A mask is typically defined as an accessory worn over the face to conceal one’s facial features or disguise their identity. Different masks have different purposes and functionalities. The role of masks in The Roaring Girl seems to serve several purposes at once in order to relate to the play’s underlying themes. The play deals with matters of identity through the story of a woman who defies gender expectations of early modern English society by behaving like a man. The use of masks in The Roaring Girl not only satisfies the intentions of the wearers, but further expands upon these themes of identity, perception, and conformity.
The role of masks in the play most evidently relates to the concept of identity through notions of beauty, wealth, and status. The masks are first introduced in Act Four, scene two, as Mistress Gallipot and Mistress Openwork follow Goshawk away, but mask themselves before they do. During the early modern period in England, it was common for upper-class women to sport masks as a means of meeting beauty standards; masks and a pale complexion were indicators of wealth and status. This may be an incentive, as we can see that the women wearing them are of comfortable wealth when Mistress Gallipot offers Laxton whatever sum of money he desires (2.1 76-77). These concepts of beauty and status are further referenced as Mistress Openwork compares women wearing masks to men wearing hats, implying that masks too are a type of fashionable accessory (4.2 102-103).
Not only does wearing masks seem to help establish the mistresses’ own sense of identity through beauty and status, but they aid in creating juxtaposition between Moll’s character identity and that of the typical early modern English woman. For example, while Moll defies societal expectations of females by behaving in a more masculine manner, the Mistresses are shown to conform to societal gender expectations (like having a pale complexion) through the use of masks. This self-expression is generally perceived better by others throughout the play compared to perceptions of Moll. As a whole, the use of masks to demonstrate beauty and status reveals the mask’s relation to the play’s themes of identity and perception.
However, the masks don’t only help the ladies express their identity through beauty standards and wealth, but also conceal their facial features and ironically, hide their personal identities simultaneously. For instance, the masks make the ladies unrecognizable to even their own husbands, as Master Openwork asks, “Who is this? Rosamond? Wife? How now, sister?” (4.2 95-96). Because Master Openwork has no recognition of his own wife, it is evident that the masks don’t only suggest status, but are a type of mask that hides their recognizable features and identity. There is also good reason to believe that the ladies may have incentive to use such masks for hiding their personal identities while out in public. For example, the ladies had been discussing the faults of common men and Mistress Gallipot had engaged in secret business with Laxton, with whom she is having an affair (4.2). By criticizing men and partaking in adultery, there is reason to believe that the ladies’ masks may also serve to hide their personal identities, so as not to be recognized engaging in suspicious activity. Master Openwork acknowledges this in trying to persuade his wife to remove her mask; he says, “Many bad faces pass by their privilege current” (4.2 108-110). In other words, Master Openwork tells her that people who do bad things can get away with it due to the privilege of anonymity that masks deliver, and that’s what makes them suspicious. While women’s masks establish identity by indicating beauty and status, they also physically conceal one’s personal identity by making them difficult to visually recognize.