Leigh Denault

English 295 (14)

December 16, 1999

Wicked Wives, Virtuous Widows: The Construction of Women and Politics in Renaissance and Restoration Drama

I. Introduction: Women and Politics in Early Modern England


Women, avowed opponents of the early feminist movement in Victorian Britain, can never be political creatures, and have never been political creatures. And indeed, when Virginia Woolf invented Judith, Shakespeare’s sister, there seemed to be few examples of professional, let alone political, women for her draw upon. Long before Woolf took up her pen, however, she was preceded by a substantial number of female intellectuals, poets, writers, dramatists, and, in the current usage of the word, political lobbyists. She simply didn’t happen to know that many of them existed, and certainly never imagined the extent of their influence on contemporary society, or of their symbolic role, as social indicators, in the construction of political ideas of their time.

The Elizabethan period marked a cultural expansion, a second Renaissance for English society after the brief, turbulent reigns of Edward VI and Mary I. Products of a humanist education and raised under a female monarch, women from politically powerful families such as Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, wrote drama not for the stage, but for the household and the court. Closet drama became a genre dedicated to cultural and political exploration and innovation. The Renaissance stage, like the Renaissance Court, would have been one of the chief indicators of popular opinion as well as political maneuvering. Public reception of women, and attitudes on women’s nature, to a great extent mirrored the development of popular political activism in early modern England. After the Civil War, we find royalist spy-cum-playwright Aphra Behn writing for the Restoration theatre. By the 1660s, the Elizabethan and Jacobean debates on humanist philosophy, the memory of Puritan repression, and revolutionary societal changes had all contributed to a new construction of women’s role, and a new conception of the political sphere. Renaissance and Restoration drama offers an unusual record of the development of women’s roles, both as reflectors of and actors in contemporary politics.


II. Closet Drama: Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, Samuel Daniel, and Elizabeth Cary, Lady Falkland


            Closet drama, as a genre, served as a form of commentary on the domestic politics of court and household, being performed for a select courtly audience or a household circle. But closet drama also attempted to explain and influence the larger political issues facing the kingdom. Subtle allusions and allegorical arguments would not be lost on such an audience, and those in the Countess of Pembroke’s circle regarded their role as advisors to Elizabeth I quite seriously. Within the closet drama written at Mary Sidney Herbert’s court, in equal parts foil and rival to the London court with which her family was so famously enmeshed, women are accepted as players in the complex and often veiled political climate of the time.

Mary Sidney Herbert chose to write on the great tragic figures of classical antiquity in her translations and poetry. Elizabeth’s presence on the throne and the comparative freedom of opinion that accompanied it allowed the Countess of Pembroke to advise her monarch in accordance with her ties to the Protestant Alliance; allowed her, in effect, to carry on (or, as Margaret Hannay would add, invent) Sir Philip Sidney’s legacy, and to shape this influence to her own political ends.

As such, Cleopatra’s tragedy is an intriguing choice for translation. The Tragedie of Antonie makes use of many common Renaissance themes, but it does so subtly, and newer, potentially more radical ideas, are introduced in tandem with the standard fare. Women as fickle and contriving, love as an infection, men as slaves to passion and the emasculating effect of love on male warrior figures (“To Venus mirtles yeelded haue their place,” (p. 4, l. 68, Sidney)) – all of these themes are present from the opening scene. Sidney’s Cleopatra comes across immediately as a strong character, a bold lover who is willing both to take full responsibility for her mistakes (“I am sole cause: I did it, only I.” (p. 12, l. 448, Sidney)) and to die to keep faith with her love. She refuses to allow her handmaidens to absolve her of responsibility in the name of fortune’s wheel and divine providence. Sidney’s Cleopatra is not a mother figure, but firstly faithful to her love. She declares, after the humanists, “without this loue I should be inhumaine.” (p. 14, l. 552, Sidney) Her discussion of love reads like a treatise on faithfulness:

If I, whome alwaies more then life he lou’de,

If I, Who am his heart, who was his hope,

leaue him, forsake him (and perhaps in vaine)

Weakly to please who him hath ouerthrowne?

Not light, vnconstant, faithlesse should I be,

But vile, forsworne, of treachrous cruelty. (p. 14, l. 579-584, Sidney)


Diomede, when describing Cleopatra, mentions “hir training speech” and her “forcing voice” (p. 17, l. 720-721, Sidney) as prominent characteristics. Cleopatra’s power and will as ruler are, however, hampered by her passion. The Nile, upon meeting the imperial conquest and discipline of Rome, must bend to the Tiber. The theme of changing times is more fully developed when the Chorus predicts Rome’s own fall before “some barbrous Princes power.” (p. 19, l. 834, Sidney) Yet there are other political themes at work: Antony sees Cleopatra as too ambitious: “Too wise a head she weare[s]/Too much inflam’d with greatnes, euermore.” (p. 21, l. 883-884, Sidney)

The audience receives the impression, overall, of a sweeping political drama that focuses on a catastrophic point: the fall of Cleopatra, and Egypt with her, before the imperial might of Rome. And just as Cleopatra is slain by her own hand, her country falls through its ruler’s passion. Caesar’s discussion of Machiavellian politics in Act IV establishes a political subtext for themes that could otherwise be read as pure romance. Antony and Cleopatra are enslaved by their all-consuming love: but the effects of their passions are not limited to themselves. Their love is an unbalancing force that topples both his chance at Empire and the independence of her state. Women’s infidelity might be identified as a theme, and was a familiar early modern metaphor for a disordered state. Cleopatra is unfaithful to Egypt in keeping faith with Antony, and he is likewise unfaithful to his (proper) ambitions for Empire.

Samuel Daniel chooses to highlight different aspects of womanhood in his response play, Cleopatra, but his underlying political message is the same, if more clearly stated. Samuel Daniel deals with many of the same themes in his Cleopatra, but he brings the political aspects of the drama to the fore, often sacrificing character to achieve his ends. While Sidney’s translation might be seen first as fulfilling an artistic mission (an attempt to introduce the French avant garde drama to England) and secondly as offering political commentary, Daniel’s drama seems to be a mere workhorse for his message.

Daniel treats the free will theme somewhat cavalierly, especially considering its prominence in Mary Sidney’s play. “I haue both hands, and vvill, and I can die,” (p. 34, l. 54, Daniel) Daniel’s Cleopatra declares, quite early in the play. Yet free will shares the stage uneasily with Daniel’s concepts of dynastic decline and fortune’s wheel, of the inevitability of the fall from power. And far from establishing a theme of self-determination or exploring ideas about the innate dignity and divinity of monarchs, Daniel’s drama becomes something of an Elizabethan parable on the loose morals and tragic propensities of the great, and Cleopatra as less a Dido than an Echo, a foil for Daniel’s political theme.

Daniel’s Cleopatra, far from Mary Sidney’s portrayal, is a mother, if a queen first. In Cleopatra, Egypt’s queen must exchange maternal feeling for duty of office and birth, though she would, she assures her audience, be most motherly were she not queen:

And I muft be a Queene, forget a mother;

Though mother vvould I be, were I not I;

And Queene would not be now, could I be other.

But vvhat know I if th’heauens haue decreed … (p. 36, l. 96-99, Daniel)


Here we see the free will theme overturned, and Cleopatra’s goal for the play introduced. She must save her heirs, at least, from the wreckage of her love affair and her political debacle, and thus to secure the dynastic security of her kingdom. As Daniel gathers steam and the plot presses on, this theme is expanded through much discussion of the inevitable corrupting influence of the court and of the equally inevitable decline of great nations, although, as mentioned above, fate and human folly are uneasy bedfellows in Daniel’s politically driven but poetically uninspired admonitory tragedy:

…now am I taught

In death to loue, in life that knew not how,

For vvhilft my glory in her greatneffe ftood …

I then thought all men muft loue me of duety,

And I loue none: for my lafciuious Court …

Affoorded me fo bountifull difport… (p. 38, l. 153-161, Daniel)


Cleopatra’s statements take on the nature of confessions, the ruminations of a wicked woman about to receive her last rites. Through these passages, Daniel establishes the multifold evils of courtly intrigue and plotting, and of the lustful pursuit of pleasure and decadence. And behind each example lies Daniel’s main point: when monarchs disport themselves as such, it is not merely shameful, but a danger to the state. As in the mentions of fortune’s wheel and a cycle of ages, the rich days will not last and every rise foretells a fall.

In Daniel’s play, Cleoptra’s tragedy is identified as Egypt’s tragedy; this is a dynastic and not a personal decline. Egypt is portrayed as a land of flesh-pots and courtly intrigue beside the imperial discipline of Rome. Cleopatra, describing “this Autumne of my beauty,” (p. 39, l. 181, Daniel) is in fact warning her audience of the inevitable autumn that follows every spring. With the Chorus’s tract against “muttering,” (l. 234-235) Daniel has set the stage – literally – for the more overt political message at the end of Act II and the beginning of Act III. Egypt, a once-proud nation now brought to ruin by a queen whose scandalous love affairs and dynastic tragedy (through the murder of her heirs, a scene which occupies a position of prominence in Daniel’s play) offer an example to Britain and a warning to the foppish court. Or, put another way: there but for the grace of Elizabeth go we, and in Elizabeth we are none too secure!

The Tragedie of Antony (c. 1590) and Cleopatra (c. 1594) are part of a tradition of admonitory literature; literature with a political purpose, literature written to mold and instruct. Sidney is more subtle in the literary execution of her political mores than Daniel, but both plays were in fact written to the same end. It is only in her translation of the Psalmes of David, as Sidneian scholar Margaret Hannay illustrates, that Mary Sidney was able to express her own political views openly, in the traditional mode of adviser to her monarch. It would be natural for Samuel Daniel, who looked to Sidney as patron, to expound upon the political views of the Protestant Alliance in a play dedicated to Sidney herself. Their plays, closet drama to be performed for a select courtly audience, reflect both the political involvements of Sidney’s circle and their fears for England as a developing imperial power. Mary Sidney took her role in the Protestant Alliance quite seriously, and for her, admonishing the monarch would be implicit in her responsibilities as a noblewoman and as Philip Sidney’s ideological heir. 

Elizabeth Cary, born around the year 1585, came from a less influential family than the Countess of Pembroke, and was far less lucky in marriage. Cary was apparently far too outspoken for her husband’s tastes, and her conversion to Catholicism went against his firmly Protestant instincts. Their unhappy marriage and separation provide some insight into a situation that cannot have been uncommon in early modern England – for who knew which side of the religious divide would emerge victorious, or indeed whether the Elizabethan settlement was to be a lasting one?

Elizabeth Cary, in her play The Tragedy of Mariam, incisively and bitterly records the contradictions and claustrophobia of the early modern household. These issues remain unresolved at the play’s conclusion, leaving her audience to wander through a sea of paradox and contradiction. Romantic love is opposed to the mandates of lineage, and Cary explores ideas about marriage between inferior and superior classes, companionate marriages, divorce, politically maneuvering/outspoken women, gender roles, shifting loyalties among court factions, and absolutism and madness in a monarch. These themes emerge clearly from the Tower of Babel that Cary has erected, with the Chorus as a neo-conservative anchor, a deadweight to haul to audience back to convention at its most intolerant in the face of new ideas.

Berry points out the “staccato” tempo of the play, which I see as a result of the quickly paced scenes between groups of two or three characters that, rapid-fire, present and explore radical social ideas. The men are, interestingly, much taken with ideas of love and companionate marriage but are also quick to violence and hate, while women are depicted as equally ruthless but more circumspect and thoughtful in their plotting. The women are portrayed as equally capable of influence and power, after all – Salome is Mariam’s true murderer and in many ways the real villain of the play – but female power is not the overtly dominating power of Herod.

The Chorus consistently abuses the only unobjectionable person in the play: Mariam herself. Is this a hint to regard the Chorus as yet another voice in the crowd, and to highlight Mariam’s besiegement? Is every other character no more than her foil, and she the Messiah? Cary is drawing an analogy to Christ’s experiences leading to the Passion. However, the play is more than a Catholic allegory using Jewish experiences in Roman Judea.

Mariam’s silence upon her husband’s return leads us back to the question of female speaking. Christ-like, she turns the other cheek and refuses to acknowledge his madness, or to endorse it with argument. Yet once she has been beheaded, Herod mourns the loss of the very quality that, according to the Chorus, doomed her from the start: her voice. Why does Mariam, whose only fault lay in her being outspoken, shut up at the end of the play? The problem seems to be that, while women do have a voice and a right to public speaking, male authority in the politics of the household automatically overrules women’s right to speak. So while the women may plot and plan while Herod is away, when he is in residence all plans must adjust to his action, and all words spoken must be spoken with his permission. This is a particular kind of tyranny, not political but domestic tyranny. Just as Desdemona cannot speak to clear her name, Mariam is made mute by her husband’s all to ready tongue.

This domestic focus in a dramatic situation that we might initially suspect to contain larger political messages is in part, I believe, what has thrown so many scholars into confusion concerning the “point” of this play. Cary is dealing, in a biblical court setting, with familial bonds and relationships in the context of the political world of court and state, and exploring the ways in which contemporary debates on women, marriage, “voice,” religion, and tyranny unravel a family composed, as many Elizabethan families were composed, of unequal classes and partners, and formed by both marriages for alliance and love matches. As an educated woman, Elizabeth Cary understood the backlash against “speaking” women in the early seventeenth century, and her response, a written work never to be performed in its proper element, expresses her disgust with a repressive and unfair system.

These examples of closet drama highlight the role of women both as actors in a complex and shifting political scene, and as symbolic emblems of household, motherhood, monarchy, family legacy, and social change. That both Mary Sidney and Elizabeth Cary chose to portray female monarchs wielding political power and moving within a political framework is significant: the Elizabethan and Jacobean aura of compromise and flexibility, it would seem, extended itself to women as well. The world of Jacobethan theatre might be seen, in this context, as the last flowering of an English Renaissance before the storms of religious and civil conflict swept away all traces of art and liberty alike.

III. Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama: All the World’s a Stage …


            Representations of women in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama reveal how reactions to humanist philosophy pervaded early modern discussion of the sexes. Women and questions concerning feminine “nature” are used to signify troubling social and political issues of the day. The following three plays, Arden of Faversham, (c. 1588) The Duchess of Malfi, (c. 1623) and The Changeling, (c. 1619-1624) each deal in different ways with issues of political instability, and each construct a rhetoric of femininity and feminine nature which complements the political aspects of the drama. We may see the beginnings of a contrast between earlier and later Elizabethan drama in the different foci of these three plays. As Janet Todd remarked in her biography of Aphra Behn: “the extraordinary humanist education given to only a small group of aristocratic girls under the Tudors, with the notion the classics combined with Christianity could breed virtue, was far the past and the perennial dislike of intellectual women had intensified in the early seventeenth century.” (p. 22, Todd)

In Arden of Faversham, a dramatization of a murder case that fascinated Tudor England for decades, is particularly revealing in its portrayal of a wicked woman and of severed social bonds. Alice Arden represents the instability of social institutions, and fears as to women’s true nature when left to govern themselves. Arden is an absentee landlord both as a landowner and as a husband. Alice, his “disloyal and wanton wife,” as an independent and indeed dominant force in both the private and the public sphere threatens the careful balance of her early modern household. And Alice’s insurrection, which leaves both her family and her local community in chaos, is a symbol of the disordered state.

The idea of love as an infection or lovesickness as the result of witchcraft also fits this metaphor: romantic love is a destabilizing force that weakens the potency of the entire body, be it the human body or the body politic. The cure presents itself as a necessary corollary. Just as the gardener maintains the health of his garden by pulling noxious weeds, the monarch maintains order in the kingdom by purging corrupt advisors, or the doctor bleeds his patient to release evil influences, so Thomas Arden ought to rein in his wife and defend his good name. His failure to prevent his own cuckoldry is connected to his failure to behave as a (morally) responsible landlord.

Mosby, Alice’s lover, is driven more by greed and ambition than raw emotion. The pair contrive to murder Arden, and yet “even as they [Mosby and Alice] team up,” notes Arthur Kinney,

they split apart, and, with them, both the household and merchant community fragment as well. Like the plans and oaths that are continually made and just as continually broken, theirs is a disintegrating world.  What the playwright probes, then, through their thoughts and actions – which are never consonant – is the unstable culture they represent.” (p. 98, Kinney)


Alice herself, passionate and vengeful, acts independently for her own good, and thus defies the mandates of both hierarchy and community. Alice confronts characters individually to enlist them in her schemes or to seek assurance of their loyalty – she is the interceding woman gone awry. All of the indirect, private channels of influence that traditionally belong to the women’s sphere are employed in her quest to overthrow Arden.

Alice takes her marriage vows lightly: “Love is a god, and marriage is but words,” (I, i, 101) and treats her other oaths no better. Indeed, despite the obvious weight given to spoken vows as a form of social contract, the characters mistrust each other’s sworn intentions, and with good reason! Alice will change course in a moment if she seizes on an idea that suits the moment’s tempest, while Michael and Mosby, not to mention Black Will and Shakebag, are prepared to continue killing to achieve their respective ambitions.  Alice as a character embodies much of the instability of the play: she is not rational, she has no motives beyond passion. And as her subsequent grief and feelings of guilt demonstrate, she has not visualized the potential consequences of her actions.

            Thomas Arden may himself be isolated, but his tragedy, and Alice’s treason, affects the entire Arden household. The play leaves one with the general impression that actions and intentions have effects that take on a life of their own. In a way, Arden of Faversham is almost too sensationalist to be taken seriously – hence the black comedy aspect of the plot. But because the play drew on a real murder case, and because the treatment of those “facts” by the author directly addresses several contemporary social concerns, Arden would have disturbed its original audience on a number of levels. The characters provide a catalogue of vices that harm the community and culminate in tragedy, and only the intercession of Lord Cheyne can ultimately restore a sense of order and locate guilt. But this finale is hardly tidy, as Bradshaw bitterly declaims the judgement: “my blood be on his head that gave the sentence.” (V. xviii, 38)

John Webster’s Duchess, from his tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, is more complex. There is the suggestion that she has brought her misfortunes upon herself by presuming to choose her own husband. As Cariola says at the end of the first act:  “Whether the spirit of greatnes, or of woman Raigne most in her, I know not, but it shewes A Fearfull madness; I owe her much of pitty.” (The Duchess of Malfi, I. i, 488-490) and yet the play’s sympathies are behind her.

The Duchess is a widow, and this social position carries with it a number of Joacbean associations. Scholar Arthur Kinney has pointed out the social significance of a widow in Renaissance England, where “virtuous” widows, who remained chaste and kept mourning as was proper, might be contrasted with “ordinary” widows, whose previous marriages had awakened sexual desire and whose morals were subsequently highly suspect. Webster himself had spoken against such goings-on in other published works, and as the number of widows in disease-ridden London rose, so did social concern regarding loose or uncontrolled women. “Why might I not marry? I have not gone about in this, to create Any new world, or custome.” (III. ii, 110-112)

However, Webster chose to portray a duchess, and not some London bawd, one whose story was based loosely on the facts of a sensational murder case in Italy. As a noblewoman, albeit a nameless one, the Duchess of Malfi occupies a position of power. She would be responsible for overseeing her tenants, determining land use, settling disputes, and managing her personal household. She maintains her own household autonomously, but cannot be trusted to arrange her own marriage: “The Birds, that live i’th field On the wilde benefite of Nature, live Happier than we; for they may choose their mates.” (The Duchess of Malfi, III. iv, 17-19)

Relationships of kinship are betrayed when Ferdinand first imprisons and then murders his own twin. Her “humorous kindred,” whom she trusts implicitly, betray her – the Cardinal for her money and Ferdinand in a psychopathic display of power and control. Incest is strongly implied in Ferdinand’s obscene language toward and about the Duchess, particularly in the scene in which he discusses her potential bedmates with his brother, the Cardinal: “Happily, with some strong thigh’d Bargeman; Or one o’th’wood-yard, that can quoit the sledge, Or tosse the barre, or else some lovely Squire That carries coles up, to her privy lodgings.” (The Duchess of Malfi, II. v, 43-46) All of the positions that she has chosen for herself are systematically destroyed in a calculated attempt to drive her mad. “I stand As if a Myne, beneath my feete, were ready To be blowne up.” (Duchess of Malfi, III. ii, 153-155)

The Duchess, like Elizabeth Cary’s Mariam, has few lines for a play that bears her name. “Doe not speake,” orders Ferdinand when he slips into her darkened bedchamber with a poniard, intending for her to kill herself in shame. “No sir: I will plant my soule in mine ears, to hear you,” (The Duchess of Malfi, III. ii, 75-77) replies the Duchess, whose most startling quality is indeed her ability to listen, and to extract the pith and meaning from incomprehensible situations. When she does speak, her words are pregnant with the contained emotions, contained speech, and all of the patient silences that constitute the drama.

Part of the emotional power behind the play lies in the Duchess’s ability to articulate her situation with eloquence and reason in the face of inhuman tortures and madness. She tells Bosola, when he insists that she must remain alive: “That’s the greatest torture soules feele in hell, In hell: that they must live, and cannot die.” (The Duchess of Malfi, IV. i, 69-70) And yet the Duchess is herself: “I am Duchesse of Malfy still.” (Duchess of Malfi, IV. ii, 131) The Duchess is the lucid center of an insane world, a world gone horribly awry. As in Arden of Faversham, we see a community descend into chaos and tragedy as the social bonds that held it together are severed.

Thomas Middleton and William Rowley collaborated on The Changeling, which attempts in many ways to be a reworking of The Duchess of Malfi, which apparently impressed both playwrights. Beatrice-Joanna, a shallow character inhabiting a convoluted plot, nevertheless embodies seventeenth-century culture and opinion on women’s nature. Like Lady Macbeth, Alice Arden, or even Elizabeth Cary’s Salome, Beatrice acts through intercession, and uses feminine channels of influence to affect the outcome of events. In doing so, she is not so much “inventing” herself as moving outside the perceived natural social boundaries into the realm of lawlessness. In seventeenth century Britain, an individualistic or private person was not considered exemplary or praiseworthy; rather, they would have been regarded as sly, dangerous, an unknown quantity threatening the peace of the household.

            Indeed, individual will is presented as a sinister quantity throughout the play. At the end of scene one, De Flores echoes Beatrice: “Though I get nothing else, I’ll have my will.” (The Changeling, I, i, 237) Villains are portrayed as those who impose their will upon others. But villains are also irrational: “…affection/Master of passion, sways it to the mood/Of what it likes or loathes.” (Merchant of Venice IV, i, 150-3) Hatred and love are related in the language of the play. “There’s scarce a thing but is both lov’d and loath’d,” (The Changeling I, i, 125) declares Alsemero, introducing a theme that will recur throughout the play. All strong passions are at root the same, and in the end equally disruptive. Hatred, love, anger, and lust force apart the social bonds that keep a household, or by implication, a society, from descending into suspicion, murder, and vengeance.

            Women’s political constructions in Renaissance drama are expressed through their domestic representations, and particularly through marital status and traditional, or “proper,” feminine behavior within the context of that status. Just as the stage became associated with a microcosmic English world, the household was so often presented as symbolic of the kingdom that women’s domestic roles became emblems of larger political and social trends. The theme of female emotion and female autonomy as a powerful destabilizing agent comes through all three plays quite clearly, although the playwrights do not universally condemn the individual women of their drama. In each of the above plays, the lead female character choses her lover, and in achieving that choice, brings about tragedy.

The 1590s and early 1600s marked a period of social instability in Elizabethan England. The Tudor family had traditionally been upheld through the patriarch’s authority: Elizabeth and the humanists had thrown this into doubt. Politics grew more vituperative as factions formed in court, and even Elizabeth could not entirely still the conflicts that arose. Religion was becoming progressively more radicalized. Vagrancy and homelessness were on the rise, plague and sickness struck numerous times, and always behind the comparative prosperity of those later years lay concerns about the succession. What changes would the House of Stuart bring from the North?

IV. Restoration: A World Turned Upside-Down


Behn and Congreve concocted their heady, witty comedies on the Restoration Stage with memories of a world turned upside-down. And it is indeed a world that few Elizabethans would have recognized: the Elizabethan compromise seemed to unravel in the winds of revolution, religious fervor and political insurrection. The most basic social bonds and boundaries were irreparably altered. One in nine males bore arms in the Civil War, one of the bloodiest battles in British history. And then, apparently overnight, with Charles II’s triumphal entry into London on his thirtieth birthday at the beginning of the twelfth year of his reign,  (the exiled king’s sense of spectacle would rival that of the most dedicatedly decadent Restoration thespian) the victories and defeats of long war seemed to vanish in bursts of fireworks and the trills of a new courtly music.

It was, like much of Charles’s magnificent statesmanship, a masterful portrait of monarchy restored, and it was, at heart, a grand illusion. Charles II returned, neither through some divine mandate nor by summons of his aching subjects, but due to fluctuations of internal politics among leading royalist, and soon to be Tory, factions. He made a number of serious concessions to Parliament (though none so serious as his niece and nephew were to agree to) and he would never attempt to govern without the support of that august body. After years in exile, Charles would have given, and did give, much to avoid being sent on his travels again.

Memories of Civil War are particularly strong in Behn’s political spoofs, and the party politics that begin to dominate her later dramas indicate the strength of the war’s legacy in British society. Sir Timothy Treat-All, “An old seditious Knight that keeps open house for Commonwealths-men and true blue Protestants,” (dramatis personae) when his Tory nephew Wilding threatens to turn Papist, mutters: “Hum! I had rather indeed he turn’d Turk or Jew, for his own sake; as for scandalizing me, I defie it: my Integrity has been known ever since Forty One.” (The City Heiress, I. i, 96-98) Sir Timothy’s counterpart, Sir Anthony Meriwell, a confirmed Royalist, represents the other side of Behn’s political coin: “for my part, I love good wholesome Doctrine, that teaches Obedience to my King and Superiours, without railing at the Government, and quoting Scripture for Sedition, Mutiny, and Rebellion.” (The City Heiress, I. i, 198-201)

Behn, a secret agent and committed royalist, would have been intimate with the machinations of political society both at home and abroad. The City Heiress formed part of a series of political plays to boost Tory propaganda that were performed from 1681 to 1682, and were informed by events after the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis. Behn, herself a staunch Tory, exposed what she saw as Whiggish and Dissenter hypocrisy, both in the politics of the bedchamber and the chambers of Parliament. Along the way, she did not scruple to spare her own party’s questionable mores. As a dramatist, Behn, like Congreve, recalled an Elizabethan style with Restoration decadence, and her plays dealt as explicitly with sexuality and domestic intrigues as they did with the political maneuverings and machinations of her day.

Here, according to many Victorian moralist-critics, lies the reason that Behn was later dropped from the Aphra Behn was not well born, probably the daughter of a wet nurse and a barber in Kent, near Canterbury. But, as her biographer Janet Todd has pointed out, her wit and her girlish good looks would more than compensate for her birth, and Behn somehow managed to extract an excellent education from various wealthier and nobler benefactors. Like Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Behn understood that being well dressed and well versed would, in her day and age, make her equal to any society anywhere. Or almost equal – Dryden, who knew her as a London playwright, writing to would-be poet Elizabeth Thomas in 1699, explained that Thomas was “too well born” to be caught up in the “mire” of lewd or loose writing, as Behn had been. (p. 16, Todd, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn) Her plays show an obsessive awareness of social station, but it is an awareness of a new aristocracy, based on money and political persuasion or political influence.

“The Trade of Love” is the subject of much of the wit and not a little of the action in The City Heiress. Sir Timothy explains the system: “Faith and Troth! We stand upon neither Faith nor Troth in the City, Lady. I have known an Heiress married and bedded, and yet with the advice of the wiser Magistrates, has been unmarried and consummated anew with another, so it stands with our Interest; ‘tis Law by Magna Charta.” (The City Heiress, II. ii, 176-180) And in Behn’s plays, the women are fully as mercenary in their behavior as in men. Our first introduction to Charlot, the title character, is through her conversation with the worldly Mrs. Clackett. The two women discuss love affairs, reputation, and elopements, and show a shrewd understanding of the marriage market. “’Slife,” exclaims Mrs. Clacket, “if you must marry a man to buy him Breeches, marry an honest man, a religious man, a man that bears a Conscience, and will do a woman some Reason.” (The City Heiress, II. i, 21-23) The City Heiress herself, despite her infatuation with Wilding, refuses to marry him unless he can prove himself his uncles heir, thus turning the tables and practicing good Restoration economics.

Later, Wilding attempts to console his mistress, Diana, with declarations of love – Diana, having none of it, responds: “Love me! what if you do? how far will that go the Exchange for Poynt?  Will the Mercer take it for currant Coin?” (The City Heiress, II. ii, 76-77) As Wilding explains it, “But marriage, Frank, is such a bug-bear!  And this old uncle of mine may one day be gathered together, and sleep with his Fathers, and then I shall have six thousand pound a year, and the wide World before me; and who the devil cou’d relish these blessings with the clog of a Wife behind him? – But then, money must be had, I say.” (II. ii, 37-41)

William Congreve, too, in his last play The Way of the World, constructs female roles according to a new series of social mores. First acted in 1700 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Congreve’s drama is less concerned with political machinations (perhaps the Glorious Revolution and its bloody counterparts of civil war in Scotland and Ireland had briefly dimmed the political fervor of an already exhausted nation) and Congreve advertises his play as a construction of new wit among the shambles of an old wickedness: “Believe it, men have ever been the same, And all the Golden Age is but a dream.” (p. xix, Congreve) Congreve was also excoriated by later critics for his loose morals, although the Victorians excepted The Way of the World from their general censure of Restoration drama.

Decades of war in combination with decades of Puritan and Dissenter domination seem to have exploded English society. “Finance, Fashion, and Frivolity,” as historian Peter Earle entitled a chapter on Britain in the 1690s, (p. 110, Fins de Siècle, How Centuries End 1400-2000) seemed to have taken hold of the nation. Even the new fashions for women were emblems of change: looser fitting mantuas and gowns replaced more strictly laced dresses. Love and society alike grew more commercial, and free trade began to take hold in both romance and finance. And on the political front, Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts, was the last British monarch to employ the royal veto – the House of Commons had succeeded in dismantling the absolute powers consolidated by the crown in the golden days of Tudor rule.

V. Conclusion: Women, Drama, and the Century of Revolution?


From 1580 to 1689, we may trace changes in both women’s social status and in the political life of early modern England. There is a clear rift between the values of Elizabethan drama and those espoused in the decadent 1690s by the wild Tories. In the first blush of humanism women appear as potential intellectual counterparts to men, yet come to be associated with social and political instability by the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. As we have seen in Arden of Faversham, The Duchess of Malfi, and The Changeling, there was a pervasive fear that chaos and tragedy would result from deviation from established social roles and practices, particularly seen in terms of uncontrolled female “will” or passion. These were the unknown quantities that various Puritan factions of the seventeenth century feared.

After the Civil War and Restoration, women seem to be accepted as active participants in political society. The effect of Puritan repression, in both the public and private sphere, and of both male and female liberties, may be seen in Restoration drama, where it was understood that, as Wilding put it, “High feeding and smart Drinking, gains more to the Party, than … smart Preaching” (The City Heiress, III. i, 355-56) Independence in women came to be admired, a sign of the times – and while Webster’s Duchess lost her life for choosing a husband, Restoration women chose from a bevy of suitors in addition to a growing number of public roles, as Aphra Behn demonstrates. Indeed, Mary Sidney Herbert and Aphra Behn, two political women writers born and bred in the same neighborhood of Kent and separated by almost exactly one century, would barely have recognized each other’s worlds.




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