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Magaret Cavendish, English Playwright

Anna Battigelli on Margaret Cavendish:


The volume at the right is one of two folio collections of plays written by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.  Cavendish’s life was shaped by the trauma of the English civil wars.  She was a maid of honor to the unpopular Queen Henrietta Maria, with whom she fled into exile.  In exile, she married England’s most eligible bachelor, William Cavendish, later Duke of Newcastle, with whom she lived in Paris and Antwerp for sixteen years before returning to London in 1660.  With no children and all the resources of her husband’s literary and scientific salon, Cavendish threw herself into the emerging discipline of science, even as she produced fourteen volumes of plays, poems, biographies, scientific treatises, romances, and satire.  Hers was a mind on fire — so much so that she would wake her scribe in the middle of the night to take dictation.  Her compulsive writing compensated for her pathological shyness.  In her books she engaged and challenged her age’s leading thinkers.  She satirized the Royal Society, the court, and social conventions.  She forwarded copies of her lavish folio volumes to universities and members of the aristocracy.  Remarkably, she arranged for an invitation to attend a meeting of the Royal Society, the only woman of her era allowed entrance into this circle of men. 


            The plays in this volume were written in exile between 1656 and 1660.  They revisit the conflicts of the English civil wars, depicting both physical battles and the battles within a divided mind.   She probes the incongruity between the external world and the mind’s inner world, between lives of action and contemplation, engagement and retreat.  Some of her heroines set out to change the world, defying social conventions by cross-dressing and becoming soldiers; one is even offered a Cardinal’s hat.  Other heroines retreat from the world in resignation by creating a monastic life for themselves.  Cavendish typically includes both types of heroines within the same play, reflecting her own profound ambivalence about the proper relation between mind and world.  In the frontispiece — based on a painting by the Dutch painter Abraham van Diepenbeeck — we see Cavendish situated between two gods of wisdom.  On the left is Athena, carrying a shield with Medusa’s head on it; on the right is Apollo, holding his lyre.  Both gods gaze on Cavendish.  Her gaze, however, eyes the reader, inviting and perhaps even challenging the reader to open the book.




Anna Battigelli is the author of Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind. She is Professor of English at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.



Case 12 -- Aphra Behn >>>

Margaret Cavendish. Plays, never before printed. London, 1668

Margaret Cavendish. Plays, never before printed. London, 1668

Interested in book history?

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Cavendish inscription discovered on end papers


Audio Stop: Anna Battigelli on Margaret Cavendish

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