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Bearing men : a cultural history of motherhood from the cycle plays to Shakespeare Olchowy Rozeboom, Gloria

Abstract

The scholars who assert that motherhood acquires new favor in the early modem period and the critics who contend that male subjectivity and patriarchy in Shakespeare's plays depend on the repudiation of the mother both base their perspectives on an understanding of motherhood which is too monolithic. To contribute to a more historically specific understanding, I draw on the work of numerous historians and examine humanist and reformist writings, the Corpus Christi cycles, and two Shakespearean plays. I find that the medieval "calculative" and "incarnational" versions of motherhood enabled women to exercise considerable control over their sexuality and fertility and clout in their families and communities, and that the Corpus Christi cycles served as a mechanism to extend multiple facets of these versions of the maternal. While the early modern period inherited the expansive, medieval versions of motherhood, the "new," restrictive form of motherhood advocated by the humanists and reformers helped to devalue the inherited forms, promote a greater spiritual, physical, and economic dependence of women on men, and enlarge the scope of the paternal at the expense of the maternal. My examination of Macbeth demonstrates that the play employs Scottish history so as to heighten attention to the risks produced by Elizabeth I's and James I's adaptations of the competing versions of motherhood available in the early modern period. It suggests that James's adaptation is especially conducive to instability, since it generates a contradiction in the hereditary system of political power-the simultaneous need for and exclusion of women/mothers. This contradiction coupled with the diminution of the feminine/maternal makes it more likely that murder will be construed as an alternative means of being "born" into the succession. Whereas Macbeth shifts from constructions more aligned with incarnational and calculative mothers to constructions more affiliated with new mothers, Coriolanus appears nearly throughout to be informed by the contest over motherhood. By exploring this contest, I add to the understanding of the economic, political, familial, and theatrical aspects of the play, and make it possible to suggest that Coriolanus demonstrates peace is achieved when a version of motherhood resembling the expansive, medieval forms is embraced.

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