|Table of Contents|
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Enclosing the feminine
Chapter 2. Weak hands and feeble knees
Chapter 3. Two mincing steps
Chapter 4. Maskers with vizards and semblances
Chapter 5. Obsequye and obedience
GESTURING TOWARD THE RENAISSANCE WOMAN
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFULLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ABSTRACT . . . . . . . . . . iv
INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . 1
1 ENCLOSING THE FEMININE . . . . . .. 21
2 WEAK HANDS AND FEEBLE KNEES . . . .. 66
3 TWO MINCING STEPS . . . . . . .. 112
4 MAKERS WITH VIZARDS AND SEMBLANCES .... .161
5 OBSEQUYE AND OBEDIENCE . . . . . .. 210
BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . .. 227
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH . . . . . . .. 239
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
GESTURING TOWARD THE RENAISSANCE WOMAN
Chairman: Dr. Ira Clark
Major Department: English
My dissertation researches the early modern woman in
England, how conduct books constructed the masculine ideal
of that woman, and how that ideal was further inscribed
through dramatic representations of women by boy actors.
Gesture in the conventional theatrical representations of
women and the conduct book constructions of the feminine
becomes a language that needs decoding to help one
understand the social sensibilities of the early modern
culture and the way in which women were positioned within
Gesture as an outward manifestation of one's inward
will became an increasingly important signifier throughout
the reigns of Elizabeth and James. Bodily comportment
reflected a woman's socio-economic position insofar as her
averted glances, blushes, unfurrowed brows, and non-
threatening posture in general demonstrated her non-
authoritative social status and her economic dependence
upon and passive obedience to her spouse, father, or other
male guardian. Gestures were a self-identificatory
mechanism that implied fundamental differences in social
position and, therefore, in degree of power or
powerlessness. While noblemen and aristocratic youths were
instructed in refining their gestures to demonstrate their
superior rank and authority, to mime a language of self-
possession and social power, women were admonished to
refine their bodily movements as well, with the opposite
No matter how disciplined this body became, it would,
nevertheless, be considered materially- and ontologically-
inferior by the male-dominant family/maternal ideology.
Each gesture, therefore, became a tacit mea culpa, an
admission of the female body's deficiency. In essence, a
woman was to wear her soul and her role on the exterior of
her body. From the averted glance of her eye to the
abbreviated length of her gait, she was to demonstrate her
role of virgin, wife, or widow with restraint and without
the slightest suggestion of boldness, pride, or self-
possession. Inherent in this coding of the female body was
its requirement to remain outside the public arena and
inside the cellular home of the nuclear family. Therefore,
a woman was twice-enclosed by the physical structure of her
domicile and by her own feminine gesturology.
During the Early Modern Period, England was
experiencing a vast social and economic transition.
Throughout the sixteenth century, the phenomenon of
"enclosure" deprived farmers of arable lands and,
therefore, their livelihood, and converted the rich
landowners' properties into grazing fields bounded by a
seemingly endless labyrinth of hedges that served to
contain the grazing sheep crucial to the lucrative and
expanding cloth industry.' Other forms of enclosure were
transpiring as well. The Black Death, having begun its
maleficent mission in 1348, had, by the fifteenth century,
reduced the population in England by a third. This
tremendous decrease in the populace devastated the long-
standing feudal economy. Manorial landlords, in order to
1 William C. Carroll, "The Nursery of Beggary," Enclosure Acts, ed.
Richard Burt and John Michael Archer (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994), 34-47.
Caroll suggests that all lands were not necessarily enclosed for sheep
grazing. In some cases, the lands were enclosed to make them more
arable by employing innovative farming methods that would produce an
improved crop yield. In other cases, lands were enclosed as the result
of personal feuds between members of the gentry. Tenants were not
always opposed to such measures since they, too, profited by them; and
they were not always evicted from the land to become vagrants.
Nevertheless, this does not contradict the fact that land was being
enclosed as a regular practice. Enclosure does not necessarily denote
land being physically walled- or fenced-in. This term applies to the
survive the resultant rising labor costs and falling rents,
began to lease not only their farming land but also their
"mills, marshes, meadows, and parks."2 Meanwhile, many
disgruntled peasants left their plows behind to join the
large influx of the "masterless" who either abandoned or
were forced off the open fields or out of the spacious
manor houses to live in the often small, crowded houses of
London where they sought refuge and employment. For a
variety of reasons,3 sixteenth-century London had become the
largest city of Europe. Because London proper was not a
large metropolis, it suffered the ills of overpopulation.
Many inhabitants faced unemployment, inadequate housing,
unsanitary conditions and frequent outbreaks of the bubonic
plague. Those who could not find work or housing were
designated as "vagrants" or "vagabonds" and placed inside
general practice of the privatization of land by the wealthy owners who
wished to take control of it.
2 John C. Coldewey, "Some Economic Aspects of the Late Medieval Drama,"
Contexts for Early English Drama, ed. Marianne G. Briscoe and John C.
Coldewey (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989) 79.
3 David Bevington, in his introduction to The Complete Works of
Shakespeare, Third Ed. (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1980), suggests
unemployment was caused by Henry VIII's closing of the monasteries, a
fluctuating wool trade economy, land enclosure, immigrant artisans, and
war veterans returning from the continent. All Bevington's
introductory material to Shakespeare's plays derive from this edition.
This sense of enclosure further manifested itself in
the emerging nuclear family. Lawrence Stone writes that
the "porosity" or sense of openness to external influences,
typical of all class levels of the late medieval and early
sixteenth-century family, was in "contrast to the more
sealed off and private nuclear family type that was to
develop in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries."4 The
life-style of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth
centuries included an urbanized family life, one that
withdrew from the "great hall to the private dining-room."5
While England was by and large an agrarian nation at this
time, with an approximately 10% urbanized population, much
of the country's activity was focused in London.
This apparently nationalistic notion of enclosure was
evident in the theater as well. During this period, many
of the changes that affected England economically and
demographically, e.g., the shift of a strong economy from
the North and Midlands of England to the Southeast had a
hand in altering dramatic entertainment. The medieval
guilds, which, for centuries, had been responsible for
producing civic drama, were facing strong commercial
4 Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800.
Abridged Edition (New York: Harper, 1979) 69.
5 Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage, 95.
competition from business ventures outside their towns.
Staging plays became a financial burden that many guilds
could no longer sustain. Moreover, the English Reformation
brought its own combinations of social and economic change,
none of which fostered guild productions of plays. Parish
drama, produced either by the members of the parish or by
religious guilds, fell by the wayside as well.6 Parish
accounts show that the proceeds from dramatic productions
frequently were the primary source of income for a country
parish that utilized these funds to maintain their church
buildings. If the performances were financially
successful, the parish took its play on tour to other towns
that for one reason or another did not produce their own
dramas. Beginning around the mid-fifteenth century, it was
not uncommon for troupes of actors to be circulating from
one community to the next, performing in a variety of
venues. One particular record shows a play being performed
in a quarry on the outskirts of Shrewsbury. Inn-yards,
dining halls, and guildhalls were converted into
performance sites as well. Occasionally, a large-scale
production was presented in a town with the assistance of a
hired player and perhaps other professionals brought in
from other locales. Additionally, larger towns produced
6 Coldewey, "Some Economic Aspects of the Late Medieval Drama," 77-101.
yearly events that were the collaborations of either craft
or religious guilds. Many of these productions, however,
were a series of pageants or dumb shows, out-of-door
ambulatory events that resembled religious processions and
royal progresses. Performances of both a secular and
religious nature moved within towns and cities and about
the country landscape in response to a mostly rural
audience.7 However, by the last quarter of the sixteenth
century, these "on-the-road" dramas, once performed either
on pageant wagons or in a variety of acting areas within
the towns, were being upstaged by dramas written and played
year-round on a daily basis within the new, stationary
commercial playhouses.8 Once the first permanent theater
was built in London and professional acting companies
remained in that city, the majority of traveling players
would be those who could not find permanent employment in a
professional acting company in London or who were escaping
an outbreak of the plague. London companies did go on tour
once a year or when business was bad; however, as these
7 Alexandra F. Johnston, in "What if No Texts Survived?" in Contexts for
Early English Drama, ed. Marianne G. Briscoe and John C. Coldewey
(Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989) 8-10, draws "preliminary conclusions"
from new external evidence gathered for the Records of Early English
Drama (REED), founded in Toronto in 1975.
8 See Harold Charles Gardiner. Mysteries' End: an Investigation of the
Last Days of the Medieval Religious Stage. New Haven: Yale UP, 1946.
companies became more profitable, toward the end of James
I's reign and into Charles I's, the tours lessened.9
Steven Mullaney sees the development of professional
dramaturgy in early modern London as a "troublesome and
potentially subversive social phenomenon that threatened
religious and civic hierarchies."10 Yet, the troublesome
nature of drama was nothing new. Guild representatives who
sat as members of city councils decided whether, for
example, the Chester cycle of plays could be performed.
The records seem to indicate that two or more Protestant
factions were arguing over whether or not certain
representations of religious subject matter were
appropriate. Religious dramas could have been banned or
revised depending upon the objections raised by civic and
religious leaders. Records from York show that between
1568 and 1579, both lay and church leaders ordered
revisions or suppression of plays if they appeared to be
too Catholic or "popish" in nature.11 In 1549, Edward VI,
9 Gerald Eades Bentley, The Profession of Player in Shakespeare's Time:
1590-1642 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984). See especially Chapter 7.
10 Steven Mullaney, The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in
Renaissance England (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988) vii.
1 Lawrence M. Clopper in "Lay and Clerical Impact on Civic Religious
Drama and Ceremony," in Contexts for Early English Drama, ed. Marianne
G. Briscoe and John C. Coldewey (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989) 102-
129, believes the civic leaders of medieval cities were concerned about
the moral and religious well-being of their city's inhabitants and
obviously surmising the subversive nature of drama, banned
all plays and activities "which might be judged
seditious."'12 Mullaney further argues that, because the
permanent playhouses were marginalized, erected in London's
Liberties, alongside brothels and lazariums, that they were
located on a "more ambivalent staging ground,"13 more than,
say, the religious and civic processionals that became
ideological inscriptions within the city walls. However,
Mullaney himself suggests how unambivalent that staging
ground was for the leper:
Leprosy was no longer excluded from
society in any full sense, as it once
had been, but was instead stationed at
the perimeters of cities and towns, set
apart but maintained in ritual
seclusion. Once free (or condemned) to
wander, the leper was now bound fast to
the horizon of community. His role as
a form of marginal spectacle had
Marginalized or not, the leper has been contained.
Likewise, popular drama, because it was physically located
outside the city walls, was no less regulated. In fact, it
would seem that the popular theater of Elizabethan and
Jacobean London was far more contained than Mullaney
carefully reviewed the plays for their content to ascertain their
12 Clopper, "Lay and Clerical Impact on Civic Religious Drama and
13 Mullaney, The Place of the Stage, viii.
14 Mullaney, The Place of the Stage, 33, emphasis mine.
suggests. Like its medieval predecessors, dramas were
subject to the scrutiny of the government officials in
whose locales they were to be performed. From the reign of
Elizabeth I through that of Charles I, a play could not be
performed unless its manuscript was submitted to and
approved by the Master of the Revels whose autographed
official statement was normally placed at the end of the
manuscript. The Office of the Revels, established by Henry
VIII to supervise court entertainment, gradually evolved
into the position of Master of the Revels who regulated all
theatrical productions. Before a performance, theatrical
companies were required to bring their manuscripts to the
Master for inspection and licensing, for which the theater
owner paid a licensing fee. Dramatists, actors, and
managers were subject to fines and even imprisonment if
they failed to meet the requirements of the Master of the
Revels who had the power to order alteration of the
manuscript or to disallow the play's performance.15
Moreover, both new plays and revivals were subject to
the Master's inspection. An acting company could
occasionally violate the law and stage an unlicensed play
or add offensive lines to an already-licensed manuscript.
However, plays could be censored for criticizing the
government, either explicitly or implicitly (often through
15 Gerald Eades Bentley, The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare's
Time: 1590-1642 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971). See especially
analogous scenes); for unfavorable portrayals of "friendly"
foreign powers; for containing controversial religious
implications; and for the use of profanity or personal
satire. Additionally, a manuscript could be licensed after
a reading and then be censored after its performance, once
the text's dramatization gave the manuscript new meaning.
The Master of the Revels was in a powerful position from
which the official could penalize offenders with varying
degrees of severity, ranging from requiring that
manuscripts be altered to closing a theater or imprisoning
actors and dramatists.16 Consequently, to violate the
regulations would have been foolhardy, indeed, insofar as
the consequences of such behavior could have meant reduced
profits or the loss of an impresario's and acting company's
livelihood. While medieval drama was subjected to official
censorship, it would seem that it was less scrutinized,
especially since so many players belonged to traveling
troupes that performed in such a variety of towns and
venues. Conversely, once playing in London became a
commercial venture, actors remained in fixed playhouses.
It would appear that early modern drama could have been
facilely observed by the officials, enclosed as it was in a
building just outside a city's perimeter. By the time
James ascended to the throne, impresarios were moving
toward the fully-enclosed hall-type "private house," as
16 Bentley, The Profession of Dramatist. See especially Chapter 7.
opposed to the amphitheaters that were only partially
roofed. Shakespeare's company had established a daily
performance schedule in Blackfriars, one of the private
theaters located within the city of London.17
The theater, by Shakespeare's time, had become a
highly-successful commercial venture. It had also become a
political tool with which Elizabeth presented herself to
her subjects as the divinely-ordained monarch who would
shore up and maintain what some theologians perceived to be
a faltering "right ordre" and "degre of people."18
Justification of monarchical privilege by holy degree and
decree was implemented by Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII.
As Louis Montrose puts it,
The Tudor State sought to legitimate
itself by means of its integration into
a providentially ordered cosmos. But
it could not effectively contain the
ideologically anomalous realities of
heterodoxy, nor arrest the social flux,
that it had helped to set in motion.19
In order to extricate itself from this paradoxical bind,
the Elizabethan regime had to interpellate its subjects
into a new nationalistic ideology and away from a "popular
and religious culture. .tainted by the superstitions and
17 Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 1987.) See especially Chapter 2.
18 Certain Sermons or Homilies (1547) and A Homily against Disobedience
and Wilful Rebellion (1570): A Critical Edition, ed. Ronald B. Bond
(Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1987) 61, qtd. in Louis Montrose, The Purpose
of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan
Theatre (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996) 20-21.
19 Montrose, The Purpose of Playing, 21.
idolatrous practices of the old faith."20 In essence,
Elizabeth produced her own "show" and, more succinctly, her
own "self" by selectively appropriating "popular and
liturgical practices, ceremonial and dramatic forms" and
transforming them into "elaborate and effusive celebrations
of the monarchy...,"21 a process Edwin Davenport terms the
"selective reconstruction of custom."22 As Montrose
effectively argues, the royal processions "affirmed
principles of good government and reformed religion."23 For
Elizabeth to achieve the social harmony to which she
aspired, her regime and, therefore, the presentation of her
person in processions had to appear nationalistic in
nature.24 Far too much tension still existed between those
who embraced Catholicism and its rites and traditions and
20 Montrose, The Purpose of Playing, 24.
21 Montrose, The Purpose of Playing, 25.
22 Edwin Davenport, "Elizabethan England's Other Reformation of
Manners," ELH 63 (1996): 259. I am grateful to my colleague Tai-Won
Kim for bringing this article to my attention.
23 Montrose, The Purpose of Playing, 26.
24 Davenport, in "Elizabethan England's Other Reformation of Manners,"
traces this customization of ritual, begun with the early Elizabethan
reformers. Various Royal and Episcopal Injunctions sought to remove
the "popishness" from religious practices. Davenport quotes a 1561
bishop's injunction that demands ministers "neither use any gestures of
the popish Mass, in the time of ministration of the Communion, as
shifting of the book, washing, breathing, crossing, or such like" (256-
7). Other injunctions were careful to maintain a sense of gendered
hierarchy in religious processions in which community members could
participate annually "with the curate and the substantial men of the
parish" (263). Davenport writes, "Royal Injunctions were interpreted
to restrict the gender, number, and station of Rogation observers,
redefining the practice by specifying who could participate in it"
those who continued to seek religious reform. While the
Reformation brought Protestantism to England, Elizabeth's
brand of religion was state-sanctioned.25 By utilizing the
forms of religious procession and dramatic presentation,
she created herself as a religio-political icon that
represented the Nation of England.26
While some social historians see this transformation
of the medieval procession as the loss of a popular and
religious culture to the gain of a secular order,27 others
see it as the move from the religio-civic community to the
"disciplinary state hierarchy."28 Montrose reads this move
as "one that incorporates the local within a national
framework and subordinates it to the political and cultural
25 Leonard Tennenhouse, "Playing and Power," Staging the Renaissance:
Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, ed. David Scott
Kastan and Peter Stallybrass (New York: Routledge, 1991). Tennenhouse
says that Elizabeth's coat of arms replaced the religious images of the
English church and that her sexual body assumed the power of those
usurped images. He writes that paintings and engravings of the queen
at times conjoined her body with England's terrain or ornamented it
with symbols of power and wealth.
26 See John N. King, Tudor Royal Iconography: Literature and Art in an
Age of Religious Crisis (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989) and Frances
Amelia Yates, Astraea: the Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century
(Boston: Routledge, 1975.
27 I draw from Louis Montrose who, in The Purpose of Playing, summarizes
the work of Mervyn James in Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in
Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP: 1986) 16-47; and Charles
Phythian-Adams, "Ceremony and the citizen: The communal year at
Coventry 1450-1550," in Crisis and Order in English Towns 1500-1700,
ed. Peter Clark and Paul Slack (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972)
28 Montrose, in The Purpose of Playing, 26, is characterizing an
argument by Miri Rubin in Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late
Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP: 1991).
center."29 While I find all of these arguments valid, I
believe that another issue needs to be addressed. For
Elizabeth, as the odd mixture of woman and prince, these
progresses also became the transmutation of the masculine
into the feminine, an Ovidian metamorphosis of omnipotent
prince into the antithesis of the Renaissance notion of
woman. Elizabeth had to prove that, although she was a
woman, she was, none the less, a prince and the sovereign
of her realm. In utilizing the dramatic form of the
procession to affirm her sovereignty, she subverted a long-
standing tradition. I say this because, although these
medieval religious processions were communal in nature,
they were always led by authoritative male church
officials30 in order to maintain a gendered social
hierarchy. While Elizabeth utilized the procession to
retain the long-established "chain of being" which placed a
monarch above her subjects, she simultaneously ruptured
that chain by placing a woman in a position of ultimate
human authority. From the beginning of time, no matter
where a woman found herself in the pecking order, she was
always subordinated to her male social counterpart. Of
course, Elizabeth was anything but the normative woman.
More like the Virgin Mary than her sister Mary, Elizabeth
29 Montrose, The Purpose of Playing, 23.
30 Miri Rubin sees these medieval processions as a display and
reinscription of the social hierarchy that "excluded most working
people, women, children, visitors and servants. . ." Qtd. in
Montrose, The Purpose of Playing, 23.
became the perpetual virgin whose body was set apart,
unpenetrated and worshipped from afar. Elizabeth, in the
body of a woman, was an oxymoron as a female patriarch,
and, as such, was a woman who appeared accountable to no
one but God. None the less, the queen had to work
diligently to maintain such a position, continually
displaying a body that exceeded its "natural" limitations.
Elizabeth's feminization of the dramatic adumbrates a
stock polemic employed by religious moralists who would
monotonously argue throughout Elizabeth's reign and beyond
that the theater, by its very nature, was feminine. It was
a threat to a male-dominant society because it sexually
aroused male spectators, weakening their moral fiber and
turning them into women. Boy actors, the theatrical
detractors asserted, were feminized when they played women
characters; and male spectators, in turn, were feminized by
the allure of these female characters. Antitheatrical
tracts repeatedly attack the theater as a feminine
institution, one that had progressively been brought
indoors, enclosed, officially observed, and when necessary,
censored by the state.
Obviously, the drama presented on the Elizabethan and
Jacobean stage was not the overtly didactic and moralistic
fare its medieval predecessors had been fed. And, judging
from the vituperative antitheatrical discourse of the later
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, "stage plays were no
longer appropriate vehicles for communicating Protestant
doctrine"31 or any religious doctrine for that matter.32
Once London playgoing became a commercial venture and
players remained in fixed venues, dramatists established an
intimate relationship with their audiences, supplying them
with constantly evolving repertories. Since playgoers were
paying for their entertainment, their tastes and money
quickly took precedence over the didacticism of morality
plays and the like.33 Eventually, contemporary newsworthy
incidents became the subject matter for plays, including
sensationalized murders, court conspiracies, and witch
trials.34 We know that playwrights took license with their
themes, and sometimes risked offending the ruling monarch,
as Shakespeare in all probability did with his Richard II.
The famous deposition scene is missing from the earlier
quartos of the play, implying that the censor had removed
it because of its "libelous analogy" to Queen Elizabeth I.
31 Davenport, "Elizabethan England's Other Reformation of Manners," 255.
32 Jean E. Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England
(New York: Routledge, 1994), writes that while these antitheatrical
tracts gave accounts of the functioning of the Renaissance theater,
they also exposed the writers' own ideological productions. One
author, a preacher, identifies the theater as an anti-religious
institution that destroys the social fabric. However, his primary
concern is for an audience that had the choice of the theater or church
on Sunday. While these antitheatrical tracts assault the theater, the
authors' own interests emerge regarding their desire to retain some
form of power within the social status quo.
33 Gurr, in Playgoing in Shakespeare's London, suggests that education,
social, and political allegiance, and many other factors had a bearing
on what type of play was written for each playhouse, thereby reflecting
to some degree the poets' and actors' expectations of their audiences.
See especially Chapter 4.
34 Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London. See especially Chapter 5.
It seems likely that this play gave Elizabeth reason to
believe she was being compared to Richard II, placing
Shakespeare's company in great jeopardy before they were
ultimately exonerated.35 As a result of censorship, Ben
Jonson was incarcerated, along with his collaborators
Chapman and Marston, for his critique of King James's
"notorious practice of selling knighthoods for thirty
pounds,"36 for a pointed barb aimed at the King's Scottish
accent, and for a critique of James's plan to unite
Scotland and England.37 This was not the first time Jonson
had been censored and imprisoned. Eight years earlier, he
found himself in a similar situation for the material in
his Isle of Dogs.
Boy companies felt the eyes of monarchical vigilance
as well. Famous for their railing against "upstart"
citizens, nobility, and civic and religious authorities,
boy companies had seen a run of popularity, playing in the
private theaters within the city limits. When the private
theaters were closed for almost ten years, the play-boys
were silenced. In 1598, however, they were permitted to
resume performing,38 but the license the young actors
35 David Bevington, introduction, The Tragedy of King Richard the
36 David Riggs, Ben Jonson: A Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989)
37 Riggs, Ben Jonson: A Life, 122-23.
38 Bevington, introduction, As You Like It, 358.
enjoyed was ultimately curtailed when, in 1613, an adult
company absorbed the last surviving children's troupe. By
this time, James was favoring the court masque, one reason
perhaps for the demise of the children's companies.39 More
than likely, too, the boy players' unrestrained ridicule
stepped on too many noble and royal toes. By the time of
Charles I's accession, plays were politically charged and
hostile toward the frivolous nature of the court and the
King's inattention to the grievances of his loyal country
constituency.40 The professional stage became the venue
from which dramatists expressed their and, perhaps in large
measure, their paying audience's growing discontent with
At the same time that playwrights were dramatizing
political grievances, the religious moralists and
antitheatricalists in general were churning out
publications filled with disdain for the theater.41 While
the Elizabethan government found the bifurcation of the
39 Michael Shapiro, Children of the Revels: The Boy Companies of
Shakespeare's Times and Their Plays (New York: Columbia UP, 1977). See
especially Chapter 1.
40 Martin Butler, Theatre and Crisis: 1632-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 1984). See especially Chapter 10.
41 These antitheatrical texts were representative of only one viewpoint.
As Davenport, in "Elizabethan England's Other Reformation of Manners,"
cautions, "If a host of theologians and ministers were ready to
disallow a custom for its pagan connections or unsavory character,
others could appeal to tradition or its social utility to preserve it"
(256). I am not suggesting that there weren't as many proponents of
the theater as detractors. I am referencing antitheatrical literature
to elucidate the connection between the feminized and inferiorized
regarding both the theater and a woman's body.
religious and the dramatic expedient, writers like William
Prynne could not achieve such a rupture. The marginalia of
his exhaustive antitheatrical polemic Histriomastix spill
over with biblical references to support his argument that
the theater is effeminate and immoral. Additionally,
Prynne utilizes classical authorities to support his
Christian stand. In regard to the feminine nature of the
theater, Prynne's argument reads as follows:
That whose very action is
effeminate, must needs be unlawfull
But the very action of Stage-
playes is effeminate.
Therefore, it musts needs be
unlawfull unto Christians.42
In particular, the theater is effeminizing as well as
effeminate because boy actors are transformed into the
"very habit and order of Strumpets, to the great injury and
dishonour of their age and sexe: a thing which Moses doth
much condemne."43 Classical writers, Prynne says, contend
in all scenicall arts. . there is
plainely the patronage of Bacchus and
Venus which are peculiarly proper to
the Stage. From the gesture and
flexure of the body, they sacrifice
effeminacy to Venus and Bacchus; the
one of them being effeminate by her
sexe, the other by his flux, etc.44
42 William Prynne, Histriomastix (London, 1633) 168.
43 Prynne, Histriomastix, 168.
44 Prynne, Histriomastix, 168.
Added to this wicked behavior, says Prynne,
Another equally wickednesse is super-
added. A man enfeebled in all his
joynts, resolved into a more than
womanish effeminancy, whose art is to
speaker with his hands and gestures,
come forth upon the Stage: and for this
one, I know not whom, neither man nor
woman, the whole Citie flocke together,
that so the fabulous lusts of antiquity
may be acted.45
Prynne cites further examples of the depravity that results
from boys being trained to impersonate women, how a "male
might be effeminated into a female" through attire and
gestures, gestures which are "most unchaste" simply because
they are performed and ultimately because they "provoke
lust."46 Even though in one example Prynne discusses a boy
actor who impersonates a "tender virgin," the boy's
gestures continue to be "abominable."47 Prynne asserts that
all feminine and feminizing gestures are tantalizing to
men. Therefore, a boy actor playing a virgin is branded a
"whore" through his feminine gestures.
As Sue-Ellen Case demonstrates, the "female body had
become the site for sexuality"48 when the medieval Catholic
Church banned women from the stage to prevent the theater
45 Prynne, Histriomastix, 168.
46 Prynne, Histriomastix, 169.
47 Prynne, Histriomastix, 169.
48 Sue-Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York: Methuen, 1988) 20.
from becoming the "site for immoral sexual conduct."49 Once
young boys became highly skilled in representing the female
body,50 the very mimesis of that body became the material
site of an uncontrolled eroticism, the object of derision
and censure, and the locus upon which to inscribe a
powerful ideology that positioned women as the physically,
morally, and intellectually inferior gender. I will argue
below that feminine gesturology in both early modern drama
and in conduct books for women resurrects and reinscribes
an age-old notion of the female body as inferior in every
49 Case, Feminism and Theatre, 20.
50 While a twentieth-century audience may have difficulty understanding
how an early modern audience could accept such a mimesis, Stephen
Orgel, in Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's
England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996), suggests, "Whether boys are
thought to look like women or not depends on how society constructs the
norm of womanliness; clearly it is in our interests to view boys as
versions of men, but the Renaissance equally clearly sought the
similitude in boys and women" (70).
ENCLOSING THE FEMININE
Prior to the theater's closing in London, vituperative
antitheatrical discourse was being disseminated in street
tracts, in sermons preached from the pulpit,1 and in books
like Prynne's Histriomastix. As mentioned above, a good
deal of this discourse denounced the theater for feminizing
its young play-boys and for emasculating its male
spectators. Cross-dressed boy actors, the polemicists
insisted, were arousing sexual desire in the male
spectators who were, in turn, enfeebled and transformed
into women since they lost control of their sexual desire
as they lusted after the ensnaring female characters.
As Levine and Orgel have suggested, men were becoming
anxious over cross-dressing and its ability to either
feminize and disempower them or to accomplish the inverse
in women.2 The fear of emasculation was nothing new in the
1 According to the antitheatrical polemicist Stephen Gosson, in Playes
Confuted in Five Actions (London, 1582), the "abhominable practices of
players in London haue bene by godly preachers, both at Paules cross,
and else where, so zealously, so learnedly, so loudly cried out upon"
(2) that no one has heard the words for hearing them so frequently.
2 Laura Levine, in Men in Women's Clothing: Antitheatricality and
Effeminization, 1579 to 1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP: 1994)
convincingly argues that much of the antitheatrical rhetoric prevalent
during the early modern period was driven by a male anxiety that boys
Renaissance and finds its roots in medieval theology.
Margaret Hallissy writes that because celibacy was
considered a "higher estate," connubial sexual intercouse
was practiced by those considered incapable of "rational
control over a bodily part."3 The theory continued that
women arouse men, making them inferior, and emasculating
them. Augustine states, "I know nothing which brings the
manly mind down from the height more than a woman's
caresses."4 Stephen Orgel concludes that the foremost fear
articulated by antitheatrical writers, such as William
Prynne, John Rainolds, and Philip Stubbes, was the "fear of
a universal effeminization."5 Because the theater, like a
woman's body or its mere representation, aroused men's
sexuality, it had to be contained and controlled.
and men playing the parts of women would entice male spectators,
causing them to lust and to be effeminized. Stephen Orgel, in
Impersonations, carries Levine's argument beyond the theater, positing
that such behavior was culturally ubiquitous. Women, too, through
their dress and comportment, could become men, subjects instead of
objects, posing a threat to a male-dominated society. Richard
Brathwaite, in The English Gentlewoman (London, 1631), suggests that
sloth or sensuality turns men into women, women into beasts, and beasts
into monsters. See also Mary Beth Rose. "Women in Men's Clothing:
Apparel and Social Stability in The Roaring Girl." English Literary
Renaissance, 14 (1984), 139-51.
3 Margaret Hallissy, Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Widows:
Chaucer's Women and Medieval Codes of Conduct (Westport, CT: Greenwood
P, 1993) 13.
4 Qtd. in Hallissy, Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Widows, 13.
5 Orgel, Impersonations, 29.
Although Prynne's compendious text is the longest
antitheatrical polemic, it is not the first, nor the last,
of its kind. Stephen Gosson, previously a writer and
defender of plays, has been "cured" of the theater, much
like his antitheatricalist predecessor Plato,6 and now
perceives drama as the devil's work. The theater, Gosson
argues, should not be sufferedd in a christian com[m]on
weale."7 In Playes Confuted in Five Actions (1582), the
last of his three antitheatrical tracts, Gosson attacks the
players for wearing women's clothes and for utilizing
feminine gestures. He rehearses the well-worn argument
from Deuteronomy regarding cross-dressing:
The Law of God very straightly forbids
men to put on wome[n]s garments,
garments are set down for signes
distinctiue betwene sexe & sexe, to
take unto us those garments that are
manifest signes of another sexe, is to
falsifie, forge, and adulterate,
contrarie to the express rule of the
words of God.8
Gosson continues by attacking players in regard to their
6 Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: U of California
P, 1981). Barish says Plato had an "early passionate apprenticeship"
to the theater but was dissuaded from this attachment to drama "by the
teaching of Socrates" (5).
7 Gosson, Playes Confuted in Five Actions, 4.
8 Gosson, Playes Confuted in Five Actions, 4.
All that do so [cross-dress] are
abhomination un[to] the Lord, which way
I beseech you shall they bee excused,
that put on, not the apparrell only,
but the gate, the gestures, the voyce,
the passions of a woman....9
Gosson then likens the players' feminine gestures to the
windinge of a snake,"10 employing an oblique reference to
the Garden of Eden, conflating the theater with the female
body. Because the theater is feminine, Gosson reasons, it
is lewd and evil. Like a disorderly woman, it is a
potential threat to the gendered hierarchy. If enclosure
into a theaterhouse has not sufficiently suppressed drama,
then firmer measures must be taken. History proves this to
be the case in 1642.
Because gesture was deployed, along with costumes, to
transform a young boy actor into a female character, it
became a target for antitheatrical attacks. Gesture,11 like
language, Gosson opines, must be used honestly:
Let us therefore consider what a lye
is, a lye is...an acte executed where it
ought not. This acte is discerned by
outward signes, euery man must show
himself outwardly to be such as in deed
9 Gosson, Playes Confuted in Five Actions, 4.
10 Gosson, Playes Confuted in Five Actions, 4.
11 I will be relying on John P. Hermann's definition of gesture, in
"Gesture and Seduction in Troilus and Criseyde," in Chaucer's Troilus &
Criseyde, ed. R. A. Shoaf (Binghamton: Medieval & Renaissance Tests &
Studies, 1992) 138-160. Hermann defines gesture as "any expressive
bodily sign, such as a change in bodily position, a movement of the
body, a change in hue, or even a sign" (139).
he is. Outward signes consist eyther
in words or gestures, to declare our
selues by words or by gestures to be
otherwise then we are, is an act
executed where it should not, therefore
Gesture both on and off the boards was taken seriously, as
Gosson points out, so seriously that, if gestures do not
represent a person's inner self, then such behavior is
John Rainoldes, in T'Hoverthrow of Stage-Playes
(1599), continues to tear at the already threadbare concept
of the "abominable evill in Gods sight" of men in women's
clothing. Cross-dressing incites "sparkles of lust" in men
and "may kindle in vncleane affections."13 Like Gosson
before him, Rainoldes perceives all feminizing gestures to
be lascivious. It is bad enough that young men "come
foorth in hoores attire, like the lewde woman in Proverbs,"
but it is worse to teach them "to counterfeit her actions,
her wanton kisse, her impudent face, her wicked speeches
Again, all dramatic representations of woman fall into
the single category of "whore"; therefore, all feminine
12 Gosson, "The 3 Action," Playes Confuted in Five Actions, n. pag.
13 John Rainoldes et al., Th'overthrow of Stage-Playes (1599; New York:
Garland, 1974) 11.
14 Rainoldes, Th'overthrow of Stage-Playes, 17.
gesturology is wanton and demeaning. As Jonas Barish
reminds us, representation or imitation has been an axe
initially ground by Plato and re-whetted by Renaissance
antitheatricalists. Barish writes,
Consideration of the antitheatrical
prejudice must begin with Plato, who
first articulated it, and to whom its
later exponents regularly return in
support of their proscriptions and
Socrates believed that imitation was the "bringing into
being of an inferior world,"16 a concept he taught Plato.
Following the voice of antiquity, early modern
antitheatricalists easily conflated the inferior, imitative
theater with the second-rate, mimetic woman's body. As
contemporary medical treatises avowed, in spite of new
scientific findings, a woman's body was substandard, a poor
copy of her male counterpart's perfect body.17
15 Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, 5.
16 Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, 6.
17 Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud
(Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990). Laqueur speaks of the "one-flesh model"
that existed from classical antiquity to the end of the seventeenth
century. Laqueur says women were perceived as "men turned outside in"
(4) and were, therefore, considered inferior imitations of men.
What is more, Plato18 and his early modern successors
believed that this imitative gesturology was dangerous for
the young actors, for after
much meditation of sundry dayes and
weeks, by often repetition and
representation of the parties, shall as
it were engraue the things in their
minde with a penne of iron, or with the
point of a diamond.19
Of interest in Rainoldes' argument is the concept that
gestures not only reflect the condition of one's soul, but
they also, if imitated with perseverance, transform one's
soul. This idea that one's imagination could transform
one's inner being was the basis of Plato's extreme censure
of the theater. Of Plato, Edgar Wind writes, "Hence he
found miming a most perilous exercise, and he devised
curious laws that would prohibit the miming of extravagant
or evil characters."20 This, I believe, is the crux of
early modern thinking in regard to feminine gesturology and
its performance. Although Rainoldes and his coevals argue
that one's outward material gestures reflect one's inward
spiritual essence, they believe and fear the "truth" taught
18 Barish, in The Antitheatrical Prejudice, writes that Plato believed
actors should only imitate "suitable" models, a paradigm that did not
include women, slaves, villains, madmen, tradesmen, etc. (21).
19 Rainoldes, Th'overthrow of Stage-Playes, 19.
20 Qtd. in Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, 30.
them by the ancients that one's outward significations are
capable of altering one's inner soul. While Plato's bias
was toward the imagination, the early modern moralists
directed their tendentious argument at the feminine.
As I will discuss below, the notion of one's gestures
being constitutive of one's moral fiber, of one's soul,
becomes a crucial issue in regard to women and the conduct
books written for and about them. This soul is similar in
nature to the Foucaudian modern soul21 that is constructed
through one's trained, repetitive behavior. For the
writers of conduct books, gestures become the sine qua non
for the expression of a woman's inner self because conduct
books continually admonish her to keep silent.
Additionally, and I believe of far greater consequence,
gestures, more than attire, become the material that
fabricates the passive feminine soul and, thereby,
constructs a woman's docile body.
Like the antitheatrical treatises, conduct books for
women warn against the evils of the theater. Women, these
texts tell us, "take lesse pleasure at a Sermon then at a
Comedy; they go rather to heare a Buffon, then a
21 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,
trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979).
Preacher."22 Since the Church was one of the primary
institutions utilized to control women, it became
problematic when they began to attend the theater for two
reasons. First, they were seeing representations of women
on stage who appeared to have a measure of freedom not
normative for the early modern woman, especially women like
Moll Frith, in Dekker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl, who
dressed like a man and circulated freely within her world
of pickpockets and prostitutes.23 Second, until James
banned Sunday performances, women were attending theater
performances instead of going to church services.24 Not
only was church doctrine regarding the "place" of women
being eroded, but the hearing of it was also being avoided.
As Barish succinctly puts it, the mimesis of drama
threatened long-established institutional structures:
By the closeness of the imitative
process, in which it mimes the actual
unfolding of events in time, before the
22 Jacques DuBosc, "Of Reading," The Compleat Woman, (London: 1639) 15.
I give the chapter title here and following since the pagination of the
text is irregular and not always continuous from chapter to chapter.
23 Stephen Orgel, in Impersonations, argues, however, that this would
not be a real strategem for upper- and middle-class women regarding the
crossing of gender boundaries. More than likely, Moll represents
lower-class women who oftentimes cross-dressed as a means to gain
employment in jobs that were, for the most part, occupied by men.
24 Martin Butler, Theater and Crisis: 1632-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 1984). Butler writes that James forbade playing in non-courtly
theaters on Sundays in response to the objections raised by the
Puritans who were not against the theater but against its competing
with Sunday church services.
spectators' eyes, it has an unsettling
way of being received by its
audiences...as reality pure and simple.
As such, it implicitly constitutes a
standing threat to the primacy of the
reality propounded from lecturn and
Jean E. Howard suggests that the stage not only affirmed
the dominant ideology but that it also cleared space for
marginalized groups, becoming the site of cultural
contestation. Both reaffirming and subversive, the diverse
nature of the theater reflected contesting ideologies whose
struggle for power is located both in the production itself
and also in the audience. Howard argues that the theater
did not simply reaffirm masculine and aristocratic power
any more than it facilely served as a subversive site of
that power. Its diverse nature encouraged discourse that
at once harmonized diversity and exposed particular
ideological interests while opening a gap to create new
Ania Loomba suggests that in Renaissance drama, the
view of a stable, homogeneous patriarchal establishment is
problematized by the lack of closure found in the plays.
This sense of chaos and resistance to the dominant ideology
25 Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, 79.
26 Jean E. Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England
(New York: Routledge, 1994).
is reflected in the portrayal of the disobedient or
problematic woman. Yet, she believes this view of woman is
far from consistent, further problematizing the supposed
patriarchal hegemony. Moreover, that hegemony is called
into question through the female characters' antagonism
toward it and through the resultant conflicts. While on
the one hand, these texts appear to emphasize the
consolidation of patriarchy; on the other hand, they do not
provide an adequate closure to confirm such authority.
Loombia examines the disobedient or disorderly woman in
Jacobean tragedies. In this genre, although women do
subvert the dominant ideology in various ways, they are
almost always punished for their disobedience, often
through torture and death.
With the many social changes affecting early modern
Europe, it was important that the concept of a stable,
unmoving society be more deeply inscribed in the minds of
the people. Most particularly, in light of the changing
social hierarchy, the position of women needed to be
redefined in texts from religious tracts to conduct books
to literature.27 Perhaps this is another reason why conduct
books were appearing in such large numbers during the same
27 Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Delhi: Oxford UP,
time commercial theater was reaching its zenith in
popularity. Women, Andrew Gurr believes, would have been
no less affected by their audience participation in the
theater than their male counterparts as they saw both
dominant and emergent ideologies played out in front of
them.28 This, of course, was a concern of the Puritan
theologians as they penned their antitheatrical tracts.
Gurr discusses the many complicating factors that
contribute to the appraisal of what he terms a
"Shakespearean" audience that covers a seventy-five-year
period from 1567, when the first amphitheater playhouse was
built, to 1642, when the theaters were closed. While
research has given us an understanding of the material
circumstances surrounding the performance of a text, it has
not uncovered the interaction between player and playgoer.
The receivers of a performance text, Gurr argues, are an
important ingredient of the "mechanism of transmission"29 of
that text. Therefore, he says, knowledge of the audiences
will augment our knowledge of Shakespearean dramaturgy. As
each new wave of criticism approaches an understanding of
the early modern audience, new information comes to light
28 Andrew Gurr, introduction, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London
(Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987).
29 Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London, 3.
in regard to the material and ideological circumstances
that surround the early modern audience.
Through my study of early modern conduct books for
women, I have discovered an apparent correlation between
the instructions women received in regard to their bodily
comportment and the feminine gesturology female characters
deployed on the stage. As Gurr writes, the social and
mental composition of an audience varied greatly within the
period he addresses. He does add, however, that, while the
Shakespearean audience included persons ranging from the
nobility to the destitute, the rising middle classes,
ranging from urban artisans to scriveners and clergy,
comprised a large portion of the Shakespearean audience.
The women of the middle classes seem to be the object of
discussion for the conduct book writers, and as Gurr
writes, it appears that citizens' wives attended the
theater regularly where they would have had the opportunity
to view male-constructed representations of women. How
representative of, or subversion of, the dominant ideology
they are remains open to question. Ultimately, I find them
While conduct books admonish women to stay indoors to
avoid attending the theater, they also instruct them to
eschew almost every other social function that takes them
away from their domestic duties. Like the theater,
feminized bodies must be enclosed and controlled.30 These
texts find their roots in medieval courtesy books which
themselves are based on the writings of the early Church
fathers and classical authors and were "written by men for
the women under their authority, circulating to other men
for their use in guiding the women of their households."31
They find further strength from the Reformation, which
relied heavily on the reading of scripture, a scripture
written by and about the patriarchy. On the practical
side, if a woman did not choose a life of celibacy in a
convent, then her only other option to economic security
was marriage, since marriage was still the only ground upon
which a woman could achieve any measure of accomplishment.32
A woman, therefore, needed to be socialized appropriately
if her father was to succeed in securing her a husband.
On the ideological side, however, these conduct books
could have been written to maintain a gendered hierarchy of
social, political, and economic domination. During the
30 I follow Loomba's argument in Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama. I see
the enclosure of a woman's body analagous to that of the theater. As
Loomba argues, a woman's mobility and duplicity became a threat to the
status quo, as was the case with the theater. As I have shown in my
introduction, the theater became "housed" much like the ideal wife of
the conduct books.
31 Margaret Hallissy, Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Widows, 19.
32 Hallissy, Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Widows, 18.
fourteenth century, some women were beginning to achieve a
measure of independent financial success, especially those
who owned a business or worked at a trade in an urban
center. No longer reliant upon the land, or the husband
who had owned it, a woman could have seen the opportunity
to become economically successful on her own. Yet,
Shulamith Shahar wonders whether women were aware of their
inferior position in society, whether they responded to
that status, and, if so, how. There seems to be no
evidence of a woman's movement. Moreover, since women
wrote very little and our knowledge of their lives is
largely from indirect sources, it is difficult to know
whether any significant rebellions against their
subordinate status took place.33
Caroline Walker Bynum writes that misogyny in the
later Middle Ages was evidenced in theological,
philosophical, and scientific theory and incorporated in
male/female binary opposition such as intellect/body,
active/passive, rational/irrational, etc.34 Although
33 Shulamith Shahar, The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle
Ages, trans. Chaya Galai (London: Routledge, 1983). See especially
34 Julia 0'Faolain and Lauro Martines, ed., Not in God's Image (New
York: Harper and Row, 1973); Vern L. Bullough, "Medieval Medical and
Scientific Views of Women," Viator 4 (1973): 487-93; and Eleanor C.
McLaughlin, "Equality of Souls, Inequality of Sexes: Women in Medieval
Theology," in Religion and Sexism: Images of Women in the Jewish and
aristocratic women were capable of running estates for
absentee husbands, and middle-class women managed
businesses, their roles as mother and wife were demeaned
and even ridiculed. Furthermore, as women increasingly
became the majority of the population, their dowries were
enlarged, deeming the birth of daughters as anything but
fortuitous. Yet, Bynum argues against the traditional
historical belief that women internalized their persecution
and adopted roles of self-abnegation. She suggests that,
alongside the misogynist images of women, positive images
flourished, as evidenced in the worship of the Virgin Mary
and in an increased number of women being canonized.
There were even some instances of female clergy and
deities and the occasional spiritual metaphors that related
to a woman's fecundity as well as her sexual experience and
married life.35 However, as Bynum points out, these female
spiritual models were, in large measure, developed by men,
a conclusion drawn by Weinstein and Bell.36 Bynum continues
that women did not develop a "religious subculture" to
Christian Traditions, ed. Rosemary Ruether (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1974) 213-66.
35 Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender
and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone, 1992).
36 Donald Weinstein and Rudolph M. Bell, Saints and Society: The Two
Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000 to 1700 (Chicago: U of Chicago P,
counter misogyny; their religiosity and devotion to Christ
increased, along with that of men. Bynum does say that,
unlike their male counterparts, women emphasized penance,
especially "in the form of food deprivation, self-inflicted
suffering and an interpretation of illness as religious
experience."37 It would seem that these "self-inflicted"
material practices were a means of marking a woman's body
as inferior, an externalization of an internalized
perception of deficiency.
In addition, Bynum says, women's somatic experiences
were encouraged by the clergy and used as proof against
heretical movement while simultaneously keeping women under
a male religious thumb. Half-starved women wouldn't have
had much energy left to found a feminist movement, much
less leave their cells. The practice of marking the
external as inferior is evidenced in early modern conduct
books where secular women are enjoined to employ
specifically feminine gestures to inscribe themselves as
inferior. Bynum does not support the "argument that women
shaped their self-conception either in conformity with or
in opposition to the misogynist image of Eve."38 Instead,
37 Bynum, Fragmentation, 154.
38 Bynum, Fragmentation, 155.
she envisions active religious women whose devotional lives
were filled with visions of Christ and a belief in a
mystical union with him.
This union with Christ becomes a theme in early modern
conduct books as well, but only as a reinscription of a
family ideology in which middle-class housewives find
themselves subsumed beneath male authority figures, both
hallowed and human. Shahar writes that female mystics,
while unique in regard to their elevated status and
respect, won recognition because of their personalities,
not as a result of their ecclesiastical rank. The Church
may have recognized these mystics and their prophetic
power, but it also made clear that prophecy was a gift from
God and not a sacrament. Unlike Bynum, Shahar argues that
female inferiority was not forgotten; women were still
barred from the priesthood.39 In the final instance,
extreme bodily self-discipline40 was a woman's sine qua non,
her agency to the masculine, without which she was nothing.
39 Shahar, The Fourth Estate.
40 While religious men adhered to extreme forms of bodily self-
discipline, Bynum, in Fragmentation, writes that, for men, becoming
female and weak was a requisite to spiritual submission and a sign of
meekness and worldly rejection. Male religious leaders and monks often
describe themselves in feminine terms. However, men who "became" women
considered themselves superior to a natural woman whose gender was not
"chosen," not a sign of conversion. Women had no ability to "become"
female and, as a result, could never fully renounce the world as their
male counterparts could.
Lawrence Stone believes the early modern woman was,
more than likely, as "submissive and as dependent as the
conduct books suggested that they ought to be."41 Using
records of crimes committed by women during the late
sixteenth century, he concludes that women had a "minimal
share"42 in serious and violent crimes. The only areas in
which they displayed resistance were in partaking in food
riots or displaying "dissident religious opinions."43 While
it appears that wives lost status during the sixteenth and
early seventeenth centuries, it is not entirely clear why.
Perhaps, as Stone suggests, the creation of the nuclear
family simultaneously gave the husband more concentrated
power and took from the wife a measure of protection she
may have been afforded as part of an extended family
What's more, once Henry VIII broke with the Roman
Catholic Church, confiscated its holdings, and closed the
abbeys and nunneries, even women of means were left with
little option other than marriage since the alternative
41 Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800.
Abridged Edition. New York: Harper, 1979, 141.
42 Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage, 141.
43 Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage, 141.
44 Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage, 141.
life of a cloistered, devout virgin dissolved, along with
Henry's first marriage. Lawrence Stone comments,
Many, but by no means all, of these
[upper-class] girls probably found the
religious life a satisfying alternative
career to an arranged marriage. For
those women who sought power, the life
of an abbess was clearly preferable
even to that of an aristocratic wife.45
With the dissolution of convents came the abolishment of
saint worship. This, says Lisa Jardine, "removed a moral
support from women which went unexpectedly deep."46 She
quotes Natalie Davis:
The loss of the saints affected men and
women unequally. Reformed prayer could
no longer be addressed to a woman,
whereas the masculine identity of the
Father and Son was left intact.47
Ian Maclean argues that, even though the Virgin Mary
and other female saints were depicted as female exemplars,
it "cannot be said...that such praise is to the advantage of
the mass of women, who, by contrast with these saintly
exceptions, remain associated with weaker reason, stronger
passions and greater inherent vice."48 The Virgin Mary, in
45 Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage, 38.
46 Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters (Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble)
47 Quoted in Jardine, 50.
48 Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman (Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 1980) 22.
particular, represents an unattainable womanly ideal, for
she is represented as a fertile and perpetual virgin who,
although married to a man, was impregnated by God, gave
birth without pain, and nursed not just a child but the
Although the Reformation took away power from the
Church Fathers, the Holy Father, and Catholic priests, a
new, ever-present power now resided in the father of the
nuclear family. Lawrence Stone writes that perhaps the
most significant result of the Reformation was a new
emphasis on the household which became the
inheritor of many of the
responsibilities of the parish and the
Church; the family head was the
inheritor of much of the authority and
many of the powers of the priest.50
While Keith Wrightson's picture of the nuclear family
attempts to modify the "stereotype of marital relations"51
in which male authority seems a given and which is espoused
in conduct books of the day, he does conclude, however:
49 For the summary, I have utilized material from St. Peter Canisius'
work De Maria Virgine incomparabili (1577), quoted by Maclean in The
Renaissance Notion of Woman. Maclean further comments that Mary is, in
fact, "not of her sex," exempt as she is "from all female vice and
imperfection" and "so remote...from others of her sex" (23).
50 Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage, 104.
51 Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680 (New Brunswick: Rutgers
UP, 1982) 92.
In the domestic economy, decision-
making, conflict resolution and sexual
behaviour, mutuality in marriage,
within a context of ultimate male
authority, may well have been not only
the conjugal ideal, but also the common
practice among the English people as a
This curtailment of women's freedom surfaces in
medieval drama as well, perhaps reflecting a rising anxiety
about the unusual status female religious figures had been
granted. As Shahar writes, by the twelfth century, the
belief in the Virgin Mary as Holy Mother and mediator
between Heaven and earth was elaborated on from a fifth-
century doctrine. Along with the Virgin Mary, Mary
Magdalene was worshipped and claimed by Abelard to be a
heavenly mediator as well. Even though the virgin nun was
elevated in the eyes of the Church, she was not permitted
to hold any ecclesiastical office or to perform any
ceremonial duties.53 This paradox of the venerated and
contained is evident, for example, in the titular heroine
of the Digby "Mary Magdelene" who is depicted in the drama
from her containment in a patrimonial household to her
period of sexual incontinence and, finally, to her
spiritual conversion. Ultimately she enters heaven where
52 Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680, 100.
53 Shahar, The Fourth Estate. See especially Chapter 3.
she returns to another sort of domestic containment under
the Father of all fathers.
A similar sense of enclosure is evident in pictorial
representations of the Virgin Mary. Margaret Hallissy, in
discussing the "sharp differentiation between male and
female uses of space,"'54 believes that while enclosure could
have been valuable and positive for both sexes, it was the
men who left their walled-in homes and communities to "have
adventures and return triumphant."55 Wandering women were
considered immoral; and Chaucer's Wife of Bath is the
quintessential example of this as the perambulating, five-
time widow. Her antithesis, the Virgin Mary is invariably
depicted, both in literature and the visual arts, in an
enclosed space during the Annunciation scene. In a
fifteenth-century pictorial image, "Mary's modesty is
further stressed by her gesturing hand, lifted in warning
against the intruding stranger [Gabriel].56
Saints and sinners alike, women had to be contained.
In the Digby "Killing of the Children," the mothers of the
babies being slaughtered by Herod and his soldiers rebel,
beating the infanticides with their distaffs. Not
54 Hallissy, Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Widows, 96.
55 Hallissy, Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Widows, 96.
56 Hallissy, Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Widows, 96.
surprisingly, the disorderly women are quelled and forced
to return to their domiciles. Both Digby plays succeed in
"rehabilitating" women and returning them to their domestic
spheres. In the Wakefield Noah play, a wife once more
rebels against her enclosure. In this case, Noah's wife is
depicted as a shrew as she continues to work on her
spinning wheel while refusing to enter the ark.57 At last
Noah's wife, like the animals that preceded her, is whipped
and herded into the ark by Noah,58 one of God's handfuls of
righteous diluvian survivors.
As demonstrated above with the visual image of the
Virgin Mary, perhaps even more can be learned about the
representation of the medieval woman by applying some of
the general principles of the visual composition of the
Middle Ages to its drama. Pamela Sheingorn believes one
57 Interestingly, both needlework and domestic containment are constant
themes in the various early modern discourses, most specifically the
male-authored conduct books for women. In fact, one book containing
needlework patterns was written by a man. Suzanne W. Hull discusses
this phenomenon in Chaste, Silent & Obedient (San Marino: Huntington
Library, 1982). See also Joan Larsen Klein, Daughters, Wives, and
Widows: Writings by Men about Women and Marriage in England, 1500-1640
(Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1992). Edmund Tilney, in The Flower of
Friendship (London, 1568), writes that a wife is "not to sit always
ydle;" she must occupy herself with her household duties "even in
things of least importancee" keeping busy "as with hir needle, and
rocke [needlework and spinning]" (137).
58 The concept of treating a wife like a domesticated beast is a theme
that extends itself into early modern conduct books. William Whately,
in A Bride-Bush (London, 1617), writes, "Wee prouender an horse as well
as whip and spurre him, else the best would tyre: and the wife must bee
animated to good things, and not onely withdrawn from euill" (35).
can gain an understanding of how these principles might
have governed the medieval stage picture presented to its
audience by deploying them in a study of that period's
drama. While artistic images changed during the period 500
to 1500, these were not large-scale alterations; and this
period was governed by an "umbrella convention" that
utilized form to communicate content not only for the
artist but also for the dramatist. As a result, medieval
artists and playwrights employed similar visual conventions
to communicate a message to the viewer.59 What is key here
is that, like early modern drama, its medieval counterpart
relied on theatrical iconography and convention to
communicate a message. While histrionic representations
are not genuine depictions of "real-life" persons, they do
provide information about the cultural codes from which a
playwright drew. Through their own conventions, dramas and
portraits suggest something about their society's dominant
ideology and the subjects it has interpellated.
From her study of gestures associated with the elbow
from the late fifteenth to seventeenth centuries in
59 Pamela Sheingorn, "The Visual Language of Drama," in Contexts for
Early English Drama, ed. Marianne G. Briscoe and John C. Coldewey
(Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989) 173-191. While Sheingorn's emphasis is
on size and proximity of characters, her study does point to the
importance of artistic convention and how that tradition can be used to
read a period's drama.
Renaissance portraiture, Joaneath Spicer believes she is
able to ascertain something of the subject's degree of
political power. Portraits, she argues, draw from a code
of conduct deployed in everyday life. Just as the early
modern playwright and actor used gesture to communicate a
message to the audience, so did the portrait artist. Like
the painter, the playwright relied on certain conventions
that have been gathered and "distilled" from daily
experience and which convey an unspoken meaning to the
viewer.60 Gestures, Spicer writes, "will usually represent
a distillation of generally accepted societal codes which
rise out of collective experience--otherwise they wouldn't
be recognized--and which convey an impression which the
sitter is content to give off, seen through the prism of
the individual artist's aesthetic sensibilities."61 In her
study of western European art, Spicer notices that certain
body posturing, enhanced by an arm akimbo, is the language
of self-possession especially when other figures in the
same painting are utilizing subordinate body language.
This language of self-possession asserts a sense of
territoriality as well as physical and social authority.
60 Joaneath Spicer, "The Renaissance Elbow" in A Cultural History of
Gesture, ed. Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg (Ithaca: Cornell UP) 84-
61 Spicer, "The Renaissance Elbow," 85.
From the many portraits Spicer has investigated, almost all
of the men she found posing with the "Renaissance elbow"
were either socially and/or militaristically powerful.
While she has found portraits of Queen Elizabeth I with her
arm akimbo, this is, of course, the exception and was not
considered an "appropriate gesture for middle-class women
of good standing."'62
The notion of a woman comporting her body with
restraint to avoid "speaking" power through body language
is evident in early modern portraiture much as it is in
conduct books for women. Marriage portraits seem to bear
this out where masculine posturing expresses dominance and
possession, e.g., the husband's arm resting atop his wife's
shoulder, and feminine gesturology signals passive
obedience, e.g., the wife's eyes averted from the viewer.
Spicer wonders whether some of the work she has
interrogated shows the purposeful inscription of a bodily
comportment that suggests an anxiety on the part of the
dominant in regard to their retention of their power.
Similarly, I wonder if the signs of early modern English
women becoming more assertive bred an anxiety in those
holding power, urging them to write conduct books and
dramas that represented women employing a passive bodily
62 Spicer, "The Renaissance Elbow," 100.
comportment, a comportment that reinscribes their bodies as
In early modern drama, much of what appeared in a
performance was informed by theatrical convention that
presupposed a tacit and sometimes unconscious agreement
among the playwright, the actors, and the audience.
Gesture was, therefore, a significant constituent of the
methodology that communicated meaning between the
performers and the spectators. Gestures, both on the
boards and off, helped establish one's position in the
social hierarchy and were as traditional as sartorial
Alan C. Dessen points out that a modern-day audience,
whether at a live performance or in a movie theater, also
abides by certain conventions. Often, spectators see only
a portion of a scene, yet they accept the fact that the
action has begun earlier and will continue in their
absence. However, because twentieth-century spectators are
accustomed to a "realistic" approach to representation,
they attempt to employ a sense of verisimilitude when
reading or observing Elizabethan dramas.63 David Bevington
says that today's audience members may have difficulty
63 Alan C. Dessen, Elizabethan Stage Conventions and Modern Interpreters
(Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984) 11.
"seeing" the way Shakespeare's spectators saw because
modern eyes are trained for viewing films in which
characters are surrounded by a "fully supplied landscape."64
Dessen argues that a Shakespearean audience accepted
conventions that a twentieth-century audience would
consider "odd, illogical, or intrusive."65 Both Bevington
and Dessen believe that if readers can begin to understand
these earlier conventions regarding the performance text,
they will be able to appreciate more fully the literary
text. Additionally, they will gain some insight into what
Keir Elam terms the "performer-audience transaction"66 that
occurred in the early modern theater. For example, the
physical constraints of a nascent commercialized theater
required the audience to use their imagination a good deal
regarding the staging of scenes. Because theatrical
companies had a limited number of actors and no elaborate
scenery, a battle scene, for instance, was synecdochically
represented by a handful of soldiers. Or two actors might
be embroiled in combat with wooden swords. Costumes, sound
effects, dialogue, hand props, and appropriate acting
64 David Bevington, Action is Eloquence (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984) 7.
65 Dessen, Elizabethan Stage Conventions, 11.
66 Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (New York: Routledge,
helped the audience imagine what could not be portrayed
"realistically" on an open stage with limited personnel.67
Since only scanty accounts of audience response and
limited pictorial evidence of Elizabethan productions
remain, one must rely on evidence within the plays when
examining stage conventions. Yet the surviving stage
directions are often "murky," and it appears that the actor
was left to decide how he would gesture or move about the
platform to communicate meaning to the spectator. What
Dessen does conclude is that actors produced a "theatrical
shorthand," using "a few clear signals" to briefly and
concisely convey to the spectator a previous or continuing
off-stage action.68 Stage directions from extant texts
indicate that a boy actor portraying a distraught woman,
entered the stage with his/her hair loose and disheveled,
visually signaling the audience about the character's
madness, shame, or grief. If an actor came on stage
wearing boots or riding apparel, the audience knew the
characters had recently completed, or were about to embark
on, a journey. Actors appearing "unready," "trussing"
themselves up, or wearing nightshirts or nightcaps, quickly
67 Dessen, Elizabethan Stage Conventions, 33.
68 Dessen, Elizabethan Stage Conventions, 34.
apprised the spectator that it was nighttime or early
morning. A similar effect could be achieved with the
carrying of candles or torches.69
Wfiile all of this information helps both Dessen and
Bevington establish the importance of theatrical
conventions, it does so without addressing the ways in
which gesture genders a performer's or character's body.
Yet, by examining a few examples, it becomes evident that
the containment of a woman's body is directly linked to the
appropriateness of her behavior. Anything out of place on
a woman's body, whether it be her hair, clothing, speech,
or gestures, connoted a woman out of her place, a concept
clearly articulated in the conduct books authored by men
and addressed to women. Gesture becomes a language that
helps one understand the way in which the early modern
woman was positioned within her society through her
representation on stage and in conduct books.
Gestures can accompany speech, giving the
interlocutor's utterance more emphasis; and they can be
just as effective alone. Indeed, the absence of gesture
can indicate a range of emotions as well, from humility to
nonchalance to disinterest. Bodily comportment, including
69 Dessen, Elizabethan Stage Conventions, 52.
facial expressions, establishes social differentiation,
separating persons according to race, ethnicity, social
position, occupation, and gender. In short, gesture is an
indispensable complement to any language.70 For Erasmus, an
adolescent boy could demonstrate his cultivated mind
through his masculine posturing and adherence to a specific
gestural code. He could, as well, appear effeminate should
he, for example, walk with a mincing gait.71
Gesture as an outward manifestation of one's inward
will became an increasingly important signifier throughout
the reigns of Elizabeth and James. Bodily comportment
reflected a woman's socio-economic position insofar as her
averted glances, blushes, unfurrowed brows, and non-
threatening posture in general demonstrated her non-
authoritative social status and her economic dependence
upon and passive obedience to her spouse, father, or other
male guardian. Gestures, however trivial they may seem,
are a self-identificatory mechanism that implies
fundamental differences in social position and, therefore,
in degree of power or powerlessness. Even a blush carries
70 Keith Thomas, introduction, A Cultural History of Gesture, ed. Jan
Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991) 1-14.
71 Desiderius Erasmus, "On Good Manners for Boys" in the Collected Works
of Erasmus, trans. Brian McGregor, ed. J. K. Sowards, Vol. 25 (Toronto:
U of Toronto P, 1985).
with it a passive bodily comportment--head down, arms close
to or crossed in front of the body, legs together or
crossed--signifying a willing subjection. In fact, a blush
does not necessarily need to appear on a woman's cheek to
be read as such. A blush is less a coloration of the
cheeks and more a passive bodily comportment.
During the Early Modern Period, noblemen and
aristocratic youths were instructed in refining their
gestures to demonstrate their superior rank and authority,
to mime a language of self-possession and social power.
Women were admonished to refine their bodily movements as
well, but with the opposite results. A woman was
conditioned to occupy less physical space and to
communicate with few words, if any. One conduct book says
what is spoken of Maids, may be
properly applyed by an vsefull
consequence to all women: They should
be seene, and not heard: A Travueller
sets himself best out by discourse,
whereas their [women's] best setting
out is silence.72
Paradoxically, even the highly visible gestures a woman was
to perform, helped to further inscribe not only a lack of
power but also an invisibility onto her body. In essence,
72 Richard Brathwait, The English Gentlewoman (London, 1631) 41.
a woman was to wear her soul, not on her sleeve, but on her
entire body. From the averted glance of her eye to the
abbreviated length of her gait, a woman was to silently
demonstrate her role as "shamefast" virgin, dutiful wife,
or eternally-mourning widow. As the physically and morally
weaker sex, she was to comport herself with restraint and
without the slightest suggestion of boldness, pride, or
self-possession. Not only was a woman enclosed by the
physical structure of her domicile, she was also
circumscribed by her own feminine gesturology.
I will be focusing on the early modern woman in
England, how conduct books constructed the masculine ideal
of that woman, and, in later chapters, how that ideal was
further inscribed in the drama of that period through the
use of boy actors whose "feminized" comportment drew the
audience's attention to a woman character's inferiorized
body and subordinated social position. In regard to
conduct books, Ian Maclean believes that two forces may
have been bringing about a change in society:
the modification in social class
divisions which brings greater mobility
between classes and promotes the
emergence of a social group of rich,
leisured women below the level of court
and the reflection of that change in
courtesy books of the Renaissance,
suggesting the development of social
life in this new class and its theory
and expectations of social behaviour.73
I refer to and focus on the woman of the middle classes, or
what Maclean labels "this new class." I believe one of the
main purposes of conduct books was to create a woman who
would become the backbone of an economic system that,
ironically, would make wives more economically dependent on
their husbands.74 At the same time, a woman's labor
supported her husband's advancement within a society that
was beginning to allow money, not kinship, to achieve one's
social position. Conduct books attest to this new marital
And if it be true...that friendshippe
maketh one heart of two: much more
truly and effectually, ought wedlocke
to do the same, which farre passeth all
manner, both friendship and kindred.75
73 Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman, 88.
74 Susan Dwyer Amussen, in "Gender, Family and Social Order," in Order
and Disorder in Early Modern England, ed. Anthony Fletcher and John
Stevenson (New York: Cambridge UP, 1985) 196-217, writes "wives played
a significant role in the family economies of early modern England. In
the kitchen, dairy and brew-house they supervised production; they sold
their own cheese, ale and eggs in the market, where they purchased
other necessaries for their families" (203). See also Amussen's An
Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England. Oxford:
Basil Blackwell, 1988.
75 Robert Cleaver, A Codly [godly] Form of Householde Governement
(London, 1598) 216.
The women characters in the contemporary drama, while
ranging from royalty to peasantry, were none the less
stereotyped by their speech, behavior, and, I will argue,
their gestures. When I speak of a social position, I
discuss it with the belief that it was framed within a
masculine hierarchy in which women rarely achieved an
individual status, almost never being recognized for their
own achievements. As one conduct book writer succinctly
puts it, "For Shee is Hee."76
Almost exclusively, women were recognized according to
their husband's place in society.77 If a woman married
beneath her station, she was reduced to her husband's rank.
If she married a man of higher social ranking, she was
elevated in society's eyes. A man's social position could
be elevated, too, through marriage; however, if he married
someone beneath him, he never lost his more elevated
position within the hierarchy. As one conduct books says,
For the wife enioyeth the priuiledges
of her husband, and is graced by his
honor and estimation amongst men. His
Nobilitie maketh her noble, though
otherwise shee is base and meane; as
contrariwise, his basenesse and low
degree, causeth her, though shee bee by
76 Richard Brathwaite, The Good Wife (London, 1619) n. pag.
77 Keith Wrightson, in English Society 1580-1680 (New Brunswick, NJ:
Rutgers UP, 1982) concludes, after studying an early modern text that
formulated the "degrees" of people, the "status of women and children
was assumed to follow that of their husbands and fathers..." (21).
birth noble and honorable, to bee by
estate base and meane.78
Ruth Kelso, in her quest for the Renaissance lady,
concludes that such a person never existed. Although many
texts were written for and about this lady, beyond the
theoretical treatises and
the dedications to ladies, duchesses,
or queens, the contents, it is scarcely
an exaggeration to affirm, apply to the
whole sex rather than to any favored
section of it. The lady, shall we
venture to say, turns out to be merely
By gendering household responsibilities and enclosing a
wife within her home, a woman was kept in a private world
that disallowed her participation in the religious,
political, economic, and educational sectors of the public
world.80 As one conduct book says, a woman could leave her
home for four reasons:
First, to come to holy meetings,
according to the dutie of godlinesse.
78 William Perkins, Christian Oeconomie: or, A Short Survey of the Right
Manner of Erecting and Ordering a Familie, According to the Scriptures
(London, 1609) 131.
79 Ruth Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance (Urbana: U of
Illinois P, 1956) 1. While Kelso's study focuses on texts written by
Italian, French, English and other European writers, I would have to
agree with her conclusion as it pertains to the English woman in the
early modern period.
80 Joan Kelly, "The Social Relation of the Sexes" and "Did Women Have a
Renaissance," Women, History, and Theory (Chicago: U of Chicago P,
1984) 1-50. Kelly discusses the crucial importance for women of the
separation of the public and private spheres and how that bifurcation
disallowed women to experience a "renaissance."
The second, to visit such as stand in
need, as the dutie of loue and charitie
doo require. The third, for employment
& prouision in household affaires
committed to her charge. And lastly,
with her husband, when hee shall
While she most likely left her home frequently to perform
such tasks, a woman was barred from any significant role in
the formulation of the culture in which she existed,
dislocated as she was from economic activity and subjugated
to household work without remuneration.
This separation and enclosure of the feminine body
becomes more deeply inscribed in early modern conduct
books, in general, and through the gestures a woman was
directed to perform, in particular. In this regard, the
work of Sandra Lee Bartky, who discusses the implications
of feminine bodily comportment within a twentieth-century
milieu,82 is valuable for my own work. Bartky believes that
American women, through stereotyping, cultural domination,
and sexual objectification-three "special modes of psychic
alienation"83-deliver "terrible messages of inferiority"84 to
81 Cleaver, A Codly [godly] Form of Householde Governement, 225.
82 Sandra Lee Bartky, Femininity and Domination (New York: Routledge,
83 Bartky, Femininity and Domination, 23.
84 Bartky, Femininity and Domination, 23.
women, psychologically oppressing them, weighing them down
with their own burden of a depreciated self, and,
therefore, making them their own oppressors. Conduct books
for the early modern woman, as I will explain in more
detail below, establish a woman's "natural" inferiority, an
inferiority that has existed since the beginning of time,
most particularly the time of the Garden of Eden.
According to Bartky:
Even when economic and political
obstacles on the path to autonomy are
removed, a depreciated alter ago still
blocks the way. It is hard enough for
me to determine what sort of person I
am or ought to try to become without
being shadowed by an alternate self, a
truncated and inferior self that I
have, in some sense, been doomed to be
all the time.85
Early modern conduct books declared this "truncated and
inferior self" to women and inculcated them with household
skills whose primary purpose was to increase her husband's
economic security while at the same time immure her inside
the home and outside of a "male supremicist culture."86 As
Bartky states, "However degraded or distorted an image of
ourselves we see reflected in the patriarchal culture, the
85 Bartky, Femininity and Domination, 24.
86 Bartky, Femininity and Domination, 25.
culture of our men is still our culture."87 This was even
truer for the early modern woman who, because of her
stereotypical image as an inferior creature, had almost no
say in any aspect of her culture. Any talents she may have
acquired were hidden behind the door of her domicile and
dimmed in the shadow of "woman's work."
This devaluation of a woman's labor further alienates
a woman from herself and her body. Bartky writes, "Since
labor is the most characteristic human life activity, to be
alienated from one's own labor is to be estranged from
oneself."88 Moreover, this estranged body was objectified,
not as the sex object of the twentieth century, but as the
"female breeder"89 of the early modern period. One conduct
book writer explains, "The male is man of superior sexe,
fit for procreation. The female is woman of an inferior
sexe, fit to conceive and beare children."90 The role of
the always-deficient was not only internalized by the early
modern woman, but it was also externalized through her
87 Bartky, Femininity and Domination, 25.
88 Bartky, Femininity and Domination, 32.
89 Bartky, in Femininity and Domination, sees this as one of many female
stereotypes she discusses.
90 William Perkins, Christian Economy or a Short Survey of the Right
Manner of Erecting and Ordering a Family According to the Scriptures
(London, 1609) 24.
bodily comportment, a comportment clearly delineated for
her in the pages of the conduct manuals. Bartky writes,
There are significant gender
differences in gesture, posture,
movement, and general bodily
comportment: Women are far more
restricted than men in their manner of
movement and in their lived
Again, this was all the more the case for the early modern
woman, as I will show below when I begin to discuss
specific conduct books and the regimens within which they
placed women. This restriction of movement began during
childhood. Lawrence Stone writes that after the
"swaddling" period, boys' bodies were allowed to be free
girls were encased in bodices and
corsets reinforced with iron and
whalebone to ensure that their bodies
were moulded to the prevailing adult
fashion. Dressed in miniature adult
clothes, they were expected to conform
to the ideal adult feminine shape and
carriage, and in particular to maintain
an upright posture and to walk slowly
Stone goes on to discuss how these restrictive
undergarments caused "distortion or displacement of the
91 Bartky, Femininity and Domination, 67.
92 Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage, 116.
organs, and sometimes even death."93 He cites an example of
a young, seventeenth-century girl whose iron bodice stunted
the growth of her lungs, broke two of her ribs, and
obviously caused her a great deal of pain. Her severe
bodily enclosure caused her death at the age of two.94
Carroll Camden describes the attire that an
"Elizabethan lady" would put on when dressing for "an
outing or an entertainment."95 She would begin with either
a heavily embroidered or lace-trimmed and a petticoat. A
bodice, or corset, went over the smock and was stiffened
with whale-bone or wooden stays called "busks." Some busks
were constructed completely of iron, as was the case with
the two-year-old child discussed above. The bodice was
tied in place with "busk-points" or laces. These corsets
or busks were meant to flatten a woman's stomach and
abdomen as well as hold her breasts high. Once the corset
was in place, a woman slipped a farthingale beneath her
petticoat, a "device used to hold out the skirts of
succeeding garments."96 A farthingale, like a busk, was
93 Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage, 116.
94 Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage, 116.
95 Carroll Camden, The Elizabethan Woman (Houston: Elsevier, 1952) 219.
For Camden, an Elizabethan lady is a gentlewoman or the wife of a
merchant, or a woman of the upper class and middle classes.
96 Camden, The Elizabethan Woman, 220.
stiffened with various different materials such as
whalebone or wood. The point of this device was to make a
woman's waist look small,97 as if the corset hadn't already
achieved this. Over this underclothing, a woman wore a
kirtle or two-piece dress, beneath which she placed a
stomacher and forepart, both accessories that filled the
opened work in the top and bottom portions of the kirtle,
respectively. A gown, worn open in the front, was placed
over the kirtle. Detachable sleeves were sometimes given
shape on a "body of wire" and were often elaborately
decorated. Finally, a cloak could be worn over the gown or
instead of it. Certainly, these many layers of clothing
had a pragmatic purpose: to keep a woman's body warm.
However, it also served to further enclose that body,
circumscribing it with a farthingale. Furthermore, the
message was that a woman's body was defective and needed to
be reconstructed,98 improved upon, by minimizing the waist,
maximizing the hips and buttocks, and lifting up the
breasts. It must have been difficult for a woman dressed
like this to move about, let alone to be able to sit
97 Camden, The Elizabethan Woman, 220-21.
98 While men, too, "reconstructed" their bodies with enhancements in
their codpieces, for example, these fashion "accessories" did not
restrict their movements and cause them the physical discomfort of a
comfortably. It would seem that an early modern woman's
mobility and carriage were inflected by her cumbersome and
Bartky says that women seem to be surrounded by an
invisible space beyond which they are hesitant to move.
This invisible space is evidenced in conduct book
illustrations depicting women seated demurely or standing,
legs together, hands folded on laps or arms by sides.
Observing twentieth-century women, Bartky comments,
"Woman's body language speaks eloquently, though silently,
of her subordinate status in a hierarchy of gender."99 The
feminine gesturology early modern conduct books prescribe
for women creates a comparable yoke between a woman's
inferior social status and her minimalized bodily
movements. The body of the early modern woman bears the
unmistakable signs of a psychological oppression that
Bartky observes inscribed on the twentieth-century female
body. As Catherine Belsey points out,
Culture exists, in a word, as meanings.
But the cultural meanings of man and
woman, experienced at the level of
consciousness, have also been lived
precisely as material practices; not
only as rape and violence, but as the
slower, more tedious and more insidious
oppression of women's bodies by regimes
99 Bartky, Femininity and Domination, 74.
of beauty, by corsetry and crippling
footwear, by marital availability,
domestic labour and continual
As conduct books become more and more methodological in
their approach, a woman's body is more deeply restrained
with rigid injunctions to control itself through precise
gestures and an economy of movement.
100 Catherine Belsey, "A Future for Materialist Feminist Criticism?" in
The Matter of Differnece: Materialist Feminist Criticism of
Shakespeare, ed. Valerie Wayne (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991)
WEAK HANDS AND FEEBLE KNEES
As the new ideal woman' was being fashioned and
enclosed in her domicile, people, for the first time since
the establishment of the manorial system, were dislodged
from their "place" in the social hierarchy, creating an
historical space crucial in regard to the social position
of women. This space may have afforded women a voice that
caused a male anxiety reflected in a variety of early
modern writings, most particularly in conduct books for
women. During the latter half of the sixteenth and first
quarter of the seventeenth centuries, these texts, for the
most part, were written by male religious moralists who
1 I suggest the conduct book writers were addressing women below the
aristocratic class, most specifically of the middle classes. This is
in keeping with Lawrence Stone's belief, in The Family, Sex and
Marriage in England 1500-1800, Abridged Edition (New York: Harper,
1979), that the patriarchy was being positively reinforced at this
level of society. He makes the disclaimer: "It cannot be proved
conclusively that in reality the powers of fathers over children and of
husbands over wives in the upper and middle ranks most exposed to this
propaganda became greater than they had been in the middle ages... "
(109). However, he says this "seems a plausible hypothesis, given the
fact that patriarchy for its effective exercise depends not so much on
raw power or legal authority, as on a recognition by all concerned of
its legitimacy, allowed by ancient tradition, moral theology and
political theory" (109). Ruth Kelso, on the other hand, in Chapter 1
of Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance (Urbana: U of Illinois P,
1956), argues that knowing the addressee of the conduct book is a moot
point since women were in a sense "classless." No matter what their
social rank appeared to be, they were always beneath the authority of
their husbands or some other male guardian.
made it "naturally" evident that women--no matter what
their class status--were expected to marry and to be
contained by both the emerging nuclear family ideology and
its concomitant physical structure, the "home." This new
family unit was supported by both the Church and the State.2
As a microcosm within the macrocosmic Chain of Being, a
long-standing religious hierarchy was reinforced: just as
God was the head of the Church and its final authority, so,
too, was the husband the head of the family, having the
final say in all matters. As one conduct book puts it:
Ye Wiues loue your Husbands,
And obedient bee,
For they are your heads,
And aboue in degree.3
The State structure was supported by and reflected in
the nuclear family as well. Here, the husband was the
ultimate ruler over his "castle," just as the monarch was
2 Susan D. Amussen, in "Gender, Family and the Social Order, 1560-1725,"
in Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, eds. Anthony Fletcher
and John Stevenson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985) 196-217, writes that
both state and religious discourse draw an analogy between the well-
governed family and a well-ordered society. However, ecclesiastical
officials and state heads did not necessarily agree on the particulars
of that analogy in regard to who was responsible for the "correction"
of a wayward wife. The Puritan writers of conduct books, in
particular, created a rather ambiguous position for the early modern
wife: a woman who was considered her husband's equally-yoked partner
yet a wife who was under her husband's ultimate authority. Amussen
shows evidence of incidents of disorderly wives who obviously did not
adhere to conduct book injunctions. However, when one looks at the
divorce, property, and common laws of early modern England, one can
only conclude that a woman was far from her husband's equal.
3 Francis Seager, The Schoole of Vertue (London, 1582), n. pag.
the supreme ruler of the State. The family, according to
one conduct book writer, "is a natural and simple Societie
of certain persons, hauing mutual relation one to
another, vnder the priuate gouernement of one."4 This
second analogy, however, was a bit strained, especially
when Mary and Elizabeth served consecutively as English
monarchs. Perhaps this was one of the reasons for such an
outpouring of conduct books which comprise a large body of
texts written by men between 1475 and 1640, eighty-five
percent of which were published after 1570.5 The acute
gender differentiation of the sixteenth century, Ruth Kelso
suggests, may be a result of the renewed interest in the
Renaissance of ancient thought.6 Along with a return to the
4 William Perkins, Christian Economy or a Short Survey of the Right
Manner of Erecting and Ordering a Family According to the Scriptures
(London, 1609) 2.
5 Suzanne W. Hull, in Chaste, Silent & Obedient (San Marino: Huntington
Library, 1982), has compiled a list of texts written to a new English
early modern female readership. She believes that this phenomenon
could suggest an increasing literacy rate among Elizabethan and Stuart
women. Karen Newman, in Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance
Drama (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991), believes these texts could be an
attempt to more deeply inscribe the family ideology on a woman's body
as the result of women transgressing the established codes of
appropriate feminine behavior, witnessed in historical records. Nancy
Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, in their collection of essays The
Ideology of Conduct (London: Methuen, 1987), argue for a close
relationship between the codification of feminine comportment in
women's conduct books and the endeavor of the middle ranks of society
to achieve economic power.
6 I will argue below that this renewed interest in classical literature
contributed to the success of the all-male casts in England.
Classics was an increased interest on the part of women in
literature and learning. Kelso writes:
It was a disturbing phenomenon, this
rising interest of women in the world
of books and their demand for
education, certain to increase [male]
suspicion and antagonism. It may well
be suspected that the...flood of advice
to wives on marriage, modeled on St.
Paul's pattern, rose in the renaissance
in part from alarm that women were
breaking out of bounds and needed to be
kept or set back in their place.7
In general, all the early modern conduct books clearly
establish that wives are subject to their husbands'
authority and are to love their spouses out of obedience,
not necessarily out of love. They are to maintain the
household and be contained by it, are to forbear their
husbands' shortcomings, and are to comport themselves in a
manner that signifies "weak hands and feeble knees is a
woman."8 Women, in other words, needed to be physically and
ideologically positioned beneath their husbands, fathers,
or male guardians, no matter what their class standing.
Ruth Kelso contends that women were "classless" insofar as
they were always considered second class citizens, no
7 Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of Renaissance, 10.
8 This quote is derived from Thomas Becon's The Catachism, published in
1844 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP) 343, but originally part of his Workes
written between 1560-1564.
matter what their actual class standing was.9 Lawrence
Stone contends that the household became a "most valuable
institution for social control at the village level."10
Women were ideally to remain enclosed inside their homes,
performing all manner of household maintenance and
nurturing services for which they received no compensation
and which left them homebound as well as socially immobile.
Whether "classless" in Kelso's sense or classed as a
gender, women were exploited as a result of their socio-
economic position. If the conduct books are a glimpse into
real life, then women left their homes only to attend
church, visit a sick neighbor, or partake in a social
function, often accompanied by male escorts.
Since men were more literate11 than women up until and,
for the most part, including the early modern period, men
wrote the conduct books that not only instructed women in
bodily comportment but also "taught" them how to cook, do
9 Ruth Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of Renaissance.
10 Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage, 28.
11 Stone, in The Family, Sex and Marriage, says that within the general
population "only one woman in three could even sign her name in a
marriage register in 1754, which was not much more than half the
proportion of men, and there is every reason to suppose that the
proportion was if anything worse in the seventeenth century. Women at
all levels of society were an educationally deprived group compared
with men" (144). Even among artistocratic circles, the notion of a
woman receiving a learned education, as espoused in Castiglione's The
Courtier, survived approximately forty years [1520-1560].
needlework, deliver babies, care for the sick, and even
nurse their children. I put quotation marks around
"taught" because I strongly suspect men often acquired
these skills by observing women, perhaps their own wives
and mothers. Since the majority of the female population
was illiterate, women often could only pass their various
skills onto other women by word of mouth. Literate men,
therefore, were able to appropriate these skills and write
them as their own in the form of instructions to women,
thereby assuming a position of power and authority.
Conduct books also instructed women on how to dress
and "beautify" themselves, when it was appropriate to leave
their domicile, how to behave in mixed company, when and
what to speak, and how to engage in appropriate amusements.
This authority was further inscribed through marginal
glosses and intertexual references to scripture, classical
texts, and medieval medical discourses, all written by men.
One author admits that he received a recipe from a
countriese gentlewoman home I could name [although he does
not], which venteth great store of sugar cakes made of this
composition."12 Plat finds fault with this recipe, however,
12 Sir Hugh Plat, Delights for Ladies (London, 1608) Item B5.
since it "tasteth too much of the sugar, and too little of
the almonds"13 and recites his new and improved recipe.
In spite of the apparently authoritative stance of men
in general and husbands in particular, marriage was often
referred to as a place where men will live a miserable
existence. In a tongue-in-cheek text by Thomas Heywood,
the author retells a poem allegedly written by a man in
great hesitation over whether or not to marry. The poem
finally concludes that there is too much risk involved:
No marriage then, Ile keep my single state,
Since on a wife so many dangers wait.
But if heaven will that I a Consort have,
0 grant me one that's pious, wise, and grave.14
The plethora of anti-marriage doggerals and jest books
depicting the hen-pecked husband did not dissuade men from
marrying; a wife was a "necessary evil." This evil,
according to some authors, placed men under constant
persecution. Richard Brathwaite's Aar't Asleepe Husband?
A Boulster Lecture (1640) and Thomas Heywood's A Curtaine
Lecture (1637) are based on the assumption that women never
cease talking and, therefore, deny their husbands sleep.
The frontispiece of Brathwaite's text depicts a wife
sitting up in bed, talking to her beleaguered and sleep-
13 Plat, Item B5.
14 Thomas Heywood, A Curtaine Lecture (London, 1637) 78.
deprived husband. These texts are, in a sense, facetious
conduct books, perhaps printed not only to give men a few
laughs but also to ridicule women into mending their ways.
Some texts cannot definitively be categorized as
conduct books simply because they masked themselves as
"defenses of women," and were actually exercises in logical
argumentation. More importantly, though, they served as an
ideological site from which to prescribe appropriate
feminine behavior for the early modern woman of the middle
classes. Sir Thomas Elyot, in his The Defence of Good
Women (1540), stages an argumentative dialogue between the
fictional characters Caninius, an anti-feminist, and
Candidus, a supporter of women, to counter a seemingly
perpetual antifeminist discourse rooted in both biblical
and classical writings. The conversation begins with
Caninius alleging that his compatriot is blinded by love
and, therefore, cannot see the treachery and falsehood that
inheres in all women. Candidus counters this assertion by
saying that, through his reading and life's experience, he
has come to a contrary conclusion. He cites the threadbare
examples of virtuous mythical and historical women, such as
Penelope, who was never "by dede word nor countinance in
hir chaste purpose unconstant."15 He declares the
"constance of ladies and damselles" by retelling the
stories of wives who either waited patiently for their
husbands to return home from their adventures, followed
them to the grave, or lived in "sorowe contynuall more
paynefulle than deathe"16 after being widowed. Caninius,
citing Aristotle, posits that women are "unperfit"
creatures, never content and "alwaie unconstant....."17 They
are, he says,
weaker than men, and have their fleshe
softer, lesse heare on their visages,
and their voice sharper, and as I have
redde, they have in some parties of
their bodies, their boones fewer.18
This weakness, Caninius believes, resides in their souls as
well. After critiquing body and soul, this detractor of
women remonstrates the female mind:
And the witte, that they have, is not
substanciall but apish: neuer
florishyng but in ungraciousnesse, or
in trimmying themselves with pratie
deuises, or excusying their faultes
with unstudied answeres.... 19
15 Sir Thomas Elyot, The Defense of Good Women (1540) n. pag.
16 Elyot, The Defense of Good Women, n. pag.
17 Elyot, The Defense of Good Women, n. pag.
18 Elyot, The Defense of Good Women, n. pag.
19 Elyot, The Defense of Good Women, n. pag.
Because inconstancy is women's "most unperfection," in them
"witte littell preuaileth."20 At the conclusion of this
dialectic, Candidus tells Caninius that he has invited
Zenobia to dinner. She is proficient in Greek, Latin, and
Egyptian, teaches her children, and is an eloquent writer
of stories. Zenobia's behavior, Candidus avers, will shame
his friend into the recanting of his misogyny. When
Zenobia arrives, she immediately voices her concern that
"to be out of [her] owne house at this tyme of the nyghte"21
might compromise her sterling reputation. After Candidus
assures her that her honor will not be besmirched, Zenobia
tells Caninius that she has pursued her studies to effect a
more virtuous, constant, and temperate wife and now-widow,
mother, and ruler of her deceased husband's kingdom.
Because of her own docility, Zenobia claims that her
subjects-and even her enemies-followed her example and
became submissive as Zenobia ruled the kingdom in her
deceased husband's stead. This treatise, like the conduct
books that will follow, establishes what would become the
ideal wife of the middle classes: chaste, silent, and
20 Elyot, The Defense of Good Women, n. pag.
21 Elyot, The Defense of Good Women, n. pag.
obedient.22 This newly-fashioned woman would be unlike her
aristocratic counterpart; she would not be a witty
conversationalist, robed in silks and velvets, whose role
was to look beautiful and alluring while entertaining her
equally witty interlocutors.
This earlier female exemplum is found in Book Three of
Baldesar Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, published
in Venice in 1528 and translated into English by Sir Thomas
Hoby in 1561. The text consists of a rhetorical game in
which a coterie of the wealthy, witty, and educated fashion
the perfect "courtier that never was, nor perhaps ever
could be."23 Once he is designed, the perfect court lady
follows, rather like an Eve following an Adam. The court
lady is required to be in every way like the male courtier,
"insofar as her frailty allows."24 Signor Magnifico, the
"defender of women" amongst these roman a clef characters,
compares himself to Pygmalion and insists that once he has
fashioned this lady to his "own liking," he will "take her
22 I draw this description from Suzanne W. Hull whose thorough
compilation of conduct books for early modern women is found in her
Chaste, Silent, and Obedient.
23 Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. and intro.
George Bull (London: Penguin, 1967) 202.
24 For a full discussion of the perfect female courtier, see Chapter 3
of The Courtier.
for [his] own."25 At the outset, the Magnifico declares
that "above all, I hold that a woman should in no way
resemble a man as regards her ways, manners, words,
gestures and bearing."26 Many of the qualities conscripted
by the Magnifico become requirements of the English early
modern woman and are set down in the conduct books. In
general, the courtly lady must be:
more circumspect [than her male
counterpart] and at greater pains to
avoid giving an excuse for someone to
speak ill of her; she should not only
be beyond reproach but also beyond even
suspicion, for a woman lacks a man's
resources when it comes to defending
However, Signor Magnifico, unlike the male authors of
English conduct books, believes that "much is lacking to a
woman who lacks beauty."28 Moreover, The Courtier's lady
must be proficient in entertaining all manner of man:
I say that the Lady who is at Court
should properly have, before all else,
a certain pleasing affability whereby
she will know how to entertain
graciously every kind of man with
charming and honest conversation,
suited to the time and the place and
25 Castiglione, The Courtier, 211.
26 Castiglione, The Courtier, 211.
27 Castiglione, The Courtier, 211.
28 Castiglione, The Courtier, 211.
the rank of the person with whom she is
These requisites are the antithesis of the English conduct
books in which typically women are instructed to "use few
words, and those low and milde"30 when they are in their
husbands' presence and, indeed, in the presence of any man.
While a wife is to manage her household and family, the
Magnifico says that "this [is] not to be her chief
occupation."31 As the sixteenth century draws to an end,
the English conduct books will opine an opposite view of
the ideal woman. The "quick and vivacious spirit" the
Magnificio desires in his lady is conspicuously lacking in
the later English treatises where a woman is divested of
her wit and imbued with domestic duties.
Edmund Tilney's The Flower of Friendship (1568) helps
comprise a large group of marriage handbooks (both English
and continental) that were adaptations of Erasmus's
humanist Conjugium, one of his colloquies on marriage.
Tilney drew on other humanist writers as well, such as Juan
29 Castiglione, The Courtier, 212, emphasis mine.
30 William Whately, A Bride-Bush or a Wedding Sermon (London, 1608) 42.
31 Castiglione, The Courtier, 214.
Luis Vives and Pedro di Luxan.32 Still following the
continental style, The Flower extends its marital advice in
the form of a narrative within a bucolic setting, peopled
by a group of well-fed and well-heeled Ladies and
Gentlemen. After a dinner seasoned with "exceeding
cheere," pleasantt takee" "melodie," and "sweete cheering
of the Ladies,"33 the group sits beneath a "faire Arbour" in
what the narrator says "might be called a terrestriall
paradise."34 However, although Tilney's fictionalized
characters and setting closely mirror those in
Castiglione's Courtier, The Flower's instructions for
ladies do not. Castiglione and other continental writers
addressed a far more sophisticated audience, offering
advice to ladies regarding their ability to maintain a
witty conversation with their male interlocutors and their
skill to display grace and learning.35 Tilney's agenda is
quite different. Even though the setting implies that the
32 Valerie Wayne, introduction, The Flower of Friendship: a Renaissance
Dialogue Contesting Marriage by Edmund Tilney, ed. Valerie Wayne
(Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992) 3.
33 The Flower of Friendship, 102.
34 The Flower of Friendship, 103.
35 Hull, in Chaste, Silent and Obedient, says that writers like
Castiglione, La Tour-Landry, and DuBoscq "approached the conduct and
position of women through continental eyes" (32). Castiglione, in
particular, held a more enlightened view of women and, instead of
instructing them to be silent and obedient, "emphasizes the need for
sophisticated conversational talents in women" (32).
guests are members of the aristocracy whose women were
marked by elegant dress and eloquent speech, the
conversation that follows makes it clear that the
articulate, witty wife has been upstaged by the more
containable silent and subordinate spouse.
This trend had already begun with texts such as those
written by Heinrich Bullinger, who, like so many of his
counterparts, begins his vapid treatise by establishing the
Biblical basis for marriage. In The Christen State of
Matrimonye (1541) Wedlock is sacred, as opposed to profane;
it was "ordeyned and instituted" by God, both textually (in
the first book of the Bible) and physically (in
"paradise").36 William Perkins claims that "the only rule
of ordering the Family, is the written Word of God."37
The manner in which the first woman was "created"-and,
therefore, the materiality of her body-is crucial to her
position within the family ideology and gendered hierarchy:
The woman was taken from and out of the
syde of man and not from the erth lest
any man shulde think that he had
gotten his wyfe out of the myre: but to
considre that the wife is the husbands
flesh and bone and therefore to love
her: yet was she not made of the head.
36 Heinrich Bullinger, The Christen State of Matrimony (Antwerp, 1541)
Chapter 1, n. pag. I cite the chapter here and following due to
irregular pagination. When copying the text, I use commas in place of
the slash mark found in the facsimile but maintain the same spelling.
37 Perkins, Christian Economy, 1.
For the husband is the heade & matter
of the wyfe. Nether was she made of
the fete (as though thou mightest
spurned her a waye from the & nothing
regarded her) but euen out of thy syde
as one that is set next unto man to be
his helpe & companion. And as the bone
of the flesh is strong so ought the
husband to be the strength helpe and
co[m]forte of the wife. Therefore was
she also taken and created out of the
rybbe or bone and not out of the
Bullinger and his counterparts take great pains to
configure woman within the paradigm of the early modern
household. Because she is taken from the man's side, a
woman is deemed a man's "helpe & companion." More
importantly, however, because she is not taken from a man's
head, a wife must be spatially positioned beneath her
husband's head, signifying both her physical and mental
deficiencies. Curiously, however, as Bullinger continues
forming his analogies, a logical conundrum is created. The
author claims that, since woman was not taken from the
head, she cannot possess those qualities that the head
signifies: a higher social position and a superior mental
capacity. It follows, then, that if woman was not taken
from a bone that is strong, she would be physically weak;
conversely, if she was taken from the bone, she would be
physically strong. But, here, Bullinger argues the
38 Bullinger, Chapter 1, n. pag.
opposite: because woman was "taken and created out of the
rybbe or bone and not out of the flesh," she is physically
inferior. The husband is the one who retains the bone's
strength-not the wife. In order to bestow yet another
superior attribute on man, Bullinger must reverse both his
analogy and his logic. Whatever "proofs" Bullinger or his
contemporaries deploy in their writings, the woman always
comes up "short," standing beneath the man's authority and
within marriage, the only institution deemed appropriate
Furthermore, a wife is not only married to her husband
but also to God himself: "And addeth therto that they must
esteme this obedience none otherwise then if it were she
wed unto god himselfe."9 A woman's obedience to her
husband is likened to her acquiescence to God: "It
foloweth also that the disobedie[n]ce which wives shew unto
their husbands displeaseth god no less then] whan he is
resisted himselfe."0 Since a husband was often away from
the home, a woman was left with her servants and children,
not immediately accountable to a human authority figure.
Therefore, it followed that if her body was not
39 Bullinger, Chapter 17, n. pag.
40 Bullinger, Chapter 17, n. pag.
accountable, her soul would have to be. While a woman was
encouraged to practice the art of self-surveillance through
reading scripture and through prayer, the conduct books
reminded her that she, or her soul, was ultimately
answerable to God. The only equality Renaissance
theologians afforded a woman was that, she, like her male
counterpart, had a soul, subject to God's grace. However,
she must not forget that her parity was only in Heaven, not
here on earth. Lest she disobey, she was reminded that
hellfire and damnation loomed large, along with her
husband's authority. Although a woman was under the gaze
of her male authority figure only when he was at home, she
was never without the discreet and continuous Holy Gaze
that carried severe and eternal censure.
Invariably, the conduct book writers rehearse the same
theme: the female reader is exhorted to remain obedient
within her home and to maintain the very domestic sphere
meant to circumscribe her, body and soul:
The chiefest way for a woman to
preserve and maintain this good fame,
is to be resident in hir owne house.
For an honest woman in sobernes, keeping
well hir house, gayneth thereby great
reputation, and if she be evill, it
driveth away many evil occasions, and
stoppeth the mouthes of people.41
41 Edmund Tilney, The Flower of Friendship (London, 1568) 136.
Her physical and moral weakness established, a woman was
instructed how to comport this inferiorized body.
The inferiorization of her body was affirmed in
medical discourse, in the guise of conduct books as well.
While most of the instructions to women on the physical
care of their bodies are written by doctors after
approximately 175042, some medical treatises were written
earlier. These texts, while purporting to assist a woman
in the understanding and care of her body, insidiously mark
that body as less proficient than her male counterpart,
often focusing exclusively on female "diseases" that are
reputed to be the result of a woman's physiology. Nicholas
Fontanus43 writes, "The Matrix is the cause of all those
diseases which happen to women" since it has a "Sympathie
with all the parts of the body" and this "consent holdeth"
with the brain, nerves, spine, the "hinder part of the
head," the heart, and the arteries that "lie about the
42 Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage, 24.
43 Fontanus, Nicholas. The Womans Doctour: or an Exact and Distinct
Explanation of all such Diseases as are Peculiar to that Sex, (London:
1652). While this text was not translated into English until 1652, the
fundamental beliefs about a woman's body hadn't changed appreciably
since Hipprocrates or Galen. See Gail Kern Paster's The Body
Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England
(Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993), for a brilliant discussion of how medical
discourse, derived from Galenic humoral theory, reinscribes the social
hierarchies already in place in early modern England. Medical writers
did not substantially alter the age-old concept of a woman's physiology
in spite of new empirical evidence. In fact, the old theories were
Abdomen at the bottom of the bellie," the liver, the
stomach, the kidneys, the bladder, and the "straight
gut."44 Fontanus does little more than rehearse the already
known "perfect understanding" of Hippocrates and other
ancients in regard to a woman's body.45
Interestingly, the extent and severity of these
infirmities depend upon a woman's married state. Fontanus
divides female diseases into four categories: Those that
(1) are common to all women, (2) are peculiar to widows and
virgins, (3) concern barren women and fruitful ones, and
(4) "befall Women with Childe, and Nurses."46 Fontanus then
asserts that "Wives are more healthfull then(sic) Widowes
or Virgins, because they are refreshed with mans seed, and
ejaculate their own, which being excluded, the cause of the
kept in place to reinscribe the inferiorization of a woman's body and,
therefore, her subjugation within a gendered hierarchy.
44 Fontanus, The Womans Doctour, 2-3.
45 Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman (Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 1980). Maclean writes that Plato believed the uterus was an animal
that lived inside a woman because it had independent movement and even
a sense of smell. While Galen refuted this assertion, he agrees that
the uterus does move; however, this motion results from muscle
contractions. Early Renaissance Platonic apologists argued that Plato
used the moving uterus as a metaphor. I suggest that Renaissance
writers continued to utilize this metaphor as a means to suggest
woman's affinity to motion and that whether or not the uterus is an
animal in its own right is a moot point. Although, as Maclean points
out, most Renaissance scholars did not accept Plato's belief in this
particular instance, they still saw the uterus in motion and the cause
of much of a woman's physical discomfort and natural infirmity.
46 Fontanus, The Womans Doctour, 2-3.
evill is taken away."47 A woman's "evill," therefore, is
removed only when she accepts a man's superior semen and
expells her own inferior seed.
Women, Fontanus suggests, in the interest of their
health and well-being, should marry. Married women have
less painful menses and thereby avoid a putrification of
the blood that leads to "heavinesse of minde, and dulnesse
of spirit, a benummednesse of the parts, timorousnesse, and
an aptnes to be frighted," as well as finding it difficult
to "fetch their breath."48 Like the virgin, the widow is
more disposed to illness. A widow faces an "abundance of
spermatick humour" which Fontanus says, according to
Galen's report, can be "diminished by the hand of a
skilfull Midwife, and a convenient oyntment."49 It follows
that the healthiest of women is not only the married one,
but the fruitful one as well. Childbirth, Fontanus
reports, opens veins and removes excess blood, avoiding all
manner of disease. Indeed, if a woman is concerned about
living a healthy life, Fontanus suggests she must marry and
bear children. This conclusion, in light of the high
47 Fontanus, The Womans Doctour, 4.
48 Fontanus, The Womans Doctour, 5.
49 Fontanus, The Womans Doctour, 6.
incidence of death from childbirth does not seem to concern
Fontanus in the least.
As a consequence of her physiological shortcomings,
conduct books exhort women to carry themselves with
restraint. Thomas Becon, in his Workes (1560-64), writes
that the "wickedness of a woman changeth her face: she
shall muzzle her countenance, as it were a bear, and as a
sack shall she shew it among the neighbours."50 Moreover, a
woman's bodily carriage reflects her socio-economic
position insofar as her averted glances, blushes, and
unfurrowed brows bespeak her lack of authority and her
economic dependence upon her father, spouse, or other male
guardian. A wife was not only to acknowledge her
inferiority to her husband but also was to carry herself as
an inferior to all men. William Whately, in a Bride Bush
The whole duty of the wife is referred
to two heads. The first is, to
acknowledge her inferiority: the next,
to carry her selfe as inferiour. First
then the wiues iudgement must be
conuinced, that she is not her husbands
equally, yea that her husband is her
better by farre; else there can bee no
contentment, either in her heart, or in
50 Here, Becon, in The Catachism, is quoting "Jesus, the son of Sirach"
51 William Whately, A Bride-Bush, 36, emphasis mine.
Barnabe Rich, in The Honestie of this Age (1614),
warns women against the use of certain "wanton" gestures,
citing the "Prophet Esay" [Isaiah 3:16] who
reprehendeth the wanton gestures that
were vsed by the daughters of Sion in
his daies, at their haugtinesse of
minde, at their stretched out neckes,
at their wandering eyes, at their
walking and their mincing as they passe
through the streets.... 52
Rich's text bemoans the fact that the women of his day were
no longer judged by their bodily comportment as severely as
they were during Solomon's day who believed the "true
markes of a wicked woman" consisted of the
bitterness of a tongue, the pride of a
haughtie heart, the shamelesnesse of a
face, the immodesty of a mind, the
imudency of looks, the rowling of
wanton eyes, the lewdness of manners,
the lightnesse of behauiour, the
looseness of life....53
He insists that a "womans honestie is pent vp in a little
roome, it is still confined but from her girdle downewards"
and that "there is no imperfection in a woman but that of
52 Barnabe Rich, The Honestie of this Age (London: 1614) 15.
53 Rich, The Honestie of this Age, 16.
54 Rich, The Honestie of this Age, 16.
As long as a woman polices her body, Rich says, her
mind and its "deformities" are of no concern. Women, he
concludes, are the more fortunate because men are
answerable for both mind and body. Yet, women are also far
more accountable for their comportment since, Rich claims,
"Our behauiours, our gestures, and our outward attyres are
tongs to proclaime the inward disposition of the mind."55
Calling on mothers to be a good example to their daughters,
he recites an "olde prouerbe": "If the mother trot how
should the daughter amble?"56 The length of a woman's steps
proclaims the degree of her constancy. Therefore, trotting
women are sexually incontinent.
The silent and gesturally-obedient wife's will, along
with her virginity, was to be stolen from her by her
husband as she acknowledged her inferiority to all men and
gendered her body through her restricted motions. The idea
of woman being associated with motion is nothing new. In
his study of Renaissance attitudes toward woman in regard
to the scholarship and scholarly texts, Ian Maclean writes,
From the earliest times, and in the
most far-flung cultures, the notion of
female has in some sense been opposed
55 Rich, The Honestie of this Age, 26-27.
56 Rich, The Honestie of this Age, 27.
to that of male, and aligned with other
Drawing from a previous study, Maclean demonstrates the
earliest use of polarity in regard to masculine and
at rest moving
Maclean goes on to show how this male/female dichotomy,
inherited from Aristotle, was adapted by Renaissance
scholars and utilized to develop their "notion of woman."
Obvious from this list of polarities are the early
modern beliefs, as opined in the contemporary conduct
books, that a woman is excessive and incontinent, a charge
often made in regard to her voracious and insatiable sexual
desire; plural or inconsistent, another well-worn conduct-
book contention; moving, something the conduct books
attempt to correct by incarcerating a women in her domicile
(medical writers also blame a "moving" uterus for almost
57 Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman, 2.
58 Maclean, in The Renaissance Notion of Woman, cites a study by G.E.R.
Lloyd entitled Polarity and Analogy: Two Types of Argumentation in
all of a woman's gynecological problems, mentioned above);
dark and evil, a concept supported by theological
references to Mother Eve; and curved, another theological
claim derived from a woman's being formed out of Adam's
"crooked" rib. This "crookedness" can refer to both a
woman's moral turpitude and her physical deformities. The
right/left dichotomy harks back to Galen's elaborate
description of the anatomical structure of the genital
organs in which he purports that the left male testis and
the left side of the uterus receive "uncleansed" blood and
are, therefore, inferior as well as responsible for the
procreation of a female child, also inferior. The right
sides of the genital organs were closer to the liver,
hotter, and therefore, superior. Naturally, the right
sides produced a male heir.59
How any of these qualities, other than "evil," were
assumed to be pejorative in the first place and became the
linchpin of all major premises about the condition of women
cannot be explained, other than the fact that Aristotle
said they were. Renaissance scholars almost never
Early Greek Thought (Cambridge, 1971) in which Lloyd demonstrates how
these opposites were utilized in argumentation.
59 Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset. Sexuality and Medicine in the
Middle Ages, trans. Matthew Adamson (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988).
See especially Chapter 2.
questioned them and continued to employ them in their
discourses, methodically and authoritatively inferiorizing
a woman's body.
Maclean's succinct study traces the historical
development of the Renaissance concept of woman and her
inherent inferiority from classical philosophers and early
Church Fathers and demonstrates how these beliefs became
interdisciplinary in the sense that they were used in
religious, medical, political, social, and legal
discourses. Each discourse "proved" something different in
regard to the inferior nature of a woman's mind and body;
however, they all arrived at the same conclusion: a woman
was, in all regards, inferior and, therefore, could not
engage in public affairs and in the formation of the
culture in which she existed.60 Because a woman was
constitutive of so many negative qualities, a conclusion
justified through the citation of authoritative texts,61 it
was "for her own good" that a wife submit herself to her
husband's rule. If she refused to adhere to his
admonitions, her husband was to "cut her off then from
60 In regard to cultural alienation of women, see Sandra Lee Bartky.
For the separation of women from the public sphere, see Joan Kelly.
61 Maclean, in The Renaissance Notion of Woman, says that these
"authoritative texts were influential throughout the Renaissance" (5).
[his] flesh, that she do not always abuse [him].'"62 In most
cases, this "cutting off" would have left a woman without
any economic support and in a world in which she had no
place to turn.
A woman's gestures not only became the silent
indicators of her economic dependence and inferior
constitution but also of her inward state. Her soul, in
other words, was exposed through her actions, down to the
focusing of her eye. According to Richard Brathwaite,
The Sanctuary of her heart is solely
dedicated to her Maker; it can find no
roome for an inordinate affection to
lodge in. Shee knows not how to throw
out her loue-attracting Lures; nor to
expose the glorious beauty of her soule
to shame. A moments staine must not
blemish her state. Shee will not
therefore giue her eye league to wander,
lest it should betray her honour to a
As Michel Foucault points out, the modern soul is the
result of a "certain technology of power over the body,"64 a
duplication of the body similar to that witnessed in the
body of the king as both person and monarch. The modern
soul exists as a reality, functions as corrective power, is
62 Becon, The Catachism, 345.
63 Brathwaite, The English Gentlewoman, 203.
64 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,
trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979) 29.
born out of "methods of punishment, supervision and
constraint."65 The early modern feminine soul still
maintained some of the aspects of the Christian soul,
harking back to the practices of medieval female religious
figures. A woman's piety was inextricably connected to her
morphology. Her exterior bodily manifestations, while less
extreme than her medieval counterpart's, were her soul's
expression of its spiritual condition. But the early
modern female body also began to assimilate some of the
qualities of the Foucauldian modern soul since it was
beginning to be methodologically generated through a bodily
taxonomy in conduct books that became increasingly specific
regarding a woman's feminine gesturology.66 The exterior of
her body became the signifier of not only her spiritual but
also her social status. While Foucault contends that the
modern soul is imprisoned by the body, I suggest that the
early modern female body was incarcerated by the soul, an
65 Foucault, Discipline & Punish, 29.
66 Foucault, in Discipline & Punish, uses the term "bodily rhetoric," to
describe the "signs" of a seventeenth century soldier (135). I choose
the term "feminine gesturology" for two reasons. First, I wish to
indicate how gestures are meant to indicate gender, not just one's
social ranking. Second, I prefer the term "gesturology," as opposed to
"rhetoric," since it indicates an unspoken language and, more
importantly, the unspeaking of women, a goal of the conduct books.