The Sempster's Wares: Merchandising and Marrying in the Fair Maid of the Exchange (1607) [*]
Green, Juana, Renaissance Quarterly
This essay demonstrates how handkerchiefs in The Fair Maid map out the cultural anxieties about courtship and marriage practices that were mobilized by women's participation in early modern England's expanding market economy. It locates handkerchiefs within the material culture of the period, examining the status of handkerchiefs as commodities as well as women's relationships to these commodities, and it considers how handkerchiefs are transformed into love tokens when women personalize them with embroidery. Contextualizing the play's use of handkerchiefs with historical evidence from matrimonial cases, the essay shows how handkerchiefs embody the social contradictions embedded within early modern marriage practices.
If everyday objects take on symbolic significance in courtship, it is because lovers invest certain objects with special meanings. Yet, before courtship exchange translates objects into love tokens, these same everyday objects circulate as commodities. Often, the dramatic lives of love tokens are read merely within an economy of courtship in which objects become the symbolic signs of a shared love, their commodity states elided from view.  However, an object's ability to move between a market economy and a courtship economy allowed early modern dramatists to use love tokens as stage properties in order to explore the tensions surrounding women's agency and social position as production that had once taken place within the household began increasingly to
take place in the market. In the early seventeenth century, London began to grow into what one early modern commentator called "the mart of the world,"  and the separation between home and market created a contradictory position for the marriageable youn g women who lived at home but who worked in the "mart." At home, a young woman was subject to regulation by her family or the head of the household in which she lived; in the marketplace outside her home, a young woman earning her own money could exercise a degree of independence, especially in the choice of a marriage partner.
In The Fair Maid of the Exchange (1607),  the drama of courtship gets played out in the marketplace, and the plot foregrounds the problematic aspects of female presence in the market. In this anonymously written city comedy, two sempsters work in London's Royal Exchange and devise embroidered handkerchiefs not as commodities to sell, but as tokens to give to their lovers. The women's handkerchiefs therefore embody the interpenetration of the erotic and the economic. As opposed to many plays that invite symbolic readings of love tokens because the commodity state of the token remains unclear within the play or resides in the play's prehistory, this play invites its audience to consider everyday objects as both commodities and love tokens when it represents the sempsters merchandising -- i.e., producing and selling -- linens on stage.  The women's positions as sempsters allow tokens to flow initially from women to men, but the play strongly redirects the flow of desire this movement of the love tokens re presents. Peddling wares enables the women to act as erotic agents, and, in the marketplace, they betroth themselves to men of their own choosing. The play, however, registers cultural anxiety -- here gendered as masculine -- about articulated feminine desire by undoing these first betrothals: at the play's end, the women are betrothed a second time to men chosen for them by a male friend and ratified by their parents.
This essay explores how The Fair Maid maps out some of the cultural anxieties about courtship practices and marriage formation that were mobilized by women's participation in early modern England's expanding market economy. I am, of course, neither tracing the historical development of England's market economy nor women's roles in it; others have done that.  Instead, I am looking at how theater participates in negotiating and managing ideological change. …