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«31°! NV14 t\o, SHARING THE LIGHT: FEMININE POWER IN TUDOR AND STUART COMEDY DISSERTATION Presented to the Graduate Council of the University of ...»

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Presented to the Graduate Council of the

University of North Texas in Partial

Fulfillment of the Requirements

For the Degree of



Jane Hinkle Tanner, B.A., M.A.

Denton, Texas May, 1994 31°!

NV14 t\o,




Presented to the Graduate Council of the University of North Texas in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements For the Degree of


By Jane Hinkle Tanner, B.A., M.A.

Denton, Texas May, 1994 Tanner, Jane Hinkle, Sharing the Light; Feminine Power in Tudor and Stuart Comedy. Doctor of Philosophy (English), May, 1994, 418 pp., works cited, 419 titles; works consulted, 102 titles.

Studies of the English Renaissance reveal a patriarchal structure that informed its politics and its literature; and the drama especially demonstrates a patriarchal response to what society perceived to be the problem of women's efforts to grow beyond the traditional medieval view of "good" women as chaste, silent, and obedient.

Thirteen comedies, whose creation spans roughly the same time frame as the pamphlet wars of the so-called "woman controversy," from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries, feature women who have no public power, but who find opportunities for varying degrees of power in the private or domestic setting. Early comedies, Ralph Roister Doister. Gammer Gurton's Needle. The Supposes, and Campaspe, have representative female characters whose opportunities for power are limited by class and age. The resolution of the plot complications are facilitated by the external influence of male authority. Within the household, particularly in such "city" comedies as The Merrv Wives of Windsor and The Shoemakers7 Holiday, women frequently command a great deal of personal power and are included in the process and product of the family business, in partnership with their husbands. These two plays, with Middleton's Michaelmas Term and Shakespeare's three problem comedies, Troilus and Cressida. All's Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure, suggest that feminine power depends upon the cooperative spirit of the patriarchal authority;

without that cooperation the power diminishes to insignificance or fails entirely.

Later comedies of the Caroline period, such as Rule a Wife and Have a Wife. A New Way to Pav Old Debts, and The Ladv of Pleasure, feature women who develop in complexity, sophistication, and style, just as the men do, but whose opportunities for power are nevertheless limited in scope because of the restrictions of their gender. Despite the polish of dialogue and wit, women do not develop as individuals; rather, they show a disturbing regressive

–  –  –

purse, laugh in thy face and cutt thy throat, they are vngrateful, periured, full of fraud, flouting and decit, vnconstant, waspish, toyish, light, sullen, proude, discurteous, and cruell."

–  –  –

Joseph Swetnam's The Arraignment of Lewd. Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women (1615) is one of dozens of English contributions to the "Woman Question11 of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Complainants—both male and female—argued back and forth about the nature of women and woman's place in the social fabric. Whether tongue-in-cheek or a pathological outburst, these writings represent an attempt to come to terms with the changes occurring so rapidly that people remained unsettled about social and familial constructs that had always before provided at least a sense of stability in what was, for most people, an otherwise largely miserable existence from cradle to grave.1 The development of a new "woman question," in the second half of the twentieth century, of new theories about women's "place," both in the real world and the literary mirror, have made possible a variety of interesting, fresh interpretations of all the literature that purports to examine the human condition. Woman's voice in Renaissance drama has been the subject of almost as much controversy among critics, who are concerned about whether the Renaissance debate (in literature) over the nature of women is to be taken as a serious reflection of real life.

Max Weber makes important distinctions between authority, the legitimately recognized command structure in a given system or relationship, and power, "the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests" (152). In this study, using Weber's definitions as a starting point, I examine selected comedies from the Tudor and Stuart periods—plays that coincidentally span the same period that includes Swetnam's controversial tract and the other attacks and defenses—in order to observe how successful the female characters are in identifying and exploiting what I will call "opportunities for power" to undermine the "authority" of the male-dominated societies in which they must move and function.

Some of the questions I attempt to address regarding each character are 1. What are her opportunities for power?

2. Does she recognize and exploit her opportunities? If she does not, why not? If she does exploit her opportunities, how does she do it, and is she successful? 3. Is there a correlation between opportunities exploited and ultimate success? Between opportunities missed and failure? Are some women failures despite exploiting their opportunities for power? Finally, I examine further the idea of a woman's fragile power: Is it indeed ephemeral? In addition, I attempt to ascertain whether there is a pattern of development from the early to the later dramas, or whether the female character structures, the nature of their "opportunities," and their responses to those opportunities remain fairly static. Do the dramas after James came to the throne reflect any shifts in attitude toward women's power and women in general?

I first give some attention to the historical background and different critical approaches to the drama.

Critics and historians alike are hampered by not having any clear definition of "feminism" and no consensus about how much autonomy women really had in Tudor and Stuart times.

Thus, the available literature on the subject is a minefield of contradiction: some historians assert with Joan Kelly that women of all classes were powerless chattels; others insist with Linda Woodbridge that aristocratic women shared (relatively speaking) power with their male relatives whereas the middle-class woman was a helpless slave; a third group believes with Louis B. Wright that aristocratic women were malleable clay, but that middle-class men and women were equal partners in business and marriage. It comes as no surprise, then, that critics of the drama share a similar polarity of opinion, some arguing with Susan Carlson that Renaissance drama, written with a patriarchal mindset, reflects a general belief in the inferiority of women, and others agreeing with Juliet Dusinberre that "the drama from 1590 to 1625 is feminist in sympathy" (5). As Carlson says, "one group [of critics] stamps comedy a socially conservative force affirming beliefs and codes and the other brands comedy a liberating, potentially anti-social force, which allows characters and audience an escape from constrictive social structures" (160).

I have dealt exclusively with comedy because, for one thing, we know what happens to women in tragedy: they die.

Richard Levin has examined two anthologies of feminist criticism: The Woman / s Part (1980) and the two special issues of Women / s Studies (Vol. 9, nos. 1 & 2, 1981), specifically the articles dealing with Shakespearean tragedy. Levin is troubled by the persistent insistence of feminist criticism that the theme of all tragedy is gender conflict. He agrees that gender conflict and patriarchal society are "components" of the individual worlds of the plays; however, even when "they are necessary conditions of the action [they] are not in themselves sufficient to cause it" ("Thematics" 126-27).2 Where we are more likely to find that gender conflict and the oppression of a patriarchal society are sufficient causes of the action is in comedy.3 Part of my interest lies in speculating about the consequences of their actions that the women in drama must live with. Carlson argues that "the female freedom and power that comedy celebrates is circumscribed....

Comedy's promise of power and freedom is at best a paradox, in any case a problem" (159). I am curious whether any of these women demonstrate, by their actions (word and deed), an awareness of this troublesome paradox, and whether they make an effort, within the limits of their constraints, to turn the conflict to their separate advantage.

What is feminine power? Its critical definition must remain flexible. Women in English literature have commanded certain kinds of power from the beginning. For example, the queens in Beowulf--Wealhfreowf Hygd, and Mod£ry6o—within the narrow scope of their limitations as females (peace-weavers) in the male-dominated Anglo-Saxon world, emphatically exploit opportunities for power. Wealh]?eow subtly insults her aged husband, HroSgar, for his failure to protect his home and people (625b-628a), and she threatens Beowulf, in order to protect her sons' inheritance (1219b-1230);

although queens did not actually have the power to offer kingdoms and thrones, Hygd offers Beowulf her dead husband's throne, not to hold as regent for her son, but as ruler in his own right, in order to protect her kingdom (2369-2372);

ModJry8o, the most malevolent of the queens, has the power to order death by sword for any man, for any imagined insult (1930b-1940a), until her marriage tempers her "inwitni&a" (hostile acts) (1947a). In the York mystery play Noah and the Flood. Uxor (Mrs. Noah) flatly refuses to enter the ark (and who can blame her), slaps her husband and scolds him for not telling her what he was doing, and must be forced by her husband and sons to leave her friends and cousins behind (sc. 3). Chaucer's lusty Wife of Bath illustrates the most pervasive feminine power in both historical and literary contexts: sex.

The attention given human sexuality by both the government and the Church, with its emphasis on female chastity and the danger of unbridled female lust, attests at the very least to concern over legitimacy of offspring.

That this subject was the preoccupation of so many "authorities" implies that women's sexual power is the one most feared and least understood by men, and least subject to male control. Sexual tension is nearly always part of the dynamics of the relationship between men and women, including, we now understand, the relationship of mothers and sons, and fathers and daughters. Camille Paglia, borrowing heavily from Freud and Jung, sees men, "driven by sexual anxiety away from their mothers, forming group alliances by male bonding to create the complex structures of society, art, science, and technology.... Male lust... is the energizing factor in culture" (Sex. Art 23-24).

Paglia's theory about masculine anxiety to escape the power of the feminine/mother is particularly helpful in understanding Bertram's behavior in All's Well That Ends Well. Angelo's in Measure for Measure, and, to a lesser extent, Troilus's in Troilus and Cressida.4 Feminine power might be that opportunity afforded to an individual at a given time to behave as an individual, rather than as an appendage to a larger family. Any opportunity to act independently, to choose a direction, or otherwise to behave and live as one wishes can be construed as an opportunity to use power. In the case of a woman of the Elizabethan or Jacobean age, this is relative to her initial position in her family and in the larger social class to which she belongs. Coppelia Kahn assserts that all the women in Jacobean drama, whatever their station in life, "are conceived within the framework of one social institution: marriage" ("Whores" 246). Thus, under certain circumstances, we might say that a young girl's refusal to go upstairs to bed until she wishes to is a kind of exploitation of an opportunity for power (here we might add the caveat that successful use of power would necessarily include the adult awareness of its responsibilities). A wife of the merchant class, such as Margery Eyre, might wield a great deal of what we commonly think of as power within the "shop," for example, deciding whom to hire as apprentices and when. And of course the most traditional exploitation of feminine power in comedy is the young girl of good family who overcomes the objections of her parent(s) and marries the man of her choice rather than theirs.

One of the ways in which the dramatists make power accessible to women is to disguise them as men. The implications, psychological and otherwise, of the boy actors—boys dressed up as women dressed up as men—have been exhaustively examined. And that still acknowledges only masculine power; that is, legitimately recognized authority. To speak as a man is to command the attention of men. So Portia can lecture on her version of the quality of mercy and be taken seriously. Rosalind can examine both sides of courtship and learn what is substance and what is merely shadow. When the disguise is removed, both women surrender to men their power as individuals. And both women, as well as their new husbands, are, it is generally agreed, enriched by their separate experiences as "men."

In addition, we are all the products of ideology—it is in place before we are born; it remains after we die, and, as Terry Eagleton comments when discussing the philosophy of Roland Barthes: "It is one of the functions of ideology to 'naturalize' social reality, to make it seem as innocent and unchangeable as Nature itself. Ideology seeks to convert culture into Nature, and the 'natural' sign is one of its weapons" (135). The ideology which controls our behavior sets those standards of behavior and calls them "natural."

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