Women Behaving Badly – the adventures of Moll Cutpurse

RSC Roaring GirlNicola here. Last week I had the fabulous treat of a trip to Stratford-On-Avon to see the play “The Roaring Girl,” written by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, who were contemporaries of William Shakespeare. The poster for it is on the left. I love the Swan Theatre at Stratford; it is small and intimate with the stage projecting into the audience and a three-sided gallery. You feel transported back to the sort of theatre that 17th century audiences would have visited, though probably these days we have more comfortable seats.

The Roaring Girl is the story of a character called Moll Cutpurse. The name Moll is a pun: as well as being short for Mary it was a word used to describe a young woman of disreputable character who has a reputation as a thief or “cutpurse.” The phrase The Roaring Girl is more often used to refer to “roaring boys”, the gallants who got drunk in taverns, roistered about London, got into fights, smoked, and generally behaved badly.

CosmoThe ideal modest woman of the 17th century was described in one conduct book as someone whose “home is her delight, at public plays she never will be seen and to be a tavern guest she hates.” Moll most decidedly does not fit this image with her men’s clothing, her smoking, drinking and swordfighting. Yet the play, written in 1611, is surprisingly sympathetic to Moll. She is portrayed as a woman determined to be her own person in a society that demands conformity. It can be construed as a proto-feminist piece. Moll is called a whore by those men who disapprove of her behaviour and want to control her, yet she is shown to be honest with a more powerful sense of morality than those who try to entrap her.

Read more