illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial

Rethinking Gender and Genre in the History Play

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8537

Martha A. Kurtz, Southampton College of Long Island University

Two concepts that have exercised considerable influence over criticism of Elizabethan drama in the past fifteen years are what might be called the hegemony of genre—that is, the idea that the ideological content of a play is predetermined and controlled by the dramatic genre to which the play seems to belong—and the Lacanian dualistic theory of gender in which masculine and feminine are seen as discrete and oppositional identities, the boundaries of which are never blurred and which can never overlap or unite. These two assumptions coalesce in the frequently reiterated premise that the history play as a genre is fundamentally antagonistic to women and the "feminine":

The myth of the history plays involves fathers and sons. It does not involve mothers, daughters, or wives.

Antagonists and consorts, queens and queans, witches and saints: women play almost every conceivable role on Shakespeare's historical stage. But there is one role that no woman can play, that of the hero. Aliens in the masculine world of history, women can threaten or validate the men's historical projects, but they can never take the center of history's stage or become the subjects of its stories.

In the man's world of the history play, the only power the woman can wield is her power to dismay through verbal abuse . . . The curse of the scold is feared almost as much as the drubbing she supposedly administers to her unfortunate man . . . but it achieves nothing.

Tudor history was not simply written without women; it was also written against them. Patriarchal history is designed to construct a verbal substitute for the visible physical connection between a mother and her children, to authenticate the . . . relationships between fathers and sons, and to suppress and supplant the role of the mother.

The feminine offers too powerful a challenge to the idea of history itself for Shakespeare to deal with it in the history plays. The Otherness of the feminine challenges the ethos of power and conquest through aggression; history as a genre must ultimately base itself on that ethos, no matter how it also criticizes it. If we lose interest in the military-political adventure we have lost interest in history itself as a genre.1

An extension of a patriarchal Tudor historiography, the history play is seen by these writers as inherently a "men's world" in which women are the naturally feared and opposing Other whom the genre must minimalize, weaken, and exclude in order to maintain its own generic identity. The domain of the "masculine" is the public life that becomes documented history; its ethos is "power and conquest through aggression." The domain of the "feminine," it is implied, is the opposite of this—the private life that is never documented, the ethos that, whether it renounces aggression or pursues it in distinctively "feminine" ways (deception, manipulation, verbal abuse), is ultimately powerless.

We should be cautious about arguments that make such sweeping claims. "Masculine" and "feminine" are notoriously slippery terms, which are more apt to show the qualities that a particular culture in a particular historical moment assigns to men and women than any unchanging truths about gender, and which reduce the complexities of real men and women to gross oversimplifications. To define the "masculine" as an "ethos of power and . . . aggression" implies that no gentler qualities properly belong to men; if to be "feminine" is to be passive, powerless, and overlooked, then women can never appropriately be powerful or important. Linda Bamber, Phyllis Rackin, and Lisa Jardine are not,...

(This entire section contains 8537 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

of course, speaking about masculinity and femininity in general, but as they are seen in the characters and situations of Elizabethan history plays. We may wonder, however, whether a genre that includes plays as diverse as theHenry VI trio and Sir Thomas More, 1 Henry IV, and Woodstock, is likely to show one point of view about anything, even gender.

There may be some basis for a theory of generic determinism in the case of comedy or tragedy, which by the sixteenth century had a long history of precedents and a few established conventions that undoubtedly did influence the audiences' expectations and the writers' products. The history play, on the other hand, was an invention of the last twenty years of Elizabeth's reign. The playwrights were making it up as they went along; it is difficult to see how they could have been constrained by a genre that they were in the process of creating.2 Printed histories like Holinshed's chronicle or Foxe's Acts and Monuments obviously contributed greatly to the dramatic product, but, in addition to the fact that different chroniclers have demonstrably different biases, we need to remember that many aspects of popular culture also helped to shape most of the socalled "chronicle histories," as undoubtedly did the different personalities, backgrounds, and interests of the individual playwrights. While some history plays may well be based on a patriarchal ethos that marginalizes or demonizes women, it does not follow that such an ethos is the foundation of the genre as a whole.

It is easy, of course, to see where the idea of a generic opposition to women in the history plays has come from. There are few women characters in any of the best-known plays, and even fewer who exercise any kind of political power. Hotspur's Kate seems paradigmatic: her anxious questions left unanswered, her love brushed aside like a child's toy ("Away, you trifler! Love! I love thee not, / I care not for thee, Kate; this is no world / To play with mammets, and to tilt with lips"), she cannot be told where her husband is going or even where he expects her to go, and she is asked to be "content" with a course of events that soon leaves her a grieving widow (1 Henry IV II.iii.91-3, 118).3 She is not alone. In Richard II, Richard's queen learns of the most important event in her life from a household servant, the gardener—and can only weep and curse helplessly in response, unable to do anything to change the course of events that will lead to her widowhood and exile. She cannot even confront the source of her misery directly, but must take her anger out on the gardener and his plants.4 Almost equally helpless are the trio of women in Richard III, who lament the husbands and children they have lost to Richard's sinister power, and the French princess Katherine in Henry V, who must marry "as it shall please de roi mon père" and the conquering English king (V.ii.261).5 There are a few women in Shakespeare's early histories who take action in an attempt to control their own lives, but, as a number of studies have pointed out, they are ultimately defeated and demonized.6 Joan of Arc and Margaret of Anjou lead men in battle, but Joan is exposed as a whore and burned at the stake, while Margaret becomes first the "tiger's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide" who commits the most memorable atrocities in a play remembered primarily for its bloodshed and horror, and then the half-mad harridan who haunts the halls of power in Richard III, with no power left of her own except the one she shares with Hotspur's Kate and Richard II's queen—the power to curse (3 Henry VI I.iv.137).7 However strong such women as Joan or Margaret may be for a time, they are ultimately punished for their audacity in exercising power by being reduced to helpless grotesques who are rejected by the masculine forces of their own dramatic world and by the audience.

Or so the argument goes. Yet, important as it is to recognize the ways in which these women characters are deprived of political power, we should not forget the theatrical effect created by a few women on a stage crowded with men: their gender, highlighted by their costumes, sets them apart and draws a particularly intense attention to everything they say and do, giving them a theatrical power that goes considerably beyond the number of lines they speak or the political power they are able to exercise in their fictional worlds. Kate's role in Henry IV and Isobel's in Richard II are not insignificant simply because the parts are small. Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to emphasize the plight of these helpless women: confined to, but not sheltered by, their domestic existence, they emblematize the suffering that public action often inflicts on private lives. If this is not as gratifying today as portrayals of strong, successful women would be, it nevertheless has the effect of making the women a kind of moral touchstone in the plays. We may be interested in the war and politics that dominate the action, but we cannot fully approve of them when Kate and Isobel are standing by to remind us of the senseless suffering these masculine activities create.8 In productions of Richard III the women—particularly Margaret—are riveting. Their language is almost hypnotic in its intensity and, with the possible exception of the weak-willed Anne, they clearly have the moral high ground. They are the only ones who see Richard as we see him and say what we want to hear said about him, and they, not Richmond, provide a focal point for the audience's sympathies throughout the play. In the end, of course, they are justified and Richard is defeated.9 In the Henry VI plays Margaret can be seen as a different kind of critique of the values of the masculine world of war: what is horrifying in men is more vividly horrifying in her because it is unexpected. We can see the nightmare violence for what it is more clearly in a woman than in a man because we are less accustomed to it there, the way a cigarette looks more shocking in a child's mouth than an adult's.10 Joan's leveling cynicism about the heroics of war has much the same popular appeal as Falstaff s, and if she is satirized and demonized in the last act, the audience will not necessarily forget all that has gone before.11 Each of these women is different in character and social position from the others, but each exercises considerable theatrical power on the audience, and each implies a criticism of the masculine characters and their struggles for political power and conquest.

These are the women in the best-known histories.12 If, as I am arguing, we need to approach the history plays with fewer preformed notions about patriarchal history and the unbending determinism of genre and gender, and more openness to the plays' theatricality and the power that the women in them may exercise on the plays' audiences, we also need to expand our definition of the genre to include plays other than those by Shakespeare. There are many to choose from; in the space that remains I will look at two, Woodstock and Sir Thomas More, each of which complicates in different ways the simple ideas about gender so often attributed to the history plays.

It would be hard to find a more conventionally "feminine" woman than Woodstock's Queen Anne. She is beautiful, tactful, kind, and good. When Richard marries her in the first act, she pleases everyone by her delight in England and her desire to become English ("[L]et me be englishèd: / They best shall please me shall me English call" [I.iii.48-9]).13 She spends her time sewing garments to give to the poor (II.iii). She not only rides sidesaddle herself, she is responsible for introducing that "feminine" approach to exercise to other English ladies, thus—the play's hero declares—teaching them "womanhood" (I.iii.53-61). She is called "virtuous" so often that it begins to sound like another name.

Like Shakespeare's Kate or Isobel she has relatively little to say—about eighty lines—and she spends much of her time in distress: over her husband's bad relationship with his uncles, his extravagance, the condition of the kingdom's poor, and so on. Midway through the play she dies. Yet she is an important character. Her femininity, far from being marginalized or discredited, is treated by the play's central character, Woodstock, as a potentially powerful force for good. He is delighted that she has taught ladies to be more feminine by riding sidesaddle, but it is not only women whom he hopes she will influence. "Afore my God," he declares to his brothers on the king's wedding day,

I have good hope this happy marriage, brothers, Of this so noble and religious princess Will mildly calm his headstrong youth, to see And shun those stains that blur his majesty.


Richard's "headstrong" ways include extortion, reckless expenditure, and, ultimately, kidnapping and murder. In a world in which the character of one man could mean the difference between life and death for his subjects, a woman's ability to influence her husband takes on political as well as private significance.

Richard, unfortunately, proves to be hard to "calm." Although he is always affectionate to his wife, he continues to raise taxes to feed his extravagant personal tastes, which include huge feasts and expensive new clothes. Anne, meanwhile, is shown with the ladies of her court packing up "shirts and bands and other linen"—some of it sewn by the queen herself—to send to the poor, and we learn that she has sold her jewels and plate to help relieve the suffering caused by her husband's taxation (II.iii.1.s.d.; 21-3). Her "housewifery" and charity are highly praised by everyone who hears of them, and pose an obviously desirable alternative to the insensitivity and selfishness of the king (II.iii.63). They are also politically powerful. When she is dying, later in the play, Woodstock laments the probable results:

Her charity hath stayed the Commons' rage That would ere this have shaken Richard's chair Or set all England on a burning fire. And—'fore my God—I fear, when she is gone This woeful land will all to ruin run.


While this popular uprising never occurs, Woodstock's fear of it is a measure of the importance he attaches to Anne's popularity. In the end we find that her influence extends even to the king. Despite his selfishness and cruelty he is so devastated by his wife's death that he suddenly repents of having ordered Woodstock's murder and tries, though unsuccessfully, to have it stopped. With typical extravagance, he orders the house where Anne died to be pulled down:

Down with this house of Sheen, go ruin all! Pull down her buildings, let her turrets fall: For ever lay it waste and desolate That English king may never here keep court, But to all ages leave a sad report, When men shall see these ruined walls of Sheen And sighing say, Here died King Richard's queen.

(IV.iii. 157-63)

Like the rebellion Woodstock fears, the ruined palace suggests the importance of Anne to the survival of the kingdom.

Anne's goodness, particularly in the emblematic scene with the shirts and linen, clearly establishes the positive values of the play as something we might call "feminine." They are not associated exclusively with women, however. Anne's concern for the poor and her willingness to sacrifice her jewels to help them is matched by her great ally throughout the play, Woodstock, who is called "Plain Thomas" in acknowledgment not only of his blunt speech, but also of his preference for frieze coats and plain hose. When pressed by his brothers, he agrees to put on richer clothes for Richard's wedding day and astonishes his nephew by his "golden metamorphosis / From homespun housewifry"; the last word links Woodstock with women in general and the queen in particular (I.iii.75-6). "Plain Thomas" remains uncomfortable in his best clothes, however, and when twitted by Richard about his usual dress, he defends it vehemently:

Ay, ay, mock on. My tother hose, say ye? There's honest plain dealing in my tother hose. Should this fashion last I must raise new rents, Undo my poor tenants, turn away my servants, And guard myself with lace; nay, sell more land And lordships too, by th'rood. Hear me, King Richard: If thus I jet in pride, I still shall lose; But I'll build castles in my tother hose


Tother hose! did some here wear that fashion They would not tax and pill the Commons so!


The last lines are a direct dig at Richard and his favorites, whose exotic and expensive costumes are a highly visible sign of their selfishness throughout the play. Vanity and extravagance, so often considered feminine sins, are in this play assigned exclusively to men, while simplicity and unselfishness, feminized by the term "housewifry," are associated with both the women of the play and its male hero.

"Housewifry" is, in an important sense, what this play is about. Its concern is not so much with public action—with what Linda Bamber calls the "military and political adventures" that she believes are the ethos of the history play as a genre—but with the private lives of public people and their use (and abuse) of domestic economy. Unlike his counterpart in Shakespeare's Richard II, this Richard is not interested in pursuing wars abroad or political maneuverings at home; he only wants to build new buildings and tear down old ones, to try on new clothes and give parties for his friends. His sins are largely a result of his poor housekeeping, the selfish extravagance which forgets that a king's or a lord's private indulgences affect the lives of others. The queen, on the other hand, is a good housekeeper, while Woodstock remembers that a lord's rich clothing spells financial ruin for his dependents and that castle building is best done in plain hose.

If the king prefers parties to politics and war, Woodstock and his brothers also prefer private life—though theirs is a simpler and more wholesome one than the king's. In act III, they retire to Woodstock's country house at Plashey after being dismissed from the court. "I lived with care at court, and now am free," Lancashire declares, and York agrees:

Come, come, let's find some other talk, I think not on it: I ne'er slept soundly when I was amongst them, So let them go.


The description of Plashey is irresistible:

This house of Plashey, brother Stands in a sweet and pleasant air, ifaith: Tis near the Thames, and circled round with trees That in the summer serve for pleasant fans To cool ye; and in winter strongly break The stormy winds that else would nip ye too.


If there is an emotional heart of the play, this is it. Domesticity, associated with both women and men, is the ethos of this play, not the public world of action and corruption.

As in other histories, however, the private world is not invulnerable. In Richard II it is the weeping queen who reminds us of its dangers; in the Henry IV plays, it is Hotspur's Kate. In Woodstock, it is a man—Woodstock himself, who is seized from his domestic retreat and carried to his death by a party of masked men that includes the king. The kindly duke's fate seems oddly connected to the absence of his lady. Just before the maskers arrive the duchess is called away to attend to the queen, who has been taken sick. Woodstock urges his wife to hurry, yet she resists; like so many women in the history plays, she has had foreboding dreams of her husband's death and does not want to leave him. Woodstock dismisses her fears and hurries her out of the house, but when he is left alone he is obviously unsettled:

And, but th'important business craves such haste, She had not gone from Plashey House tonight.


While there is little she could have done to prevent the kidnapping, the scene leaves one with the impression that Woodstock has lost some kind of defense—an impression doubled when we learn that there are few servants left at Plashey, as "most of my attendants [are] waiting on her [the duchess]" (IV.ii.130). Left without his wife and most of his household, Woodstock is peculiarly vulnerable, and no one should be surprised when the king strikes. Although her spoken part is tiny the duchess, like Queen Anne, seems to carry a symbolic importance far greater than the number of her lines. Woodstock is a play more concerned with the need for kindness and domestic economy than with war games and masculine heroics; when the women are gone, "this woeful land will all to ruin run."

The women of Woodstock are feminine in conventional ways, but other characters respect them and their values are reflected in the play's central male figure; they are neither demonized nor marginalized, despite the smallness of their parts. In the opening scenes of Sir Thomas More, on the other hand, we meet a woman who is in many ways their opposite. Outspoken, brash, violent, and vulgar, Doll Williamson—like Joan of Arc or Margaret of Anjou—has been described as a shrewish transvestite whose violation of all the constraints conventionally placed on feminine behavior mark her as "comic" and "monstrous," while her close brush with death on the gallows is said to teach the usual lessons about the evils of rebellion and the value of submission to (masculine) authority.14 Yet such a reading ignores the context in which Doll appears—a scene in which authority behaves so outrageously that Doll's outrageous behavior seems the only reasonable response.

When the play opens, two foreigners are wreaking havoc on London's citizens by stealing the food from their mouths and the wives from their beds, all the while sanctioned by an arrangement between their ambassador and the Privy Council that grants them immunity. While one man takes a pair of doves from a carpenter who has just bought them, another tries to drag away the carpenter's wife—Doll Williamson. Confronted by several citizens, the foreigners refuse to pay for the birds and continue to try to take Doll Williamson with them, boasting that they will have any woman they want, "and she were the mayor of London's wife" (I.i.47).15 We learn that one of these men has seduced "the goldsmith's wife . . . whom thou enticedst from her husband with all his plate," and then took the goldsmith to court and "mads't him, like an ass, pay for his wife's board" (Li. 10-3). The Londoners are naturally infuriated, and respond with rough poetic justice by burning the houses of the men who have attacked their own home lives.

The most impressive figure in the scenes, however, is Doll. While her husband and his friends are at first "curbed by duty and obedience," and believe "[y]ou may do anything, the goldsmith's wife, and mine now, must be at your commandment," she does not submit passively to attack (I.i.51, 42-4). "Purchase of me? Away ye rascal! I am an honest plain carpenter's wife and though I have no beauty to like a husband, yet whatsoever is mine scorns to stoop to a stranger. Hands off then when I bid thee," she orders de Bard when he first tries to drag her off (I.i.4-7). When he threatens her, she calls him "dog's face" and, a little later, tells him to "[t]ouch not Doll Williamson, lest she lay thee along on God's dear earth," and orders him to give the doves back to her husband (I.i.9, 60-5). Her threats are effective: de Bard drops her arm abruptly and leaves, to "complain to my lord ambassador" (I.i.69-70). As the Londoners' resentment rises, she continues to urge the men to take action, and puts on armor herself to "make a captain among ye, and do somewhat to be talk of for ever after" (I.i. 134-5).

Doll is not alone. Although she is the only female character to appear on stage in this part of the play, the audience is always conscious of her as part of a whole community of women, all of them willing to speak out and fight back against the foreigners' abuse. She speaks, not simply about herself, but about all women: "Hands off proud stranger, or [by] Him that bought me, if men's milky hearts dare not strike a stranger, yet women will beat them down, ere they bear these abuses"; "Ay, and if you men durst not undertake it, before God we women [will]"; "I'll call so many women to mine assistance, as we'll not leave one inch untorn of thee. If our husbands must be bridled by law, and forced to bear your wrongs, their wives will be a little lawless, and soundly beat ye" (I.i.55-58, 95-6, 64-8). Far from being marginalized, women are the dominant power in this part of the play.

These opening scenes give voice to popular grievances, not conservative disapproval of anarchy. Hatred of foreigners, so often seen as a link between these scenes and London's anti-stranger riots of 1593, is coupled with an explosive resentment against class privileges and the arrogance of caste: the foreigner who steals Williamson's doves adds insult to injury when he tells the workingmen that "Beef and brewis may serve such hinds," and asks, "[A]re pigeons meat for a coarse carpenter?" (I.i.23-4).16 Doll responds to his tone as much as to his actions when she tells him, "And you sir, that allow such coarse cates to carpenters, whilst pigeons which they pay for must serve your dainty appetite: deliver them back to my husband again" (I.i.61-4). Throughout the scene she voices the self-respect and self-assertion we badly want to see in these English citizens who are so outrageously abused. If we laugh, it is not at her but at the ineffective men in the scene—both the law-abiding Englishmen "brideled by law," whose "milky hearts dare not strike a stranger," and the Lombards who are so easily defeated by a little resistance, and who run off like whining children to complain to their ambassador about it.17 If she transgresses the boundaries of conventional feminine behavior by being neither silent nor submissive, most of the audience will surely be behind her all the way.

Our allegiance becomes more dangerous, of course, as Doll moves from defending her chastity—a motive that even the most orthodox men might find hard to blame—to burning houses. It has been argued that she and the other rioters are deliberately and systematically undermined in the scenes that follow, until they are no longer sympathetic and we side easily with the authorities.18 Yet while Doll is certainly a diminished figure in the famous scene by Hand D—her two lines suggest that she is now capable of thinking of nothing except "Shrieve More" 's kindness to her brother, "Arthur Watchins"—when Hand S resumes his part she is once again at center stage, as attractive as before. It is remarkable how often her importance in the gallows scene has been overlooked or minimized by modern critics, who focus on Lincoln as "the prime instigator" and main interest of the riot and its aftermath.19 Yet, except for the interposed scenes written by Hands C and D, Doll dominates the riot from beginning to end. Lincoln is allowed four lines before his death; his speech is a model of orthodoxy, instructing the onlookers to learn from him the value of obedience, meekness, and submission. Doll has five or six times as many lines, all of them noticeably lacking in either meekness or submission. She urges Lincoln to die like a man—"Bravely, John Lincoln, let thy death express / That as thou livedst a man, thou diest no less" (II.iv.50-1)—and she speaks his epitaph, undoing the effect of his speech by inviting us to admire, not condemn, what the rioter has earlier said and done:

Farewell John Lincoln; say all what they can: Thou livedst a good fellow, and diedst an honest man.


Doll continues to hold our attention as she asks, and is granted, the favor of dying before her husband, and then addresses him and her friends at length. "Here I begin this cup of death to thee," she tells her husband,

Because thou shalt be sure to taste no worse Than I have taken, that must go before thee. What though I be a woman, that's no matter, I do owe God a death, and I must pay him. Husband, give me thy hand, be not dismayed


Only two little babes we leave behind us, And all I can bequeath them at this time Is but the love of some good honest friend


Will. Why, well said, wife, i'faith thou cheerst my heart, Give me thy hand, let's kiss, and so let's part.Doll. The next kiss, Williamson, shall be in heaven. Now cheerly lads, George Betts, a hand with thee, And thine too, Ralph, and thine, good honest Sherwin. Now let me tell the women of this town No stranger yet brought Doll to lying down. So long as I an Englishman can see, Nor French nor Dutch shall get a kiss of me. And when that I am dead, for me yet say I died in scorn to be a stranger's prey.


Dramatic, pathetic, heroic, and defiant to the last, this speech—longer and more colorful than Lincoln's—is the climax of the Ill May Day scenes. The playwright pulls out all the emotional stops, making Doll the focus of our sympathetic attention and anxiety right up to the moment before she is to step off the platform, when a messenger arrives with the king's pardon, obtained by More's intervention at the last moment. The crowd all throw up their hats with relief, and Doll, typically, gets the last word:

And Doll desires it from her very heart, More's name shall live for this right noble part.


The men in this scene are little more than extras. Doll emerges as the hero of the whole affair—a hero who is at once masculine and feminine. "Lusty," defiant, physically tough, she could as easily have been played by a man as a boy, yet even when she is in men's clothing we are never allowed to forget that she is a woman; her concern for her husband and her children in her speech before the gallows surely feminizes her as much as her costume and her actions masculinize her. Truly androgynous, she is one of the attractive Amazons who drew so much popular attention during the 1590s and early 1600s, yet unlike the majority of such figures, she is never "reintegrated into conservative ideology" by being demonized or returned to helpless femininity,20 and she exercises real power. As we have seen, Lisa Jardine has argued that the history play is a "men's world" in which "the only power the woman can wield is her power to dismay through verbal abuse . . . but it achieves nothing." Doll, however, is clearly effective in winning her freedom and gaining her revenge; although she is arrested with the other rioters and almost hanged, in the end she is released scot-free.

Doll is not the play's only star, of course. She dominates the stage during the first two acts, but the riot introduces the play's title figure, Thomas More, and shows the path by which he moves from relative obscurity to the highest office in the land, the king's reward for his service in calming the rebellion. His entrance moves the play onto a new emotional plane. If Doll is a woman who sets aside traditionally "feminine" behavior to take a violent part in public affairs, More proves to be a man of public affairs with a gentle and decidedly domestic cast of mind. As in Woodstock, these "feminine" qualities are celebrated throughout the play as the hero's greatest strengths.

When the Privy Council receives news that the citizens of London are rioting, Surrey remembers "Master More, / One of the sheriffs, a wise and learned gentleman" (I.iii.85-6) and hopes that

He . . . May by his gentle and persuasive speech Perhaps prevail more than we can with power.


Surrey's hope proves well founded; More does indeed subdue the rioters without show of force. "Gentleness" is his winning suit. His oration is best known for its praise of order and obedience, based on the premise that the king is God's representative on earth, a rebellion against the king a rebellion against God:

For to the king God hath his office lent Of dread, of justice, power and command, Hath bid him rule, and willed you to obey.


But although these abstract arguments, with their emphasis on male authority and public order, impress the crowd, they do not bring the riot to an end. A different note, more intimate and personal, is struck at the beginning and end of the speech, in which More imagines

the wretched strangers, Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage Plodding to th'ports and coasts for transportation,

and asks the Londoners what treatment they would want to receive if they were to become such homeless exiles (II.ii.80-2, 133-51). This wins the day: "Faith, 'a says true; let's do as we may be done by," all the citizens exclaim after he reminds them that they too could become homeless, and so they agree to lay down their weapons and go to prison to await the king's mercy (II.iii.152). The appeal to compassion and domestic experience—supposedly "feminine" qualities—proves to have more power than either physical force or what today would be called the "masculine" appeal to abstract reasoning and authority.

Such domestic thinking characterizes More, like Woodstock, throughout the play. His "housekeeping" is praised from beginning to end, first by Doll ("A keeps a plentiful shrievalty," "Th'art a good housekeeper") and then by his own servants; it is one of the reasons that the rioters are willing to listen to him at all (II.iii.47, 63; V.ii.15-7).21 Scott McMillin has pointed out that the middle part of the play is a series of interior scenes, demarcated on the stage by the curtained space called for in the stage direction before I.ii and contrasted with the public spaces called for at the beginning and end of the play.22 Within these interior spaces, More is shown "at home"—greeting his friend Erasmus with a practical joke, fussing over the preparations of a banquet for the Lord and Lady Mayor of London (he arranges the chairs himself, and worries about being away from the guests at the same time as his wife), and bringing his wife the news that, as a result of his refusal to sign the king's "articles," he has resigned his office of chancellor and his public life. More's response to his "fall" from public to private life is, typically, cheerful:

No wife, be merry, and be merry all,


Let's in, and here joy like to private friends;


[H]e that ne'er knew court courts sweet content;


Here let me live estranged from great men's looks: They are like golden flies on leaden hooks.

(IV.iv. 107-8)

(His preference for a private, domestic life over a corrupt public one, so familiar from Jonson and other classically trained poets, recalls as well Woodstock and the uncles' satisfaction in their banishment from their nephew's court.) Later More will think of the Tower as "my strong house," rather than "my prison" (V.i.32), and will ask his family,

Why do you weep? Because I live at ease? Did you not see, when I was chancellor, I was so cloyed with suitors every hour I could not sleep, nor dine, nor sup in quiet? Here's none of this, here I can sit and talk With my honest keeper half a day together, Laugh and be merry. Why then should you weep?


He thinks of himself as a "guest" of the Lieutenant of the Tower, sending thanks to "your good lady" for her entertainment of him there (V.iv.18-9). Even the scaffold is conceived of as a comfortable home: "Here's a most sweet gallery, I like the air of it better than my garden at Chelsea" (V.iv.63-4). This is not just escapism: the domestic cast of mind that calms a public rebellion is powerful enough to bring peace to More himself, even in the face of death.

Like Woodstock, the hero of this play is both a public and a private man. He is frequently shown with his private family—his wife, daughters, son-in-law, and servants—but he enjoys equally warm relations with a kind of extended, public family that includes Doll's brother, a group of actors, a poor old woman, and even a pickpocket ("[Y]ou know that you are known to me / And I have often saved ye from this place," he tells Lifter in court, before finding a way to save the condemned thief's life [I.ii.52-3]), as well as mayors and sheriffs. His most private moments tend to be interrupted by calls to public business, as his banquet is interrupted by a call to the court, or his conference with his family by the arrival of the Council to demand that he sign the "articles" or go to prison; while his ability to personalize public life, establishing intimate relations with people like Doll through his kindness to her brother, is shown to be the real source of his political strength.

If there is no firm boundary between public and private life in this play, the distinction between "feminine" and "masculine" is equally ambiguous. More is certainly the head of his household, and at the banquet he tells his wife firmly:

[G]ive you direction How women should be placed, you know it best. For my lord mayor, his brethren, and the rest, Let me alone, men best can order men.


At other times he separates himself from a femininity which he defines as weakness, as when he urges his son-in-law not to mourn:

If you will share my fortunes, comfort then: An hundred smiles for one sigh; what, we are men. Resign wet passion to these weaker eyes, Which proves their sex, but grants [them] ne'er more wise.


Yet Doll has shown that women need not be weak, and More does not always dissociate himself from the feminine. In his retirement, he calls his daughters "you that like to branches spread / And give best shadow to a private house" (IV.iv.6-7), and in his last meeting with his family he urges them:

Ever retain thy virtuous modesty.


Live all, and love together, and thereby You give your father a rich obsequy.

(V.iii. 115-22)

Privacy and modesty have been two of More's most obvious characteristics throughout the play; these lines suggest that his daughters are his spiritual as well as his material heirs. Known for his "gentle and persuasive speech" rather than force and aggression (I.iii.89), rooted in domestic life and surrounded by women in scene after scene, the hero of this history play is as "feminine" as he is "masculine," and is celebrated as both.

Yet if More is meek and gentle as he goes to his death, he is also defiant. He refuses to the end to bend his conscience and sign the king's "articles," preferring death to submission, although he continues to declare that "his majesty hath been ever good to me" (V.iv.71-2). The final scene on the scaffold inevitably recalls the scaffold scene at the end of act II and sets up a series of unsettling parallels. The one most frequently noted is that between More and Lincoln, the rebel who actually died reiterating what More had preached to the crowd of rioters—"Obedience is the best in each degree" (II.iv.59).23 Yet More does not finally take his own advice. The more striking similarity in many ways is to Doll, the real focus of attention on the earlier scaffold, as More is on the final one. The stoicism and humor that she showed then are repeated in More at the play's end, when he jokes about what the king will do with his head and how his headache will be cured (V.iv.75-9, 83-4). His defiance echoes hers as well, although it is more quietly expressed.

The parallel between More and Doll suggests a more disturbing similarity in this play: between the foreigners whom Doll resists so vigorously, and the king whom More less obviously, but with no less courage, defies. Both attack private life, the foreigners by seizing men's food and men's wives, the king by choosing to assert his will over a man's private conscience and so destroying the happy family circle with which More is so much identified. When the king is merciful, pardoning the attractive rebels of the opening scenes, he is imaged as a mother, who

in the arms of mild and meek compassion Would rather clip you, as the loving nurse Oft doth the wayward infant, than to leave you.

(II.iv. 160-2)

When he chooses to execute More, however, he joins Woodstock's King Richard as the enemy of the family, of women (all the women in the play are aligned with More), and of conscientious men. At the core of these histories is an ethos, not of masculine "military adventure" or "aggression" and "conquest," but of a private and domestic life which belongs to both sexes and which is seen as opposed to, and threatened by, the hostile and destructive power of the crown.24

I am not arguing that all Elizabethan histories have such a domestic center, that women in Elizabethan society enjoyed equality with men, or that there was a politics or a drama that could, by today's standards, reasonably be called feminist. I am suggesting that the obvious disenfranchisement of most Elizabethan women from political power and the brief roles allotted to them in the historical and political drama did not mean that they were necessarily insignificant in such drama. In some plays, at least, the "feminine" is as powerful a force as the "masculine," both in the audience's sympathies and, at times, in the fictional world of the play itself: the women in Shakespeare's histories are used to critique the excesses of the men who rule their lives, while women in other histories exercise forms of power that are validated, not demonized, by the playwrights who created them. Nor are the masculine characters portrayed exclusively in terms of aggression and lust for power: Woodstock and More are celebrated for their gentleness, their compassion, and their "house-wifery," not their military prowess. Neither gender nor genre limits the ability of the audiences of these plays to identify with and support masculine and feminine heroes alike. The history play of the 1590s was not a totalitarian, hegemonic genre that enforced the code of a patriarchal society, but a new and experimental form within which individual playwrights might articulate a range of ideas, radical as well as conservative, about men and women and their place in public life.


1 Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1982), p. 163; Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare 's English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), p. 147; Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton: Harvester; Totowa NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1983), p. 118; Rackin, p. 161; Bamber, p. 142.

2 Indeed, one may question whether the "history" ever really became a clearly defined dramatic genre, and if it did, what conventions and boundaries governed it. It is, however, a convenient term for plays based on what was known as English history, and I use it in that sense.

3 William Shakespeare, The First Part of King Henry IV, ed. A. R. Humphreys, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1960). Bamber sees Kate here as "merely . . . a kind of contrast or background from which the hero rides off to his adventure," a "supernumerar[y] in a world of men" (p. 142).

4 "Isolated from the arena of power, she can foresee the outcome of the historical action before it occurs, and she can report it after it is complete, but she can do nothing at all to affect its course" (Rackin, p. 163).

5 William Shakespeare, King Henry V, ed. J. H. Walter, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1954). See Bamber, p. 138, and Marilyn L. Williamson, "'When Men are Rul'd by Women': Shakespeare's First Tetralogy," ShakS 19 (1987): 41-60, 56, on the helplessness of the women in Richard III, and Bamber, p. 143; Leah S. Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), p. 94; and Lance Wilcox, "Katherine of France as Victim and Bride," ShakS 17 (1985): 61-76, on Katherine.

6 See, among others, Theodora A. Jankowski, Women in Power in the Early Modern Drama (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1992), pp. 77-102; Bamber, pp. 135-8, 140; Marcus, pp. 80-3, 94; Rackin, pp. 153-8, 197-8; and Williamson, pp. 41-2.

7 William Shakespeare, The Third Part of King Henry VI, ed. Andrew S. Cairncross, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1964).

8 Kate and Isobel are joined by Mortimer's Welsh wife, with her evocative tears; the anxious (if comic) duchess of York; and Doll Tearsheet and Mistress Quickly—all victims in one way or another of the values of the masculine world. One can, of course, argue that sympathy with these characters is a result of a modern, politicized feminist consciousness, but the similarity between Kate and Brutus's wife Portia—and the difference in the ways they are treated by their husbands—suggests that Shakespeare did not necessarily share Hotspur's view of women as unworthy of men's confidence, while the war Hotspur raises against King Henry is certainly not endorsed by the play.

9 Rackin acknowledges that the women in Richard III are "all gifted with the power to prophesy and curse and articulate the will or providence," but seems to feel that this power is negligible (p. 177). For a point of view similar in some ways to mine, see Madonne M. Miner, "'Neither mother, wife, nor England's queen': The Roles of Women in Richard III," in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Lenz et al. (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 48, 52. It is not always noticed that Elizabeth beats Richard at his own game at the end of the play, seeming to give in to his request for her daughter's hand ("Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!") but actually betrothing her to Richmond. William Shakespeare, King Richard III, ed. Antony Hammond, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1981), IV.iv.431, IV.v.6-8.

10 Bamber, on the other hand, argues that "Margaret's actions are unnatural because unwomanly"—in other words, that they would be natural in a man—and Angela Pitt says that she is "totally evil and unnatural because she lacks womanly qualities. In their place she has those that are the glory of a man but grotesque in a woman" (Bamber, p. 137; Pitt, Shakespeare's Women [Newton Abbott: David and Charles; Totowa NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1981], p. 153; cf. Jankowski, p. 102). Monstrosity is not confined to women, however: Margaret is more than matched by Richard III, while Clifford, York, and Cade are far from humane.

11 Joan's earthy appeal has often been acknowledged. See Gabriele Bernhard Jackson, "Topical Ideology: Witches, Amazons, and Shakespeare's Joan of Arc," ELR 18, 1 (1988): 40-65, for a particularly fine discussion of the ways in which Joan's portrait is complicated by attractive ambiguities.

12 Eleanor and Constance in King John are also strong characters who operate in the public arena. Rackin acknowledges this, but agrees with Virginia Mason Vaughan that their disappearance midway through the play is "a necessary condition for the restoration of patriarchal historical discourse" (pp. 177, 184 n. 45). One could, however, argue that the loss of the women is one of the causes of the darkness that most audiences agree falls over the play in its last acts.

13Woodstock: A Moral History, ed. A. P. Rossiter (London: Chatto and Windus, 1946). References will be to this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text. I have silently emended Rossiter's sometimes confusing punctuation.

14 Charles R. Forker and Joseph Candido, "Wit, Wisdom, and Theatricality in The Book of Sir Thomas More," ShakS 13 (1980): 85-104, 100.

15Sir Thomas More: A Play by Anthony Munday and Others, ed. Vittorio Gabrieli and Giorgio Melchiori (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1990). References will be to this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text.

16 Gabrieli and Melchiori believe that the name of one of the foreigners—Caveler—was "suggested by the pun on 'caviller,' a quibbling disputant," but it may be meant to be pronounced "cavalier," with aristocratic implications (p. 60, note 14.1).

17 If we had been meant to laugh at Doll, the playwrights could easily have called for her to dress in bits and bobs of old kitchen gear like Ambidexter in Cambyses: "Enter the VICE, with an old capcase on his head, an old pail about his hips for harness, a scummer and a potlid by his side, and a rake on his shoulder" (Thomas Preston, Cambyses, King of Persia, in Drama of the English Renaissance, vol. 1: The Tudor Period, ed. Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin [New York: Macmillan, 1976], ii.1.s.d.). Doll's arrival in II.i dressed for battle "in a shirt of mail, a headpiece, sword, and buckler" suggests that she is to be taken seriously (More II.i.1.s.d.). She and her community of women participate in the longstanding folk tradition that actually tolerated "unruly women" as critics of authority. See Natalie Z. Davis, "Women on Top," Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 124-51.

18 Scott McMillin, The Elizabethan Theatre and "The Book of Sir Thomas More" (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1987), p. 141. Richard Helgerson agrees: while he finds it significant that the rebels are initially presented seriously, "no less significant is the fact that the resistance crumbles," and "[i]n revisions of the original text, the rebellion is systematically carnivalized" (Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992], p. 221).

19 Gabrieli describes her as "heroic," but most writers echo Judith Doolan Spikes in focusing on Lincoln (Vittorio Gabrieli, "Sir Thomas More: Sources, Characters, Ideas," Moreana 23 [1986]: 17-43, 39; Spikes, "The Book of Sir Thomas More: Structure and Meaning," Moreana 11 [1974]: 25-39, 28).

20 Jackson argues that such treatment was conventional even in admiring treatments of the "woman warrior" (pp. 59-60).

21 "Housekeeping" refers to his hospitality, of course, not to domestic chores, but it conveys the importance of the home to More.

22 McMillin, pp. 96-112.

23 See, for instance, Gabrieli and Melchiori, pp. 6, 31.

24 There are other similarities between the two plays: both exist only in manuscript and both bear signs of censorship. Richard Helgerson assumes that both were Philip Henslowe plays, which, he argues, tended to be concerned more with "the innocent suffering of common people and their defenders," and less with "civil war or foreign conquest" than Shakespeare's histories (pp. 234-5).

Source: "Rethinking Gender and Genre in the History Play," in Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900, Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 267-87.


Religion and Theology