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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Challenging cultural stereotypes: women tragic protagonists in Jacobean drama Marriott, John Eric


Written against a background of intellectual and social ferment over woman’s nature and role, the eight plays discussed implicitly criticize Renaissance society’s refusal to recognize woman’s full humanity by presenting strong, intelligent heroines seeking personal fulfilment in a hostile culture. For Shakespeare’s Desdemona and Cleopatra, sexuality is an integral part of the love they offer Othello and Antony who, however, stereotypically see women’s sexuality as wantonness and temptation. Iago easily persuades Othello that Desdemona’s independent spirit is a sign of lust. For Antony, Cleopatra’s love is a temptation to political and military indolence. Because her brothers see her remarriage as a taint on family honour, Webster’s Duchess of Malfi must act clandestinely to obtain a sexually and personally fulfilling marriage for which, on its discovery, the brothers take a horrible revenge. Socially ambitious, Vittoria Corombona too seeks sexual fulfilment and resorts to murder to escape an unfulfilling marriage and gain status. For both women, the resort to deception or to evil seems necessary in an evil, corrupt and hostile world which takes its revenge on both. Beaumont’s Evadne uses her sexual power to become the King’s mistress, hoping thereby to escape the social forces that victimize women. She finds herself, however, caught between conflicting codes of honour whose adherents all reject her as a kind of social pariah. Middleton’s Bianca Capello, Isabella and Beatrice-Joanna attempt to escape the tyranny of enforced marriage by elopement, adultery, or murder in a corrupt society, which paying lip service to, but not itself observing conventional morality, passes harsh judgement on them for their breaches of convention. Acceptance of, rather than rebellion against, enforced marriage leads Ford’s Penthea to a pathological brooding which results in her own death and the deaths of the chief characters. Though the five playwrights offer no solutions to their society’s tyranny over women, they strongly imply the need to adopt a more natural and comprehensive paradigm of woman.

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