The Case of Moll Frith:
Women's Work and the "All-Male Stage"

Natasha Korda

 

 

     1. Recent scholarship on women's involvement in theatrical production in early modern England has begun to question the paradigm of the "all-male stage." In focusing primarily on aristocratic women's roles as patrons, playwrights and performers in court masques, however, such scholarship has left largely unexamined the roles of ordinary women in theatrical production, having considered such women mainly in their status as playgoers or consumers of theatrical commodities (Bergeron; Howard; Levin; Neill; Nelson; Westfall). A notable and oft-cited exception to this tendency is the historical figure of "Moll" or Mary Frith, who is recorded in the Consistory of London Correction Book in 1612 as having made an appearance "at the ffortune [theater]," where she appeared "vppon the stage in the publique viewe of all the people there presente in mans apparrell & playd vppon her lute & sange a songe" (Mulholland, 31). Moll, of course, had been the subject of Middleton and Dekker's The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cut-Purse, published in 1611, whose Epilogue famously promises the Fortune's audience, "The Roaring Girl herself, some few days hence, / Shall on this stage give larger recompense" (l. 35-6). While Frith's appearance at the Fortune provides a remarkable instance of an ordinary woman performing in a public theater, in retaining its exceptional status this instance leaves undisturbed the generalized conception of an all-male stage.

     2. In this paper, I would like to challenge Moll's exceptional status by suggesting that her classification as a player, cut-purse, and roaring-girl (the terms ordinarily used to situate her within the social order) only serves to mystify her quite unexceptional status as a worker within the networks of commerce surrounding early modern London's public theaters. Insofar as women appear to have worked within these networks in significant numbers (Lemire; Korda 1996, 2002), consideration of Moll's status as a "worker" may allow for a more thoroughgoing critique of the all-male stage than has her status as a "player." Such a critique will require that we broaden our focus beyond the purview of traditional stage history, however, and examine not only players and playhouses, but the heterogeneous forms of commerce that lent them support. For if we take into account the full range of social and economic interdependencies and collaborations that went into theatrical production, what emerges is a nexus of commerce between active economic agents of both genders. Within this nexus Moll is but one of many.

     3. The title-page of the 1611 quarto edition of The Roaring Girl displays a woodcut of Moll in lavish "male" attire accompanied by the caption, "My case is alter'd, I must worke for my living." Critics of the play have hitherto read Moll's altered "case" in reference to her complex sexual and gendered identity as a cross-dressed player, but have neglected the ways in which that identity might be shaped by her stated exigency to work for her living. Within such readings, Moll stands as a figure for the practice of cross-dressing and for the gendered and sexualized discourses that subtend this practice (Rose; Garber).1 What such readings fail to address, however, is the relationship implied in Moll's motto, between her altered case or cross-dressed persona, on the one hand, and her necessity to work, on the other. What, we might ask, is the nature of Moll's "work"? To begin to answer this question we will need to examine more carefully the relationship of the fictional "Moll" to the historical figure of Mary Frith, and the latter's place within the commercial landscape of early modern London. For it seems likely that the title-page motto, like the play's Epilogue, aims to capitalize on the notoriety of the historical Moll, and thereby to invest the fictional Moll with particular significance. If this is indeed the case, then the significance of Moll's motto (and in particular the relationship between her altered case and her need to work) may be illuminated by the economic circumstances that led Mary Frith to perform "vppon the stage . . . in mans apparrell."

     4. Recent scholarship has highlighted the commercial theaters' and playing companies' peculiar status as transitional economic formations, in certain respects retaining the residual structure of the guilds, while at the same time assuming the emergent form of innovative capital ventures (Bristol; Ingram; Jones and Stallybrass; Orgel). While many of those involved in the early entertainment industry sought status and protection by gaining their freedom from the established guild companies, they were also "freelancing entrepreneurs in an underground economy," who took maximum advantage of the many forms of "de-racinated" and ad hoc economic activity thriving in early modern London (Bristol, 38). Scholars have yet to determine, however, the extent to which the public theaters' dependence on such informal commerce rendered them open to women's economic participation. Our knowledge of the particular characteristics of early modern women's work, Beverly Lemire argues, has been hampered not only by a dearth of documentary evidence but by our unwillingness to look beyond "the standard male paradigms of employment" dictated by the guilds (Lemire, 118). Yet "historical evaluation should not end with the guildsman's assessment"; for early modern working women "found work where they could, flourishing in ad hoc businesses" that were disapproved of by the guilds. These "'disorderly' commercial practices were as common as they were reviled," and formed a "vast network of commerce, which must be integrated into our concepts of the market" (Lemire, 120). The high level of female employment in these unregulated industries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is generally attributed to increasing restrictions placed on female labor in the licensed guilds. In the case of the clothing guilds, limitations imposed on female sempstresses, bleachers and dyers applied only to their work on new cloth and clothing; articles of clothing that were already used and were being re-made or altered were generally not covered by these restrictions (Wiesner, 179-80). In the face of such restrictions on their work by the guilds, women "frequently depended on a judicious cobbling together of opportunities, taking advantage of the commercial niches in the urban landscape" (Lemire, 114). Such women played a vital role in London's shadow economy of unregulated crafts and trades, becoming second-hand clothing dealers, pawnbrokers, peddlers, hawkers, tipplers, victuallers, and so forth (Lemire; Spufford; Walker).

     5. Wealthy widows frequently turned to pawnbroking in the period, as a "business, open to, and fit for, single women with cash in hand to use for stock in trade" (Holderness, 439). Yet the trade was carried out on a more informal level as well by the wives of landlords, inn- and tavern-keepers, theater people, and by singlewomen involved in unlicensed retailing, victualling and tippling (439).2 Ingram cites the case of William Downell, one of the eight original members of the Queen's Company, who with his wife had taken up lodging with his fellow player, John Singer and his wife Alice. Downell brought a complaint against the Singers in the Court of Requests, claiming that Alice Singer had taken several pounds out of a chest in which he had stored the £200 dowry he had just received from his wife's family. Alice maintained that "shee had leant" the money "to a Neighbour of hers upon a good quantitye of plate pawned and engaged for that money," and assured him that "the daye followinge or not above two or three dayes at the most he should have it againe" (Ingram, 58). Insofar as Alice needed to "borrow," if not steal, money from her tenant in order to subsidize her pawnbroking activities, hers was most probably a small scale, ad hoc operation.

     6. This kind of illicit brokering of second-hand, and sometimes stolen, goods between women was quite common. Walker maintains that we should not separate analyses of early modern women's work and economic status from a consideration of the forms of female criminality in the period. Indeed, she argues, insofar as women were often excluded from the "skilled, paid work defended by urban guilds," and "their appearance in records was usually as transgressors of the guild and borough regulations which sustained the male monopoly ... our definition of 'criminality' must surely be redefined . . . to include female participation in the various economic and social networks of exchange and interaction which provided the backdrop to prosecutions for property crime" (98). Viewed from this perspective, the many forms of unregulated female labor, ranging from the licit to the illicit, may be better understood if placed on a continuum. Such a continuum would enable us to make sense of the fact, for example, that women were more likely than men to steal cloth, clothing, and household goods, including linen, plate and other utensils; for the very same expertise was required in assessing the value of such objects in both licit and illicit markets (Walker, 85-90; Weisner, 238).3 This revisionist view of female criminality is crucial to an understanding of women's informal commerce generally, and of Moll Frith's participation in such commerce more particularly.

     7. Frith's extraordinary appearance on the stage of the Fortune theater in male attire takes on new significance when viewed within the context of the day-to-day commerce that surrounded that theater, as detailed in the "diary" or account-book of its owner, Philip Henslowe, and in relation to the many ordinary women who worked within these informal networks of trade. Some thirty pages of the manuscript are devoted to records of a pawnbroking business Henslowe managed from 1593 to 1596.4 The great majority of customers listed in the pawn accounts were women: of the 312 loans in which the debtor's identity is known, 244 or 78 percent were made to women and 68 or 22 percent to men. The accounts provide a fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day economic activities of ordinary women in and around the theater, and help to remind us that the sphere of commerce with which the theaters were intertwined was hardly an all-male preserve. The high incidence of women in Henslowe's pawn accounts may be attributed to more than the needs of market women to find ready cash, or of housewives to balance the household economy; for it is clear that some of these women had a financial interest in the pawnbroking business themselves. A "goody Watson," for example, is listed fifty-three times in the accounts, often pledging more than one, and sometimes up to four items in a single day. In the four-month period between September 1594 and January 1595, she is listed 46 times -- or once every two and a half days, on average. She was thus most likely herself a broker who was either hired by Henslowe as an agent or as a partner in his business.  She is also listed as selling clothes for Henslowe in the second-hand clothing market, which may indicate she had expertise in this area (fol. 19v). There are several other women in addition to Goody Watson who likewise appear to have worked with Henslowe in his pawnbroking business.5 Such arrangements between large-scale pawnbrokers and female agents or intermediaries were quite common during the period (Lemire, 114; Walker, 91). Male brokers probably relied on female intermediaries because of their expertise in assessing the value of such goods, and because of their knowledge of the community of female borrowers.

     8. Other women listed in Henslowe's accounts may have turned to pawnbroking on a more ad hoc basis, such as "goody harison," who is listed five times in a single day pawning a diverse range of goods (fol. 79r; see also 57v, 78v, 79v and 133v). There is also a "mrs Rysse a tayllers wiffe," who appears to have been in the practice of pawning remnants of cloth and other clothing from her husband's business, such as "A lynynge for a clocke of branched velvet" and "a manes gowne unmade up." Mrs. Rysse, the ad hoc pawnbroker, and her husband, the licensed tailor, provide an excellent example of the division between regulated male labor and unregulated female labor in the clothing trade. There is evidence as well that Henslowe's wife, Agnes, was actively involved in his pawnbroking and money lending activities; she is listed several times lending money to actors (as well as friends, family, and other employees). An entry for the 13 March 1601/2, for example, reads: "Lent unto Thomas towne by my wiffe . . . upon a payer of sylcke stockens tenneshellens" (fol. 28v; see also 28r, 38v, 83r and 124r). Such accounts make clear the extent of women's economic participation in the shadow industries that surrounded the commercial theaters, and that may have helped to supply playing companies with costumes and properties (see Jones and Stallybrass, 30-32, 181-93; see also Korda 1996, 2002).

     9. It is against this backdrop that I propose to read the historical case of Mary Frith, whose work as both a receiver and broker of second-hand and stolen goods may well have brought her into contact with Prince Henry's Men and the Fortune theater. Piecing together the precise contours of her career from the tantalizing shreds of historical evidence is no easy task. The "hard" evidence provided by scattered court records and other historical documents, together with the softer evidence provided by popular literary sources, suggests a career trajectory that begins with the kind of ad hoc illegal activity to which a woman in desperate circumstances may have turned, and ends with the organization of a successful business enterprise that capitalized on the commercial opportunities afforded by London's expanding informal economy. Frith's performance at the Fortune is situated at the midpoint of this career trajectory, midway between her notoriety as a cutpurse and her celebrity as a broker, inviting us to consider what role it may have played in this transition.

     10. A record in the Middlesex Sessions Rolls indicates that in her early years, Frith may have resorted to criminal activity in league with several other female accomplices. In 1602, she was indicted with two other "spinsters," Jane Hill and Jane Styles, for stealing the purse of an unknown man at Clerkenwell, although according to Mark Eccles a trial jury found her not guilty (Eccles, 66; Ungerer, 62-3). The popular pamphlet biography published in 1662, The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse, likewise mentions her involvement with a group of such women, although it describes them not as thieves but rather as receivers of stolen goods: "Their Trade [was] to receive Goods which were lifted: that is to say, Stollen by Thieves, and so in a fair way sell them again" (sig. B12v). The phrase "in a fair way" suggests that like many brokers of stolen property in the period, these women were "strategically placed to funnel the[ir] 'takes' into wider legitimate markets" (McMullan, 24), serving as intermediaries between licit and illicit forms of trade. Receiving and brokering stolen goods was "an offence that was usually perceived and prosecuted as a crime of women" (Wales, 79; see also Sharpe, 156), as is evidenced by the scores of women charged with such crimes in the Middlesex Sessions records (Jeaffreson ed., 2: 149, 168; Le Hardy ed., 8, 160, 168, 200, 231, 257, 294-95, 299-300, 310, 365-66, 373-74, 377, 382). These records likewise reflect that female thieves, receivers, and brokers of stolen property often acted in consort with other women, as did Frith.6 Because there was no effective statute against receiving stolen goods until 1691, however, the crime was prosecuted only infrequently, and "remained an offence that was notoriously difficult to prosecute" (Walker, 91), rendering it a relatively safe means of income for poor women who turned to crime.

     11. The available evidence suggests that by the second decade of the seventeenth century, Frith had herself become a successful broker of stolen goods. According to a case brought in the Court of Star Chamber, in February 1621, one Henry Killigrew, gentleman, while "in priuate familiarity" with a prostitute, had his pocket picked and purse stolen by her. Having "heard howe . . . many that had had theire pursses Cutt or goods stollen, had beene helped to theire goods againe and diuers of the offenders taken or discouered" by Mary Frith, he went to see her. With Frith's help, one Margaret Dell was arrested, brought to Frith's house by the constable of St. Bride's in Fleet Street, where she was identified by Killigrew as the perpetrator (P. R. O. St. Ch. 8/124/4; cited in Dowling, 67-71; see also Ungerer, 68-9). This practice of returning stolen articles to their owners for a fee was a common and lucrative one among receivers, brokers, and what were termed "thief-takers" during the period (Beattie, 55; Johnston and Tittler, 246; McIntosh, 258; McMullan, 71; Sharpe, 161; Wales, 68-70). In the absence of a modern police force, most prosecutions of crime in early modern England were brought by the victim, and were therefore "very dependent upon private initiative" (Sharpe, 10). Professional "thief-takers," who often were or had been thieves themselves, drew on their extensive knowledge of criminal networks to present victims of property crimes with an attractive alternative to expensive and lengthy litigation, compounding with thieves for the return of stolen property to its rightful owners for a fee. Compliant criminals were thus rewarded and relieved of the burden of fencing their pilfered goods, while recalcitrant ones could be punished by blackmail and extortion, or by being turned over to magistrates, who also depended heavily on the services of thief-takers (Beattie, 58; McMullan, 151; Sharpe, 161-63; Wales, 74, 77) -- as it appears the constable of St. Brides, Giles Allen, did on the services of Frith, according to the Star Chamber bill.

     12. Women, according to Walker, frequently "engaged in quasi-official activity in the return or custody of stolen goods" (98). Their involvement in the disposal of stolen goods, she maintains, "placed them in a strong position to detect and deal with thefts -- especially those by other women" (93).7  What distinguishes Frith from other female informants is that she parleyed the knowledge gleaned in her early days as a thief and/or receiver of stolen goods into a successful business enterprise. The "diary" portion of The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith describes the workings of this enterprise as follows:

     In my house . . . I set up a kind of Brokery or a distinct factory for Jewels, Rings and Watches, which had been pinched or stolen. . . . I might properly enough call it the Insurance Office for such Merchandize, for the Losers were sure upon Composition [i.e. payment of a fee] to recover their Goods again, and the Pyrates were as sure to have good ransome, and I so much in the Grosse for Brokerage [i. e. a percentage of the whole for acting as agent] without any more danger; the Hue and Cry being always directed to me for the Discovery of the Goods not the Takers. A Lawless Vocation yet bordering between the illicit and convenient, more advantageous by far to the injured, then the Courts of Justice and benefits of the Law, and more equal to the wrong-doers. . . . My House was the Algiers where they traffiqued in safety . . . and publiquely exposed what they got without the danger of Inquisition. . . . I may be said to have made a perfect regulation of this thievish Mystery, and reduced it to certain rules and orders, which during my administration of the Mistressship and Government thereof, was far better managed then afterwards it was. . . (sigs. C10r-C11r).

While we have no way of determining the accuracy of this account of Frith's "Brokery," it does seem largely to correspond with the evidence provided by the Star Chamber bill: both suggest a successful business venture that had attained a relatively high level of organization and public reputation under Frith's management.8 While it is certainly true that popular criminal literature of the period tends to exaggerate the complexity and coherence of the criminal "underworld" (Archer, chap. 6; Beier; Slack), the shadow economy in second-hand and stolen goods appears to have achieved some degree of organization by the early seventeenth century (McMullan; Sharpe, 163).9 That Frith's commercial activity included trade in fashionable apparel in addition to jewelry and watches is evidenced by a suit brought by a hat-maker named Richard Pooke in 1624 in the Court of Requests to recover the unpaid portion of a bill for some beaver hats, which were then in fashion and exorbitantly expensive, upon which she had made a downpayment of £3 in 1616 (Eccles, 66). While the title-page woodcut of The Roaring Girl depicts Moll herself sporting such a hat, the large expense and number of hats involved in the transaction with Pooke suggests that they were not solely for her personal consumption.

     13. The markets in second-hand and stolen goods and clothing appear to have been thoroughly intertwined: frippers (used clothing dealers) worked as pawn-brokers (and vice versa), pawnbrokers as receivers of stolen goods, and receivers as "thief-takers." Not all brokers had the wherewithal (the knowledge of criminal networks or level of organization) to return stolen property to its owners, however; instead, they altered the goods beyond recognition for resale, or sold "the stolen goods vnto duchmen, Scotts and French Brokers," as a letter from the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London to the Queen's Attorney General complained in 1601. The letter describes the growing numbers of such "Brokers," and of their location in the Liberties, which afforded them protection from the law: "those Brokers are nowe of late growen soe manie and soe dispersed into priviledged and exempt places in and nere vnto this Cittie of verie purpose to auoide the entry into the Register of suche parcells of goods as they buy or take or pawne: By meanes whereof manie times suche goods as are stollen are neuer found" (Aydelotte, 164-5). The registry of pawned goods to which the letter refers had been established in 1594/5, when city authorities began to take a strong interest in controlling the informal commerce of such brokers. The Court of Common Council instituted two Acts aimed at "diuers persons, called Retayling Broggers, Brokers or Hucksters, and others, such as use to . . . receiue, buy, and take to pawne, at the handes of base, shifting, and suspected persons . . . diuers Plate, Jewels, Goods, Wares, Merchandises, Apparell . . . and other such like thinges, whereof the greatest part are stolne" (Corporation of London, 1).

     14. Although the explicit aim of such legislation was to prevent the circulation of stolen property encouraged by such brokers, the "reformation" it proposes is not outright prohibition but rather a series of measures aimed at regulating and even profiting from what had clearly become a highly lucrative form of trade through the extraction of various fees and penalties. By the first year of James' reign, the expansion of such commerce was sufficiently worrisome to authorities as to become the focus of Parliamentary legislation, and a statute was passed instituting new fees, penalties and regulations against "upstart Brokers" who, it proclaimed, had impertinently "assum[ed] unto themselves the name of Brokers and Brokerage, as though the same were an honest and a lawfull Trade Misterie or Occupation . . . findinge thereby that the same is a more idle and easier kinde of Trade of livinge, and that there riseth and groweth to them a more readie more greate more profitable and speedier Advantage and Gaine then . . . manuall Labours and Trades did or coulde bringe them" (1 James I, c. 21; Statutes of the Realm, 4: 1038-39).

     15. Philip Henslowe, who started his pawnbroking business in 1593, would seem to have been precisely the sort of "upstart Broker" targeted by the abovementioned legislation. Whether or not Henslowe himself dealt in stolen goods and apparel, it seems likely (given the amount of stolen property in circulation amongst pawnbrokers and frippers) that theater people, in their commerce with such "retailing brokers," wittingly or unwittingly participated in the exchange of stolen, as well as used, costumes and props. Such was the case with John Shank Sr., a member of the Prince Henry's-Palsgrave's company,10 who in 1614 was accused by a linen-draper named Henry Udall of "buying four network bands and a pair of cuffs at the [Fortune] Playhouse at an under-rate, being part of the goods which were stolen from the said Henry" (Bentley, 564).11 Bentley surmises that Shank procured costumes for the company, a practice which his will suggests he continued for the King's men, whom he joined shortly thereafter (Bentley, 562).12 The geographical proximity and economic ties of such informal brokers to the commercial theaters may well have brought Moll Frith into contact with Prince Henry's Men and the Fortune theater, if not with Philip Henslowe himself. Court records from her early years (between c.1602 and c.1614) place Moll in St. Giles Without Cripplegate, near the Fortune, and in Southwark, near the Bankside theaters.13

     16. The careers of Philip Henslowe, John Shank, Sr. and Mary Frith are each in different ways demonstrative of the mixture of economic ingenuity and performative strategy deployed by those who sought to make a living in the informal sector surrounding the commercial theaters. Theater historians have not always been kind to Henslowe on precisely these grounds, as though the opportunistic flexibility that characterized his career were an aberration, rather than representative of wider social and economic phenomena (Fleay thus referred to him as an "old pawnbroking, stage-managing, bear-baiting, usurer" [Fleay, 94]). Less well-known, though no less representative in this regard, is the career of Shank. Renowned as a jig-maker (Bentley, 563), Shank was forced to give up this specialty, if only temporarily, shortly after the performance of The Roaring Girl in 1611 at the Fortune, when the Middlesex Bench instituted "An Order for suppressinge of Jigges att the end of Playes" in October of 1612, citing "certayne lewde Jigges songes and daunces vsed and accustomed at the play-house called the Fortune in Gouldinglane" that had attracted "divers cutt-purses and other lewde and ill disposed persons in greate multitudes" (Jeaffreson ed., 83). A ballad of the same year entitled "The Common Cries of London" or "Turner's Dish of Lenten Stuff" suggests the impact the Order may have had on Shank's career: "Since Shancke did leave to sing his rimes," it says, "he is counted but a gull" (Collier ed., 208-16). The term "gull" may refer either to a trickster or to one who is tricked (OED); the ballad's reference to Shank as a "gull" suggests both meanings, for it depicts the commercial landscape of early modern London as a site of ingenuity and deception, in which one had either to learn and practice the tricks of one's trade, or be tricked oneself. "I doubt it is a bodge," the balladeer sings of a female hawker whose "measure is too little," and warns "Thus all the City over / the people they do dodge." The term "dodge," which means "To move to and fro, or backwards and forwards; to keep changing one's position or shifting one's ground" so as to "elude a pursuer," "change about deceitfully," "haggle," or "avoid discovery" (OED), perfectly describes the flexibility, ingenuity, and strategies of evasion, that characterize informal commerce. The protean character of such commerce is likewise reflected, quite literally, in the shifty etymology of the term "bodge," which has been variously linked by philologists to the terms "badge" (a "badger" was a hawker, peddler, or regrator [i.e. reseller]) and "botch" (a "botcher" was a mender or patcher of old garments), and as such, incorporates many of the shifty occupational identities that define the informal sector.

     17. Within the commercial landscape of London's suburbs and Liberties, as described in Turner's ballad, women trick and trade, dodge and bodge, as actively as men, and workers and players are placed on a continuum. The "wench that cries the kitchin stuff" and "sings her note so merry" belongs to the same nexus of performative commerce as the "players on the Banckeside" who "sing [their] rimes"; both depend upon a tactical mix of publicity, performance, and flexible commerce to earn a living. As such, both are subject to shifts in legislation or civic regulation that may precipitate a sudden slide from duper to dupe. Against this background of informal commerce, Frith's performance at the Fortune begins to look considerably less exceptional. Unraveling the precise nature of her own motivation and agency in mounting this performance, however, remains a far from simple matter, as does the relationship of that performance to Middleton and Dekker's play. The play capitalizes on Frith's notoriety as a "cutpurse drab" and "roaring girl," on the one hand, while suggesting that this notoriety is ill-founded "slander" (2. 2. 10), on the other. In Act 5, scene I, however, Moll is revealed to be a thief-catcher, not a thief. She boasts of having taken one cutpurse "i' the twopenny gallery at the Fortune" (283-84), and compounds with another for the return of a purse ("Heart, there's a knight, to whom I'm bound for many favours, lost his purse at the last new play i' the Swan -- seven angels in't: make it good, you're best: do you see? -- No more" [303-6]). Such a revelation would undoubtedly have provided valuable publicity to Frith, who was in the process of re-fashioning her own public persona along these lines.

     18. The fictional "Moll" likewise restores her reputation in Act 5, scene 1 by discovering the tricks of two "base rogues" (107), Trapdoor and Tearcat. Their encounter is particularly intriguing in the present context, in that the part of Tearcat may well have been played by none other than John Shank, Sr., who specialized in clown roles requiring dialect and song (Bentley, 563). Tearcat not only displays his knowledge of thieves' cant or "peddler's French" (5. 1. 179) as does Trapdoor, he also speaks pidgin Dutch, and sings a bawdy, canting, drinking song with Moll. Frith's own performance on the stage of the Fortune as described in the Consistory of London Correction Book suggests that it may have been part of a post-play jig (she "playd vppon her lute & sang a songe" and spoke "immodest & lascivious speeches" [Mulholland, 31]), in which case it may have been negotiated, if not performed, with Shank. If Shank had earlier played Tearcat, the jig would have been an effective reprise of the scene in which the fictional "Moll" negotiates their performance of a duet, substituting "the Roaring Girl herself" (Epilogue, 35) for the actor who had impersonated her. Such a substitution would have been an equally effective reversal of the substitution of the "real" Moll for Moll Fitzallard that takes place in the final scene of the play (5. 2. 186ff.).

     19. Whether or not this coupling of Shank and Frith ever actually took place at the Fortune, juxtaposing them in thought may help us to unthink some of our assumptions about the "all-male" stage. The fluid occupational identities of both figures blur any rigid boundaries between worker and player. In this they were hardly exceptional; those who worked in the informal sector in the suburbs and Liberties of London relied on both economic ingenuity and a variety of performative tactics to cobble together a living. Shank supplemented his jig-making career by working as a broker of used and stolen attire; Frith furthered her reputation as a broker by appearing on the stage of the Fortune (and other public sites around London, including St. Paul's) in lavish attire.14 Both, it would seem, had a talent for tailoring their performative tactics to their economic circumstances, and vice versa: when their cases were altered, they knew how to make a living. Frith's public display of extravagant attire upon the stage of the Fortune, would have served as an effective advertisement for her brokerage, particularly if her business catered to other women who participated in the fashion of cross-dressing. This method of advertising would have made good sense if, as the Hic Mulier pamphlet attests, such women were known to frequent the theaters (they are described as "the gilt durt, which imbroders Play-houses" [sig. A4r]).15

     20. When viewed in relation to her status as a worker, Frith's altered "case" points not only to the sexualized and gendered codes within which her clothing might have been read in the period, but to the volatile networks of informal commerce through which such attire made its way onto the public stage, and to the important role that women played within this world of sartorial work. The dedicatory Epistle to the 1611 Quarto text immediately points to the "alteration in apparel" as the proper context within which to read the altered "case" of its title page, while famously linking the clothing trade to the theater: "The fashion of play-making I can properly compare to nothing so naturally as the alteration in apparel: for in the time of the great-crop doublet, your huge bombasted plays, quilted with mighty words to lean purpose, was only then in fashion; and as the doublet fell, neater inventions began to set up" (Epistle, 1-6). I do not mean to suggest that the "alteration in apparel" does not include reference to Moll's cross-dressing; indeed, the Epistle goes on to describe her as "a woman, [who] passes through the play in doublet and breeches" (14-15). Rather, I am proposing that Moll's sexualized and gendered attire takes on new significance when viewed within the larger context of the "alteration in apparel" -- the fabrication and re-fabrication, sale and re-sale, botching and badging, of apparel that fuelled the clothing and entertainment industries, and in so doing, gave employment to so many "distressed needlewomen and trade-fallen wives" (3. 1. 95). That is, the "alteration" in question may be read in very material terms as pointing simultaneously to the work necessary to produce the latest trends in fashion (including the fashion of cross-dressing) and to the incessant change of fashion that created the demand for such work.

     21. The work of alteration, as we have seen, frequently fell to women, particularly when it involved re-making rather than making up new, as was often the case with the production of costumes for the public theaters. While there is no evidence that the Frith ever worked as a needlewoman or sempstress (her pamphlet biography professes "she could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching, a Sampler was as grievous [to her] as a Winding-sheet, her Needle, Bodkin and Thimble, she could not think on quietly, wishing them changed into Sword and Dagger" [sig. B3v]), it is possible that such work was carried out by other women in her employ, as early modern brokers were known to hire sempstresses and other artisans to make alterations in used or stolen wares (those, presumably, that could not be returned for a fee to their owners) for resale (McIntosh, 260). The pamphlet Hic Mulier suggests further that the labor of alteration was in increasingly high demand as a consequence of the fashion of cross-dressing; it impugns city tailors for "metamorphos[ing] . . . modest old garments, to this new manner of short base and French doublet" (sig. C1v). Thus, whether or not Frith herself ever worked as a sempstress, her work as a broker clearly profited from the "alteration in apparel" or ever-changing fashions.

     22. In conclusion, Moll Frith's economic ingenuity is crucial to an understanding of her cross-dressed persona, and vice versa, for the two are inextricably intertwined. To view Moll in her status as a worker as well as a player is not to diminish the importance of the latter, but rather to suggest that the significance of her exceptional appearance "at the ffortune in mans apparell" can best be understood when viewed against the backdrop of the unexceptional women who worked in large numbers within the networks of commerce surrounding the early modern public theaters.

 

 

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Notes

This essay is forthcoming in Beyond the All-Male Stage: Women Players in Early Modern England, 1500-1660, ed. Peter A. Parolin and Pam Brown (Ashgate); I am grateful to the editors of that volume, and to Ashgate Press, for allowing it to appear beforehand in Early Modern Culture.

1 This is certainly not to suggest that Moll's reference to her "case" carries no sexual innuendo: the term was common slang for the female genitals in the period. The play repeatedly suggests that Moll's anatomical sex has been altered by her male apparel, as when Sir Alexander Wengrave declaims "Heyday, breeches! What, will [my son] marry a monster with two trinkets?" (2. 2. 76-7). Such lines indeed seem to beg for a Butleresque reading in which Moll's "sex" is constructed from the outside in and clothing is constitutive of identity. Garber offers such a reading when she argues that the play "theorizes the constructedness of gender in a disconcertingly literal way through the construction of bodies -- and of clothes. The tailor makes the man (and the tail)" (224). In reading Moll's altered "case" in exclusively sexualized and gendered terms, however, criticism risks replicating the troubling sexualization of female labor that is so rampant in The Roaring Girl, and in early modern culture at large. Such readings thereby participate in the occlusion of the diverse forms of female labor that contributed to early modern theatrical production.

2 Henry Chettle, in his Kind-Hartes Dreame, speaks of landladies who, if their tenants "wanted money" would "on munday lend them . . . uppon a pawne eleven pence, and in meere pittie aske at the weekes end not a penny more than twelve pence" (47). Garthine Walker cites many instances of women acting as informal, neighborhood pawnbrokers, and maintains that "small-scale pawning was commonplace" in alehouses and inns by women (91-3).

3 There is no doubt that theater people, whether wittingly or unwittingly, participated in the circulation of stolen as well as second-hand costumes and props. Theater people were not only receivers of stolen attire, as in the case of John Shank, cited below, but were sometimes accused of stealing costumes themselves. In 1619, Christopher Beeston was charged by his fellows in Queen Anne's company with stealing or "carriing awaie" all of the company's "furniture & apparell" after it had disbanded several years earlier (Bentley, 367).

4 The bulk of these records may be found on fols. 55r-61r, 73r-81r and 133r-136r; however, there are other references to actors pawning their costumes with Henslowe scattered throughout the "diary," some dated well after 1596 (see 19v, 28v, 37r, 41v), one as late as 1602. For a more extended discussion of Henslowe's pawnbroking records see Korda (1996) and Jones and Stallybrass, esp. Chapters 1 and 7.

5 There was an "anne nockes" who appears often in the accounts from 9 December 1593 to 9 December 1594 (perhaps under an agreement to work for one year?), and a "mrs grante" who reckons accounts for him from January through May of 1594 (Henslowe, fols. 73r-81r, 133r-35v, 136r 73r-81r; see also Carson, 23).

6 A "spinster" named Elizabeth Arnold, for example, stole jewelry, plate, "together with divers articles of wearing apparel" in 1589/90 and distributed the goods to two other women, Elizabeth Hawtrey and Elizabeth Jonson (Jeaffreson ed., 1:192). The "world of stolen clothes, linens and household goods," according to Walker, "was populated by women: women stealing, women receiving, women disposing, women searching, and women passing on information, as well as goods, to other women" (97). Her study of Cheshire finds that in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth-centuries, "most women committed burglaries either alone or in league with other women" (85).

7 Walker cites numerous instances of women acting in this capacity in Chester (93-94).

8 As such, Frith's business appears to have been an early antecedent of the system developed in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries by such famed thief takers as Jonathan Wild (see Howson,, esp. chap. 9; Lemire, chap. 5; McMullan, 153; Sharpe, 161-62; Wales, 70). The term "Theifetaker" first appears in the Middlesex Sessions rolls as early as 1609 (Johnston and Tittler, 246). The practice became far more widespread after 1693 with the passage of an Act of Parliament by which "the government embarked on a new policy of offering rewards for the capture of thieves" (Howson, 36).

9 The commercial growth of London fostered "a lucrative market for the disposal and distribution of stolen property" that allowed the more organized brokers to "open permanent offices and warehouses for the recovery of stolen property" (McMullan, 23-4, 105). In 1585, some eighteen such "Harboringe Howses" were raided in London, Westminster, and the suburbs, including Southwark (Tawney and Power eds, 338-9).

10 Formerly Prince Henry's men, which Shank joined c.1610 (Chambers, 188).

11 The playhouse in question was undoubtedly the Fortune theater, which was the company's ordinary venue according to its patent (Chambers, 190).

12 Shank's will, dated December 31, 1635, refers to "Sixteene poundes and Twelue shillings which they [his Maiesities servants the players] owe me for Two gownes" (Honigman and Brock ed., 188).

13 According to a record in the Middlesex Sessions Rolls, in 1602 a cordwainer, Thomas Dobson, and silktwister, William Simons, from the parish of St. Giles without Cripplegate, gave bonds that "Marya FFrithe"should appear at the next sessions of jail delivery on suspicion of having taken "a purse with XXVs of Richard Ingles" (Eccles, 66; Ungerer, 63-4). On March 23, 1614, Mary Frith was married to a Lewkenor Markham in the parish of St. Saviour's in Southwark. (Eccles, 66; Ungerer, 68). She later moved to Fleet Street, which bordered on the Liberty of Whitefriars, a notorious criminal sanctuary and home to the Whitefriars theater, where she set up shop as a broker. The Star Chamber Bill of 1621 cited above locates Moll's brokerage and receiving house in Fleet Street, as does The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith (sig. C12r). We know from a transcript of the will of "Mary Markham, alias FFrith" of 1659 that she resided in "the parish of St. Bride, alias Bridgett, in FFleetstreet, London" when she died, and was buried there in the church of St. Bridget's (Ungerer, 72-5).

14 According to the Consistory of London Correction Book, Frith was "taken in Powles Church with her peticoate tucked vp about her in the fashion of a man with a mans cloake on her" and "frequented all or most of the disorderly & licentious places in the Cittie as namely she hath vsually in the habite of a man resorted to alehowses Tavernes Tobacco shops & also to play howses" (Mulholland, 31).

15 In his satire on the Blackfriars theater of 1617, Henry Fitz-Geoffrey likewise refers to such women as frequenters of playhouses: "Now Mars defend vs! seest thou who comes yonder? / Monstrous! A Woman of the masculine Gender. / . . . / Out, point not man! Least wee be beaten both. / Eye her a little, marke but where shee'l goe, / Now (by this hand) into the Gallants Roe" (cited in Bentley, 6:43).

 

 

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