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"Wonder not, princely Gloster, at the notice this paper brings you": Women, Writing, and Politics in Rowe's Jane Shore Jones DeRitter The title character of Nicholas Rowe's Tragedy ofJane Shore is a fifteenth-century Englishwoman renowned in her own time as both the "meriest mistresse" of King Edward IV and a remarkably effective advocate for the poor. Her fame lasted from the sixteenth to the late nineteenth century; during this time her story was shaped and reshaped in a wide range of literary and subliterary productions—street ballads, courtly love poetry, historical chronicles, and history plays. Although many writers before and after Rowe were fascinated by the possibility that Jane Shore could have been both a cheerful sinner and a resourceful defender of the weak, Rowe's heroine displays little interest in the downtrodden and even less interest in merriment. Virtually paralyzed by the guilt she feels over what the playwright presents as the forced betrayal of her marriage vows, the eighteenth-century Jane Shore represents a significant departure from the conventional treatments of the figure. Despite his revisionist approach, Rowe and his supporters encouraged the play's audience to consider his plot as a continuation of a multi-faceted historical legend. On the opening night, several pamphlet biographies of Jane Shore were sold outside the theater, and for those who might have looked down their noses at such ephemera, Rowe's Prologue makes and invites comparisons not only to the "venerable ancient song-enditers" who wrote ballads on the subject but also to Shakespeare's Jane Shore in Richard III.1 Perhaps in response to this invocation, many twentieth-century critics have concentrated their attention on the connections between Rowe's play and the many earlier versions of and references to the Jane Shore story.2 1 shall not do so here. Despite the playwright's rather ostentatious attempt to associate 86 Jones DeRitter87 his new play with an explicitly literary—and thus implicitly apolitical and ahistorical—heritage, I believe that the initial success of Rowe's Jane Shore owed much to the political and historical moment that provided the context for the play's first run. On 24 December 1713, Queen Anne was stricken with what most observers believed would be her final illness. As it turned out, she regained some of her strength and lingered until the following August, but when Jane Shore made its debut in early February 1714, the death of the queen was still widely assumed to be imminent. The timing of the crisis was such that it could not have influenced the playwright while he was writing his new tragedy, but it was by far the most important public event that occurred during the two months between the play's acceptance by the Drury Lane management and its premiere.3 Although there is no evidence available that would indicate whether Rowe revised Jane Shore while it was in rehearsal, the play by design or chance seems at certain crucial junctures to be focused on a narrow range of issues that were perceived at the time as peculiar to Anne's reign. In the discussion that follows, I will use two such moments in the play to argue that Rowe's tragedy should be viewed as a relatively conservative valediction on an epoch that appeared to be hastening toward its end—an epoch when gender stereotypes and political realities had seemed to be in open conflict, and when the dividing line between public and private life seemed temporarily to have been blurred or even erased. Since I wish to argue in the sections following that Jane Shore needs to be interpreted within its immediate political context , my first task will be to identify the elements in Rowe's plot that cannot be explained by the conventional source studies that have made up the bulk of the criticism on the play. Once this foundation has been established, I will turn to the two critical episodes already mentioned. Ultimately I argue that the play attempts to substitute a passive, highly domesticated exemplar of feminine virtue for the more activist public heroine of the chronicles and the history plays. Because this argument is organized around...


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pp. 86-104
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