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



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4.2.2 City Comedy and Domestic Tragedy


The Jacobean era is not connected only with the Revenge tragedy. Two new genres developed – city comedy and domestic tragedy – stories of domestic life set in the familiar world of London. These stories “provided the possibility of pleasing a wider audience and extending the market for a new form of entertainment” (McLuskie 1) – these plays focused on the relationships between men and women and while the city comedies turned from romance as represented in comedies by Lyly and Shakespeare, the domestic tragedies rejected “the high bombast of Elizabethan tragedy in favour of a more direct appeal to their audience’s experience and sensibilities” (McLuskie 1). Among the playwrights who wrote domestic tragedies were Thomas Dekker, Thomas Middleton and Thomas Heywood, however, as the first play in this tradition is considered Arden of Feversham written by an anonymous author. The three authors, accompanied by Ben Jonson, wrote also the city comedies. Thomas Heywood was important for the female characters because he wrote many plays focusing on women and “created one of the most sentimental female icons in Jane Shore, the heroine of his two-part historical play, Edward IV” and he was “equally alert to the potential of comedic fashion in his representation of women” (McLuskie 2). He wrote a popular domestic tragedy called A Woman Killed with Kindness. Thomas Middleton, who focused on women even in his plays written in the genre of Jacobean revenge tragedy (Women Beware Women, The Changeling), wrote for both adult companies and for the Paul’s Boys – he adapted the “iconoclastic and sexually and politically daring plays” created for the boys’ troupe for the adult companies – he collaborated “with Dekker on the first part of The Honest Whore and on The Roaring Girl” (McLuskie 5). When the boys’ troupes were disbanded in 1606, Middleton wrote A Chaste Maid in Cheapside for an adult company – the Lady Elizabeth’s Men – that was joined by the boys from the former Children of the Queens Revels. Thomas Dekker was later not as successful as the other playwrights, but at the turn of the century he was very popular – he wrote The Shoemaker’s Holiday and “no less than fourteen plays” (McLuskie 5). Dekker was “equally influential when writing satire” (McLuskie 6) and together with Ben Jonson they were “concerned with the bargain between entertainment and instruction which the commercial theatre had struck with its patrons and supporters” (McLuskie 6). While Jonson wrote for the Court, Dekker wrote for the citizen audiences. In collaboration with other dramatists Dekker wrote The Witch of Edmonton (with Rowley and Ford), The Honest Whore (with Middleton) and Westward Ho! (with Webster), which “was imitated in Jonson, Chapman and Marston’s Eastward Ho! for a rival company” (McLuskie 6).

Many of the plays deal with the changes in the society connected to viewing marriage as business deal – “in city comedy, the place of women is effectively subordinated to the competition between men for status and power. The love plots are moved to the margins of the action, and the women’s concerns are circumscribed within the arena of marriage” (McLuskie 28). Love and passion are “suppressed in comedy with bawdy mockery and witty devices” while in tragedy “similar competitive forces explode in violence and death. They are brought to the forefront of the action, offering a tragic mirror image of the comic interaction between women, men and the changing social world” (McLuskie 28). Most of the tragedies and comedies are focused on unhappy marriages and adultery, and while tragedy takes these themes and explore “the social damage and personal pain consequent upon it” (McLuskie 38), the comedies play with cuckoldry and fidelity in terms of market place deals – parents sell their children into loveless marriages, husbands are consent with their wives’ infidelity if it provides for their families, mothers pushing their daughters into sexual relationships to cure their “greensickness” as does mother to Moll in The Chaste Maid in Cheapside. These plays, as the mirrors of the changing society, were facing the future Restoration Comedy of Manners more than they resembled the great drama of the Elizabethan period.



5. Conclusion


The aim of this thesis was to follow the beginnings of the English female characters back to the Early Modern England and find the special conditions in which these female dramatis personae evolved. The Elizabethan period was extremely important for their development because it was the time in which the whole English drama as a genre originated – before this period there were no real English dramatic characters. The favourable conditions for this evolution were created by the Humanist thinking that the best way to find and transfer knowledge is to look back to the Classical Greece and Rome, read the literary works written in those times and translate them into the vernacular languages. But the changes that came with the Renaissance and the rebirth of the Classics were not the only foundation-stones for the English female characters – to use a quotation of Federico Chabod from Gundersheimer’s The Italian Renaissance, “we must look for change and development in the midst of continuity” (12). So while the import of a two thousand years old culture made a difference, it is vital to look at the continuity of development of the Early Modern Europe – Italy, the cradle of the Renaissance, was a century ahead from England and going through the same process of reinventing the Classics, during the Elizabethan era it already provided a mixture of the classical and the home-made. Also the English continuity played essential role in the evolution of female dramatic personae – the development of dramatic genres started in the ninth century with the Church liturgy and it continued through the Miracles and Moralities until it reached the tumultuous era of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The particular circumstances for the development of the Early Modern English drama were created by the changing society, the upcoming modernity, the focus on human, which inherently brought the focus on women and their virtues, their social position and their abilities. While the women gained attention in the real world, the female characters started to appear on the stages of private and public theatres. But the evolution of female dramatic characters was not easy and straightforward. Women had to face criticism based on binary oppositions – their inclination to sin was supposed to be inherent in their sex and they had to be submitted to the male control – they were not trusted by the society and were easy victims of slander, they continually had to prove that they are capable of virtuous conduct. While the real women were dealing with the criticisms, many authors wrote literary or theoretical texts to support them. But when the political situation changed and under the problematic rule of James I men became diminished on women’s level, their treatment of women in literature changed. The dark period for the female dramatic characters is the Jacobean revenge tragedy – they were raped, mutilated and murdered on stage, or they were idealized, objectified, fragmented into pieces. But with the new genres, city comedy and domestic tragedy, the dramatic setting became familiar and friendly for the female characters – even though the topics were still the same – women deceiving men, infidelity, cuckoldry, punishment or satirical treatment of immorality – the environment was more private than in the previous plays with their classical settings. While the plays moved from the public sphere to the domestic, female characters were brought home and it provided a huge step in their evolution. Nevertheless, the female characters of the later Jacobean period and of the Restoration drama would never exist were it not for the two thousand years old Classical heroines.


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