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Better a Shrew than a Sheep: Women, Drama, and the Culture of Jest in Early Modern England.

Better a Shrew than a Sheep: Women, Drama, and the Culture of Jest in Early Modern England By Pamela Allen Brown Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003

In this entertaining and enlightening book, Pamela Allen Brown takes us to the early modern neighborhood inhabited by an array of outlandish characters with names such as Long Meg, Mother Bunch and Madge Mumblecrust. Brown considers the representation of women within jesting literature as well as women's "unwritten" roles as joke tellers and audience members, and she challenges the assumptions that early modern humor always presented women as the "humiliated butts of jokes" or the "passive auditors of men's jests" (2). Instead, she contends that jesting literature, which was available to and even geared toward non-elite women with limited educations, may have provided ordinary women with the means to resist the societal restrictions of a patriarchal culture. Brown supports her argument with readings from an abundance of primary sources, including jestbooks, collections of proverbs, ballads, and tales and pamphlets covering the "real-life" exploits of scandalous alewives and coney catchers. Also included in her investigation of jesting culture are accounts of public events such as Horn Fairs and skimmingtons, which Brown reads as unscripted performances of events reflected in early dramas ranging from the Chester plays of Noah and his wife to The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Alchemist.

While Brown readily admits the masculinist mode of jest and its tendency towards antifeminist banter, she finds evidence of the popularity of jesting literature among women at all social levels. This popularity of apparently misogynist literature may seem counterintuitive, but Brown finds numerous examples of jests "with potential as resources for female resistance and productive fantasy" (8). These jests take many forms, but typically feature witty, problem-solving women and the husbands and suitors who are humiliated by the women's devious antics. For example, one jest tells of a husband who requires his wife to warm his bed every night before he lies down, and thus calls her his "warming pan." Tired of satisfying his unreasonable demands, the wife one night defecates in his bed, and to her husband's horrified cry that he is "beshit," replies, "it is but a Coal dropt out of your warming Pan" (11). Noting that the wife in this jest is neither celebrated nor demonized, Brown explains that the wife's tactic is meant to change her husband's way, and as such it is successful. This type of joke, which focuses on ordinary women's responding to everyday situations, is typical of the material Brown examines, and it illustrates the potential for women's resistance within early modern jesting culture.

Defining the neighborhood as a web of social relationships within which individual identities were defined, chapters one through three examine the world of ordinary early modern women, considering in particular the significance of gossip and the alehouse. Gossip, Brown contends, could give women "a measure of power as arbiters of behavior" (39); the alehouse, where women (contrary to the view of several historians) had a significant presence as proprietors and patrons, became a place for women "to stage their own brand of comic drama" (76) and for the "cross-fertilization of everyday jesting and theater" (71). An obvious play that combines the world of jest and the world of gossip is The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Brown ably discusses Mistresses Ford and Page's talent for theatricality that leads to their triumph in "the court of the neighborhood" (44). Of greater interest is Brown's discussion of the figure of Noah's wife, Uxor, an extremely popular comic character, who may be a bad wife for arguing with her husband, but whose argument in defense of her gossips proves her to be a good neighbor. As Shakespeare's wives do, Uxor represents the world of the neighborhood and alehouse and manipulates the conventions of jest and theatricality to her own advantage before crossing over "to the sacred space of ark and covenant" (69).

Brown's title proverb, "better a shrew than a sheep," provides us with some of this book's most original and thought-provoking analysis of jesting culture and its relation to the theater and to real life. Having defined the proverbial sheep as overly submissive wives, Brown pits the aggressive shrew against her masculine counterpart--the wifebeater. Chapter 4 begins with a discussion of a group of women in Quemerford who fought against a planned skimmington of one of their friends by destroying the drum that was to be used in the event. Although such public acts of rebellion were rare and ineffective (in this case the men eventually staged their skimmington, beating the victim and dragging her through the mud), they demonstrate women's opposition to sanctioned practices of wife beating and humiliation, an opposition that is also demonstrated in popular literature of the day. Brown continues by examining popular and literary works ranging from jests concerning the long-suffering Socrates and his nagging wife Xantippe to The Taming of the Shrew and Fletcher's "sequel," The Woman's Prize, or the Tamer Tamed. While Brown acknowledges that this literature "intends to scoff at shrews and gossips," she again accounts for the popularity of these works among women by suggesting that they offer "scenes of female revenge and passages of female satire that cannot be dismissed as pure products of the male imagination" (122). Brown is careful not to read these works as uncomplicated weapons of resistance, but rather she views them as evidence both of the violence women faced and of some women's refusal to "condone, comply with, or submit to the double standard's achingly crude violence" (149).

Chapter 6 presents another contest, now between the two named characters in Brown's titular proverb. The literary embodiment of the proverb's sheep is Griselda, who has irritated and outraged women for generations. Brown first examines the genealogy of Griselda, discussing Chaucer's reworking of Boccaccio and Petrarch before turning to works such as A Winter's Tale and The Tragedy of Mariam, whose silent, suffering heroines are modeled on the patient Griselda. Because Brown is interested in what she calls the "cracks" in the Griselda myth, she focuses her attention on the shrew-like "counter-Griselda," the subordinate character who ignores her mistresses' examples, challenges her decisions, and yet remains fiercely loyal. Staged moments where the Griselda and her counterexample talk together, Brown argues, complicate the didactic intent of the Griselda story and give rise to a "dialectic that questions the wisdom of the model wife and reconsiders the assumed foolishness of shrews" (201).

In her conclusion, Brown acknowledges the difficulty of writing about the serious concerns faced by early modern women within an examination of jesting literature, and yet she manages to do just this with an appropriate mixture of disapprobation and humor. Better a Shrew than a Sheep is a valuable study; its careful examination of literary works and historical documents presents us with a rich picture of life in early modern England and finally gives women from this time period the last laugh.
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Author:Uman, Deborah
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:1159
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