Green Gowns and Crimson Petticoats: Prostitution and the Satire of Material Desire in Middleton and Jonson

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Author: Elyssa Y. Cheng
Email: elyssacheng@yahoo.com.tw
Published: December 1, 2018
https://doi.org/10.22492/ijl.7.1.04

Citation: Cheng, E. Y. (2018). Green Gowns and Crimson Petticoats: Prostitution and the Satire of Material Desire in Middleton and Jonson, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.22492/ijl.7.1.04


Abstract

This paper explores representations of prostitution and the satirical criticism of material desire in Thomas Middleton’s Michaelmas Term (1604) and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613) and Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614). In Michaelmas Term, a “pestiferous pander” lures a beautiful country lass to the city where she is overwhelmed by the fashionable clothing and material delights that prostitution offers and agrees to become a wench. In another Middleton play, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, a couple agrees to prostitute the wife in exchange for an extravagant life far above their designated social class. In Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, the pig-woman, Ursula, along with her pimps, draws city wives into prostitution by tempting them with sumptuous clothing. This paper argues that although Middleton and Jonson approach the cultural phenomena of prostitution and conspicuous consumption differently, both of them blame the propensity to consume exotic fashion and luxuries on women and focus on how women’s material desire seduces them to enter the sex trade. Past critics have never directed their attention to the men’s vanity toward wealth-conferred status and their anxiety toward women’s agency under the mercantile market economy in these works. As revealed in Middleton and Jonson’s plays, the male resistance not only illustrates the early modern Londoners’ fear of acknowledging themselves as active participants in the emerging proto-capitalist economy, but also discloses their apprehension in losing patriarchal control, especially in a society where women’s chastity is no longer sacrosanct.

Keywords

material desire, prostitution, conspicuous consumption