Rachel Speght Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.