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  • Women on Stage in Stuart Drama
  • Bella Mirabella
Sophie Tomlinson . Women on Stage in Stuart Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xiv + 294 pp. index. illus. bibl. $85. ISBN: 0-521-81111-2.

In recent years, much scholarship has been devoted to revealing the public and private roles women played on stage before their presence was officially established in England in 1660. Sophie Tomlinson's new book enters this discourse and seeks to understand what occurred between the years 1603 and 1607, arguing that the crucial date of 1660 did not mark a radical change from the past. Seeing her work as "revisionist" (3), Tomlinson's intention is to show that there were crucial "literary and theatrical continuities" (1) that made possible the appearance of women on the professional stages.

Stuart drama was a rich and fascinating period that put an emphasis on questions of gender and femininity within both dramatic literature and entertainment. Within this period, Tomlinson identifies an intense debate centering on women and gender, women's place in society, including questions of power, voice, selfhood, sexuality and desire, theatricality and female identity, as well as women's theatrical roles as actresses, real and imaginary. Tomlinson argues that the debate signals a shift and openness in thinking about women and theater which renders such attacks as William Prynne's Histrio-Mastix (1633) almost out of date.

Beginning with female actors in court masques and ending with Katherine Philips's translations of Pierre Corneille's tragic plays, Tomlinson takes up a wide [End Page 1304] range of topics, theatrical and gendered. Starting with Anna of Denmark (1574-1619) and Henrietta Maria's (1609-69) artistic patronage and support of female acting in chapter 1, Tomlinson focuses on such key masques as Ben Jonson's Blackness (1608) and Samuel Daniel's Tethys' Festival (1610), arguing that they demonstrate female power and theatricality as having the potential to disrupt masculine identity and authority. Tomlinson also emphasizes the role of these queens, who, through their ideas, influenced what Jonson and Daniel created.

Chapter 2 looks at Aurelian Townshend's Tempe Restored (1632), Walter Montagu's The Shepherd's Paradise (1633), and John Milton's Comus (1634) and considers the "innovation of the female voice embodied on stage" (50), while also exploring the effect of female performers in both masques and pastorals. Townshend and Montagu deal with feminine desire and sexuality, while Milton makes the female voice a crucial element in his mask.

Caroline comedy and tragedy are the subjects of chapters 3 and 4, respectively. In chapter 3, Tomlinson argues that plays written by male writers deserve attention because of their portrayal of female agency. Focusing on Jonson's The New Inn (1629), James Shirley's Hyde Park (1632), and William Cartwright's The Lady-Errant (1633-35?), this chapter explores outspoken female characters and the relationship between female theatricality, language, and identity. By privileging the experience of female emotion, these plays prefigure the representation of women in Restoration drama. Using such tragedies as John Ford's Love's Sacrifice (1633), Nathaniel Richard's The Tragedy of Messallina (1635), and Shirley's The Cardinal (1641), Tomlinson discusses how these playwrights create visible parts for females that "achieve effects of heightened eroticism and pathos, thrilling defiance and stoic transcendence" while exploring themes of sexual passion, madness, and female performance in masques, ceremonies, and the "arts of death" (121).

Margaret Cavendish's plays are the subject of chapter 5. Tomlinson sees these as "bookish" and "catalyzing" fantasies (168) rather than real dramas meant to be acted. She theorizes that the life experiences of, for example, seeing female performers in Antwerp, and witnessing the professional performances of her husband William Cavendish's plays, stimulated Margaret Cavendish's imagination to fashion herself in a theatrical mode while actually writing dialogues which she organized as plays. In contrast to the dramatic fantasies of Cavendish, the book ends with a consideration of Katherine Philips, her use of "Orinda" as a poetic pseudonym, and her translation and real-life performance of Corneille's tragedy Pompey on the Dublin stage in 1663.

Women on Stage in Stuart Drama is a welcome addition to the literature on the role...


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Archived 2009
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