‘Had Lucrece e'er been thought of but for Tarquin?’
The inadequacy of Roman female exempla
in John Fletcher’s Rome
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This chapter focuses on the contrast between Roman and non-Roman female characters in Fletcher’s Roman plays. The non-Roman women of the canon display superior dynamism, assertiveness, and complexity than the Roman women, who remain dependent on patriarchal values and male gazes, their roles being limited to those of wives, widows, or prostitutes. More than examples of chastity, virtue, or corruption, the non-Roman women instead wield actual power and accomplish actions that have a significant bearing on reality. Such an evident contrast fosters the impression that Fletcher and his collaborators found the women of ancient Rome hardly adequate for the development of their ideal ‘masculine’ female characters. Scepticism about the value system encoded by Roman female models also seeps from the allusions and appeals to Roman paragons that recur so frequently across the Fletcher canon, their largest share pointing to exempla drawn from the history of the Roman Republic and especially to Lucrece and Portia. The negative judgement of the Roman women’s passivity chimes with the canon’s general tendency either to shun or implicitly criticize the tenets of stoicism as they emerge in such plays as The Little French Lawyer, Valentinian, The Captain, and The Loyal Subject. This also reinforces the idea that Fletcher’s engagement with the Roman past may have influenced his thinking and dramatic craft when writing plays not set in ancient Rome. Just as with Fletcher’s choice of sources, which tends to privilege continental Renaissance publications over the classics and suggests little sense of his having found any solemnity in classical texts, these female exempla cannot be followed or adopted solely by virtue of their antiquity. In fact, it is their very antiquity that keeps them firmly stuck in the past, thereby making them unpalatable and hardly viable as guides for the present and the future.

John Fletcher’s Rome

Questioning the Classics

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