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Staging the Convent as Resistance in The Jew of Malta and Measure for Measure

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 46, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 497-516 | 10.1353/cdr.2012.0044

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Studies examining the relationship between Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s plays often discuss Judaism in The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta. Most recently, Michelle Ephraim’s Reading the Jewish Woman on the Elizabethan Stage and Robert Logan’s Shakespeare’s Marlowe: The Influence of Christopher Marlowe on Shakespeare’s Artistry have entered the conversation, continuing a long tradition of utilizing these two works as a lens for investigating early modern views on Judaism.1 Despite the immense critical interest generated by these works and their relationship, it is interesting to note that little scholarship exists comparing other plays by Marlowe and Shakespeare. Indeed, a notable void in early modern scholarship is the lack of comparative studies on Measure for Measure and The Jew of Malta. Such a pairing might not seem obvious at first; however, looking at these texts in tandem presents a unique opportunity to consider how Renaissance dramatists exposed the societal ramifications of convent closures in a culture that increasingly assigned fiscal worth to virginal bodies that had once held spiritual capital.2

This essay examines The Jew of Malta and Measure for Measure to provide insight into this significant early modern cultural phenomenon—the displacement of the lifelong virgin from the convent, her cultural niche and protective space, and the simultaneous commodification of the female body on the marriage market. In these works, Abigail and Isabella give audiences a glimpse of female life in the secular city and nunnery, but as the maidens move between the openness of the city and the gated cloister, tensions heighten, and the incompatibility of these worlds becomes evident. Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s plays suggest that a society moving toward increasing mercantilism poses too many dangers for virgins; the convent remains, despite its legal extinction in England, the safest place for women who wish to remain single or celibate. Set against this religious and cultural backdrop, the convent represents a locus of resistance, a space where Abigail and Isabella find that the protection and bodily control afforded to them through the veil are more advantageous than the dangerous freedoms they encounter beyond the confines of the cloister.

Early modern audiences would have viewed The Jew of Malta and Measure for Measure with at least some knowledge of convents and the virgin’s role in Catholicism. In pre-Reformation England, the Catholic Church lauded virginity as the highest state of being for women and provided young maidens the opportunity to remain virgins (and single) by taking the veil, thereby establishing a privileged role for the virgin within Christianity.3 But changing tides in religious philosophy brought about by the Reformation resulted in significant alterations in the practice of lifelong virginity: with the dissolution of the convents and monasteries, virgins found themselves physically, religiously, and socially displaced. Adding to the deracination of the virgin was the Reformed Church’s move away from the medieval idealized hierarchy of female worth—maiden, widow, and spouse—to a privileging of marriage over virginity. This new hierarchy prescribed a trajectory in which all women should progress from maiden to wife and in turn relegated virginity to a temporary state along the trajectory; as John Rogers explains, “marriage and conjugal affection became increasingly idealized and encouraged, while the sustained life of celibacy was devalued and dismissed as sinful popery.”4 This is not to say that virginity lost its value altogether. Rather, the value of the virginal body shifted from its seat within the Church to the marriage market, where its worth became predicated on the knowledge that marriage and motherhood were the ultimate goals for all women.

An illustrative example of the privileging of marriage over singlehood is found in Christian Oeconomie, a popular early modern English guidebook for households written by Puritan reformer William Perkins.5 Perkins asserts that marriage “is a state in it selfe, farre more excellent, then the condition of single life,” and he gives four rationales from the Bible to support his claim.6 Perkins’s argument culminates with his use of the Adam and Eve story as a model of marriage and procreation set forth by God. Obedience to God, based on God’s desire for men and...

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