'Mistress, look out at window': Women, Servants and Liminal Domestic Spaces on the Early Modern Stage

Iman Sheeha


The significance of the trope of the woman at the window in early modern culture and literature has already been productively examined by a number of literary critics, social and art historians. My particular contribution to this discussion consists of two parts. Firstly, I view windows as constituting one aspect of the bigger category of the liminal. As such, I consider windows alongside such other liminal domestic spaces as doors and gates, focusing on the way they represent points of weakness, spaces that rendered the house permeable, open and thus vulnerable. Secondly, I explore the relationship of these liminal domestic spaces to two, rather than one, domestic members, the mistress of the household and the domestic servant. I argue that early modern anxieties surrounding women’s sexuality, managerial roles in the household and access to the apertures of the house are not dramatised on the early modern stage and in plays depicting households in isolation from other anxieties about the domestic space, as most recent scholarship on the topic seems to suggest. Instead, this anxiety is frequently linked spatially and thematically with anxieties about household servants as expressed in prescriptive literature as well as in contemporary plays. Anxieties about both household mistresses and their servants, I argue, are often given expression and shape in early modern dramatic representations of the household around, on, by and near the liminal spaces of the household. Showing how anxieties about the mistress, the servant and liminal domestic spaces work together in the anonymous The Tragedy of Master Arden of Faversham (1590s), Othello (1603), and The Merchant of Venice (1596), I argue that the plays evoke these threats at moments of crucial dramatic importance, attempting (not always usefully) to neutralise this combined threat in their final movements.


liminality, windows, gender, Shakespeare

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