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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare’s Domestic Economies: Gender and Property in Early Modern England
  • Phyllis Rackin (bio)
Shakespeare’s Domestic Economies: Gender and Property in Early Modern England. By Natasha Korda. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. Illus. Pp. x + 276. $49.95 cloth.

Korda's starting point is the remarkable proliferation of purchased commodities in early modern English households, an innovation that had profound cultural consequences. Her focus is the impact of that proliferation on the lives of the women who were the caretakers and sometimes the owners of that property. Women's traditional roles as productive workers in largely self-sustaining households were increasingly effaced by an emergent conception of housewives as the consumers and maintainers of purchased commodities that displayed their husbands' "worth." The cultural contradictions attending these changes and the anxieties they evoked are, Korda contends, central issues in a number of Shakespeare's plays. Her arguments are grounded in a variety of histories—legal, social, and theatrical; the evidence she cites ranges from the artifacts of material culture to the philological ramifications of crucial words; and her readings of Shakespeare's plays are astute and original. What is likely to prove most influential, however, is her reading of the plays' historical context. In particular, she provides future scholars with a necessary, well-documented, and convincing challenge to two models that have exercised a powerful influence on previous accounts of women's lives in early modern England and their roles in Shakespeare's plays—the law of coverture and the theory of the traffic in women.

What Korda aptly characterizes as "coverture's looming yet adumbrated presence within feminist discourse" (39) has led to the mistaken belief that early modern Englishwomen had virtually no property rights in marriage. Korda cites a variety of contemporary texts and records that show married women's ownership, management, and contestation of their husbands' claims to various kinds of property in order to demonstrate that women's control over household property—both de facto and de jure—was far more extensive than a too-simple understanding of the common-law doctrine of coverture has seemed to suggest (7). Examining the complex roles of early modern Englishwomen as "subjects, as well as objects, of property," Korda also challenges the pervasive assumption that "throughout history women have been 'trafficked,' as passive objects of exchange, between men" (11–12). As she proposes in her opening chapter, "we need to subject the all-too-familiar trope of women as objects of property to historical and theoretical scrutiny" (39). This she accomplishes with abundant evidence and persuasive argument.

Chapter 1, "Housekeeping and Household Stuff," explores the redefinition of housekeeping from the possession of a house to the management of the "stuff" with which households were increasingly filled—a change that entailed redefining the role of "housekeeper" to that of the woman who managed the household (26). This feminization of housekeeping worked to enforce a gendered division of labor, which reserved for men productive work in the outside world and devalued women's work as merely the consumption and maintenance of the goods acquired by their husbands. [End Page 113] However, this new conception of women as housekeepers also produced a number of contradictions. In the first place, there was a contradiction between theory and practice because, as Korda reminds us, most women continued throughout the period to engage in productive labor both in the home and outside it (33). Other contradictions were produced by the difficulty of disentangling a wife's custodianship of the household from her husband's claims to the "stuff" she managed (29). By consigning wives to the domestic sphere, the new conception of housekeeping also gave them increased autonomy within that space; in so doing, it constituted an implicit threat to their husbands' authority (49).

The next two chapters draw on the complex relations of married women to the property they both did and did not control in order to reread The Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor. In chapter 2—"Household Kates: Domesticating Commodities in The Taming of the Shrew"—Korda argues that the differences between Shakespeare's play and previous shrew-taming narratives derive from the fact...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-3555
Print ISSN
0037-3222
Pages
pp. 113-116
Launched on MUSE
2005-09-22
Open Access
No
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