Tokens of Impersonation in Dekker’s City Comedies

In sixteenth- and seventeeth-century England, the relationship between clothing and identity was complex. As Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass have shown, the fact that clothing circulated as currency among different owners implicitly called into question its supposed correspondence with the wearer’s social and financial status. Stephen Orgel has explored how issues surrounding clothing and identity played out on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage—a place where clothing was understood at once as the defining token of identity and as disguise, where audiences entered into the fiction that a dress could temporarily transform a lower-class boy into a noble woman. The possibility that appearance might not match reality was problematic for early modern audiences, however, because the English credit culture that emerged in this period depended on people’s ability to assess one another’s presentations of honesty and trustworthiness. By challenging the assumed correspondence between social performance and identity, cross-dressing figures like Moll Cutpurse in Dekker and Middleton’s The Roaring Girl (1611) suggest the fallability of a system in which a person’s economic status is inferred from his or her appearance.

I wondered whether The Roaring Girl’s concern with the instability of credit might be visible at the linguistic level. In Witmore and Hope’s “very large dendrogram” (see Figure 9 here), three plays group tightly with The Roaring Girl: Westward Ho (Dekker and Webster, 1604), Northward Ho (Dekker and Webster, 1605), and The Honest Whore, Part 2 (Dekker, performed 1605 and published 1630). Based on where they cluster in the dendrogram, it is clear that these texts are not merely linked by authorship, genre, or time period. I hypothesized that these four plays might all share The Roaring Girl’s concern with disguise and credit, and that this concern would be one of the factors linking them together stylistically. Still, much of early modern drama, especially city comedy, is concerned with the economics of identity. Assuming that these plays’ treatment of credit and disguise contributes to their linkage, what is uniquely similar about them that pushes the plays together?

To answer this question, I performed Principle Component Analysis (PCA) on 130 plays performed between 1601 and 1621 and found a component that united the plays on The Roaring Girl twig. As it turns out, the cocktail of linguistic factors that joins these four plays includes the categories Docuscope labels “Person Properties” and “Sense Objects.” The component also discriminates against Positive and Negative Standards, Abstract Concepts, and Negativity.

The passage from the four plays that is most exemplary of this component comes from Westward Ho. Words underlined in purple are Person Properties, while bright yellow indicates Sense Objects:

In this scene, the bawd Birdlime tries to protect the identity of one of her clients, Tenterhook, from another who has entered her house. Tenterhook hides in a closet with the prostitute, Luce, and covers her eyes. She tries to identify him by the feel of his hands and what he wears on them. In guessing, she reveals the names of all her clients, thereby contradicting the bawd’s claim that whores practice a kind of doctor-patient confidentiality. The most frequent elements in this scene are Person Properties, Sense Objects, Questions and Direct Address. In other words, in this scene characters address one another based on their perceived identities (mistress, captain) and their interactions with the physical world.

The second most exemplary passage, this time from The Roaring Girl, is even more explicitly concerned with clothing. Here again, purple indicates words tagged as Person Properties, and yellow highlights Sense Objects:

In  this scene, Moll’s man Trapdoor reports to Sir Alexander about his mistress, and they hatch a plan to catch her in flagrante delicto with Alexander’s son Sebastian. Again, the passage is dominated by Person Properties (linked mainly to gender and social position) and Sense Objects. Moll’s male apparel is thoroughly catalogued, and the interplay of the repeated terms “girl,” “mistress,” and “man”/ “male” highlights the instability of her identity when she wears these typically masculine items of clothing. The rapid-fire comedic exchange amplifies the effect of the patterns—for example, the repeated pun on “shirt of mail” / “male shirt” creates a glut of Person Properties and Sense Objects in those lines.

It would seem, then, that the component under consideration selects for descriptions of people—their social roles (Person Properties) and the way they dress (Sense Objects)—as well as descriptions of the material world. What does PC2 select against? The least exemplary passage comes from a scene in The Roaring Girl in which Sebastian attempts to persuade his father that Moll is a chaste woman, despite her propensity for brawling and wearing men’s clothing. In this passage, green indicates Positive Standards and Negative Standards; light purple flags Abstract Concepts and various narrative cues such as Reporting Events; and orange highlights Negativity as well as other indicators of interiority such as Subjective Perception:

Sebastian explicitly critiques his father for judging Moll by her appearances; yet the language of this passage is very different from previous ones in which the obsession with appearances and roles was implicit in the preponderance of Person Properties and Sense Objects. Here, the most common elements are Positive and Negative Standards, Abstract Concepts, and Negativity. Given that this passage is the opposite of the component that grouped these four plays together, it would seem that this particular combination of standards, judgment, and interior life is uncommon in the world of these plays.

While the component that sets these four texts apart selects for plays about sex and clothing, it is not merely a “disguise plot” component. Given its opposition to standards and interiority, it might be more broadly defined as language that explores the material world’s inability to accurately reflect abstract truths. I believe this component can show us something about Dekker’s engagement, not only with identity, but with credit culture. In selecting for moments where people are described based on their clothing, appearance, and/or social role, and selecting against value judgments of those people’s performances, this component might highlight plays that represent the impossibility of assessing people based on their public personae. Not only might a woman dress as a man, but a prostitute might present herself as a rich woman, provided she has wealthy enough customers. Similarly, an insolvent gallant might dress well to trick shopkeepers into extending him credit (or their wives into sleeping with him). The fact that Dekker’s treatment of disguise excludes judgments, standards, or appeals to authority suggests that his critique is not of the amorality of the city. Rather, it is of the way that credit relations punish perceived immorality, while often rewarding well-hidden immorality. This explanation might help explain why these particular plays cluster together, rather than blending in with all the rest of Jacobean city comedy.

Richard Wawso argues that all Jacobean drama, through its concern with disguise, counterfeit, and crime, invites audiences to question the credibility of their neighbors. Certainly, Dekker’s stage comedies reflect a sustained interest in the unstable relationship between dress and character, but as this component reveals, they do so in a unique way. I hope my findings might help us begin to understand how different writers’ attitudes toward these issues register at the linguistic level, even when they use the same stock of plot points and characters. While a morally conservative writer like Jonson might condemn the coney-catchers and cross-dressers of the London underworld for wreaking havoc on the institutions of credit that undergird social commerce, Dekker seems more critical of the credit system itself. In its very structure—in its reliance on appearances—the system invites exploitation by those who are willing to play the game. We are able to see this critique coming through in these plays because, like an expert coney-catcher, Docuscope counts the tokens of texts’ identities, registering the affinities that are alternately hidden and revealed by the linguistic “clothing” they wear.

This entry was posted in Early Modern Drama. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Comment

  1. Posted December 9, 2011 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    I love the way you use DocuScope’s tagging to pick up on the theme of unstable identities that recurs so often in City-comedy and much of the “urbane” literature and print culture of early modern London. While I would contest Jonson’s “morally conservative” tag when it comes to depictions of criminality, I do agree that in picking up the frequency with which certain LATs occur together, DocuScope is registering a strong thematic element which only a very astute human reader might recognize readily.

    However, I read City-comedy, and especially a play like The Roaring Girl as intensely argumentative. The character of Moll is, of course, very combative but there is also a strand in City-comedy that I can only describe as a kind of “public-contemplation” – almost an emerging public sphere where deep rooted structural issues and changes are threshed out through the lively exchange and conflict that characterizes the public spaces of the City. This is not the deeply contemplative, inward-looking, and solitary philosophizing of Hamlet but no less effective and insistant in the way it interrogates social norms. The instability of identity that you discuss provides a great example of it and a character like Moll, strongly opinionated and rebellious, often articulates her choices, beliefs and actions in a language that is both practical and yet “contemplative” in this peculiarly boisterous way.

    So I was surprised by your observation that certain combinations of LATs that I would expect to denote precisely this kind of public, argumentative language seem to be absent from these plays. However, looking at the set of City-comedies in LATtice, it turns out that these categories are not only present but often present to a greater degree than in many other kinds of texts. AbstractConcept, for example, has one of the highest relative frequencies in The Roaring Girl in the entire corpus. In fact, it would further your argument because much of the discussion of debt in the citizen plot is picked up by DocuScope under this LAT as are Moll’s meditations on marriage etc.

    Why, then, does such a dominant strand not show up in PC2? We need to be careful in how we interpret the statistics, especially when we move to PCA on such a high-dimensional data-set. The hierarchical clustering that builds the dendrogram takes into account the distance (Euclidean, but other measures of “distance” are possible) between the entire vectors, while PCA tries to capture as much of the variation in as few components as possible. We cannot always interpret the negative weighing of a parameter in the first or second principal components as absence because not all of the variation is explained by those two components. Effective reduction to two dimensions happens only when most, or at least 90-95% of the variation in the data-set is explained by the first two components. For this to happen many of the individual columns need to be correlated. This is not always the case with data drawn from complex cultural documents such as our plays. Performing PCA on the drama dataset in any stats package, we can see that over a dozen components are needed before we can explain 90% of the variation. In other words, while individual components can tell us which LATs co-occur together, we cannot be certain that a component selecting against a set of LATs indicates their absence in the corpus. Exploring the individual LATs and their frequency-ranges, or looking at the raw pca data might help us to trace these strands. The very interesting patterns you are describing in this set of plays might become even richer if we take into account how City-comedy, in a sense, makes contemplation a public, argumentative activity.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>