6 Navigating a Kiss in the Racialized Geopolitical Landscape of Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West

Kirsten N. Mendoza

Gold and Jewels she had great quantity, with a house richly furnished after the Indian fashion. For this consideration, I perswaded myself to marry her; and with several arguments alleaged, I gained so much conquest over myself that I could kiss her without disgorging myself: and by accustoming my self to her company, methought I began to take some delight in it.
— Richard Head, The English Rogue (1665)[1]

As a central element of early modern popular culture, English commercial theater is a productive locus for analyzing the shifting contours and frictions of erotic meaning-making in a global early modernity. When characters onstage respond to a caress with praise or reprimand, or when they voice their attraction, disgust, excitement, pride, or shame, they give early modern playgoers a way to make sense of their emotional reactions and to navigate their affective registers. As Sara Ahmed cogently explains, what attracts and repels us shapes how we orientate ourselves.[2] Emotions encourage us to respond, to move toward or away, to cohere or to reject. The Oxford English Dictionary defines orientate, the intransitive verb, as “to turn or face towards a specified direction.”[3] However, orientation is not limited to the physical positioning of the body; it also applies to the process of opening oneself toward particular aspirations, values, and ideologies while shifting away from others. The decisions we make, the goals we set for ourselves, and the actions we perform all derive from an accretion of previous orientations. “The history of bodies,” Ahmed writes, “can be rewritten as the history of the reachable,” and “what is reachable is determined precisely by orientations that we have already taken.”[4] If history results from the accretion of orientations — of turnings toward, away, askew, and back again — then even the most seemingly insignificant or fleeting of affective responses contribute in some way to what will be. Attention to the history of race-making, therefore, is incomplete without a study of the role emotions have played in helping to differentiate and essentialize human beings. These modes of differentiation, I argue, enable the accumulation of power and privilege for some while rendering others threatening, base, and necessarily vulnerable. While affect in the singular is malleable and protean, affect en masse shapes human connections and, thereby, the racist history that continues throughout our present. This chapter focuses on early modern theater’s participation in the accumulation of orientations toward an English identification with desirable whiteness.

Through the iconic character of Bess Bridges, Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West Part I (ca. 1597–1603) twins an English nationalism with the representation of white femininity.[5] And, it is precisely in the site of Bess kissing and being kissed that the play manifests the power of emotions to demarcate dimensions of race. Transgressive and proper, diplomatic and sexual, the playful and dangerous ambiguity of a kiss lends itself as the perfect vehicle to explore the excitement and anxieties attached to England’s desire for commerce in an increasingly global marketplace. A caress requires both power and vulnerability since one must be within reach to gain access to the body of another. While the play, unsurprisingly, highlights Bess’s fair complexion to symbolize the moral superiority of the English as well as the threat of racial contamination, I argue that it also charges whiteness with affective value that was central to Bess’s success as an entrepreneur. In other words, Heywood’s play provides a particularly incisive example of how the accretion of emotional responses — from the overtly dramatic to the trivial and innocuous — orientates audiences toward whiteness as the prerogative of the English and as a coveted tool for mercantile, colonial, and cultural domination.

From humble beginnings as a tanner’s daughter and tavern maid, the savvy Bess Bridges rises as an entrepreneur and becomes a cross-dressing privateer, traversing hostile seas from English ports to the Azores and eventually to the Moroccan coast. Through her circulation abroad, fair Bess accrues global prestige and is eventually hailed by her fellow Englishmen, her Spanish captives, and even the King of Fez as a paragon of beauty and virtue. As she gains more followers and international fame, Bess also amasses gold for herself and for her countrymen. Therefore, the play entwines the construction of Bess’s whiteness as an emblem of constancy and beauty with her lucrative circulation in a global economy.

Bess’s reputation among Englishmen depends on her geographic placement. While in England, her virtue is rendered suspect because of her attractiveness and occupation as a tapstress, which makes her body accessible and in circulation among men. Discourses of propriety are employed to assess and police her chastity. Before audiences first see Bess onstage, they learn about her from several male characters, who either assert their opinion that she is honest or insist on the seeming incompatibility of chastity with a tavern worker who is both desirable and vocal about her desires. When her beloved Spencer enters the Plymouth tavern and calls for her, he learns that she is above “with three or four gentlemen” (1.2.32). Although her occupation makes inevitable the company of several men at once, the indefinite number of male patrons she serves titillates audiences with the thought of what may be occurring offstage. Later, Spencer attempts to convey his trust in Bess’s virtue to the disbeliever Goodlack with this account:

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. (1.2.58–62)

When Spencer seduces Bess, he tests her virtue by judging her forms of reciprocity. Despite applying the Ovidian precept “force is pleasing to girls,” Spenser reports that Bess remained virtuous and could not be moved to engage with any other sexual act beyond that of a kiss.[6] As subject and agent, Bess’s sexual will is highlighted in Spencer’s account. He details the various forms of verbal and physical relations — all inflected with sexual meanings — into which Bess willingly entered. Early modern perceptions of women’s laughter often mirrored that of unruly speech. As Joy Wiltenburg underscores, “the word “giggle,” referring to foolish laughter, already had gendered associations in the sixteenth century.”[7] Risibility in women was frowned upon by social commentators who viewed the propensity to laugh as a sign of frivolity, lack of self-control, vulgarity, and even sexual laxity. Laughter, as Gail Kern Paster has written, was understood by the early moderns to make the body potentially out of one’s voluntary control, leading to an experience of bodily shame.[8] In a 1683 manual on the art of polite conversation, the writer warns: “to laugh as women do sometimes, with their hands on both sides, and with a lascivious agitation of their whole body, is the height of indecency and immodesty.”[9] Despite these invectives, which “give a rather solemn impression of human relationships,” Bernard Capp urges scholars today to “remember that people … [found] time for laughter and fun.”[10] Thus, Spencer’s descriptions of Bess portray a maid who straddles innocence and wantonness, inviting audiences to imagine her conversation as agreeable and also too light, indicative of sexual indecency.

In this trial of Bess’s virtue, distinctions between courtship and seduction collapse. Spencer ostensibly views Bess as marriageable because she is accommodating, but not so accommodating as to be classified as a whore. However, like her engagements with Spencer listed above that code as both good-natured affability and immodesty, Spencer’s repeated assertions of his faith in Bess’s honesty, in fact, work to undermine his claims. The conclusive test Spencer administers unsettles the very outcome it proves, troubling the distinction between chaste will and savvy performance. As Laura Gowing writes, “[t]he attempt to distinguish between whore and wife, between ‘kindness’ and whorishness, as so often, becomes impossible.”[11] Bess’s kiss, in particular, at once serves as the hinge exemplifying her virtue and the precise act that undoes it. When Bess kisses, does she receive them in return? Are they mutually enacted? Furthermore, do her lips touch Spencer’s cheek, his mouth, or another part of his body? As these questions reveal, in the imagination of playgoers, the innocent meaning of a kiss — a form of affection, a touch of the lips — could just as easily flirt with the pornographic. Ultimately, the inevitable restrictions of such misogynistic tests that attempt to diagnose women’s inner virtue through their outward signs can only prove that Bess is chaste with Spencer — that she withholds from performing other acts with him. When Bess caresses an Englishman, her sexual act engenders discomfort since it simultaneously codes as virtuous and incriminating.[12]

The playful ambiguity of a kiss, then, always bears some risk due to the manifold interpretations of and responses to the performance of a caress. Audiences not only hear about the kiss Bess bestows on her beloved, but they also witness these acts in Part I, albeit not with Spencer himself. When Goodlack returns to Foy, he bears the news of Spencer’s death and final requests. Should Goodlack find Bess free of scandal, she will receive five hundred pounds per year as dictated in Spencer’s will. But, should she be of ill repute, branded “amongst the loose and lewd” (2.2.95), Goodlack must take away Spencer’s picture from the “whore” and for his faithfulness will receive Spencer’s legacy in her stead. With the incentive to unmake Bess to make himself, Goodlack slanders the heroine and threatens to take away Spencer’s portrait. Speaking to the image, Bess cries: “Oh thou, the perfect semblance of my love / And all that’s left of him, take one sweet kiss / As my last farewell” (3.4.43–45). Playgoers get a taste of the “[t]wenty thousand kisses” (3.4.4) Bess claims to have given to the idol of her affection. Through Goodlack, who is converted to one of her followers, the play seems to treat this scene with pathos.

As a woman grieving her lover’s recent death, the audience may be inclined to view her touching kiss as a demonstration of earnest devotion to the memory of the man she has lost. At the same time, however, her kiss — with its religious worship of an image — may also raise ambivalent responses due to the idolatrous Catholic undertones of the scene.[13] Prior to Bess’s overseas circulation, the play uses discourses of propriety to load a kiss with meaning by troubling the protagonist’s reputation as a chaste maid. While in England, it is Bess who elicits an assortment of emotions, including sexual arousal, distrust, and even the ire and disgust of Spencer when he imagines her potential promiscuity. Although Bess eventually converts all those who doubt her virtue into believers, she is nonetheless forced to prove her chastity and defend the boundaries of her body. The narrated and staged kisses set in her domestic homeland incite the sexualization of Bess, open her to the ridicule and denigration of men, and turn her agency into a potential threat to her male counterparts.

This vexed ambiguity of a kiss continues throughout the play, but the parameters by which emotions are policed alter as the potential threat is displaced from Bess to Mullisheg, King of Fez. Audiences are made to wait until Bess travels to Northern Africa before they see her kiss a man and enjoy a reunion with her beloved Spencer. The man she kisses twice onstage, however, is not her fellow Englishman but the newly established King of Fez and of Morocco. After having arisen victorious from a lengthy war, Mullisheg announces the three pillars that will guide his reign: the safety of his kingdom; the enrichment of the public treasury; and pleasure. In fact, his first order forces Christian merchants who had previously enjoyed freedom of trade to surrender their “ship and goods” since they had “conceal[ed] / The least part of our custom due to us” (4.3.17–19). While these forfeitures may initially seem like just penalties for Christian swindlers, Mullisheg explains that this additional revenue will be put toward his depleted treasury. Thus, as the king regains the wealth that had been lost in the establishment of his reign on the backs of entrepreneurial Christians, just retribution codes as savvy opportunism.

The play sexualizes Mullisheg through the character’s carnal language that mirrors an insatiable appetite already whetted for Christian goods. Mullisheg boasts that he has “tasted” the profits of laws that target Christian merchants (4.3.24), and, when he instructs Alcade to bring him a variety of concubines, the first he names are the “fairest Christian damsels” (4.3.29). Stereotypical of racist English early modern discourses of Moors, Turks, and Africans, commercial and sexual predation conflate in the play’s introduction of the King of Fez, who is depicted as driven by overwhelming desire and innate lasciviousness.[14] For Mullisheg, the attainment of pleasure serves as the mark of a king (4.3.27-8). This introduction to the King of Fez orientates audiences to view him as a conniving commercial competitor and sexual threat to Christian Europeans. Ahmed theorizes orientation as the movement toward that to which one aspires because one understands “identity as the mark of attainment.”[15] This points, then, not simply to the development of a commercial rivalry but, more importantly, to a perpetual and racialized state of war since it is only through subduing the constructed other that Mullisheg and Christian merchants are able to attain the identities they desire.[16]

In the previous acts of the play, we witness how misogyny sexualizes Bess and initially leads English characters to doubt her self-identification as a chaste and constant woman. However, this dynamic crucially changes along with the geopolitical setting of the play. In the Azores and later Morocco, duplicity does not receive censure, but rather praise. Duplicity is coded as the savviness necessary of entrepreneurs. Furthermore, as Jane Hwang Degenhardt insightfully reveals, Bess’s targeted plunder of Spanish ships and subsequent demonstration of compassion toward her captives are presented in the play as cosmic retributions against the Spanish whose greed for gold led to the slaughter of Amerindians in the Americas.[17] The representation of Bess’s unassailable virginity and her staged acts of mercy perform affective labor that “purifies the pursuit of gold by merging its material accumulation with an economy of moral value.”[18] I wish to emphasize that the symbolism attached to Bess’s fair complexion magnifies the perceived moral divide between the constructions of the valiant, honorable English and the cruel Spanish, from which the Black Legend derives. But, the affective function of white womanhood in Heywood’s play does not end with infusing a sense of national pride in English audiences to obscure the dissolute activities that necessarily attend mercantile and colonial pursuits. It also primes playgoers to consider what English whiteness can mean to imperial rivals, as well as to potential commercial allies.

As the play transfigures piracy into an act of merit, it also presents Bess’s exploitation of a Muslim Moroccan ruler as the moral prerogative of a fair Christian woman. As Kim F. Hall has argued, the iconography surrounding Bess’s namesake — Queen Elizabeth I — constructed the image of an inviolable English superiority tied to whiteness.[19] To an English audience, then, when the King of Fez seeks the fairest of Christian women, the play reveals whiteness to be a rare and exoticized commodity and, in so doing, extols the attribute of whiteness with which the English identified themselves. Although beautiful women come in all types, Mullisheg’s emphasis on his desire for the fairest of Christian women prepares audiences to view Bess’s flirtation with the King of Fez as shrewd rather than indecent — her manipulation is righteous, rather than obscene. As portrayed in the movement of a kiss, Mullisheg’s desire for a fair English lass renders him vulnerable. After all, he consensually and wholeheartedly capitulates to Bess’s will. Thus, the play explicitly shows the benefits of yoking an English identity to whiteness in a racialized world that hierarchizes complexion based on the ideological superiority of fair beauty. Bess is an export that Mullisheg seeks to acquire, and he submits to the English of his own volition. It is in this way that whiteness is wielded as a construct that justifies domination and serves as an ideological tool for success in commercial, colonial, and imperial pursuits.

Bess’s virginal white body yields an affective power, enabling an English commoner to dominate a reigning monarch. When Bess states that it is no “shame for Bess to kiss a king” (5.1.66), she strategically highlights Mullisheg’s regal status and effaces the king’s racial and religious otherness by omitting his name as well as that of his kingdom. Significantly, Bess’s volition is couched in terms of propriety through which she reinscribes the significance of Mullisheg’s request by reverting to the acceptable and innocent English custom. Bess’s defense of propriety also highlights her agency. While Mullisheg is made to ask for her favor, the fair English woman is the one who acts. Furthermore, she defines for Mullisheg, the Moroccan court, her fellow Englishmen, and for early modern audiences, her terms of representation.

The play cultivates the superiority of fair beauty through Mullisheg’s perception of Bess as his means to access godliness. When the King of Fez inquiries about the customs in England, it is Goodlack who first prompts Mullisheg and Bess to kiss as a form of salutation:

Goodlack: Our first greeting
Begins still on the lips.
Mullisheg: Fair creature, shall I be immortaliz’d
With that high favor?
Bess: ’Tis no Immodest thing
You ask, nor shame for Bess to kiss a king. (5.1.61–66)

Significantly, it is Mullisheg, a king, who proclaims that he is deified through receiving a kiss from a commoner and not the reverse. While there are different kinds of kisses — ranging from the platonic and familial to the romantic and erotic — it is evident that this first caress between Mullisheg and Bess occupies several registers at once. In this exchange, Mullisheg asks for Bess’s consent to the act that he perceives as more than a diplomatic or mundane greeting and, thereby, heightens the potential eroticism of the kiss. This register is confirmed when Mullisheg proclaims that the “kiss hath all [his] vitals ecstasied” (5.1.67).[20] While the scene positions audiences to view whiteness as transcendent, Mullisheg’s experience of bodily ecstasy grounds him in the corporeal and carnal, thus reifying the perception of Black desire as corruptive and tied to the flesh.

The cultivation of an ideology that hinges upon the dual transcendence and desirability of an English whiteness attempts to assuage the anxieties attached to intercourse with strangers, while simultaneously proffering whiteness as a tool that can be strategically deployed for the commercial interests of the commonwealth. Despite Goodlack’s introduction that presents the kiss as an inconsequential greeting, he is well aware of Mullisheg’s sexual interest in Bess. When Bess unveils herself before the king, one of Mullisheg’s first responses is to give Goodlack gold for bringing the English virgin to his court. After observing Mullisheg’s love for Bess, Roughman opportunistically states with a hint of resignation: “Well, let her / Do as she list, I’ll make use of his bounty” (5.1.69–70), a statement with which Goodlack heartily agrees. Jean E. Howard persuasively argues that Bess’s initiatives with Mullisheg “invites being read as the sexual wanton Spencer and others earlier expected her to be.”[21] The willingness of the Englishmen to condone Bess’s flirtatious commerce with Mullisheg resonates with global early modern politics — specifically, Elizabeth I’s diplomatic exchanges with Morocco. Elizabeth sent the London merchant Edmund Hogan and agent John de Cardenas to promote commercial and economic ties in Morocco designed to help the English reach their aspirations for international eminence.[22] Affective responses to scenes of miscegenation, like the unease expressed when Bess’s countrymen observe her intercourse with Mullisheg, parallel English anxieties concerning the accumulation of wealth through — as Hall succinctly puts it — global “commercial interaction [that] inevitably foster[s] social and sexual contact.”[23] Bess, like Elizabeth I, must engage in commerce and alliances with foreign powers, despite the dangers associated with cultural and sexual exchange, to pave the way for future English prosperity.

The kisses shared between Bess and Mullisheg are immediately policed and navigated in an attempt to define their meaning categorically as either diplomatic or sexualized, proper or improper, even though the boundaries of such classifications often blur. After all, the intention, effect, and reception of a caress do not always align perfectly. As with Bess’s defense of the favor she bestows on the king, Roughman also underscores the Englishwoman’s agency at Mullisheg’s expense. I emphasize again that Mullisheg willingly submits to Bess’s pleasure when he promises to load her boat with gold once she has tired of their “sunburnt clime” (5.2.36). His self-debasing description explains the existence of dark complexions as scars caused by sun exposure — deviations from unblemished, originary whiteness. Furthermore, like Roughman, Mullisheg highlights his subjection to the vagaries of Bess’s pleasure. Anxieties surrounding Bess’s sexual will, dominating the first acts of the play set in England, continue when her countrymen find themselves in Northern Africa. However, their disapproval and concerns regarding her sexual agency and the threat of miscegenation are bracketed by the material gains that the English stand to benefit from Bess’s pleasure.

The seemingly minor negativity couched in Roughman’s wary approval of Bess’s intercourse with Mullisheg accumulates when placed in conversation with more spiteful affective responses to one of her kisses. The king asks for a kiss from Bess to pardon a Christian preacher, which she quickly performs, stating: “Thus I pay’t” (5.2.79). From a modest salutation, the kiss becomes currency for exchange. Rather than justify the act, Bess immediately engages in the transaction. While her noble cause — to save the life of a fellow Christian — likely removes the need for a defense of propriety, the payment does raise feelings of disgust from at least one observer. This second caress elicits the vulgar disapproval of her servant Clem, who complains: “Must your black face be smooching my mistress’s white lips / with a Moorian? I would you had kiss’d her a — ” (5.2.80–81).[24] Unlike the first kiss, which underscores Bess as an agent, Clem focuses on the Black visage that caresses Bess’s fair mouth. Clem’s response differs from his mistress’s assertion that she paid the fee, which implies that Bess is the agent who acts rather than the object that receives. Clem’s xenophobic remarks, in comparison, redundantly stress Mullisheg’s racial difference and turns the king into the agent who pollutes and threatens white femininity. More fitting, Clem begins to state, would have been the king stooping to place his lips on Bess’s derriere.

Rather than react to a king who condescends to a commoner, Clem’s disgust unsurprisingly ignores the class differences between Mullisheg and Bess. Instead, he relies on racial, religious, and gender stereotypes, casting the fair Christian woman with the status of one in need of protection against dark non-Christian men. Although Part I shows Roughman being far more brazen in his attempts to assault Bess, Englishmen are provided with the opportunity to reform their ways, to be forgiven, and, most importantly, not to be classified as people with predatory sexuality. Dennis Austin Britton and Sujata Iyengar have each shown that the early moderns often interpreted an embodied darkness as indicative of the internal and, ultimately, unalterable state of a person’s soul.[25] Imagining Bess, who stands for England, to be defiled by granting a kiss to Mullisheg, a North African king, is a form of biopolitical racism because it normalizes the perception that certain populations are deserving of protected status and of forgiveness, while others are conceived as irredeemable threats to the state. In Part II, when Mullisheg reneges on his promise to respect Bess’s will to be the wife of a Christian Englishman, the play reifies the belief in what Leerom Medovoi describes as an “interior raciality.”[26] Mullisheg’s perceived internal immutability from his original state of lust cultivates the understanding of Christian Europeans being perpetually at “war” with Muslim North Africans, even when bonds of commerce unite them.

I suggest that Clem’s affect — disgust — may have served as a mouthpiece for some playgoers’ responses to the sight of a fair woman’s lips on an actor in blackface playing a North African man. And, while Heywood’s play does provide space for such blatant and racist disapproval, it invalidates — to some extent — Clem’s outburst. Unlike the other Englishmen who realize that the meanings of sexual acts and the anxieties they induce shift (for the benefit of the English) in another geopolitical landscape, Clem does not seem to understand the new codes that prevail in the erotic exchanges between Bess and Mullisheg. His lack of fluency extends to a general inability to grasp the interactions between the English and the Moroccans, which leads Clem to ask for the “honor” designed for Spencer, a request that results in the subsequent unintended loss of his “best jewels” (5.2.127).

Clem’s folly, which brings about his castration, demonstrates a deficient understanding of how persons and things circulate in a global setting. Indeed, Clem and the Englishmen he serves share discomfort when witnessing a cross-racial kiss; but, while Clem may be too simple to understand the ways geopolitical specificities alter the meanings attached to Bess’s interactions, the more powerful and worldly of Englishmen compartmentalize their reservations through politic tact in service of their commercial interests.[27] The castration of xenophobic Clem serves as both punishment and proof of his inability to negotiate the different kinds of honor and propriety that result from Anglo–Moroccan alliances and the circulation of Englishmen and women abroad.[28] However, it is important to underscore that Clem’s negative reaction magnifies the slight disfavor uttered previously by Roughman. When these staged affective responses accumulate, what “sticks” — to use Ahmed’s term — is discomfort in response to erotic exchanges between a white woman and a Black man.[29] It is precisely through these nuanced, individual, and seemingly ephemeral affective responses that the play validates xenophobic feelings in the process of cultivating racism. The mundane and quotidian, like expressions of slight displeasure, move audiences to perceive Bess’s caress as necessary but not ideal, a negative that is further accentuated by Clem’s racist outburst. The play, therefore, performs the work of cultivating everyday feelings that, as Sharon Patricia Holland explains, “circumscribe [desire’s] possible attachments” and “articulates and keeps the flawed logic of race in its place.”[30] Thus, although The Fair Maid of the West ostensibly invalidates Clem’s outburst (since the most xenophobic reaction comes from a foolish lower-class individual who eventually suffers castration), Heywood’s popular drama nonetheless affirms racist reaction as an uncouth, visceral, and — therefore — innately English response.

The racist demarcations constructed through the feelings of characters are affirmed at the conclusion of the play when Bess is proclaimed by all her followers, Spencer, and even Mullisheg, as a beauteous maid whose constancy is deserving not of concubinage to a powerful monarch, but of the ultimate prize of marriage with her fellow Englishman.[31] The union of Bess and Spencer conforms to nationalist and religious bias while reconciling the exogamic “niceties” she shares with  Mullisheg. By the end of Part I, Bess succeeds at converting all men to her followers, including (momentarily) Mullisheg, whose esteem for Bess is then extended to Spencer as well. Spencer uses this leverage to request a favor concerning an English merchant who had surrendered his “ship for goods uncustom’d” (5.2.143). Before Spencer even finishes his suit, Mullisheg magnanimously grants Spencer the opportunity to do what he wishes with the forfeitures, which implies that those goods will be returned to Spencer’s countryman. In other words, Spencer gets Bess as well as the ability to decide the fate of his fellow Englishman’s goods; Mullisheg does not even care to demand the bare minimum — the customs rightly due to the treasury of Morocco. Although Mullisheg began his reign with a proclamation that he will endeavor to increase his treasury through Christian swindlers and will acquire sexual pleasure from the bodies of fair Christian women, by the conclusion of the first part of the play, he willingly relinquishes both.

Critics have pointed to Mullisheg’s benevolence as evidence exemplifying Bess’s virtuous power that can dominate even the most stereotypically lust-driven character types in English drama, a conversion that proves ephemeral in the King of Fez who reverts to the racist trope of the lascivious Moor at the start of Part II.[32] I emphasize that Bess’s influence over Mullisheg goes beyond momentarily stifling the king’s purported inordinate appetite for wealth and sexual gratification. The conclusion of Part I that has Mullisheg renege on the customs owed by the English merchant portrays the North African king completely enthralled by the affective power of white femininity. This state of volitional submission leads Mullisheg to capitulate fully to the commercial desires of the English, who reap the benefits of trade without paying taxes.[33] By aligning Bess’s handling of Mullisheg with favorable outcomes for the English, The Fair Maid of the West makes legible the centrality of white womanhood in a racialized proto-capitalist landscape to enable exploitation without violence and consensual submission without coercion.

To highlight further Bess’s superiority, the play has Mullisheg proclaim the Englishwoman to be “a girl worth gold” (5.2.153).[34] Gold, a precious metal that symbolized royalty and divinity in the early modern period, was deeply enmeshed in the commercial significance of Africa to fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europeans. Rather than go through well-established North African Muslim merchants, Europeans sought means to establish their own direct trade with regions of high gold production located south of the Sahara.[35] However, gold was not the only African commodity to which the English desired direct access. Bess names her ship The Negro, which in turn gives rise to several interpretations. The Englishmen fear that it bodes ill for their ventures while Mullisheg muses that perhaps it is a sign that she will “bosom with a Moor” (5.1.9). However, Bess professes that there is yet another meaning, a conceit, for the name she gives to the ship. While black represents a state of mourning, which expresses her own feelings of loss when she mistakenly learns of Spencer’s death, Anthony Gerard Barthelemy rightly points out that just as her “ship is wholly owned and dominated by her and her men, so too must Mullisheg be dominated and controlled.”[36] Thus, Bess’s command that her ship be “pitch’d all o’er: no spot of white, / No color to be seen, no sail but black” (4.2.78–79) conforms to expectations of feminine constancy while also preparing playgoers to view her interactions with Mullisheg as her handling of him in a way that will allow a young English commoner to manipulate and control an African king.

The desirability of whiteness enables Bess to engage in a process of exploitation rather than commerce with Mullisheg who promises that “[her] Negro shall be ballast home with gold” (5.2.37). In this way, the play orientates audiences towards the superiority of whiteness and the ways it could be deployed to the advantage of the English in the traffic of wealth, goods, and bodies. Before Bess and her crew arrive in Northern Africa, they defeat the Spanish in a naval battle near the “fort … call’d Fayal” (4.4.7) that previously “English Raleigh won and spoil’d” (4.4.31). These details suggest that their location is the Fort of Santa Cruz on the island of Faial in the archipelago of the Azores that was attacked and pillaged by Sir Walter Raleigh and his men, an act of plunder widely celebrated in England. Atlantic islands such as Faial were integral to the start of the transatlantic slave trade since they made southern exploration of Africa viable and provided the Portuguese with more direct routes for contact with African societies.[37] As Hall reminds, although Elizabeth officially espoused aggression toward the African trade, she surreptitiously sought means through her privateers like John Hawkins to undermine the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly, and it was “under Elizabeth that England gained a foothold in the Atlantic Trade.”[38] The image of a fair woman at the helm surrounded by her fellow Englishmen in complete command of black objects — the ship, sail, and flags — symbolically parallels the growing desire for more involvement of the English in the trade of enslaved African people.

Through the imagery of a dominant fair Bess sailing south on her black ship, Heywood uses the representation of the white female body as a conduit to charge audiences with a sense of pride and excitement that turns the profit of privateering into a moral prerogative. These emotions, I contend, move playgoers to support more than just trade in gold. The Fair Maid of the West puts the idea of justified plunder within conceptual reach of the English and orientates audiences to aspire towards commercial eminence, which includes involvement in the kidnapping and rapine of Black men, women, and children. Through staging a kiss, Heywood reveals the role of affect in cultivating and habituating the logics of race-making, such as the fears of miscegenation and the transglobal longing for whiteness. Actions that may ignite censure, distrust, and disgust within Christian England become the anxiety-inducing but necessary work of the courageous, the resourceful, and the virtuous. In a global context and when applied to people who have been vilified, objectified, and subjugated, these actions mobilize the ideological dominance of whiteness. As a fair Englishwoman and privateer, Bess can kiss and be kissed. She can be promiscuously in the world without losing value but only through her alignment with nationalist and economic ambitions upheld by the affective construction of a specifically white, Christian, and English superiority.[39]

  1. Richard Head, The English Rogue: described in the life of Meriton Latroon, a witty extravagant, being a compleat history of the most eminent cheats of both sexes (London: Printed for Henry Marsh, 1665), 460.
  2. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
  3. OED Online, s.v., “orientate,” v. 1.
  4. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 55.
  5. All quotations are from Thomas Heywood, The Fair Maid of the West, Parts I and II, ed. Robert K. Turner, Jr. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967).
  6. Cynthia E. Garrett, “Sexual Consent and the Art of Love in the Early Modern English Lyric,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 44, no. 1 (2004): 37–58, highlights the conflation of seduction and rape in the Renaissance lyric.
  7. Joy Wiltenburg, “Soundings of Laughter in Early Modern England: Women, Men, and Everyday Uses of Humor,” Early Modern Women 10, no. 2 (2016): 26.
  8. Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 123.
  9. Qtd. in Bernard Capp, When Gossips Meet: Women, Family, and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 4.
  10. Capp, When Gossips Meet, 140.
  11. Laura Gowing, Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 104.
  12. For more on how Bess’s economic independence and financial savviness confuse Englishmen in Foy, requiring Bess to reeducate these men, see Jennifer Higginbotham, Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Sisters: Gender, Transgression, Adolescence (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 20–61.
  13. Elizabeth Williamson, The Materiality of Religion in Early Modern English Drama (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009), 134, argues that the kissing of portraits — even when portraits were not of religious icons — would have been perceived by English Protestants as a gesture steeped in Catholic Idolatry.
  14. See, for example, Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989); Nabil Matar, Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Virginia Mason Vaughan, Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Arthur L. Little Jr., Shakespeare Jungle Fever: National-Imperial Re-Visions of Race, Rape, and Sacrifice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).
  15. Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 56.
  16. Although Europeans were not the only Christians in the sixteenth century early modern world, nor was Europe comprised solely of Christians, Alcade’s justification of the seizure of goods from “Christians that reap profit by our land” (4.3.25 emphasis added) forges religion as the primary distinction between their territories in Northern Africa and foreign, presumably Christian European, agents. Furthermore, while the play mentions the duplicity of Christian merchants who have cheated Mullisheg of customs that were owed, what this scene reveals is a competitive commercial market in which both the King of Fez and the merchants aspire to “make” themselves through mutual exploitation. See Richard Wilson, “Visible Bullets: Tamburlaine the Great and Ivan the Terrible,” English Literary History 62, no. 1 (1995): 57.
  17. For more on Bess’s affective labor that aligns the successful enlargement of English wealth with intrinsic goodness and moral value, see Jane Hwang Degenhardt, “Gold Digger or Golden Girl?: Purifying the Pursuit of Gold in Heywood’s Fair Maid of the West, Part I,” in Historical Affects and the Early Modern Theater, ed. Ronda Arab, Michelle M. Dowd, and Adam Zucker (London: Routledge, 2015), 152–65.
  18. Degenhardt, “Gold Digger or Golden Girl?,” 152.
  19. Kim F. Hall, “‘These Bastard Signs of Fair’: Literary Whiteness in Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” in Post-Colonial Shakespeares, ed. Ania Loomba and Martin Orkin (London: Routledge, 1998), 64–83.
  20. Daniel Vitkus, Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570–1630 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 107–63, describes how the kisses shared between Bess and Mullisheg embody the fears, worries, and tensions surrounding the possibility of too much cross-cultural exchange leading to a Christian “turning-Turk.”
  21. Jean E. Howard, “An English Lass Amid the Moors: Gender, Race, Sexuality, and National Identity in Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West,” in Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period, ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker (London: Routledge, 1994), 116. Howard further suggests that the anxieties arising from Bess’s transgressive sexuality as a desirable and actively desiring woman is displaced onto the hypersexualized Moors, who are safely rendered effeminate and inferior to the English.
  22. Jesús López-Peláez Casellas, “‘What Good Newes from Barbary?’: Nascent Capitalism, North-Africans and the Construction of English Identity in Thomas Heywood’s Drama,” Atlantis 29, no. 1 (2007):123–40; Gary K. Waite, “Reimagining Religious Identity: The Moor in Dutch and English Pamphlets, 1550-1620,” Renaissance Quarterly 66, no. 4 (2013): 1264–6.
  23. Kim F. Hall, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Colonization and Miscegenation in The Merchant of Venice,” Renaissance Drama 23 (1992): 88.
  24. Turner glosses “Moorian” as “a play on ‘murrain’; with a murrain = plague on it!” (The Fair Maid of the West, 87). This racial slur uses phonetic repetition to “stick” the association of Moors with disease, contagion, and death.
  25. Dennis Austin Britton, Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern English Romance (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014); Sujata Iyengar, Shades of Difference: Mythologies of Skin Color in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).
  26. Leerom Medovoi, “Dogma-Line Racism: Islamophobia and the Second Axis of Race,” Social Text 30, no. 2 (2012): 66 original emphasis. Medovoi argues that “religion gradually came to model the calculation of ideological dispositions, the interior raciality of populations” (66 original emphasis).
  27. None of Clem’s fellow Englishmen nor his mistress (who earlier in the play protected him from abuse) intervene to prevent his castration. The nationalist ethos of Heywood’s play that consolidates through racial discourses splinters along the lines of gender and class, marked by the irrevocable lack that also codes as both racial otherness and religious apostasy.
  28. Joshua Mabie, “The Problem of the Prodigal in The Fair Maid of the West, A Christian Turned Turk, and The Renegado,” Renascence 64, no. 4 (2012): 299–319, interrogates the anxieties surrounding apostasy in Part II of Heywood’s two-part play, stating that Clem’s castration “remains throughout the play not only fodder for bawdy jokes but also a source of general awkwardness” (303). Clem’s inability to judge honor and propriety in the Moroccan court leads to ostracization from his countrymen made absolute through an irreversible mark.
  29. Sara Ahmed, “Affective Economies,” Social Text 22, no. 2 (2004): 117–39, theorizes how emotions become attached to particular signs through circulation. The movement between signs throughout history enables a collective coherence in which certain affects “stick” and become the attributes of others.
  30. Sharon Patricia Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 43, 6. Holland contends that our erotic lives cannot be uncoupled from racism and the racist practices that limit erotic desire.
  31. Access to marriage and to the rights attached to that union serve as signs of racial difference. The ideals of white femininity coincide with the legitimating and protected status of lawful wife. See Lynda E. Boose, “‘The Getting of a Lawful Race’: Racial Discourse in Early Modern England and the Unrepresentable Black Woman,” in Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period, ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker (London: Routledge, 1994), 35–54. In the Antebellum South, the denial of marriage rights to the enslaved increased a white slaveholder’s control of the reproductive bodies of Black women. See Dorothy E. Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Vintage, 1997).
  32. See Anthony Gerard Barthelemy, Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 165.
  33. Heywood participates in orientating audiences toward what Jane Hwang Degenhardt describes as a fantasy of “effortless commerce” and “the ability to attain a foreign commodity while bypassing the means of production and contingencies of exchange” (“The Reformation, Inter-Imperial World History, and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus,” PMLA 130, no. 2 [2015]: 402–403).
  34. Degenhardt insightfully reveals that Bess’s unassailable virginity represented an intrinsic value of gold, which addressed English concerns about “the loss of English bullion through London trade” (“Gold Digger or Golden Girl?,” 158).
  35. See David Arnold, The Age of Discovery, 1400–1600 (London: Routledge, 2002), 35.
  36. Barthelemy, Black Face, Maligned Race, 165.
  37. See Herbert S. Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  38. Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 20. See also Kenneth R. Andrews, Elizabeth Privateering: English Privateering During the Spanish War, 1585–1603 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964). 
  39. I am grateful to Carol Mejia LaPerle for her attentive and generous feedback on this project and for her support of my work. Thanks also to Dennis Austin Britton for his guidance on an early draft of this piece.


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Race and Affect in Early Modern English Literature Copyright © 2022 by Kirsten N. Mendoza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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