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120ComparativeDrama observing that Minstrels Playing contains almost no notated music; this is not the point, for, as Rastall clearly demonstrates in what can only be described as a scholarly tour de force, music is everywhere in late-medieval English drama. It only took a reader ofhis wisdom, erudition, and determination to ferret it out. Andrew R. Walkling State UniversityofNew YorkatBinghamton Pamela Allen Brown. Better a Shrew than a Sheep: Women, Drama, and the Culture ofJest in Early Modern England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. Pp. xi + 263. $49.95 casebound; $19.95 paperbound. The title ofPamelaAllen Brown's well-researched and wittilywritten book comes from an early modern English proverb. In the introduction the author highlights the question of perspective by asking, "Under what circumstances and for whom, exactly, is a shrew better than a sheep?" (1) By examiningjest literature (includingjest books, plays, ballads, and informal comic theatrical performance ), Brown provides evidence that lower-class women in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England resisted cultural pressure to submit to the dominance of cruel, irrational, or drunken husbands. While much has been written addressing the agency (or lack thereof) of early modern women writers and other members of the upper classes, Brown has chosen to focus on the lives of lower-class women as manifested in the literary practices common to that segment ofEnglish social life in order to demonstrate the existence ofan oppositional stance to the dominant discourse that encouraged women to blindly and docilely obey their husbands and other men who were in positions of authority. Although the book's subtitle implies a focus on theater,Brown's use ofdrama as a source of evidence extends beyond the stage to the performative nature of everyday life. She stretches the definition ofjest to emphasize the social drama inherent in horn fairs, jigs, skimmingtons, and other impromptu displays of social criticism,acts that were often instigated and performed bywomen with a female audience in mind. At least within their immediate circle, nonelite women had the power to shame their neighbors, to wound or award others as a result of public ridicule or approbation. The ability to focus attention on miscreant behavior and to band together to provide one another support afforded women some measure ofagency in an otherwise male-dominated culture.These women were unlikely to succumb readily to admonitions from the pulpit or from con- .Reviews121 duct literature that they needed to patiently obey their husbands. By skillfully blending extensive examples ofjest literature with references to more canonical texts and historical documents, Brown presents a convincing case that many women consciously chose to be shrews rather than sheep in order to gain a measure ofagencywithin their communities and their households and to avoid mistreatment from domineering husbands. One aspect of early modern women's lives that Brown emphasizes is that ordinary, lower-class women often took an active role in their communities. Often neighbors and "gossips" provided a social network for one another that would seem strange and intrusive today. In the first chapter, Brown gives examples ofsituations in which neighborhood women took upon themselves the responsibility to give counsel, care for the sick, confront drunken husbands, attend at childbirths, and generally interfere in one another's personal lives. Comic plays from this period reflect the public nature of daily life and in this chapter Brown focuses on drama written for the stage including Ralph Roister Doisterand The Merry Wives ofWindsor. For example, in the latter play Alice Ford and her neighbors mirror the typical actions ofordinary women by taunting Master Ford for failing to support his accusations of infidelity against his wife. Brown argues that characters such as Alice Ford and Margaret Page can be found among the general population,particularly among the ordinary, nonelite citizenry. These real-life women, Brown maintains, gain agency by banding together to outwit men who threaten to mistreat them. In order to be shrewd they must first dare to be shrews. In the second chapter, "Ale and Female: Gossips as Players, Alehouse as Theater," the focus shifts from plays written for the commercial theater to the everyday drama enactedby gossips within the more intimate circles ofwomen's subculture, whether it occurred in the birthing...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 120-123
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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