Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage.
In the introduction to this collection of essays the compilers propose a broad definition of performance as 'any act of embodied display or representation intended for an audience' (p. 5). Performance may thus include singing, dancing, appearance in role-playing, processions, trials and the like, as well as jesting and acrobatics. The term Players' in the title is also to be taken in this large sense, referring to women as players of games or musical instruments as well as roles. The subtitle is thus rather misleading in suggesting more revelations about the stage than the book offers. Perhaps this overenthusiasm in claiming a 'profound importance' for the activities of women in relation to dramatic history (p. 1) is understandable in light of the way in which women have generally been excluded from the story of the professional theatres of the early modern period. But I do sense a slight hysteria and some overpitched claims in the book's fourteen essays, some of which are heavily dependent on subjunctives, on what may or could possibly have happened.
At the same time, a survey of this kind is valuable in bringing women, however peripherally, into what has been a male story. The book is divided into five groups of chapters, each taking us 'Beyond' something, and beginning with 'Beyond London' with essays that are of particular interest in that they draw on the series 'Records of Early English Drama' to adduce evidence of performance by women in Lincolnshire, York, Lancashire, and Gloucestershire. James Stokes finds ample evidence in the Lincolnshire records especially of women connected with medieval religious and craft guilds appearing as dancers, entertainers, patrons, and participants, apparently as actors, in staged events. The second group, 'Beyond Elites', jumps forward two centuries to consider Moll Frith, John Shank, and Philip Henslowe as participants in 'the commercial landscape of early modern London seen as a site of ingenuity and deception' (p. 82), of pickpockets and pawnbrokers connected with the stage. Natasha Korda's essay is paired with one on women as mountebanks in Italy and England, players in a 'social drama' in which 'medicine becomes performance' (p. 90).
The next group, consisting of four chapters, takes us 'Beyond the Channel' for a handsomely illustrated account of the emergence of the prima donna in commedia dell'arte groups in Italy. This is followed by essays on the influence of the French court and of Italian actresses on Shakespeare's conception of female roles in Love's Labour's Lost and Twelfth Night, and the group is rounded off with a discussion of the arrival of Henrietta Maria in London in 1625 and her investment in women's theatricals at the court. Then we move 'Beyond the Stage' to an account of the Countess of Arundel defending herself against the imputation of treason in Venice in 1622, and an interpretation of Margaret Cavendish's works as 'political interventions' (p. 241). Finally, in 'Beyond the "All-Male"', Jean Howard perceives an 'irresolvable tension surrounding' the exploitation of the 'absent female body' in Heywood's representation of Elizabeth in If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody Part 1. Essays on women in relation to ballads, and on women as contributors to a jest book of a Norfolk family in the 1630s round off the collection.
In her 'Afterword' Phyllis Rackin is more cautious than the editors, summing up by noting that if women did not act in the professional theatres of Shakespeare's time, 'they certainly acted on them, in a multitude of ways' (p. 318). Well, yes, but I hope there is more to be discovered than this volume offers. Surprisingly, it contains no account of women in court and wedding masques during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I.
R. A. Foakes
University of California, Los Angeles
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|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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