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Clothes Maketh the Mind: Gender Transgression and the Pleasure of Self-Identification in Middleton and Dekker’s Roaring Girl and Erauso’s Lieutenant Nun

By Lucy Zavitz

It is a complicated endeavor to appropriately assess the act of cross-dressing in the Renaissance. Such a task necessitates inquiries into the social fabric of the culture and the role of the individual’s identity within that culture. Naturally, the construction of identity, whether it is determined more by social circumstance or by interior impulse, is a question of concern here. What drives the formation of this alternative identity? Is the cross-dressing female performing as a man only to evade patriarchal oppression? Does this distinction matter? This essay considers two texts, Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s city comedy, Roaring Girl, and Catarina de Erauso’s memoir, Lieutenant Nun, which portray cross-dressing individuals, Moll (a character based on a real person, Mary Firth) and Erauso.1 Importantly, while the ambiguity of their gender certainly influences and contextualizes the events of the narratives, neither plot revolves around the construction or concealment of their identities, which are given to the reader more or less without any question or explanation. In Roaring Girl, young lovers, Sebastian Wengrave and Mary Fitzallard, plot to use Moll’s notorious reputation as a cross-dresser to manipulate their fathers into consenting to their marriage. Lieutenant Nun, meanwhile, is a story centered on Erauso’s pursuits as a colonizer in Peru rather than his cross-dressing. It is tempting to construe the Renaissance female’s desire to cross-dress as primarily a means of escaping the constraints of womanhood, and perhaps it begins that way. Yet, the fearless nonchalance with which Moll and Erauso conduct themselves and the clear self-satisfaction they take from the performance of masculinity, characterizes the act as a resonance with a new identity more than the need to abscond an established one. For Moll, the construction of this alternative identity is a dignified rejection of social expectation; for Erauso it is the adoption of a brutal society he admires. I argue that these gender transgressions are acts of self-identification, not motivated by fear and desperation, but by pride and pleasure. 

The extent to which one can project the formation of ‘identity’ onto interior disposition is a subject worth addressing. One can reasonably presume that Moll and Erauso’s gender identities are influenced by a myriad of social and environmental conditions that made them dissatisfied in their lives as women, but it seems amiss to prescribe Moll and Erauso’s cross-dressing as owing uniquely to the adverse or limiting social expectations for women. This is not to say that the social conditions do not introduce or inform their identities, and it is important to acknowledge that by “transgress[ing] the codes governing dress” they may “disrupt an official view of the social order,” but the characterization of their self-expression as wholly dependent on discontent with social roles, and the analysis of its substance based on those roles, disproportionately minimizes the interiority of gender expression (Howard 421). I make this distinction to mark their gender transgressions as intentional acts of “distinct[…] self-identification” that affirm inner feeling and experience with outward expression (Borris 4). 

It is relevant to distinguish between cross-dressing as a necessary disguise and cross-dressing as an act that does not have a discernible ‘purpose.’ Cross-dressing was not an uncommon dramatic convention in Renaissance literature and performance, but it was most often used as a device to forward the plot. Cross-dressing for Moll, on the other hand, does not serve as a means to an end. She engages in the performance of masculinity “not to conceal her sexual identity, but rather to display it” (Rose 367). When Moll dresses up as a man to meet the philanderer Laxton at Gray’s Inn Fields, and he mistakes her for “some young barrister,” she immediately reveals herself and teases him for not recognizing her: “So young, and purblind? You’re an old wanton in / your eyes, I see that” (3.1.49, 54-55). Laxton believes that her dress is “admirably suited for the Three Pigeons at Brentford,” which was “known as a site for sexual rendezvous,” but, for Moll, cross-dress does not signify licentiousness and she chastises him (3. i. 56-57, n19). Moll’s clothes certainly facilitate Laxton’s misjudgment of the situation, but she advances her empowered rebuke not by her mannish dress but by speaking as a woman: “Thou’rt one of those / That thinks each woman thy fond flexible whore / […] / In thee I defy all men, their worst hates / And their best flatteries” (3. i. 72-73, 92-93). Laxton’s judgement conveys a belief that “women’s sexual looseness stems from their unnatural aspiration beyond their assigned place, that is, beyond the control of the male,” but Moll’s voice “argues that women are unchaste because they are poor” (Howard 437). I draw out this moment because it demonstrates a lack of specific utility in Moll’s dress. She does not use her mannishness alone to intimidate Laxton. Instead, she uses forceful articulation to defend her honor against Laxton. She achieves her social power, separately from her choice of dress, with words and actions. 

The utility of cross-dressing is configured somewhat differently in Lieutenant Nun, because, unlike Moll, Erauso constructs his new identity with the explicit intent of leaving the nunnery and femininity behind and integrating into a masculine domain. Though the narrative is a memoir, there is little psychological explanation given for why Erauso is unhappy in the nunnery. He mentions having “a quarrel with one of the sisters,” for which [s]he is beaten and then quickly departs “without any idea which way to turn, or where [he] might be going [… and] without the least idea where to put up” (28). The language that emphasizes Erauso’s lack of plan, and the succinct depiction of his egress (which takes up less than a page of the narrative), undercuts the reading of Erauso as a woman using male dress as a method of avoidance. Instead,  it puts forth a notion that this new identity reflects a proud interior impulse. Moreover, if the transgression were simply a means of escaping oppressive social conventions, the transgressor would undoubtedly be plagued by the constant worry of exposure. Such a fear is never voiced, as “[t]here is never a hint of complaint, nary a plea that the reader regard [him] as ‘victim’” and he “never express[s] a fear of detection”: masculinity comes to him naturally (Stepto 22; Garber 6). When Erauso is “stripped and tied to the rack,” the “lawyer” who examines him makes no mention of his genitalia, pointing out only that he is “a Basquero, and therefore exempt from torture by the privilege of nobility” (51). The lawyer’s simultaneous recognition of his nationality and inability to identify his sex illustrates how Erauso achieves what he set out to attain: full integration into the masculine domain.

As each story progresses, it is abundantly clear that the terms of Moll and Erauso’s identities are determined by their own conception of pride and their actions as much as they are by social response. Before Moll even enters the play, her reputation is discussed at length; Sebastian’s tyrannical father, Alexander, describes her as “[a] creature, […] nature hath brought forth / To mock the sex of woman”; and Laxton believes her to be an uninhibited “bona-roba” that he can easily seduce (1. ii. 133-134; 2. i. 200). But once Moll takes the stage, the reputation of “cheap conventional intrigue” which precedes her is thrust aside, and readers “suddenly realize that [they] are … observing a real and unique human being” (Eliot 123). Erauso is also confident in his identity throughout the entirety of the narration. On an authorial level, he declares himself male with the “gender inflections of the Spanish adjective,” so that the reader, like each character he encounters, forgets that he was once a woman (Stepto 26). Erauso, unlike Moll, is eager to obtain societal recognition as he climbs in rank and status, and while he endeavors to integrate into masculine society, his desire is motivated by an interior sense of pride. Even after Erauso finally confesses that “[he] is a woman,” he feels no shame or apprehension when “the news” of his transgression “had spread far and wide” (69, 70). Erauso “continue[s] to dress as a man,” and “with the pope’s blessing, [his] male garb cease[s] to be a disguise and [becomes] a privilege” (Stepto 21). Therefore, I propose that the most apt description of identity formation prioritizes the individual’s expression of pride and fulfillment over society’s reaction to presentation. Self-identification through gender expression becomes the ability to fearlessly create these personal freedoms, validate inner desires, and enact satisfaction, despite (or in the case of Erauso within) existing social expectations.

Moll and Erauso’s strong affinity for masculine clothing is the most obvious—and literal—display of pride in presentation. Middleton and Dekker first outline the importance of clothing as a marker of identity formation by comparing the creative “fashion of play-making” to “the alteration in apparel” (Epistle 1-2). The clothes one wears, therefore, become a valid method of self-fashioning. Moll first appears dressed androgynously in “a [man’s] frieze jerkin and a [woman’s] black safeguard” on her way to buy a luxurious “shag ruff” (2. i. 209-210). This ‘fitting’ introduction instills in her character a special care for clothing. She is deliberate and sensible in her choice of dress, as compared to the foppish Jack Dapper and his foolish “goose [feathers]” (2. i. 228). In the following scene, the tailor briefly interjects to fit Moll for “new breeches” (2. ii. 80-81). Initially annoyed by his insistence, Moll urges him to use “the old pattern,” but then, when he reminds her that she wanted a different “fashion […of] the great Dutch slop,” Moll decides to take the fitting and indulges in “a yard more” (2. i. 86, 89, 91). The prudent attention that Moll gives to her clothes illuminates a sense of pride in herself and the presentation of her identity. 

Erauso’s narrative also continually affirms the value of clothing as a marker of identification and pride, as “clothes offer sensuous pleasure, wealth, status, and social roles” (Garber 4). In describing his initial transformation, Erauso focuses on the materiality of his presentation and describes the extended (“three days and nights”) process of “cutting [him]self out a suit of clothes” with “a pair of scissors and a needle and thread” from his undergarments: a symbolic act of self-making (28). Later, clothes become the currency through which he navigates most relationships; “a certain doctor of theology” gives him “new clothes”; “[t]he king’s secretary” dresses him “in a fine new set of clothes”; his “master” in Panama gives him “new outfits”; and a woman who wants him to marry her daughter gives him “a suit of good velvet, twelve shirts, six pairs of Rouen breeches, a collar of fine Dutch linen, [and] a dozen handkerchiefs” (29, 33, 45). Indeed, these cloth payments are objects which, to Erauso, represent a social confirmation and acceptance of his self-presentation, but the “distinct pleasure” he takes in the material objects themselves also demonstrates an interior gratification in performativity, and a love of the masculine identity he has crafted (Garber 4). 

The manner in which Moll and Erauso act further proclaims a sense of self-satisfaction within their chosen gender identifications. Moll categorically rejects social validation and on numerous occasions, courageously engages in verbal and physical beratements of anyone who violates her idea of moral correctness. She lectures Mistress Openwork, accosts Laxton in a lengthy speech, taunts the court sergeant who tries to arrest Jack Dapper, and fights off a gang of ‘cutpurses’ when they try to rob her friends. However, several critics have questioned the extent to which this bold, and sometimes impetuous behavior, generates a sense of fulfillment for Moll. Mary Beth Rose argues that the manifestation of “her sexual independence” leaves Moll “isolated from the very social structure which her courage and vitality have done so much to enliven and renew” (389). T. S. Eliot asserts that Moll “renounce[s] all happiness for herself and […] lives only for a principle” (127). However, these claims neglect to consider how Moll’s rejection of society is a choice of self-identification. For one, she articulates her condemnations with mighty eloquence, passion, and haughtiness, signifying implicit enjoyment in renouncement. For another, the narrative gives no indication that Moll’s ‘principles’ are a product of stoic restraint rather than her own inclinations. Her persistent and wilful commitment to the defense of ‘principle’ does not convey misery, but rather signifies that she values herself and her freedom. Furthermore, the notion of Moll as a figure of ‘self-isolation’ is largely predicated on her rejection of Sebastian’s false marriage proposal: 

I have no humour to marry. 

I love to lie o' both sides o'th'bed myself; and again 

o'th'other side, a wife, you know, ought to be obedient, 

but I fear me I am too headstrong to obey, therefore 

I'll ne'er go about it. [...] 

I have the head now of myself, and am man enough 

for a woman (2. ii. 37-41, 43-45).

Eliot and Rose’s arguments, which position Moll’s desire to stay chaste as a reflection of her unwillingness to submit to a man, promote a reading of Moll as harboring a repressed sexual or romantic longing for men—for which there is little evidence in the reality of the play.2 Moll, herself, even negates the conflation of her masculine presentation with lustful desire in her speech to Laxton: “’Cause you’ll say / I’m given to sport, I’m often merry, jest; / Had mirth no kindred in the world but lust?” (3. i. 103-105). Moll’s question, which asks why Laxton aligns ‘mirth’ as ‘kindred’ to ‘lust,’ exposes the formulation of merriment and promiscuity as a false equivalency, and thus also speaks more generally against the assumption that her happiness is dependent on sexual gratification. For her own part, Moll sources much of her pride and happiness in her manner of presentation. She is self-righteous and ‘principled’ but clearly garners a sense of fulfillment from living in this manner; for “[our roaring girl] flies / With wings more lofty” (Prologue. 25-26).

Erauso’s approach to fulfillment is vastly different from Moll’s as he actively tries to facilitate social acceptance of his identity. His behavior illustrates a profound reverence for masculinity, in a manner that “reaffirm[s…] society” rather than destabilizing it (Stepto 22). Erauso’s proud self-identification resonates particularly with self-serving colonial pursuits, causing his “incarnation of the masculine ideology” to merge with colonial projects of “conquest and conversion” (Víctor Rocha qtd. in Aresti 403). He enacts violence in nearly every chapter of the narrative, “engag[es] in innumerable duels and fights, some of which end[…] in the death of his opponent,” and selfishly takes whatever he can without concern for any consequence (Aresti 403). These fights solidify his sense of self, and he takes pleasure in carrying out this violence. In the description of the fighting action, Erauso is sangfroid and cocky, omitting many details and portraying each fight as if it were easily won: “[he] drew his sword and came at me, and I went at him with my own. We met, I thrust the blade through his left side, and down he went” (34). He is legibly proud of his mastery of the sword, but presents his skill with a conceited nonchalance. Erauso boastfully recounts how he kills a “menacing,” “hairy giant of a man” whom “everyone called The Cid” (63). In another episode, Erauso is “forced to cut another man’s face with a little knife,” and then in a dry, remorseless narration, he characterizes “the event” as having “caused a great deal of disquiet” (73). Moreover, after he is transferred “to the flagship” as a consequence of this action he comments, “I couldn’t have been more pleased” (73). On two occasions, he kills men for calling him “a cuckold,” which necessitates an investigation into the “intact virgin[‘s]” ambiguously defined sexual life (42, 53, 70). There are moments that imply Erauso’s attraction towards women, such as his stated taste for “pretty faces,” but the narrative gives us no evidence of a “sustained temptation to engage in courtship” (Erauso 44; Garber 6). Erauso seems to enjoy accumulating women’s attention, insofar as it corroborates his superiority over them. In the final chapter, Erauso encounters “two [tittering] ladies,” and when they greet him as “Señora Catalina,” he replies “My dear harlots, […] I have come to deliver one hundred strokes to your pretty little necks, and a hundred gashes with this blade to the fool who would defend your honor” (80). In this arrogant declaration, Erauso articulates his dominance over women, and this affords him great pleasure: a reification of his gender identity.   

There is a notion that “Renaissance women so far accepted the masculine rules of the game that they felt they had to adopt the clothing and external attributes of the male sex in order to be ‘free,’” and this is not a statement with which I wish to disagree in the absolute (Linda Fitz qtd. in Rose 373). However, it is difficult, and perhaps irrelevant, to assess the relative symbolic value of female cross-dressing on the basis of whether or not they affirm or transgress the social landscape of the period. A person’s identity is formed both by the social limitations of their environment and the interior response that the environment facilitates and one cannot discount the validity of that gender expression based on its ability to destabilize. Moll’s ostensibly  ‘purposeless’ expressions  of masculine identity affirms her rejection of society, while Erauso’s cross-dressing is emblematic of his appreciation of traditional masculine power. They build these identities, for their own satisfaction without fearing discovery. Their dress provides a material display of pride and their conduct asserts their chosen identities to the society they inhabit, but the pleasure they derive from that performance shows it to be of interior value.


  1. I chose to refer to Catarina de Erauso as simply Erauso, and likewise selected the pronouns he/him, because these terms best describe his gender presentation through the majority of the narrative. It is worth acknowledging that this choice may create some confusion as to the difference between the author and the character. To correct this, I note specifically when I mean the author by using language that reflects the crafting of the narrative (though I refer to him in this way infrequently). 
  2. Moll’s potential alignment with the myth of the androgyne is of some interest here. According to the “Speech of Aristophanes” in Symposium, the androgynes were “forms made up of male and female parts” who had no sexual desires as they “had two sets of sexual organs” (47). When Zeus split them in half, they were left incomplete, and there arises “the source of [human’s] desire to love each other” (49). Moll, who is “man enough for a woman,” could be justly cast as ‘androgynous’ and thus even rendered ‘asexual’ (2. ii. 44-45).

Works Cited

Aresti, Nessa. “The Gendered Identities of the ‘Lieutenant Nun’: Rethinking the Story of a Female Warrior in Early Modern Spain.” Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Borris, Kenneth. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts1470–1650. Routledge, 2004.

Eliot, T. S. The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Volume 3: Literature, Politics, Belief, 1927-1929, edited by Frances Dickey and Jennifer Formichelli and Ronald Schuchard, The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd., 2015. Project MUSE, 10.1353/book.41952.

Erauso, Catalina De, et al. Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. Beacon Press, 1996.

Garber, Marjorie. “Forward” Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, by Erauso, Catalina De, Beacon Press, 1996, pp. 3-13. 

Howard, Jean E. “Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 4, 1988, pp. 418–40. JSTOR, Accessed 22 Oct. 2023.

Middleton, Thomas, et al. “Roaring Girl.” Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works and Companion. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007.

Plato. “Symposium.” Plato on Love. Ed. by C.D.C. Reeve, Hackett Classics, 2006, pp. 47-51.

Rose, Mary Beth. “Women in Men’s Clothing: Apparel and Social Stability in ‘The Roaring Girl.’” English Literary Renaissance, vol. 14, no. 3, 1984, pp. 367–91. JSTOR, Accessed 15 Oct. 2023.

Stepto, Michele. “Introduction.” Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, by Erauso, Catalina De, Beacon Press, 1996, pp. 14-25

Stepto, Michele. Stepto, Gabriel. “Translator’s Note.” Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, by Erauso, Catalina De, Beacon Press, 1996, pp. 26-27.