Tim Reinke-Williams - University of Warwick

‘Dainty Ducks’ and ‘Naked Frogs’: Desiring Female
Honour in the Plays of Thomas Heywood
Women in early modern England were praised in many ways. The servile
clown in The Captives speaks of their ‘Beauty, virtue, purity, sincerity,
softness, sweetness, innocence and chastity’.1 Chartley, the prodigal son in
The Wise-woman of Hogsdon, describes the woman he was betrothed to prior to
the play as ‘a civil maid’.2 Susan, the sister of Sir Charles in A Woman Killed
with Kindness, talks of her honour as being ‘as spotless as the moon’, and ‘as
dear and precious / As my redemption.’3 Concern about female behaviour
stemmed from male anxieties that women were incapable of maintaining
sexual loyalty. In The Captives Raphael comments that an honourable
woman is a miracle, and that ‘Were’t common in the sex, / ’Twould not
appear to me so admirable’ (C I.1.84-5). Luce in The Wise-woman of Hogsdon
is suspicious of male suitors seeking ‘the shipwrack of mine honour’; her
suitor Chartley dismisses honour as ‘another word to flap in a man’s mouth’,
of no importance save to the ‘Right Worshipful’ (WWH I.2.83, 84, 86). He
notes ‘falling-sickness in a woman is dangerous’ but ‘in a man, it were
nothing’, reiterating the message of the double standard that has caused
historians to equate female honour with sexual fidelity and chastity (WWH
IV.2.67-68). Yet this was merely the bedrock on which women’s
reputations were based. Viewing drama allowed early modern women to
construct identities for themselves instead of being defined as a ‘whore’ or
‘goddess’. Thomas Heywood argued that plays inculcated moral virtue and
respect for authority, whilst critics denounced them as lies, vanity, fable and
deceit. Drawing on several narrative and discursive conventions, and with
London audiences comprising both men and women, the theatre offered a
meeting place for diverse social groups, producing new ideological positions
and subjectivities relating to gender. Female theatregoers became ‘desiring
Thomas Heywood, The Captives, or The Lost Recovered (1624), Act III, Scene 2, lines 14-15
in Paul Merchant (ed.), Thomas Heywood: Three Marriage Plays (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 1996), p. 223. Henceforward C III.2.14-15.
Thomas Heywood, The Wise-woman of Hogsdon (London, 1638) Act V, Scene 6, line 70 in
Thomas Heywood: Three Marriage Plays, p. 99. Henceforward WWH V.6.70.
Thomas Heywood, A Woman Killed with Kindness (London, 1607), Scene 14, lines 26-27,
53-54, in A Woman Killed with Kindness, ed. Brian Scobie (London: Black, 1991), pp. 73-74.
Henceforward WKK 14.26-27, 53-54.
subjects’ using images of femininity displayed on the stage to negotiate and
fashion personal notions of correct behaviour.4
Perceiving women as domestic individuals lacking occupations has
restricted historians’ notions of female virtue - honour being perceived as
existing only in a public sphere. Yet women’s household roles gave them a
sense of self-worth, social identity and neighbourhood status, whilst
disruption within the home brought dishonour.5 Broken windows could
signify whoredom: house and female body both open and available.6 In The
Captives Treadway warns Raphael that Palestra’s beauty and person are of no
consequence and that he ought to ‘Consider but the place’ where she
resides: ‘A house of prostitution / And common brothelry’ (C I.1.7, 8-9).
Although a ‘fair and seeming saint, / … disposed well, and in her own
condition / Of promising goodness’, Palestra lives in:
… the seminar
Of all libidinous actions, spectres, sights
Even in the open market where sin’s sold,
Where lust and all uncleanness are commerced
As freely as commodities are vended …
Daily and hourly still solicited
By gallants of all nations, all degrees,
Almost all ages, even from upright youth
To the stooping and decrepit - (C I.1.58-62, 66-69)
She will thus be forced or corrupted by ‘The baseness of the person under
whom / She lives oppressed’ and ‘the dissolute crew with which she’s
housed, / Each night, each day, persuading both with tongue / And lewd
example’ to prostitute herself (C I.1.71-72, 76-78). However Raphael
believes her honour shines ‘Like to a rich and precious jewel lost / Found
shining on a dunghill’, her virtue guarding the brothel ‘from blastings and
heaven’s thunder’ (C I.1.12-13, 11). In such an environment female honour,
depicted as a precious stone, is ‘No way disparaged of his former worth /
Nor bated of his glory’ (C I.1.14-15). The flames ‘Of lust and black
temptation’ accentuate the virtue of this honest girl, making it ‘Like gold
repured and tried’ (C I.1.16-17). By cohabiting with criminals and
prostitutes but acting virtuously, Raphael believes that Palestra emerges with
greater honour (C I.1.3-11).
Women were protective of their domestic environments. Old Lionel is
prevented from entering the house his son has allegedly purchased because
it is ‘full of women … the rooms may lie unhandsome, and maids stand
Jean E. Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England (London: Routledge,
1994), pp. 4-15, 70, 79.
G. Walker, ‘Expanding the Boundaries of Female Honour in Early Modern England’ in
Transactions of The Royal Historical Society, 6.6 (1996), pp. 236-38.
Laura Gowing, ‘Language, Power and the Law: Women’s Slander Litigation in Early
Modern London’ in Jenny Kermode and G. Walker (eds.), Women, Crime and the Courts in
Early Modern England (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 32.
much on their cleanliness and housewifery’.7 Ashburn’s wife tolerates his
‘haunts abroad, where there are marts / And places of lewd brothelry’, but
does not allow him to make their ‘private house a stews’ (C IV.1.109-10,
Hospitality was part of housewifery, but often lead to conflict
between spouses, acts of charity having sexual undertones.8 Ashburn’s
charity to Palestra and Scribonia, out of pity in remembrance of his long-lost
child, angers his wife, who regards his actions as bringing shame rather than
the honour the arrival of a child would have elicited. Upon discovering that
Palestra is her daughter she undergoes a ‘Strange alteration’, ‘ her scolding
… turned to pity; spleen and malice / To mercy and compassion’, assuming
the roles of dutiful hostess and mother, ordering servants to ‘Make fires …
wholesome broths, / Make warm the bed and see the sheets well aired’ (C
IV.1.355, 356-57, 342-43). Luce is expected to entertain Chartley at the
Wise-woman’s house where hospitality carries a specific meaning for male
visitors (WWH V.6.5-6). Frankford requests that Anne use Wendoll with all
‘loving’st courtesy’; Anne offers to receive him as ‘far as modesty may well
extend’, although her final relations with him proved very different (WKK
If women disliked men invading their domestic space they could
themselves be equally uncomfortable outside the household. Luce
conforms to conduct book notions of the good woman and is unhappy
sitting ‘publicly’ at her father’s shop door. She dislikes being on display,
despite being engaged in household work, and knows that her father trusts
her ‘to the open view of all’ due to her chaste thoughts that need ‘the awe /
Of no strict overseer’ (WWH I.2.3-11).9 Women sitting in doorways were
tolerated, doorsteps carrying symbolic weight as boundaries of households,
locations of female sociability and places of work for women.10 A young girl
‘walking to take the air of the fields’ (WWH II.2.18) was a different matter
as the fields were associated with illicit sex. The Wise-woman refers to
‘kitchen-maids, and chamber-maids, and sometimes good men’s daughters’
who travel to her house in London to give birth (WWH III.1.20-24).11
Remaining inside could be damaging to a woman’s reputation as well if
suspicions were raised regarding who visited her. Luce fears ‘a public
scandal’ by Chartley ‘oft frequenting to my chamber’ (WWH I.2.159-60).
Thomas Heywood, The English Traveller (London, 1633) Act III, Scene 2, lines 121-24 in
Thomas Heywood: Three Marriage Plays, p. 151. Henceforward ET III.2.121-24.
Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 249-51.
Howard, Stage and Social Struggle, p. 90.
Laura Gowing, ‘“The Freedom of the Streets”: Women and Social Space 1560 – 1640’
in P. Griffiths and M. S. R. Jenner (eds.), Londinopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social
History of Early Modern London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p. 137.
Gowing, ‘The Freedom of the Streets’, pp. 144-45.
Theoretically walls and doors safeguarded women’s reputations, but they
could also facilitate suspicions of dishonour: Sir Harry’s humorous
comment about a ‘pretty wench, and a close chamber too’ suggesting that
privacy was associated with illicit sex (WWH V.4.2-3).12
Time affected women’s honour as well. Illicit sexual behaviour was
associated with darkness. Wendoll promises to ‘be secret … close as night’,
doing nothing to betray ‘That act of night’ committed with Anne (WKK
6.146, 149). Raphael is ‘loath / In th’eye of day to man her [Palestra]
through the streets’ (C I.1.136-37). Women on the streets were identified
with sexual disorder: explaining her presence, even when accompanied by a
man, would have been difficult.13
‘Nightwalking’ was becoming
synonymous in early seventeenth-century London legal discourse with
prostitution, female sexuality, petty crime and women outside male control
(although ‘daywalking’ was also an offence).14 The Wise-woman and the
country Luce speak of prostitutes abroad at night who abandon their
illegitimate children at the doors of rich citizens before returning to work,
reinforcing notions in popular literature of deceitful London whores
gadding about the streets tempting men (WWH III.1.15-18, 30-32).15
By contrast, honourable women were loath to be separated from
family and kin. Frankford punishes Anne by charging her never:
To see me, or to meet me, or to send
By word, or writing, gift or otherwise
To move me, by thyself, or by thy friends,
Nor challenge any part in my two children. (WKK 13.176-79)
Susan was moved to tears at the thought of spending even a week without
her brother, preferring to live miserably as long as he was safe (WKK 3.7987). Lineage and family background gained and lost social credit for
women. Sir Charles describes Anne Frankford as the eldest daughter of
beauty and perfection: ‘her birth / Is noble, and her education such / As
might become the daughter of a prince’ (WKK 1.16-18); Frankford notes
that she is ‘well born, descended nobly’ (WKK 8.99). Yet emphasis placed
on parentage varied. Treadway is keen to know about Blanda’s birth, but
Raphael is less concerned, claiming:
… such sweet feature, goodness, modesty,
Such gentleness, such virtue, cannot be
Derived from base and obscure parentage. (C I.1.20-22)
Notions of motherhood were similarly ambiguous. Luce’s deceased
mother was ‘a kind wife and a good nurse’ and her widower hopes she is in
Gowing, ‘The Freedom of the Streets’, p. 134.
Gowing, ‘The Freedom of the Streets’, pp. 131, 140.
P. Griffiths, ‘Meanings of Nightwalking in Early Modern England’ in The Seventeenth
Century 13.2 (Autumn 1998): 212-23; Gowing, ‘Language, Power and the Law’, p. 29.
Gowing, ‘The Freedom of the Streets’, pp. 132, 143; Griffiths, ‘Meanings of
Nightwalking’, pp. 220-21.
heaven (WWH III.1.121-26). Frankford tells Sir Charles that Susan ‘Hath to
her dower her mother’s modesty’ (WKK 1.54). Yet mothers were not
universally virtuous. In her disgrace Anne wishes her children never ‘come
to speak / To name the name of mother’, professing love by disassociating
them from her actions (WKK 16.87-88). Frankford forbids Anne access to
her children after banishing her. The forgiveness he offers at her deathbed
includes the restoration of her status as wife and mother (WKK 17.115-16).
Bawds were also nicknamed ‘mother’, teaching young women the ways of
whoredom instead of inculcating virtue (ET I.2.172). London women were
even accused of selling their daughters’ maidenheads.16
Displaying female honour involved the presentation of the body in
correct attire and proficiency in civil entertainment skills. Anne Frankford
and Susan Mountford receive praise for their musical accomplishments and
self-decoration. Sir Charles describes Anne as:
So qualified, and with such ornaments
Both of the mind and body …
Her own tongue speaks all tongues, and her own hand
Can teach all strings to speak in their best grace,
From the shrill treble to the honest base. (WKK 1.15-16, 19-21)
Her husband believes her to be ‘a fair, a chaste, and loving wife, /
Perfection all, all truth, all ornament’ (WKK 4.11-12):
Virtuous her education, her repute
Is in the general voice of all the country
Honest and fair, her carriage, her demeanour
In all her actions that concern the love
To me, her husband, modest, chaste and godly. (WKK 8.100-04)
Her musical ability makes ‘this melancholy wood … Speak sweetly many a
note’ making ‘pleasant strange airs’ with ‘her own ravishing voice’ (WKK
15.18-20, 22, 21). Susan’s servant Sandy remembers his mistress ‘tricked up
in jewels’, singing well and playing ‘sweetly on the flute’ before her brother’s
financial ruin. Bereft of such accoutrements, he informs Susan ‘now I
neither know you nor your suit’ (WKK 9.23-25). Yet Sir Charles praises his
sister’s ‘silver brow, / That never tasted a rough winter’s blast / Without a
mask’ that now has to ‘Defy cold winter and his storms outface’ (WKK 7.4043). Young Geraldine describes Wincott’s virtuous wife as ‘both fair and
full of all accomplishments’ (ET I.1.100-01). Yet femininity was a
potentially deceptive performance. The Wise-woman tells the country Luce,
a boy actor playing a woman disguised as a boy, that she should ‘be tired like
a woman … make a curtsy, take small strides, simper and seem modest’ and
that she had ‘a woman’s voice already’ (WWH II.2.169-71).
Concern existed that social distinctions would be eroded by
indiscriminate acquisition of fine clothing, accentuated by the
commercialisation of early modern London culture. This concern is
Gowing, ‘Language, Power and the Law’, p. 35.
reflected in Heywood’s work by references to beaver pelts, velvet gowns and
shopping arenas such as Cheapside and the Exchange (WWH III.3.162-64,
182-83). Women’s dress was condemned as too mannish, sumptuous or
exotic, aiding female self-transformation along with cosmetics.
Theatregoing was partly condemned for allowing the display of ornate attire
and social stratification through the display of wealth.17 By contrast, those
who bought second-hand clothing sold by female street vendors allegedly
risked infection.18 If clothing defined honour it was unreliable; dressing
luxuriously signified whoredom.19
Discovering his wife’s infidelity,
Frankford seeks an explanation, asking:
… Was it for want
Thou playedst the strumpet? Wast thou not supplied
With every pleasure, fashion and new toy,
Nay even beyond my calling? (WKK 13.108-111)
He demands that she be:
… ready in thy best attire,
Take with thee all thy gowns, all thy apparel;
Leave nothing that did ever call thee mistress,
Or by whose sight being left here in the house
I may remember such a woman by. (WKK 13.159-63)
Whores had men and clothing in abundance. Scapha notes:
To affect one and despise all other becomes the precise matron, not the
prostitute; the loyal wife, not the loose wanton. (ET I.2.163-65)
Whores were to:
… learn to sail with all winds, defend all blows, make music with all
strings, know all the ways to the wood, and, like a good travelling
hackney, learn to drink of all waters. (ET I.2.166-68)
Relying on one man was:
A jest! Thou may’st as well tie thyself to one gown; and what fool
but will change with the fashion? Yes, do, confine thyself to one
garment and use no variety, and see how soon it will rot and turn
to rags. (ET I.2.186-89)
Young Lionel punishes Scapha by confining her to one garment she is to
wear until it becomes rotten and ragged, as he perceives her to be (ET
I.2.232-36). Neither was beauty a sign of virtue. Chartley notes that it is
common ‘in this age to go for a maid, and be none’, claiming that Luce goes
‘for a maid, as others do’ (WWH I.2.155-56; I.1.106). Scapha teaches her
pupil to:
… ask, how your sweet carriage and court behaviour doth best
grace you. For lovers regard not so much the outward habit as
that which the garment covers. (ET I.2.131-33)
Raphael describes the prostitutes accompanying Mildew as:
… two handsome girls,
Both young, both fair, but th’one unparalleled,
Howard, Stage and Social Struggle, pp. 33, 36-37, 75.
Gowing, ‘The Freedom of the Streets’, p. 142.
Gowing, ‘Language, Power and the Law’, p. 29.
Neither of which by computation
Hath told so high as twenty. (C I.3.95-98)
The Clown similarly describes them as ‘two handsome, sweet, smug-faced
lasses’. One of the fishermen responds that ‘for such creatures you’d best
search the stews / I’th city; this our village yields none such’ (C II.2.42-45).
The dehumanisation of dishonourable women and the deceptive nature of
clothing are evident in Godfrey’s description of the prostitutes struggling to
escape their sinking ship.
… Dainty ducks!
Would they could swim as ducks can! Look how they sprawl
And cast their legs abroad like naked frogs!
See how they spread their arms and strive for life!
Still their coats bear them up, keep them aloft,
The modest air not willing to discover
That which the bawdy wares shame not below
Rudely to kiss and handle. (C I.3.131-38)
Yet women could be compared to animals affectionately. Chartley describes
Luce as ‘this pretty little ape’s face’ and ‘a fair, sweet, modest rogue’ with:
…a brow bewitching, eyes ravishing, and a tongue enchanting.
And indeed she hath no fault in the world but one, and that is,
she is honest. (WWH I.1.123-25)
Bodies were read as corporeal texts, signifying the moral values of the
individual. Friar John is besotted with the ‘sweet smiles’ of Lady d’Averne
(C I.2.130). Godfrey describes Palestra and Scribonia as ‘Fair, fresh and
clean … not like gipsy umbered’ (C II.3.82). Mildew is disgusted by Palestra
blushing at the behaviour of his whores, ‘As if ashamed of what they late
had done / Or are about to do’ (C I.1.118-19). When compelled by ‘rude
necessity’ to beg, Scribonia will ‘not do’t basely’ but requests charity with
music and song; Palestra agrees, noting ‘that which others do with
impudence / Let us in shame and blushes’ (C II.1.63, 64, 71-72). Anne asks
Acton and Sir Charles if they could read her fault within her cheek (WKK
17.55-57). Whores were ‘brazen-faced’, the ‘whore’s mark’ being a slit
nose.20 Anne believes that ‘Women that fall not quite bereft of grace /
Have their offences noted in their face’ (WKK 6.155-56). When her adultery
is discovered she begs her husband:
… mark not my face
Nor hack me with your sword, but let me go
Perfect and undeformed to my tomb. (WKK 13.99-101)
Wincott’s wife is ‘Falsest of all that ever man termed fair’ (ET V.1.128).
Young Geraldine asks:
Hath impudence so steeled thy smooth soft skin
It cannot blush? Or sin so obdured thy heart
It doth not quake and tremble? (ET V.1.129-131)
He describes her as ugly and Medusa-like, her ‘hairs that late appeared like
golden wires / Now crawl with snakes and adders’ (ET V.1.151-52). Hair
Gowing, ‘Language, Power and the Law’, pp. 29, 32.
signified youth and honour for women. Raphael is appalled that Mildew
dragged Palestra ‘by
the hair’ and
the country
scatters her hair to signify her virginity (C III.2.111-12; WWH V.6). Guilt
and misery led women to threaten self-harm. Wincott’s wife talks of her
swelling, sick heart threatening to burst, and causing her to cry tears of
blood as proof of her great sorrow (ET V.1.188-92). Anne Frankford
threatens to cut off her hands, sear her breasts:
Be racked, strappadoed, put to my torment.
Nay, to whip but this scandal out, I would hazard
The rich and dear redemption of my soul. (WKK 13.136-39)
If whores were to be heard screaming as they were punished for their
sins the speech of virtuous women was to be gentle, supportive and
infrequent. Friar John notes the ‘kind language’ of Lady d’Averne who only
voices her concerns about his affections in order to protect her honour (C
I.2.130, III.1.106-07). Susan claims that the extremes suffered by her
brother ‘Enforce this language from me, I protest / No fortune of mine
own could lead my tongue / To this base key’ (WKK 9.6-9). Anne
Frankford cannot express her sorrow in words, only in tears (WKK 13.1823). The country Luce is prevented by modesty from speaking out against
Chartley (WWH I.2.183-85). Neither was female speech always to be taken
seriously. Rioter questions whether Young Lionel’s judgement would ‘be
moved at women’s words’ (ET I.2.212). Wincott’s wife jokes it was ‘a
fashion that’s but late come up / For maids to court their husbands’ (ET
I.1.175-76). Yet women’s speech and gossip was feared. Frankford speaks
of his wife’s ‘Dissembling lips’ (WKK 11.86). Young Lionel threatens to
pluck out Scapha’s tongue if she opens her lips again (ET I.2.206-07).
Defamation suits in the church courts of seventeenth-century London were
overwhelmingly brought by women and involved female witnesses.
‘Middling sort’ women working outside their homes used the courts and
were central to the circulation of sexual blame and dishonour, claiming
responsibility for defining female honour.21 Luce lives free from sin ‘though
not free from scandal’, concerned that her name is ‘tossed / In every
gossip’s mouth, and made a byword / Unto such people as it least
concerns’, sending her ‘with shame … blushing from the door’ (WWH
III.3.79-81, 87). Anne Frankford is ‘full of fear’, noting ‘every suspicious
eye brings danger near’, believing those whose ‘clear heart from offence are
free despise report, base scandals do outface’, whilst she can only ‘stand of
mere defiance with disgrace’. Wendoll castigates her for talking ‘too like a
puritan’, suggesting that extreme religiosity provided another reason to
criticise female behaviour (WKK 11.109). Young Geraldine blames the
serving girl for gossiping about her mistress, motivated possibly ‘by some
word or blow / Which she would thus revenge, not apprehending / At what
Gowing, ‘Language, Power and the Law’, pp. 27-28, 30, 36.
a high price honour’s to be rated’ (ET III.3.104-07).22 By contrast Wincott’s
wife is:
… beauty’s mirror …
… chastity’s examples: from her tongue
Never came language …
That even censorious Cato, lived he now,
Could misinterpret; never from her lips
Come unchaste kiss; or from her constant eye
Look savouring of the least immodesty. (ET III.1.225-31)
Women were expected to be helpmeets and deputies to their
patriarch husbands, but the degree of independence they were allowed
varied between marriages. Dalavill believes Wincott’s ‘age and government’
combines perfectly with his wife’s beauty, virtue, modesty and chaste
respect, creating ‘so sweet a sympathy / As crowns a noble marriage’ (ET
I.1.55-64). Marriage gained women social credit. Luce tells Chartley he
should have honoured her ‘with the chaste title of a modest wife’. Once
promised marriage, she assumes the role of obedient, subordinate partner,
noting that her fame, honour and heart depend on Chartley’s behaviour.
Her words, life and entire being are part of him as a result of her nuptial
vows (WWH I.2.95-96, III.1.150, 174-75). Wincott’s wife claims her honour
is in her husband’s hands ‘to punish or preserve’ (ET V.1.235-36). Lady
d’Averne speaks of the sweet sympathy of her marital bed and how she
cannot rest without her husband whose words are law to her (C IV.3.6-8,
14-18). Anne Frankford is ‘a perfect wife’, ‘meek and patient’; she is ‘no
clog’, but fits her husband ‘like a well-made suit’ rather than ‘a thick coat of
unseasoned frieze’, uncomfortable in summer. She is ‘a chain of gold’ to
adorn his neck instead of one to tie him to the marital yoke. Her husband’s
‘sweet content’ is ‘a flattering glass’, accentuating her facial beauty, although
his least displeasure would ‘blast the roses’ growing in her cheeks (WKK
1.33-37, 58-64). Although not his wife, Blanda regards Young Lionel as ‘the
glass in whom I judge my face, / By whom in order I will dress these curls /
And place these jewels, only to please him’ (ET I.2.150-52). Such
comments suggest beautification to please and praise one’s husband was a
honourable act. Problems arose from the emotions such beauty elicited in
men and the subsequent threat they posed to female sexual honour.
Heywood’s work suggests early modern women were exposed to
various images of femininity. Female honour was a gown of chastity and
sexual loyalty to one’s husband, combined with accessories of wealth,
sociability, appearance and movement. How women wove these together
defined their identities.
Walker, ‘Expanding the Boundaries’, p. 240.
Tim Reinke-Williams graduated from Warwick University’s Department of History
with a BA and MA. He is currently working towards a PhD at Warwick. In his
thesis, ‘The negotiation and fashioning of female honour in early modern London,
c.1560-1680’, Tim looks beyond female sexuality to discover what other actions
gained and lost women honour in the early modern metropolis. Tim’s other
research interests include youth culture, male anxiety and misogyny in early
modern England. E-mail: T.M.Reinke-Williams@warwick.ac.uk