chapter  11
15 Pages

Gold Digger or Golden Girl?: Purifying the Pursuit of Gold in Heywood’s Fair Maid of the West, Part I


In Thomas Heywood’s Fair Maid of the West, Part I (ca. 1600), a lowborn English barmaid is deemed a “girl worth gold” by the King of Fez (as well as by the play’s subtitle). While this tapstress-turned-adventurer grows rich by plundering numerous Spanish ships, she refuses to allow herself to be bought, even for all the gold in Barbary. As she circulates from one English port to another, out to sea, and finally to the Moroccan coast, her value increases until she is seated like a queen next to the King of Fez and promised to be “ballast home with gold” (5.2.37).1 Though she circulates continuously, Bess becomes a “girl worth gold” precisely by resisting the fungibility and devaluation associated with the circulation of gold in the global marketplace. As Jean Howard has argued, her worth derives from her exceptionality: Bess represents “a paragon of modesty and faithfulness” and “as such she functions as a unifying symbol of the nation and as a catalyst to transform and perfect the men around her.”2 But how are Bess’s methods for accumulating gold also informed by a broader global awareness of imperial rivalry that renders gold’s meaning multivalent and unstable? By what means does Bess assume the status of golden girl and evade the negative attributes associated with gold digging?