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  • Performing Maternity in Early Modern England
  • Holly Dugan
Kathryn M. Moncrief and Kathryn R. McPherson, eds. Performing Maternity in Early Modern England.Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007. xiv + 248 pp. index. illus. bibl. $99.99. ISBN: 978–0–7546–6117–7.

In their introduction to Performing Maternity in Early Modern England, Kathryn Moncrief and Katherine McPherson argue that maternity was both a discursive concept and an embodied state in early modern England; as such, it was "a potent space for cultural conflict, a site of imagination and contest" (1). Maternity occupied much of early modern English women's lives, though key aspects "remained hidden" from public view (1). Analyzing Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger's Portrait of an Unknown Lady (1595), Moncrief and McPherson begin by emphasizing that the signs of early modern pregnancy were both embodied and performed: the young woman's clothing and gestures accentuate her "great belly" (1). Performances of early modern pregnancy, and by extension maternity, were central to the "cultural construction and production of gender identity during the early modern period" (13).

The collection examines the dynamics of maternal performance in "fictional, dramatic, didactic, prescriptive, autobiographical, poetic and even architectural representations" (7). Essays are grouped around four themes: pregnancy, authority, suffering, and erasure. The first three sections interrogate perfomativity —the ways in which any performance of pregnancy, authority, or grief is both "a thing doing" and "a thing done" (3). Such performances reflect previous cultural ideals of maternity while simultaneously constructing them anew. Critical influences are clear: maternal bodies are dangerous, embarrassed, grotesque, and suffocating. But as these essayists argue, the cultural strategies of containment derived from such beliefs also imbued performances of maternity with power, so much so that it was often appropriated by men. The last segment thus queries the relationship between gender and maternity itself: Is maternity exclusively gendered feminine? What happens when men appropriate, subvert, and refigure maternal roles?

As Sid Ray notes, the term pregnancy did not describe maternal bodies until [End Page 1023] the mid-seventeenth century, referring instead to something "replete" and "full" of meaning (27, n30). Although the symptoms of early modern pregnancy were highly visible, bellies and breasts were also swollen with meaning. Analyzing paronomasia in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, Sid Ray, for example, argues that the play renders "the pregnant woman visible, intricate, redeemed and above all unfixed and heterogeneous—pregnant with possibilities" (28). Ray's emphasis on metaphoric meanings is representative; most of the essays emphasize the discursive meanings of maternity. Such an approach yields fascinating readings of understudied materials, but there are some important contradictions across the collection. For example, Lisa Hopkins suggests that hormonal imbalances might explain the irrationality of many of early modern drama's pregnant heroines and that pregnancy portraits were rare in sixteenth-century England, whereas Moncrief assumes no such biological emphasis and argues that pregnancy portraits were frequent.

The relationship between maternal agency and suffering is equally vexed. Early modern men and women's articulations of both occurred within a complex prism of ideological frames —of churching practices, mourning rituals, and spiritual accountings of childbirth. Such performances offer a "significant, albeit not entirely transparent, window" into early modern maternity (179). Maternal agency is defined as dramatic and discursive, rather than assumed and embodied. One could "perform" maternal authority (in prose, on stages) "without access to any verifying essential maternal identity" (101). Whereas agency explicitly resists essentialism, suffering emerges as an implicitly embodied trope of femininity. Perhaps one can anticipate why: it is hard to discount Alice Thorton's emphasis on her "life in travail" as merely discursive when she's writing about the birth of her seventh child (138). And, as Chris Lautoris's essay on funeral monuments emphasizes, the postures of maternal tragedy may very well be agentic, but they also comprise "a feminine language of death" (155).

The essays in the final segment query the impact of male appropriations of maternity and of subsequent erasures of paternity. They examine how cultural anxieties about wet-nursing, reproductive queens, royal succession, and Jewish ethnicity shaped constructions of maternity, implicitly defining paternity in absentia. Such provocative claims do not...


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