How do I look today?’: Cosmetics, Cross-Dressing and Desire in The Devil is an Ass

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How do I look today?’:

Cosmetics, Cross-Dressing and Desire in The Devil is an Ass

Annette Drew-Bear’s excellent article on Jonson’s face-painting scenes exposes the frequency with which he (more than any other Renaissance playwright) contributes to Early Modern debates on cosmetics. Taking up the central conceit of The Devil is an Ass, where Satan warns against Vices ‘most like to Virtues’ (I.1.121), Drew-Bear’s exegesis reveals the sophistication with which Jonson uses face-paint, or ‘fucus’,1 to satirize court manners and vanity, which ‘epitomize moral dissimulation’. Drew-Bear also draws on An Epigram. To the small Poxe, where Jonson represents the contemporary cosmetic guru Sir Hugh Platt ‘as a pander or bawd who entices women to practice unnatural face-painting’; and in To Sicknesse Jonson’s idea is ‘that licentious prostitutes who use “Madam Baud-bees bath” deserve to catch the large pox’. Cosmetics’ ability to inspire desire despite what lies beneath the paint is one of the starting points of my essay, which continues from Drew-Bear’s closing remark that Jonson develops fucus scenes ‘to dramatize his uniquely forceful vision of men and women who would seem other than indeed they are’.2

Whilst Drew-Bear sees Jonson’s texts warning against the evils of cosmetics alongside moral commentators (such as Thomas Tuke), I would suggest that The Devil is an Ass, Jonson’s final play to utilize a face-painting scene, presents a more ambivalent attitude to the power of cosmetics.

Jonson does voice conventional anti-cosmetic attitudes in The Devil is an Ass, such as face corrosion, tooth decay, sour breath, and the displacement of colour through ‘industrious’ (licentious) motion (IV.3.27-46), but these are dismissed as ‘poet’s reasons’ (IV.3.47). Anti-cosmetic reasoning goes no further and Jonson offers instead two extensive lists of ingredients (IV.4.18-24 and IV.4.30-40), the latter of which is further explained in the form of a recipe (IV.4.42-56). The ingredients given are plausible and, therefore, not notably satirical for their strangeness.

What complicates Jonson’s depiction of this School for Ladies is that the cosmetic guru is indeed an expert in presenting a false face: the ‘Spanish Lady’ is male. Wittipol is a young gallant, newly returned from travelling (as many cosmetic gurus of the period were), and disguised as female for admission into the presence of Frances Fitzdottrel, the (married) woman he loves. As in Epicoene, Jonson here reverses the prevailing feature of cross-dressing in Renaissance drama by having a male character cross-dress as a woman.3 Whilst in Shakespeare the female character cross-dressed as a young man allows the (male) actor playing the woman to wear breeches for most of the play, Jonson’s reversal draws attention to the very convention of cross-dressing on the Renaissance stage. Through Jonson’s deployment of metatheatre, the (real) actor Dick Robinson is alleged to cross-dress for Wittipol in private performances at his lodgings (II.8.64-75). As Orgel has shown, fears of actors seducing (thereby feminizing) audiences through the illusion of cross-dressing and then extending the fantasy from the theatre into ‘real’ life were features of anti-theatrical tracts.4

Wittipol, like Robinson, is an accomplished female impersonator. His rehearsal is as Frances, with only words and gestures signifying the role (I.6.154-92) but as the Spanish Lady his performance is enhanced by a wig, a costume and cosmetics. His ‘female’ appearance attracts Frances’s husband and the power of cosmetics to transform and solicit desire is played out. In Bartholomew Fair Jonson refutes (with a puppet) anti-theatrical attitudes that equate theatre with gender confusion and licentiousness (V.5.91-9). But Jonson’s decision to explore gender, appearance, desire and performance is even more provocative in The Devil is an Ass.5

Alongside the actor (Robinson?) playing Wittipol as the Spanish Lady are four other male actors transformed into women by cosmetic additions: Tailbush, Pitfall, Frances and Lady Eitherside. By reversing the cross-dressing convention whilst debating cosmetics and using metatheatre, Jonson exposes to laughter (through the duped Fitzdottrel) the audience’s desire for cosmetically-enhanced boys.6

But before Jonson presents Wittipol’s superficial gender-transformation in Act IV, the playwright colludes in the appeal of ‘natural’ women on stage. Frances, the ‘woman’ Wittipol desires, to the point where he ‘plays with her paps’ (stage direction, II.6.70) and itemizes her (supposedly non-artificial) beauty in song ‘Do but look on her eyes, […] hair, […] forehead, […] brows, […] face’ (II.6.94-101), is as much of a staged construction as the Spanish Lady. Jonson’s lyric reveals his delight in the construction of desirable ‘women’ through the combination of words and cosmetic devices on the Renaissance stage.

1Fucus is used commonly in the literature of the time as a generic term for cosmetics. In the beauty industry today fucus is often used as an alternative ingredient name for Marine Algae or Bladderwrack, ‘Glossary’, Guinot: Createur de Cathiodermie (Ascot, Berkshire: R. Robson, [n.d.]), p. 12.3.

2Annette Drew-Bear, ‘Face-Painting Scenes in Ben Jonson’s Plays’, Studies in Philology 77 (1980), 388-401, p. 399, p. 394, p. 401; Ben Jonson, The Devil is an Ass, ed. by Peter Happé, The Revels Plays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994). For other studies of the use of cosmetics in Renaissance plays and society, see Annette Drew-Bear, ‘Face-Painting in Renaissance Tragedy’, Renaissance Drama 12 (1981), 71-93, Shirley Garner Nelson, ‘“Let Her Paint an Inch Thick”: Painted Ladies in Renaissance Drama and Society’, Renaissance Drama 20 (1989), 123-39, ‘Beauty’s Poisonous Properties’, Shakespeare Studies 27 (1999), Frances E. Dolan, ‘Taking the Pencil out of God’s Hand: Art, Nature, and the Face-Painting Debate in Early Modern England’, PMLA 108 (1993), 224-39, and Carroll Camden, The Elizabethan Woman: A Panorama of English Womanhood, 1540 to 1640 (London: Cleaver Hume, 1952). For general histories of cosmetics, see Maggie Angeloglou, A history of make-up (London: Studio Vista, 1970), Fenja Gunn, The Artificial Face: A History of Cosmetics (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1973), John Liggett, The human face (London: Constable, 1974), and Richard Corson, Fashions in Makeup: From Ancient to Modern Times (London: Peter Owen, 1972).

3Epicoene also includes memorable attitudes to the use of cosmetics: Ben Jonson, Epicoene, ed. by L. A. Beaurline, Regents Renaissance Drama Series (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), I.1.80-130; IV.2.74-92.

4See Stephen Orgel, ‘Nobody’s Perfect: Or Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?’, in Ronald R. Butters, John M. Clum and Michael Moon (eds.), Displacing Homophobia: Gay Male Perspectives in Literature and Culture (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1989), pp. 7-29.

5Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair, ed. by E. A. Horsman, The Revels Plays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979).

6For a consideration of the use of artificial hair and breasts to enhance actors’ performances, see Peter Stallybrass, ‘Transvestism and the “body beneath”: speculating on the boy actor’, in Susan Zimmerman, Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance stage (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 64-83.

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