SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.3 (2002)
The Hanoverian succession was a contentious moment in English political and cultural life, dividing public opinion along political and religious lines. One of the more unusual outgrowths of this change in monarchy was the brief but intense obsession with Lady Jane Grey that swept the British nation. The erudite girl who was pushed onto the throne after the death of Edward VI in a doomed attempt to forestall the ascension of Mary I, and with her the Catholic Church, was one of England's favorite Protestant martyrs, and she took on a symbolic meaning for writers on both sides of the debate. For Nicholas Rowe and other Whig supporters of the new regime, Lady Jane provided an ideal representation of Protestant virtue besieged by Catholic vice. She was the focus of a flurry of publications in 1714 and 1715 that culminated in the public performance of her story in Rowe's final play, The Tragedy of Lady Jane Gray. In 1715, with the Hanoverian succession the subject of public protests and a Jacobite rebellion imminent, a figure such as Rowe's devout but indomitable Jane represented an idealized picture of British national character juxtaposed against the potential evils that could accompany Catholic rule. With her patriotic outbursts and final refusal to convert in the face of death, Jane embodied Rowe's Whig sympathies and, in the context of contemporary politics, represented a strong statement in favor of George I.
In dramatizing Lady Jane Grey's story, Rowe drew upon the popular dramatic subgenre of she-tragedy, a form of drama for which he had become famous. These plays center around the suffering and death of a female protagonist, whose protracted "distress" represents the tragedy's main action. Yet, despite the seemingly ready-made template of the suffering heroine, it is precisely this tradition of she-tragedy which results in the ultimate inadequacy of Lady Jane Gray, the only one of Rowe's she-tragedies not to become part of the standard eighteenth-century theatrical repertoire. The problems inherent in Rowe's representation of Lady Jane arose from the collision of his political propaganda with a dramatic tradition in which the female figures suffer not for their virtue but for their sins. These female figures are spectacles with one specific and noninterchangeable function: either model of virtue or fallen heroine.
This essay examines two seemingly disparate issues, the politics of the Hanoverian succession and the aesthetics of a dramatic form founded on passive suffering, issues which collide in Lady Jane Gray. Jane's multiple functions are apparent from the play's opening words as the prologue announces: "To-night the Noblest Subject swells our Scene, / A Heroine, a Martyr, and a Queen" (lines 1-2). Jane does embody the three roles promised in the prologue: she ascends the English throne, ultimately dies for the Protestant cause, and suffers in the manner appropriate to a "Heroine." While this tripartite focus was enough to assure the success of Rowe's tragedy when first staged, the three female roles Rowe mapped out in his prologue coexist uneasily. In order to maintain the status of political symbol, Rowe's Jane must be a figure of strong and unsullied virtue; any smirch on her character represents a flaw in the political agenda and religious faith she embodies. In her purity, however, she differs notably from other heroines of she-tragedy who, however virtuous they may be, are quickly established as both desirable and desiring. Frequently, especially in the tragedies of writers such as Thomas Southerne and Rowe, these heroines transgress sexually: falling, suffering, and repenting for their sin. Rowe's political program has a profound effect upon the form and content of the she-tragedy and its heroine; no longer a fallen woman, the title figure has become a symbol of virtue whose own desires are sublimated to a higher political good. His play presents a new heroine, as political propaganda requires the erasure of female desire and overt sexuality—although not the woman's role as object of desire—qualities which until then had been hallmarks of she-tragedy.
For Rowe's audience...