- Manly Mechanicals on the Early Modern English Stage
Ronda Arab's Manly Mechanicals on the Early Modern English Stage is a recent entry in the field of masculinity studies, scholarship that examines manhood and masculinity in literature and culture rather than naturalizing male experience as the normative model of selfhood. Drawing on the work of such gender theorists as Gayle Rubin and Judith Butler, scholars began to examine early modern masculinity in the 1980s, historicizing the concept by placing it within the context of varied cultural phenomena: all-male theatrical troupes, humoral [End Page 114] theory, civility manuals. The best-known scholars addressing the subject include Thomas Laqueur, Gail Kern Paster, and Laura Levine, and among the studies offering the broadest examination of the topic are Bruce Smith's Shakespeare and Masculinity (2000) and Alexandra Shepard's Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (2003). Smith explains masculinity primarily in its social context, sometimes with reference to somatic studies, as when he explains that in early modern England, the concept of masculinity was primarily biological, and formed by assumptions derived from Galenic theories of the body. Shepard, a historian, offers the pluralistic view that "the meanings of manhood implicit in social practice were enormously varied, and contingent upon age, status, and context in ways which often competed with each other and clashed with patriarchal expectations of order" (15-16). Her book is divided into two parts—one that examines the prescriptive literature of the period, "largely written by and for a comparatively elite group of men" (8), and the other an examination of social practice documented largely in court records. Key to Shepard's argument is the idea that gender was merely one of many status distinctions.
Ronda Arab follows Shepard's lead in her focus on the masculinity of dramatic characters who engage in physical labor. Arab argues throughout for what she calls "the existence of a discourse of work-centered masculinity in the early modern theater, one that posits and celebrates the manual worker as physically powerful ... admirable even in his potential for violence and danger and wholly laudable in his potential to contribute to the realm of England as worker and warrior" (130). Each chapter of Manly Mechanicals examines the relationship between a different dramatic genre and the ideological conflicts or desires it presents onstage. Of the four chapters, the first deals with what Jean Howard has called "chronicle comedies" (The Shoemaker's Holiday, George A Greene, The Pinner of Wakefield), and the second focuses on two political histories, 2 Henry VI and The Life and Death of Jack Straw. The third chapter examines three romantic comedies, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Love's Labour's Lost, and Lyly's Sappho and Phao, while the final chapter discusses the masculinity of the shopkeepers in several city comedies.
Arab's decision to treat craftsmen, laborers, and tradesmen or shopkeepers as a single social category is confusing at times, as not all of these seem to fall into the "manual laboring classes," the stated focus of the book. The author seems most interested in the artisanal professions—those trades that would have been represented in the guild system during an earlier period. Yet, at times, artisans are conceived here as "men who did physical labor," an expression that we usually take to allude to work that is unskilled and, if not strictly agricultural, then at least performed outdoors. The confusion may be intentional on Arab's part, since part of her purpose is to "defy, challenge, and deconstruct class categories that served the dominant patriarchal hierarchies" (14). Yet Arab takes too [End Page 115] little account of the "middling sort," as Theodore Leinwand called them in an important Shakespeare Quarterly article from 1993: the protobourgeois whose growth is part of the reason that we call this period "early modern." Defining the middling sort is not easy, but doing so is crucial to understanding its relation to urbanism, trade, and even the gentry. Arab's tendency to conflate craftsmen, tradesmen, and unskilled laborers is understandable...