Performing words #4: gender

This post is part of a series on theatrical words. For an introduction to the series, see Performing words: introduction to a new thread on theatre and language.

A short post from me today, but I hope an engaging and topical one as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the right to vote for some women in the UK.

A simple observation, then, about play titles and the weight they give to particular kinds of characters, especially regarding their gender. Here is a list of our earliest surviving plays from the playhouses, with a rough estimate of their first performance date:

  • The Three Ladies of London (1581)
  • The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune (1582)
  • Campaspe (1583)
  • Fedele and Fortunio (1583)
  • The Arraignment of Paris (1584)
  • Sappho and Phao (1584)
  • Galatea (1584)
  • The Famous Victories of Henry V (1586)
  • 1 Tamburlaine (1587)
  • 2 Tamburlaine (1587)
  • The Spanish Tragedy (1587)
  • Alphonsus, King of Aragon (1587)

Twelve plays across six years. But here’s the thing: the first three surviving plays from the playhouses are all named after their female protagonists. That’s obvious from the first title, The Three Ladies of London, but Love and Fortune in The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune are also female characters, the goddesses Venus and Fortuna respectively. Campaspe, meanwhile, is the prisoner of Alexander the Great, and spends her play trying to escape the amorous intentions of her captor. I hope I’m not making too large a speculation when I say that if Shakespeare had written such a play, he would have called it Alexander the Great.

Because look: the first three plays from the playhouses that Shakespeare would go on to write for are all named after their female protagonists. That’s worth restating, because in almost 40 plays Shakespeare only once named a play after its female characters (The Merry Wives of Windsor). We assume that it’s normal in this period to be the author of Macbeth and Hamlet and Othello and King Lear, but it isn’t: other writers wrote plays with far more varied fictive worlds that gave greater representation to female characters. Indeed, Shakespeare may have had a reputation in his lifetime as someone uninterested in female characters. His colleague and successor, John Fletcher, writes two plays that function as sequels to Shakespeare’s work, and in both cases he challenges their misogyny or their failure to consider the play world from a female point of view. In The Tamer Tamed, Fletcher reverses the gender politics of The Taming of the Shrew; in The Sea Voyage, Fletcher and his collaborator Philip Massinger reimagine The Tempest so that it now has an entire island of women rather than the single female character, Miranda. And at the other end of his career, Shakespeare is first mentioned in print in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, where he is identified by a single misogynistic line: ‘O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide’, as it appears in 3 Henry VI. Given his earliest plays, such as Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus are, shall we say, deeply unenthusiastic about the place of women in public discourse, it may not be surprising that Shakespeare was associated with this misogynistic line.

But something else is going on in that list above. Aside from Fedele and Fortunio (two male heterosexual lovers) and The Arraignment of Paris (a play about the Trojan prince Paris’ judgement of the relative beauty of three goddesses), all of the plays staged before 1585 named women in their titles, and only one of them also names a man (Sappho and Phao).  It is also noticeable that none of these pre-85 plays directly depicts war, although some of them are set immediately before or after war. And then 1586-7 happens, and we get a series of plays named not only after men but after warriors: Henry V, Tamburlaine and Alphonsus. After this, plays start to survive much more regularly, and this trend continues: we get plays about Endymion, Suliman, Doctor Faustus, Friar Bacon, King John, the Jew of Malta, Midas, King Lear and Richard III. See our list of pre-95 plays for more.

There is plenty we could say about this, but here are three questions: why do plays suddenly start to survive in greater numbers after 1585? Why do plays suddenly start to privilege male fictional experience after 1585? And why do these two shifts coincide with one another? Did plays need the comforting authority of male subject matter in order to survive? Did plays become canonised or treated as literary matter “worthy” of print as a result of their turn to male fictional experience? And if so, can we witness a tantalising and forgotten moment of literary history immediately before this moment when women were far more likely to be the subjects of plays than men? As we celebrate the rare triumph of love, fortune and female protest, I’d certainly like to think so! Happy anniversary everyone!

Andy Kesson


7 thoughts on “Performing words #4: gender

  1. Fascinating questions. What made 1585 different? Here’s a couple of suggestions.

    Queen Elizabeth turned 52. No chance now of marriage and a clear heir/successor. (Not that there ever was, really.) Would her death mean more wars between rival claimants for the throne, as happened a few generations earlier?

    Plus, the war with superpower Spain was hotting up, and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, led a force to the Netherlands. Superpower Turkey was an effective counterbalance to Spain, and an increasingly important trading partner.

    English heroes, far away conquerors…

    When the Armada of 1588 threatened, Elizabeth’s lacklustre performance as a war leader would have been attributed (unfairly but inevitably) to her sex.
    What sort of plays might have been written if it were otherwise?


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