Women, performance, and the household in early modern England, 1580-1660
Mueller, Sara Louise
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The texts and records of the household performances of early modern women collected and examined in this thesis, which together have not yet been the subject of any extended scholarly work, reveal that women performed in the household far more often and in many more ways than is yet acknowledged in scholarship. These texts and records also show that the household could be an amenable performance space for early modern women, both amateur and professional, aristocratic and not. This reconceptualization of the place of women’s performances in the household, I argue, necessitates an adjustment of received ideas of the ethical and moral status of those performances as well as a reevaluation of the household itself. I reassess the equation between theatrical performance and immorality and interrogate the “inheren[t] subversive[ness]” that one critic argues is found in all women’s household plays. While I maintain that women’s household performances could have multiple significations, this thesis focuses on performances that permitted women to shape their own reputations positively in household space, where women were agents influencing domestic life through their theatre. Chapter 1, the Introduction, outlines the critical field, positions women within the performance tradition of the household, and discusses the status of their performances, centering on the relationship between theatrical performance, agency, and feminine virtue. Chapter 2 focuses on royal progress entertainment, discussing the performances of domestic virtue of Queen Elizabeth’s female hosts which not only had the capacity to be received as virtuous, but worked to promote familial and class legitimacy. Chapter 3 talks about the banquets created and served by women, identifying those banquets as a form of theatre, and linking women’s creativity with their embodiment of domestic ideals through the performance of hospitality. Chapter 4 discusses touring women performers as accepted, acknowledged, and skillful theatre professionals who were licenced by the state to perform and who were permitted to perform in households and towns across England.