Fiona McNeill. Poor Women in Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. xi+255pp. ISBN 0521868866; ISBN-13: 9780521868860

Tom Rutter
Sheffield Hallam University

Tom Rutter. "Review of Fiona McNeill, Poor Women in Shakespeare."Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 15.1-4 <URL:>.

  1. In the early modern period, farthings were the smallest of small change, coined by tradesmen for use in transactions too petty for other coins of the realm, and originally of doubtful legality. Early on in her book, Fiona McNeill makes a neat comparison between farthings and the working women whose images they often bore, as in the example reproduced on the cover of this book: like farthings, women's work was low-status, marginal, and sometimes illicit, but it was also economically essential, underpinning the 'shift to a money economy' (7). Its social marginality is mirrored in its location on the margins of dramatic texts, often described rather than shown, or carried out by minor characters. It's elusive and shifting, like the historical poor women whom McNeill represents as continually moving between different topographical, professional, and legal spaces ('unsettled', to use Patricia Fumerton's term). In Poor Women, McNeill seeks out dramatic representations of such women, reading them alongside other early modern texts and social history.

  2. There is some fascinating material in this book. Shakespeare's Duke Orsino refers to a song chanted by 'The spinsters and the knitters in the sun / And the free maids that weave their thread with bones' (Twelfth Night, 2.4.44); if you want to know about the kinds of song spinsters sang, what a free maid was, or how bones were used in lace-making, this is the place to come. Numerous other examples could be given of the way McNeill draws on contemporary accounts or modern historiography to illuminate the dark corners of early modern plays, such as her extensive description of Turnbull or Turnmill Street, the location of the tavern in Nathan Field's Amends for Ladies. And there are sensitive, well-informed readings of the drama itself: the Jane subplot in The Shoemakers' Holiday, the descriptions of besieged rebellious women in The Woman's Prize.

  3. However, because McNeill is in part using the drama as a 'living document of ... changing economic conditions' (3), she pays relatively little attention to the dramatic function of these elements or, for that matter, to the cultural work being performed by the plays in which they appear. For example, she argues that Orsino's invocation of poor working women reinscribes them into 'a golden age idyll' (55), but beyond that she doesn't really suggest what these throwaway yet haunting lines are doing in Twelfth Night. Her statement in the Introduction that poor women in plays 'are often essential to the plot because they move most easily between households and social spaces' (12) implies an interest in their formal role within dramatic plot-structures, but again, this is an avenue she leaves largely unexplored.

  4. An exception to this is in Chapter Two, where a discussion of early modern bastardy laws and of the problems that legal authorities had in establishing virginity, pregnancy and legitimacy leads into a reading of Measure for Measure that identifies Julietta's paradoxical status as 'maid with child' (1.2.90) as 'the driving force behind the plot' (107). However, McNeill's argument here is informed by her repeated assertion that 'between 1600 and 1624, early modern England saw an explosion of convictions for bastardy in which women were either hanged or imprisoned' (80; cf. 109, 114), a statement that I find rather troubling. I had been unaware that the mothers of illegitimate children were susceptible to the death penalty, and would have liked more information, but the source McNeill cites, a 1624 'Acte to prevent the murthering of Bastard Children', is quoted in a way that makes it unclear whether death is being threatened for giving birth to a bastard or for infanticide (95). The former may sometimes have led on to the latter, but the two are hardly the same, and McNeill writes of the prospect of 'Julietta's hanging' (114) with more confidence than I was able to muster. It's a shame, because on the whole this book provides a good deal of material that will be useful to anyone who wants to know more about the lives and the labour of women fleetingly represented on the Shakespearean stage.

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