Alison Findlay, A Feminist Perspective on Renaissance Drama. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. ISBN 0-631-20508-X (HB). £ 50.00. ISBN 0-631-20509-8 (PB). £ 14.99.
A key characteristic of English early modern theatre is its marked lack of women. With boy actors performing the roles of Ophelia and Cleopatra, and with male playwrights producing plays to be performed by companies such as the Lord Chamberlain's Men or the Admiral's Men, the public theatres do not readily offer themselves as a site for disclosing the experiences, ideas, or feelings of Renaissance women. Studying the primarily male-authored Renaissance drama, what is to be the focus of a feminist perspective?
Feminist critics have explored various different approaches. Some scholars celebrate the virtues of female characters in an attempt to correct their neglect by previous criticism. This category includes critics like Juliet Dusinberre (Shakespeare and the Nature of Women) and Irene Dash (Wooing, Wedding, and Power), who focus on the more powerful female characters, and argue that the playwright depicted many of his heroines as witty, assertive, and powerful women who are a match for his male heroes. Another feminist perspective addresses women's subordinate position in Renaissance society, and the way this is encoded in the drama of the period. Hence, Lisa Jardine, Ania Loomba, and Dympna Callaghan counter Dusinberre's claim for a "feminist" Shakespeare, and reveal how the plays often capture male anxiety over female power. Critics like Jean Howard and Karen Newman study gender as a cultural construction and consider the practices of the theatre, such as cross-dressing, in that light. Other new historicist feminists aim to read the plays in the context of the culture from which they originated.
With A Feminist Perspective on Renaissance Drama, Alison Findlay offers a new and captivating approach to the male-authored plays. Her feminist perspective starts with the women who are known to have formed a substantial part of the audience in the public playhouses. As paying customers, women exercised their judgement over what they saw performed on the stage, and prefaces addressed to the women in the audience show that the theatre catered to the tastes of women as well as men. Findlay, therefore, regards attending and watching a play as "a feminist act," momentarily suspending the gender inequalities of early modern society. A possible problem with this approach is that only few female responses to performances have been handed down to us from the period, and it seems impossible to ascertain how women spectators actually received the plays they saw. Findlay deftly negotiates this problem, however, by deciding to make use of other contemporary writings by women. The poems, closet plays, diaries, letters, or religious contemplations by women that have been rediscovered, edited, and published with the surge of feminism in literary criticism serve as a tool for reconstructing the tastes of women in the audience. By juxtaposing her readings of Renaissance plays with her interpretation of these female writings, Findlay creates a convincing dialogue between them, and effectively recreates the experience of play-going women in early modern England.
In the first chapter, Findlay reads the representations of religion in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure in the light of the writings of Rachel Speght, Aemelia Lanyer, and Mary Ward, to demonstrate how a female audience may have interpreted the plays as probing the religious conventions which determined the position of women in early modern society. Her juxtaposition of Measure for Measure's Isabella with Mary Ward, a seventeenth-century nun who founded a convent based on principles of female leadership and learning, is especially engaging, and shows how virginity could be a "powerful feminist symbol" (39).
In the next chapter, Findlay boldly defines revenge tragedy as a "feminine genre" (49), and analyses the anxieties over female agency and maternal power which underlie the representation of vengeance in early modern drama. Demonstrating how revenge is the resort of the powerless, Findlay argues that "for female spectators, normally excluded by, and from, the dominant discourses of Renaissance society, the outlawed agency of the revenger must have looked exciting" (56).
The third chapter centres on the female protagonists of plays such as All's Well That Ends Well and The Duchess of Malfi, and argues that their determination to follow their sexual desires allows female spectators to adopt the role of "wilful subjects." Moreover, Findlay emphasises the special opportunities offered by the London liberties and their "pleasurable pastimes in which gender conventions could be challenged" (109).
The book's fourth chapter presents a reading of Romeo and Juliet as a domestic tragedy in the context of the letters of female members of the feuding Thynne and Audley families, whose son and daughter married each other in secret. The correspondence proves a valuable instrument to gauge the ways in which women spectators might have engaged with Shakespeare's tragedy. In the final chapter, Findlay studies history plays against the personal experiences of Elizabeth the First, Mary Queen of Scots, and Queen Henrietta Maria, and examines how the plays' "explorations of authority and exclusion" (164) could also involve the experiences of the women in the audience.
Findlay's original, new perspective on women's experiences in the theatre is very persuasive, and leads to fresh interpretations of canonical plays. Only sporadically do attempts to identify moments of specific interest to the female part of the audience seem a little forced. When Richard II in prison realises that he should reconcile himself to the fact that he is now "nothing," Findlay comments: "Women, already 'nothing,' could readily identify with this position" (193). At other times, the volume seems to assume that early modern female audiences shared her twentieth-century feminist perspective on the plays. This is fascinating when supported by evidence from women's writing of the time, but is it useful to conjecture that "much of [Alice Arden's] defiance of convention may have won the secret admiration of some spectators" (148)?
These slight objections, however, should not obscure the fact that Findlay's feminist perspective on early modern drama is both innovative and inspiring. It will certainly light the way for further research into the tastes and views of the women who frequented the London playhouses.
Kristine Steenbergh, Utrecht University