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Katherine Philips, Plays and Poems

Elizabeth Hageman on Katherine Philips:


Katherine Philips (1632-1664) is best known today for some 140 poems she wrote on a variety of topics. Most popular among modern readers are a series of wonderful friendship poems, many of which Philips addressed to women whose sobriquets she took from literary texts popular in her own time–names  such as Lucasia, Rosania, and Ardelia. Philips’s own sobriquet was Orinda, a name she apparently crafted for herself, modifying female names such as Dorinda and Florinda to create a female name which resembles (perhaps even challenges) the names of male heroes such as Shakespeare’s Orlando and the Greek god Orion.


Philips also wrote a series of letters that were published in 1705 under the title Letters from Orinda to Poliarchus.  In addition, she is important to literary history as the first female dramatist whose plays were produced in public theaters in both Dublin and London. (Unlike Aphra Behn, who is known for being the first woman to write professionally for the English stage, Philips was—as far as we know—not paid for either of her plays. Certainly, she was not paid for Horace, for as I note below, it was completed, performed, and printed after her death. And what she says in her letters to Poliarchus (Sir Charles Cotterell) about Pompey suggests that it was produced and then printed by aristocratic friends of hers, rather than as commercial enterprises for which she would be paid.)


If you look at the title page of the printed edition of writings by Katherine Philips, you will see that Philips translated two plays by the French dramatist Pierre Corneille:  his Pompey and also his Horace.   We don’t know exactly why Philips chose those two plays, but in the context of this exhibit celebrating women’s writing, we should note that each of them features not one, but two important female characters. 

In Pompey, shown at right in the manuscript version of Philips' plays, the Egyptian leader Ptolomy plots an underhanded way to murder the great Roman warrior Pompey. By the time the play is finished, both Ptolomy and Pompey are dead, but the play’s two women are very much alive.  Pompey’s widow Cornelia has shown herself to be a heroically loyal wife, and Ptolomy’s sister, the ambitious and honorable Cleopatra, is celebrated as the new Queen of Egypt.


Philips’s Pompey was performed at the Theatre Royal in Dublin in February, 1663, and that spring it was printed in two editions: one in Dublin (March); the other in London (May). When Philips died of smallpox in June of 1664, she had not quite finished translating Horace, but it was completed by Sir John Denham and performed at the Court of Charles II in February, 1668. In that performance, the king’s mistress Lady Castlemaine played the role of Camilla, and the duchess of Monmouth was her sister-in-law Sabina. During the theatrical season of 1668-69, Horace was then performed by a professional acting company, the King’s Men, at Bridges Theatre in London. Marcelia by Elizabeth Boothby was performed by the King’s Men during the same season—and it was not long before other women—Aphra Behn, Mary Pix, Susanna Centlivre among them—were popular and successful London playwrights.




Elizabeth Hageman, Professor of English-Emerita at the University of New Hampshire, is English-Language General Editor for The Other Voice Series, a collection of writings by women published by the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies at the University of Toronto. Her own work also centers on writing by and about women, especially the poet and playwright Katherine Philips.



Case 11 -- Margaret Cavendish >>>

Katherine Philips. Copy of Poems. Manuscript, ca. 1670

Katherine Philips. Poems by the most deservedly admired Mrs Katherine Philips, the matchless Orinda. London, 1678


Audio Stop: Elizabeth Hageman on Katherine Philips

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