The roughly one hundred year span of England’s Stuart dynasty—from the reign of James I to that of Anne—hosted the rise of both the professional female playwright and the actress and, in recent years, scholarly investigations of the many ways in which women came to shape Stuart theatrical culture have proliferated. With Stuart Women Playwrights, 1613–1713, Pilar Cuder-Domínguez finds her niche within this populous field by offering an original account of how women writers from Elizabeth Cary to Aphra Behn and Catharine Trotter appropriated the historically male-oriented genres of tragedy and tragicomedy and revealed how constructions of gender simultaneously conditioned and were produced by these genres’ interest in power relations, political agency, heroism, and morality.
Stuart Women Playwrights is at heart preoccupied with an intriguing question of literary history: can attention to specifically female-authored tragedies help us rethink [End Page 67] the development of the English stage? Cuder-Domínguez answers emphatically in the affirmative. First, by concentrating on the years 1613–1713, she up-ends the familiar notion of the seventeenth-century stage as irrevocably divided by the Interregnum into earlier and later Stuart periods that have little in common. Tracing a Foucaultian genealogy across this period, she contends that tragedies by post-1660 women writers are indebted to their Jacobean predecessors (particularly Cary and the literary circle of the Sidney family) for models of femininity and female heroism. Second, she explores the paradox that while much seventeenth-century tragedy is “essentially feminiocentric,” current scholarship “often denies women’s role in its making” and instead privileges comedy as the purview of the female playwright (6). Arguments about the “death” of tragedy in the Restoration and eighteenth century often implicitly rely on a narrative of feminization. As the serious drama of Dryden and Boyle was replaced by the affective plays and she-tragedies of Otway, Banks, and Rowe, the genre is imagined to degenerate as it renounces the neoclassical ideals of heroism and political deliberation in favor of the “feminine” principles of emotion and pathos. Cuder-Domínguez insightfully perceives this association between decline and feminization to stem from a general neglect of women’s authorial role in dictating the development of tragic forms. Uncovering women’s investment in the genre, she contends, may thus occasion a “major overhaul of current theories of the evolution of English drama as well as an unprecedented reconstruction of the genealogy of seventeenth-century women playwrights” (9).
The chapters that follow are arranged as a series of chronological case studies. Beginning with the 1613 publication of Cary’s The Tragedy of Miriam in Chapter Two, Cuder-Domínguez situates the play in the context of Senecan closet drama, suggestively reading its political force to hinge upon more than just the eponymous heroine’s tragic passivity. Uncovering the implications of male powerlessness and the triumph of subversive forces that sit alongside Miriam’s martyrdom, she argues that the tragedy underscores the limits of a fractured patriarchal social order that provides models of gendered agency and heroism that later female playwrights would inherit and adapt.
The third and fourth chapters discuss Cavendish and Behn as writers struggling to reconcile their royalist allegiances with the subversive power of female tragedy in the new political landscape of the Interregnum and Restoration. The topic under investigation here is, in effect, the familiar bind of “Tory feminism.” For Cuder-Domínguez, Behn and Cavendish’s forays into tragedy are “hopelessly conflict[ed],” torn between their authors’ “conservative” politics and their “subversive” potential as proto-feminists and literary innovators (52). In tragedies like Bell in Campo and Abdelazer, female agency is either denied or marginalized in order to push an ideology of patriarchal royalism, whereas in comedies—or in comic subplots like that of The Widow Ranter—the norms of femininity may be transgressed with more ease. Cuder-Domínguez’s intent is to showcase how the necessities of the tragic form often impede appropriation by women writers; but the chapters fail to account for the more nuanced views of Tory feminism advanced by...