Negotiating spaces : women and agency in English Renaissance society, plays and masques
This thesis provides new and alternative readings of women’s opportunities for agency in sixteenth and early seventeenth century society, and of the ways in which this was represented in plays and masques of the time. The relationship between history and theatre is a two-way process. In light of this, the depiction of proactive female characters in public plays is examined alongside the appearance of proactive women in society and on stage in Jacobean court masques, through the different but complementary lenses of marriage and female alliances. After the Introduction (Chapter One), Part One (Chapters Two and Three) looks at female agency in marriage and the ways in which this was depicted in drama, from the perspective of two neglected social practices, spousals and wife sales. The spousal law offered women as well as men an opportunity to regulate their marriage without recourse to the church or parents and is a common, but under-studied, plot in Renaissance drama. Three of the most interesting and complex uses appear in George Chapman’s The Gentlemen Usher (1602-4), John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1612-14) and Thomas Middleton’s The Widow (c. 1616). The spousal plot provides an alternative angle for the playwrights to explore and endorse female characters’ decision to rebel against male family members and marry men of their choice. Part Two (Chapters Four, Five and Six) analyses the opportunities for female agency at the Jacobean court from the perspective of female homosocial bonding, looking at Anna of Denmark (Queen consort of James I), her court women, and the masques in which they danced. Anna’s women were, like the Queen, trying to control their lives. Chapter Four shows that the Queen’s retinue provided a separate space for these women to gather, interact and create alliances and further, that this mutual support facilitated their agency at the Jacobean court, agency which often involved opposing the king.