Alison Findlay. A Feminist Perspective on Renaissance Drama. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. vi+206pp. ISBN 0 631 20509 8.
Karen Bamford
Mount Allison University

Bamford, Karen. "Review of Alison Findlay, A Feminist Perspective on Renaissance Drama." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 15.1-3<URL:

  1. In this valuable book Alison Findlay attempts to develop historically grounded feminist responses to a wide variety of Renaissance plays: responses, that is, which might plausibly have been made by the women who attended the theatres of early modern London in significant numbers. As such it is part of a larger feminist effort, pioneered by scholars such as Linda Woodbridge and Jean Howard, to write women into the history of Renaissance drama as spectators who shared in the production of theatrical meaning. Findlay's enterprise is both eminently sensible and daringly speculative: sensible because, of course, as many students, most teachers and all marketers of literature know, audience response to entertainment is to a great extent gendered (according to my students Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility is a "chick-flick," and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V is not); speculative because, as Findlay acknowledges, at this historical distance we cannot know with any certainty how early modern women might have responded to the predicament of, say, Marlowe's Dr. Faustus or Shakespeare's Richard II. However, by using diverse contemporary texts by female authors, Findlay establishes various positions available to women of the period, and on this basis constructs possible gendered responses to the plays she examines. (Thus, she argues that female spectators in particular would have identified with the tragic protagonists of Dr. Faustus and Richard II.)

  2. In chapter 1, which looks at dramatizations of religious belief, Findlay fruitfully uses Aemilia Lanyer, Rachel Speght and Mary Ward to read Dr. Faustus, Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, and Measure for Measure: the juxtaposition of Mary Ward, founder of the Institute of Mary (1609) and a religious feminist, with Shakespeare's Isabella seems to me particularly rewarding. Chapter 2 deals with revenge tragedy, a genre Findlay provocatively argues is feminine, since "[r]evenge offers an illusion of agency, the power to direct events from a position of apparent impotence" (55). The female spectator of revenge tragedy could see her heart's "clandestine desires for vindication played out in the public arena" (57). In her third chapter Findlay examines plays which foreground female self-fashioning: plays, like Wroth's Love's Victorie, All's Well that Ends Well , and The Duchess of Malfi, in which women exercise sexual self-determination, and those like Epicoene and The Roaring Girl which represent the city as a site of female liberty and pleasure. In Chapter 4 Findlay turns to "household tragedies" including Romeo and Juliet, The Changeling and The Tragedy of Mariam--and here her use of the Thynne family letters illuminates women's experience of the patriarchal marriage system in early modern England. In her final chapter Findlay analyzes history plays--in particular, Marlowe's Edward II, Cary's Edward II, and Shakespeare's Richard II--in relation to the experience of female rulers like Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and Henrietta Maria. She argues, moreover, that "the plays' explorations of authority and exclusion broaden out beyond the royal context to address the situations of female subjects in the audience, women who inevitably found it difficult to assert themselves into history" (164).

  3. In general Findlay writes with admirable clarity and concision, offering interpretations that are informed but never obscured by contemporary--especially Lacanian--critical theory. Inevitably, in a book which deals with more than two dozen plays, some readings are more persuasive than others. Although Findlay declares that Arden of Faversham "manipulates women's responses to condemn Alice as an active agent in her husband's murder but to sympathize with her as a victim of the family structure" (148), she doesn't make clear how Alice is victimized by the family structure. Findlay reads Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness as an attack on "the moral underpinning of the patriarchal household": "[r]ather than blaming individuals," she argues, "the play invites audiences to consider the devastating effects of trying to live up to the ideal models of domestic behaviour, and shows that women are the main casualties of such endeavours" (157). This strikes me as improbable: the invitation seems to me Findlay's, not Heywood's. A more plausible position would be to suggest that, whatever Heywood's intentions, some of his audience--those with feminist sympathies--might have found in his play the stimulus to challenge the patriarchal household. However, such disagreements are minor matters. This is a good book, worth reading and debating.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).