(Re)defining gender in early modern English drama

Power, sexualities and ideologies in text and performance

by Laura Martínez-García (Volume editor) María José Álvarez-Faedo (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 258 Pages


Taking as its common thread the overtly theatrical nature of early modern society and its cultural and political manifestations this book studies dramatic texts, dedications, autobiographies, adaptations and performative practices, to prove that the boundaries between on and off stage performances of gender are blurred. Thus, the limits that separate theatre and life are highly permeable and the relations between both are bidirectional: the performativity of gender and identity is an idea that the theatre takes from and transfers to society. This concept is applied to a wide timeframe creating a dialogue between different historical times and cultural backgrounds. Furthermore, the authors explore sexualities as written and performed by both men and women, offering a wider scope to determine whether and to what extent normative gender roles are being questioned, contested or reinforced.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • I. Introduction
  • (Re)Defining Gender In Early Modern British Drama
  • II. Negotiating Gender Off Stage: Patronesses, Celebrities And Playwrights
  • Charles II’s Mistresses and Patronesses of Drama: The Dedications Addressed to Cleveland, Gwyn, and Portsmouth
  • “The female humourist, a kickshaw mess”. The Identities of the ‘Man-Woman’ Performer in Early Modern England
  • “How emotions were used as strategies of power and shaped language in the Plays and Memoirs of Margaret Cavendish”
  • III. Women Acting: Performance, Identity And Power
  • “Our worser thoughts Heavens mend!” because Shakespeare wouldn’t: a View on the Construction of Femininity in Antony and Cleopatra
  • Romantic Readers on Stage: How Don Quixote Became a Woman and Attempted to change the world
  • Arche-Violence And Rape In Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women
  • IV. Men On Stage: Buttressing And Questioning Notions Of Manhood
  • “Gallops to the tune of ‘Light o’ love’ ”: Hobby-horses, stigmatised women and male riders in The Two Noble Kinsmen
  • The Double Marriage: A gendered approach to politics and power
  • V. Women Rewriting Men: Aphra Behn on Masculinity
  • “I have had enough of variety”: Reclaiming the Rake in The Debauchee
  • “Onely Cheated, Robb’d, Abus’d, And Undone, Sir”: Wine and The Whiggish Merchant In Behn’S The Revenge: Or, A Match In Newgate (1680)
  • VI. Index
  • Index
  • VII. On the Contributors
  • On The Contributors

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University of Oviedo (Spain)

(Re)Defining Gender In Early Modern British Drama

The seventeenth century was a time of extraordinary social, political and religious turmoil in England; an overview of the period’s main historical and social events suffices to convey the tumultuous ideological panorama in the country at the time: in the span of a hundred years England suffered wide-spread anxiety about Queen Elizabeth’s succession, discontent with James I’s foreign policy and his Court, the explosion of Civil War and the execution of a King by his ‘rightful’ subjects, the establishment of a Puritan Republic, the Restoration of the Monarchy, deep social unease about the prospect of a Catholic succession and the Glorious Revolution. In a period marked by debates about political authority and the boundaries of power, the foundations of the old world order were shaken to their roots. The ideological conflict between advocates and detractors of traditional authority was tackled via a (re)definition of the gender identities that had formed the basis of pre-modern England. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth century the tensions between the gender discourses became even more apparent. Subject to challenges but still normative in certain spheres until the eighteenth century, the hierarchical gender order based on the one-sex model gradually lost prevalence to a different ideological paradigm, which was based on complementary difference. This power struggle not only resulted in the emergence of discourses of truth that sought to buttress each of these views, but it also created spaces for resistance against both, allowing for the questioning of the gender roles that sustained each position.

This collection of essays authored by international scholars addresses the intersection between on and off stage performances of gender and the ways in which gender is (re)defined in a variety of textual and material practices. The present volume studies the concept of ←11 | 12→theatricality in early modern English drama (1606–1705) through the analysis of dramatic texts, dedications, autobiographies, adaptations and performative practices. This volume avoids the traditional pre- and post-1642 division that has been advocated by most scholars and favours an exploration of drama across the whole seventeenth century. Although the volume acknowledges three milestones in theatrical history between 1605 and 1705, namely Shakespeare’s productions, the appearance of female performers and of female playwrights, it does so from the perspective of the marginal, choosing non-canonical plays, secondary characters and non-acting individuals as object of study. Special attention is paid to the permeability of the boundaries between theatre and (social) life, which are viewed as mutually influencing spaces where normative gender can be reinforced, naturalised, subverted and/or contested. The contributors explore relations of power through the analysis of male and female sexualities as written and performed by both men and women, to determine to what extent the gendered power hierarchy is destabilised or legitimised.

The essays included in this volume take different approaches and methodologies in their analyses. They range from Derrida’s theories on arche-violence, to Butler’s gender performativity and the concept of masquerade as a means to create and enact identity. Despite the apparent heterogeneity of the approaches, a variety of underlying ideas link them all together. The authors all regard early modern culture as a period in which there was a heightened awareness of the self and its constructedness, as essays focus on how gender identities are discursively created both on and off stage. Contributors view gender not only as a cultural construct, but also as articulated and consolidated through ‘performance’ or the repetition of certain actions.

All the essays in this collection apply these ideas to their analyses of cultural and material products where certain definitions of gender are embedded and explore the extent to which they are reinforced, contested or/and subverted. Rather than ordered chronologically, the essays have been organised into four thematic sections which include chapters whose objects of study share a common thread; a first part focuses on a variety of performances of gender taken on by women, other than actresses, with a key role in theatrical life, such as patronesses, celebrities and playwrights. The second and third sections offer insight into staged gender ←12 | 13→-feminine and masculine- before and after the momentous irruption of female actresses. A fourth section is dedicated to the works of Aphra Behn, hailed as the first professional female playwright in the history of English literature, and more specifically to her portrayal of masculinity.

The discussions opens with the section entitled “Negotiating gender off stage: patronesses, celebrities and playwrights,” which is focused on the use of a variety of theatrical strategies that go beyond the dramatic text and the stage to either question or buttress the established gender order.

Nora Rodríguez-Loro’s essay is an exploration of the rhetoric of the dedications addressed to Royal mistresses during the early years of the Restoration. Through the analysis of these texts, the author examines the ambivalent nature of the power held by Charles’s mistresses: while the dedications themselves hint at and enhance the social relevance and fame of both mistresses and authors, they also reveal the precariousness of their positions. Furthermore, her analysis of the discourse of these dedications as being grounded in the Neoplatonic conventions dismantles the apparent privileged position of the patronesses: the dedications highlight the importance of these women in terms of canonical ‘feminine’ traits and ‘virtues’ such as beauty, modesty, affability, sweetness, nurture and generosity, an idealised abstraction of the traditional model of womanhood, rather than a description of their real selves.

Anikó Oroszlán offers a study of the figure of Mary Frith, or Moll Cutpurse, one of the most intriguing personalities of the early 1600s: a pickpocket and notorious criminal, Mary was also a public figure whose antics and male attire entertained and outraged the public as much as any play. The essay contends, using Mary as an example and following Butler’s theories of performativity, that gender is not a biological given, but rather a cultural product and a performance, a series of repeated actions and behaviours that are learned rather than inherited. As argued in the chapter, the mere appearance of Mary and her visibility, both within the theatre – as a performer and a character– and in the public places where she carries out her roaring and thieving, evidence the arbitrariness and the (unsettling) flexibility of the categories man/woman, public/private.

The last chapter in this section serves as a bridge between off-stage and onstage performances of gender and identity, as it focuses on a female playwright’s self-fashioning in her memoirs and the ←13 | 14→representation of femininity she undertakes in her plays. Both the idea of gender performativity and the use of transvestism introduced in the previous chapter are further developed by María José Álvarez Faedo, who not only deals with cross-dressing, but also with the power of masquerade. According to the author, Cavendish’s Memoirs bear witness to her intention of using female fashion and excessive femininity as strategies of power. Álvarez Faedo argues that the playwright’s masquerading as a strategy of power is transferred to her female characters, who put on male and female masks and attire to either exert agency or express their emotions freely.

The second part “Women Acting: Performance, Identity And Power” explores how different playwrights portray women, womanhood and sexuality, paying close attention to the binary opposition deviant/idealised femininity as embodied by Shakespearean Egyptian and Roman ladies, to quixotic females who challenge, more or less successfully, patriarchal norms and to the meanings of violence against the female body.

Manuel Vicente Calvo offers a study of the kind of womanhood embodied by Cleopatra’s maids in Antony and Cleopatra. The essay focuses on the construction and reconstruction of the ideal woman versus the aberrant through the dichotomies wild/tame, sexual/virginal, talkative/quiet, violent/meek and Roman/Egyptian. The opposition between Rome and Egypt provides a starting point: the author contends that Shakespeare’s Roman plays present a polarised construction of femininity where Rome embodies ‘masculine’ positive virtues and Egypt incarnates negative traits traditionally associated with women. The author chooses Cleopatra’s maids, Iras and Charmian, as his object of study, following the recent scholarly trend to move away from the dominant towards traditionally silenced voices.

Similarly, Miriam Borham Puyal studies the ambivalent approach to the established gender roles enacted on two of the first English plays to rewrite Don Quixote as a woman and outlines their lasting influence on future quixotic female characters. The author analyses Cartwright’s The Lady Errant (1636–7) and Steele’s The Tender Husband (1705) paying special attention to the female characters; she argues that both Machessa and Biddy are subversive women who, by adopting the tropes and modes of the literature they read, reject established gender roles and attempt a self-fashioning as powerful heroines.

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Sara Vazifehshenas and Nahid Shahbazi Moghadam shift the focus from enacted subversion to enforced subjugation, through the analysis of the rape/seduction scenes in Middleton’s Women Beware Women, paying close attention to the meanings of violence against the female body and their relation to androcentric ideologies of gender. The authors argue that arche-violence, as defined by Derrida, serves as a tool employed by power to erase female agency through the threat of harm and sexual assault. Vazifehshenas and Moghadam state that rape not only robs women of their sense of self, but it also transforms them into eroticised objects to be possessed by men. The authors contend that stories of violation are a common motif in early modern drama, which reinforces the idea that rape was not a sexual crime, but rather a question of politics and ideology; thus, these stories of violence against women highlight how unbalanced power relations between the genders produce and perpetuate difference and oppression.

From on stage femininities the volume moves on to on stage masculinities in a third section entitled “Men On Stage: Buttressing and Questioning Notions of Manhood”. Two of John Fletcher’s plays are discussed with a particular emphasis on his portrayals of normative and aberrant masculinities and their connection with politics and social order.

Natália Pikli offers an examination of the influence of equine imagery on the (de)construction of male and female normative sexualities. Shakespeare and Fletcher’s The Two Noble Kinsmen explores the dangers of romantic love, both for men and for women: the main plot portrays a man who, governed by unbridled passion, cannot exert control over himself or his horse and thus, suffers the fatal consequences; the subplot examines patriarchal anxieties over women’s sexual appetites and the means to curb them.

Raquel Serrano González’s essay also features a man rendered effeminate through lack of self-control, albeit with political intent, as portrayed in The Double Marriage. The effeminate tyrant Ferrand is examined in relation to two men that act as his doubles: the heroic noble-turned-pirate Duke of Sesse and Castruccio, a jester temporarily crowned king. The analysis reveals that, through these characters, the playwrights appropriate and in turn legitimise the notion of masculinity advanced by the King of England’s detractors. The Double Marriage is thus one among many texts which published, performed or reprinted in ←15 | 16→the tumultuous early 1620s endorse a particular political stance, which is played out through certain definitions of gender.

The fourth and last section, “Women (re)writing men: Aphra Behn on Masculinity,” focuses on a female playwright’s views on masculinity and the interaction between gender and politics explored in the previous section.

Jorge Figueroa Dorrego analyses the rakes in The Debauchee, arguing that Behn devises a far less glamourised version of the libertine than was customary during the Restoration. Whilst authors like Wycherley and Etherege presented witty, fashionable and charming characters like Horner, Figueroa Dorrego states that rakes in The Debauchee do not display the brilliancy of these portrayals. Not only do they lack verbal wit, social skills and even sexual potency, but they are also outmanoeuvred by their female counterparts, who exhibit greater agency and remarkable solidarity towards one another, as is typical of Behn’s works.

Ángeles Tomé Rosales, like Raquel Serrano Gonzalez before, studies the interplay of masculinity and politics in the subplot of The Revenge. Behn’s criticism of the wine merchant echoes her actual political stance, as the character embodies Puritan hypocrisy, the ambition of the nouveau rich and Whig ideology. According to Tomé Rosales, Behn’s public articulation of her political ideology is in itself transgressive in terms of gender, as it is a disruption of the boundaries that separated the ‘male’ public and ‘female’ domestic spheres.

This collection deliberately aims to offer a broad vision of how gender was (re)defined and (de)constructed in early modern England, arguing that, while literature is one among a network of forces that contribute to constructing identity and creating ideology, it should not be granted a privileged status or be positioned above material life. Indeed, the essays in this volume put forward the idea that it is only through the analysis of textual and non-textual performances, both on and off stage, that one can reach a better understanding of one of the most challenging moments in the history of England, a period characterised by remarkable social, political and economic instability.

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Recommended Bibliography

Blumenfeld, Warren J. 2017. Butler Matters: Judith Butler’s Impact on Feminist and Queer Studies. London: Routledge.

Boireau, Nicole. 2012. Drama on Drama - Dimensions of Theatricality on the Contemporary British Stage. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Broomhall, Susan. 2017. Early Modern Emotions: Susan Broomhall. New York: Routledge.

Bush-Bailey, Gilli. 2012. ‘ “Women Like Us?” ’ Comedy Studies 3 (2): 151–59.

Butler, Judith. 2004. Undoing Gender. London: Routledge.

— — — . 2006. Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso Books.

— — — . 2007. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.

Butler, Judith, Zeynep Gambetti, and Leticia Sabsay. 2016. Vulnerability in Resistance. Durham: Duke University Press.

Case, Sue-Ellen. 2014. Feminism and Theatre. London: Routledge.

Coppola, Al. 2016. The Theater of Experiment: Staging Natural Philosophy in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cordner, Michael, and Peter Holland. 2010. Players, Playwrights, Playhouses: Investigating Performance, 1660–1800. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Couser, G. Thomas. 2003. Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Cregan, Kate. 2009. “The Theatre of the Body”. Late Medieval and Early Modern Studies 10. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers.

Davies, Tracy C., and Thomas Postlewait, eds. 2003. Theatricality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1975. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

— — — . 1978. Writing and Difference. Translated by A. Bass. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul PLC.

←17 |

Erber, Ralph, and Maureen Wang Erber. 2016. Intimate Relationships: Issues, Theories, and Research, Second Edition. London: Psychology Press.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 258 pp., 1 tables.

Biographical notes

Laura Martínez-García (Volume editor) María José Álvarez-Faedo (Volume editor)

Laura Martínez-García is a lecturer at the University of Oviedo (Spain). Her research focuses on the constructions of gender in 17thcentury English drama written by female playwrights as well as their views on Anglo-Iberian relations. María José Álvarez Faedo is a senior lecturer at the University of Oviedo. Her main areas of research are English drama, emotions and affections in Renaissance, Restoration, 18th- and 19th-century literature, Arthurian literature and the influence of Don Quixote in English literature.


Title: (Re)defining gender in early modern English drama
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