Female Spectacle as Liberation in Margaret Cavendish's Plays

Joyce Devlin Mosher
Colorado Mountain College

Mosher, Joyce Devlin. "Female Spectacle as Liberation in Margaret Cavendish's Plays". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.1 (May, 2005) 7.1-28 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-1/moshcave.htm>.

  1. When Margaret Cavendish visited the Royal Society in London in 1667, she was wearing a gown with an eight-foot train borne by six waiting-women. Some in the crowd mistook her for a young man, though, because she also wore a wide-brimmed cavalier hat and a knee-length riding coat (Whitaker 299). Cavendish, dressing the part of a woman who invades the forbidden masculine province of writing and publishing, projects a sexual ambivalence in her public image that turns her woman’s status as fetish to fresh advantage. When the crowds come running to see the Duchess of Newcastle in her gilded coach and to marvel over her latest extravagances, it is one of many instances of Cavendish making use of dress as gender spectacle to unsettle fixed ideas about identity and sexuality. In her plays as in her public persona, Cavendish repeats emancipating acts of gender transformation through social performance and elaborate costuming.

  2. As the author of Loves Adventure, Bell in Campo, The Bridals, and The Convent of Pleasure, Cavendish exploits the symbolic power of dress as a recurring motif to interrogate woman’s role on the collective, societal level and as a means for her female characters to display the marks of their self-realization and personal liberation. Female spectacle, transgendered dressing, and the gaze of the crowd recur throughout the plays, spotlighting the central moment of the female self in process of change. In Cavendish’s life and in her plays, lavish confections and transsexual costumes symbolize the moment of transformation, drawn as a liminal state of existence, a threshold time of freedom and possibility. At the end of Bell in Campo, after leading the female and the masculine Armies of Reformation to victory against the Army of Faction, Lady Victoria dresses for her triumphal march in a calf-length coat of silver and gold with matching buskins, a laurel wreath crowned on her loose, curly hair and a "Crystall Bolt headed with gold" in her hand (5.20.167). The battles that her women warriors win become victories in the larger war that she declares when she exhorts the Amazonians, "…now or never is the time to prove the courage of our Sex, to get liberty and freedome from the Females Slavery, and to make our selves equal with men" (Second Part 1.3.143).

  3. The transformational state achieved by Cavendish’s characters is the central theme throughout the plays. Her unusual composition pattern interweaves various strands of plot to present, at a stately pace and in tableau images, moments that promise achievement, power, and mobility to her heroines. Slowing down and spotlighting ceremonial moments of awakening, her unconventional dramatic style highlights female spectacle in the ritual performance of transcending polarized masculine and feminine identities.

  4. Viewed in this way, the plays offer a consistent vision, though some reviewers find her revolutionary plot construction disconnected and confusing (Raber 405). The short scenes demand a rapid pace and effect a dislocation of the three unities – place, time, and action – of neoclassical drama. Prizing originality and wholeness over allegiance to form, Cavendish, in a Preface to the Readers, says:
    I have not drawn the several persons presented in a Circular line, or to a Triangular point, making all the Actors to meet at the latter end upon the Stage in a flock together … I have not made my Comedies of one dayes actions … Playes are to present the general Follies, Vanities, Vices, Humours, Dispositions, Passions, Affections, Fashions, Customs, Manners, and practices of the whole World of Mankind (Convent 255).
    Cavendish admits her delight in breaking formulaic rules of composition, preferring to maintain her ideals of singularity and inclusiveness. The plays identify the borders of female identity and postulate ways to transcend them. The author transgresses the rules of dramatic composition so her characters may transgress the boundaries of gender.

  5. Cavendish also takes responsibility for the indeterminacy and confusion that disturb some critics: "…some of my Scenes have no acquaintance or relation to the rest of the Scenes, although in one and the same Play, which is the reason many of my Playes will not end as other Playes do…" (Convent 256). A glance at the number of pages in each play indicates the negligible status of form in Cavendish’s composition method. The Convent of Pleasure runs to thirty pages; The Bridals forty-four; Bell in Campo sixty-four; and Loves Adventures eighty-six. She contents herself with whatever length is necessary to concoct the ever-recurring image of females who cross borders. In An Introduction, 1662, Cavendish has a gentleman critic say, "Well, if I were to write a Play, I would write the length of a humour according to the strength of the humour and breadth of my wit" (Convent 269).

  6. In her biography of the Duchess of Newcastle, Mad Madge, Kate Whitaker discusses Cavendish’s "characteristic interest in making arguments rather than reaching resolutions" (Whitaker 158). Having an antipathy to closed endings and linear character relations, Cavendish offers instead the pleasure of multiple possibilities. The four plays mentioned here contain images of transformative moments in the lives of the characters, combining spectacle and gender critique as the setting for the female subject’s experience of self-realization.

  7. The authority displayed in Cavendish’s extravagant, luxurious toilette arises from the power of the mask. When Margaret marries William Cavendish, thirty years her senior, she is forced to overcome her legendary timidity and mutism, because as the Marchioness of Newcastle she is expected to seduce the aristocratic world and to dominate through her feminine appearance. By accoutering herself in what others find extravagant and fantastical, Cavendish simultaneously veils and displays a multi-faceted identity to the collective gaze of the public. She assumes the artificial in order to transcend it. After more than twenty years of marriage, Cavendish’s ability to speak and be heard is recorded in the costume she wears to the theatre in London in 1667: a dress in antique, classical style which bared her breasts, revealing "scarlet trimmed nipples" (Whitaker 294). In the fashions that she designs for herself, Cavendish reveals an evolving sense of identity. Fabricating a self in order to resist patriarchal discourses and gender structures involves Cavendish in parody and masquerade.

  8. This reading of Cavendish’s hyperbolically feminine confections is supported by Joan Riviere’s seminal 1927 article on womanliness as a masquerade, which offers case histories of strong, capable women who put on masks of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution they fear from men. I would add that the mask as part of the female spectacle performs its literal mission of hiding the face from the prying gaze of others. Cavendish displays excessive femininity in her fashions of the costliest materials and the most extravagant design, that she felt were her "best becoming" (Whitaker 155). In Riviere’s study, womanliness can be "assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it" (Riviere 73). The mask disguises repressed sadism, but this sacrifice "must procure her a lavish return in the form of gratitude and recognition" (Riviere 76). Readers who have been positioned as admiring subjects of Cavendish’s deific heroines will understand that the author’s creations have a great need and desire for triumphal vindication and adoration.

  9. The grand ceremonial scenes in Bell in Campo show five or six thousand noble Heroickesses in full battle armor performing masculine feats in the masculine space of a military engagement. The male gaze now is welcome, to admire the spirit and success of the females in the process of proving their maleness. The dramatic spectacle of the female army training, developing a set of laws, and winning battles arrests time and upsets traditional narratives, allowing Cavendish to construct her temporary utopias of liminality.

  10. Some critics read these ceremonial scenes of empowerment as Cavendish’s responses to her personal losses in the political turmoil of her time. Was she so crushed by exile and loss that her plays are wish fulfillment fantasies of revenge and triumph? Karen Raber sees in the plays Cavendish’s compensation "for the impact of civil war and exile, which temporarily erased the material and social conditions which had shaped English identity before 1642" (Raber 406). Even though this view is justified, it ignores the importance of Cavendish’s unique dramatic methods.

  11. While a historical context is important to understanding her drama, a fuller reading of the plays produces more than monarchical fantasy and wish fulfillment. To read the plays solely as conscientious exercises in building self-esteem is to deny their aesthetic as scintillating monuments of female spectacle – an aesthetic that bridges the three and a half centuries between her age and ours. The way that Cavendish implants the gaze of the crowd into her plays is strikingly apropos to our own time. Cavendish and her dramatic heroines alternately invite and reject the gaze of the other, of desire, and of the crowd. The public audience that Lady Victoria enjoys at the end of Bell in Campo is an acknowledgement of her accomplishments, deeds she could not have performed without assuming the mask of masculinity. In The Bridals, however, the male gaze is destructive, making the act of seeing an act of carnal knowledge. This reducing gaze, which claims possession of and control over the female body, denies the liminal state that marks the utopian moments of female freedom in Cavendish’s dramas.

  12. Even when present, the powerful experience of liminality is necessarily impermanent. The in-betweenness can empower and transform, but it is also a time of difficulty. In Loves Adventures, Lady Orphant must disguise herself in order to distract the world’s gaze which would brand her before she can enter the field of self-creation. In The Convent of Pleasure, medieval walls separate the females from the unwanted gaze of vehement suitors. Eventually the women of the convent will reconcile society’s expectations with their own, but the temporary rejection of conventional gender roles opens a threshold of alternative possibilities, such as self-government and economic freedom.

  13. Cavendish uses female spectacle to slow down and extend these threshold moments. By spotlighting and dramatizing the freedom and adventure possible for a single, wealthy woman of property, the plays open a space for discussion of marriage from new and interesting viewpoints. The Bridals is an exploration of sexuality and marriage that highlights the neither-this-nor-that state of bridehood. Madam Mediator, explaining why wives never take their husbands’ names till the day after marriage, says that for the first day, a bride has neither her own name nor her husband’s because a bride is "an Interlude between both" (1.3.176). Appreciating the delights of this in-between state, Lady Fancy remarks, "I should be well content to be a Bride, and to have a Wedding day … but … I would have no Wedding Night" (1.4.178-9).

  14. In The Bridals, female spectacle extends the length of the play, in which a hostile ritualized gaze interrupts the liminality of maiden dreams. A crowd of ladies surrounds two young noblewomen on their marriage night to undress, advise, and monitor the sexual ceremony of the brides. In The Bridals, female spectacle is unwrapped to expose the nude female body, the most fundamental image and reality of the feminine. Cavendish uses virginal nudity as she debates possible attitudes towards the public gaze that regards the female body as property. When Mediator finds that Lady Vertue is not "as most Brides are, shame-faced, and out of Countenance" the morning after her wedding, Vertue replies that "if Marriage had been an act, that deserves a blush, I would not have Married" (2.2.182). Vertue’s confidence comes from an apparently well-founded trust in her sensible and loving husband, and she accepts society’s gaze along with its rewards.

  15. The other bride, Lady Coy, enjoys no such confidence and so finds her wedding night a time of pain and shame. Her bride-maids struggle to undress her and get her to bed as she cries, "O keep him out, or I shall die for fear" while her husband, Sir John Amorous, hollers, "Let me come in, or I’le break open the door" (1.3.177). When the dawn comes, Lady Coy hides in shadows and tells Mediator, "In truth I am ashamed to see the light" (2.2.181). Before long, Sir Amorous has converted his lady into a libertine like himself, perverting his modest bride into a predatory female who cynically takes many lovers and lives exclusively for pleasure. Cavendish graphically illustrates the violence and loss that sometimes accompanies the end of the brief stage of liminality.

  16. It is in this dimension of her drama that I find Cavendish anticipates écriture féminine as advanced by Hélène Cixous. Cavendish demonstrates Cixous’ insurgent writing which frees the body and voice, allowing the woman writer to "carry out the indispensable ruptures and transformations in her history" (Cixous 2043). The plays’ obsession with the liberating realm of the female experience illustrates the alternative forms of relation, perception, and expression that Cixous associates with the female writer’s process of constructing the self. In fact, Cixous describes this process in language that sounds uncannily like Cavendish in a militaristic mood:
    Because she arrives, vibrant, over and again, we are at the beginning of a new history, or rather of a process of becoming … woman un-thinks the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield. As a militant, she is an integral part of all liberations … she will bring about a mutation in human relations (Cixous 2046).
    Through staged arrivals enacted over and over, Cavendish’s characters loosen the bonds of gender restrictions in ways that fit Cixous’ account of the functions of écriture féminine. The women warriors of Bell in Campo dominate the military and political scene; the women in The Convent of Pleasure form a segregated economic system based on their bodies and their worldly possessions. The repeating, ephemeral visions of female potential that materialize in the plays are liberating images set in an excessive, unconventional style of writing that is politically aware and subversive of patriarchal oppression.

  17. When Cavendish includes transsexual characters in her spectacle, marking the moment of liberation as androgynous, Judith Butler’s views on gender and performativity are useful. As a centerpiece to her plays, Cavendish uses the female figure in masculine positions of mastery, a strategy that realizes Butler’s call for critique that "expose(s) the foundational categories of sex, gender, and desire as effects of a specific formation of power" (Butler 2489). Cavendish’s use of cross-dressing indicates transgendered behavior that, like the female masquerade, serves the causes of freedom and self fulfillment. With the feminine mask, Cavendish disguises the masculine, and with cross-dressing, she and her characters perform masculinity. These enactments of identity and gender illuminate Butler’s notion of the gendered body as performative, "an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts" (Butler 2500). The performative dimension of gender in Cavendish’s plays allows her characters to create identities that are outside the restricting frames of socially enforced behavior.

  18. In Loves Adventures, Lady Orphant dresses as a boy, which allows her to work as Page to Lord Singularity, the army general whom she loves. As a boy, she gains an intimacy with her beloved that no woman possibly could, since the General has a deep distrust of the female sex. He views women as treacherous, duplicitous, and incapable of sexual fidelity. As a false boy protected by the absence of the wounding gaze, Affectionata can assume a discourse of equality with the General that is unavailable to her as a young female. She captures the love of Singularity through her loyalty, wisdom, and faithful friendship – qualities that Singularity values as masculine virtues. Explaining melancholy, Affectionata laments: "…I find there is not much reason to joy, for what we love, perchance it loves not us, and if it doth, we cannot keep it long, for pleasures passeth like a dream; when pains doth stay, as if eternal were" (First Part 4:25 56-7).

  19. By speaking Singularity’s mind, Affectionata performs masculinity in order to win a husband. Thanks to her masculine clothing, Affectionata/Lady Orphant is not caught in the beam of the male gaze. She can speak as she is dressed: a woman in man’s appearance, transcending both genders. The reader is justified in suspecting that Lady Orphant would enjoy remaining Ganymede to her Lord Singularity’s Hercules, but a matter of life or death forces her to drop her male disguise, after which she and Lord Singularity marry. At their wedding dinner, the sexually aroused bridegroom is extremely anxious to take his bride to bed. Is it because his lady is a trustworthy woman, or because she is a lovable man? Orphant’s moment of triumph consists of having escaped being viewed as female long enough to explore her own and her lover’s identities and to resolve for herself the meaning of marriage.

  20. In a mirror image of the gender reversal from female to male, Cavendish also has male characters perform the feminine, proposing from another perspective gender inclusiveness in the formation of self-identity. In The Convent of Pleasure, a prince disguised as a young woman infiltrates the convent of female chastity. Since the action of the play revolves around two women falling in love, readers are tempted to discern bisexual or homosexual themes. I see rather Cavendish’s irrepressible singularity in operation, and a further statement of the ambiguity of sexual signifers. When Madame Mediator brings the news of the arrival of the "great Foreign Princess" – really a Prince – she describes her as "a princely brave Woman truly, of a Masculine Presence" (1:3 225-6). Cavendish’s use of cross-dressing in this play is a rhetorical device, a nonverbal interplay of clichés and stereotypes that acts out the discourse of the female. Her sexually hybrid characters call into question traditional gender categorizations as the first step in redressing power imbalances between the sexes.

  21. In the four plays under discussion, gender undergoes experimentation in the political, military, and conjugal spheres. Cavendish even breaks with conventional language that assigns gender not only to human beings but to abstract ideas. In a Preface to the Readers, she declares:
    I do not keep strictly to the Masculine and Feminine Genders, as they call them … the Furies are shees, and the Graces are shees, the Virtues are shees, and the seven deadly Sins are shees, which I am sorry for; but I know no reason but that I may as well make them Hees for my use, as others did Shees, or Shees as others did Hees. (Convent 259)
    Cavendish seeks to masculinize the female and feminize the male in order to overcome the chasm between the sexes created by the distorting gaze of social ideologies. In Bell in Campo, Lady Victoria points out to her female warriors, "…the Masculine Sex hath separated us, and cast us out of their Companyes … for the Masculine Sex is of an opinion we are only fit to breed and bring forth Children …" (119) Cavendish neutralizes gender polarities in an attempt to "change their opinions, insomuch as to believe we are fit to be Copartners in their Governments, and to help to rule the World, where now we are kept as Slaves forced to obey; wherefore let us make our selves free, either by force, merit, or love" (119-20).

  22. Overdressing, cross-dressing, and assuming military garb, then, are ways that variously attract and repulse the male gaze, which allows Cavendish’s characters moments outside of time. Cavendish’s heroines assume many masks, seeking the space between reality and fantasy. Is it fair to say that Cavendish stoops to playing the fool? Lesley Peterson argues that Cavendish develops the persona of the fool in order to speak for the Other – child, woman, and exile. Peterson sees her colorful attire as the motley worn by those with no worldly power, namely peasants, monks, and women. Motley also situates the wearer in an ambiguous place beyond status or gender. Cavendish’s "intelligence but inadequate formal education, ambition but not the power to fulfill it, artistry but no stage to enact it" identify her as the wise fool, one of the "observant, witty outsiders whose motley privileges them to critique those at the centre of power" (Peterson 10). In Peterson’s view, Cavendish’s great achievement is her foolishness; her unconventional dress and unreasonable speech serve to disarm authoritative discourse.

  23. While I agree with Peterson that Cavendish is able to "unsettle patriarchy without overturning it," I disagree that she does so from within the persona of a fool (Peterson 9). The female warrior of Bell in Campo and the lovesick lady disguised as a boy in Loves Adventures do not accomplish their wonders through foolishness. The fool Mimick in The Bridals is merely a go-between for the kaleidoscope of marital pitfalls and compromises. He lacks agency to affect any significant outcomes in the play, and to my mind does not represent Cavendish’s main preoccupations. When the Duchess of Newcastle appears in public in outlandish attire or publishes her original views on women’s position in society, she is not dressed in motley. Her battle armor in her revolt against received notions of gender behavior is clothing that signifies power, seduction, and self-protection.

  24. Through masking and veiling, wrapping and revealing, Cavendish’s characters prolong the threshold state of female freedom. The plays require neither plot structure nor plausible dénouement to produce the recurring fantasy of woman’s life in the absence of men. This is the separation that will engender the liminal space of risk, change, and opportunity. Of the four plays, only one, Bell in Campo, concerns married women, and they are sequestered from their menfolk in a separate but parallel army. Three of the plays deal with young women about to be married but who still enjoy the relative freedom of maidenhood. It is the experience of this female liminal state that generates the plays’ action and characters.

  25. As the play-within-the-play in The Convent of Pleasure illustrates, marriage subjects a woman to oppression, danger, and suffering. The band of noblewomen who have resolved to live a single life cloistered in Lady Happy’s estate witness short, emotional scenes of domestic distress: wife-beating, male alcoholism and gambling addiction, death in childbirth, death of children, and financial ruin. The convent ladies all share a fear of being sacrificed to the wrong kind of man. Before Lady Happy succumbs to the role of wife, she assures herself that her mate will be able to join in the life of women and treat her properly. The Prince(ss) crosses gender boundaries first by infiltrating the convent dressed as a female, then by dressing as a male to fulfill Lady Happy’s seraglio fantasy. Signified through gender reversals as lover rather than as master, Lady Happy’s mate seems worth the risk of marriage, though Cavendish, true to her passion for variety, leaves the ending ambiguous.

  26. Even the temporary utopia of female seclusion benefits Cavendish’s heroines. In Loves Adventures, Sir Serious Dumb proves his worthiness when he courts Lady Bashful silently and persistently. Even more than his dubious vow of silence, his obedience when she demands his sword during Sir Humphry Bold’s attack earns him Bashful as a bride. Bashful’s transitional experience is gained through her suitor’s silence, the absence of the male gaze as vocal aggression. She quite literally stares him down, which is the fundamental condition of their union. His relinquishment of power unlocks her eloquence, symbolized by the two swords that she acquires in the moment of her awakening: "Let the sword alone, for it is my prize; and by Heaven, if you touch it, I will run you through with this sword in my hand" (1.8.72).

  27. Orphant and Singularity’s courtship has a similar martial trope. Orphant rises to the heights of military fame in her effort to cure Singularity of his misogyny and becomes a powerful boy-woman who turns down adoption by the Duke and the Pope’s offer of sainthood. Both Ladies Bashful and Orphant indulge their fantasy of choosing their life mates according to their own needs and their best interests. The moment of recognition of their true mates is accompanied by grand spectacle and transposition of gender. This pattern suggests that the change in status they will undergo in the ceremonial rite de passage from maid to wife can be positive only if the groom is gentle, understanding, and willing to live on terms of equality with his bride.

  28. Cavendish’s plays rework in imaginative ways the dominant discourses of gender of her time and offer reinventions of female identities on the personal and public levels. We have seen that the style and content of her plays anticipate by more than three decades many features of contemporary feminist theory. On the individual level, her dramas break and remodel the gaze that assigns limited roles in society for women. On the social level, the plays perform gender-balancing acts through an elaboration of the feminine. Oddvar Holmesland has recognized that, in Bell in Campo, Cavendish "wages war against the Cromwellian idea of citizenship as based on separate gender spheres" (Holmesland 1). Seeking to build a society with more equitable gender combinations and balances, Cavendish indicates with the action of Bell in Campo that "as long as the men fail to recognize the women as equal partners, there can be no viable Restoration on the public battlefield" (Holmesland 1). To fully explore the nature and effects of gender definition, Cavendish uses transgendered and cross-dressed characters. She manipulates gender signifiers – attire, discourse, and body expressions – to replace the notion of woman as object with woman as spectacle. The force of the plays resides in their repetition of brief but insistent visions of female authority and accomplishment.


Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2001. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton, 2485-2501.

Cavendish, Margaret. The Blazing World and Other Writings. London: Penguin Books, 1992.

-----. The Convent of Pleasure and Other Plays. Anne Shaver, ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999.

-----. Bell in Campo.

-----. Loves Adventures.

-----. The Bridals.

Cixous, Helene. "The Laugh of the Medusa." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2001. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton, 2035-2056

Holmesland, Oddvar. "Fighting the Kingdom of Faction in Bell in Campo." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 14 (May, 2004): 5.1-25 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-14/holmfigh.html>

Peterson, Lesley. "Defects Redressed: Margaret Cavendish Aspires to Motley." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 14 (May, 2004): 8.1-30 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-14/petemotl.html>

Raber, Karen L. ""Our wits joined as in matrimony": Margaret Cavendish’s Playes and the Drama of Authority." English Literary Renaissance (Autumn 1998): 28:3 464-93.

Riviere, Joan. "Womanliness as a Masquerade." Shelley Saguaro, ed. Psychoanalysis and Woman: a Reader. New York: NYUP, 2000. pages 70-78 originally published 1927.

Whitaker, Katie. Mad Madge. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

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

© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).