S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies, eds. Renaissance Drama by Women: Texts and Documents. New York: Routledge, 1996. 237 pp. ISBN 0-415-09806-8 Cloth; 9-415-09807-6 Paper.
Patricia Ralston
Covenant College

Ralston, Patricia. "Review of Renaissance Drama by Women: Texts and Documents. " Early Modern Literary Studies 3.1 (May, 1997): 13.1-9 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-1/rev_ral1.html>.

  1. Cerasano and Wynne-Davies are to be congratulated, not only for noticing the paucity of Renaissance drama by women on our library shelves, but for doing something about it! In addition to the primary texts of several Renaissance women's dramatic works complete with modernized spelling and punctuation, the authors have included portraits of the dramatists and facsimile pages. They have also provided an introduction to each play, along with biographical and historical information, a synopsis, and notes on the manuscripts and publication of the texts. The general introduction helpfully points out that the plays in this collection were not intended for public production; Renaissance women wrote for private purposes as educational and devotional exercises or to produce plays to be read or performed for family and small social groups. Six primary texts are then presented in chronological order, accompanied by endnotes with definitions of unfamiliar words and information on classical mythology, contemporary politics, and, where relevant, family members represented in the plays. The introductory sections and endnotes include excellent pointers to published biographical and critical work. Also included is a helpful bibliography with both primary works and selected secondary sources.

  2. The 123-line fragment of Seneca's Hercules Oetaeus, translated by Queen Elizabeth I, is the first of the primary texts. It is "newly transcribed from Bodleian MS e Museo 55" with suggested emendations in the endnotes. The manuscript, which is not in Elizabeth's hand, was identified as her work by a seventeeth-century clerk, and both Horace Walpole and Ewald Flugel identified her as the translator (9). Cerasano and Wynne-Davies note that this translation "would seem to have been wholly a private exercise" (9).

  3. The next entry is Robert Garnier's Marc Antoine, "englished" by Mary Herbert Sidney and published first as Antonius: A Tragedy in 1590; Cerasano and Wynne-Davies have used the 1595 edition, published by Ponsonby as The Tragedy of Antonie. This translation was intended for dramatic reading in the Sidney family circle rather than for enactment. Sidney did not follow Garnier's alexandrines, but translated the work into a highly readable blank verse. The editors also note that "the Countess foregrounded the female characters in her play and made them more sympathetic" (17). Though divinely beautiful, Cleopatra is drawn as a believable woman, caught in the nets of politics and love.

  4. Elizabeth Cary's The Tragedy of Mariam (1602-4; published 1613) is the first of four original works included here and "the first original drama written in English by an Englishwoman" (46). Cerasano and Wynne-Davies have prepared this edition using a British Library copy of the manuscript with the Harvard and Huntington copies to provide the "introductory sonnet and character list" (47). They note that Cary provides "a female perspective upon the role of authority within the state and marriage" (45). For the first time, the focus moves from Herod to Mariam as "wronged queen;" the play becomes "an allegorical affirmation of individual virtue in the face of tyrannical oppression" (46). Although she retains Senecan unities of time, place, and theme, Cary deepens the female character and the exploration of relationships.

  5. Robert White's court masque, Cupid's Banishment (1617), "newly transcribed from the manuscript (MS MA 1296) owned by the Pierpont Morgan Library" (81), is included because it was written for the young women students who danced in the production; in addition, the player queen was portrayed by a female actor, contrary to traditional practice. The masque was presented before Queen Anne, who herself appeared in a few such masques, though not without disapproval from some of her nobles. White's masque is unique in this collection because it was written for performance; the stage directions, and especially the directions for costuming, show the elaborate nature of the production.

  6. The crowning gem of this collection is the "tragi-comedy," Love's Victory (c.1620), by Lady Mary Wroth, whose dramatic verse is superb. Cerasano and Wynne-Davies referred to the Penshurst and the (incomplete) Huntington manuscripts, as well as previous "transcriptions and editions" (94). All textual variants appear in the notes. Wroth uses a variety of verse forms, but most frequently either heroic couplet or an alternating rhyming pattern. Love's Victory is by far the most well-written play of the collection and it takes on familiar themes treated by other Renaissance favorites. Having just taught Spenser, I was especially intrigued with Wroth's treatment of Love under the rule of virtue and reason. Although the play was probably never enacted outside "the safe Sidney houses," the stage directions Wroth provides show that she intended it for dramatic performance and not only for reading (93).

  7. Last in this collection is The Concealed Fancies (c. 1645), a comedy by Lady Jane Cavendish and Lady Elizabeth Brackley. This transcription is based on the Rawlinson MS Poet 16 in the Bodleian Library. Cerasano and Wynne-Davies encourage us to read the work of these sisters as "a contribution to familial discourse in which women . . . had the freedom to articulate their identities through textual inscription" (127). Their father, Lord Cavendish, also wrote plays and nourished the sisters' literary abilities; they produced "a pastoral masque," "several poems," and this play, which "was obviously intended for presentation" (129). The play rather transparently portrays family members in settings informed by the events of the Civil War, which so disrupted their lives. Though not always smooth reading, it deserves the name of comedy.

  8. Finally, Cerasano and Wynne-Davies include a section of contemporary documents (some by women) that show "women as collaborators in Renaissance theatre -- as spectators, performers, employees, patrons and theatre owners" (157). From these documents we also gain an understanding of the prevailing contemporary attitudes in regard to women acting in or attending plays.

  9. This informed and useful text provides an avenue for study of Renaissance women dramatists that is both accessible to undergraduates and beneficial to serious researchers.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1997, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(May 5, 1997)