"Rehabilitating Moll's Subversion in The Roaring Girl,"

Critic: Jane Baston
Source: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 37, No. 2, Spring 1997, pp. 317-35.


THE ROARING GIRL

CRITICAL COMMENTARY

[(essay date 1997) In this essay, Baston insists that "Moll's defiance is reinvented in The Roaring Girl in order to be contained, enervated, and eventually incorporated into the prevailing social apparatus."]

On 12 February 1612 in a letter to Sir Dudley Carleton, John Chamberlain included an account of the punishments of three women. Of the first two he writes: "The Lady of Shrewsberie is still in the Towre rather upon wilfulnes, then upon any great matter she is charged withall: only the King is resolute that she shall aunswer to certain interrogatories, and she is as obstinate to make none, nor to be examined. The other weeke a younge mignon of Sir Pexall Brockas did penance at Paules Crosse, whom he had entertained and abused since she was twelve years old."1

But what do we learn from this account? Certainly something about the subjugation of women at this time--a subjugation that seems to recognize no class boundaries. Lady Shrewsbury's refusal to answer certain questions amounts to "wilfulnes" for which she is imprisoned. Although in this case she is refusing to answer the king, willfulness in a woman was tantamount to a crime.2 The second unfortunate, the unnamed "young mignon" of Sir Pexall Brockas, was made to submit to public penance in what seems to be public shaming of the victim of sexual abuse. Thus we have a woman imprisoned for refusing to submit to a man's will, and a woman punished for submitting to a man's will. Finally, Chamberlain writes of a third woman, Moll Cutpurse, who achieved a curious reversal of the expected order:

and this last Sonday Mall Cut-purse a notorious baggage (that used to go in mans apparell and challenged the feild of divers gallants) was brought to the same place, where she wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but yt is since doubted she was maudelin druncke, beeing discovered to have tipled of three quarts of sacke before she came to her penaunce: she had the daintiest preacher or ghostly father that ever I saw in pulpit, one Ratcliffe of Brazen Nose in Oxford, a likelier man to have led the revells in some ynne of court then to be where he was, but the best is he did extreem badly, and so wearied the audience that the best part went away, and the rest taried rather to heare Mall Cutpurse then him.3

By adopting at least the external signs of conformity--"she wept bitterly and seemed very penitent"--and exploiting the ineptness of the authority figure--the preacher Ratcliffe who "so wearied the audience"--Moll Cutpurse subverts the intended display. Ironically, it is for subversion of the power structure for which Moll was being punished in the first place.

Records show that Moll was known as a thief. Mark Eccles gives details of three records of Mary Frith in the Middlesex Sessions Court rolls between 1600 and 1608, where she is accused of stealing purses.4 My own search of the Calendar of Assize Records has turned up another reference to Mary Frith. The Southwark Assizes of 26 March 1610 indict Mary Frythe for burglary, stating that, "On 8th September, 1609, she burgled the house of Alice Bayly at St Olave and stole £7 7s in money, 2 gold angels, a gold 20 shilling piece, 2 gold half-crowns, a gold ring (6s) and 2 crystal stones set in silver (20d)." The record also shows that she was found not guilty.5

But it was Moll's metaphorical and physical challenge to patriarchy that Chamberlain comments on, "a notorious baggage that used to go in man's apparell and challenged the feild of divers gallants."6 Through her apparent acquiescence to the ritual humiliation of public shaming, Moll subverts the dominant power mechanisms of the community with an individual charisma. She effects her move from dissenter to maverick, and turns the spectacle of public shaming into a theatrical extravaganza. This is no small achievement when female intrusion into male codes could be very harshly punished, even or especially by the disempowered mob--as shown by the fate of one seventeenth-century woman, Ann Morrow, "who had been found guilty of disguising herself as a man for the purpose of marrying three different women, was blinded by stones flung at her by an exceptionally violent crowd."7

This paper examines women's "transgressions" within the prevailing patriarchy to show how such threats were countered and largely suppressed. After placing my argument within recent criticism on The Roaring Girl, a play which treats Moll, I will examine the "transgression" of cross-dressing as it appears in seventeenth-century pamphlets and church records, and finally in the dramatic representation of Moll. Specifically, I will show how Moll's defiance is reinvented in The Roaring Girl in order to be contained, enervated, and eventually incorporated into the prevailing social apparatus.

II

Until recent years criticism of The Roaring Girl was sparse.8 But Mary Beth Rose's important essay, "Women in Men's Clothing: Apparel and Social Stability in The Roaring Girl," initiated new cultural readings of the play.9 Rose links The Roaring Girl with the pamphlets Hic Mulier and Haec Vir, and locates all these texts in the context of the "moral and social anxiety aroused by changing sexual values in Jacobean England" (p. 368). Documenting Moll's defiance of conventional social and sexual behavior, Rose suggests that the figure of Moll calls for a "greater freedom for women and equality between the sexes" (p. 385). Rose concludes, however, that such freedoms are eventually undercut because "the play resists the absorption of Moll into the tolerant new society which forms in the final scene" (p. 385). In "Crossdressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England," Jean Howard extends Rose's argument as she sees Moll there to "protest injustices"; in an even more recent essay Howard similarly "appropriate[s] Moll for radical purposes" to show "how she lodges a critique of the specific material institutions and circumstances which oppressed women in early modern England."10 Although neither Rose nor Howard sees Moll as totally successful in challenging conventional gender roles, they do both stress Moll's role as a radical, critiquing patriarchal society and calling for greater freedom and equality for women.

Two other critics who have contributed to this debate are Jonathan Dollimore and Stephen Orgel. While Jonathan Dollimore's recent essay, "Subjectivity, Sexuality, and Transgression: The Jacobean Connection," would seem to take greater account of Moll's containment, he too ends up seeing the play as largely subversive. Dollimore disrupts the binary opposition of subversion and containment and suggests that we see the latter as a "potentially productive process."11 Thus "the very process of repressing one kind of subversive knowledge, actually produces another."12 However, I would argue that although this political model may be viable, it is not manifested in The Roaring Girl. The specifics of the play, as I illustrate later, do not ultimately suggest anything beyond Moll's circumscription.13 Stephen Orgel in "The Subtexts of The Roaring Girl," questions the "relation between the construction of gender and its performance."14 Although he recognizes that Moll's portrayal in the play as an "honorable, comic, sentimental peacemaker" is very different from the "dangerous scoundrel" of the documents, he does not identify this as a containment of Moll.15 Rather, Orgel argues that by the end of the play "Moll is acknowledged to be an attractive and powerful figure, both on stage and off it."16

In contrast with these critics, I suggest that the vision of the play is far more reactionary than radical. I argue that The Roaring Girl subtly but thoroughly stages Moll's recuperation. In my view, the play rewrites Moll's subversion through seeming acquiescence (as observed by Chamberlain) into a mere gesture towards subversion which is ultimately recuperated. Although in the early part of the play Moll does appear to challenge and subvert gender and class norms, a close examination of the final acts reveals that she is gradually contained and incorporated into the prevailing social apparatus of the play. Whereas Rose interprets Moll in the final scene as outside the "tolerant new society," I argue that Moll has become rehabilitated into a society which is neither new nor tolerant.

III

Early seventeenth-century English accounts of cross-dressing make clear that a woman dressing up as a man posed a considerable threat. The overt signs of sexuality which previously proclaimed 'femaleness' were now hidden. The challenge to established norms becomes more potent in its very covertness.

Although there is a long history of women taking on male garb, from Joan of Arc to the American jazz musician Billie Tipton,17 evidence suggests that there was a rise in female-to-male cross-dressing during the early seventeenth century.18 Linda Woodbridge notes that female transvestism came to the fore again around 1606 with the publication of "Henry Parrot in The Movs Trap (epigram 24), 1606, and Richard Niccols in The Cuckow (Sig. C2v), 1607. Both satirize women in male attire. From then on, the movement gained momentum, public and literary interest in it climaxing between 1615 and 1620."19

Of course a woman dressing as a man was not always intended as a challenge to patriarchy. In many cases women who adopted male clothing were doing so for a particular practical purpose such as escaping poverty, becoming soldiers to follow their lovers to war, or as erotic stimulation. Indeed, many of the women apprehended at this time were accused of prostitution.20 However, when necessity did not dictate the wearing of male styles, women's adoption of them was particularly threatening. Instances of women wearing male garb to church are of particular interest. My own search of the records of the Archdeaconry of Essex Acts found that a Joan Towler of Downham "came into church in mannes apparell upon the sabath daie in the servyce time."21 There appears to be no practical reason for appearing in church in male clothing, and the fact that Joan Towler appeared in her own parish church would suggest that she was deliberately challenging the authority of the church and the village.22 Joan Towler was not an isolated case. Indeed, the preacher John Williams in A Sermon of Apparell, 1619, rails against women for distracting the congregation by coming into church "halfe male, and halfe female ... lifting vp towards his throne two plaister'd eies and a polled head ... In Sattin (I warrant you) in stead of sackecloath."23

Undoubtedly women's cross-dressing did cause social anxiety. It struck at the base of hierarchies based on gender, and, in the light of preacher Williams's indignation at the women wearing satin rather than sackcloth, it also undermined hierarchies based on rank. Such concern with controlling women who transgressed is not surprising at a time when fear over the "crisis of order" abounded.24 As David Underdown has observed, "[b]etween 1560 and 1640 local court records show an intense concern about unruly women."25 The particular concern with cross-dressing peaked around 1620 with the publication of Hic Mulier and Haec Vir--an attack and counterattack on women's cross-dressing; and, although these were published after The Roaring Girl, we can see some of the same strategies used to demonize women who stepped out of line.

The pamphlet Hic Mulier; or, The Man-Woman: Being a Medicine to Cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine-Feminines of Our Times, 1620, attacks the "masculine-feminine" woman who adopts not only "masculine" dress but also masculine behaviors, "from bold speech, to impudent action ... and will be still most Masculine, most mankind, and most monstrous."26 Such demonizing of the woman is common in the misogynistic diatribes of this time.27 This mechanism of separation is used throughout Hic Mulier. The masculine woman is separated from good women, social standing, and ultimately the whole of humankind.

In order to separate the masculine woman from the "good" woman, the speaker in this pamphlet suggests that the adoption of masculine dress signifies sexual promiscuity: "exchanging the modest attire of the comely Hood, Cawle, Coyfe, handsome Dresse or Kerchiefe, to the cloudy Ruffianly broad-brim'd Hatte, and wanton feather, the modest upper parts of a concealing straight gowne, to the loose, lascivious civil embracement of the French doublet, being all unbutton'd to entice all of one shape to hide deformitie, and extreme short wasted to give a most easy way to every luxurious action."28

Here then, women are accused of dressing in male styles in order to give quick and easy access to their bodies--the dress of the whore. Women really are in a "no-win" situation since the speaker criticizes women for not wearing the "straight gowne" with its "concealing upper parts," while at the same time he condemns the looseness of the French doublet as lascivious. Masculine women are also denied the possibility of social standing for they are all "but ragges of Gentry, torne from better pieces for their foule staines, or else the adulterate branches of rich Stocks."29 The final step expels the masculine woman from the human community. They will be "so much like a man in all things, that they are neither men, nor women, but just good for nothing."30 Here the woman's transgression effectively excludes her from existence; she becomes "nothing."

The British Crown promoted this tactic of separating cross-dressing women from the community. In a letter dated 25 January 1620, Chamberlain reports that King James had instructed the clergy to "inveigh vehemently and bitterly in theyre sermons against the insolencie of our women."31 Less than a month later, on 12 February 1620, Chamberlain's entry identifies yet other channels for controlling the "impudence of women." The authorities recruit the forces of popular culture--players and ballad singers, and in case their influence proves ineffective, "the King threatens to fall upon theyre [the transgressors'] husbands, parents, or frends that have or shold have powre over them and make them pay for yt."32

In summary, the practices of control included separation from, and ostracization by, the community--a curious blend of solitary confinement and public shaming.

IV

Thomas Middleton's and Thomas Dekker's play, The Roaring Girl, addresses these mechanisms of control, but also goes beyond the strategies of separation and shaming to "rehabilitate" the roaring girl--Moll Cutpurse. Rehabilitation seeks to reform and normalize deviant behavior; thus, it not only effaces the original threat, but strengthens and extends the authority structures that the deviant undermined. What appears as Moll's "victory" in Middleton and Dekker's play is subtle recuperation. Moll cannot achieve on the stage the defiance she contrived in real life. In Chamberlain's account of Moll's "penance," she adopts the external signs of conformity in order to subvert and undermine the status quo; she produces her own "stage," on which she fashions herself into a spectacle. But the play inverts that construction. Her stage representation, which on the surface seems empowering, is in fact conforming.33 The play fashions Moll into an eccentric pantomime character--a spirited principal boy--rather than a spokeswoman for a new world order, transforming her into a matchmaker, mediator, and conciliator, all in the service of venery, not radical feminism.

Even the title page of the 1611 quarto of The Roaring Girl illustrates Moll's recuperation when compared with the frontispiece to The Life and Death of Mrs Mary Frith, an anonymous document first published in 1622.34 In the illustration for the play, although wearing full male dress, Moll looks like a woman dressed as a man. The small features and round body proclaim her gender, while the self-conscious pose holding her "props" (the pipe and sword), and the flowers in the hat and shoes make clear her function to amuse. Whereas the later illustration, which appears in a document purporting to be at least part autobiographical, shows a more masculine figure even though we cannot see the breeches. The stance of the figure is more natural and authoritative, the gaze more direct, and the effect more threatening.

Thomas Middleton's address "To The Comic Play Readers" sets out many of the mechanisms that fashion the fictional Moll.35 His extended metaphorical juxtaposition of play making and alterations in apparel introduces a central issue in the play, Moll's adoption of male clothes. But Middleton suggests that such cross-dressing is a disguise: "for Venus being a woman, passes through the play in doublet and breeches; a brave disguise and a safe one" (Address, lines 15-9). Here Moll is seen as playing a role--her "disguise" is "brave" and "safe," rather than subversive. More importantly, her role as Venus presents "Venery and Laughter to The Readers" in a manner that allows Middleton to assure the reader that the play will defuse any potential threat. Moll's eventual reformation is adumbrated by Middleton's belief that "'Tis excellency of a writer to leave things better than he finds 'em" (line 23), in the sense that "worse things ... the world has taxed [Moll] for than has been written of her" (lines 21-33).

But how does Middleton leave things better? For whom is Moll's reformation better? She is no longer deviant and therefore she is better for society; she is better in upholding the status quo. Even before we see the unveiling of Moll's reform, we are dealing with a sanitized Moll. The Prologue assures us that of the many types of Roaring Girls that exist, "our" Roaring Girl is a cut above a "suburb roarer" who "roars at midnight in deep tavern bowls," and neither is she a "civil city-roaring girl, whose pride, feasting, and riding, shakes her husband's state" (lines 23-4). The Prologue presents Moll the fiction--"she flies / With wings more lofty" (line 25)--while making a claim of truth for the play "her life our acts proclaim" (line 30). But such acts do not proclaim Moll's life. They institutionalize her; they reduce her to stereotype; they subtly undercut her political potency. They fashion a socially acceptable Moll contained not only in their words but literally on their stage as Mary Frith (aka Moll Cutpurse) sits on the stage playing her viol.36

Moll's eventual rehabilitation is made more effective by her demonization early in the play. Here some direct comparisons with Hic Mulier are useful. Both Hic Mulier and Moll are identified as the Other--one outside the norm--a deviant. In both cases they reveal a social practice of demonization of women. Both The Roaring Girl and Hic Mulier place the "man woman" against a picture of a "good woman." The speaker in Hic Mulier rejoices that there are still women who "are in the fulnesse of perfection, you that are the crowne of nature's worke, the complements of mens excellencies, and the Seminaries of propagation; you that maintaine the world, support mankinde, and give life to societies; you, that armed with the infinite power of Vertue, are Castles impregnable, Rivers unsailable, Seas immoveable."37

In The Roaring Girl, Neatfoot, Sir Alexander's serving man, takes up similar themes in his opening addresses to Mary Fitzallard, the "good woman." He refers to her as "emblem of fragility" (I.i.3), "fairest tree of generation" (I.i.8). He praises her "chastity" and "modesty." Although we have to recognize the sexual innuendo and ridiculously elaborate diction in Neatfoot's language as a part of the comic tradition, Mary's refusal to be drawn into this establishes her as the model woman, embodying the traditional traits of femininity--modesty and chastity.

After establishing this paradigm of woman, both texts go on to study the Other--the bad woman. Like Hic Mulier, Moll is shown as strange and monstrous. In the first act of the play Sebastian observes:


                                                            There's a wench
Called Moll, mad Moll, or merry Moll; a creature
So strange in quality, a whole city takes
Note of her name and person.

(I.i.99-102)

As Sebastian continues to describe Moll, the "strange" quality turns to something more sinister. He explains that his father believes him to be "bewitched" (I.i.107), and that in loving Moll he follows a "crooked way" (I.i.108). This progression toward Moll's demonization culminates in Sir Alexander's description of Moll:


                                                            It is a thing
One knows not how to name; her birth began
Ere she was all made; 'tis woman more than man,
Man more than woman; and, which to none can hap,
The sun gives two shadows in one shape;
Nay, more, let this strange thing walk, stand, or sit
No blazing star draws more eyes after it.
Sir Davy. A monster! 'Tis some monster.

(I.ii.130-7)

Sir Alex's final line encapsulates the potential problem that Moll poses. The real-life Moll on the public stage of St. Paul's draws all eyes to her, and therein lies her power.

Yet while act I builds up her demonization, act II is something of an anticlimax. Ostensibly concerned with the subplot of the merchants, their wives, the local "gallants," and the sexual subterfuge going on between the latter two groups, act II presents certain female stereotypes. Mistress Gallipot is the unfaithful wife who swindles money from her husband to give to her lover; Mistress Openwork is a scold who controls her husband. In relation to these women, Moll presents us with nothing more shocking than her sharing a pipe with the assembled gallants. She is not even sporting her male apparel; she enters in a frieze jerkin and a black safeguard.38 Moreover, Laxton renders Moll's strength into sexual vivaciousness: "Heart, I would give but too much money to be nibbling with that wench; life, sh'as the spirit of four great parishes, and a voice that will drown all the city. Methinks a brave captain might get all his soldiers upon her" (II.i.194-8).

Even though later Moll clearly rejects Laxton's treatment of her as a sexual object, such a response subverts her potential authority and replaces it with mere spirited caprice. Indeed, Goshawk's remark, "'Tis the maddest fantasticalist girl" (II.i.213), lessens Moll's threat from that of devil to daredevil--from a mad creature to a madcap--enervating her power and reducing her to an acceptable stereotype.

Moll's discussion of marriage with Sebastian (precipitated by his proposal to her) reveals some interesting conflicts in her attitude and role. Although her words appear to reflect a free spirit--a reference to bisexuality--"I have no humour to marry; I love to lie o' both sides o' th' bed myself" (II.ii.38), she still reinforces the dominant view of marriage--"a wife, you know, ought to be obedient, but I fear me I am too headstrong to obey" (II.ii.35-40). Here Moll is fitting into the traditional requirements of marriage rather than seeking to change them. Her use of the word "headstrong" suggests the willfulness of a naughty girl rather than a credible critique of marriage. A few lines later she even seems to be perpetuating the demonizing of women, when she suggests that women trick men into marriage: "if every woman would deal with their suitor so honestly, poor younger brothers would not be so often gulled with old cozening widows, that turn o'er all their wealth in a trust to some kinsman, and make the poor gentleman work hard for a pension" (II.ii.62-7).

Such misogynistic stereotypes are more suited to the mouth of that arch-conservative, Sir Alex. At this point Moll seems to have taken on not only the apparel of men but also many of their prejudices! By the end of act II, Moll moves from being a monster to a matchmaker, from a virago to Venus. Sebastian resolves to get Moll's help in his plan to marry Mary, for


'Twixt lovers' hearts she's fit instrument,
And has the art to help them to their own.
By her advice, for in that craft she's wise,
My love and I may meet, spite all spies.

(II.ii.205-8)

However, before Moll effects the meeting and marriage between Sebastian and Mary, she deals with Laxton. Act III marks the peak of Moll's resistance; subsequently her threat becomes enervated. Moll's confrontation with Laxton in III.i indicates a degree of resistance. She rejects his advances, lectures him on behalf of "fallen women," and eventually physically fights and wounds him. Moll rebuffs Laxton's treatment of her as a whore:


What durst move you Sir
To think me whorish? A name which I'd tear out
From the high German's throat, if it lay ledger there
To dispatch privy slanders against me.

(III.i.93-6)

But, more significantly, she also decries the system represented by Laxton which forces women into prostitution:


In thee I defy all men, their worst hates
And their best flatteries, all their golden witchcrafts,
With which they entangle the poor spirits of fools,
Distressed needle-women and trade-fallen wives;
Fish that must needs bite, or themselves be bitten;
Such hungry things as these may soon be took
With a worm fastened on a golden hook:
Those are the lecher's food, his prey; he watches
For quarrelling wedlocks and poor shifting sisters;
'Tis the best fish he takes.

(III.i.97-106)

Here she suggests that women are forced into prostitution by economic necessity and she locates the "blame" and "slur" of prostitution with male exploiters. Thus Moll opposes the system which usually treats women as sexual enchantresses intent on corrupting men. Undoubtedly Moll shows resistance, but in the context of her eventual rehabilitation this resistance ultimately reinscribes and eventually extends existing power. Moll's final containment and silence adds credibility to the status quo.

Acts IV and V restore harmony through Moll. Her roles as conciliator, matchmaker, and translator demonstrate the extent of her rehabilitation. Act IV presents a depoliticized, domesticated version of earlier threats. Mary Fitzallard adopts a page's clothing, not to demonstrate her commitment to Hic Mulier, but as a disguise to enable her to meet her lover. Thus Moll now devitalizes her main strategy of resistance (the donning of male clothing). She comments to Sebastian, "My tailor fitted her well; How like you his work?" (IV.i.71).

Similarly a good natured banter replaces Moll's earlier pattern of fighting; Sebastian gives the viol to Moll telling her to "end thy quarrel singing" (IV.i.81). And she not only accepts but initiates sexual innuendo in her reply to him: "I'll play my part as well as I can; it shall ne'er be said I came into a gentleman's chamber, and let his instrument hang by the walls" (IV.i.86-8). Such bawdy punning as continues throughout act IV is typical of the double entendre present in much Jacobean drama, but it also undermines some of our earlier impressions of Moll.

Specifically this scene presents the interchange between Moll, Sebastian, and Sir Alex, in which Sir Alex (knowing she is not the "musician" that Sebastian claims) consistently places Moll in the role of whore. The double entendres of "fingering," "the most delicate stroke," and "prick-songs," objectify Moll in sexual terms. These puns and Sir Alex's asides invite the audience to laugh, and through that laughter to recognize that Moll is no threat to order. She is just a "fit instrument," serving at best the plot, and at worst patricians such as Sir Alex.

This scene ends with Sebastian and Moll reveling in their supposed deception of Sebastian's father. But since the audience knows that Sir Alex is not deceived, Moll's final line, "He that can take me for a male musician, I can't choose but make him my instrument, and play upon him" (IV.i.214-6), invites the following inversion: that Moll cannot disguise herself--and that that self is a "fit instrument" to be played upon. Although Moll can defend herself against the direct assault by Laxton, when he thinks her his "fond flexible whore" (III.i.78), she is defenseless against Sir Alex's asides and innuendo which become the subtext that ultimately contains her.

Finally, Moll's role as translator in act V shows her capitulation to the dominant practices of class and gender. Throughout V.i she takes up an appropriately obsequious stand in relation to the gentry. First, she "saves" Sir Beauteous from giving money to Teardrop and Trapdoor, exposing them as "base rogues." And yet only a few lines later she is part of a "canting" duet with Trapdoor that reduces her to thief and whore. Moreover, she adopts this role for the entertainment of the assembled gentry, and at the expense of her own dignity. For example, Trapdoor's song in which he suggests to Moll that they "wap" and "niggle" under the "ruffman's" (i.e., copulate under the hedge) contains Moll in the same way as Sir Alex's asides and innuendo in the previous scene. That is, although Moll is supposedly playing a role ("musician" in the first example, "canting partner" in the latter), the implication is clear. Moll's credibility as an independent force is belittled. Her one show of anger during the duet is dismissed by Sir Beauteous: "This is excellent! One fit more, good Moll" (V.i.219). Her earlier articulate voice is effaced by the argot of thieves and whores.

Moll's songs in the final two acts incorporate her into the group of manageable, controllable, and even lovable rogues. This culminates at the end of her duet with Tearcat when all the others present exclaim: "Fine knaves, i'faith!" (V.i.235). The "omnes" are, of course, the male gentry of the play who can now comfortably incorporate Moll into the London underworld where her idiosyncrasies can be contained.

Moll's final rejection of marriage, unlike her earlier speech on prostitution, is not threatening. Its ambiguous content and riddling form make it a theatrical set piece rather than a serious rejection of marriage. Compared to her earlier critique of a system that forces women into prostitution, which was complex, eloquent, and authoritative, this latter piece--her final speech of any length--is clichéd and seems to be there, for entertainment value alone. Certainly the response it elicits from Sir Alexander, "In troth thou'art a good wench" (line 228), suggests that Moll's rejection of marriage is not to be taken as radical critique.

There has been no radical shift in terms of gender or class: Sir Alex's magnanimity toward Moll is obviously a result of his relief that she will not be his future daughter-in-law. The play ends with the strengthening of the ruling class through the union of Sebastian and Mary. The last words of the play go to Sir Alex as he supposedly makes "amends" to Moll. Those amends are, of course, in the form of angels--an economic gesture by the patrician class to avoid moral investment in the real issues.

By the close of the play, then, Moll's actions, words, and appearance are no longer threatening. Her function of matchmaker allows her to bask in the benevolence of Sir Alexander Wengrave and his cronies. Her incisive speeches have been dulled into comic misrule. And her appearance, her "trademark"--that for which she was best known--has been "redressed." For in her last appearance in the play Moll is dressed in female clothing.39 Her rehabilitation in every sense of the word is complete.40

As the title page presages, the play The Roaring Girl recuperates Moll's defiance. She is reinvented to become a mere translator rather than an interpreter; a singer harmonizing inequalities rather than a roarer protesting them; and finally a riddling rhymster rather than an articulate spokeswoman. By the end of the play Moll has been recuperated into the network of social relations. She can now be dismissed as a "good wench" (V.ii.225)--a description that subsumes Moll into existing class and gender hierarchies and so ensures her rehabilitation into the existing patriarchy.41

Notes

1Norman Egbert McClure, ed., The Letters of John Chamberlain, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1939), p. 334.

2As McClure tells us, this was Mary, wife of the seventh earl of Shrewsbury. She was imprisoned for acquiescing in the marriage of her niece, the Lady Arabella Stuart (p. 334 n. 13).

3McClure, p. 334.

4Mark Eccles, "Mary Frith, The Roaring Girl," N&Q; n.s. 32, 1 (March 1985): 65-6.

5Public Records Office, London, Calendar of Assize Records, Surrey Indictments, James I. Southwark Assizes, 26 March 1610 (#336).

6Here Chamberlain impugns Moll sexually by calling her a "notorious baggage" (a common epithet for a whore). Chamberlain's choice of language reveals the connection, at least in the minds of many commentators of the time, between female cross-dressing and female promiscuity.

7Christopher Hibbert, The Roots of Evil: A Social History of Crime and Punishment (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1963), p. 29.

8Early criticism of the play concentrated on Moll's character. T. S. Eliot in Elizabethan Essays (New York: Haskell House, 1964) saw Moll as embodying a "free and noble womanhood" (p. 100). The dating and stage history of the play are dealt with in two articles by P. A. Mulholland: "The Date of The Roaring Girl," RES n.s. 28, 109 (February 1977): 18-31; and "Let her roar again: The Roaring Girl Revived," RORD 18 (1985): 15-27. Patrick Cheney, in "Moll Cutpurse as Hermaphrodite in Dekker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl," Ren&R; n.s. 7, 2 (May 1983): 120-34, sees Moll as a traditional Renaissance hermaphrodite figure, "a supreme symbol of two souls becoming one," who brings about a society renewed by married love (p. 124). Viviana Comensoli, in "Play-making, Domestic Conduct, and the Multiple Plot in The Roaring Girl," SEL 27, 2 (Spring 1987): 249-66, analyzes the multiple plot of the play to show that "Moll's misogamy and the citizens' domestic conflicts counterpoint the Sebastian-Mary action" indicating the central concern of the play--"the degeneration of marriage and the Family" (p. 251).

9Mary Beth Rose, "Women in Men's Clothing: Apparel and Social Stability in The Roaring Girl," ELR 14, 3 (Autumn 1984): 367-91. Subsequent references will appear parenthetically in the text.

10Jean E. Howard, "Crossdressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England," SQ 39, 4 (Winter 1988): 418-40, 436; and "Sex and Social Conflict: The Erotics of The Roaring Girl," in Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, ed. Susan Zimmerman (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 170-90, 180. Deborah Jacobs in "Critical Imperialism and Renaissance Drama: The Case of The Roaring Girl," in Feminism, Bakhtin, and the Dialogic, ed. Dale M. Bauer and Susan Jaret McKinstry (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1991), criticizes such "feminist" readings for their transhistorical assumptions and suggests that "we have to admit to a past in which gender might be less central or radically different" (p. 76). Although caution is needed when using anachronistic terms, it is still necessary and indeed enlightening to talk about The Roaring Girl as challenging and being recuperated by patriarchal authority, since even a brief examination of sermons, ballads, church records, and polemics of the time makes clear the subordination of women and the attendant controls and mechanisms designed to ensure its continuation.

11Jonathan Dollimore, "Subjectivity, Sexuality, and Transgression: The Jacobean Connection," RenD n.s. 17 (1986): 53-81, 71.

12Dollimore, p. 72.

13In his essay Dollimore does not illustrate how this "potentially productive process" works in The Roaring Girl (p. 71), but rather turns to Fletcher's Love's Cure. Marjorie Garber, in "The Logic of the Transvestite," in Staging the Renaissance, ed. David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 221-34, also disrupts "materialist and historicist feminist" readings which view the play as about "the economic injustices of the sex gender system." Garber recognizes the "anxiety about sexuality" present in the play, but locates it with the "sexual inadequacies of men" (p. 221). Moll, through constant references to castration, emasculation, and penises, becomes "phallicized" (p. 227).

14Stephen Orgel, "The Subtexts of The Roaring Girl," in Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, pp. 12-26, 13.

15Orgel, p. 22.

16Orgel, p. 25.

17In January 1989, when Billie Tipton died, it was revealed that "he" was a woman. Tipton's wife, Kitty Oakes, explained that Tipton thought becoming a man was the only way to join a swing band in the 1930s.

18Rudolf M. Dekker and Lotte C. van de Pol, in The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe (London: Macmillan, 1989), document 119 "women living as men" in the Netherlands between 1550 and 1839.

19Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984), p. 141.

20Jean E. Howard in "Crossdressing" quotes research by R. Mark Benbow of records of the Repertories of the Alderman's Court in the London City Record Office and from the Bridewell Court Minute Books between 1565 and 1605. These show that many of the women apprehended were accused of prostitution (p. 420).

21Public Records Office, Chelmsford, Essex D/AEA 17 (1596) folio 149.

22David Underdown, in Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England, 1603-1660 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), talks about the importance of the parish as an institution: "The parish church was automatically the site of the formal gatherings in which the unity of the village and its hierarchical order were symbolically affirmed" (p. 14). Acts such as Joan Towler's may also be seen in relation to other instances of female resistance to church practices such as "churching," in which new mothers participated in a ritual "cleansing" before they could take communion again. Phyllis Mack, in her study of female prophets, Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1992), gives details of such resistance, pp. 36, 53.

23Quoted in Woodbridge, pp. 142-3.

24For a full discussion on order and disorder in the early seventeenth century, see Underdown.

25Underdown, p. 39.

26Hic Mulier; or, The Man-Woman: Being a Medicine to Cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine-Feminines of Our Times, 1620 (Exeter, England: Rota Press, 1973), sig. A3.

27Joseph Swetnam's The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women, 1615, repeated the traditional arguments about women's flawed natures and dangerous tongues.

28Hic Mulier, sigs. A4r-A4v.

29Hic Mulier, sig. B1.

30Hic Mulier, sig. B2.

31Chamberlain, p. 286.

32Chamberlain, p. 289.

33On this point I disagree with Jean E. Howard, who suggests in "Cross-dressing" that "one of the most transgressive acts the real Moll Frith performed was to sit, in her masculine attire, on the stage of the Fortune and to sing a song upon the lute" (p. 440). In my view, by so doing Moll is validating her own recuperation. Her presence on the stage is a visible containment--an "emasculation"--of her transgression.

34The Life and Death of Mrs Mary Frith, Commonly called Moll Cutpurse, ed. Randall S. Nakayama (1662; rprt. New York and London: Garland, 1993). This work is divided into three parts: the preface, an introduction relating Moll's early life, and a third section entitled "Moll Frith's Diary." The three animals in the illustration draw on specific elements of seventeenth-century iconography. An initial reading could see the monkey as Lust, the lion as Masculine Strength, and the parrot as Imitation.

35The Roaring Girl in Drama in the English Renaissance II, The Stuart Period, ed. Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin (New York and London: Macmillan, 1976). All references to the play are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text by act, scene, and line numbers.

36For a full account of Moll's appearance on the stage at the Fortune Theater see Mulholland, "The Date of The Roaring Girl."

37Hic Mulier, sigs. A3r-A3v.

38Although a jerkin is a male garment usually worn over a doublet, on the important part, i.e., her lower half, she is wearing a petticoat.

39At the beginning of V.ii, Moll enters dressed as a man. She then disappears and comes back on "masked," but she must now be in female garb for Sir Alexander Wengrave to believe that she is Sebastian's bride.

40According to the OED, the stem "habilitate" from the Latin habilitare can mean to establish character or reputation as well as to fit or to clothe.

41I am grateful to Laura Knoppers for her helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this essay.

Source: Jane Baston, "Rehabilitating Moll's Subversion in The Roaring Girl," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 37, No. 2, Spring 1997, pp. 317-35.




   
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