Rachel Speght Essay - Critical Essays

Rachel Speght


Rachel Speght 1597?-1630?

English pamphleteer and poet.

After three and a half centuries of literary neglect, the writings of Rachel Speght have begun to receive critical attention for their historical value as some of the earliest works by an English female author that defended the nature and rights of women. Writing in an age in which there were few women authors, Speght published a pamphlet entitled A Muzzle for Melastomus (1617) that argued that those who considered women evil or inferior by nature blasphemed God, since Scripture showed that woman was created as an equal partner to man. Although little is known about how Speght's argument was received in its own day, scholars today regard the pamphlet as the first non-pseudonymous writing by a woman in the Jacobean era that took part in the long-standing debate about the spiritual and worldly nature of women. Speght's only other published work, Mortalities Memorandum, with a Dreame Prefixed (1621), offered two long poems affirming that women had both the natural ability and the same rights as men to pursue education and offer spiritual lessons to mankind. While some critics have stopped short of labeling Speght an early feminist, nearly all agree that Speght's writing displays a personal courage and commitment to women's equality in matters of education and salvation that has few predecessors in English literature.

Biographical Information

Very little is known for certain about Speght's life. An anonymous poem included in A Muzzle for Melastomus mentions that Speght wrote the pamphlet before she was twenty; therefore, 1597 has usually been considered the most likely year of her birth. Speght was the daughter of a middle-class London clergyman and rector, James Speght, who published two sermons that displayed his Calvinist convictions. Almost nothing is known about Speght's mother except that her death was one of the reasons Speght began work on her Mortalities Memorandum, which was then dedicated to Mary Moundford, Speght's godmother and the wife of a well-known London physician. Both of Speght's literary efforts display familiarity with Latin, biblical exegesis, and classical, philosophical, and poetic literature, suggesting that even if Speght's education was informal, it was unusually advanced for a woman of her time. It is a matter of conjecture, too, why Speght withdrew from the public arena after the publication of Mortalities Memorandum, but the most likely explanation is that her marriage to William Proctor in August 1621 forced her into a life of domesticity that precluded writing. No record of her death survives, although she probably died sometime around 1630.

Major Works

Speght's 1617 pamphlet A Muzzle for Melastomus was written as a direct response to Joseph Swetnam's popular 1615 anti-female diatribe, The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women, which, as the title suggests, condemns women as immoral, weak, and responsible for the entrance of evil in the world. Although Swetnam's pamphlet would elicit numerous responses, including some claiming to be written by women authors, Speght's refutation was the earliest as well as the first to use its female author's real name. Taking on Swetnam's anecdotes, jibes, and insults point by point, Speght belittles the author's logic and his ability to understand Scripture. Using numerous biblical examples of her own, Speght argues that God created woman as an equal to man, that marriage is a union predicated on partnership, and that, although woman is indeed the “weaker vessel,” her weakness is purely physical. Swetnam, Speght's pamphlet makes clear, blasphemed God by denying women the role for which they were divinely created and the humanity to which they are entitled.

In 1621 Speght published Mortalities Memorandum, with a Dreame Prefixed, two long poems written in iambic pentameter divided into 176 six-line stanzas. Speght's motivation for writing the poems was twofold. First, she wished to prove that she, and not her father, as some apparently had claimed, was indeed the author of A Muzzle for Melastomus. Secondly, the death of her mother provided the inspiration for the title poem, “Mortalities Memorandum,” which contemplates death, viewing it as a welcome release from the shackles and impurities of life. The opening poem, “Dreame,” is generally considered the more interesting of the two, particularly since its allegorical narration of a woman who tries to overcome numerous obstacles to reach “Erudition's garden” is considered to be largely autobiographical in nature. The pursuit of knowledge, “Dreame” insists, is a divine right as open to women as men; in fact, both sexes have a duty to pursue it, since knowledge alone enables one to recognize evil and become virtuous. Men who deny women access to education, the poem implies, stand in the way of God's purpose. “Dreame” ends on a sorrowful note: the woman awakens before she reaches her final goal, realizes that her mother is dead, and laments that “some occurrence called me away” from her continued search for knowledge. The lengthy meditation on death that follows, as one critic has pointed out, may be thematically connected to the allegorical “dream,” since its negative appraisal of life, though certainly in accord with Speght's Calvinist background, may also reflect the author's anguish over the status of women, a condition that would soon end her own literary career.

Critical Reception

How Speght's works were received in their own time is largely a matter of inference. In Mortalities Memorandum, Speght mentions that A Muzzle for Melastomus was attacked by some who did not believe that such a young woman was capable of writing such a reasoned polemic and by others who resented Speght's presumption to challenge the prevailing view of woman's inferiority. A heavily annotated early volume of Speght's A Muzzle for Melastomus suggests what forms of misogynist attack Speght might have endured for her defense of women: the anonymous annotator (who, according to at least one scholar, may be Swetnam himself) pokes fun at Speght's arguments, often making crude references that question her chastity, morality, and even authorship. With the exception of another 1617 pamphlet, by the pseudonymous Ester Sowernam, who complained of the “inadequacy” of Speght's rebuttal of Swetnam, Speght's A Muzzle for Melastomus received no attention and was simply forgotten for much of the next three and a half centuries. Nothing is known of the contemporary reception of Mortalities Memorandum, and the fact that it was never reprinted after its initial publication in 1621 indicates that it garnered little critical attention.

After centuries of obscurity, Speght's two publications have since the 1980s begun to receive sustained literary attention by a small body of scholars who recognize in her work the early seeds of feminist thought. Although most of these critics have noted the careful reasoning of A Muzzle for Melastomus as an effective rebuttal of Swetnam's misogynist tract, the fact that it was the first Jacobean-era writing by a woman in the debate over the nature of women has in many ways overshadowed its intrinsic literary merit. The poetry of Mortalities Memorandum is also more highly regarded for its message than for its poetry, which is generally admitted to be “awkward.” “Dreame” has garnered much more critical interest than “Mortalities Memorandum,” both for its autobiographical insights and for its early enunciation that the ignorance imposed on women by men goes against God's will that women be equal participants with men in the quest for knowledge and personal salvation. The foremost goal of scholars interested in Speght has been to bring her life and work to the attention of a literary circle largely ignorant of her place as a forerunner of English feminist sentiment, and it has been argued that her inclusion in the canon of Renaissance literature would bring fresh perspectives to an era nearly devoid of female voices.

Principal Works

A Movzell for Melastomvs, The Cynicall Bayter of, and foule mouthed Barker against Evahs Sex. Or an Apologeticall Answere to that Irreligious and Illiterate Pamphlet made by Io. Sw. and by him Intituled, The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women [A Muzzle for Melastomus] (pamphlet) 1617

Mortalities Memorandum, with A Dreame Prefixed, imaginarie in manner, reall in matter (poetry) 1621


Cis van Heertum (essay date December 1987)

SOURCE: van Heertum, Cis. “A Hostile Annotation of Rachel Speght's A Mouzell for Melastomus (1617).” English Studies 68, no. 6 (December 1987): 490-96.

[In the following essay, van Heertum describes the misogynist annotations found in an early copy of Speght's A Muzzle for Melastomus, which the critic maintains give an idea of how Speght's defense of women might have infuriated many seventeenth-century men.]

Under the pseudonym of Thomas Tel-Troth a misogynist pamphlet was published in 1615 entitled The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women. The pamphlet was reprinted in the same year, on which occasion the author's real name...

(The entire section is 3613 words.)

Elaine V. Beilin (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Beilin, Elaine V. “Piety and Poetry: Isabella Whitney, Anne Dowriche, Elizabeth Colville, Rachel Speght.” In Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance, pp. 87-117. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Beilin focuses on the allegorical dream in Speght's Mortalities Memorandum, which, she argues, is radical in its assumption that women have the right to acquire knowledge and the ability to teach all humanity.]

… Rachel Speght's self-consciousness as a literary woman manifests itself both in the subject of her first work, A Mouzell for Melastomus (1617), a defense of women written in direct...

(The entire section is 2025 words.)

Mary Nyquist (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Nyquist, Mary. “The Genesis of Gendered Subjectivity in the Divorce Tracts and in Paradise Lost,” In Re-membering Milton: Essays on the Texts and Traditions, edited by Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson, pp. 99-127. New York: Methuen, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1987, Nyquist contends that Speght's arguments for gender equality in A Muzzle for Melastomus place her work as one of the earliest feminist responses to Genesis and to John Milton's Paradise Lost.]

So it continues to matter that Adam was formed first, then Eve. As a further means of taking the measure of Milton's interest in this priority, I would now...

(The entire section is 806 words.)

Elaine V. Beilin (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Beilin, Elaine V. “Writing Public Poetry: Humanism and the Woman Writer.” Modern Language Quarterly 51, no. 2 (1990): 249-71.

[In the following excerpt, Beilin argues that Speght was one of the earliest feminist writers to insist that education for women should not merely prepare them for domestic life but should also enable them to engage in public discourse.]

Had I a husband or a house,
          And all that longes therto
My selfe could frame about to rouse,
          As other women doo:
But til some houshold cares me tye,
          My bookes and pen I wyll apply.(1)

In these last lines of a verse letter to her sister, Isabella Whitney...

(The entire section is 2915 words.)

Ann Rosalind Jones (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Jones, Ann Rosalind. “Counterattacks on ‘The Bayter of Women’: Three Pamphleteers of the Early Seventeenth Century.” In The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon, edited by Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty M. Travitsky, pp. 45-62. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Jones examines Speght's scripturally based arguments for women's rights in A Muzzle for Melastomus, the first of several works written to refute Joseph Swetnam's popular anti-female pamphlet, The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women.]

In 1615 Joseph Swetnam published The Araignment of Lewde, idle,...

(The entire section is 3670 words.)

Barbara Kiefer Lewalski (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. “Defending Women's Essential Equality: Rachel Speght's Polemics and Poems.” In Writing Women in Jacobean England, pp. 153-75. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Lewalski discusses Speght's life and two major works, A Muzzle for Melastomus and Mortalities Memorandum, which the critic argues establish Speght as one of the earliest European feminists who contested popular and biblically based ideas on the inferior status of women.]

Rachel Speght's importance has been seriously underrated. A well-educated young woman of the London middle class, she was the first Englishwoman to...

(The entire section is 12272 words.)

Kim Walker (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Walker, Kim. “‘This worke of Grace’: Elizabeth Middleton, Alice Sutcliffe, Rachel Speght, and Aemilia Lanyer.” In Women Writers of the English Renaissance, pp. 101-23. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Walker discusses how Speght's “Dreame,” one of the poems in her Mortalities Memorandum, intends to show that women have the same ability as men to move from ignorance to knowledge.]

Rachel Speght is more radical in the strategies she employs to make herself a place in an overwhelmingly masculine literary tradition. In what Elaine Beilin describes as the “mythmaking” of the “Dream” narrative prefixed to...

(The entire section is 1806 words.)

Desma Polydorou (essay date March 2001)

SOURCE: Polydorou, Desma. “Gender and Spiritual Equality in Marriage: A Dialogic Reading of Rachel Speght and John Milton.” Milton Quarterly 35, no. 1 (March 2001): 22-32.

[In the following excerpt, Polydorou contrasts Speght's and John Milton's interpretations of biblical passages on gender roles and Christian marriage in order to argue that Speght far more than Milton should be seen as being at the forefront of seventeenth-century articulations of gender equality.]

While Milton may have been the first seventeenth-century canonical English writer to advance an arguably egalitarian view of woman,1 he is preceded and in some instances surpassed in this...

(The entire section is 3094 words.)

Linda Vecchi (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Vecchi, Linda. “‘Lawfull Avarice’: Rachel Speght's Mortalities Memorandum and the Necessity of Women's Education.” Women's Writing 8, no. 1 (2001): 3-19.

[In the following essay, Vecchi argues that the central message of Speght's Mortalities Memorandum can best be understood by comparing its two poems, “The Dreame” and “Mortalities Memorandum,” the first of which bespeaks the author's thirst for knowledge, and the second of which exposes how difficult it was, even for an educated, self-confident woman like Speght, to escape the prison of seventeenth-century women's life.]

The publication in 1621 of Mortalities Memorandum by...

(The entire section is 7439 words.)

Further Reading


Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. “Old Renaissance Canons, New Women's Texts: Some Jacobean Examples.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 138, no. 3 (September 1994): 397-406.

Argues that the works of Jacobean-era women like Speght deserve inclusion in the canon of English Renaissance literature to promote a better understanding of gender relations during the period.

———. Introduction to The Polemics and Poems of Rachel Speght, edited by Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, pp. xi-xxxvi. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Provides an introduction to Speght's poems and polemics, elaborating on...

(The entire section is 355 words.)