- Women's Deliberation: The Heroine in Early Modern French Women's Theater (1650'1750) by Theresa Varney Kennedy
This volume makes a percipient and insightful contribution to an increasingly relevant field. Kennedy's study focuses on the often unsung heroines of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century drama, bringing to light a range of female dramatists and employing the heroines of their plays as a means of identifying how theater was used to negotiate with—and eventually overturn—the stereotype of the early modern woman. Kennedy's research crosses the boundaries between theater, history, and gender studies, and the broad and interdisciplinary nature of the findings she shares strengthens greatly their richness and complexity. The cross-temporal narrative pursued by Kennedy also provides a new perspective on the role of women dramatists and protagonists in early modern theater, tracing the shift from a total lack of female agency to a renewed authority of deliberation on and offstage as the Age of Enlightenment began to emerge. Although this shift is an intricate one, Kennedy sets out her arguments with erudition and lucidity through four carefully structured chapters, each telling its own story while also augmenting the volume's wider discussion.
The introduction to this volume sets out a broad survey of the changing figure of the heroine, considering her lack of representation in ancient drama as well as her prominent status in contemporary fiction and film. It also provides a comprehensive discussion of early modern women playwrights, functioning as a useful backdrop to her arguments. Investigating the conditions which gave rise to the heroine's eventual agency and ability to deliberate, Kennedy closes her [End Page 260] introduction with a highly persuasive enquiry into four main "types" of heroine, each taking stock of how women playwrights employed male-constructed models and began to question and break down negative female stereotypes. It is these types that form the basis of the volume's four main chapters.
The first chapter assesses "irrational heroines," examining the presentation by women playwrights of the Racinian prototype of passionate women driven either by overbearing love or by revenge. Though these were judged to be negative characteristics and actions, resulting in agony or death in a number of plays, they also paint a new portrait of the female protagonist as a strong-minded and authoritative individual, able to make her own decisions and execute them accordingly. Kennedy also sets out how these heroines are able to recognize their own flaws and sometimes remedy them—a feature previously associated only with male protagonists. An especially productive case study in this chapter is that of Roxelane, the heroine in Marie-Anne Mancini's 1705 tragedy Mustapha et Zéangir. Kennedy elucidates Roxelane's jealousy and overpowering ambition, undertaking some close textual reading which, despite betraying Roxelane's irrationality, also testifies to her self-will and strength of character. The second chapter in this volume focuses on "dutiful heroines." Kennedy shows how these heroines were largely modelled on Cornelian prototypes, who demonstrate an ability to rise above their emotions; this portrayal contrasts starkly with female protagonists in classical drama, who are incapable of restraining their feelings and are thus unable to accomplish noble deeds. Kennedy evaluates a number of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century heroines who make sacrifices to the detriment of their own emotions and who also employ great intellect and authority in following their duty. Her assessment of La Chappelle's widely neglected Saint Catherine (1663) is particularly rich, providing a fresh insight into the character of the female martyr so often utilized in drama of the Counter-Reformation. Saint Catherine is also a prime example of the two main pitfalls of the "dutiful heroine" brought to light by Kennedy: their lack of agency and their necessary deference to a patriarchal society.
In a swift change of tone, the third chapter turns to "bold and brazen heroines," also moving from the professional stage to the salon and the théâtres de société. Outside of professional...