Skip to main content
Article thumbnail
Location of Repository

Attitudes to women in Jacobean drama

By Juliet Dusinberre


The prominence of women in Jacobean drama is\ud immediately evident. Jacobean dramatists excel in their\ud depiction of courtship and marriage, in their evocation of London\ud life and city women, and in their analysis of female character.\ud This concern with women is new to the drama, and is most marked,\ud and most fruitful in the plays written between 1590 and 1625.\ud The major dramatists of the Jacobean period - Shakespeare,\ud Webster, Jonson, Middleton, Marston, Heywood, Dekker, Chapman,\ud and Beaumont and Fletcher - share attitudes to women, but their\ud sensitivity to conflicting ideas, and eagerness to spell out their\ud own assumptions, suggests that the similarity is not merely conventional.\ud Their treatment of women implies confidence in their\ud audience's involvement in the issues on which they focus.\ud The Puritans, preaching to the same audience as the\ud dramatists write for, promote liberal attitudes to women by\ud following through the implications in the Protestant and Humanist\ud ideal of chaste marriage. The dramatists echo them in disapproving\ud of virginity as an end in itself, and in exalting sexual passion in\ud marriage,\ud in opposing inhumane practices such as forced marriage,\ud and in pointing out that a wife's obedience to her husband is conditional\ud on his treatment of her.\ud The dramatists hark back to Humanists such as More,\ud Erasmus and Vives in their distrust of romantic excess, both in\ud adulterous situations, and in courtship. They portray individual\ud women who fulfil Humanist convictions about women's rational\ud and intellectual equality with men.\ud The drama reflects contemporary uneasiness at women's\ud liberty in a society where economic change alters a wife's\ud relation to her husband's work, and where an impoverished gentry\ud seeking middle-class wealth creates a booming marriage market.\ud The dramatists expose both female presumption and male\ud alarmism. They recognize the bid for independence of women\ud who join Puritan sects (ridiculed as disreputable in the drama),\ud or who ape masculine dress; their defence of masculine-feminines\ud is in part a defence of theatrical practice against Puritan extremists.\ud The abundance of stock medieval satire on women in\ud Jacobean drama seems at first misleadingly at variance with\ud liberal attitudes to women. The dramatists give it a coherent\ud dramatic function by attributing it to groups of characters whose\ud way of life, or associations for the audience, neutralise its\ud venom.\ud Convinced that women are as capable of virtue as men,\ud the dramatists concentrate on the causes of adultery and whoredom,\ud whether they lie in witchcraft, or in special pressures - the\ud temptations of money and social status, the corruption of Court life, the condition of womanhood - which operate against women.\ud They attack the double standard by dividing moral responsibility\ud equally between seducer and seduced, and by implicating the\ud husband in the adulteress's guilt.\ud Shakespeare shares his contemporaries' attitudes to\ud women, but integrates them into his realisation of individual\ud character. He shows how preconceptions about women in general\ud damage individuals, and limit the experience of love.\ud The dramatists’ close contact with conflicting ideals and\ud prejudices relating to women outside the theatre contributes to\ud the richness and vitality of Jacobean drama

Topics: PR
OAI identifier:

Suggested articles

To submit an update or takedown request for this paper, please submit an Update/Correction/Removal Request.