Women's Work and the Early Modern English Stage
2011 | 360 pages | Cloth $69.95
Literature | Women's Studies/Gender Studies
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Table of Contents
Note on Spelling and Dates
Chapter 1. Labors Lost
Chapter 2. Dame Usury
Chapter 3. Froes and Rebatos
Chapter 4. Cries and Oysterwives
Chapter 5. False Wares
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
Scholars have long sought to explain the anomaly of the all-male stage in Shakespeare's time but have failed to consider working women's contributions to theatrical production behind the scenes. Situating the commercial playhouses within the broader economic landscape of early modern London, this book argues that the rise of the professional stage relied on the labor, wares, ingenuity, and capital of women of all stripes, including ordinary crafts- and tradeswomen who supplied costumes, properties, and comestibles; wealthy heiresses and widows who provided much-needed capital and credit; wives, daughters, and widows of theater people who worked actively alongside their male kin; and immigrant women who fueled the fashion-driven stage with a range of newfangled skills and commodities. Marshaling a broad range of evidence on these and other women who worked in and around London's public and private playhouses, Labors Lost seeks to recover this lost history by detailing the diverse ways in which women participated in the work of theatrical production in Shakespeare's time and the ways in which male playwrights and players in turn helped shape the cultural meanings of women's work.
At stake in the representation of working women on the early modern stage was the status and legitimacy of playing itself as profession. The parameters of legitimate trade underwent tremendous pressure in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century London due to exponential population growth, an influx of migrant and immigrant labor, and a rapidly expanding informal economy. Women, whose labor was often proscribed or restricted within the formal economy regulated by guilds and civic authorities, predominated in the informal networks of trade that flourished in the suburbs and liberties where the commercial theaters were located. The players relied on such trade, creating new opportunities for working women—who furnished costumes, properties, credit, and a hand in the theaters' day-to-day operations—while at the same time excluding women from the visible workspace of the stage itself in an effort to define "playing" as legitimate, manly work. Far from a marginal phenomenon, the gendered division of theatrical labor was thus crucial to the rise of the professional theater in England and provides an apt context within which to understand the dramatic tropes, figures, forms, fashions, goods, gestures, and sounds used by male players to depict working women onstage.
Women's work was not only represented by male actors on the stage, it was woven into the fabric of players' costumes, congealed in the folds of their starched ruffs, set into the curls of their perukes, arranged in the petticoats of boy-actors, calculated on the companies' balance sheets, and inscribed in the terms of their bonds. Female "gatherers" collected entrance fees at the doors of theaters, while the cries of female hawkers echoed inside and outside their walls and the wares they sold were consumed in the pit, in the galleries, and on the stage. Understanding the varied roles women played behind the scenes of theatrical production imbues early modern dramatic texts with new significance while offering a new perspective on the textures and textiles of plays in performance. The work of historical recovery that grounds this understanding is of necessity an interdisciplinary endeavor that will lead the reader through multiple forms of evidence, surveying dramatic and other cultural texts, documents of theater history, and women's social and economic history, as well as prints, paintings, and a diverse array of material ephemera associated with women's work in theatrical production and commerce.
Dress pins, hooks, buttons, costume wires, cosmetic implements, silk lace, spangles, drinking vessels, money pots, and nut and oyster shells are among the diverse, ephemeral artifacts relating to female crafts and trades unearthed in archaeological excavations of the sites upon which early modern English playhouses once stood. Although traces of women's work were everywhere in the professional theater, as they were within the culture at large, then as now, they often went unnoticed or unacknowledged. A handful of glass beads found at the site of the Rose theater may serve as an illustrative example. Each bead measures an average of just two millimeters in diameter. These "tiny objects," in the words of archaeologists Julian Bowsher and Pat Miller, would ordinarily have escaped the field of vision, being "too small to spot" even by trained eyes. They were discovered only while processing soil samples that were taken to look for other remains. Such minutiae, all too easily disregarded, may seem scant evidence upon which to build a history of women's offstage work. Yet contextualized in relation to theatrical records regarding female "spanglers" of costumes, these tiny, gleaming artifacts help illuminate the offstage work necessary to produce theatrical spectacle, as well as the gendered division of labor behind the scenes of theatrical production. For the work of spangling—or sewing beads and sequins onto costumes to make them appear more lustrous—like that of spinning, silk winding, needlework, lace making, ruff starching, and other occupations relating to luxury cloth and clothing manufacture, often fell to women precisely because they involved minute manipulations best performed by "small" fingers. Of scant interest in and of themselves, these miniscule bits of glass point to a substantial workforce of women who labored in the informal networks of artisanal production and trade that gave rise to the professional stage.
The hollow, fragile, and seemingly insignificant glass beads unearthed in the remains of the public theaters serve as an apt metaphor for the scattered traces of women's work that remain in archives and museum collections, and for the sleuthing—and sometimes simple serendipity—that leads to their detection. Deciphering these scattered traces often requires laboriously collecting many shards or fragments of evidence that would remain, when viewed in isolation, indecipherable. Like beads, they take on meaning or value only relationally, when strung or stitched together to form a pattern. The work of scholarship on women's labor history and its cultural meanings in this sense parallels that of early modern women themselves, requiring flexibility, ingenuity, and sometimes simple drudgery. The countless women who stitched, wove, washed, starched, spun, and spangled the fabric of early modern culture, sold its commodities, and financed its commercial ventures, often remain anonymous in historical records, their labor unrecorded. The historical invisibility of women's work in early modern English culture—its relegation behind the scenes of both theatrical and craft production to a "shadow" or informal economy—was produced by innumerable cultural forces and mechanisms of erasure. Women's luxury textile manufacture, for example, was often dismissed as the devil's work. Puritan diatribes against the incessant production and consumption of ornament were frequently aimed at women, decrying such attires as false or insubstantial. Similar attacks were mounted by guildsmen who sought to stigmatize female labor in unguilded occupations as shoddy or unskilled. The meager evidence that remains about such work thus often appears in literature and legislation attempting to proscribe it.
If early modern women's theatrical labors have been "lost," as the title of this book suggests, it is thus not because they were ever fully present in the past and can therefore simply be "found." Rather, as the discussion of spangling above suggests, such labors were commonly dismissed, devalued, and delegitimized in their own time. Since the early modern period, it has been a cultural commonplace that "women's work is never done." An early seventeenth-century broadside ballad first formulated this familiar refrain in the form of a complaint voiced by a wife, who recounts her domestic drudgery in detail. Her "woful Fate" includes rising before and going to bed after the rest of her family, who are therefore unaware of her toils—giving rise to her need to recount them. Countering this lack of acknowledgment with the repeated refrain, "a Womans work is never done," she insists that this is "a thing to be thought upon." Yet the ballad offers no solution to the dilemma it reveals, concluding where it began: "And thus to end my Song as I began, / You know a Womans work is never done." The knowledge it imparts thus fails to undo the defining conundrum of women's work: unending and ever-present, it is nonetheless placed under cultural erasure, as though it had never been done.
Feminist scholars and activists have had varied responses to this ostensibly transhistorical commonplace. Second-wave feminists appropriated the slogan as a form of political critique when Joyce Stevens included it in her Women's Liberation Broadsheet for International Woman's Day in 1975 ("Because woman's work is never done and is underpaid or unpaid or boring or repetitious and . . . for lots and lots of other reasons we are part of the women's liberation movement"). In this form it was reprinted on posters, postcards, and T-shirts and became a rallying cry for civil rights-era working women. In adopting the refrain of a seventeenth-century ballad, these women intimated that "the patriarchy" hadn't changed much since then, at least with respect to gendered restrictions on employment and wage differentials. Grappling with these troubling continuities, feminist historians of the 1980s sought to elaborate a more nuanced account of how women's working lives had changed since the premodern or early modern period. In an influential 1988 review essay on this body of scholarship, entitled "History That Stands Still," Judith Bennett acknowledges the continuum ("women who worked in medieval towns encountered some basic problems still characteristic of today's female work force; they clustered in low-status 'female' jobs that were low skilled and low paid") while nonetheless insisting that "these continuities in women's work do not mean that there is no history to be written" because the "particular constraints and boundaries that framed women's work have varied over time in important ways that need to be reconstructed and analyzed." These "historical changes in the circumstances and meaning of work," she maintains, warrant careful scrutiny. Pursuing this line of inquiry in the mid-1990s, Daryl M. Hafter called for a "semiotics of women's work" grounded in the recognition that its significance emerges only from its historical contexts and the cultural discourses that shape it. Hafter argues for the importance of language and representation in organizing the social reality of work, as well as giving it expression, an insight that is crucial to the present study. The language of labor divides the social world into hierarchies—male/female, skilled/unskilled, paid/unpaid, licit/illicit, and so forth—which in turn confer value, meaning, and legitimacy on different categories of work and workers. These hierarchies are historically variable and culturally contingent, shifting in response to changing social and economic conditions.
The momentous historical upheavals that took place in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries had a profound impact on the material forms and cultural meanings of women's work, yet the significance of this impact has by no means been agreed upon by historians. The thesis of a steady decline in women's economic status brought about by "capitalistic industry," first advanced in Alice Clark's groundbreaking Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (1919), has been subject to debate, critique, and refinement in more recent studies, as discussed in Chapter 1. Although it is generally agreed, for example, that the formal economy regulated by the guilds or livery companies placed increasing restrictions on women's work in the early modern period, these restrictions did not result in a wholesale exclusion of women from the labor force; rather, they helped institute a gendered division of labor that relegated women's work to an expanding informal economy of female creditors, moneylenders, pawnbrokers, frippers, victuallers, alewives, street hawkers, textile workers, and a wide range of other occupations unrepresented by guilds or livery companies. Urban women were particularly likely to work outside the home, generating their own incomes by providing services, lending money at interest, earning rent from lodgers or rental properties, and/or selling drink, food, cloth and clothing, and a diverse array of newly available consumer goods. Labors Lost builds on such scholarship by investigating the ways in which women's work in these varied occupations contributed to theatrical commerce and production in London. Insofar as the professional stage was one of the most visible and successful of these new industries, whose legitimacy was hotly debated, it was at the frontlines of the contemporary controversy regarding what constituted "honest" "workmanship" and as such participated in shaping the cultural meanings and gendered division of labor within the broader culture.
In examining women's offstage contributions to the professional theater and the ways in which their work was represented (and absented) onstage, Labors Lost complements several recent studies of the cultural significance of work in early modern England. Tom Rutter's Work and Play on the Shakespearean Stage (2008) studies changing conceptions of male labor in the drama and, like the present study, considers the theater "inextricably implicated in contemporary debates over what constituted legitimate forms of work and recreation." Yet Rutter devotes just a few pages of his study to women's work. Michelle Dowd's Women's Work in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (2009) analyzes literary and dramatic renderings of female service, wet-nursing, and huswifery but does not consider female labor in occupations that contributed to theatrical production. In contrast to Dowd's focus on women's domestic and unpaid labor, this book concentrates on women's work in a wide range of paid occupations in and around the commercial theaters. Finally, Laurie Ellinghausen's Labor and Writing in Early Modern England, 1567-1667 (2008) explores professional authorship as a vocation open to nonaristocratic men and women, including playwrights like Ben Jonson, an analysis upon which the present study builds in Chapter 5 by exploring its gendered dimension.
Recent scholarship on women's contributions to theatrical culture in pre-Restoration England has hitherto concentrated primarily on female "players" or performers, including aristocratic women's performances in court and household entertainments and itinerant women performers in the provinces, and has thereby left largely intact the paradigm of the "all-male" professional theater in London. Labors Lost seeks to revise this paradigm by revealing the participation of ordinary working women in theatrical culture and commerce at the center of England as well as on the periphery. The analyses of women's work in the networks of commerce surrounding the public and private theaters in London and their dramatic renderings found in this book likewise contribute to recent work on the staged metropolis. Jean Howard's important study of the emergent genre of city comedy and its varied progeny in Theater of a City: The Places of London Comedy, 1598-1642 (2007), like her broader corpus of work, has contributed to our understanding of the ways in which the theater made sense of an expanding metropolis and the new forms of gendered subjectivity to which it gave rise. While city comedies feature prominently in several chapters of the present study, I also consider dramatic genres not ordinarily associated with the staged city, suggesting that they, too, were influenced by the presence of working women in and around the theaters.
Another area of research to which this book contributes is the growing body of scholarship on early modern material culture and its gendered meanings, by attending to the way in which stage properties and costumes evoke and/or elide the political economies that shape their prehistories of production. The plays produced in England's first commercial theaters were certainly spectacular commodities in their own right, whose successful performance often relied on an appearance of effortlessness or sprezzatura and thus on the erasure or concealment of toil that took place behind the scenes. In Shakespeare's time as in our own, the theater undoubtedly functioned for many as a vehicle of escape from the world of work. Indeed, opponents of the stage insisted that it did so quite literally by luring artisans and apprentices away from their trades into "nurseries of idleness." From this perspective, the myriad labors that contribute to theatrical production might seem irrelevant to the finished product of plays in performance. Yet as Tom Rutter observes, Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatic literature was "very much concerned with the topic of work," as playwrights responded to anti-theatrical attacks against playing as a form of idleness by "emphasizing the industriousness and skill of professional actors." Laurie Ellinghausen further demonstrates that the "embrace of writing as work" by professional playwrights in Shakespeare's time represented "a challenge to aristocratic literary culture" and in particular to its valorization of sprezzatura. Playwrights deployed the "language of labor," she maintains, in an effort to depict writing for the stage "as a vocation—a 'mystery' of a new kind." Yet they did so not only by foregrounding their own "workmanship," as Ellinghausen claims, but also at times by revealing the myriad labors that took place offstage in the pit and galleries, and behind the scenes of theatrical production. In so doing, they held a mirror up to financiers, playing companies, theater personnel, and, more broadly, an entire workforce that profited from the commerce generated by the rise of the professional stage. Over time, however, as players and playwrights sought to elevate their own status above that of the "rude mechanicals" who toiled offstage, such "metatheatrical" reflections grew more vexed and ambivalent, and sometimes hostile and satirical, particularly when referencing women's offstage work. Plays therefore have a great deal to tell us about changing conceptions of theatrical labor and theater as labor, as these conceptions were shaped by gender and status hierarchies.
Although plays and other cultural texts often reveal a great deal about contemporary perceptions of women's work, they do not offer self-evident data about the material forms of such work, theatrical or otherwise. To understand how dramatic representations of female labor relate to material practice, we must read plays in relation to other forms of evidence, which are equally in need of interpretation. Records of women's work in the archives are often opaque and always partial—both fragmentary and shaped by particular perspectives or biases. Typically, the problem is one of sheer invisibility: working women simply don't appear under ordinary circumstances in many sources documenting the lives of those who labored in the formal economy. Indeed, such sources often seem "to have been deliberately framed to withhold from us the answers to our questions about women's lives." Historical records pertaining to women's work during the "long sixteenth century" (c. 1480-1620) are notoriously scarce. When working women do appear in records from this period, it is often in documents aimed at controlling or proscribing their labor, or in court records concerning their infringement of labor restrictions or disputes stemming from their work. Scholars interested in the history of early modern women's working lives have consequently developed techniques of "reading against the grain," using traditional sources in innovative ways and identifying new sources.
Attending to the roles of ordinary, working women in theatrical production likewise requires an expansive, flexible methodology that extends the traditional disciplinary boundaries of theater history beyond the walls of the playhouses to include the heterogeneous forms of commerce that lent them support. The scattered traces of women that appear in theatrical records take on new significance when read within the broader context of their work within the economy at large. For this reason, the phrase "in and around the theaters" appears frequently in this book to describe the commercial networks that surrounded the theaters and directly or indirectly contributed to theatrical production. These networks are the focus of Chapter 1, which examines evidence of women's offstage work in traditional sources of theater history (e.g., theatrical inventories and account books) while supplementing these with documents pertaining to women's social and economic history, in particular those concerned with regulating an unruly, informal, female workforce. The chapter begins by surveying existing feminist scholarship on women's participation in theatrical culture broadly construed, which has hitherto been divided between those who take the absence of women to be the defining condition of the professional stage in Shakespeare's time and those who have uncovered women's presence in other types or areas of performance. This absence/presence dichotomy, I argue, is insufficiently nuanced to account for women's ubiquitous, yet often unacknowledged, labors in the informal economy and their contributions to theatrical production behind the scenes. Drawing on recent scholarship on women's work in the informal sector developed by economic historians and political economists, this chapter seeks to understand the gendered division of labor that gave rise to the "all-male stage" in relation to that of the economy at large. It then surveys the many forms of women's offstage work in theatrical production and commerce, including the participation of theater wives and widows in their husbands' business affairs; women who worked in the luxury textile trades and their contribution to the production of theatrical spectacle both at court and in plays performed in the commercial theaters; the influence of the newfangled attires manufactured by immigrant tirewomen on the material cultural of the stage and their service as theatrical dressers for boy-actors; women's work in the secondhand clothing and pawnbroking trades upon which the professional playing companies relied; and women's broader contributions to the day-to-day business of theatrical production and commerce as moneylenders, gatherers, sempsters, starchers, laundresses, and hawkers of wares in the theaters.
To what extent were early modern theatergoers made aware of the offstage contributions of laboring women to the work of playing? Under what circumstances, and for what purposes, did the staging of props and costumes point to their pre- or offstage histories of manufacture, to their status as worked upon by women? How were audiences encouraged to view women who worked in and around the theaters, at the door, in the pit and galleries, and behind the scenes of theatrical production? As these questions suggest, unfolding a cultural history of women's offstage work is not simply a matter of retrieving its penumbral presence but of deciphering the ways in which it was both represented and absented, figured and disfigured, onstage. In Chapters 2 through 5, I thus turn my attention to dramatic "ciphers" that evoked the unending and ever-present, yet in varying ways elided labors of women onstage. In early modern England, the "cipher" or zero was used to figure absence in general, and female absence (including the so-called nothing of female sexuality) in particular. Because the cipher had the power to increase or decrease the value of other figures, it was used to represent absences that were perceived to be productive and presences that were perceived to be false or illusory. Thus, for example, it might be used to evoke the productive, yet invisible presence of working women in early modern culture but also to stigmatize the products of their labor as insubstantial, insignificant, or deceptive. The remaining chapters analyze exemplary, dramatic ciphers of female labor in early modern dramatic literature and performance, including the ciphering of female usurers; the ephemeral and illusory substance of starched ruffs and other attires manufactured by immigrant tirewomen; the haunting, yet inarticulate cries of female hawkers; and the trashing of market women's wares on the stage. Through these ciphers, I argue, the elusive, yet ubiquitous labors of women behind the scenes of the "all-male stage" in Shakespeare's time were figured as "never done."
Chapter 2 focuses on the poetics of the cipher or zero itself, which is deployed in Shakespeare's Sonnets and The Merchant of Venice to figure the work of counting and accounting practiced by female moneylenders in the networks of credit surrounding the commercial theaters. The wills of theater people reflect women's involvement in these credit networks, as do equity court records of debt litigation. Yet usury was considered to be the very antithesis of "honest," manly work in early modern England and was often described in gendered terms as an unnatural reproduction of wealth that circumvented productive labor. Female usurers epitomized this gendered threat by making money breed money. Although recent historical research has revealed that women were among the most prominent lenders of money at interest in Shakespeare's time, there has been no discussion of female creditors' contributions to theatrical finance or of their depiction in dramatic literature. This chapter examines women's moneylending within the broader economy to help make sense of their appearance in theatrical documents and surveys contemporary attitudes toward their lending and accounting practices in a wide array of cultural texts, including plays, pamphlets, prints, paintings, ballads, conduct books, and sermons on usury. Female creditors were variously represented as objects of desire, seduction, and courtship by men who had designs on their wealth, while being subjected to sexual slander by a society prone to view commercially active women as prostitutes. Married women who set aside separate assets during coverture and who loaned money at interest to their husbands and other male relatives were viewed as important, yet often resented, sources of business capital. Read within this context, Portia's positioning of trust and credit at the center of the marriage "bond" in The Merchant of Venice, her provision of capital to pay off her husband's debts, and the skill and exactitude with which she wages law in the trial scene are strongly evocative of emergent discourses surrounding the figure of the female creditor. In both the Sonnets and The Merchant of Venice, I argue, Shakespeare deploys the poetics of the cipher or zero to figure the "nothing" in which the usuress breeds her ever-multiplying profits and the newly exact methods of "noting" or counting and accounting through which female creditors calculated their gains. The trope of the cipher thus aptly figures the productive, yet effaced role of women in financing bonds of credit between men, including those of the all-male playing companies. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the pivotal props staged in The Merchant of Venice (the rings, caskets, and scales) and the dramatic tension they create as symbols of avarice, vanity, and usury, on the one hand, and temperance, moderation, and "just reckoning," on the other. In staging this tension, I argue, the play draws on an iconographic tradition featured in prints and portraits depicting women moneylenders and their (ac)counting practices. Such images were produced throughout Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but were particularly popular in the Netherlands, where women played an especially active role in the world of work and commerce. This analysis serves as a segue to Chapter 3, which focuses on the role played by immigrant craftswomen from the Low Countries in producing the material culture of the English stage and the depiction of commercially active "Dutch" women in plays and other culture texts of the period.
The Returns of Aliens living in London contain a wealth of evidence about such women and help shed light on immigrant women's work as starchers, laundresses, and tirewomen in and around the commercial theaters. The introduction of starching techniques to England by craftswomen from the Low Countries during Elizabeth's reign had a profound influence on fashion trends and, consequently, on the material culture of the apparel-driven stage. There is perhaps no icon of fashion more readily associated with the stage in Shakespeare's time than the starched, linen ruff. Yet we tend to forget the labor that was congealed in this most fetishized of commodities. The exquisite delicacy, pristine whiteness, and fragile shape of these starched attires distance the body of the wearer and the mind of the spectator from the world of soil and toil. Yet insofar as the very labor-obliterating form of ruffs required the extraordinary and ongoing labor of women to be produced and maintained, they perfectly exemplify the status of women's work as "never done." As material ciphers of women's work on the Shakespearean stage, ruffs and other starched linen attires further exemplify the way in which the defining attribute of that stage as "all-male" depended upon the erasure or forgetting of female labor that took place behind the scenes. This chapter seeks to decipher the extent to which the staging of starched attires recollected their pre- or offstage histories of manufacture and to what ends, focusing in particular on two plays performed in the aftermath of the immigrant influx, Thomas Dekker, Henry Chettle, and William Haughton's Patient Grissil (1600) and the anonymous The London Prodigall (1603-5). The staging of immigrant tirewomen's starched ruffs, rebatos, and head-attires can only be fully understood, I argue, within the broader landscape of gender, labor, immigration, and national identity that shaped the cultural significance of these seemingly trivial fashion accessories.
In the next two chapters, I consider how the staging of women's offstage work was influenced by players' and playwrights' ongoing quest to legitimize playing as a profession during two particularly tense moments in this history of professionalization. Chapter 4 examines the visible, vocal, yet often unwanted and decried presence of female street-criers in and around the commercial theaters and their shaping influence on the staging of "cries" in dramatic literature during the so-called War of the Theaters (c. 1599-1602). The fleeting, fugitive performances of these itinerant, petty retailers, who made their living outside or on the fringes of the formal marketplace, has enjoyed a remarkably durable presence in a wide array of both popular and elite cultural forms, including plays, masques, prints, ballads, and court music. This rich vein of cultural production is matched by an abundant mine of evidence regarding street hawkers and their wares in contemporary civic legislation, court records, and recent archaeological excavations. Although the players themselves had once been classified among itinerant peddlers in vagabond legislation, as their reputation grew and they established a permanent home in the purpose-built theaters of early modern London, they increasingly sought to elevate the status of their profession by crafting a distinct performance idiom and elevating that idiom above those of amateurs. Framed by a reading of Hamlet's advice to the players—which seeks to differentiate the professional player from a crier while the play's soundscape simultaneously draws upon the crier's vocal idiom—this chapter argues that the representation of female hawkers in dramatic literature shifted with the players' rise in status. Jonson, Marston, Chapman, and Shakespeare all deploy the figure of the crier as a foil against which to define the profession of playing and as a means of stigmatizing rival playwrights. The cries of female hawkers in particular were construed as rude, inarticulate ciphers of sound and as such were opposed to the skilled eloquence of the professional, male players. At the same time, however, they provided a performance idiom to which the professional players and playwrights made strategic recourse for both low-comic and high-tragic ends.
Chapter 5 pursues this line of inquiry a decade later, during an equally pivotal moment in the professional stage's quest for legitimacy. This chapter argues that this aim was accomplished by stigmatizing not only the voices but the wares of market women through the staged destruction of their purportedly false, insubstantial, or adulterated products. Focusing on Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613) and Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (1614), both written during a particularly tense period of contestation over the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate work, this chapter analyzes the gendering of this boundary and the moralizing discourse through which it was policed. At stake in the staging of market women's wares in these plays, I argue, was the definition of virtuous, civic masculinity—an ideal to which the professional players aspired but from which they had long been excluded. Goods manufactured outside the masculine fellowship of the urban guilds by foreigners, aliens, and women were by definition not good, in a moral as well as economic sense, and were deemed evil, insubstantial, "unworkmanly," unwholesome, false, and deceitful. When vicious objects were discovered in workshops or for sale in London's markets, they were ritually destroyed in quasi-judicial proceedings that were directed as much at the inanimate object as at its maker. Market women were punished with the same apparatuses used to discipline prostitutes, adulteresses, scolds, and shrews, symbolically linking their informal commercial activities and "adulterated" wares to female sexual, verbal, and moral incontinence. The false wares produced by women were construed as mere "trash," to be destroyed as soon as they were identified, and as such functioned as ciphers of the absent-presence of women's work. The staging of false wares in the commercial playhouses, like that of the cries of female vendors, had implications that bore on the status and legitimacy of playing as a profession, insofar as the charge that players counterfeited legitimate trades often centered on their own trafficking in false wares. Antitheatrical polemics focused their invectives on the deceptive props and costumes staged in public playhouses. In staging the controversy over unlicensed trade, professional players and playwrights thus sought to defend their own skilled workmanship by distinguishing it from the deceitful practices of market women, whose wares were reduced, quite literally, to mere trash.
For centuries critics have written unproblematically about the all-male theater of Shakespeare's time. As this book seeks to demonstrate, this construct is in important ways a myth. It is true only if we confine our definition of the theater to the onstage activities of the professional playing companies in London and divorces these activities from the larger apparatuses of theatrical production and the varied commercial practices that contributed to the business of playing. In revising this paradigm, Labors Lost seeks to open a new conversation about the nature and significance of the female labors upon which the "all-male stage" relied and against which it sought to define itself, inviting critics and scholars to reconsider the period's drama in their light. It is my hope that the shaping influence of working women on early modern theatrical production and dramatic literature will be of interest not only to specialists in the field but to a broad range of readers and theatergoers, and to theater people of our own time, who know firsthand the importance of all that takes place behind the scenes.