The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation by Peter France 28 Introduction

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Bc. Petra Spurná

Female Characters in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama

Master’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: doc. Mgr. Pavel Drábek, Ph.D.


I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.


Author’s signature


I would like to thank my supervisor doc. Mgr. Pavel Drábek, PhD. for his patience and his valuable advice.

Table of Contents

 The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation by Peter France 28

1. Introduction

The Elizabethan and Jacobean times were important for the English drama – especially because it did not exist as a proper literary genre before the sixteenth century. It evolved from the church liturgy through Miracles and Moralities, to Interludes, short plays with simple plots. But all these dramatic “genres” provided nothing more than stock characters. The important step came with the influence of Classical drama. At first it was the Latin drama because no translation was needed and the plays were also better preserved, but later in the sixteenth century the Greek plays were discovered and through translation into Latin or through Italian adaptations they got to England. The writers started to imitate the classical plays and thus all the great ancient heroines appeared in the Early Modern drama. And while the playwrights were trying new improvements, the plays were performed in front of audiences who played an important part in deciding what kind of comedies or tragedies should be written. The use of Latin became less popular, so the first proper plays in vernacular appeared. But the evolution of drama was not so simple. It mirrored socio-political background, religious and philosophical thoughts and – in the case of female characters – the position of women and men in the patriarchal society. The aim of this thesis is then to follow this evolution of female dramatic characters and to prove that every step in the evolution was important and that the continuity of Classical and Early Modern worlds together with the still existing strong influences of the Medieval Ages were the conditions needed for this evolution.

This thesis is divided into three chapters. The first chapter is called “Ancient Greek and Roman Influences”. It is divided into two subchapters regarding the two countries end eras which they describe. The Greek subchapter is then divided into five parts – “Women and their Social Position” provides background for the Greek drama – during the fifth century BCE the first drama developed in Athens and it is important to understand the social position of women in those times because the female characters that emerged in this period oftentimes provided a critical standpoint to some of the social problems. This part describes the changes connected to women’s social status – in this era they became a marginalised group restricted to the private sphere. Also the philosophical trends described women as inferior to men – the Pythagoreans invented the division of the Universe into binary oppositions and created thus a long-lasting argument for the deficiency of women and their morals. This division also led to appearance of double standards for male and female behaviour. The second part, “Women and Theatre” describes the reality of women as theatregoers. While they were restricted from many public events, they were allowed to go to a theatrical festival called the Great Dionysia. This festival was important as the greatest dramatists of the era competed with their plays to gain popularity and prizes. The fact that women were allowed to these performances shows that as a part of the audience they could be addressed by the dramatists. The third part is called “Women and Tragedy” and it discusses the problematic issue of a female character becoming a protagonist of a play – women were supposed to stay in the private sphere, the oikos, while the plays were set outside the oikos – it means that the female character has to transgress her gender role and step out into the public sphere. When that happens, she becomes masculine in her behaviour, which is enacted through language and the values she honours – this practice questioned the validity of binary opposites and gender division – if a woman was able to act as a man than the gender attributes seemed to be social constructs rather than something inherent in the sex. The fourth part called simply “Euripides” deals with one of the greatest classic dramatists who was also described as a social critic even by his contemporaries. His plays were popular yet did not achieve many awards and a possible reason for this fact can be his interest in marginalized groups of the society – women and slaves. He gave them voice and features (or even virtues) that were not generally attributed to them and he also showed that the social status is not natural but imposed by the culture. The last part of the Greek subchapter deals with the appearance of Euripides’ plays in the Early Modern era and their influence. The whole subchapter is greatly indebted to the authors of the Introduction to the Women on the Edge because they provided extensive background information for the research on Greek theatre and women – many works on Greek drama leave out women not only as an important historical group that was the first to live in the strictly divided world of patriarchal power, but also as dramatic characters, even though they were the originals for many later characters. And without Euripides’ comments on the social status of women put into the mouths of his female characters it is a question if there would be any strong and outspoken female character created even hundreds of centuries later.

The Roman subchapter is divided into three parts – “Virgil”, “Ovid” and “Seneca”. These authors were selected as the most influential for the appearance of a fully developed female character in the Early Modern period. While their works were not concerned with the real lives of Roman women, there is no introductory part about the position of women in their time. And, on the other hand, while these authors became influential for their formal and technical improvements of the genre, these are not included in this thesis because they were not important for the development of female characters. The first part of this subchapter describes Virgil’s greatest achievement concerning a female character – his Dido, the queen of Carthage, as she is described in his famous work, the Aeneid. Virgil’s Dido inspired Christopher Marlowe when he created Dido, Queen of Carthage, which was an important play for the development of English drama. The part about Ovid describes a poet who “actually liked women as a sex” (Griffin 59). Ovid created many female characters in the Metamorphoses or the Heroides and provided interesting advice to women in his controversial Ars Amatoria. He was very influential even in the Middle Ages because of various misinterpretations of his texts that enable the critics to see him as a moral author. The third part focuses on Seneca who is actually the only dramatist from this group of Roman authors. He was influenced by both Virgil and Ovid and in his choice of stories there is a vivid influence of Euripides who was in Seneca’s time a part of the classical canon. Even though his characters were different from those of Euripides, certain similarities can be traced in the plays. Seneca was very important for the Early Modern drama in Italy and England – many Latin plays were written in Senekal style and even later plays written in vernacular were still created in accordance with this model. Seneca, as well as Euripides and Ovid, wrote a story of Medea, and Virgil and Ovid both wrote a story of Dido – these two female characters are very important for the development of Early Modern dramatic female characters: in the Medieval times there was no place for angry women – Court poetry was about love between fair ladies and their knights, religious works were dealing with lives of saints and martyrs and moral treatises were about condemning women as whores who cannot control their passions. There were no stories about women passionately in love, of women who killed their children or themselves to make the men they loved suffer, and even if there were such stories, the women were obviously not portrayed in a way that would gain sympathy for them and understanding for their deeds.

The second chapter is called “Italian Influences” and deals with the innovations in the genre that appeared in Italy in connection with the Renaissance Humanism that was born there. It is divided into four subchapters. The first is called “Defences of Women” and together with the second subchapter on Ludovico Ariosto includes information from Pamela Benson’s book The Invention of the Renaissance Woman. Benson created an extensive account of various works defending women written both in Italy and in England and describes methods that were used to create certain models of women. In the first subchapter there are the two main methods described – methods of creating an “extraordinary” woman and an “exemplary” woman. While the extraordinary woman is masculine, thus capable of doing great things as men, but is different from other women, the exemplary woman shows female abilities and virtues and the method of defending women this way claims that every woman is able to do the same great deeds as the famous example in question, if she is given the same opportunities. The defences of women are important because women had to gain attention in reality to become important in the fictional world – just as Euripides was pointing to certain problematic issues, the authors of the defences were highlighting areas in which women were undeservedly diminished. Ludovico Ariosto, whose work is described in the second subchapter, belongs to the group of defenders who mix those above mentioned methods, yet he is consistent in his belief that both sexes are interdependent and equal. He introduces in his Orlando Furioso a new kind of a female character – a self-reliable woman facing the ultimate question – to what extent is she defined by her sex and to which by her abilities? Ariosto also promotes the idea that a woman, to be virtuous, needs to be supported by the society and by her husband, because without trust it is hard to keep her reputation immaculate – where there is no trust, there even a false slander can cause enormous harm. This subchapter contains also a commentary on the poet-female patron relationship. The fourth subchapter called “Tragicomedy and Pastoral” describes the Italian influence on dramatic genres. While the pastoral was invented as a new genre, tragicomedy already existed but its value was questionable – Italian theoreticians and dramatists engaged in a rather heated discussion but the tragicomedy was already gaining popularity among the audiences and new discoveries of Greek dramas provided proofs that the first drama was generically complex. These genres were important for the evolution of female characters because pastoral plays were often centred on a female protagonist and tragicomedy provided more space for verisimilitude – even though even tragicomedy has its stock characters, women became more believable than pathetic tragic heroines or comic shrews. The last subchapter concerning Italian influences is called “Transporting Tragicomedy: Commedia dell’Arte” and describes how female actresses changed the plays performed by commedia dell’arte troupes and how these plays got to England and influenced English dramatists.

The third chapter is called “The Early Modern England” and deals with the history of English drama and with new accomplishments in the Renaissance period. It is divided into two subchapters – “Elizabethan Era” and “Jacobean Era” – and each subchapter is further divided into smaller parts. The first chapter includes introduction to the era of Queen Elizabeth I. It describes her self-fashioning as an androgynous sovereign to escape the problematic position of a female ruler. She is not androgynous only in terms of masculine identity and feminine body. She created a Cult of the Virgin Queen to promote her feminine side and it became as prominent as her assumed masculinity. From the methods described by Pamela Benson, Elizabeth preferred to be portrayed as the extraordinary woman, which did not help to elevate the social position of women in general – as much as she did for the female characters by creating her Cult and encouraging writers to create powerful fictional women based on her Majesty, she did nothing for the contemporary women, except for the fact that any public expression of hate towards women was not recommended when a woman was sitting on the throne, so the misogyny of the Jacobean era survived during this period unnoticed. The first subchapter contains four parts – the first part is called “The History of English Drama” and describes the evolution of the genre from church liturgy, through Miracles, Moralities and Interludes to the first plays written in vernacular in the first half of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The second part is called “University Plays” and describes the different evolution of drama in the university towns – because they were not cathedral towns, the basic drama evolving from liturgy was not an important influence in Oxford and Cambridge, while the classical plays were influential enormously. University scholars defended their performances as important for the educational purposes and argued against professional troupes who performed for money and provided base entertainment – yet the connection of university drama and professional drama was inevitable because some university alumni became professional writers. The next part, “University Wits”, focuses on these alumni – mainly on John Lyly for his importance for the development of comedy, and Christopher Marlowe for his tragedies. Lyly focused on women as an important part of his audience and it was mirrored in his plays. He also added romance to the comedies which enabled women to play a more important part in the plot. Christopher Marlowe brought Virgil’s Dido to the Early Modern England and created a strong, emotional character that influenced many others. In his other tragedies women do not play such a crucial part but in his Tamburlaine he created a new kind of romance – based on the courtly romance, he switched from the combination of a faithful knight and a beautiful lady to a more powerfully balanced couple of a conqueror and a woman who strives for her own goals. The fourth part of this chapter is called “William Shakespeare” and it focuses mainly on different critical readings of his characters, because there already are many analyses and theoretical disputes concerning them to leave a space to write something new. While feminist readings can be exaggerated because of the fervour to prove that Shakespeare’s female characters were mere constructs of patriarchal society, there exist also readings that are quite misleading – mainly because the author is not sufficiently acknowledged with the historical background of the period.

The second subchapter concerning the Jacobean era starts with introduction to the problematic reign of James I – while Elizabeth’s androgynous self was a success, James’ version was a failure. Adding a feminine side to a masculine king seems unnecessary and his proclamation that he is (just as Elizabeth was) married to the kingdom degraded his male subjects into the position of a wife. According to many critics this problematic position of men created a need to suppress women even more to keep the previous patriarchal hierarchy. To this need is connected the subject of the first part of this subchapter – “Jacobean Revenge Tragedy”. The striving to keep the old order of the society, the destabilised binary oppositions, because men were diminished, too, created two versions of repression of female characters – the first is milder – idealization of women – the second is violent – misogyny in its worst, having female characters raped or/and decapitated. Even though the idealization does not seem as powerful as the misogynist treatment, it is used to objectify women and to further support the division of women into chaste virgins and whores. The last part focuses on new genres – city comedy and domestic tragedy. These genres became very popular because they lacked the bombast of previous tragedies and they portrayed stories of characters in contemporary settings – it provided the audience with better understanding and sharing the experience with the characters. These genres dealt with relationships between men and women and changed the previous romances into stories resembling more the Restoration drama then the Renaissance one.

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