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  • Unruly Women: Performance, Penitence, and Punishment in Early Modern Spain by Margaret E. Boyle
  • Darcy Donahue
Margaret E. Boyle. Unruly Women: Performance, Penitence, and Punishment in Early Modern Spain. University of Toronto Press. 172. $55.00

In this study of the relationships among public theatre, custodial institutions, and women, Margaret Boyle examines historical narratives, archival records, and theatrical representations of women’s deviance and rehabilitation. [End Page 414] Analysing records of women’s incarceration as well as female transgressive behaviours in three seventeenth-century Spanish plays, she argues that women who engaged in such behaviours were punished and rehabilitated according to gendered norms of deviance and criminality. Rather than viewing the women “deviants” (real and fictional) as victims of existing gender ideologies, Boyle makes the case that they both challenged and perpetuated contemporary attitudes about gender and power.

The book is divided into two parts: the first focuses on real institutions that attempted to rehabilitate or convert women from their aberrant or “unruly” behaviours (moral, sexual, or religious) so that they could become productive members of society. Chapter one examines the practices and underlying ideologies of a magdalen house dedicated to reforming prostitutes. It also analyses a galera, or prison, as created by Madre Magdalena de San Jerónimo. Boyle explains the significance of recogimiento (withdrawal or seclusion) and its applicability to the situation of deviant women as a form of rehabilitation. Both of the sites she studies used this concept of physical confinement and spiritual retreat as the basis for their rehabilitative practices.

Part Two focuses on the female protagonists of three plays as archetypes of women who deviated from established gender norms: the widow, the vixen, and the murderess. Chapter two analyses the role of Ángela in Pedro Calderon’s La dama duende (The Phantom Lady). A young widow in debt and confined to her brothers’ home, she defies her gender script and escapes her enclosure by creating her own theatrical space at home, where she becomes both director and actress in her pursuit of Don Manuel, her brothers’ guest and her love interest. Boyle interprets this escape from her daily existence as a kind of self-designed rehabilitation from her domestic imprisonment. Angela’s marriage at the play’s conclusion permits her to legitimately escape her brothers’ home, and is thus designated a “jail-breaking marriage” although it seemingly signifies more domestic enclosure. Boyle concludes that the play enables the audience to reimagine the restrictive codes of conduct for widows.

In chapter three the focus is on Fenisa, the protagonist of María de Zayas’s La traición en la Amistad (Friendship Betrayed). Boyle categorizes Fenisa as a “vixen,” a promiscuous woman who betrays even her close friends in pursuit of sexual pleasure. Although other critics have portrayed Fenisa as receiving her just deserts when she is rejected by both men and women as a result of her non-normative behaviour, Boyle concentrates on the significance of the female community as the norm-enforcing or rehabilitative agent in the play. In her view this community rejects and marginalizes Fenisa because her conduct transgresses norms of femininity, thus exercising a form of female power, albeit power that reflects the values of the patriarchal order. [End Page 415]

Gila, the Amazon-like hunter in Luis Vélez de Guevara’s La serrana de la Vera (The Mountain Woman of La Vera) is the subject of chapter four. Abandoned by her fiancé, Gila becomes a man-hater who kills every man with whom she comes into contact, the ultimate outlaw in this highly gendered culture. Gila’s appropriation of the male honour code results in her final punishment; she is executed, and her corpse appears onstage as a highly sensationalistic illustration of the fate of violent women. Unlike the protagonists of the two previous plays, Gila does not even have the possibility of rehabilitation unless we are to understand her final confession as evidence of a conversion.

In an epilogue Boyle discusses an upper-level seminar exercise at Bowdoin College that generated a list of contemporary US “bad girls.” The results lead to Boyle’s conclusion that “bad” and even violent girls must not be ignored or...


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pp. 414-416
Launched on MUSE
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