(Dis)obedient wives: manifestations of collective female agency in early modern city comedies

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Lilit Berberyan (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site: http://library.uncg.edu/
Michelle Dowd

Abstract: In the three decades between 1596 and 1626, roughly sixty city comedies were composed by early modern playwrights: these plays—some of which are largely out of print while others are frequently printed, anthologized, and taught—create a composite image of how drama imagines the lives of ordinary London citizenry. Partly due to the growth of London’s marketplace economy, citizen wives and working women gain financial stability and visibility within early modern society during this period. City plays depict the female characters’ negotiation of issues of power and agency; theater imagines the possibilities that might give these characters the capacity to manipulate societal expectations to gain power and agency. In this study, I use exemplary city plays—including works by Dekker, Jonson, Middleton, and Shakespeare—from the aforementioned catalogue of city comedies to delineate and discuss three models of agency: defiant, subversive, and acquiescent. These models of agency are contingent on the subject’s continual negotiation and reassertion of her positionality. Defiant agency is made possible through the rejection or visible challenge of patriarchal forms of control. Subversive agency requires the female characters’ thorough understanding of modes of conduct to which they are supposed to conform; however, their obedient behavior ultimately ends with a subversion of societal expectations. The final model of agency I discuss is acquiescent agency. In this model, the female characters’ behavior is in keeping with the societal regulations, but this behavior enables the female characters to occupy the role of validating patriarchal forms of control. Additionally, female agency in early modern city plays often results from a communal negotiation of societal expectations of female behavior rather than an individual’s relationship with the ideological apparatus. This study highlights manifestations of female power that are largely under-examined, as well as reading and interpretive practices that make it possible for scholars of female agency to locate it in instances of obedience rather than only in defiance of societal expectations of conduct.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2017
Drama, Female Agency, Jacobean City Comedy, Renaissance, Renaissance Drama, Shakespeare
English drama $y Early modern and Elizabethan, 1500-1600 $x History and criticism
English drama (Comedy) $x History and criticism
Women in literature $x History $y 16th century

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