The Allure and Joy of Female Criminals in Early Modern English City Comedy

Jessica Landis, Franklin Pierce University

The article examines the appeal of female criminal characters in early modern English city comedies. Stage representations of urban criminals on the early modern stage reflect a cultural taste for fictionalized and sensationalized stories of criminal behavior also prevalent in the popular rogue literature of the time. This trend suggests everyday city dwellers’ collective desire to better understand and contain the growing and diversifying population of London in the early seventeenth century. Specifically, the article posits that the comedic tones and alluring nature of staged versions of female crooks mitigate the threat of criminality for readers and viewers. Focusing specifically on Ben Jonson’s Doll Common from The Alchemist and offering readings of some examples of rogue literature, the article turns to a body of research on coney-catching literature and gender to make the claim that female criminals on the early modern stage are portrayed in an affectionate way that emphasizes their sexual and emotional appeal. Their popularity speaks to both the fear of a familiar sense of danger and the thrill of experiencing the exotic in the changing early modern urban landscape.

The female urban criminal was a figure of much interest in early modern England and its theater. She features prominently in popular literature and in drama from the period. In city comedies, in particular, female criminals generally are portrayed as endearing and mostly harmless. Underworld characters, particularly female ones, provide a uniquely complex, layered emotional experience in the theater because they are at once desirable and repulsive, familiar and exotic. In city comedies especially, wayward women are even joyous, often embodying the pleasure of spectatorship and sexual allure. This article looks at the portrayal and actuality of crime in early modern London to establish a context for the and plays and pamphlets that portrayed them and audiences’ relationships to them.

Through a reading of Doll Common from Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610) and other characters in popular literature, such as Moll Cutpurse/Mary Frith, it argues that depictions of early modern women who commit crime, especially prostitutes, are appealing despite the social threats they represent. I argue that female criminal characters in city comedies subvert not only gender roles as many critics have asserted, but the everyday experience of early modern citizens of London. These figures provide a critical opportunity to examine early modern dramatic and gender performance as not only experiences that destabilize social norms, but as thrilling departures from the chaos of daily life in early modern London. They also help to illuminate the subversive experiences audience members and readers have as they imagine themselves in an othered subject position of the criminal, allowing spectators and readers to navigate freely between the bounded world of early modern England and the freer imaginary world of the theater. This article contributes to an already robust discussion of female criminality and its representations in the early modern period by focusing on Jonson’s Doll, a less-studied character in the discussion of the intersections between early modern criminality and popular literature, specifically city comedy.

By considering the historical actuality of crime, the notions of gender in circulation in early modern London, and research done on rogue literature and more prominent early modern female criminals, I attempt to uncover a pattern of gendered criminal representation and develop an understanding of what kinds of particular pleasure these characters provide at the theater.Critical discussion of dramatic representations of early modern female criminality in comedies has been dominated by scholarship on Moll Cutpurse in Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s The Roaring Girl (c. 1607–1610) and the historical figure Mary Frith who inspired the character. Much of this work has focused particularly on the character’s gender, sexuality, and crossdressing, and rightly so.

These contributions have done much to bolster our understanding of gender on the early modern stage and in early modern England generally. Readings of Moll have often been paired with readings of coney-catching literature in an effort to not only establish how accurately she represents the real Mary Frith, but also explore the relationship between the actualities of the London underworld and the ways the stage represented it. The critical attention Moll has received, I think, speaks generally to the particular, popular appeal of female criminals’ stories. It is my assertion that scholarship on Moll and the rogue literature of the period can shed light on not only how Doll Common and other characters like her function to attract or increase interest in city comedies, but also what this interest reveals about cultural attitudes toward subversive, and even threatening, femininity. The work that has been done on Moll and Mary is helpful in developing an understanding of what was pleasurable and alluring about representations of female criminality in the period.


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The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy

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