Forgotten Classics: Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl (published 1611)
The burgeoning population, importance and self-definition of the city spawned new genres of writing and drama. Most important is the form known as City Comedy, which emphasised the new power and social, political and economic dynamism of the city, as well as documenting the complex class issues within the community. These plays were written very fast, often in collaboration, and attracted huge audiences who were interested in their local references and fast moving plots. The comedies tended to maintain a unity of time and place, symmetrical arrangement of stereotypical characters and utilised particular recurrent plots - the gulling of fools, the subversion of authority and an attack on pomposity. An excellent example of the genre is Middleton’s and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl. The plot is a standard ‘errant son defies father to marry his sweetheart’; the most interesting thing about the play is the title character. Moll Cutpurse, the Roaring Girl, is a cross-dresser who likes wearing male clothing and smoking: ‘One is she/ That roars at midnight in deep tavern bowls,/ That beats the watch, and constables controls’. There is some debate as to what she actually is: ‘some will not stick to say she’s a man, and some both man and woman’ which gets the response ‘That were excellent: she might first cuckold the husband and then make him do as much for the wife!’. Moll’s purpose, though, is actually far more radical simply questioning sexual boundaries. When she fights the mischievous Laxton – and wins – she claims to be fighting on behalf of her sex. She means, she says: ‘To teach thy base thoughts manners. Thou’rt one of those/ That thinks each woman thy fond flexible whore,/ If she but casts a liberal eye upon thee’. She wants equality – to be, as she says to Sir Alexander, ‘as good a man as your son’. She claims ‘I have no humour to marry. I love to lie o’both sides o’th’bed myself and again o’th’other side. A wife, you know, ought to be obedient, but I fear me I am too headstrong to obey, therefore I’ll ne’er go about it’. She knows her own mind and wants to do her own thing. Marriage, for Moll, is the loss of independence, the merging of the woman into the man. These sentiments introduce a radical agenda, and demonstrate the rise of the newly independent woman – the city gave more power to women either through money or position. Yet Moll’s speeches are really quite unusual, too, in their easy undermining of patriarchal systems and assumptions. This is the true radicalism of the play – in demonstrating quite how easy it is to avoid certain things, or to act in counterintuitive ways, it shows that obedience is simply something that people do rather than something they should do.