The Roaring Girl
The Portrayal of ‘the Other’ and Its Relationship to the City in The Roaring Girl and The Witch of Edmonton.
“By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could only be given to traveling: namely, the strange” – Jane Jacobs.
In both The Roaring Girl and The Witch of Edmonton the figure of ‘the other’ emerges through the female characters subversion of normative gender roles. Furthermore, one could argue that the city space serves to felicitate this breaking with gender expectations. As evidenced through the differing treatments of Moll Cutpurse and Elizabeth Sawyer; both of them are examples of aberrant female behaviour by Jacobean standards, yet Moll resides in the city and emerges as the triumphant hero, while Elizabeth inhabits a rural space and is punished as a villain. An alternate argument can also be made that these characters otherness stems not from their gendered defiance, but rather from their positions of low social standing and the power that they still retain despite their lowly position. A key point, that merits further exploration, is that the character of Moll and Elizabeth express not only gender anxiety but also the class anxiety that was emerging amongst the growing cosmopolitanism of the seventeenth century.
Judith Butler described gender as a series of “performative acts,” citing the act of drag or cross-dressing as a performance tool through which the audience begins to “see sex and gender denaturalized by means of a performance which avows their distinctness and dramatizes…their fabricated unity.” Dekker too filters the norms of Jacobean gender politics through ‘performative act’ associated with appearance. For Dekker’s contemporaries cross-dressing was highly controversial and often considered a signifier of corrupt femininity, King James famously issued an edict to the London clergy for them to preach “against the insolency of our women, and their wearing of broad brimmed hats, pointed doublets, their hair cut short or shorn and some of them stilettos and poniards.” It is no coincidence then that Moll is predominantly distinguished as ‘the other’ through her masculine dress. Unlike most of the characters Dekker uses detailed stage directions to describe what Moll’s dress, “a frieze jacket and a black safeguard,” emphasising the importance of Moll’s dress in relation her characterisation. She is distinguished from the other characters by the difference of her clothes, and it is her dress that serves as the real location of her alienation. She is stripped of femininity and becomes just “a creature” or “a monster.” Throughout Act 2, Scene 1 Moll is separate from the discussions of the gallants or the shopkeepers except when they either want to gossip about her or attempt to trick her. Characterizing her as a figure of fascination and alienation. Moll is constantly being surveyed not only by the audience watching The Roaring Girl but also by the audience she has within the play. It can be argued that this performance of Moll’s can only function within the confines of the city, in which she is provided with the merchant and shopkeepers she needs to create and keep up her costume. This effort is specifically evident in the first scene Moll is introduced, in which we see her taking great pains to shop for clothes and accessories. Therefore, through Moll’s costume – a characteristic with significant theatrical associations – Dekker establishes her as an outsider of her own sex and an outsider who can only survive within the limits of the city space. Similarly, The Witch of Edmonton explores alternate femininity.
However, unlike The Roaring Girl, the female other is framed through the lens of witchcraft instead of cross-dressing. Although the conflation of masculine attributes with unconventional woman also remains an important conceit within the play. Orgel argues that, “Witches, though epitomizing what was conceived as a specifically female propensity for wickedness, were also regularly accused of being unfeminine or androgynous.” Elizabeth Sawyer, like Moll Cutpurse, can be interpreted as a figure of the unfeminine due to her presentation in juxtaposition to Susan Carter, who epitomizes the ideal seventeenth century woman. Susan is young, beautiful and wealthy, while Elizabeth is “poor, deformed and ignorant.” It is noteworthy that when she questions Old Banks identification of her as a witch, “Dost call me witch?” he replies, “I do, witch, I do; and worse I would, knew I a name more hateful.” Elizabeth is initially identified as a witch, not because she practices the craft, but because among the small society of Edmonton her position as an unfeminine woman defies any other classification. This false identification is further compounded by the claustrophobic village environment. A majority of the characters introduced exhibit prior knowledge of “The Witch of Edmonton” and thus there is little room for individual reinvention within the community. Later, when Elizabeth embraces the identity of witch one could argue that, like Moll, she is engaging in a series of Butler’s “performative acts” that serve to subvert her cultural boundaries. Similar to Moll, Elizabeth also alters her appearance, though she does this through harming her own body by sealing her pact with the devil (in the form of The Dog) with blood. Emphasising the break from the normalcy, Elizabeth defies event the traditions of her body as brings what should remain physically inward and presents it outwardly. Likewise, Elizabeth also gains a familiar in the form of the Dog and learns Latin incantations, symbols that signify witchcraft and sinful habits to the Jacobean audience. Moreover, it is through this ‘acts’ that Elizabeth is able to enact revenge against her neighbours, as through them she harms their crops and, in the case of Anne Ratcliffe, drives them mad. Ultimately, Elizabeth fulfils every stereotype associated with witches, a figure that is emblematic of subversive womanhood.
One could nonetheless argue that Moll and Elizabeth are not ‘other’ because of her alternate presentation of gender, but because they are characters who occupy positions of alternate socio-economic that cannot be placed within the categories of he Jacobean class system. Female to male cross-dressing was not as perceived by the Jacobeans as sinful as some sources (like King James’ letter) would make it appear so. Firstly that there were no sumptuary laws that banned masculine dress. In fact the only laws concerning dress that existed during the seventeenth century forbade wearing silk and velvet unless one was descended from nobility, suggesting that Dekker’s contemporaries were far more concerned with lower classes impersonating the upper classes, than women appearing dressed like men. Furthermore, the androgynous women were highly eroticised, “The Elizabethan ideal, at least of aristocratic womanhood, was what we would call boyish and they called womanly: slim hipped and flat-chested.” This sexualisation of cross-dressing women is evident in Laxton’s desire to seduce Moll and Sebastian Wengrave’s sexual excitement as the sight of his fiancée Mary dressed as a page, “Methinks a woman’s lips taste well in doublet.” Thus, while the cross-dressing women does remain an outsider through her performative act of emulating masculinity she is offered a degree of acceptance, albeit highly erotically charged, from the patriarchal society. What many critics have found most interesting about Moll’s historical inspiration is “not her successful manipulation of gender codes but her ability to manipulate them from within her own class.” Within the Roaring Girl Moll occupies a liminal space between the classes as evident through her ease movement throughout the various city spaces presented in the play. In her introductory scene the audience see her move from each merchant’s shop to the other, an action with which only the other gallants also exhibit, while the merchant’s remain within the middle class and domestic spaces of their shops. In further scenes, Moll occupies more rural, rougher spaces like Gray’s Inn Field and in contrast, the home of Sir Alexander Wengrave, a space associated with the aristocracy. In all of them Moll exudes ease and power, through her besting of Laxton in a duel, and her foiling of Sir Alexander’s and Trapdoors plot to arrest her. It is especially noteworthy that Moll’s adversaries are presented as powerful males, and in the case of Sir Alexander, powerful fathers and thus she is placed in total antagonism to figures emblematic of the patriarchy. However, she is not entirely triumphant in her opposition as an element of patriarchal control is placed on the characterisation of Moll through her decision not to marry, thus the ending of her line. Which serves as a salve as her challenge to cultural norms cannot be carried on through a legacy. Ultimately, it is Moll’s blurring of class boundaries that reflects certain anxieties of the period, and the threat the upper classes perceived in the growing middle class who were beginning to exercise considerable power and erode the long established patriarchal power structures.
Similarly, Elizabeth is an outsider not because she is actually a witch, but because she defies the regimented class system of Edmonton. After she makes the deal with the Devil he reveals that he cannot allow Elizabeth to “see revenge” by killing Old Banks as “he is loving to the world/And charitable to the poor.” This failure to fulfil her position as a witch is further evident in her continued mispronunciation of the Latin spell that the Dog teaches, and which Cuddy Banks mocks her for throughout their exchange in Act 2, Scene 1. The ‘acts’ through which Elizabeth frames her new identity, are only functioning on a purely superficial level, and do little to characterise her as ‘the other’ as she was arguably already occupying that position before the action of the play, due to her social position within Edmonton. Which is characterised as a deeply hierarchical and conservative, as evidenced by Old Carter’s wish to “spare the Mastership, call me John Carter. Master is a title my father, nor his before him was acquainted with” and his distaste with city wedding ceremonies, preferring “bread, beer and beef – yeomen’s fare, we have no kickshaws, full dishes, whole bellyfuls.” Moreover, this concern with tradition that the characters exhibit is often associated with land – Old Thorney needs Frank to marry Susan to obtain her dowry so they can afford to keep their land and Somerton is considered a better marriage match for than Warbeck as “he has a fine convenient estate in West Ham, by the Essex. Elizabeth Sawyer presents a challenge to this patriarchal traditions associated with class and property that many argue typifies the cultural norms Renaissance drama challenged as “the traditional linkages between body, property and name are called into question.” Elizabeth is a woman who has little patriarchal power exercised over her as they only female character in the play who is not a wife or a daughter, and is the only character who voices opposition towards the gentry. When she is first introduced to the audience she is trespassing on a male characters land, gathering a mere “few rotten sticks.” Rather than her embracing of witchcraft it is this deliberate ignorance of the perceived sacred boundaries of property serves that as Elizabeth’s first transgressive act, as she defies the implicit property laws that govern her community. Elizabeth also expresses a dissatisfaction throughout with her situation, equating it with property metaphors, …I’d go out of myself And give this fury leave to dwell within This ruined cottage ready to fall with age. This evoking of dilapidated building and the wish to vacate it suggests a desire for upward mobility. This presents a stark contrast to the conservatism of Old Carter and a threat to the upper classes as characterised by Sir Arthur Clarington who ultimately advocates for her execution not because of evidence of witchcraft but because she suggests that she has knowledge of his affair with Winnifride during the trail, “Dare any swear I ever tempted a maiden/With golden hooks flung at her chastity.” Though this accusation is general, and suggests that Elizabeth has no explicit information of the relationship, it poses a threat to Sir Arthur. Thus, Elizabeth is killed not because of her sins, but because she threatens to undermine the status quo. She represents the anxiety that the upper classes had concerning the lower and is viewed as a parasitic force, “shunned and hated like a sickness” as she is ability to gain power is seen as a greater threat than Frank Thorney, a murderer. Cuddy Banks must re-establish the village boundaries through the tradition of ‘beating the bounds’ and exorcise the devils anti-establishment influence to London, where it will be tolerated
As in the society of Edmonton subversive class attitudes can only exist in urban spaces where, incidentally, they pose little threat to gentry whose power stemmed from the land they occupied in predominantly rural areas. The execution of Elizabeth and the exorcism of the Dog, arguably represent the upper classes upholding the power dynamic that maintains them in society. Therefore, while Elizabeth Sawyer and Moll Cutpurse are ostracized due to their alternate presentations of gender to conclude that it is the sole reason would be reductive and ignorant of the class anxieties evident throughout both plays. The characters’ associations with capital means and land, position them not only in opposition to normative gender roles but also to the hierarchal class system that governed Dekker, Ford and Rowley’s contemporary society. Elizabeth and Moll’s alternative womanhood is used as a vehicle to express the anxieties of the upper class towards the growing power of the lower classes. Moll is ‘saved’ as she is a highly eroticised figure, she is treated with exceptionalism, and thus is tolerated by the patriarchal society that upholds the gentry. Through the play, and through the performative elements that inform her character, Moll is presented as merely a once occurring spectacle. While Elizabeth exemplifies entirely anti-patriarchal sentiments that threatens the norms of the text’s contemporary culture and therefore must be removed. Through her identification as a witch, Elizabeth is associated with histories of subversion. Moreover, she is presented in a rural, and thus insular, setting that magnifies destabilizing forces and therefore cannot be tolerated.
 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, (London, Routledge, 1999) p. 173
 Letters of Sir John Chamberlain, ed. Norman E. McClure (Philadelphiay, 1939) vol. II, 286-7
 Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: The performance of gender Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge, 1996) p. 110
 Ibid, p.98.  Ibid, p.70
 Stephen Orgel, ‘The Subtext of The Roaring Girl’ (London, 1992) p. 20
 Stephen J. Greenblat, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture, (London, 1990) p.141