Date of Award

2015

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Department

English Language and Literatures

Sub-Department

College of Arts and Sciences

First Advisor

Edward Gieskes

Abstract

This project focuses on the representation of women on the early modern stage in three exemplary texts: the anonymous domestic tragedy Arden of Faversham, and two city comedies, Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday and Dekker and Thomas Middleton’s The Roaring Girl. Whether playing the role of adulterous wife, performing the role socially striving wife, or resisting the role of laboring wife, these female characters were on stage not only for entertainment, but also for examination and scrutiny by an early modern audience. Playwrights used characterizations of women and wives and their relationships to the economy as vehicles through which to discuss concerns regarding autonomous behavior within and outside of marriage. I read alongside these representations other social fictions including conduct manuals and law that defined and shaped the boundaries for appropriate behavior for women. In each play, female characters’ behaviors in and toward marriage negotiate the strict legal and social order. The stage representations offer a space where women gain autonomy while offering new representations for the role of wife to a consuming audience. I am interested in how these characters work to redefine the work of ‘wife’ as part of this larger shifting economy.

Chapter one examines the relationship between women’s work, the institution of marriage and the ways these two intersect with the instability of the protocapitalist economy of early modern England. Chapter two examines the anonymous Arden of Faversham as Alice challenges her role as protector of blood-law and creates space for discourse about female autonomy. Chapter three looks at Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday and examines wifely social striving and the reimagining of the role of wife. Chapter four contrasts Moll’s autonomy outside of marriage against the autonomy of the shopkeepers’ wives within marriage in The Roaring Girl, and argues that women influence and hold economic power outside the grasp of male authority. I conclude that women’s central occupation is that of wife and we see, set against the shifting social and economic background that women participated in reshaping the definition and understanding of the role and expectations of wife in the larger context of the political economy.

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