This book studies the mother figure in English drama from the mid-sixteenth to the early seventeenth centuries. It explores a range of genres from popular mystery and moral plays to drama written for the court and universities and for the commercial theatres, including history plays, comedies, tragedies, romances and melodrama. Familiar and less-known plays by such diverse dramatists as Udall, Bale, Phillip, Legge, Kyd, Marlowe, Peele, Shakespeare, Middleton, Dekker and Webster are subject to readings that illuminate the narrative value of the mother figure to early modern dramatists. The book explores the typology of the mother figure by examining the ways in which her narrative value in religious, political and literary discourses of the period might impact upon her representation. It addresses a range of contemporary narratives from Reformation and counter-Reformation polemic to midwifery manuals and Mother's Legacies, and from the political rhetoric of Mary I, Elizabeth and James to the reported gallows confessions of mother convicts and the increasingly popular Puritan conduct books. The relations between tradition and change and between typology and narrative are explored through a focus upon the dramatised mother in a series of dramatic narratives that developed out of rapidly shifting social, political and religious conditions.

Abstract only
Felicity Dunworth

The significance of motherhood in early modern drama resonates beyond the boundaries of any individual theatrical characterisation. Its influence is evident, for example, in a subtle reference to a wife and mother in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. If motherhood operates as a relatively unchanging idea, it is also especially subject, in terms of the interpretation and presentation of that idea, to the influences and constraints of culture, politics and religion. During the period covered by this book, dramatists chose to emphasise different aspects of motherhood according to the demands of genre and theatre, and in response to contextual pressures. Rather than consider the dramatised mother in terms of subjectivity, the book explores her dramatic function in terms of the effect that the complex of meanings she embodies brings to the dynamics of dramatic narrative and structure.

in Mothers and meaning on the early modern English stage
Felicity Dunworth

This chapter considers the representation of figures such as Noah's wife, Eve and the Virgin in relation to the typology that is established through their paradigm stories. Religious and literary texts, like the writings of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, and the poems Piers Plowman and The Romance of the Rose, demonstrate the complexity and reflexivity of motherhood in a range of genres that in turn influence such dramas as the later court plays Wisdom and Nature. Focusing upon the mother figure in terms of function rather than subject, the chapter traces the utility of motherhood as a dramatic trope. This richness of meaning ensures that the mother figure is integral to a reformulation of ideology during the process of Reformation. Her importance as an emblem is demonstrated by reference to two polemical plays written during the Reformation and its aftermath, the Protestant Kyng Johan and its Catholic rejoinder, Respublica.

in Mothers and meaning on the early modern English stage
Felicity Dunworth

English theatre had always combined entertainment with the transmission of moral, Christian and political ideas and had developed its conventions accordingly. The rediscovery of classical dramatic texts for use in grammar schools and the advent of cheap printing made possible the writing and dissemination of translations and imitations that had a significant effect upon drama. Models that addressed the mother in new ways became available as the works of Greek and Roman dramatists, and appeared in translation throughout the second half of the sixteenth century. The mother figure was measured against her counterparts in newly available and popular narratives, notably the work of Seneca. In a discussion of the Latin play Roxana, William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine, connections between maternity and the depiction of violence are traced to show how an assertion of the maternal, both in rhetoric and through dramatic spectacle, serves to emblematise both the causes and consequences of conflict and to elicit an affective response that invites reconsideration of the political in the light of the personal.

in Mothers and meaning on the early modern English stage
Felicity Dunworth

This chapter considers the place of the mother figure in the representation of history, focusing on the typology adumbrated in the first two chapters as a quality of narrative in late sixteenth-century history plays. Elizabethan chronicles imply a teleology that offers a reading of history in terms of a grand scheme structured around causes and events. The chapter suggests that motherhood in history plays operates against the dynamics of teleology to offer alternative readings of historical episodes. The meanings carried by the mother bisect chronology to assert a mythic and macrocosmic history that insists upon an alternative context for the reading of the play as ‘story’. Beginning with Dr Thomas Legge's Latin play Richardus Tertius and followed by a discussion of George Peele's Edward I, and finally with an examination of the role of Queen Margaret in William Shakespeare's Henry VI plays, the chapter argues that motherhood works as a kind of narrative event, plotted as an intervention in the iteration of chronologically organised occurrences to complicate the dramatic representation, and thus the political and moral implications of history.

in Mothers and meaning on the early modern English stage
Motherhood and comic narrative
Felicity Dunworth

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.

in Mothers and meaning on the early modern English stage
Domestic tragedy and city comedy
Felicity Dunworth

This chapter considers the mother's physical presence in relation to spaces; to the geography that signifies and comprises her social function and status. The focus is upon the representation of domesticity in domestic tragedies, which turn upon the dangerous potential of motherhood in an uncertain Protestant world, and city comedies, which farcically expose the tensions and hypocrisies of an environment where social and economic considerations are shown to predominate. The complex social structures in such a world are clearly adumbrated in A Warning for Fair Women, A Yorkshire Tragedy and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, where the family is the smallest unit of an integrated society that is based upon the importance of geographic locality and economic interdependence. In such conditions, maternity is vulnerable, and with it, the fragile stability of the social structures that depend upon it.

in Mothers and meaning on the early modern English stage
Felicity Dunworth

This chapter explores the vulnerability of maternity and the danger for the family that proceeds from it in the context of high tragedy, through readings of Hamlet and Coriolanus. Both plays, in their complex dealings with a son's relationship to his mother, demonstrate a reworking of typology to take account of shifting ideological preoccupations. In both plays, the mother has a public and political role that is dangerous and which makes her son vulnerable in a fragile political world. The mother as characterised may be sympathetic, but her maternity is destabilising, provocative of violence and a disturbance of family structure. The mother figure is here no longer a pathetic signifier of the personal consequences of political action; rather, she infects the political and creates danger through her own agency: an unhappy collision between her personal desires, her condition as mother and matters of state.

in Mothers and meaning on the early modern English stage
Felicity Dunworth

This chapter examines a connection between Jacobean drama and contemporary discourses concerning the Protestant family and its relation to the state. Taking such diverse texts as William Gouge's Of Domesticall Duties and King James's writing on government, as well as the popular genre of mothers' legacies, it suggests that the representation and reception of motherhood in drama is coloured by shifts in religious and political pressures rather than because of a new celebration of affective family relations. William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi revisit the focus upon motherhood and meaning treated in the first chapter. In different ways, the potency of the mothers in The Winter's Tale and The Duchess of Malfi is, to quote Hermione, ‘preserv'd’ and memorialised so that motherhood transcends mortality to offer the unthreatening and unthreatened reassurance of everlasting and unconditional love.

in Mothers and meaning on the early modern English stage
Abstract only
Felicity Dunworth

This book has argued for the importance of motherhood in the drama of early modern England, and has attested to the mother's value both as a signifier of unchanging values and as a figure whose representation readily responds to the demands of ideological and political change. It has contended that the religious conflict of the English Reformation and its attendant issues of national identity created a complex series of dramatic possibilities for the mother figure which allowed her to function as a religious and political emblem that developed in complexity and dramatic value in the period. The argument that change was affected by politics is substantiated in a different context by Margot Heinemann. It seems that what Patrick Collinson once termed the ‘turning inward’ of later Protestantism has its analogy in representations of motherhood, so that the mother's function became once again symbolic of a conflict at the heart of the state and church which resonated at local and national levels as the Protestant nation struggled to hold the two together.

in Mothers and meaning on the early modern English stage