Plate 6 from Nova Reperta
by Johannes Stradanus

Women on Stage

 

Thomas Heywood was a prolific writer for the Jacobean stage. He claimed to have had a hand in upwards of 220 plays, though less than one-tenth of that number survives. Although Heywood had the degree to certify him a "University wit," his drama pandered more to the merchant and working classes of London and its environs than to the intellectual élites of the civic center (Farley-Hills 15-16). The Wise Woman of Hogsdon is a case in point. The title character is the axis on which a woman-centered subset of society—resistant to patriarchal control of female sexuality, marriage, childbirth, and healing practices—turns. She is the nemesis of the central male character, a profligate city rake named Chartley, who contracts himself to three different women over the course of the play. In the play's dénouement, Heywood makes the titular wise woman the playwright/director of a scene in which Chartley is sharply upbraided for his antics and wedded to the first of his lovers.

In her seminal analysis of The Wise Woman of Hogsdon, Jean Howard poses the question: How would women in the audience have responded to the depictions of their gClick Here for a Larger Viewender in this play? On the one hand, the two "wise women" of the play—the titular one and, quite possibly, the "actual" wise woman—Chartley's first fiancée, 2nd Luce—resolve the many romantic dilemmas of the play's convoluted plot through a series of double-crosses. However, for most of the play, including the scene excerpted here, 2nd Luce is disguised as the wise woman's boy servant, Jacke. Though the audience is repeatedly told that "he" is a woman in disguise, they are, in fact, seeing a boy orchestrate the play's complex coupling dénouement on two levels: 2nd Luce is disguised as a boy, and her part would have been taken by a boy actor.

This raises the more wide-ranging question: What did women see when they saw themselves depicted on the early modern British stage? How did they respond to portrayals of themselves mounted by boy actors and male playwrights? Did they perceive the forthright antics of a character like 2nd Luce, or the social transgressions of a white witch/brothel madam/baby broker like the Wise Woman of Hogsdon as experiments in gender role performance which they could replicate, on some level, in their own lived experience? Or did they see such behavior as licensed by its place on the public stage in London's liberties, where it was performed by male actors pretending to be transgressive women, thus eroding the potential subversiveness of the transgressions depicted?

When teaching and directing such examples of intransigent early modern women, it is probably best to steer a middle course between these two extremes and assume, as critics such as Jean Howard and Gail Kern Paster do, that at least some of the female audience members in attendance would have been aware of and sympathetic to the critiques of existing gender role strictures when they saw them spoofed, violated and, in some cases, reified in obviously problematic ways on the public stage.

Regina Buccola
Roosevelt University

Suggested Reading

Farley-Hills, David. Jacobean Drama: A Critical Survey of the Professional Drama,
1600-1625.
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Heywood, Thomas. Wise-woman of Hogsdon: A critical edition. Edited by Michael H. Leonard. New York: Garland, 1980

Howard, Jean E. The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England. New York:
Routledge, 1994.

Levine, Laura. Men in Women's Clothing: Anti-Theatricality and Effeminization, 1579-
1642.
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Paster, Gail Kern. The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early
Modern Culture.
New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.