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  • “Household Stuff”: The Sexual Politics of Domesticity and the Advent of English Comedy
  • Wendy Wall

Lingua is declined with haec, the feminine, because it is household stuff, particularly belonging and most commonly resident under the roof of women’s mouths.

John Marston, What You Will 1

At the beginning of the fourth act of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, Mistress Quickly interrupts a Latin language lesson conducted by Parson Hugh Evans for Mistress Page’s son, Will. The humor of the scene turns on her witting or unwitting sexualization of the act of translation. Mistaking the Latin “horum” for “whore” and “pulcher” for “polecats” (prostitutes), Quickly exposes the possible, perhaps inevitable, errancy within the reproduction of meaning, an errancy that thwarts the goals of pedagogy. Both Patricia Parker and Elizabeth Pittenger cogently read this scene’s gendering of key conceptual systems: Parker claims that the scene foregrounds the play’s largely subterranean wordplay organized around the transfer and conveyance of property, pages, boys, trade, and women. 2 Pittenger sees this scene as demonstrating the gendered, sexual, social, and nationalist resistances to an ideal of pure transmission. 3 Both critics persuade us that Quickly’s femaleness is central to her intervention in male social relations. But what about her status as a female housekeeper? Someone introduced not once but twice as Dr. Caius’s “dry nurse” concerned with brewing, baking and laundering? Extending Jonathan Goldberg’s suggestion that scholars rethink their attention to cross-dressing as the privileged site of homosexuality and look instead to scenes such as this one, we might ask how Quickly’s disruption of this tutorial, clearly linked to her position as removed from reproductive sexuality, turns as well on her role as domestic laborer; this odd tension between education and housework leads me to a consideration of Early Modern English dramatic representations of community-formation. 4

I think it no coincidence that such a scene occurs in Shakespeare’s only comedy set in England, a play highly absorbed with the status of [End Page 1] right English speaking, foreigners, and household labor; for this scene probes connections among gender, sexuality, knowledge, education, and domesticity—issues linked in the cultural imagination and evidenced in strong form in the self-definition of Latin-oriented, all-male, sixteenth-century educational systems. In this essay I analyze the issues raised in this scene by going back in time forty years to one purported origin of English comedy, Mr. S.’s Gammer Gurton’s Needle (c. 1550–60), returning briefly in my conclusion to comment on how these issues crystallize thematically in Merry Wives of Windsor. My broadest argument is that housewifery had a discursive link to particular national and sexual identities, and that this field of representation became useful for writers attempting to define English comedy.

I. Back to the Vernacular

On 2 December 1592 Lord Burghley requested that a group of Cambridge academics provide an English comedy for Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas entertainment. The Vice-Chancellor and Heads of Houses responded by telling Burghley that the request, as stated, was out of the question:

How fit we shall be for this that is moved, having no practice in this English vein, and being (as we think) nothing beseeming our students . . . we much doubt. And do find our principal actors . . . very unwilling to play in English. . . . English comedies for that we never used any, we presently have none. To make or translate one in such shortness of time, we shall not be able. And therefore if we must needs undertake the business . . . These two things we would gladly desire, some further limitation of time for due preparation, and liberty to play in Latin. 5

Concerned to distinguish their theatrical practices from those in professional playhouses, these scholars glibly aired their condescension toward English, a medium perceived to be below the academy’s level and inferior to Latin (“nothing beseeming our students”). The Cambridge masters, however, had simply forgotten their stage history, as Frederick Boas makes clear in his study of Tudor university drama. Boas documents the universities’ Latin and English comedies performed mainly in the original language but occasionally in translation, noting, in fact, that one of the very...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 1-45
Launched on MUSE
1998-03-01
Open Access
No
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