- Renaissance Drama by Women: Texts and Documents
While the inclusion of women’s voices in the Renaissance literary canon has led scholars to reevaluate early modern text production, this expansion has rarely influenced the dramatic canon. This neglect is challenged, at least in terms of the English Renaissance, by Renaissance Drama by Women, a collection of playtexts and documents that provides an overview of the extent to which women engaged in theatrical, literary, financial, and social activities, as well as an understanding of the difficulties they confronted.
The editors have organized their material into two parts: texts and documents. The texts—four complete plays, one fragment, and one masque—encompass a diverse range of literary activities: translation and the writing of comedy, tragedy, and masque. Each of these pieces is accompanied by a detailed introduction examining the history of the writer and of the text.
The first play, a fragment ascribed to Queen Elizabeth I, is a translation from Seneca’s Hercules Oetaeus. The text’s lack of stylistic felicity reflects the fact that the Queen considered the translation an academic exercise. Of more interest is Elizabeth’s choice to begin with the first choral interlude in which the Aetolian women, who have pledged their fidelity to Deïanira, describe the rarity of loyalty in court and the treacherous nature of courtiers.
The collection then provides a somewhat more engaging translation by Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, of Robert Garnier’s Marc Antoine. Never intended for public performance, it was published in 1592 under the title Antonius: A Tragedie and again in 1595 under the amended title of The Tragedie of Antonie, the version used to prepare the present edition. The Tragedie of Antonie represents an innovative contribution to historical drama by [End Page 141] employing the past to comment on the present. Although influenced by her brother Sir Philip Sidney’s call for a return to the classical tradition (evident in the stately speeches, morality and rhetorical tropes), Mary Sidney developed her own literary style. Even in her translation she challenges classical convention by rejecting Garnier’s alexandrine stanza for the English form of blank verse.
The third play included in this collection is The Tragedy of Mariam (c. 1602–04) by Elizabeth Cary, in a version based upon a 1613 edition. Known as the first original drama written by an Englishwoman, Cary’s source for her text was Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. Although faithful to the source, Cary’s depiction of Mariam shifts the focus of the drama from King Herod to his wronged queen. In her drama, the female characters engender more sympathy, offering alternative perspectives to Jacobean male-centered interpretations of the interplay between authority and the state as well as between authority and marriage. Mariam is a Senecan drama which emphasizes the unities of time, place, and theme, eschewing onstage violence and employing quatrains with alternate rhymes. Like the other plays in this collection, The Tragedy of Mariam was not intended for public performance.
Although written by a man, the fourth work included in this collection best exemplifies the ancillary role women had in the production of playtexts. Robert White’s masque Cupid’s Banishment, subtitled “A Maske Presented to Her Majesty by the Younge Gentlewomen of Ladies Hall in Deptford at Greenwich the 4th of May 1617,” was reportedly staged before Queen Anne, although no specific references to the masque exist separately from the manuscript. Lucy, Countess of Bedford, was the masque’s initiator and patron; primarily women staged the production and the performance. The text, representing the contest between chastity and wanton love, follows Jonson’s masque form, while Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1611), a collection of allegorized myths, inspired the characters. Following casting conventions, the women were assigned primarily silent dancing roles.
With the inclusion of Lady Mary Wroth’s Love’s Victory (c. 1620), the editors have made accessible an important text for the understanding of women’s writing in early modern England. As Mary Sidney’s...