The play was first published in quarto in 1611, printed by Nicholas Okes for the bookseller Thomas Archer. The title page of the first edition states that the play was performed at the Fortune Theatre by Prince Henry's Men, the troupe known in the previous reign as the Admiral's Men. The title page also attributes the authorship of the play to "T. Middleton and T. Dekkar", and contains an "Epistle to the Comic Play-Readers" signed by "Thomas Middleton." The Epistle is noteworthy for its indication that Middleton, atypically for dramatists of his era, composed his plays for readers as well as theatre audiences.
The Roaring Girl is a fictionalized dramatization of the life of Mary Frith, known as "Moll Cutpurse", a woman who had gained a reputation as a virago in the early seventeenth century. (The term "roaring girl" was adapted from the slang term "roaring boy", which was applied to young men who caroused publicly, brawled, and committed petty crimes.) She was also the subject of a lost chapbook written by John Day titled The Mad Pranks of Merry Moll of the Bankside, which was entered into the Stationers' Register on August 7, 1610. Frith also appears in Nathaniel Field's Amends for Ladies, which dates from this same era of ca. 1611. On the basis of documents from a surviving lawsuit, the actual Mary Frith seems to have been the type of person that Middleton and Dekker depicted.
Critics and scholars who have attempted to differentiate the shares of the two collaborators in the play have not reached a full consensus, though the general tendency has been to attribute the romantic main plot of Mary Fitz-Allard largely to Dekker, and the Moll Cutpurse subplot mainly to Middleton. David Lake, in his study of authorship problems in Middleton's canon, produces the following division of authorship.
Lake also favors the view of Fredson Bowers that the play was printed from a manuscript in Dekker's autograph. Paul Mulholland emphasizes that "most scenes reveal evidence of both dramatists," while "Few scenes point conclusively to either dramatist as the main writer," and he quotes with approval Cyrus Hoy's observation that "the designation 'Middleton and Dekker' is the only one appropriate for much of the play.
-SIR ADAM Appleton
-SIR DAVY Dapper
-SIR BEAUTEOUS Ganymede
-SIR THOMAS Long
-Young SEBASTIAN Wengrave
-JACK Dapper, son to Sir Davy, and GULL his page
-TILTYARD, a feather-seller
-OPENWORK, a sempster
-MISTRESS Rosamond OPENWORK
-Hippocrates GALLIPOT, an apothecary
-MISTRESS Prudence GALLIPOT
-MOLL, the Roaring Girl
-SIR GUY Fitzallard
-MARY Fitzallard, his daughter
-CURTILAX, a sergeant, and HANGER, his yeoman
Act 1, Scene 1: Sebastian's chambers in Sir Alexander's house
Mary Fitz-Allard and Sebastian are in love, but their fathers will never permit the union, as Sebastian's father demands too large a dowry for the girl. However, Sebastian has a plan to enable the match: he will pretend to be in love with Moll Cutpurse, a notorious cross-dressing thief, and his father will be so worried that he will see marriage to Mary as the preferable alternative.
Act 1, Scene 2: The parlour of Sir Alexander's house
Sebastian's father is worried about his son's pursuing a grotesque "man-woman." Sebastian pretends to be outraged, and asks if his father would be happy if he married Mary instead. His father, Sir Alexander says no. Sir Alexander calls the spy and parasite, Trapdoor, and sets him to follow Moll, get into her services, and find a way to destroy her. Trapdoor agrees.
Act 2, Scene 1: The three shops open in a rank
A scene in the street. Various gallants are talking to the shopkeepers and flirting with their wives. The gallant Laxton flirts with Mistress Gallipot in the tobacco-shop. He does not actually like her much, but is keeping her on a string in order to get money from her to take other girls out. Jack Dapper, a young profligate, enters to buy a feather to show off with. Moll enters and Laxton takes a fancy to her, assuming that because she dresses as a man, she is morally loose. Laxton courts Moll; she agrees to meet him at Gray’s Inn Fields at 3 o’clock. Trapdoor then presents himself to Moll and offers to be her servant. She is dubious but agrees to meet him in Gray’s Inn Fields a bit after 3 pm. Act 2, Scene 2: A street
Sebastian's father is spying on him at home. Moll enters and Sebastian woos her. She is polite but rebuffs him: she is chaste and will never marry. He says he will try again later. She exits and Sir Alexander rebukes his son, saying that Moll will disgrace him, that she is a whore and a thief. Sebastian says that there is no proof of that. Sir Alexander exits, still more resolved to publicly shame Moll. Sebastian decides that he must confess his plan to her, and get her to help him and Mary.
Act 3, Scene 1: Gray's Inn Fields
Laxton enters for his rendezvous with Moll. She appears dressed as a man; he goes towards her but she challenges him to a fight: he has impugned her honour, assuming that all women are whores. He is wrong to assume so – and also wrong to treat whoring lightly, as it is a sin that many good women are forced to, for lack of an alternative. They fight and she wounds him; he retreats, shocked. Trapdoor enters. Moll teases and taunts him, but finally accepts that his motives are good and agrees to take him on as her servant.
Act 3, Scene 2: Gallipot's house
Mistress Gallipot is continuing her covert affair with Laxton, which her husband does not suspect. He has sent her a letter asking for a loan of thirty pounds, which she does not have. She formulates a plan, tearing the letter and wailing. She tells Gallipot that Laxton is an old suitor of her, to whom she was betrothed before she married him. She thought him dead, but now he has returned to claim his wife. Gallipot is horrified, as he loves his wife and has had children by her. She suggests buying Laxton off with thirty pounds and he agrees. Laxton enters. Mrs Gallipot quickly apprises him of the situation and Gallipot offers him the money. Feigning anger at the loss of his "betrothed", he takes it and exits, musing on the deceitfulness of women. Act 3, Scene 3: Holborn Street
Trapdoor tells Sir Alexander of a plan he has learned: Sebastian and Moll plan to meet at 3 o’clock in his (Sir Alexander’s) chamber to have sex. They decide to trap her. Meanwhile, Sir Davy Dapper talks to Sir Alexander about his son, Jack, who is still wild and profligate, whoring, drinking and gambling. He has decided to teach him a lesson: he will arrange to have him arrested, and a few days in the counter (the debtor's prison) will bring him to his senses. The sergeants enter and Sir Davy (pretending not to be Jack’s father) gives them their instructions. Jack and his boy Gull enter and are about to be set on by the sergeants; however, Moll is watching and warns him away. Jack escapes, and Moll mocks the police who can do nothing.
Act 4, Scene 1: Sir Alexander's chamber
Sir Alexander and Trapdoor await Moll and Sebastian. Sir Alexander lays out diamonds and gold in the hope that Moll will try to steal them. Sebastian and Moll enter with Mary (who is disguised as a page). Moll is now in on the plan and aiming to help them. She plays on the viol and sings. She then sees the jewels but only comments on them, rather than stealing them. Act 4, Scene 2: Openwork's house
The citizens' wives discuss the various flirtatious gallants, and agree that they are simple creatures, who don’t really understand life, women or relationships. A young man enters pretending to have legal document calling the Gallipots to court for breach of contract. This is Laxton’s doing—after the thirty pounds, he demanded another fifteen, and now he is asking for a hundred in order to hold his peace. Mistress Gallipot is shocked. Her husband wants to pay Laxton off again, but she feels forced by the enormity of the sum to confess that all this was a lie, that she was never precontracted to Laxton. Gallipot asks for an explanation; Laxton ‘confesses’ that he had courted Gallipot’s wife but had been refused; she then promised that although she would not be unfaithful, she would always help Laxton out if he were in need, and hence ended up concocting this story to get money. Gallipot believes this tale; Laxton is not punished but ends up being taken home with them for dinner.
Act 5, Scene 1: A street
Moll tells Jack how she saved him from the sergeants and he thanks her. He knows that his father set them on him, and is amused that he thought time in jail would cure him, when in facts jails just teach people how to be worse. Moll has grown to suspect Trapdoor’s honesty and has got rid of him. Trapdoor enters in disguise as a soldier but Moll sees straight through him and uncovers him. A gang of cutpurses enter to try to rob them but Moll sees them off: she is known and feared by all rogues. Moll explains how she thinks it is her duty to protect the honest through her knowledge of London’s low-lifes. Act 5, Scene 2: Sir Alexander's house
The news has reached Sir Alexander that his son and Moll have fled to get married. Sir Guy Fitz-Allard, Mary’s father, enters and gently mocks his ex-friend, saying that it is his own fault for breaking off the match before. However, Sir Guy trusts Sebastian’s judgement and says that he will wager all his lands against half of Sir Alexander’s that the pair will not wed. Sir Alexander agrees to the bet. There is a rumour that Sebastian may have married someone else, and Sir Alexander says that anyone else in the world but Moll would make a welcome daughter-in-law. A servant announces that Sebastian has arrived with his bride; he comes in hand in hand with Moll. Sir Alexander is horrified, but capitalises on it and says that he will take Sir Guy’s lands. The trick is then revealed: Mary is brought in and shown to be Sebastian’s true bride. Sir Alexander is vastly relieved; he apologises to both Mary and her father for his behaviour, and agrees that half his land shall now go to the happy couple. Moll is asked when she will marry; she replies that she will never marry because certain values she holds to society will never be true. Trapdoor enters to confess that he was set on her by Sir Alexander; Sir Alexander promises that he will never again value something according to what public opinion thinks.