James Shirley’s The Lady of Pleasure has another feisty-but-chaste lady in the mode of Middleton and Dekker’s Moll or Shakespeares titular merry wives. Roaring Girl Moll wears a jerkin and hose with her otherwise typically-female clothing. She smokes, goes to plays, and spars with the men of the play (both with sword and wit). Her “masculine” behaviour somehow marks her as sexually open: the city wives suspect her for a whore while men like Laxton concoct unflattering fantasies and advances based on her supposedly open sexuality:
Heart, I would give but too much money to be nibbling with that wench … methinks a brave captain might get all his soldiers upon her, and ne’er be beholding to a company of Mile End milksops, if he could come on, and come off quick enough; such a Moll were a marrow-bone before an Italian, he would cry bona roba till his ribs were nothing but bone. I’ll lay hard siege to her, money is that aqua fortis that eats into many a maidenhead: where the walls are flesh and blood, I’ll ever pierce through with a golden auger. (2.1.169-79)
Eucchh. But Moll never makes any show of offering her body for sale (a fact which she has to literally beat into some of the more foolish men). Nor does Shirley’s Celestina, whose body many of the young city gallants perceive as sexually available for even slighter reasons than those which render Moll “available”: Celestina is a young widow, and thus has committed the grave sins of being attractive and sexually experienced. She also enjoys the financial and social autonomy that comes with being a widow. But despite being young (gasp), attractive (gasp gasp), previously married (oh my!), and owning a carriage and going to parties (will the lewdness never end!), she also gives no indication that she intends to sell herself out to anyone with cash or credit. Like Moll, she fends off both her presumptuous suitors and her puerile slanderers — the former with beautifully calm and sound logic, the latter with one of the most witty, confident, and brilliantly scathing ripostes on stage. Finally, the whole point of the escalating tricks of Shakespeare’s Mistresses Page and Ford is to prove to the jealous Ford and presumptuous Falstaff that “wives may be merry, and yet honest too” (4.2.89).
So each of the plays is centrally about how the early modern men suspect sex in everything women do, and sexualise women’s bodies as naturally as they breathe — often in ways that women never intend. And the women in all three plays have just about had enough. They work to disrupt the connections between the enjoyment witty conversation or of the entertainments, goods and fashions London offers and the assumption that all of this speaking and looking and dressing and buying mean women are offering themselves to men. ‘Cause these ladies just want to have good chaste fun. With emphasis on the fun.
At the same time, all the women do seem to tacitly acknowledge that they know the social importance of being chaste, and so their defense of their chaste but merry lives is in many ways a capitulation to a definition of appropriate female sexuality that perhaps is not of their own making. But they are also reclaiming agency in other ways, which is pretty great in its own right.
7 April 2013 ~ Hamilton
Works Cited and Bibliography
Middleton, Thomas and Thomas Dekker. The Roaring Girl. Ed. Andor Gomme. London: Ernest Benn; New York: Norton, 1976.
Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies. Eds Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York and London: Norton, 1997. 453-520.
Shirley, James. The Lady of Pleasure. Ed. Marilyn J. Thorssen. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1980.