‘Pleasing punishment’
Motherhood and comic narrative
in Mothers and meaning on the early modern English stage
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This chapter discusses the importance of the physical specialness of the mother's body to her dramatic value. Taking two plays about Patient Griselda written forty years apart (by Phillip and Dekker) and William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, it suggests that the body of the mother was subjected to an increasingly voyeuristic public scrutiny, not only on the stage, but in contemporary culture and practice, as maternity was increasingly exposed and controlled through state legislation and the processes of commodification. The discursive tensions created by an ambivalent appreciation of motherhood – sexual and creatural; spiritual and noble; endowing death as it gives life – are contained through performance. Theatre spectators were thus free to take pleasure in the spectacle of the maternal body and of its scrutiny and control. The production of obstetric manuals and also of domestic conduct books where the mother's role is clearly adumbrated is symptomatic of an increased emphasis upon motherhood as a fundamentally social function that is important in ensuring stability in the wider world.


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