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Experimental plays, conventional endings: Gender normativity and the female spectator of Shirley’s The Doubtful Heir

Pièces expérimentales et dénouements conventionnels : normes de genre et public féminin dans The Doubtful Heir de Shirley
Rebecca Yearling

Résumés

Les critiques ont souvent débattu de la question de savoir si les pièces du début de l'ère moderne, comme Twelfth Night de Shakespeare, sont plutôt subversives ou conservatrices en ce qui concerne le genre et la sexualité. Stephen Greenblatt, par exemple, affirme que la conclusion de Twelfth Night confirme le caractère désirable de l'hétérosexualité et des rôles de genre traditionnels, alors que Valerie Traub suggère que la pièce est moins conventionnelle que cela, puisque sa fin est minée par la déconstruction des genres et des sexes, présentés comme essentiellement « arbitraires » dans ce qui la précède. La question est donc de savoir dans quelle mesure une conclusion conventionnelle, hétéronormative, peut contribuer à « éteindre » les énergies potentiellement subversives d'une pièce qui, par ailleurs, explore la non-normativité de genre.
Cet article explore ces questions à travers l'étude de la tragicomédie The Doubtful Heir de James Shirley, datant de 1638-1639, et soutient que la fin de cette pièce est, en ces termes, à la fois conventionnelle et subversive. Bien que, comme dans Twelfth Night, le dernier acte de The Doubtful Heir s'efforce de réaffirmer les rôles traditionnels des sexes, l’effet de cette réaffirmation est compliqué ou problématisé par la manière dont la pièce s'efforce de présenter son héros, Ferdinand, comme un objet de désir pour les spectatrices, et par le fait qu'elle encourage à la fois le regard féminin (female gaze) et les fantasmes féminins d’émancipation.

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  • 1 John Northbrooke, A Treatise…, London, 1577, p. 76.

A Comedie […] beginneth with turbulent and troublesome matters, but it hath a merrie ende.1

1In his 1577 tract, A Treatise wherein Dicing, Dauncing, Vaine Playes or Enterluds […] are reproued, John Northbrooke voices a commonplace in early modern English discussions of dramatic genre: comedies show societies that are or have become disordered or ‘turbulent’ in some way, but ultimately, all ends in happiness. By the final scene, society has been healed; order and harmony have been restored.

2This way of defining early modern comedy is still broadly in use today – although in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries we have also become more alert to the ideological implications of such ‘harmonious’ endings. Typically, the conclusions of English comedies in the early modern period are socially conservative. They tend to suggest, inter alia, that women should dress as women, not as men; that people should pair off in heterosexual couples; that they should get married; and that those who offend against society’s values, such as misers, domestic tyrants, and unfaithful spouses, should be shamed, punished and/or expelled from the community. The endings of comic plays thus present an image of the way the world ‘should’ be.

  • 2 Shakespeare notoriously fails to answer the question of whether Orsino is attracted to Viola when h (...)

3However, there is also the potential for irony within such endings. Does the playwright – or the audience for whom he is writing – agree that such endings are actually happy, and represent a genuine image of an ideal society? Or are such endings merely conventional, giving lipservice to social norms that are not, in fact, reflective of how people would like to live? Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (c.1600-1602) is a good example of how this problem may manifest itself. On the one hand, the play features several of Northbrooke’s ‘troublesome’ types of social disorder. We are presented not only with the cross-dressing Viola, but also with a variety of other figures who refuse to observe expected gender behaviour: the passive, fickle, love-sick Orsino; the self-assured, independent and love-resistant Olivia. Moreover, within this setting, Shakespeare also introduces multiple same-sex emotional and romantic attachments, both apparent and actual: the love of Olivia for the disguised Viola; the love of Viola (who looks male, even if she is secretly female) for her master Orsino, and, in return, perhaps, Orsino’s latent attraction to her2; the love (uncertainly platonic or romantic) between Sebastian and his friend Antonio. Twelfth Night is a play that repeatedly violates social norms, suggesting in the process the fluidity of both gender and sexual desire. However, on the other hand, the play’s ending notoriously works to close down the possibilities raised by the previous action. By the end of the final scene, Olivia has married Sebastian and Viola is about to marry Orsino, on the condition that she is first returned to her proper female attire. Jack has got Jill; conventionality and social conservatism seem to have triumphed.

  • 3 This is related, of course, to larger debates about the extent to which English Renaissance drama i (...)
  • 4 Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance Eng (...)
  • 5 Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama, London, Routle (...)
  • 6 Dollimore, “Shakespeare Understudies: The Sodomite, The Prostitute, The Transvestite and Their Crit (...)
  • 7 John J. McGavin and Greg Walker, Imagining Spectatorship, From the Mysteries to the Early Modern St (...)

4The question of how we should feel about this conclusion, and what it implies about the values espoused by the play as a whole, has been the subject of much critical debate.3 For example, Stephen Greenblatt claims that Twelfth Night’s conclusion confirms the desirability of both heterosexuality and norms of gendered behaviour, with the final pairing off of the couples treated as a triumph for both nature and society.4 However, by contrast, Valerie Traub suggests that the play is more disruptive and unconventional than that, since its ending is undermined by the previous deconstruction of gender and sexual binaries and exposure of them as essentially “arbitrary”.5 What, then, might a spectator of the time have made of this play’s ending? To answer this question, we might think of Jonathan Dollimore’s comment on the 1620 cross-dressing pamphlet Haec Vier: “How are we to read this? It depends of course on who is reading”.6 A spectator’s own desires and beliefs will inevitably affect the ‘message’ they take from the play. As John J. McGavin and Greg Walker note, there is much evidence from studies of both modern and early modern audiences that audience-members did not always react predictably or uniformly to a theatrical performance. Individual spectators’ responses were not “wholly limited by […] the ideological assertiveness of the play” but, instead, spectators might “vary in how far they wish[ed] to align themselves with the apparent norms and ideology of what they [we]re watching”7 – with a multitude of factors at least potentially affecting their responses, including (though not limited to) their gender, sexual orientation, sense of class identity, age, ethnicity, and race.

  • 8 The play was produced at least twice in the late 1630s and early 1640s – first at the Werburgh Stre (...)

5To explore this issue further, this essay will consider the various possibilities for spectator response inherent in the specific case of James Shirley’s c.1638-9 tragicomedy Rosania; or, The Doubtful Heir, putting a particular focus on how female spectators might have responded both to the play’s experimentation with gender fluidity and to its apparently conservative ending. The Doubtful Heir is not a well-known play,8 so a brief reminder of the plotline may be appropriate. It tells the story of Olivia, the supposed queen of Murcia, whose right to the throne is challenged by the appearance of a young man claiming to be her cousin Ferdinand, the true heir. Ferdinand was thought to have died in infancy, but was in fact spirited out of the country to protect him from the malice of his protector, Olivia’s father. Now returned, he attempts to claim the throne, but is instead sentenced to death for treason. Immediately afterwards, however, Olivia starts to fall in love with him and, breaking her own engagement to Leonario, Prince of Aragon, offers him a reprieve if he marries her. Ferdinand is already secretly engaged to Rosania, who has accompanied him to Murcia disguised as a page, Tiberio. Therefore, although he marries Olivia to save his own life, he avoids consummating the marriage. Olivia becomes jealous and attempts to seduce Tiberio in order to punish her husband, but soon afterwards discovers that Tiberio is a woman in disguise. Furious at the discovery of her husband’s mistress, she once more imprisons Ferdinand, but he is saved by the arrival of Alfonso, Ferdinand’s old guardian and Rosania’s father, who confirms his identity as the true heir. Olivia gives up her throne and her husband, and instead marries her previous fiancée Leonario, while Ferdinand, in turn, reunites with Rosania and takes the throne of Murcia.

6The Doubtful Heir therefore has some obvious similarities to Twelfth Night. It too features a cross-dressed woman who gets unwillingly involved in a love triangle between the man she loves (Ferdinand) and an independent, powerful woman (Olivia). The Doubtful Heir also features not one but two lovesick men, in Ferdinand and Leonario, both of whom are characterised mainly by their need to be reunited with the women they love, with Ferdinand, for example, insisting that he values Rosania above any political ambition:

  • 9 All quotations from The Doubtful Heir are taken from The Complete Works of James Shirley: Volume 7, (...)

I’ll be no king without her. Do not stay
To hear how much I love her ’bove the crown
And all the glories wait upon it… (5.2.64-66)
9

7However, also like Twelfth Night, The Doubtful Heir features a conclusion which seems determined to reaffirm gender norms. Rosania is ultimately returned to her female clothing and allowed to marry Ferdinand, whereas Olivia not only marries Leonario but is stripped of her power. When Ferdinand is acknowledged as the true heir to the throne of Murcia, Olivia becomes simply a princess: cousin to the king, and of royal blood, but no more a ruler in her own right.

8The reestablishment of gender norms is in fact strikingly extreme in this play. In Act 5, Prince Leonario, Olivia’s spurned former fiancé, who has been a relatively passive character throughout most of the play, lamenting his rejection by the queen and otherwise playing little part in the action, abruptly reaffirms his manly agency. He re-enters the play at the head of an army, and announces that he is taking Olivia back: “This lady is my prize”. Olivia – who is, after all, still technically married to Ferdinand – tries to resist, asking, “How sir? Your prize?” But Leonario will have none of it:

Mistake me not. There’s no dishonour meant
Your person, yet I boldly may pronounce
You are and must be mine. I am not ignorant
You are a virgin, all but name. Be wise
As you are fair and I forget what’s past
And take this satisfaction. If I meet
Contempt, where I with honour once more court you,
You will create a flame shall never die
But in the kingdom’s ashes.     (5.4.105-111)

9Leonario insists that the queen’s previous marriage, being unconsummated, can be dissolved simply at his say-so, and threatens her with the destruction of her kingdom if she resists. One might expect Olivia to protest at this treatment, but she is suddenly meek. She exits with Leonario and returns a short time later, having been married offstage, only to find that in her absence, the political situation has changed and Ferdinand has been proclaimed the true monarch, displacing her. However, she says nothing about this change. Her single line after her marriage is in response to Leonario: when he comments of Olivia’s altered status that “Nor is this treasure of less price to me / Than when her temples were enchased with empire”, she replies “This love will give my soul another form” (5.4.220). Olivia changes from a self-sufficient queen, of higher status than her husband, to a dependent bride, who apparently does not care enough about the loss of her crown to even comment on it.

10The transformation in Rosania is less dramatic: like Twelfth Night’s Viola, even though Rosania spends most of the play in male clothing, she is not particularly assertive throughout the drama, as her role is mainly to resist the discovery of her true identity, love Ferdinand, and keep her faith that one day they will be reunited. Nevertheless, she is also reduced still further in the last scene: like Olivia, she has only one line after the revelation that Ferdinand will be king after all, and that is to proclaim her happiness at the prospect of marriage with her true love, remarking, “This was beyond hope” (5.4.170).

11The Doubtful Heir’s ending thus seems to promote conservative gender values and behaviours even more so than Twelfth Night does. In Shakespeare’s play, Olivia’s marriage to Sebastian is one that she has arranged herself, to a man who is both probably younger than her and of lower social status, so the possibility remains that she will continue to hold some degree of power and authority within the relationship. Indeed, early in the play we have been told by Sir Toby Belch that this was always her plan: “She’ll not match above her degree, neither in estate, years, nor wit, I have heard her swear’t” (1.3.105-107). Although Sebastian is ‘manly’ enough to hold his own in a fight, he is presented as the more passive, subordinate partner in their union. She urges:

OLIVIA: Nay, come, I prithee, would thou’dst be ruled by me.
SEBASTIAN: Madam, I will.
OLIVIA: O, say so, and so be.     (4.1.63-64)

12Moreover, in Twelfth Night’s final scene, Sebastian says very little, outside of the moment of his reunion with Viola, whereas Olivia continues to talk a great deal. By contrast, Shirley’s Olivia is, as we have seen, virtually forced into marriage by Leonario, and afterwards speaks only a single line. If this is a happy ending, it appears to be one based on the assumption that the ideal state for women is to be married, subordinated to their husbands, and ultimately silenced.

  • 10 David Mann, “Female Play-going and the Good Woman”, Early Theatre 10.2, 2007, p. 51-70, here p. 64.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 55.

13How, then, might a spectator – and particularly a female spectator – of The Doubtful Heir have responded? In his essay, ‘Female Play-going and the Good Woman’, David Mann suggests that early modern female spectators would have been particularly interested in love plots, and that playwrights interested in attracting female theatregoers would consequently have been particularly likely to include love as a dominant theme: “Where it is sympathetically presented and focus[ing] on female feelings, [… the dominant theme of love within a play] has to be taken as some sort of indicator of the likely presence of female spectators.”10 Meanwhile, Mann argues in the same essay that male spectators were interested – or, at least, were thought by playwrights to be interested – in plays that taught women that they should know their place, and comments also that male playgoers may have been resistant to critiques of male behaviour. For example, he notes how in plays featuring adulteresses, “The authors work hard to minimise any negative fall-out on husbands. If a wife takes to adultery, it is because she is a monster and therefore her husband is hardly to blame.”11 By Mann’s logic, therefore, the ending of The Doubtful Heir seems calculated to appeal to both men and women in the audience. Female spectators get their desired romantic ending, with both of the play’s main female characters reunited with the men who love them. Male spectators, meanwhile, get to enjoy the triumph of patriarchal masculinity, as the play’s men reclaim their authority and power. No more will Ferdinand and Leonario be in thrall to a woman more powerful than they are; instead, each will get to enjoy a properly submissive and subordinate wife.

  • 12 For example, see Helen Hackett, who notes that early modern prose romance, a genre that “often shar (...)
  • 13 Lyly, The Complete Works of John Lyly, ed. R. Warwick Bond, 3 vols., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1902.
  • 14 See Sasha Roberts, Reading Shakespeare’s Poems in Early Modern England, Houndmills and New York, Pa (...)
  • 15 Lukas Erne charts the immense popularity of Venus and Adonis in print during this period: it not on (...)

14However, Mann’s argument has some obvious limitations. The assumption that women were the main audience for love stories was indeed a common belief of the early modern period,12 but we have ample contemporary evidence to suggest that men also could and did take pleasure in such stories. In the prologue to John Lyly’s comedy Midas (c.1589), for example, the speaker imagines an apparently all-male audience (or, at least, one in which only men assert a voice) whose theatrical preferences nevertheless differ greatly, being determined principally by each spectator’s occupation: “Souldiers call for Tragedies, their obiect is bloud: Courtiers for Commedies, their subiect is loue; Countriemen for Pastoralles, Shepheards are their Saintes” (Prologue 10-13).13 Meanwhile, there are numerous accounts from the time of the popularity of Shakespeare’s erotic and romantic poem Venus and Adonis particularly among young gentlemen at the universities and law schools in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.14 The immense popularity of this poem,15 which concentrates chiefly on Venus’ attraction to Adonis and her frustration and grief at his resistance to her wooing, might seem to put the lie to Mann’s claim that a “focus on female feelings” is more likely to indicate that work is intended for a female rather than a male audience. Men may enjoy love-stories and stories that explore women’s emotions – and, by the same logic, women may also enjoy plays and other literature for other reasons than their desire for romance. In a letter of 1635, for example, the writer Nathanial Tomkyns describes his recent visit to the Globe for a performance of the Heywood and Brome play The Late Lancashire Witches:

  • 16 Quoted in Herbert Berry, “The Globe Bewitched and El Hombre Fiel”, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in (...)

Here hath bin lately a newe comedie at the globe called The Witches of Lancasheir, acted by reason of ye great concourse of people 3 dayes togither: the 3d day I went with a friend to see it, and found a greater apparence of fine folke gentmen and gentweomen then I thought had bin in town in the vacation…16

15The Late Lancashire Witches is a work that exploits the sensational aspects of a contemporary witch trial. It does not contain a romantic plot (instead focussing mainly on the disruption to social order and hierarchy caused by female witchcraft), yet Tomkyns notes that it was still a popular work among the gentlewoman of London.

  • 17 M.R., The mothers counsell (London, 1630) p. 4.
  • 18 Susan Dwyer Amussen, “The Gendering of Popular Culture in Early Modern England”, in Tim Harris (ed. (...)

16Meanwhile, Mann’s claims that men were the primary audience for plays that showed rebellious women being put in their place, and that late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century plays do not, in general, blame men for female misbehaviour such as infidelity, also invite some further scrutiny. To address the second of these first: it was a commonplace of the time that women who were mistreated by their husbands (specifically, those who were subjected to unmerited jealousy) might end up being driven into the arms of another man. For example, a 1630 conduct book, The Mothers Counsell, commented that: ‘Women that are chaste when they are trusted, proue often wantons when they are causelesse suspected’.17 Male spectators might therefore not have automatically chosen to side with characters of their own sex while watching a play: instead, they might have been capable of appreciating the ways in which both men and women may be responsible for creating rebellious female behaviour. Similarly, women may not automatically have championed the success of other women when watching a play: it is well known that within patriarchal societies, women are often complicit in the monitoring and punishment of other women who break the rules (for example, as Amussen notes, early modern women ‘willingly condemned infidelity in other women’18), so it does not seem impossible that at least some female spectators might have enjoyed the spectacle of a disobedient or unruly woman being put in her place just as much as a male spectator might have done.

17Playgoers, both male and female, thus appear to have been capable of varied, nuanced, and flexible thinking and responses while attending plays, rather than rigidly conforming to gendered stereotypes of theatrical taste or maintaining a consistent sense of gender-solidarity as they watched the activities of male and female characters onstage. Therefore, although both men and women in the early modern period were taught to recognise marriage and, typically, the reinforcement of social norms, as a happy, desirable ending to a comic play, we should also think about the other, rather different kinds of appeal that the main action of The Doubtful Heir might have had for at least some women (and, indeed, for at least some men) in the audience. For example, Olivia in her initial, pre-marriage state clearly has potential as a fantasy of female empowerment. She is sole rule of Murcia, and is hugely self-confident in wielding her power. Even when caught red-handed trying to seduce the disguised Rosania, she carries herself with dignity:

FERDINAND: [We arrived] Most happily to prevent
Some further act of shame. Can she look on us
Without a blush?
OLIVIA: I see no such attraction
In your state faces that I should desire
Much to look on ’em. Who made you king, I pray?
[…]
… By
What power dare you take an account of me,
That am above your laws, which must obey
Me, as their soul, and die when I forsake ’em? (4.2.234-279)

18Olivia is far from being perfect. She is haughty and headstrong; she is fickle in her decision to cast off her former lover Leonario in favour of Ferdinand; and spectators might have felt some unease about her claim that she is above the law, particularly given that the play was written during the eleven-year period of King Charles I’s personal rule, when he refused to hold parliaments. Nevertheless, her potential appeal to female playgoers is undeniable. Throughout the play, she largely does as she pleases and manages to escape the consequences. Moreover, she is also not the monstrous figure described in Mann’s account of the stage adulteress: although she does attempt to seduce Tiberio, this is mitigated by the fact that it is principally an attempt to get Ferdinand’s attention and his romantic interest. For much of the play’s running time, therefore, spectators are presented with a society run, apparently capably, by a passionate yet intelligent woman who enjoys her position and plans to maintain it. However, the ending of the play seems to work against this. Olivia finally gets a husband who genuinely loves her, but at the cost of losing the crown. The women of the play are reduced to the status of merely quietly happy brides, while the men are given positions of dominance, both political and linguistic. Might a female spectator have felt cheated by this conclusion, with its suggestion that women cannot have it all, that they cannot hold both power and a loving husband?

19Certainly the play’s ending seems undermining of female agency. However, as with Twelfth Night, the status-quo-affirming final scene cannot entirely erase the memory of the play that came before, and in the case of The Doubtful Heir, one thing that might qualify a spectator’s perspective on the dominant men of the conclusion might be the way in which ideas regarding what represents ideal manhood have been complicated by the previous action. One important thing to note here is the extent to which Ferdinand’s appeal as a romantic hero throughout the play has rested not just on his masculine strength but also on his masculine vulnerability. When he is initially convicted of treason against Olivia in Act 2, he is on the point of being sentenced to death. He is initially stoical at the prospect, yet when it comes to saying farewell to the disguised Rosania, his emotions get the better of him:

Thus,
At parting with a good and pretty servant,
I can, without my honour stained, shed tears.
[…]
[S]hall I not, when I can live no longer
To cherish thee, at farewell drop a tear?
That I could weep my soul upon thee! (2.4.136-146)

  • 19 Men were not wholly forbidden to weep, but it was argued that they should exercise moderation in so (...)

20Public displays of emotion, including weeping, were typically associated with the feminine in this period,19 yet it is Ferdinand’s tears, and lack of shame at those tears, that seem to provoke Olivia’s desire for him. She responds to his weeping with an aside – “What secret flame is this? Honour protect me!” – and soon afterwards pardons him completely:

OLIVIA: [To Ferdinand] Kiss our hand. –
Are you so merciless to think this man
Fit for a scaffold? You shall, sir, be near us,
And if in this confusion of your fortunes
You can find gratitude and love, despair not. (2.4.176-180)

  • 20 Lucy Munro, “Dublin Tragicomedy and London Stages”, in Subha Mukherji and Raphael Lyne (ed.), Early (...)

21Ferdinand’s unashamed sensitivity and emotionality are portrayed as a central part of his attractiveness. Moreover, the plot of the play also focuses a good deal on the importance of his physical body and its purity. The original prologue for The Doubtful Heir, written for the play’s first performance in Dublin, makes reference to two other contemporary plays: John Suckling’s Aglaura and Thomas Killigrew’s Claricilla. As Lucy Munro comments, these plays represented a popular sub-genre of drama at the time: that of “she-tragicomedy”, in which a central theme is “the simultaneous chastity and desirability of their titular heroines”. However, in contrast, “Rosania focuses its anxiety on the body of the hero”20: in order to keep his faith to Rosania and enable the happy ending to take place, Ferdinand must infinitely postpone the consummation of his marriage to Olivia, so that his marriage to her can eventually be dissolved. As Munro writes, Shirley’s play is thus an ironic reworking of a common contemporary dramatic trope, as it suggests that male purity (in the form of fidelity to a betrothed, if not necessarily literal virginity) may be as important as female purity.

  • 21 Brian W. Schneider, The Framing Text in Early Modern English Drama: 'Whining' Prologues and ‘Armed’ (...)
  • 22 G. E. Bentley (1941), quoted in Allan H. Stevenson, “James Shirley and the Actors at the First Iris (...)
  • 23 John Sucking, The Goblins A Comedy, London, 1646.
  • 24 My focus in this essay is on the appeal of the plays’ male characters particularly for heterosexual (...)

22Ferdinand’s emotional sensitivity, vulnerability and chastity make him an object of desire for the women in the play – and, arguably, also for the women in the audience. This idea becomes explicit in the play’s epilogue. Brian Schneider observes that: “There is very little attention paid to the woman spectator, or to anything feminine, in the majority of James Shirley's prologues and epilogues; indeed, a number are pointedly addressed to ‘Gentlemen’.”21 However, although the epilogue to The Doubtful Heir does indeed address its audience as ‘Gentlemen’, there is also an interesting moment within it that might seem to focus on the desires of the female spectator. The army captain who speaks the epilogue (who features in the play’s comic subplot), asks the audience whether they have enjoyed the play, and then asks specifically, “How did King Stephen do? And t’other prince?” There is no King Stephen in the play; the captain is referring to the fact that Ferdinand was played by the actor Stephen Hammerton. Hammerton, “the matinee idol of Blackfriars”, was a former boy actor who had later progressed to playing romantic leads.22 Notoriously handsome, he was considered a particular draw for female spectators: the epilogue for John Suckling’s play The Goblins similarly names him directly, and suggests that female spectators would be distressed if his character came to a bad end: “The Women – Oh if Stephen should be kil’d, / Or misse the Lady, how the plot is spil’d?” (11-12).23 By blurring together the actor and the character in this way, both Shirley and Suckling interestingly suggest how much the physical appeal of the actor might have added to the appeal of the play as a whole for women (and also, of course, for the men in the audience who enjoyed the spectacle of male beauty24). The triumph of Ferdinand at the end of The Doubtful Heir, dominant over the woman who has previously dominated him, could therefore be read in an alternative, and more subversive, fashion, if it is seen not as a pure celebration of the patriarchy but rather as a source of gratification for the spectator who desires Stephen Hammerton and wants to see his character enjoy a happy ending.

  • 25 Barbara Freedman, Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy, Ithaca (...)
  • 26 Jean E. Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England, London and New York, Routled (...)

23There is, of course, a long tradition that sees the gaze as a specifically male prerogative. Barbara Freedman comments: “Since the male is traditionally envisioned as the bearer of the gaze and the woman as the fetishized object of the gaze, the staging of any spectacle is always already a matter of sexual difference.”25 Jean Howard, meanwhile, puts forward the argument that this may have been one reason why early modern antitheatrical critics were so vehemently opposed in particular to female spectatorship. She asks, “Is it possible that in the theater women were licensed to look – and in a larger sense to judge what they saw and to exercise autonomy – in ways that problematized women’s status as object within patriarchy?”26 Shirley’s epilogue seems to give female spectators exactly this license to look, and to judge, and to desire, that early modern society often found so worrying. The final scene of The Doubtful Heir works to shut down the agency of its female characters, yet the female spectators present in the Dublin or London theatres are given no such restrictions. Instead, they seem to be encouraged to align themselves with the more active, assertive Olivia of the main body of the play, fixing on Ferdinand/Hammerton (and perhaps to a lesser extent, on Leonario, the “t’other prince”, too) as an object of desire, fetishising and objectifying him. Indeed, given that the epilogue largely takes the form of direct questions to playgoers, asking for their opinions – “How did King Stephen do?” – it might even be read as authorising not just female gazing but also female speech, encouraging women members of the audience to call out and publicly express their view of the play and its male lead.

24The conclusion of The Doubtful Heir thus seems simultaneously conservative and rebellious. Throughout the course of the play, traditional gender roles – the idea of the man as the dynamic, desiring subject, and woman as desired object – have been flipped, or at least complicated, by Olivia’s role as active agent and pursuer of men (both Ferdinand and ‘Tiberio’) and Ferdinand’s role as a yearned-for but unachievable body, desired by both Rosania and Olivia. By the play’s ending, this situation seems to have reversed, with both men and women returned to their more traditional subject-positions, restoring a patriarchal status quo. Yet the women in the theatre audience still remain in a dominant position. Invited to gaze on, objectify and desire Ferdinand and Leonario (and by implication, also, the actors who played them), invited publicly to share their views of the play and its conclusion, the women in the audience continue the play’s questioning of gender roles, suggesting the freedom and agency that the practice of playgoing itself could give female spectators, even as the women of the play find themselves ultimately unable to maintain such a position within their own stories.

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Notes

1 John Northbrooke, A Treatise…, London, 1577, p. 76.

2 Shakespeare notoriously fails to answer the question of whether Orsino is attracted to Viola when he thinks she is male, but there are certainly moments that hint to the audience that he finds her androgyny sexually appealing: for example, in his Act 1 claim that her face and voice resemble those of a woman (1.4.31-34).

3 This is related, of course, to larger debates about the extent to which English Renaissance drama is typically aiming to create an effect of “subversion” or “containment” in its treatment of contemporary social and political ideology (and, more recently, debates about the extent to which thinking in terms of a neat, binary division between subversion and containment is actually helpful to our understanding of these plays). For some of the most important voices in this debate, see Thomas Cartelli, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the Economy of Theatrical Experience, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, esp. chapters 1 and 2; Jonathan Dollimore, “Introduction: Shakespeare, Cultural Materialism and the New Historicism,” in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (ed.), Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism, 2nd ed., Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1994, p. 2-17, esp. p. 10-15; Louis Montrose, The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996, esp. p. 8-16; and the essays in Rory Loughnane and Edel Semple (ed.), Staged Transgression in Shakespeare’s England, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

4 Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, Berkley and Los Angles, University of California Press, 1988, p. 71.

5 Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama, London, Routledge, 1992, p. 143.

6 Dollimore, “Shakespeare Understudies: The Sodomite, The Prostitute, The Transvestite and Their Critics”, in Political Shakespeare, p. 129-152, here p. 144.

7 John J. McGavin and Greg Walker, Imagining Spectatorship, From the Mysteries to the Early Modern Stage, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 36.

8 The play was produced at least twice in the late 1630s and early 1640s – first at the Werburgh Street Theatre in Dublin and subsequently at the Globe in London – but it does not seem to have been performed in full on the English stage at any period since, although the Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London did perform it as a staged reading as part of their ‘Red Not Dead’ series in 2008.

9 All quotations from The Doubtful Heir are taken from The Complete Works of James Shirley: Volume 7, ed. Eugene Giddens and Teresa Grant, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2022. All quotations from Twelfth Night are taken from The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. John Jowett et al., 2nd ed., Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.

10 David Mann, “Female Play-going and the Good Woman”, Early Theatre 10.2, 2007, p. 51-70, here p. 64.

11 Ibid., p. 55.

12 For example, see Helen Hackett, who notes that early modern prose romance, a genre that “often shared with the modern romantic novel a central concern with love and courtship”, “resembled modern romantic fiction in being denigrated as a ‘women’s genre’”: Hackett, “ ‘Yet tell me some such fiction’: Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania and the ‘Femininity’ of Romance”, in Clare Brant and Diane Purkiss (ed.), Women, Texts and Histories 1575-1760, London and New York, Routledge, 1992, p. 39-68, here p. 39-40.

13 Lyly, The Complete Works of John Lyly, ed. R. Warwick Bond, 3 vols., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1902.

14 See Sasha Roberts, Reading Shakespeare’s Poems in Early Modern England, Houndmills and New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, p. 65.

15 Lukas Erne charts the immense popularity of Venus and Adonis in print during this period: it not only appeared in more editions than any other of Shakespeare’s works but became one of the “literary bestsellers of the time”. Erne, Shakespeare and the Book Trade, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 29.

16 Quoted in Herbert Berry, “The Globe Bewitched and El Hombre Fiel”, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, n° 1, 1984, p. 211-230, here p. 212.

17 M.R., The mothers counsell (London, 1630) p. 4.

18 Susan Dwyer Amussen, “The Gendering of Popular Culture in Early Modern England”, in Tim Harris (ed.), Popular Culture in England, c. 1500–1850, Houndmills and London, Macmillan, 1995, p. 48-68, here p. 59.

19 Men were not wholly forbidden to weep, but it was argued that they should exercise moderation in so doing, and that “Moderation applied to location as well as scale: tears should be shed in private, and their public display was unseemly”. See Bernard Capp, “Jesus wept, but did the Englishman? Masculinity and Emotion in Early Modern England”, Past and Present, n° 224, 2014, p. 75-108, here p. 90.

20 Lucy Munro, “Dublin Tragicomedy and London Stages”, in Subha Mukherji and Raphael Lyne (ed.), Early Modern Tragicomedy, Studies in Renaissance Literature 22, Cambridge, Boydell and Brewer, 2007, p. 175-192, here p. 178-179.

21 Brian W. Schneider, The Framing Text in Early Modern English Drama: 'Whining' Prologues and ‘Armed’ Epilogues, Farnham and Burlington, Ashgate, 2011, p. 113.

22 G. E. Bentley (1941), quoted in Allan H. Stevenson, “James Shirley and the Actors at the First Irish Theater”, Modern Philology, 40.2, 1942, p. 147-160, here p. 159.

23 John Sucking, The Goblins A Comedy, London, 1646.

24 My focus in this essay is on the appeal of the plays’ male characters particularly for heterosexual female spectators, and the ways in which The Doubtful Heir exploits that appeal, but I do not want to suggest that male audience members could not also have felt an attraction to these male characters.

25 Barbara Freedman, Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1991, p. 117.

26 Jean E. Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England, London and New York, Routledge, 1994, p. 80.

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Rebecca Yearling, « Experimental plays, conventional endings: Gender normativity and the female spectator of Shirley’s The Doubtful Heir  »Études Épistémè [En ligne], 42 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2022, consulté le 02 février 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/episteme/15645 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/episteme.15645

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Rebecca Yearling

Rebecca Yearling is a Senior Lecturer in English at Keele University, whose research focuses on the relationship between early modern plays and their original audiences. Her first monograph, Ben Jonson, John Marston and Early Modern Drama: Satire and the Audience, was published by Palgrave in 2016 and she is currently working on a new monograph on early modern spectator response to scenes of violence in the plays of Shakespeare. She edited Shirley’s The Doubtful Heir for the forthcoming The Complete Works of James Shirley: Volume 7 (Oxford University Press, 2022).

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