Kirsten C. Uszkalo
Selling Cherries, Buying Water; Reworking
Female Sexual Economics
The newfound ease of movement and consumption experienced by women entering the capitalism of Renaissance London, "going to market, both to buy and to sell" (Newman 184), creates a cultural anxiety which posits women as dangerous, gluttonous consumers. This female avarice is easily translated into a transgressive co-option of masculine sexual and financial power. Likewise, the marketplace promises a plethora of consumables and encourages women to "spend ‘extravagantly’ losing their ‘chaste’ or virtuous behavior" (Allen). Imagined is a flood of women with social hymens ruptured, voraciously consuming and uncontrollably leaking virtue and finances into the grubby hands of hawkers. Playing with the seduction of the marketplace and the local knowledge of prostitutes driven through its streets, Middleton asserts that the indivisibility of sex and money, consumption and desire, prohibits a single Chaste Maid in Cheapside. Everything and everyone can be bartered; Bruster notes that "merchants were often portrayed as brokers of their wives sexuality" (53) and Martin asserts, "Mistress Allwit and Lady Kix are represented as completely acquiescent in the transactions between men that occur through them [and only] Moll is slightly more complex" (192).
I have a threefold argument I would like to present. Primarily, the women
in Cheapside assert control by vending their sexuality for their own benefit.
Moreover, like Mistress Allwit, they represent positive female consumption--the
full vagina, pregnant belly and stockpiled house--and controlled excretion,
using sex, tears, songs and children to ensure their positions or create
new ones. Secondarily, borrowing from Judith Butler’s "Imitation and Gender
Insubordination," the women in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside seem to
know that "acting out of lines with heterosexual norms brings with it ostracism,
punishment, violence" however their primary concerns revolve around the
"transgressive pleasures produced by these very prohibitions" (725). These
characters, especially Moll, aware of their own marketability, can step
outside of ideological constructs and perform according to their own desire
(or perform desire accordingly); Although they step out of the predominant
ideology (albeit momentarily), their performances ultimately (re)secure
them in continent financial and sexual stability. Last, contrary to Gail
Kern Paster’s reading of women as leaking vessels, I believe that it is
the male spout which is leaking economic and sexual virility onto/into
London’s throughways; masculine "leakiness" not only creates the economic
and sexual space for these women, but ultimately stages their play in the
theatre itself. Women in Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside
are savvy vendors of their own sexuality and hungry consumers of masculine
wares in the sexual and economic marketplace.
Selling Cherries, Buying Water - Women as the Market
Although discussing women in an agrarian community, rather than an urban space, Susan Ammusen addresses the ideological tightrope Early modern women were expected to traverse:
could not fulfill their obligations if they were too demure. Women thus received contradictory messages:
in the market they were to be assertive, at home obedient. (119)
Mistress Allwit, the consummate consumer and vendor, represents the ease which with women adopt and internalize this exchange. She is often superficially read as a flat character traded by her lazy and willing cuckold-spouse to Whorehound, who has "maintained [his] house this ten years,/ Not only keeps [his] wife, but keeps [him],/ And all [his] family" (I.ii.16-18). However, this facile interpretation ignores her gleeful participation in and mastery of market rules; in exchange for her sexual favors, she collects goods from the "gaudy shops/In Gresham’s Burse around her [and] . . . sugar by whole loaves, her wine by rundlets," and the sexual and reproductive services her own husband is unwilling and unable to give (I.ii.33-34, 37). In turn, Mistress Allwit acts as the penultimate spouse to both Allwit and Whorehound; absolutely faithful to them both, playing the roles of chaste wife and lusty mistress concurrently with equal vigor. Returning at the end of a long absence, Whorehound grills Allwit, informing him, "I heard you were once off’ring to go to bed to her" (II.i.111). However, Allwit vehemently proclaims that she’s been "as honest of her body" as any woman could be (II.i.110).
Whorehound views "his arrangement with the Allwits as a temporary indulgence whose dissolution upon marriage will be inevitable and relatively unproblematic" (Martin 181); Mistress Allwit knowingly saves the payments received for the proverbial "rainy day" when Whorehound will no longer provide the regular business she anticipates in "his coming[s]" (I.ii.2). Critical consensus is that
"freed" from the "labor" of jealousy and the financial burden (with an obvious pun on ‘labor’ as sexual
activity) he is reduced to a willing cuckold. In fact, the servants note that ‘Now’s out of work he falls
to making dildoes.(Allen)
Engaged to Whorehound, Moll Yellowhammer is often read as the sole ‘chaste maid’ in Cheapside; Paster defines her as one of the "most sexually deprived of the women" (60). Moll’s first name, a colloquialism for prostitute, is incongruous with this reading and points to at least some sexual experience. A close reading suggests that Moll simply maintains the guise of virginity as she dictates her own sexual economics. She arranges her own engagement to Touchwood Junior, while her parents are distracted by her impending marriage to Whorehound (who is being cuckolded by Moll before he even marries her). Although Martin maintains that "Yellowhammer’s translation denies Moll subjectivity and agency: Moll is a commodity, like the lawns and cambrics" (196) she is both aware of this commodification and self-commodifies; her vigilant ‘virginity’ cloaks her from her parents’ suspicion. As Whorehound instructs the Welsh Gentlewoman that "a Goldsmith's shop sets out a city maid . . . here you must pass for a pure virgin," Moll is displayed as the ‘greensick’ virgin in the Yellowhammer’s shop (I.i.125, 128). Since blood was believed to commingle during sex, Touchwood Junior’s claims that "[Moll’s] blood’s mine, / And that’s the surest" (I.ii.175-176) hints to the dubious nature of this greensickness. Likewise, when sizing the engagement ring, he reflects, "Yes sir, I think I have her measure about me. / Good faith, ‘tis down. I cannot show you; / I must pull out too many things to be certain" (I.i.122-125). He is pointing down to his (flaccid) penis he would have to pull out to illustrate Moll’s ‘measure’- so often tried around it.
Their sexual dabbling is referred to again during her escape attempts: "she’s led through gutters, / Strange hidden ways, which none but love could find" (III.iii.30-33). Abundant with vaginal metaphors, Moll is to some extent equated with the penetrable, hidden places of the city’s body and the corporeal places that only lovers find. Sometimes
into its interior, the exclusionary classical body politic attempted to renounce its orifices . . . .
Instead it hankered for the unpunctuated walls of a fortress. (Harris 210)
Mistress Yellowhammer punitively drags Moll back from her last escape attempt by her hair to be displayed (then concealed) wet and hurt to her family. This can be read as a fetishization of "voracious female sexuality . . . and [this] imagined voracious and punished body is both the object of pity and of admiration, a spectacle at once of submission and troubling power" (Newman 26). Moll concurrently becomes the lascivious daughter her mother prompted her to be with her dancing instructor and the beaten down victim of a "cruel mother" who must be both pitied and desired. Although portrayed as the sole chaste maid in Cheapside, Moll is figuratively transformed by her attempts to make herself an ‘honest wife’ into a "dissembling, cunning baggage" and "impudent strumpet" (IV.iv.42-43). Her dripping "mermaid" body represents the power of her unleashed sexuality; mermaids are associated with seductive, dangerous control of men. Hence, her dripping body does not align her with female (sexual) incontinence, rather it emphasizes how she is like a fish easily maneuvering in the (then masculine) social, mercantile and sexual water, which flows around her. Here, female sexuality can only be censored by other women; her mother and the fishwives, unaffected by Moll’s siren song (unlike the sailors), would coolly sell her "flesh" to the highest bidders (40).
The Welsh Gentlewoman, as above-mentioned, similarly sells the Yellowhammers the idea that she is chaste and an heir to "some nineteen / mountains" (I.i.160-161) and "some two thousand runts" (IV.i.111). When she is discovered to be Whorehound’s cast-off and penniless mistress, she instructs Tim Yellowhammer, "Sir, if your logic cannot prove me honest, / There’s a thing called marriage that makes me honest" (V.iv.116-117). The Welsh Gentlewoman plays with Tim’s favorite organs—-those of speech and reason. She fondles his argument until its logical conclusion moves from his realm of utterance to hers of action. There is not sufficient stability on the slippery slope of discourse; she uses the patriarchal authority of marriage to (re)inscribe her as honest, reentering the marital marketplace in a stronger position.
Touchwood Senior’s Wench also calls upon the power of the ecclesiastical authority, which would condemn illegitimate children, to prove her honesty. She "was a maid before, / and bring a certificate for / it from both churchwardens" (II.i.71-73). Likewise, once she has sold him on the idea of her ‘ruin’ and promised him no more trouble from their unwanted infant, she admits in an aside that she has four other children and passes "for a maid" while she "ride[s] for a whore" (II.i.109-110). Her ability to ‘pass’ increases her social value "by at least forty pounds," the current price for a virgin-prostitute (IV.iv.69). Likewise, she literalizes the concept of women as vendors and as the commodified; she passes off her daughter as a lamb’s head to the greedy Promoters who profiteer off the Lent ban on meat.
In discussing Heinrich Bullinger’s The Christian State of Matrimony (tr. 1541), Newman reflects that
but Bullinger betrays a grudging if derisive respect for the whore’s mercantile good sense (21).
Ravenous consumption is best represented by Mistress Allwit’s pregnancy; her swollen belly "is both fertile and symbolic of women’s consuming, swelling, swallowing self: as Bakhtin might say, of the ‘grotesque body’ that knows no limits and which consumes in order to regenerate" (Allen). However, Allen’s reading is somewhat problematic as "the grotesque body was incontinent, both in the modern somatic sense and in the earlier broader meaning of ‘unrestrained’" (Harris 209); Mistress Allwit is nothing if not in control of her own bodily economics. She swallows and stores Whorehound’s semen and gifts, saving them in the bank of her pregnant belly in anticipation of a financial and sexual drought, looming on the horizon. She is like the city market itself, expanding in response to consumer demand, yet pushing her product, aware of the market’s fickleness.
Performing Passivity - Consuming Desire
Like John Stow’s anxiety over commerce, in "Survey of London", "Truewit’s
tirade against women and marriage indicates, the city provides the opportunity
for indulging material and sexual desires . . . [where] seeing ‘strange
sights daily’ both causes citizens, notably women, to spend ‘extravagantly’
and to lose their ‘chaste’ or virtuous behavior" (Allen). However, women
save and barter while men spend until they are spent. If the feminine belly
represents fertility, consumption is followed by the reproduction of more
hungry mouths. Because Whorehound is not a constant presence in their household,
Allwit, who recollects that he "heard a citizen once complain that his
wife’s belly broke his back" (III.ii.75-76), is spared the copious amount
of children and consumers, which plague Touchwood Senior. Martin suggests
that Mistress Touchwood’s reply of "your will be mine, sir" (II.i.42) clearly
"indicates that he as head of the household determines what is necessary
for the care of the estate, and that his wife’s sexuality is considered
to be part of the estate" (178). Middleton’s construction of sexual economics
prohibits the likelihood that she alone, among all women in Cheapside,
will remain chaste. However, even on the least illicit level, she is likely
relieved to be free from a belly full of infants.
by making her genitals a thirsty mouth roaming the countryside in search of water. The mixed metaphor,
from mouth/water to quiver/arrow to gift/exchange signals not only a violent misogyny but exchange
value and perhaps covert desire. (10)
Likewise, by reading the female body as the punctuated, leaking vessel, critics subscribe to the notion that the male physique must in turn represent the impenetrable wall, holding ideological and economic norms securely within. However, leakiness blurs gender and ideological distinctions. Not only is the male body equally penetrable and penetrated in Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, but it is the male body which leaks economic, sexual and moral fluid with abandon, resulting in negative personal and societal repercussions.
Spent Men - Leaking (discursive) Spouts
Touchwood Senior is unable to feed any more legitimate heirs in the countryside
full of his bastards. Counting the seven women forced to "lay in last progress"
(II.i.62), the Wench, and her cousin, he has possibly sired nine illegitimate
children in a year. His body, leaking seminal fluid into every woman possible,
is perhaps the most unrestrained in the play. He seems bent on proving
his masculine heterosexuality, in a way which makes his sex acts seem uncontrolled
and compulsive. Using Butler’s ideas on imitation, it appears that Touchwood
Senior, like Whorehound, and to a lesser extent, Kix himself, is compelled
to confirm the heterosexual/patriarchal order, by again and again impregnating
women. This compulsive repetition alludes to an insecurity, which ironically
emphasizes how Touchwood’s uncontrollable ejaculation waters the countryside,
while it seeks to plug the dangerous feminine orifice with children, in
an attempt to confirm personal and societal virility. This wild spillage
has led Touchwood Senior to become economically spent, his (and his wife’s?)
sexual excess threaten to wear out his sexual "gear" (II.i.17). Would being
spent, his gear verging on complete dryness, make Touchwood Senior subvert
Galenic humoralism, making dryness effeminate and femininity dry?
vestimentary transgression, one that violated expected boundaries of gender identification or gender
decorum. For one kind of crossing, inevitably crosses into another. (28)
Allwit’s dressing might also stand in for the theatrically cross-dressed players. Although immensely anxiety-provoking to the antitheatricalists, Allwit’s dressing is successful. As he performs the class above him and Tim performs an education his mercantile parents hope will help him ascend the social ladder, gender is likewise doubly performed. On one level the women in the Cheapside perform gender expectations, their compliance to these ideological norms creating blind spots for the spent men; they then seize economic and sexual power.
On a secondary level, all gender is performed. Since there are no women on the stage, one might assume that freedom co-opted by these women is entirely fictionalized, (re)produced by a masculine troupe in a masculine theatrical space. Although these considerations of theatrical gender "muddy the waters", they do not preclude a positive feminist revisioning of sexual economics in Middleton’s play.
T.S Eliot once wrote that Thomas Middleton "has no message; he is merely a great recorder" (cited in Gibbons 3); the sexual and economic dynamics on his stage then, have been read as reflective rather than moralistic--female empowerment was, in at least some respects, a fact worthy of documentation. Concurrently, although there were no maids at all in the theatrical production of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, there were most likely women in the audience. Jean Howard believes that
ways it put her ‘into circulation’ in the public world of Elizabethan England in ways threatening to
the larger patriarchal economy. (77)
The urine puddles soaking the floor under the gluttonous drunken Gossips, and the wet diaper of Whorehound’s infant daughter are read by Paster as commentary on women as "Leaky Vessels." This incontinence is equated with the "unreliability" and loose behavior of women in the marketplace (25). Strangely, even if we are willing to equate women with leakiness, our consideration of cross-dressing points again to the dripping masculine spout. There simply are no women on the stage to leak.
So are there any leaking female characters in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside? Whorehound’s daughter’s wet diaper might equate all contemporary female behavior, from cradle to grave, with the impossibility of being chaste and continent. However, female consumption and excretion are just as likely to signal strength as weakness. There is an elision between gossiping and community; the women speak openly and inclusively to each other (with a kind of contained openness shared with the audience) whereas Tim’s ridicluous Latin is enjoyed only by his tutor. Moreover, the incontinent Gossips, entomologically ‘Godparents,’ represent Whorehound, the Godparent at his own daughter’s christening, whose own sexual incontinence is left behind, embodied by his illegitimate children.
Moll’s discourse does not seep out of her, but represents a carefully planned performance. By playing on the weakness associated with tears, "Weep eyes, break heart," Moll dupes her parents (as she had before, allowing them to think she was weeping because she was actually going to marry Whorehound) into believing she waits on death’s door (V.iii.42). Her elaborate ruse, playing with women’s assumed emotional weakness, gives her the ability to (in part) control her own destiny in the patriarchal society. The "climatic swoon" during her counterfeit illness, and her little (feigned) death are calculated aspects of her plan to marry Touchwood Junior. On some level, even Yellowhammer can recognize the performance, as she merely "plays the swan and, sings/ herself to [her expected] death (V.iii.523). Similarly, the Welsh Gentlewoman’s song is a "sweet" feminine performance, which lubricates the marriage plans. Tim cries out, "I would not change my wife for a kingdom" (IV.i.220). Female excretion is not the uncontrolled compulsive leaking of the male counterparts; rather, if women leak in Cheapside, it is in order to profit from selling their performance of femininity.
Fingers in the Dyke - Plugging the Gaps
The landscape in and around the Cheapside
(human) meat market and the social, sexual and financial transactions that
take place there represent London’s economy. Despite the anxiety expressed
by King James I who, in an attempt to contain the city’s fertile, distended
belly, admonishes the gentry who brought their insistent wives and daughters
"who, if they were unmarried, marred their reputations, and if married,
lost them" (James I, quoted in Allen), women continue to breach the city
walls and reconfigure the economic field both as consumers and vendors.
Challenging the notion that they are consumables to be profitably exchanged
between men, women incorporate the conceptual market stall; disposable
income and increased social freedom means they can begin to consume and
profit with greater ease. Moreover, by incorporating modes of exchange,
operating within pre-existing gender ideology, women like Moll and Mistress
Allwit in Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside perform
tears, sex, and even discourse, the weakness associated with moist women,
to retake masculine sexual authority, barter their own wares and profit
off the men who buy them. Simultaneously, critical consumers like Lady
Kix and the Country Wench purchase only what they need and sell when the
masculine (meat) market dries up. As women take over the marketplace, men
in Cheapside leak virility, finances and ultimately become spent; their
lack creates sexual and economic space for shrewd women to occupy. Even
the uneasy position of the stage, seen as a male space, is challenged by
female consumers who dictate in part what is played by the liminal, threatening
and leaky cross-dressing actors. Playing with the expectations that they
were to be demure at home and dynamic in the market place, women in Cheapside
economically and sexually puncture the patriarchal status quo. There may
not be a single "Chaste Maid [left] in Cheapside," but there are a lot
of happy ones; the economically and sexually satisfied women are too stuffed
to leak uncontrollably (or worry if they do) onto London’s busy streets.
La Dildo, dildo la dildo.
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Kirsten C. Uszkalo. All Rights Reserved.
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