- Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage
Pamela Allen Brown and Peter Parolin have asked a compelling question in their compilation of lively and informative essays: if performance is considered in its broadest sense, what can we learn about the influence of female performance on the development and practice of commercial theater in England during the early modern period? The contributors offer a variety of perspectives on this intriguing question and support the editors' contention that "[s]omehow, alongside the all-male stage — and within a culture that assigned women secondary status as a matter of course — female performance thrived" (19). This provocative thesis attempts to reform our conceptions regarding gendered roles within sixteenth-century performance domains.
The editors have divided the discussion into five topics, each of which expands the notions of playing and theater beyond conventional understandings to include such varied contexts as the political arena, the domestic and pharmaceutical arenas, the influence of Italian and French actresses, the performance of judicial appeal, and the enactment of female figures onstage, in ballads, and in jestbooks. Within this broad framework each author explores his or her topic with rigor and extensive research.
In part 1 ("Beyond London") James Stokes and the trio of Gweno Williams, Alison Findley, and Stephanie Hodgson-Wright tackle the question of where and how women were actually performing on stages outside the London circle. Stokes focuses on the roles women played in sixteenth-century Lincolnshire festivals as recorded in REED: "Clearly women participated as players, sponsors, producers, and audiences in revels; in customary mimetic games, processions, and enactments blending worship and play; in mimetically conceived ceremonies publicly enacting the rituals of power, authority, and life's passages" (41). This participation, Stokes argues, derived from women's membership in religious and craft guilds. Williams, [End Page 967] Findley, and Hodgson-Wright similarly review the town records of York, Lancashire, and Gloucestershire and discover that women were performing regularly in the "finance, planning, production, staging, and audience management" (47) of religious festivals that included theatrical enterprise.
Part 2 ("Beyond Elites") includes two chapters that address the role women played as part of the commercial sector and how those roles overlapped with theatrical role-playing. Natasha Korda traces the experience of Moll Frith, who worked in the second-hand-garment and stolen-goods industries outside the legal parameters of commerce, and who also appeared once (at least) onstage as a sort of embodiment of the working-class female at the fringes of the law who contributed to the material London stage. Equally enlightening is Bella Mirabella's account of the female performers who accompanied and sold the products of mountebanks to members of the public, and thereby acquired a following appreciative of their particular stage skills.
In part 3 ("Beyond the Channel") four authors examine the impact on the English stage of continental female performers. M. A. Katritzky finds successful female actors in Italy and traces their growing popularity, despite "clerical fulminations" (130), to the commedia dell'arte tradition. Julie D. Campbell, in turn, views the popular commedia actresses as a prototype for the Princess and her ladies in Love's Labour's Lost. Rachel Poulsen argues that the Italian innamorata profoundly influenced Twelfth Night, whose cross-dressing and homoerotic content "make larger points about cultural anxieties regarding class mobility and overlapping forms of service" (185). Melinda J. Gough turns to the French practice of stage actresses to explain Henrietta Maria's confident and elaborate domination of the court stage during the reign of her husband, Charles I, in England and the consequent rise in status attributed to English courtly women who displayed grace, elegance, and intelligence in such productions.
The two chapters in part 4 ("Beyond the Stage") concern the ways Alethia Talbot and Margaret Cavendish consciously crafted stage personas for themselves when seeking public recognition and justice. Peter Parolin argues that Talbot deliberately...