AN ENGLISH LASS AMID THE MOORS: Gender, race, sexuality, and national identity in Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West
The most astonishing aspect of Bess's dramatization is the enormous attention focused on her sexual status. She is a virgin, but an eroticized one, desired and desiring. This fact constitutes her power and enables her body to represent England as a virtuous and intact "maiden isle" (V.i.90); this fact also renders Bess problematic and dangerous, since the men of the play repeatedly assume she will give over her chastity and begin to employ her sexuality promiscuously, making them her common and interchangeable sexual objects. From the first scene, characters repeatedly discuss Bess's surprising virginity - surprising, that is, to those who assume that a woman who serves wine in a tavern must also, like a Mistress Quickly, serve sex. Both her class and her gender render Bess suspect. When the gentleman, Mr Carroll, arrives in Plymouth in the first scene, he is told by two captains of this "flower / Of Plymouth" (l.i.19-20) and of her beauty, sweetness, and modesty. Incredulously, he exclaims: "Honest, and live there? / What, in a public tavern, where's such confluence / Of lusty and brave gallants? Honest said you?" (l.i.246). As long as Bess inhabits the tavern world her chastity remains a subject of wonder and doubt. Even her beloved, the gentleman Mr Spencer from whom she is separated in Act I, can't quite seem to believe in her virtue even though, as he recounts to his friend, Goodlack,
I have proved her Unto the utmost test, examin'd her Even to a modest force, but all in vain. She'll laugh, confer, keep company, discourse, And something more, kiss; but beyond that compass She no way can be drawn.