FEMINIST critics of Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside have focused carefully on the leaky, grotesque female bodies of the play and have argued that they represent cultural anxieties about economic and social order, which these female bodies have the potential to undermine. Such readings have been highly influenced by Gail Kern Paster's “Leaky Vessels: The Incontinent Women of City Comedy,” in which Paster suggests that such representations of the female body “display that body as beyond the control of the female subject, and thus as threatening the acquisitive goals of the family and its maintenance of status and power.” Following Paster, Shannon Miller argues that the play presents women “as both insatiable consumers of value and unstable receptacles of value.” Recent criticism of the play, however, which explores the cultural and ideological work of the play and comments on the economic transactions within it suggests that the complexity of the play necessitates a reexamination of the roles of female characters within the play's economy, particularly one that considers female agency. Despite the fact that a number of scholars recognize that the play “insists on equivalences in the exercise of appetite, both male and female alike” and that, as a “blistering satire,” it “pokes fun” at everyone, the women of the play are frequently described as commodities within a male-controlled economy and thus divested of agency. Kathleen McLuskie, though, argues that “In A Chaste Maid, Middleton presents city dwellers who adapt to social change by learning to exploit it” and that this play, among Middleton's other plays, “is at its most original in extending the roles of city women.” This certainly seems to be the case. I argue that aside from being consumers of goods, the women of the play demonstrate strategic control in a broader economy in which sex, marriage, reproduction, land, and commodities intersect. Not only do these women meet the demand for “honesty” through strategies that allow them to control their value, they are also members of female communities that reinforce subversive agency within a complex urban economy.
Scholars have repeatedly shown that the female body was a locus of anxiety during the early modern period, and Middleton's play taps into those anxieties by presenting the female body as leaky or grotesque and the economy to which it is linked as carnivalesque.