By: Eman Simms.
Written as part of the course “Renaissance Drama”
For centuries, theatre has been a centerpiece for expression. Whether used as a means of conveying religious ideology, moral character, novel ideas, or just pure entertainment, theatre has become an antique artform that has gained exceptional appreciation as well as numerous amounts of criticism. Nevertheless, while a rich form of entertainment and enlightenment, the English theatre during the Renaissance had been a notorious target by members of the church, particularly the Puritans. They considered such a pastime undeniably immoral and distracting, and believed it would undoubtedly lead to blasphemous behavior (Bertram, Kastan & Stallybrass). Reasons for these fears increased as the theatre, once a systematic device of the church, began to evolve into an unrestricted artform that encouraged innovative ideas and free thought, thus posing a threat to the methodical structure of England (Price, Prynne). A few instances of these onstage “threats” included lewdness, uncouthness, murder, and crossdressing; performances even ventured into using strong, individualistic, masculine female characters (Levin,Prynne). Women during the Renaissance were thought to be extremely vulnerable, naïve, and inapt outside of the home. It was strongly believed that women, if left to their own devices, would become a danger – not so much to themselves but to the entire patriarchal society (Kastan & Stallybrass)! Therefore, the influential aspect of theatre became an extreme concern for the Puritans, especially when it came to women. But how influential was theatre during this period? Even though it was considered shameful for women to be involved with theatre – let alone act on stage, the artistic nature of theatre provided women with a vehicle, with which they could challenge societal expectations of their gender.
The earliest record of English theatre began during the Medieval Period, which was vastly used to teach Christianity to the masses. Around 1350, guilds would produce mystery plays, which portrayed key stories from the Bible often performed on pageant wagons. This genre of religious drama was popular until the rise of the Reformation, when Henry VIII banned religious plays, preferring to entertain foreign monarchs and courtiers with secular humor (“Early Theatre,” Price). Obviously, this did not please the Puritans. When Queen Elizabeth came into power, playing companies were issued licenses, which permitted them to move their performances from enclosed inn yards to the publicspaces (“Early Theatre”). Purpose-built playhouses began to appear about London in the 1570s – The Theatre being one of the first, built in Finsbury Fields in 1576 (“Early Theatre,” Price). Even though playwrights were under strict order not to offend the monarchy, this restriction did not stop the drama industry from thriving (Price). From the Elizabethan era to the Jacobean era emerged countless great playwrights, such as Thomas Kyd, John Lyly, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, John Webster, and – of course – William Shakespeare; many of whom had written not only compelling stories regarding human life and emotion but also stories that explore the role of gender and sexuality. A few of their ingenious works includes, Gallathea, The Duchess of Malfi, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside,The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, or What You Will, The Changeling, anonymous’s Arden of Feversham, and Roaring Girl. These works depict female characters with strong personal desires while demonstrating capabilities only attributed to men during this period. For instance, Moll Yellowhammer and Juliet Capulet pursue those whom they love despite their family’s orders, Alice Arden and Beatrice-Joanna plot to murder their husband and betrothed, respectively, the Duchess of Malfi and Moll Cutpurse remain steadfast and refuse to submit to the men who undermine their strength, Viola cross-dresses to work for the Duke Orsino, and Gallathea and Phillida profess their love for each other despite both being female (Bevington; Shakespeare, Barton, Evans, Levin, & Baker). These plays demonstrate women’s potential, acting as a major influence in the societal evolution of the female identity.
These remarkable plays undoubtedly elicited much acclaim for their novelty, complexity, and eccentricity. However, the Renaissance was a very different period from the one we live in today. Old English society held certain expectations for performances; one important expectation was that playwrights refrain from offending the hierarchy, which comprised not only the social construct of class but also gender. Unlike today, most women agreed with their role in society (Borrow); and even as a virgin queen ruled the throne, their submissive role changed little. Women had specific duties within their respective class; the higher her class, the more controlled her life and the more important her role. From the age of six or seven, daughters born to the upper-class were taught household skills and the virtue of chastity, silence, and obedience in preparation for becoming a well-suited wife. They were expected to remain virgins until marriage – if not for their entire lives. It was vital for a daughter to maintain her virginity prior to marriage as her purity reflected her honor as well as that of her family. Even if she were to be a victim of rape, the loss of her virginity would cause dishonor and, therefore, result in her punishment, varying in severity depending on her rank. Once married, a wife’s primary responsibilities were to manage the household and to conceive and rear heirs; they had no other options. It was quite common for a mother to have about twenty to twenty-five births since infant and child mortality was quite common (“Women in the Renaissance and Reformation,” Cloud, Ranald). Women had very little power over their own lives, whether they were female peasants who labored alongside their male counterparts or higher-class women who lied in domesticity. Despite class, a woman did not own much property and was considered improvised if she were to live alone. She did not even have the right to her own children and would have to relinquish them to her husband’s family if she were to leave the household (“Women in the Renaissance and Reformation,” Cloud).
By presenting plays with decisive female characters, the Renaissance audience was introduced to innovative concepts that undeniably influenced their outlook on society. Nonetheless, Shakespeare and other great playwrights were not aggressively feminist in their theatrical presentations. They clearly understood the mindset of the era and, therefore, used comedy as “a safety net that allow[ed] the unfamiliar or the unacceptable to be presented in public,” according to Evelyn Gajowski (Borrow).
As Renaissance drama continued to grow into the Restoration period, women took the initiative to change English society. For instance, many left their homes to see plays with their husbands, which was ill-received. A woman’s presence in public was deemed to cause distraction and lewdness in men (Bertram, Kastan & Stallybrass). Puritans also worried that the obscenity of plays would cause misbehavior in women (Kastan & Stallybrass). Nevertheless, women were not deterred and continued to attend theatrical productions. Eventually, women began to write poems, stories, novels, essays, and plays, and would even translate their own works. Unfortunately, few earned any recognition. Aphra Behn was the first recorded woman playwright during the Renaissance who was also a translator, poet, and novelist – one of her works being Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave (“Aphra Behn”, “Female Playwrights Through the Ages”). Elizabeth Carey, Viscountess Falkland was the first to publish her original play The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry (“Female Playwrights Through the Ages”). Another significant intellect and writer was Margaret Cavendish, or “Mad Madge,” who is known to have produced the greatest genres of both men and women of the Renaissance period. Keen on gaining recognition for her work, Cavendish would boldly debate distinguished male scholars with her feminist views – for which she received much criticism. It was not until late twentieth centuries scholars gave her academic works critical attention that she gained fame (“Women in the Renaissance and Reformation”). Usually women who belonged to a wealthy family or married a nobleman were able to achieve this feat, as most ordinary women were not even literate (“Female Playwrights Through the Ages,” Levin). Nonetheless, it was not until the development of the printing industry after the fifteenth centurythat women were able to further their writing careers and communicate with publishers (“Women in the Renaissance and Reformation”). This era of women writers paved the way for modern-day feminists as their creative and intellectual work contributed to challenging the misconception that women are needy, promoting a change in social and political issues involving women (“Women in the Renaissance and Reformation”).
In conclusion, the Renaissance proved to be a time in which a shift occurred in the female identity, with the theatre as a catalyst for the social change of gender roles. As the Middle Ages grew more distant, so did the dated preconceptions of women. Theatre exposed its audience to an artform that valued expression, entertainment, and enlightenment. While playwrights rose to the stage to present stimulating and innovative plays that amazed the Elizabethan and Jacobean crowd, their works also acted as a catalyst of profound influence and inspiration for many women. The female identity evolved as women became their own playwrights, and eventually surpassed the restrictive expectations of English society’s patriarchy. Although few female playwrights, novelists, scholars, and advocates gained recognition for their artistic and shrewd work during this period, they initiated the onset of the feminist movement, which emerged later in history. Such ingenious plays enlighten us to the intricate nature of humanity and, therefore, hold the power to incite change. The theatre as a whole was an important – and sometimes divisive – vehicle social change, in particular the restrictive and oppressive roles placed on gender.
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