Death, inheritance and the family : a study of literary responses to inheritance in seventeenth-century England
This thesis argues that a study of literary genres from the seventeenth century pertaining to death and inheritance in the family yields evidence about the way in which inheritance was understood and interpreted by early modern society; these genres include parental legacies, women writers’ interpretations of Genesis, Anne Clifford’s personal account of her struggle to gain her inheritance, plays (comedies and tragedies) and elegies on the death of children. A study of literature related to the topics of wills, legacies and lineage imparts insight into early modern concepts of family relations and parental roles, and challenges Lawrence Stone’s views on the late development of the affective family. The textual legacies of Elizabeth Joceline, Elizabeth Grymeston, Dorothy Leigh and Edward Burton, and the elegies of Ben Jonson and Katherine Philips will be used to demonstrate emotive parenting and the extension of parental roles beyond the death of the parent or beyond the death of an heir. Familial texts can be used to study the familial and political environments and attitudes, but as will be proved in the thesis, literature, especially in the form of legacies, elegies and exegeses, also had agency in creating new definitions of inheritance external to the formal patriarchal basis of land and power transference which many historians have considered the prime focus of study in the seventeenth century. In addition Rachel Speght, Alice Sutcliffe, and Amey Hayward produced interpretations of Genesis as literary testaments, asserting women’s role in the creation of a less sinful, less patriarchal lineage. The ‘prodigal’ play structures of Thomas Middleton and Aphra Behn compared with patriarchal political texts, and a comparison of two versions of King Lear byWilliam Shakespeare and Nahum Tate address the temporary interruption of patriarchal succession and highlight post- Restoration changes to the ideological functions of inheritance.