratification to a rival, a prospect which he equates with being deprived of a choice dish of food, is an aggressive, infantile response--"Haue you [Laxton] so beggarly an appetite / When I vpon a dainty dish haue fed / To dine vpon my scraps, my leauings? ha sir?" (III.ii.229-31). When alone with Prudence, Gallipot is passive and obsequious, but to his rival and to society at large he appears sexually potent, a lie which he fosters through bawdy metaphors: "pray sir [Laxton] weare not her, for shee's a garment / So fitting for my body, I'me loath / Another should put it on, you will vndoe both" (lines 234-36). The uneasy tone is sustained in the reconciliation scene (IV.ii) where Gallipot forgives Laxton because the gallant has not actually seduced the wife, but does not offer to forgive Prudence (IV.ii.318-20). Audiences at the Fortune Theater could compare Gallipot's behavior with that of Master Frankford, the husband-hero of Heywood's domestic tragedy A Woman Killed With Kindness (c. 1603), which Christianized the revenge ethic in its sympathetic portrayal of a husband who forgives rather than condemns his wife's adultery. Whereas Frankford's sacrifice preserves the conjugal ideal, Gallipot's bombast during the reconciliation scene points not only to moral lassitude but also to the continuation of conjugal strife. That the marriage will never be free of conflict is confirmed by Gallipot's bold invitation of the gallant to dinner, in which he chastises Prudence with a derogatory epithet, masking once again his sexual inadequacy: "Wee'll crowne our table with it [Laxton's jest]: wife brag no more, / Of holding out: who most brags is most whore" (lines 323-24).

The unsettling tone of the Prudence-Gallipot action is only partly attenuated by the more whitewashed marriage of Master and Mistress Openwork. The central concern in the Openwork action is the husband's exposure of Goshawk's lechery: Openwork dupes the gallant by pretending that Mistress Openwork's shrewishness has led him to keep a whore in the suburbs (II.i.272-76). Openwork's test of his wife's fidelity, which she in turn requites with a feigned desire for Goshawk, is therefore only a pretense to dupe the gallant and to teach him to "deale vpon mens wiues no more" (IV.ii.216). Once the gallant has learned the valuable lesson, the action concludes with Openwork's invitation of Goshawk to dinner, paralleling Gallipot's forgiveness of Laxton:

Maist. Open. Make my house yours sir still.


Maist. Open.I say you shall:

Seeing (thus besieg'd) it holds out, 'twill neuer fall.

(lines 217-19)

Ostensibly preserved is the general rule of decorum in the public theaters requiring gallants who attempt the seduction of citizen-wives to "come off badly."21 That Gallipot's "virtue" remains questionable, however, has been established by his response to Laxton's and Prudence's jest. A moral ambiguity also qualifies Openwork's behavior. Goshawk's admission of guilt prompts Openwork to muse on the world's imperfection--"On fairest cheeks, wife nothing is perfect borne. / ... What's this whole world but a gilt rotten pill?" / ... The world can hardly yeeld a perfect friend" (IV.ii.204-13). The remark undercuts not only the confident tone of Openwork's offer of his house to the gallant, but also the promise of social stability brought about by his hospitality.22

From the point of view of citizen comedy, perhaps the most disturbing element of the resolution of the citizen-plot concerns the problem of Prudence Gallipot's lascivious behavior. Unlike Mistress Openwork's feigned passion for Goshawk, Prudence's desire for Laxton is never uncovered as a pretense. In Act II we learn that the affair is not consummated because the gallant has no intention of seducing the wife (II.i.114-23); he merely desires Gallipot's money, which he lavishes on other women. While Mistress Openwork comes to appreciate her husband's virtue, Prudence merely informs us that she is "ridd" of Laxton (IV.ii.40). We are given no firm indication that she unequivocally yields to Gallipot's apparent virtue.23 Prudence's unrepentant desire is a rare occurrence in a comedy performed in the public theater where citizen-wives were not portrayed as adulterous.24


The disturbed, unregenerate world of the citizens and the landed gentry is juxtaposed with the stable, more innocent world of the young lovers, Mary and Sebastian. Their world is suffused with an aura of sacredness manifested chiefly in their dialogue which teems with devotional imagery. The couple's secret betrothal is not a grotesque extension of eating, nor is it founded on sexual appetite; instead, it is, in Mary's words, a union sanctioned by heaven: "in one knot / Haue both our hands byt'h hands of heauen bene tyed" (I.i.68-9). For Mary, matrimony is "a bond fast sealed, with solemne oathes, / Subscribed vnto ... with your soule: / Deliuered as your deed in sight of heauen" (lines 51-3). Mary distinguishes between love which is "wouen sleightly" (line 29) and a nobler love which is "truely bred ith the soule" (line 31). The denouement, where Mary and Sebastian reiterate their marriage vows with the blessing of their elders and of society at large, reinforces the idea of marriage as the field where one ought to practise virtue. Indeed, the language in this scene is so transformed that it becomes epideictic. In tone and structure the final one hundred lines of the play recall the celebration of marriage in epithalamic verse. Mary, dressed as a "Bride," is brought in "twixt two noble friends" (V.ii.168), and the wedding is celebrated by all of society: the guests include lords, gentlemen, ladies, citizens and their wives, and the roarers Moll Cutpurse and Trapdoor. Having abandoned his "wilfull rashnesse" (line 193) the reformed Wengrave, like the epithalamist, "call[s] into being the ideal event which the wedding must be, the ideal as defined partly by the convention, partly by the particular society, partly by the poet."25 Repenting his former blindness, Wengrave extols the wedding as a sacred occasion (lines 173-74) and invokes heaven's blessing of the couple (line 202). He also articulates the epithalamist's conventional praise of the bride's virtue and beauty (lines 189-95), and the familiar wish for offspring and material prosperity: "the best ioyes, / That can in worldly shapes to man betide, / Are fertill lands, and a faire fruitfull Bride" (lines 202-04). The scene ends with Wengrave's injunction, "as I am, so all goe pleas'd away" (line 266), echoing the epithalamist's command to break off the revelry so that the bedding of the couple may take place.

The stylized epithalamic cadences of the final scene enhance the conventional nature of Mary and Sebastian's union which represents the renewal, typical of New-Comic endings, of a society made barren by its obsession with mercantile values. However, before he can enjoy the benefits of his new life, Sebastian, like the prodigals of New Comedy, asks and receives his father's forgiveness for the sorrow he has caused him (V.ii.170-73).26 Paradoxically, the strongly idealistic nature of Mary and Sebastian's marriage is tempered by the Moll Cutpurse-Jack Dapper action, where language creates a radically different kind of personal and social transformation.


The central ambiguity of the multiple plot hinges on the contradictions embodied in Moll Cutpurse, who aids Sebastian in securing his father's approval of his marriage while asserting that she herself would never agree to marry (V.ii.214). Moll's rejection of marriage derives in part from the Christian ascetic tradition. In her refusal to submit not only to men but to her own physical nature, Moll associates independence with physical denial:

shee that has wit, and spirit,
May scorne to liue beholding to her body for meate,
Or for apparell like your common dame,
That makes shame get her cloathes, to couer shame.


Moll expresses the traditional dichotomy between body and spirit, rejecting altogether the world of desire where identity is governed by "apparell" and where marriage is not the union of opposites but the handmaiden of lust:

Base is that minde, that kneels vnto her body,
As if a husband stood in awe on's wife,
My spirit shall be Mistresse of this house,
As long as I haue time in't.

(lines 137-40)

Elsewhere, however, Moll confesses to Sebastian that she has renounced marriage and the pleasures of the flesh for more practical, self-serving reasons: "I haue no humor to marry, I loue to lye aboth sides ath bed my selfe; and againe ath'other side; a wife you know ought to be obedient, but I feare me I am too headstrong to obey, therefore Ile nere go about it" (II.ii.35-8). Moll rejects marriage because it denies a woman freedom to act as she pleases in the world: "I haue the head now of my selfe, and am man enough for a woman, marriage is but a chopping and changing, where a maiden looses one head, and has a worse ith place" (lines 40-3). Moll, whose sense of self is highly individualized, views marriage as a threat to a woman's identity, marriage being the exchange of one "head" for another in that a wife replaces her maidenhead (a symbol, to Moll, of independence) with the sovereignty of her husband.

At the same time that Moll chooses independence for herself, she is aware of the loss which her renunciation necessitates. As she plays on the viol for Sebastian, Moll sings of her dream at the core of which is a subtle tension between denial and desire. The first part of the dream concerns a woman who delights in "unwomanly" pastimes such as squandering money and mixing with vulgar company:

I dreame there is a Mistresse,


Shee sayes shee went to'th Bursse for patternes,
                              You shall finde her at Saint Katherns,
And comes home with neuer a penny.


The woman in the dream, like Moll herself, does not buy "patternes" to sew dresses, sewing being the quintessential stereotypical occupation of women; instead, she prefers to carouse in "Saint Katherns," the dockside district in London's east end, which was "notorious for its brewhouses and taverns."27 In the second part of the dream Moll describes the sexual adventures of an adulterous woman (lines 109-19), a fantasy which gives Moll pleasure, although she is careful to distinguish between her dream-life and reality: "Hang vp the viall now sir: all this while I was in a dreame; one shall lie rudely then, but being awake, I keepe my legges together" (lines 122-24). Moll's dream suggests we are viewing neither a symbol of virtue nor the two-dimensional virago of the Hic Mulier pamphlet, but a complex individual whose dream/song embodies the self's ambiguous relationship to the world. Through her transvestism, Moll has adopted the more forceful male role in order to escape subordination, although she has done so by sacrificing her sexual longing, a compromise which her dream brings into relief.28 Yet the loss for Moll is preferable to a life of wifely submission. Proud of her independence, Moll cannot tolerate the subjugation which marriage entails, a loss which, by implication, will follow even Mary Fitzallard's entrance into the domus.

Moll's fullness and complexity are expressed through her adaptability: she is at home both in the world of "the Temple" (III.i.164) and amid thieves and prostitutes in Chicke Lane (line 167). Her duality encompasses both her proficiency as a musician (an accomplishment which a Renaissance audience would appreciate as indicative of harmony, refinement, and felicity) and her mastery of a different kind of "music," namely thieves' cant (V.i). Throughout the play the dramatists underscore Moll's protean nature, which cannot be understood by those whose understanding is weak or who conceive of the world two-dimensionally. Moll's strangeness is disturbing and everywhere draws mistrust. To those who fear her, she is "madde Moll" (Prologue, line 30; I.i.94), a despised "flesh fly," a "scuruy woman" (I.ii.127-28), and "some Monster" (line 138). To Moll's fellow-roarer, Trapdoor, Moll's identity is confusing and unpredictable: "I like you the worse because you shift your lodging so often" (III.i.168). Even the truth-obsessed Mistress Openwork denies Moll her "house and shop" (II.i.211) on the basis of Moll's outrageous appearance.

Moll's boldly unconventional nature corresponds to the play's identity as a work of art. Just as in Moll's world clothes often make the person, play-making, we noted in Middleton's address to the audience, is frequently only a matter of catering to the current fashion. The Roaring Girl counters the popular trend not only because the play frustrates expectation but also because it is subject to censorship for defying a law which upholds the sanctity of appearance: "For Venus being a woman passes through the play in doublet and breeches, a braue disguise and a safe one, if the Statute vnty not her cod-peice point" ("To the Comicke Play-readers," lines 13-5). The statute in question is the law forbidding women to wear male dress, which arose from "the controversy then raging over women's role and rights, their wearing men's hats or masculine dress ... be[ing] one of the signs of moral degeneration."29 The purpose of art, argues Middleton, is to expose truth, even if it might not always be "fit for the Times, and the Tearmers" (line 8). Moll is never forced to renounce her choices in order to gratify what Middleton considers the unreasonable expectations of certain spectators among the large citizen audiences who frequented the Fortune playhouse. At the same time, the play's favorable portrayal of a strongly independent woman points to the dramatists' awareness of an increasingly assertive audience of city women who, as the hic mulier controversy attests, were demanding and gradually "getting more freedom."30

In the final scene Moll indirectly flouts Mary and Sebastian's wedding by prophesying she will marry only when society undergoes a seemingly impossible reformation that would see, among other things, "Honesty and truth vnslandred, / Woman man'd, but neuer pandred," and "Cheaters booted, but not coacht" (V.ii.219-21). Lord Noland's alarmed reply--"This sounds like domes-day" (line 225)--is countered by Moll with a disturbing quip: "Then were marriage best, / For if I should repent, I were soone at rest" (lines 126-27). Moll's misogamy provides a powerful alternative to the veneration of marriage and procreation that informs the epithalamic ending.


Dekker and Middleton's provocation of the audience, together with their opposition to unjust authority, is underscored by Moll's participation in the Jack Dapper action. That Jack functions dramatically as Moll's double is suggested by Moll's street name, "Iack" (V.ii.97-98; lines 212, 215). A profligate and a spendthrift who lives on credit, Jack Dapper lavishes his money on tobacco and wine, and associates with prostitutes and catamites (III.iii.55-64). His father Davy Dapper, who is resolved to punish Jack's profligate ways, orders his arrest and detention in Bridewell, the notorious house of correction. The farcical overtones of the arrest, however, block the audience's sympathy for the father. The search for Jack is carried out amid absurd hunting cries and references to the quest for game (lines 158-91), and is headed by Sergeant Curtilax, a blusterer whose primitive understanding renders him a disturbing defender of the law: "all that liue in the world, are but great fish and little fish, and feede vpon one another" (lines 134-35). Moll's intervention prevents the arrest. Moll forcibly rescues Jack from the sergeant's custody (lines 200-10), an offense which under Jacobean law was "very serious"31 in that it could lead to a long imprisonment. In the aftermath, neither Moll nor Jack repents the crime; instead, Moll describes her part as her "perfect one good worke to day" (line 212). The next time we see Moll and Jack together is during the long canting episode in the final act where they mingle freely among cutpurses and delight in their knowledge of the underworld.32

The canting scene, which is interposed between the resolution of the citizen-plot (IV.ii) and the glorious epithalamic ending (V.ii), is crucial to the play's thematic and structural design.33 As a prelude to the canting, Moll and her fellow-roarers join with Jack Dapper in deriding his father's unsuccessful attempt to have him imprisoned. In direct counterpoint to Sebastian's request for his own father's forgiveness (V.ii.170-72), Jack renounces repentance, declaring that not even prison would reform him: "as though a Counter, which is a parke, in which all the wilde beasts of the Citty run head by head could tame mee" (V.i.40-1). The rowdy tone of the celebration also contrasts sharply with that of the wedding feast that transpires in Wengrave's household. The roarers will celebrate Jack's freedom by carousing in the London streets and taverns, and by feasting at "Pimlico ... that nappy land of spice-cakes" (lines 49-50), described elsewhere in Dekker as a mad world frequented by revellers and crammed with "Bawdy houses."34 The audience, moreover, is coaxed into assenting to the roarers' adventure through Lord Noland's participation in the action. A strictly sympathetic character from the upper ranks of society, Lord Noland eagerly follows the roarers, inviting his friends to join in the celebration: "Heeres such a merry ging, I could find in my heart to saile to the worlds end with such company, come Gentlemen let's on" (V.i.51-2). After the roarers flaunt their skills in the obscurities of thieves' cant, Moll engages Tearcat in a boisterous drinking song for which they receive "two shillings sixe pence" (line 220) from Lord Noland and his friends:

Moll. Come you rogue sing with me.
A gage of ben Rom-house
In a bousing ken of Rom-vile.

T. Cat. Is Benar then a Caster,
Pecke, penman, lap or popler,
Which we mill in deuse a vile.

Both. Oh I wud lib all the lightmans.
Oh I woud lib all the darkemans,
By the sollamon, vnder the Ruffemans.
By the sollamon in the Hartmans.

T. Cat. And scoure the Quire cramp ring,
And couch till a pallyard docked my dell,
So my bousy nab might skew rome bouse well.


The final refrain, "Auast to the pad, let vs bing, / Auast to the pad, let vs bing" (lines 208-209), which translates "Away to the highway, let us go,"35 asserts Moll and Tearcat's loyalty to the open streets. In Moll's subsequent paraphrase of the song (lines 235-40), which amounts to "let's drink and be merry," we learn that we have been listening to an ode to freedom. The inscrutable nature of the argot, together with its rough and spirited cadences, balances the stylized verse in the epithalamic conclusion, bestowing on the roarers' language a similar power to please the audience.

The Moll Cutpurse-Jack Dapper action is never subordinated to the Mary-Sebastian plot. Instead, the play interweaves a pattern of divergent meanings, suspending and resuspending a firm resolution until all the characters are reunited in the final scene where society is recreated as a network of disparate structures. Central to the process of renewal is the sympathetic presentation, in the popular theater, of a heroine's desire for self-realization. The Roaring Girl exposes the folly of popular opinion, including in this case secular law, by demonstrating that Moll's disguise is a "safe one" ("To the Comic Play-Readers," line 14), that is, "morally sound and mentally sane" (OED). Thus by the end of the play, both Alexander Wengrave and the audience are capable of judging Moll according to her worth, realizing that the "common voyce" is the real "whore," in that it "deceiues mans opinion; mockes his trust, / Cozens his loue, and makes his heart vniust" (V.ii.248-50). While the play's epithalamic ending calls attention to the possibility of regeneration through marriage, Moll and the roarers' affirmation of another "order" upholds a strikingly different set of values, fulfilling the play's promise of complexity and multiplicity.


1Letter from John Chamberlain to Dudley Carleton, 11 February 1612; quoted in A. H. Bullen, ed., The Works of Thomas Middleton, 8 vols. (London: J.C. Nimmo, 1885), 4:4.

2T. S. Eliot, Elizabethan Essays (New York: Haskell House, 1964), pp. 100, 89.

3Cyrus Hoy, Introductions, Notes, and Commentaries to texts in "The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker," Edited by Fredson Bowers, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), 3:9. Norman A. Brittin also praises Moll as "an upright, goodhearted girl of great size and strength who, like a questing knight, helps her friends and whose bad reputation is undeserved," but ignores the function of the citizen-plot (Thomas Middleton [New York: Twayne, 1972], p. 77).

4The play has been performed infrequently. P. Mulholland, in "Let her roar again: The Roaring Girl Revived," RORD 18 (1985):15-27, notes that since 1951, the date of "the earliest modern production on record" (p. 15), there have been six stage productions, of which the Royal Shakespeare Company's is the "most important" (p. 19), and one radio adaptation. See also Marilyn Roberts, "A Preliminary Check-List of Productions of Thomas Middleton's Plays," RORD 18 (1985):37-61; 52-3.

5To "make the play 'slightly more deft,"' the director Barry Kyle "altered the order of some scenes in Act 1 and shifted the last half of Act 4 to the middle of Act 5" (Francesca Simon, "The Honest Cutpurse at the Play: Francesca Simon talks to Barry Kyle about the RSC's Roaring Girl starring Helen Mirren," The Sunday Times, 24 April 1983, p. 42e). The "effect," wrote one reviewer, was a strong emphasis on Moll, while the rest of the action tended toward "vertical tourism" (Irving Wardle, "Distant Echo of Jacobean Mirth," The London Times, 27 April 1983, p. 14). Another reviewer praised Helen Mirren's spirited portrayal of Moll, but complained of loss of "audience involvement" as a result of Kyle's "cut[ting] and patch[ing]," which made for "three or four plots awkwardly interwined" (Russell Taylor, in Drama: The Quarterly Theatre Review [Autumn 1983]:40-1; 40).

6David M. Holmes, The Art of Thomas Middleton: A Critical Study (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 102, 107.

7Patrick Cheney, "Moll Cutpurse as Hermaphrodite in Dekker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl," Ren&R n.s. 7 (May 1983):124, 125.

8Larry S. Champion, Thomas Dekker and the Traditions of English Drama (New York: Peter Lang, 1985), p. 82.

9Champion, p. 85.

10Mary Beth Rose, "Women in Men's Clothing: Apparel and Social Stability in The Roaring Girl," ELR 14 (Autumn 1984): 367-91. The literary and social contexts of the controversy over the issue of women in men's apparel, which "came to a head in 1620 with a pair of pamphlets entitled, respectively, Hic Mulier: Or, The Man-Woman, and Haec-Vir: Or the Womanish-Man" (Rose, pp. 367-88), are fully explored in Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984), passim. For my argument concerning the dramatic complexity and attractiveness of the central character of The Roaring Girl, I am indebted to Woodbridge's observation that the play not only "gives favorable treatment to a man-clothed virago" (p. 250), but also "paints an intriguing portrait of modern assertive women" (p. 262).

11Rose, p. 368.

12Rose, p. 389.

13Rose, p. 385.

14The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1953-1961), 3:11. Subsequent references to the play will be to this edition.

15Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden from History: 300 Years of Women's Oppression and the Fight Against It, 2nd edn. (London: Pluto Press, 1974), p. 3.

16Michel Grivelet, Thomas Heywood et le Drame Domestique Elizabéthain (Paris: Librairie Marcel Didier, 1957), pp. 19-20. See also Marjorie Quennell and C. H. B. Quennell, A History of Everyday Things in England: 1500-1799, 5th edn., vol. 2 of A History of Everyday Things in England, 4 vols. (London: Batsford, 1960), chs. 1 and 2; and W. G. Hoskins, "The Rebuilding of Rural England, 1570-1640," in Provincial England: Essays in Social and Economic History (London and New York: Macmillan and St. Martin's Press, 1963), pp. 131-48.

17Rowbotham, p. 3.

18Andor Gomme, ed., The Roaring Girl (London and New York: Benn and Norton, 1976), p. 64, n. 9, observes that "'Ride' was Standard English for sexual intercourse," and suggests that Mistress Gallipot might be "picking up a sexual suggestion in her husband's last word ['come'] and possibly 'hony'."

19Understood psychoanalytically, Gallipot's excessive passivity, his dependence on non-sexual affection, and his delight in infantile behavior are manifestations of an oral compulsion. "Because the oral phase occupies the earliest period when self and object are still not clearly differentiated," writes Norman N. Holland, the phase "establish[es] ... our abilities to do nothing, to be passive" (The Dynamics of Literary Response [New York: Oxford Univ. Press], 1968, p. 36).

20The term "kyes," as used by Prudence Gallipot, indicates "baby-talk": in talking to her husband, she uses the language of nursemaids (Gomme, p. 63, n. 3). In this case, notes Gomme, "Master Gallipot is the baby."

21Alexander Leggatt, Citizen Comedy in the Age of Shakespeare (Toronto and Buffalo: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1973), p. 135.

22Critics tend to ignore the ambiguities of the reconciliation scene in the citizen-plot. For Larry Champion, "The feast that follows is ... a commonplace symbol of reconciliation and social harmony throughout Renaissance comedy" (Thomas Dekker and the Traditions of English Drama, p. 84). Andor Gomme views the reconciliation as part of the play's broader message that "deception and scheming" are "found everywhere and can always be unmasked by plain dealing" ("Introduction," The Roaring Girl, p. xxiv). Patrick Cheney writes that "the primary aim" of the citizen-plot "is to reunite the wives with their husbands; and the secondary aim is to expose the gallants for men of lust, and then to incorporate them as friends to the married couples" ("Moll Cutpurse as Hermaphrodite in Dekker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl," p. 128). Similarly, Mary Beth Rose suggests that the scene restores marital harmony, mitigating the "illicit sexuality" represented by "the seducing gallants, who ... herefore turn out not to constitute a real threat to the social order at all" ("Women in Men's Clothing: Apparel and Social Stability in The Roaring Girl," p. 382). A very different view is put forth by Simon Shepherd, in Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1981): Prudence and Mistress Gallipot are pawns in "the male world" which exploits women by relegating them to "the emotional and sexual sphere" (p. 49). The citizen-plot reconciles the husbands with the gallants "to the exclusion of the women, who remain used and dissatisfied" (p. 80). Shepherd's interpretation is not entirely borne out by the text, where the women are never passive in their dealings with the men, and where the reconciliation between Openwork and Goshawk is tenuous.

23David Holmes notes that "Mistress Gallipot's deficiencies, deceitfulness, and proneness to corruption, contrast with Mistress Openwork's plain dealing and moral hardihood" (The Art Of Thomas Middleton, p. 107), but he does not substantiate the claim. The Royal Shakespeare Company's production also differentiated between the citizen-couples: "At their appearance in the final scene of the play some unease still attended the Gallipots, though balanced by the firmer relationship of the Openworks" (P. Mulholland, "Let her roar again: The Roaring Girl Revived," p. 23). Gomme, on the other hand, echoes a prevalent view in his suggestion that both wives "realize how much more solidly worthwhile their husbands are than the gallants whom they can, it seems, trap so easily," although he acknowledges that "the innuendoes" in the dialogue between the two women (IV.ii.40ff.) "are so broad that one cannot believe they have altogether given up the search for new delights" ("Introduction," The Roaring Girl, p. xxx).

24Alfred Harbage, Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions (New York: Macmillan, 1952), p. 249. Harbage notes that the "single exception" is Chapman's Blind Beggar of Alexandria (1598).

25Thomas M. Greene, "Spenser and the Epithalamic Convention," in Edmund Spenser: Epithalamion, ed. R. Beum (Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1968), pp. 37-52; p. 43. For a comprehensive analysis of the literary conventions of epithalamic verse in European literature see Virginia Tufte, The Poetry of Marriage: The Epithalamium in Europe and Its Development in England (Los Angeles: Tinnon-Brown, 1970).

26Although George E. Rowe, Jr., in Thomas Middleton & the New Comedy Tradition (Lincoln and London: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1977) does not analyze The Roaring Girl, attributing the play largely to Dekker (p. 23), he offers a valuable discussion of the structures of New Comedy and of Middleton's sustained critique of traditional comic values: "Middleton does not revise tradition in order to create new syntheses. ... He revises it in order to reject it" (p. 17). I concur with Rowe's suggestion that The Roaring Girl harbors a comic vision that is closer to Dekker's; by upholding a synthesis of discordant elements, I believe, the play modifies Middleton's otherwise cynical treatment of comic themes. For an account of the debate surrounding the play's authorship see Gomme, pp. xxxii-xxxv, and Champion, Thomas Dekker and the Traditions of English Drama, p. 173, n. 52.

27Cyrus Hoy, 3:46, n. 104.

28"Moll must dress as a man," notes Caroline L. Cherry, "to make people respect her and take her seriously" and "to express herself fully" (The Most Unvaluedst Purchase: Women in the Plays of Thomas Middleton [Salzburg: Universität Salzburg, 1973], pp. 104-05). Simon Shepherd observes that Moll "connects ... chastity and ... freedom" (Amazons and Warrior Women, p. 78).

29Margot Heinemann, Puritanism and Theatre: Thomas Middleton and Opposition Drama Under the Early Stuarts (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), p. 100. See also Louis B. Wright, Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (1935; rpt. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1958), pp. 494ff.

30Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance, p. 263.

31Gomme, p. 87, n. 211.

32In his review of the 1983 production, Irving Wardle notes that although roarers, "from Ancient Pistol and Jonson's Kastril to the roaring academy in A Fair Quarrel, were the much-ridiculed skinheads of their time," in The Roaring Girl "the sympathy is entirely on the roarer's side" ("Distant Echo of Jacobean Mirth," p. 14).

33Critics unanimously attribute this scene to Dekker. The canting, however, is usually considered "an almost complete irrelevance to the remainder of the play" (Gomme, p. xxx). Champion, on the other hand, argues that the canting episode "serves through its linguistic hilarity to prevent a tone of heavy sentimentality in the reconciliation scenes that both precede ... and follow" (Thomas Dekker and the Traditions of English Drama, p. 85).

34Thomas Dekker, Worke for Armorours (1609), Biv; quoted in Hoy, 3:49, n. 12.

35Gomme, p. 126, n. 194.

Source: Viviana Comensoli, "Play-making, Domestic Conduct, and the Multiple Plot in The Roaring Girl," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring 1987, pp. 249-66.