Performing Women?s Speech in Early Modern Drama: Troubling Silence, Complicating Voice



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This dissertation attempts to fill a void in early modern English drama studies by offering an in-depth, cross-gendered comparative study emphasizing representations of women?s discursive agency. Such an examination contributes to the continuing critical discussion regarding the nature and extent of women?s potential agency as speakers and writers in the period and also to recent attempts to integrate the few surviving dramas by women into the larger, male-dominated dramatic tradition. Because statements about the nature of women?s speech in the period were overwhelmingly male, I begin by establishing the richness and variety of women?s attitudes toward marriage and toward their speech relative to marriage through an examination of their first-person writings. A reassessment of the dominant paradigms of the shrew and the silent woman as presented in male-authored popular drama?including The Taming of the Shrew and Epicene?follows. Although these stereotypes are not without ambiguity, they nevertheless considerably flatten the contours of the historical patterns discernable in women?s lifewriting. As a result, female spectators may have experienced greater cognitive dissonance in reaction to the portrayals of women by boy actors. In spite of this, however, they may have borrowed freely from the occasional glimpses of newly emergent views of women readily available in the theater for their own everyday performances, as I argue in a discussion of The Shoemaker?s Holiday and The Roaring Girl. Close, cross-gendered comparison of two sets of similarly-themed plays follows: The Duchess of Malfi and The Tragedy of Mariam, and A Midsummer Night?s Dream and Love?s Victory. Here my examination reveals that the female writers? critique of prevailing gender norms is more thorough than the male writers? and that the emphasis on female characters? material bodies, particularly their voices, registers the female dramatists? dissatisfaction with the disfiguring representations of women on the maledominated professional stage. I end with a discussion of several plays by women?The Concealed Fancies, The Convent of Pleasure, and Bell in Campo?to illustrate the various revisions of marriage offered by each through their emphasis on gendered performance and, further, to suggest the importance of the woman writer?s contribution to the continuing dialectic about the nature of women and their speech.