Domestic Arrangements in Early Modern England.
Medieval and Renaissance Literary Studies. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2002. viiii + 342 pp. index. bibl. $60. ISBN: 0-8207-0324-9.
The English Renaissance emphasized an orderly hierarchy of the world, reflected in the literature of the period. As many critics have pointed out, the hierarchy that writers attempted to uphold, critique, or subvert was an illusion of natural order, politicized by issues of class, power, and gender. Even as some literary and legal texts sought to reinforce patriarchal order, to privilege the public over the private, issues originating in the domestic sphere were changing cultural standards in England. This collection of eleven essays, edited by Kari Boyd McBride, presents a cohesive treatment of the changes in class boundaries and the anxiety produced by the changes threatening the traditional economic hierarchy.
Anxiety appears to be the operative word in this collection, which reveals a widespread social anxiety on a multitude of levels, affecting the "domestic" areas of service, marriage, parenting, and education. McBride's introduction discusses the anxieties experienced by the aristocracy with the rise of the middle class and a primarily urban economy. Shifts in domestic employment occurred as the significance of service positions changed; as it began to be primarily female in the urban economy, domestic service was then devalued: "the household became as politically impotent as the women who staffed it" (9). Despite the best attempts to divide the two, the public and private realms are inextricably connected, by gender as well as class issues. The attempt to reconcile apparently conflicting issues is evident in many texts, such as Margaret Cavendish's Poetic Fancies. Katherine Capshaw Smith discusses the duchess of Newcastle's use of domestic metaphor in an attempt to describe poetic endeavor, but the duchess's own class position prevents the successful use of such metaphors. In her inability to control these metaphors, Cavendish aligns herself with the masculine discourse, by devaluing women's domestic labor and reinforcing class division and identity.
Gender is a central issue in Sid Ray's treatment of Puritan marriage tracts, including A Godlie Form of Household Government, The Christen State of Matrimoney, and The Glasse of Godlie Love, using extensive metaphors to uphold patriarchy. Despite the apparent benevolence of the titles, the tracts concentrate more on containing women than prescribing an equal connection between husband and wife. Men are fixed in positions of authority, while women have "no fixed subject position because of shifts in the hierarchy" (29).
The connection of the domestic sphere with the marketplace is evident in The Comedy of Errors, as marriage, with women as commodities, is part of a social economy. Jessica Slights comments that Egeon's commercial (public) ventures directly sabotage his (domestic) relationship with his bride. Women as commodities on the marriage market reflects the values permeating Restoration comedy as well, in four plays by Aphra Behn: The Rover, The Feigned Courtesans, The Lucky Chance, and The Widow Ranter. According to Pilar Cuder-Dominguez, the codes of the emerging marketplace disrupted the social order, while respecting the traditional "hegemony of aristocracy and gentry" (106). As Behn's work progressed, her concerns changed, from arranged marriage to women's autonomy. The idea of women's independence created widespread anxiety, as the dividing line between public and private worlds wavered; writers focused on the necessity of surveillance, control, silence, and obedience in dealing with women.
Traditionally, a woman's identity disappeared upon her marriage. Her property, money, body, and children were her husband's property, and he was responsible for her actions. Susan C. Straub points out that women had no identities, legally--as victims or perpetrators. This categorization began to change with the arrest of murderous wives; "as felons, women became legal beings" (129). The necessity of separating women from their husbands' legal identities inadvertently created legal status for women, which resulted in a renewed effort on the part of the patriarchy to reinforce dictates regarding women's identity. Therefore, the men in the women's lives are held responsible for the women's crimes; "women's voices are never left unchecked by the male pamphleteer" (137). Women's subversive behavior (in this case, murder) is quickly contained in these narratives by the authors placing blame on men, thus incorporating women back into the patriarchy as victims themselves.
Heather Dubrow addresses the issues of substitute parenting in her study of Shakespeare's Richard III. Widely regarded as corrupt and threatening in popular literature, stepparenting reflects a social anxiety regarding displaced children--orphans, relatives, wards. Abused and corrupt, the wardship system in England, which many times overruled surviving mothers to place children with new fathers, creates and reflects the stereotype represented by Richard III, whose abuse and murder of his nephews shows a "warping of familial roles and by extension the state" (168). Dubrow's article asks the intriguing question of when guardianship becomes an assertion of power over the bodies of the powerless: women and children. Marianne Novy's "Multiple Parenting in Shakespeare's Romances" attributes multiple parenting in Early Modern England to the death rate, as well as aristocratic diplomacy--informal adoptions in which aristocratic families exchanged children to reinforce alliances. In Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline, Shakespeare presents foster parents as benevolent, although some representations are ambivalent. As with King Lear, the emphasis remains on the male viewpoint. Claire M. Busse's study of "children of commodities" explores also the wardship issue, in which children of either sex became a guardian's property. Busse also discusses apprentices, who were owned by their masters, an ownership protected by the law. Some early modern treatise writers started to interrogate the idea of children as property in both government and family. While one 1591 parenting tract argued that children, as property, had no agency, another uses the issue to discuss the morality of the marriage market. Lyly's two plays Mother Bombie and Love's Metamorphosis present opposing views of the issue, and the two plays reconcile parent/child conflict. The discussion of the parental view is usually the paternal view.
Stephanie Chamberlain's essay explores the problem of women's authority in England. As mothers were overridden as their children were practically purchased through the wardship system, so too were female inheritors of property. The sole woman raising a child is as dangerous to the patriarchal system as a woman inheriting property, traditionally a masculine role. Chamberlain's study of King Lear explores Shakespeare's use of this social anxiety and upholding of patriarchy in the disastrous inheritance of Goneril, Regan, and even Cordelia. The deaths of Lear's daughters and Edgar's inheritance of Lear's throne reveals the playwright's emphasis on the necessity of male inheritance to maintain the social order.
The anxiety produced by the "threat" of maternal influence is evident in two Tudor school plays Nice Wanton (1560) and July and Julian (1559-71). Ursula Potter points out that Nice Wanton emphasizes negative maternal imagery, while July and Julian downplays maternal importance by focusing on the father's involvement in his children's education. Women are associated in these plays with childishness and a hindrance to a boy's initiation into the masculine world. Unable to replicate patriarchal discourse, the mother is devalued and she is confined to the domestic sphere. This sphere is also associated with language--the vernacular becomes the language of the domestic, while Latin is the language of the school. By further interrogating the attempts to classify and control the behavior of those inhabiting the "private sphere," McBride's collection offers further insight into the attempted division of public and private life, which worked to devalue women and children. This collection is a welcome addition to the body of knowledge that explores class-based distinctions of gender and power.
D. SUSAN KENDRICK
Emporia State University
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|Author:||Kendrick, D. Susan|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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