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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: March ::
Re: Women on the Early Modern Stage
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0417  Tuesday, 9 March 1999.

From:           David Kathman <
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Date:           Monday, 8 Mar 1999 23:06:08 -0600
Subject: 10.0392 Re: Shakespeare in Love
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0392 Re: Shakespeare in Love

Melissa D. Aaron wrote:

>>Besides the 44 plays which shook me up a bit, Cosby's "Shakespeare" says
>>there was a law preventing women from performing on the public stage.
>>Stephen Orgel (Impersonations), however, says there was no such law and
>>points out that foreign women appeared on English stage from time to
>>time, also a few on Jacobean stage.  The film "Shakespeare in Love" also
>>claims there was a law against women performers; custom probably, law
>>unlikely.  Can anyone answer the question of "law"?  frances k. barasch
>
>Yes, (cf my earlier post) Stephen Orgel is right. There was no such law,
>only custom.  Custom is what kept Queen Anne from dancing in as many
>masques as she would have liked and caused a biggish negative reaction
>to Henrietta Maria's acting, but it wasn't illegal.  Chambers suggests
>that the Epilogue to The Roaring Girl might refer to a future
>performance by Mary Frith; but it would have been unusual.

Since Chambers wrote, documentary evidence has been uncovered that Mary
Frith (aka Moll Cutpurse) did in fact appear on stage at the Fortune in
the spring of 1611 in men's clothing, and that she faced legal
consequences as a result.  On January 27, 1611/12, Mary Frith appeared
before the Consistory Court of London and confessed as follows:

"that she had long frequented all or most of the disorderly & licentious
place in this Cittie as namely she hath vsually in the habite of a man
resorted to alehowses Tavernes Tobacco shops & also to play howses there
to see plaies & pryses & namely being at a playe about 3 quarters of a
yeare since at the ffortune in mans apparell & in her boote & wth a
sword by her syde, she told the company there p[re]sent that she thought
many of them were of the opinion that she was a man, but if any of them
would come to her lodging they should finde that she is a woman & some
other immodest & lascivious speaches she also vsed at that time And also
sat there vppon the stage in the publique viewe of all the people there
p[rese]nte in mans apparrell & playd vppon her lute & sange a songe."

The dress and behavior described by Frith correspond to those of the
character Moll Cutpurse in Middleton and Dekker's play The Roaring Girl
-- Moll wears boots and carries a sword, and in IV.i she sings a song
and accompanies herself on an instrument.  This raises the enticing
possibility that Mary Frith actually acted the part of Moll at the
Fortune in the play based on her own life.  Various topical allusions in
the 1611 quarto of The Roaring Girl make it fairly clear that the play
was written in early 1611 (see P.H. Mulholland, "The Date of The Roaring
Girl," Review of English Studies 28 (1977), 18-31, from which the above
transcript is taken), and it seems likely that the behavior to which
Mary Frith confessed nine months later occurred at one of the first
performances of the play, which fits in well with the statement in the
epilogue that "The Roring Girle her selfe some few dayes hence, Shall on
this Stage, give larger recompence."

Frith appears to have gotten in trouble with the authorities for this
performance in the spring of 1611, but unfortunately we have only
indirect evidence of this, since the Consistory Court Correction Book
for the early part of 1611 is missing.  In the January 27, 1612
document, after describing her performance on the stage of the Fortune,
Mary further confesses to "swearing & cursing &... tearing God out of
his kingdome" and to "vsually associat[ing] her selfe with Ruffinly
swaggering & lewd company as namely with cut purses blasphemous
drunkarde[s] & others of bad note & of most dissolute behaviour with
whom she hath to the great shame of her sexe often tymes (as she sayd)
drunke hard & distempered her heade with drinke."  She "further
confesseth that... she was punished for the misdemeanors afore mentioned
in Bridewell."  It's not entirely clear whether she was committed to
Bridewell for the performance at the Fortune, for swearing and
drunkenness, or for a combination of both; but since the Fortune
performance leads off the list of charges even though it had happened
nine months earlier, it's clear that the authorities took a dim view of
it.  In any case, the immediate reason for this January 27, 1612
confession was that Mary had been arrested in St. Paul's cathedral on
Christmas night "with her peticoate tucked vp about her in the fashion
of a man with a mans cloake on her to the great scandall of diu[er]s
p[er]sons who vnderstood the same & to the disgrace of all womanhood."
This was apparently akin to a probation violation, because Mary was sent
back to Bridewell, and then two weeks later she was forced to do public
penance at Paul's Cross.  This was described by John Chamberlain in a
letter of February 12, 1612:

"...this last Sonday [i.e. February 9] Mall Cut-purse a notorious bagage
(that used to go in mans apparell and challenged the feild of divers
gallants) was brought to the same place [i.e. Paul's Cross], where she
wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but yt is since doubted she was
maudelin druncke, beeing discovered to have tipled of three quarts of
sacke before she came to her penaunce:  she had the daintiest preacher
or ghostly father that ever I saw in pulpit, one Ratcliffe of Brazen
Nose in Oxford, a likelier man to have led the revells in some ynne of
court than to be where he was, but the best is he did extreem badly, and
so wearied the audience that the best part went away, and the rest
taried rather to heare Mall Cutpurse then him."

There was great public interest in Mary/Moll's legal troubles, for
within nine days of her penance, Ambrose Garbrand had been fined seven
pence for "printinge the booke of Moll Cutpurse" without entering it in
the Stationers Register.  This could have been either the quarto of *The
Roaring Girl* or some lost pamphlet about Moll Cutpurse; at least one
lost pamphlet about her, John Day's *The Madde Prancks of Mery Mall of
the Bankside*, had been entered in the Stationer's Register in 1610.

This incident provides the best evidence I know of for a woman acting on
a pre-Restoration public stage in England.  The fact that Mary Frith was
apparently arrested for her performance is significant, although the
fact that she had a long criminal career already (she was first arrested
in 1600, and her criminal escapades continued at least until 1624)
muddies the waters a bit.  Even if there wasn't an explicit law on the
books forbidding women from acting on the public stage, there seems to
have been a de facto prohibition which the authorities were prepared to
enforce.

Dave Kathman

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