Women and the Exercise of Power in Eighteenth-Century Tragedy


The character type of the femme forte (a woman with genuinely heroic abilities), having fallen out of favor by the middle of the 17th century, was periodically revived in the 18th century, especially by female writers of tragedy. Their works featured women as capable rulers, politicians or warriors. Since dramatic conventions insisted on a love plot, the heroine is also required to balance her public role with private feelings. An examination of works by Barbier, Gomez, Du Boccage and Staël, will show how these characters win admiration both from fellow characters and from the audience, how well they cope with a variety of obstacles, and why they are doomed to fail in a world where patriarchal values and institutions still hold sway. Although their plays might look subversive to the modern reader, the authors were careful to avoid giving offense to their audiences.

Except in the all-female Amazon society, portrayed in Du Boccage’s Les Amazones (1749), the presence of a woman on the throne is viewed as an anomaly, and the heroines are not ambitious for power. Marsidie in Gomez’s play Marsidie, reine des Cimbres (1724) is officially a regent for her young sons, Jane Grey in Staël’s play of the same name (1787) is forced by her family into contending for the English throne, and Arrie and Cornélie in Barbier’s Arrie et Pétus (1702) et Cornélie, mère des Gracques (1703) prefer to work behind the scenes. Only evil women like Agrippine (in Arrie) actively seek power, and they do not hesitate to use immoral means to get it. In barbarian countries women participate in combat, whereas in more civilized countries like Rome such things do not happen. However, though several of these tragedies were fairly successful initially, none stayed in the repertory and the portrayal of femmes fortes had little impact on overall dramatic taste, which favored passive damsels in distress as female protagonists.