Virginia Woolf’s Unrecognized Female Shakespeare: Margaret Cavendish

By: Megan Loock ’22

English major, Journalism Publishing and Editing minor

Brief Description: This research paper is an extension of a presentation on philosopher and scientist Margaret Cavendish, her play Convent of Pleasure, and the play’s muti-disciplinary outreach. This paper dives deeper into the University College of Ripon and York St. John’s 1995 performance—the only performance on record— Convent of Pleasure and a photo that shows a male-presenting individual dressed in clothes that indicates they are the “Princess” that Cavendish’s protagonist Lady Happy develops a connection with over the course of the play.

The following was written for Women Writers to 1800 (ENG 303).

Photo by Victor on

Scientist, philosopher, and prose writer Margaret Cavendish wrote over a dozen folio items that included scientific speculations, poetry and plays, a book of orations, a volume of letters to an imaginary friend, and a biography on her husband. However, her closet-drama Convent of Pleasure stands out as one of her most comprehensive pieces, as it represents her multidisciplinary interests in philosophy and prose writing. Cavendish reverses the “disguised” gender trope, with her male character disguising himself as female presenting instead of her female character disguising herself as male presenting. The change of this trope presents an opportunity to view Convent of Pleasure as both the women and men deconstructing what it means to be characteristically feminine or masculine. Whereas men focus on gender performativity, the women of the play use the convent to perform labor that is traditionally held by men. Whether or not Cavendish intended it, this stark exploration of performativity between both genders illustrates Catholic convents as a threat to patriarchal power and a home for queer explorations as women willingly seek this environment to explore masculine performativity and escape the abuses of the patriarchy and men use feminine performativity to infiltrate a safe space. 

However, to discuss Convent of Pleasure’s overt theme of the female gaze, it’s important to provide some context of Cavendish’s philosophy of masculine and feminine nature, as well her opinions on women’s education. Cavendish believed that “‘for the most part Women are not Educated as they should be’ complaining that they receive only ‘an Education of the Body, and not of the Mind’” (Boyle 520). However, she didn’t necessarily believe that women should be educated in the same way as men because “education should follow, not oppose, Nature” (520). Therefore, defining what is ‘natural’ for gender performativity in the context of educational opportunities for women becomes the central topic that Cavendish explores in her play.   Though Cavendish may not have believed in equal opportunity for women to receive a more formal education, her use of the convent setting suggests a more equitable approach to education, as Lady Happy finds herself constantly questioning and reinventing education for women.  Writers like Hildegard von Bingen and Sor Juana de la Cruz are proof that the Catholic convent enabled women to obtain more of a formal education than what was universally provided for girls. Their education enabled these writers to become particularly skilled in the art of persuasion—regardless of whether their scholarly interpretations were looked down upon by their detractors. This historical context establishes a paradox between the author and her theoretical convent as she seems to be deviating from Deborah Boyle’s previously held conclusion that “Cavendish was simply ambivalent about women’s roles and capabilities” (517).

Additionally, it is worth noting that Cavendish’s husband and brother-in-law enabled and supported Cavendish’s interest in the natural sciences which supports the equitability that is foundational to the utopia she builds with the Convent of Pleasure. Though Lady Happy is inspired to establish her convent because of her displeasure with the politics of marriage, Lady Happy’s convent allows those women who join to take on roles such as “Physicians, Surgeons, and Apothecaries” with Lady Happy being their “Chief Confessor,” allowing these women to explore roles that “gives what Indulgences or Absolutions she pleaseth” (Cavendish 2.1 103). Historically, these roles were only held by men outside of the convent setting, so, Cavendish’s employment of the Catholic convent in this play has a special relevance to the overarching historical norms that were in place. Unlike other writers like Christine de Pizan who also imagined the idea of an all-female utopia, Cavendish uses the convent’s setting to explicitly “employ the form to interrogate a woman’s limited roles in Protestant society” because she is imagining “the intellectual, social, and erotic potential of all-female communities, and the secular gendered power structures that surround them” (Sierra 647). Though this employment is most palpable when the Princess arrives at the convent, it is also evident in how Lady Happy views feminine performativity as something that is rewarding through work, while also indulging in feminine vanity. Lady Happy says that she has a:

change of Furniture, for [her] house; according to the Four seasons of the year, with Silk-Damask, and all other things suitable to it; and a great Looking-Glass in each Chamber, that [she and the other nuns] may view [their] selves and take pleasure in [their] own Beauties. Whilst [they] are fresh and young (Cavendish 2.1. 105).

Though Lady Happy wants to provide a space for the intellectual advancement of her feminine peers, she also wants to hold on to the markers of what defines femininity, leading to a more comprehensive purpose for her convent than just an escape from marriage. In Lady Happy’s view, her convent is meant to provide women a safe space where they can explore areas that were once inaccessible to them, while also participating in traditional feminine performativity, completely neutralizing the masculine/feminine binary. It also destigmatizes hyper-femininity as something superficial and trivial.

This duality of gender performativity established by Lady Happy’s desires also speaks to the larger theme of how agency and autonomy must be cultivated through abnormal actions and experiences, highlighting Cavendish’s major discontent with her philosophy. Boyle identifies Cavendish’s philosophy as relatively conservative and unworthy of the proto-feminist label. While this is certainly a fair assessment:

Cavendish’s philosophical system resembled the dominant model in natural philosophy in her day…insofar as it explains natural phenomena in terms of matter of motion…the matter in her theory is not the inert, lifeless stuff posited by the mechanists…[it] is a blended and self-moving intermixture (518). 

Cavendish equates the quality of being self-moving to being alive, “which in turn entails being perceptive and knowing,” therefore, being characterized as “free” (518). Because Lady Happy is usurping roles that hold both social and economic power within a larger patriarchal society, she is creating a secular self-governing state. She is also eradicating the normalized patriarchal control from them to create a state free from the “folly, vanity, and falsehood in Men” (Cavendish 1.2 99), which is, according to Cavendish’s own philosophy, unnatural considering that Cavendish as a philosopher thought the power of the patriarchy as necessary, particularly as it pertains to marriage. 

Nevertheless, Cavendish believed Nature to not be governed or constructed by law and was “often…critical of men’s treatment of women…as well as suggesting that women are just as capable as men but are prevented by men from realizing their potential” (517-8). Cavendish’s criticism of a male-dominated society is crucial to understanding Lady Happy’s detestation of the purpose of marriage because she sees society as the main inhibitor for a woman’s potential. It is not the principle of marriage that suppresses Lady Happy and other women,  it is the masculine society that forces her to view marriage as a requirement to maintain—or in some cases improve—a woman’s quality of life. Lady Happy says, “Let me tell you, the Riches ought to be bestowed on such as are poor and what means to maintain themselves; and Youth on those who are old; Beauty, on those who are ill-favoured; and Virtue on those that are vicious” (Cavendish 1.2 98). Lady Happy does not want to marry to maintain riches or virtue because, to her, that is the true meaning of superficiality, and is devaluing to women who are ultimately gaining these proofs of pleasure. Instead, Lady Happy views marriage as a prison and men as “the only troublers of Women” because “[men] only cross and oppose [women’s] sweet delights, and peaceable life” (1.2. 101). In addition to this reasoning, Lady Happy’s frustration justifies her purpose to create a convent that will “take so many Noble Persons of [her] own Sex, as [her] Estate will plentifully maintain, and such whose Births are greater than their Fortunes, and are resolv’d to live a single life…” (101). While this comparison is inherently classist—previously using poor women’s disadvantages within marriage to make the point that women become “slaves” to these types of men—it helps readers come to the conclusion that Lady Happy’s pressure to marry and the rather universal reliance on marriage for women to maintain their state of being isn’t viewed by Cavendish’s heroine as  particularly necessary, rather she completely rejects the idea to escape the subservience and abuse of power men enact within patriarchal marriages. 

Regardless, the idea of the patriarchal marriage aligns with Cavendish’s pro-monarchy belief that there should be an absolute governing force within the domestic space. This philosophy is most present when Lady Happy’s refuses to go down the ‘natural’ path of Christian marriage and is received very negatively by the cisgendered men[1] in the play as they try to bring her and her anti-Christian convent back to order. While Lady Happy is more explicit with the issues she has with marriage as an institutional structure, she further compares it to religion:

if the gods should take pleasure in nothing but in the torments of their Creatures, and would not prefer those prayers that are offer’d with ease and delight, I should believe that the gods were cruel: and What Creature that had reason or rational understanding, would serve cruel Masters, when they might serve a kind Mistress[.](Cavendish 1.2 100).

It is ambiguous if Lady Happy is renouncing Christianity saying, “if the gods be cruel, I shall serve nature” (100). Though this statement doesn’t necessarily mean Lady Happy is adopting a Pagan mentality, her direct renouncement of Christianity suggests the possibility of this reading. Lady Happy’s philosophy on religion provides an interesting new viewpoint on the role of the man. Though men are not necessarily gods, nor do they represent divine right of royalty, it does speak to the absolute power that Lady Happy is exposing and renouncing. Lady Happy would rather abandon the expectation of patriarchal marriage if she is exposed to men who are cruel and do not “bid [women] what freely please [themselves] in that of which is best for [them]” (100), which ties directly back to Cavendish’s philosophy about gender roles and masculine and feminine nature. If Cavendish believes that “irregular actions are atypical” but not necessarily “bad or unnatural in the grand scheme of things” (Boyle 519), this logic supports the argument that, despite Cavendish’s Christian beliefs, she also acknowledges the “natural” notion that these types of marriages had the potential to become oppressive both within and without the laws of matrimony, especially if one turns to Paganism, which is outside of the status quo of Christian marriage.

This oppressive state is best illustrated in the cis-gendered men’s solution to Lady Happy’s anti-Christian attitude when Monsieur Facil suggests to “see the Clergy to perswade [Lady Happy] out” of establishing a convent to prevent her matrimony, rationalizing this solution as being “good for the Commonwealth” (Cavendish 2.1 103). Facil’s mention of the Commonwealth along with the Clergy acting as its policing force establishes a connection between religion and law that enforces the main motive for the patriarchal force within this play. Not only are the men trying to put a stop to the enlightenment of a female community, they want to maintain their advantageous state within the Church and state, which is something that is actively being taken away from them as Lady Happy establishes a place for women to just be women without the pressures of a patriarchal society. There is never any explicit deviation from Christian beliefs by Lady Happy, but the men assume since she is creating a space where women perform jobs like a physician, surgeon or Chief Confessor—which grants the individual authority to hear confessions and provide penance—she is deviating from the traditional female norms of subservience and spiritual twistedness, when, in reality, she is performing within the normal functions of a Catholic convent without complete removal from earthly temptations. To the cis-gendered men, Lady Happy is simply enjoying her femininity in the presence of other women and attempting to disempower the men’s  privilege of entitlement, which is the worst sin a woman could commit because “[s]he is not a Votress to the gods but to Nature” (103). The men are not upset that Lady Happy as an individual is unavailable for marriage, they are upset that she displays power of authority to other women,  leading other women down an unnatural path, and establishing her as an Other outside of a social order that needs to be restored.

As a result, the men come up with a plan to dress as women to infiltrate Lady Happy’s convent and bring her from reciting her “heretical opinions” and “punish her with a severe Husband, or torture her with a deboist Husband” (104). Though the men’s resolve to disguise themselves as women to complete this task is not revealed until scene four, it is important that these scenes are discussed together because it debunks Virginia Woolf’s central argument in her essay “Room of One’s Own.” Woolf argues that female writers like Cavendish—and subsequently their female characters—need a separate space to allow their creative endeavors to come to fruition. It is also important to mention that scene four also reveals that there is a Princess who will be attending the convent, complicating the men’s plan as they fear the punishment of infiltrating as their assigned sex.  Through this discussion of their disguises, Cavendish illustrates that, indeed, “Lady Happy’s convent have an excuse for circumventing patriarchal expectations of how their bodies will be exploited by their lovers, husbands, and children” (Sierra 654), but this idea can only be achieved in fictive worlds. To achieve this blurring of fiction and reality, Cavendish establishes that men technically have the same power to create their own monastic space: “Since Women can quit the pleasure of Men, we Men may well quit the trouble of Women” (Cavendish 2.1 105).  This comment is ironic because the cis-gendered men are victimizing themselves because women do not want to marry them solely based off romantic—or even sexual—attraction. So, instead of contemplating and acknowledging their character flaws, the men abandon the “trouble of Women” just the same as Lady Happy is voluntarily abandoning the superficiality of male company.

This attitude of contradictory reasoning and the lack of explicit mention of attraction toward both binary sexes call into question if the cis-gendered men are even attracted to Lady Happy, hinting that they are acting to maintain a level of compulsory heterosexuality to uphold ‘natural’ Christian beliefs. The only reason the men are cross-dressing as women—or at least the only reason that is supported by the text—is to “do Nature a good service” (2.4 108) to break up the homosocial space that does not serve the patriarchal order that they desire. So, though they are trying to maintain a level of perceived order, their motivations have no viable indication that they are attracted to Lady Happy, rather, they want to restore social order and reclaim “young, handsome, rich, and virtuous woman” (1.1 98) to hide their own potential queerness.

This queer-coding in the text is where performance plays a huge role in communicating a character’s thoughts, motivations, and emotions. Regardless of what the text provides, an actor’s use of tone, pitch, range of voice, as well as body language both in relation to and separate from other characters can communicate huge contradictions between dialogue and inner thoughts like those discussed previously. Born after the peak of the Elizabethan era, Cavendish was familiar with William Shakespeare and his revolutionary comedic popularity that rose from the female-page disguise trope which was essential to the plots of Twelfth Night and As You Like It. While both playwrights use the disguise trope in their respective plays to explore same-sex attraction and gender-queerness, Cavendish’s choice to have her male characters explore feminine performativity is interesting when looking at it through a theatrical lens. In Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, the female protagonist Rosalind puts on male attire to enhance her “confidence and self-possession” (Singh 112) and to “attain the potions and privileges of the superior sex” (113), which highlights the irony of the men’s motivations. Recognizing the potential of being caught in their cross-dressing escapade, Monsieur Takeplace asks “Who will discover Us?” (Cavendish 2.4 108), which in a heterosexual interpretation is that they will be caught. Taking tone, pitch, and range of performance—as well as a queer reading—into account is crucial to a well-rounded interpretation; the Advisor responds that they “shall discover [themselves]” (108), which can be performed so the audience understands this response as a double entendre for their potential queer motivations. While it is obvious that the men want to infiltrate the convent to restore order, this theatrical approach could suggest that they have an internal desire to explore their feminine side but are forced to remain silent about that desire due to society’s strict gender roles. Because the cis-gendered men don’t exist on the pages of the play beyond Act II, it is hard to come to a clear conclusion as to what their real identities are.  However, their absence suggests that the cis-gendered men come to accept this alternative identity as they assimilate into the society they once considered “unnatural.”

Theatrical interpretations thus become important in understanding the Princess’s androgynous characterization. Those who read the text can infer that the Princess’s assigned sex is male, but there is no explicit confirmation from the playwright herself (Sierra 656). Therefore, the queer-coded theme of gender performativity does not solely apply to the Princess—it applies, arguably, to the entire cast as “their chief recreation is the dramatization and reinvention of gender politics” (Bowerbank 19) through multiple facets of performativity like clothes and theatre (Act 3). But this theme specifically complicates the queer dynamic of the relationship between Lady Happy and the Princess that is developed for the remainder of the play.  The Princess’s identity evolves over the course of the play, whereas the men are cross-dressing as women to bring back social order, regardless of its potential queer-reading. Princess—explicitly referred as such in the text—is initially described as a “Princely brave Woman truly, of a masculine presence” (Cavendish 2.3 107), presenting the character as falling in line with Shakespeare’s popularized female-disguised-as-a-male trope. The Princess also has the desire to join the “experimental pleasures of erotic friendship, cross-dressing, and role-playing” (Bowerbank 20). Here, audiences are under the impression that the true sex of the Princess is female, and she prefers to present herself with more masculine traits. After inquiring to start a lesbian relationship with Lady Happy, she rationalizes her request by stating that Lady Happy’s “Ladies do accoustre themselves in Masculine-Habits, and act Lovers-parts” (Cavendish 3.1 111). Though this text does not give much indication of the Princess’s identity, it does hint that woman are cross-dressing and entering queer relationships within the convent already, and, therefore, the text normalizes the nature of Princess’s attraction and alleviates the anxiety associated with Lady Happy’s inclination to uphold a compulsory heterosexual attitude. This interaction solidifies Lady Happy as being willing to enter a queer relationship—after seemingly swearing off romantic relationships entirely—further providing readers with the knowledge that the Princess is proficient in performing feminine virtue.

Though Cavendish considered chastity to be a central quality defining feminine virtue, she also considered constancy, patience, piety, trustworthiness, thrift, and fashionableness to be central to being ‘naturally feminine’ (Boyle 520). While there are some inherent contradictions with these qualities being present with in the convent of pleasure—as Lady Happy is not particularly financially responsible with her seasonal furniture, adding a bit of irony to Cavendish’s prose—the play’s views should be correlated with Cavendish’s view on how girls and women should be educated. She thought that women needed a better education, that education should not be the same as men’s because it would, in her reasoning, change a woman’s nature, thus, “turn[ing] women into men” (Boyle 520). Setting aside the inherent internalized misogyny in this philosophy, the Princess’s character—as well as the cis-gendered men that participate in cross-dressing—offers a stronger counterargument to this claim. In the text, the exploration of how one can perform an androgynous identity is meant to toe the fine line between what is natural and what is considered socially “irregular” without communicating any biases of what is truly natural or unnatural. As Lady Happy continues to push limits within the convent, she is not truly acting against what Cavendish defines as natural. Rather, she is simply pushing the limits of what is deemed socially acceptable and what Cavendish approves of—or at least what she can explicitly approve of on the page.  

Regardless of what Cavendish agrees with, the communication of the messages of the play are entirely dependent on its performance. The first known, public performance of Convent of Pleasure did not occur until 1995, centuries after Cavendish’s death, at the University of Ripon and York St. John. The play was originally a closet-drama which did not require the individuals participating to act the parts, rather, they simply read the lines out loud. Cavendish certainly can be credited with using popularized tropes within this play to illustrate the “subtle flow of unacknowledged attraction between a man and a woman, or between two women” (Bradbrooke 92). As we seem to see in both Cavendish’s work and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the ambiguity of the text on top of the art of costume lends itself toward multiple interpretations such as exploring the Prince crossdressing as a Princess—as Director Bill Pinner did in his 1995 performance.[2] The theatrical elements become particularly important when the Princess says “These my Imbraces through the Femal king, May be as fervent as a Masculine mind” (Cavendish 4.1 118) because the literary text alone does not answer questions like: Is the Princess attempting to reveal their true identity while also remaining true to their emotions? Did they have any nefarious intentions like the cis-gendered men? These questions are essential for putting together a cohesive story and are never answered in the text, requiring theatrical nuance.

Lady Happy ends up marrying the prince in the end, fulfilling the Shakespearean comedy formula. Lady Happy’s ultimate adherence to a heterosexual marriage—despite it being deceivingly queer—shows that although these characters enjoy the freedom of expression they receive through this fantastical convent, eventually everything must be restored back to order. Lady Happy’s marriage at the end reinforces gender norms as the underlying maleness of the Prince is revealed as well as the message that “patriarchal marriage is simply unavoidable, no matter what efforts women make to avoid it” (Boyle 529). There are so many questions left unanswered by the end: Why is Lady Happy silent at the wedding? Is she upset about the Prince’s real identity? Or does the Prince even let go of cross-dressing by the end? Looking at the ending through a modern lens, Lady Happy’s silence seems to offer a pessimistic interpretation that completely erases the play’s effort to create a self-governing feminist utopia through characters taking on ‘masculine roles’ and performing the abuses of the patriarchal marriage in Act Three. Nevertheless, it is disappointing that Woolf does not discuss Convent of Pleasure in her essay more in depth because it could be argued that, despite the internalized misogyny in her philosophy, Cavendish could fit the title of the ‘female Shakespeare’ that Woolf was looking for. Cavendish is allowing her male characters to perform as women, on top of the already potential existence of masculine performing women within the convent, completely eradicating the construct of social privilege altogether—which is important because these themes do show up in every Shakespeare comedy that deals with disguises. 

[1] For this paper, I will be referring to men like Monsieur Takeplace, Dick, and Facile as cisgendered men because they do not explicitly exist as the disguised convent women beyond Act 2.

[2] Purver, Louis. “Screenshot of Lady Happy and the Princess in Act 3 Scene 1— Performance by the University College of Ripon and York St. John, Directed by Bill Pinner.” Digital Cavendish, 1995, Accessed 30 Oct. 2021.


Works Cited:

Boyle, Deborah. Margaret Cavendish on Gender, Nature, and Freedom.” Hypatia, vol. 28, no. 3, [Hypatia, Inc., Wiley], 2013, pp. 516–32, Accessed 2 December 2021.

Bradbrook, M.C. “Character as Plot: Protean Shapes: Shakespearean Form in Comedy.” The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy, Cambridge University Press, London, Great Britain, 1973, pp. 77–94.  

Cavendish, Margaret et al. “The Convent of Pleasure.” Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader, Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ont., 2000.

Bowerbank, Sylvia and Mendelson, Sara. “Introduction.” Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader, Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ont., 2000.

Purver, Louis. “Screenshot of Lady Happy and the Princess in Act 3 Scene 1— Performance by the University College of Ripon and York St. John, Directed by Bill Pinner.” Digital Cavendish, 1995, Accessed 30 Oct. 2021.

Sierra, Horacio. “Convents As Feminist Utopias: Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure and The Potential of Closeted Dramas and Communities.” Women’s Studies, vol. 38, no. 6, Sept. 2009, pp. 647–669. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00497870903021539. Accessed 25 October 2021.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Mariner Books, 2005

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