Scholarship presentation on Middleton and Dekker`s The Roaring Girl

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THE ROARING GIRL
BY THOMAS MIDDLETON AND
THOMAS DEKKER
A Scholarship Presentation by Rachel Lampson and
John Williams
Biography of Mary Firth (1584 – 26 July 1659)
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Her name was first referenced on 7 August, 1610 in
John Day’s lost Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the
Banckside (Mulholland13).
Age was thought to be 25 or 26 in 1611, when the
play was thought to be first performed (13).
Brought before The Roaring Girl performance for a
critical review, visual comparison, and verbal
commentary of the performance at the Fortune Theatre
(Eastwood16).
On January 27, 1612 she was brought before the
Consistory Court of London where she confessed(16).
The Date of The Roaring Girl
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Mulholland sets “the likely date of performance” around 1611, as apposed to previous suggestions of a
slightly earlier date range (Mulholland 18)
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The Roaring Girl may have been a publicity stunt of sorts; Mary Frith would have benefited from public
support during her lengthy ordeals with the courts and both Dekker and Middleton “were experiencing
financial difficulties about the years 1611-12” (19)
The court record referenced earlier (the actual date of which is 27 January 1611/12) was first drawn upon
in 1921by F.W.X. Fincham; found in the Consistory of London Correction Book
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Mulholland argues that Fincham incorrectly dated the record as having been written in1605 and his findings were later
used “as evidence for a performance in 1604-5” (20)
Mary Frith’s presence at performances of The Roaring Girl, as well as her possible participation in them,
bears important insights into when and why she was called to confess in court and must be taken into careful
consideration alongside what remains of the court record itself
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He asserts that these earlier arguments are unsubstantiated considering they “are based chiefly on the erroneous dating
of a court record concerning the real-life Roaring Girl, Mary Frith” (18)
Mulholland writes that “the epilogue’s pledge of an occasion allowing the Roaring Girl to give ‘larger recompence’ may
have been made with…a jig, song, or dance in mind. Moll may accordingly have taken part in a diversion of this nature,
perhaps as an after-piece to a performance of The Roaring Girl” (22)
Lastly, historical topical allusions found within the play centering on the year 1611both further the argument
for a later performance date and suggest that “the play was performed soon after it was written.”
Mulholland states that, given lack of reference to Mary Firth’s ‘legal difficulties,’ it is unlikely that these
passages were simply added later (26).
Rehabilitating Moll’s Subversion
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Existing records indicate that Mary Frith was charged for a wide range of crimes, among them thieving and
the disruption to social order that her choice of attire was thought to represent. Baston argues that what the
courts were truly fascinated by (as indicated by their records) was her adoption of “at least the external
signs of conformity” (Baston 318).
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In the society of 17th century England, women like Mary Frith who represented such a strong divergence
from the prevailing patriarchal structure would have been publically shamed and, thereby, suppressed
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“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” (318)
Baston argues that The Roaring Girl seeks to “reform” and “normalize” Moll’s behavior, which both undermines any threat
she represents and reinforces the overarching power structures being reacted against (323)
“Her stage representation, which on the surface seems empowering, is in fact conforming. 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” (323)
Baston argues that an arc exists within the play in which Moll goes from being, in effect, demonized to
being seen as “playing a role” that, while “brave” and playful, has been safely reconstructed within the
existing societal framework (323)
Moll’s rejection of the traditional female emphasis on marriage is permitted as the play draws to a close
but, unlike her earlier “critique of a system that forces women into prostitution, which was complex, eloquent,
and authoritative,” it reeks of a certain artificiality that was meant only for the audience’s enjoyment (331)
By the end of The Roaring Girl, existing structures of class and gender appear to have been left unscathed;
the marriage of Sebastian and Mary, as well as Sir Alexander’s light-hearted dismissal of Moll as a
possible daughter-in-law, strengthens the prominence of “the ruling class” (331-2)
The Hermaphroditically Attired Heroine
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“Moll cutpurse dramatically demonstrates
the insufficiency of gender both in The
Roaring Girl and in her life” (Krantz5).
“The play… features a
hermaphroditically attired heroine
drastically unlike romanticized disguisedas-a-boy female leads of romantic
comedy” (5).
“Moll successfully demonstrates the flaws
in the system of exchange that markets
women; for Howard, Moll represents a
significant reversal of authority in a play
in which ‘the resistance to patriarchy and
its marriage customs is clear and
sweeping” (7).
“the transvestite female is, after all,
simply a female who wants the
independence and/or privileges of the
male” (7).
The Hermaphroditically Attired Heroine (Cont.)
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“To the characters in the play, she is sometimes female, her
sexuality determined by the polarizing discourse which
places her at either extreme on the spectrum of
heterosexuality- whore or virgin” (8).
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The relation and visual metaphor between Twelfth Night and The
Roaring Girl
Laxton and Mrs. Gallipots view on Moll
Monster insult
“What I’m suggesting is that they (the authors) used a
persuasive intellectual symbol- the hermaphroditic ideal- to
avoid socio-sexual issues that could not be resolved
positively and without irony in terms of city comedy and had
no place in romantic comedy” (13).
Tobacco and the Representation of Mary Frith
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Rustici draws on several illustrations of Moll, each
featuring a tobacco pipe (in varying degrees of
prominence) as central to the character’s identity as a
cross-dresser; tobacco, the effects of which were not
fully understood during this time, was viewed as foreign
and exotic (Rustici 159)
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He argues that “in the eyes of tobacco’s detractors, Moll’s
smoldering pipe, like her transvestite costume, links her to
foreign sources of individual and social disorder. On the
other hand, according to tobacco's proponents, smoking
might instill the strength of body and will needed to sustain
Moll’s extraordinarily autonomous lifestyle” (163).
Tobacco, therefore served as a sort of link that was
used to connect cross-dressing with the barbaric customs
of ‘inferior’ foreign cultures; it’s origins, by extension,
were speculated upon in great length by Jacobean
moralists (165)
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Rustici writes that “according to James I and like-minded
writers, Englishmen who embraced such foreign customs and
commodities violated properly hierarchical relations
between cultures, invited social turmoil, and ultimately
imperiled the state” (167-8).
Tobacco and the Representation of Mary Frith (Cont.)
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Both opposition and support for the use of tobacco rested on a “humoral interpretation” of tobacco’s effects
on one’s health established in 1571 by Nicolas Monardes, a Spanish physician; concerning the physical
makeup of tobacco, Monardes writes that it’s “complexion is hot and drie...in any maner of griefe that is in
the bodie or any parte therof it healpeth, beyng of a cold cause” (172).
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Smoking’s popularity can thus be attributed to the mistaken belief that the “hot, dry fumes” of tobacco would alleviate
the brain’s natural cold and wet state. The humor theory directly attributes the dominance of “cold and moist humors” in
women’s bodies to their “imperfect” and “incomplete” state in comparison to men (172).
The strong ties between physiology and psychology that existed in 17th century thought would explain the
commonly held belief that Moll’s smoking of tobacco could be a direct cause of her “manly” and
“headstrong” behavior, which Moll proves to be non-dependent on her masculine attire
The autonomy Moll is able to achieve can also be discussed on a more physiological level. Specifically,
“nicotine’s reputation as an appetite suppressant” would have aided Moll in her assertion that hunger is
“both source and sign of women’s vulnerability” (175). This obviously, goes beyond the need for food to
symbolize an almost lecherous desire for material things that frequently characterized women during this
time (175).
Rustici, in closing, argues that Moll’s possession of a phallic symbol (she is frequently depicted with both a
pipe and sword) effectively undermines the “course joking” of Laxston, whose sexual impotency is alluded to
in his reliance on Moll to give him a pipe. Tobacco, furthermore, was thought to explain Moll’s level of selfrestraint because she is able to overcome the “carnal appetites” suggested through the dialogue of several
of the play’s male characters (178).
Counterfeits, Commodities, and The Roaring Girl
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“Rather than focusing on the plight of the young lovers, the play focuses instead on attempts to
utilize, obtain, or entrap Moll. At the same time that the marriage plot recedes, the merchant/
gallant plots come into the foreground and the play negotiates social relations, and especially
relations of desire, through the circulation of money” (Forman1531).
“The process of abstraction fundamental to exchange eliminates difference among
commodities- They are all created equals- and are subject to substitution. As a result of this
process, not only is the object’s materiality threatened with replacement by an abstract notion
of value, but also the human relations of both production and exchange become mystified”
(1534).
“As in exchanges based on financial credit, Laxton’s transactions are no longer immediate, but
deferred as a result, even the ultimate object of his desire is not clear” (1535).
“Laxton will compensate for his being without land and sexual potency by attempting to
acquire both money and women… Money as profit replaces the possession of women and
things as object of desire” (1536).
“The ‘economy’ of this play is driven not by romantic desire and its deferrals, but by the
circulation of commodities and the particularly the counterfeits with which that circulation is
associated” (1551).
Works Cited
Baston, Jane. “Rehabilitating Moll’s Subversion in The Roaring Girl.” Studies in English
Literature 37.2 (1997): 317-335. JSTOR. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.
Dekker, Thomas and Thomas Middleton. The Roaring Girl. Ed. Paul A. Mulholland. New
York: Manchester UP, 1987. Print.
Eastwood, Adrienne L. “Controversy and the Single Woman in “The Maid’s Tragedy”
and “The Roaring Girl.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 58.2
(2004): 7-27. JSTOR. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.
Forman, Valerie. “Marked Angels: Counterfeits, Commodities, and The Roaring Girl.”
Renaissance Quarterly 54 (2001): 1531-1560. MLA. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.
Krantz, Susan E. “The Sexual Identities of Moll Cutpurse in Dekker and Middleton’s The
Roaring Girl and in London.” Renaissance and Reformation XIX.1 (1995): 5-20.
JSTOR. 28 Apr. 2014.
Mulholland, P.A. “The Date of The Roaring Girl.” The Review of English Studies 28.109
(1977): 18-31. JSTOR. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
Rustici, Craig. “The Smoking Girl: Tobacco and the Representation of Mary Frith.”
Studies in Philology 96.2 (1999): 159-179. JSTOR. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.
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