The Roaring Girl explores the intricate dynamics between gender expectations and social realities in the early Modern period. Moll, the lead character, is boastful and bold in temperament, and openly cross-dresses as a man. Unlike the earlier examples of women cross-dressing, as in Gallathea, where the lead female characters are disguising themselves as men to avoid a fate, there is no question about her actual sexual identity. However, beneath her outward appearance, Moll has exemplary virtue and character, as she is overtly honest and embodies the role of a wife.
Per the popular conduct pamphlets that were being circulated during the early modern period, women were to be modest, quiet, and womanly, as defined by men. The Roaring Girl, being based on a real church court case of Mary Frith, depicts Moll as having very masculine qualities, such as attending ale houses and play houses. Such unwomanly behavior was not acceptable in society, and warned against. However, it was popularly displayed in the theater at the time, as comical. The actual court case of Mary Frith suggests that cross-dressing was perhaps a more common reality of the time period than was publicized.
Sebastian shows many feminine qualities, as he doesn’t seem to have control over his emotions. “I’m so bewitched, so bound to my desires, tears, prayers, threats, nothing can quench out those fires that burn within me” he proclaims (175-177). He fawns and prattles on about how in love he is with Moll, and appears to have lost his sensible, logical male faculties. His father, Sir Alexander plays the role of the disapproving parent (as was common of the comedic dramas of the period), and describes Moll as a horrid, disdainful, subhuman being. “A creature, saith he, nature hath brought forth to mock the sex of woman. . . ‘Tis woman more than man, man more than woman, and (which to none can hap) the sun gives her two shadows to one shape” he says (lines 125-134, 235). However, she repeatedly chastises women for being dishonest with men, and tells Sebastian that she is “not of that disdainful temper” and could love him “faithfully” (lines 47-48, 251). Throughout the first two acts of this play, the traditional gender roles and expectations of the early modern period are challenged and blurred, both in behavior and appearance.
Source: The Roaring Girl by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton