- Women and Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century by Fiona Ritchie
Cambridge University Press, 2014
£67, hb., x + 256 pp., 6 ill.
Fiona ritchie resituates the female actors, critics and playgoers who played a role in the revival of theatre production and criticism of Shakespeare after the Restoration and throughout the eighteenth century. In considering the work of each female figure as a case study alongside that of their better-known male contemporaries, Ritchie's scholarship creates a more detailed view of eighteenth-century theatre history.
Her introduction usefully draws on the reactions and experiences of three restoration women–Aphra Behn, Margaret Cavendish and Elizabeth Pepys–as the foundation for the book's exploration of the role of women in the theatre. margaret Cavendish, who was the first to publish a critical essay on shakespeare, is described as the first female critic of Shakespeare, while Elizabeth Pepys's attendance at the theatre is treated as exemplary of the importance of the female playgoer's response.
Female actors are the subject of Chapters One and Four. In discussing the careers of Hannah Pritchard, Catherine Clive and Catherine Cibber, who worked "in the age of Garrick", Ritchie sheds light on their forgotten careers and confirms their notable presence on the stage. these early actors paved the way for the later careers of Sarah Siddons and Dorothy Jordan. Ritchie challenges existing scholarship concerning Jordan's role solely as a comic actor, providing a detailed discussion and analysis of her career and arguing for recognition of her strength and skill as an accomplished shakespearean actor.
The work of Charlotte Lennox and Elizabeth Montagu is considered alongside that of their male counterpart, samuel Johnson. While lennox was the first to analyse in detail Shakespeare's sources and the first English woman to publish an extended piece of textual criticism, Ritchie claims it was Lennox's propensity to find fault in shakespeare that the eighteenth-century audience could not tolerate (56). Chapter Three turns to Elizabeth Griffith and Elizabeth Inchbald, both playwrights and performers who contributed to Shakespeare [End Page 198] scholarship. It was this unique perspective on the stage, ritchie argues, that allowed their critical work to offer a more detailed and nuanced understanding of shakespeare.
Finally, Ritchie returns to the female playgoers. From Elizabeth Pepys the book shifts attention to the Shakespeare Ladies Club which was influential in the 1736-1738 revival of Shakespeare. Ritchie notes a particular interest in the history plays, which she deems one of the "most surprising" conclusions of her research (175). Her discussion of the female playgoer turns to their sentimental responses which, she contends, allowed women to engage in and contribute to "moral debates" and the "culture of theatrical sociability" (157).
While Ritchie acknowledges the limitations of her work in, for example, not discussing female playwrights and managers, she establishes the importance of women in the development of theatre and in so doing enhances the scholarship of eighteenth century theatre history.