Defects Redressed: Margaret Cavendish Aspires to Motley
Lesley Peterson
University of Alberta

Peterson, Lesley. "Defects Redressed: Margaret Cavendish Aspires to Motley." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 14 (May, 2004): 8.1-30 <URL:

"Well, God give them wisdom that have it; and those that are fools, let them use their talents."
- Feste in Twelfth Night (1.5.14-15)

  1. In a passage familiar to many of us, Margaret Cavendish describes her reception as a shy nineteen-year-old at the court of Queen Henrietta Maria in Oxford: "I had heard the World was apt to lay aspersions even on the innocent, for which I durst neither look up with my eyes, nor speak, nor be any way sociable, insomuch as I was thought a natural fool" (Life 187). It is this fear of being thought a fool to which Anna Battigelli in part ascribes Cavendish's decision to "position herself intellectually as a willing exile from a corrupt world" (24). However, while Battigelli argues convincingly that Cavendish uses "her very real experience as an exile as a privileged rhetorical stance from which she might address and even critique her world authoritatively" (7), I would suggest that, for Cavendish, the role of exile is not so much an alternative to that of fool as it is an opportunity to choose what kind of fool she will play. Whereas a professional fool must have a sharp and agile wit, a "Natural Fool," as Cavendish tells us in her Grounds of Natural Philosophy, "is a Defect; which Defect was some Error in his Production, that is, in the form and frame either of the Mind, or Sense, or both" (85-86). But an early modern woman, simply because of her female body, was always vulnerable to the label "defective," always therefore at risk of being named a "fool." So what's a girl to do? Some are born fools; some achieve foolishness; women have foolishness thrust upon 'em. Her foolishness, Cavendish is determined, will be an achievement.

  2. Anne Shaver and others have already noted the influence of Shakespeare's cross-dressing heroines, including Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night, on the heroines of Cavendish's plays, such as Lady Victoria in Bell in Campo and Orphant in Loves Adventures. But Rosalind and Viola in many ways also resemble the fools they befriend and admire, and Cavendish would have us know that she shares this admiration. As Caroline McManus has also noted, [1] when Cavendish describes herself as being "Wise enough to be a fool" she is adapting Viola's comment about Feste: "This fellow's wise enough to play the fool" (Twelfth Night 3.1.58). Permanent exiles at the centre of power yet forever excluded from it, Shakespeare's comic fools and his cross-dressing women are kindred spirits who dress, speak, and negotiate their positions relative to those in power in very similar ways. From such as them, as Jaques makes clear in As You Like It, an admiring exile may learn the power to be gained from choosing to play the fool, and the strategies appropriate to the position. Cavendish's work shows her to be a keen student of these strategies, which she adapts to reflect her concerns about gender and her engagement with contemporary debates about wit and reason. In particular, her wisely foolish characters use both physical and rhetorical motley, both unconventional dress and unreasonable speech, to disarm authoritative discourse and to demonstrate how what oft is thought, howe'er so well expressed, is all too commonly a misogynist cliché.

  3. Both Loves Adventures and The Bridals open with scenes in which aristocratic men, privileged with political or economic power, announce to similarly privileged men that all women should be assumed always to be dissembling. Lord Singularity declares that, although he wants to be a "wise man," it is impossible for him or anyone to "know whether" any woman "will prove vertuous, or discreet": this conclusion follows logically from the unquestioned premise that "a woman is more obscure than nature herself" (22). In The Bridals' opening scene, similarly, Take-Pleasure instructs Monsieur Facil that the latter is wrong to believe he can "know" Lady Coy "is a Virgin" by what Facil refers to as "her modest Countenance," because, of course, "Women have more modesty in their countenance, then in their natures" (172).

  4. Mimick knows that this is the sort of language that earns men's trust, and, like Shakespeare's fools who also take delight in mocking or exploiting such discourse, he speaks its syllogisms fluently. Mimick's comments to Facil about Lady Amorous, in a later scene of The Bridals, rely on an argument almost identical to that used in both opening scenes quoted above: "If you ground your belief on a Womans Countenance," he asserts, "you will be deceived; for Women's countenances for the most part are as false as their faces" (186). It is enough to make him sound clever, and enough to earn him his fee. As the action of each play unfolds, however, Singularity and Facil each finds that relying on such logic cannot deliver him from error. In Singularity's case, his belief in the maxims' veracity almost costs him his bride; in Facil's case, his trust in another man's reason costs him a small fortune in bribes. These are foul outcomes for such fair words.

  5. But the effect such discourse has on women is, as Cavendish demonstrates, even more destructive. Loves Adventures' Lady Bashfull, for instance, does her best to hide from society in general and from men in particular, out of fear that "spitefull tongues, which are worse than Divels, may hurt my reputation" (40). Her extreme anxiety is groundless in terms of her own behaviour, but understandable given the prevailing attitudes towards women, attitudes which Lady Bashfull's maid, Reformer, acknowledges when she counsels a self-respecting disregard of public opinion. Since "there is none lives or dyes without censures, or detraction," she argues, "why should you trouble your self with what others say, wherefore pray put off this indiscreet and troublesome humour, for if you would not regard censure, you would be more confident" (41). Reformer articulates here the futility faced by any woman who tries to position herself on the side of modesty when it is always already collapsed into immodesty by such misogynist rhetoric as Singularity's, and invites the reader to question the value of Lady Bashfull's obsessive self-protection.

  6. Cavendish acknowledges, however, that for someone desirous of marrying, such advice, however tempting, will not do. Neither self-conscious modesty nor a cool disregard of public opinion will win Orphant Lord Singularity's trust and affection. She needs a way to gain Singularity's ear, but because of her woman's body she cannot take the approach of Mimick, whose rhetoric marks him as trustworthy while his motley marks him as harmless. Orphant must first disguise herself as a boy; only then, having first dispelled Singularity's distrust of women, can she use her wisely foolish wit to expose that distrust as invalid. Her cross-dressing, in other words, is the female equivalent of motley.

  7. Certainly Cavendish's own fanciful and extravagant dress, which so often occasioned remark, can be considered to reflect her own personal aspiration to motley. But we need to recall that the close-fitting Harlequin costume of literary tradition was not necessarily what the term "motley" conjured in early modern England and France; indeed, it was at the time a term associated with low status and effeminacy at least as strongly as with festive excess. In its original meaning, "motley" refers to "Cloth woven from threads of two or more colours," but such fabric was often quite dark overall (though "mottled") and generally coarse; by the sixteenth century motley was the cloth of huntsmen, soldiers, and labourers, as well as fools (OED). William Basse, writing in the mid-seventeenth century, uses the term several times in his long poem "The Boy in the Boate" to refer to the humble clothing of "rough and paynfull Fisher-men" (21r). [2] Nor was Shakespeare's usage different from that of his contemporaries. Leslie Hotson argues convincingly that "by 'motley' for a fool Shakespeare never means a pied or parti-coloured garment, but always one made of ... coarse material of mixed [i.e. mottled] colour" (13). And Cavendish herself reads motley as a sign of want:

    But in some ages the world is more tattered and torn, than in other ages; and in some ages the world is patched and pieced, but seldom new and suitable; and it is oftener in a fool's coat than in a grave cassock. Wherefore, leaving the motley,
    I rest, Madam,
    Your faithful friend and servant. ("On Wit and the World" 221)

    With the graceful closure characteristic of her Sociable Letters Cavendish claims in this passage to be "leaving the motley," but as we know she is not the kind to abandon a topic; she only puts it off for now in order to change into a different subject for the occasion of her next letter. More important than her dismissal here, I believe, is Cavendish's awareness that she, a woman, has the option of leaving the motley or taking it up.

  8. As a defective man, the early modern Fool was often identified with women and children, and his chosen dress helped to establish and underline the association. Feste, for instance, draws attention to the effeminizing length of his garb when he asserts, "I did impeticos [impetticoat] thy gratillity [gratuity]." [3] In her exile on the continent, Cavendish may have heard somewhat of the many Joyous Societies formed in the sixteenth century to continue the tradition of the banned Feast of Fools; the Joyous Society in Dijon was called the Mère Folle and "administered by a chief known as "Mère Folle" (Swain 77); one of the "non-professional Joyous Societies" in Paris was called "the Enfants sans Souci" (Swain 80). Furthermore, what seems to be the most consistent feature of the fool's dress in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was that he wore a "long coat" or gown (OED). Such a garment suggested the peasant, [4] the monk, or the woman -- all people with no worldly power. [5] A long robe in an era when aristocratic men's jackets were cut short to display the leg, accessorized by a harmless bauble in an era when aristocratic adult men typically carried weapons: the early modern fool's motley was more noteworthy for its eschewal of all signs of masculine potency than for its playful palette. It clearly marks neither the status nor the gender of its wearer.

  9. The appeal of motley, then, is in part the appeal of ambiguity, and Shakespeare's fool is an expert at exploiting this ambiguity in ways that can also be useful to either the gently-bred maiden longing for love and adventure or the aristocratic exile mourning his loss of power. In As You Like It, both types of characters may be found admiring a fool; both types of characters are also, of course, ones Cavendish dramatizes repeatedly. From the approaches her heroines and exiles take to their problems it seems clear that Cavendish has taken the fool's lesson to heart, sharing the enthusiasm for motley expressed by Touchstone's most vocal admirer, Jaques. As an exile, Jaques's situation is analogous to that in which many of Cavendish's female characters find themselves: he has status but little power, insights but small audience, plots but few actors to perform them. The professional fool occupies a similar position: close to the centre of power, yet forever excluded from wielding it; privileged, but denied respect. For both exiles and women, then, the fool is a model for how to exploit such a difficult position -- how, that is, to persuade where one cannot compel. In Jaques, that melancholic exile with the penchant for similizing, Cavendish may have recognized many of her own traits and preoccupations; with Jaques, she appears to have realized the power contained in motley.

  10. Upon meeting Touchstone, Jaques is roused from his contemplations of suffering and folly: "Invest me in my motley," he demands of Duke Senior; "give me leave / To speak my mind, and I will through and through / Cleanse the foul body of th'infected world, / If they will patiently receive my medicine" (2.7.58-61). He is convinced that, for a man of his mind, "motley's the only wear" (2.7.34). The idea of being a fool is not itself new to Jaques. Before his revelatory encounter with the "fool in the forest," as we may recall, he mockingly describes himself and his fellow exiles as "gross fools" for having left "their wealth and ease" (2.5.49-53). The new lesson Jaques learns from Touchstone is simply how to dress for success; his new hope is that a "motley coat" will help persuade Duke Senior to treat his foolishness differently. "It is my only suit," he tells the Duke,

    Provided that you weed your better judgments
    Of all opinion that grows rank in them
    That I am wise. I must have liberty
    Withal, as large a charter as the wind,
    To blow on whom I please, for so fools have. (2.7.44b-49).

    It is a paradoxical liberty that fools and children have, to be listened to on the grounds that the hearer does not have to take them seriously. But once listened to, as Jaques recognizes, one has a chance to effect change. And it is a liberty less frequently extended to early modern women than to either children or fools.

  11. If it is the privilege of the fool that Touchstone enjoys and Jaques envies, it is the privilege of the male child that the cross-dressing heroines of both Shakespeare and Cavendish exercise. As motley does the Fool, so boy's apparel positions its female wearer in a liminal space somewhere between man and not-man, somewhere between courtier and servant -- a dangerous space for the one who occupies it, but also an empowering space, because of the access it gives. Even if she swaggers with a sword at her side (as Rosalind speaks of doing, for instance, and as Lady Victoria would do were she vulgar enough to indulge in swaggering), with her beardless face the cross-dressing woman cannot present herself as one who has entirely come to man's estate. Thus, Orphant constructs herself as the adolescent Affectionata, one whose age bars him, albeit temporarily, from the rights and privileges that Orphant's gender bars her from in perpetuity. And it is as this ambiguously gendered boy [6] that Orphant is finally able first to disarm Singularity's distrust of women, and then to expose it for what it is -- as absurdly absolute as his unqestioned trust in men.

  12. Given Singularity's extreme wariness where women are concerned, the speed with which he rushes to offer Affectionata his faith is really quite comical:

    LADY ORPH. I can bring none that will witness for my truth, or be bound for my honesty, but my own words.
    GENERAL. I desire none, boy, for thy tongue sounds so sweetly, and thy face looks so honestly, as I cannot but take, and trust thee. (49)

    This faith does not stop Singularity from testing his new servant, as he well knows how to do. Consider, for instance, the way he plays Malcolm to Affectionata's Macduff in order to determine whether or not she is "a false boy" (62-3). [7] Singularity is Cavendish's hero; we are not meant to think of him as naïve. But it is only because of his initial assumption of innocence, one that depends entirely on gender, that he and Orphant are able to test or teach one another at all. When it comes to women, Singularity's stated policy is only to try the virtue of those he already believes to be corrupt. In the case of a seeming-virtuous woman, he will not even bother (59).

  13. "Children have thoughts," Orphant protests on their first meeting, "and are said to have a rational soul, as much as those that are grown up to men" (48). Since this defense of children is being spoken by a woman, the implication is that women, too, have "thoughts" and "a rational soul," but unless disguised their bodies prevent their words from being heard. Cavendish makes it very clear, I believe, that she, and her heroines, have what it takes to be the wisest foolish-seeming women ever. All they need is the right appearance and the right approach, and these they may find amply illustrated in Shakespeare. Rosalind (with Touchstone's expert assistance) is able in the role of Ganymede to teach Orlando lessons about love and about himself that he will never forget. As Cesario, likewise, Viola is instantly accepted by Orsino, and holds his attention thereafter with life-changing results. Once Orphant's disguise enables her finally to get Singularity's attention, she is able consequently to make considerable military progress towards cleansing "the foul body of th'infected world"; she cleanses Singularity's infected view of women as well, as he patiently receives her "medicine," sweetened appropriately.

  14. Like any good fool, Orphant's style of speaking is as calculatedly non-threatening as her dress, a rhetorical style in which Cavendish specializes. In Poems and Fancies, Cavendish describes her written "work" in terms that suggest motley: she writes, she tells us, as women dress themselves, "in their many and singular choices of Cloaths, and Ribbons, and the like; curious shadowing, and mixing of Colours, in their Wrought workes" (A4r). In speaking to her lord general, Orphant clothes her ideas in comparably feminine, foolish garb. This is the rhetorical equivalent of motley, and Cavendish shows it to be just what is called for in certain situations. Orphant/Affectionata tells Singularity, for instance, that she cannot employ "Rhetoric" (56); meanwhile his servants wonder why he is so much more interested in Affectionata than in them, "for when we speak," one protests, "it is with gravity, and our discourse is sententious, but his [i.e. Affectionata's] is mere squibs" (54). Well, exactly. Orphant relies on puns, quibbles, and wordplay in order to establish and maintain her position: this is the discourse by which she begs first her living from strangers and then her position from Singularity. And when Singularity accepts the invitation to play, the more he is willing to talk like a fool, the closer he gets to the truth.

  15. Shakespeare's fools are, of course, masters of this sort of talk, although they do not limit themselves to it. Feste trades puns with both Maria, his friend (Twelfth Night 1.5.16-24), and with Viola, who comes to be his admirer (Twelfth Night 3.1.1-10). Similarly, Touchstone's wordplay helps to establish his friendship with Rosalind and Celia. Take, for example, his interrogation of the meaning of "sport" in Act one, Scene two of As You Like It. There is some playful jockeying for position between Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone when the latter enters, but it seems to be regarded by all three as a mere formality: Celia reminds him of her rank, he defies it, and then the three of them join ranks, by trading puns and quibbles, against Le Beau and his masculinist definitions of violence. Le Beau has entered gloating at the prospect of broken bones in the upcoming wrestling match; but because he does not understand this game, he, the privileged insider of the court, becomes the outsider to this foolish group, himself repositioned by language, his assumptions punctured by their wit. In both As You Like It and Twelfth Night, the cross-dressing heroines and the fools' mutual respect is evident in and to some degree caused by the fact that they speak the same language -- one with ambiguous markers of class and gender. Thus they can converse together with notable freedom, ease, and wit, while mocking the discourse of those in charge.

  16. The rhetorical strategies Cavendish's heroines employ are not, however, identical to those employed by Rosalind and Viola, or by Touchstone and Feste. For one thing, Cavendish's women are far less likely to mock the men they speak to overtly, or to mock those men's manner of speaking. Lady Happy (in The Convent of Pleasure) uses the educated man's strategy of reductio ad absurdum to argue against marriage (218), but this is unusual in Cavendish, and Lady Happy's audience consists only of women. More commonly, Cavendish gives her male characters the rhetorical rope to hang themselves, as in the examples we have seen, while the women subvert male discourse without directly attacking or competing with it. Typically, her heroines counteract the language of men with unstudied orations, observations that do not lead to clear conclusions, and deduction disguised as wordplay, in language that is dialogic and fanciful, but also keenly observant.

  17. Another way in which Cavendish departs from Shakespeare is that her cross-dressing heroines and her fools do not generally appear in the same plays. She herself describes an occasion on which her "wit play'd the Jack Fool" (cited in Tomlinson 135), a phrase which stresses the androgyny of her mind; similarly, Orphant is the complete cross-dresser. Combining select features of both Touchstone and Rosalind, she can do it all, all by herself. Like Rosalind, Orphant stoops to temporary disguise in order to conquer, heading out into the world with no credentials but her supposed gender and her wit. Like Rosalind also, and unlike the pragmatic Touchstone (who, as we may recall, settles for "a poor virgin, sir, an ill-favoured thing, sir, but my own" [5.4.55-56]), Orphant sets high standards for her future spouse. But in the freedom with which she asks for assistance, offers criticism, or both, Orphant is more like Shakespeare's fool than his lady; she enjoys a boldness with strangers that is very much like Touchstone's, though without the bawdiness. By combining the fool and the virtuous woman in one, I believe, Cavendish dramatizes her own conviction that a woman's body is no impediment to her speaking and thinking like a man, and that, furthermore, the body itself is motley, mere clothing for the mind. [8]

  18. In The Bridals, in contrast to Loves Adventures, we find a heroine who will not act like a man, and an imperfect or fallen fool, Mimick, who makes his way by acting too much like the men he hopes to impress. Although Mimick insists that while he is "Lady Vertue's Mimick" he is not her Fool (180), I would argue that he is her foil; Mimick represents some of the features of contemporary wit that Cavendish wishes to dissociate herself from and to discredit. One of these is a reliance on the authoritative discourses associated with reason and education, the kind of education provided only to men; another is a pragmatic materialism that is loyal only to opportunity.

  19. As we have seen, Cavendish knows how to make premises lead to a conclusion. This method of reasoning was foundational to the scholastic method of argument, which as generally taught required a great deal of rote learning, and which is a favourite target of both Shakespeare's and Cavendish's fools. Whereas Singularity and Facil rely on the syllogism to avoid really looking at or testing the true value of their subjects, Mimick, Touchstone and Feste all use it to test the true value of this method of reasoning -- and to prove its inadequacy. When Touchstone argues by "method," for instance, he does so in order to justify dishonesty in language (1.2.70-74), to justify dishonesty in behaviour (3.3.78-81), and to prove Corin "damned" for never having been at court (3.2.37-40): all patently false conclusions. With Feste's explanation of his reasons for wishing that his "sister had had no name, sir" (3.1.16), Shakespeare again shows the deductive method to lead to empty conclusions: "words are grown so false," Feste concludes, "I am loath to prove reason with them" (3.1.23-24).

  20. Mimick, likewise, knows how to hit the mark, and can use syllogisms to deadly effect in a more sustained form than the quips we have already considered. Take, for example, his "Oration concerning the Chastity of Women," in The Bridals. Here, recalling Feste, Mimick divides a chaste woman from her name: "Chastity dwells at the Poles, where no Woman is, and Women dwell or inhabit the Torrid Zone, where no Chastity is: thus you may perceive that Names are more easily joined, then the things they signify" (192-93). Mimick makes explicit his motivation for employing this type of rhetoric when he explains afterward, "that which perswaded me to speak an Oration, and not only an Oration, but a factious or malicious Oration, was that which perswaded all Orators; first, self-love to show their Wit; next, their ill Nature to make a division and Dissention amongst Mankind" (193). All too often, as Cavendish and Shakespeare both dramatize, the scholarly oration serves not truth and reason but a factious delight in dissent, just as Mimick asserts.

  21. Cavendish rejects Mimick's oratorial method but not, as we know, the entire genre, and Lady Vertue's oration is a good example of Cavendish's interest in exploring alternative approaches to the form. To counter Mimick's studied premises and conclusions, Lady Vertue offers data she has herself observed: "though some Women, as the scum of the female Sex, be Incontinent, yet all Women are not so" (193). Mimick's acknowledgement of defeat points to their different approaches, when he confesses that "Labour and Study is not a certain rule for wise, witty, or eloquent Orations or Speeches; for many studied Speeches are very foolish" (191). According to this construction, "Study" consists of mere memorization, and a studied oration is a dangerous weapon in the hands of the unscrupulous.

  22. Mimick's scholastic method was by Cavendish's time considered old-fashioned, and was already being supplanted by the experimentalist's method of reasoning inductively from data to generalization. We could, therefore, read the debate between Mimick and Lady Vertue as representing a struggle between the old and new methods, and the triumph of the new. But Lady Vertue's method differs radically from the kind advocated by the boys at the Royal Society, for it includes human feeling among its objects of study. To her observation about women's behaviour she adds another about women's inner experience: "But worthy Auditors, give me leave to tell you, That Women are the unhappiest Creatures which Nature ever made" (193-94). Perhaps this cannot be proven scientifically, but it is Lady Vertue's observation that this is so, and as such she unashamedly offers it to her "Auditors."

  23. We should not be misled, then, by Cavendish's protest, in her Dedication of Grounds of Natural Philosophy "To all the Universities in Europe," that she is "too illiterate … and too impatient to labour much for Method." Instead, she offers her readers, "if you will be contented with pure Wit, and the Effects of meer Contemplation; I hope, that somewhat of that kind may be found in this Book" (A3). About her ignorance of Method, methinks the lady doth protest too much. About her preference of Contemplation to Method, there can be little doubt; but again it is Contemplation, not objective observation, that this "pure Wit" practises: a concept which allows both observation of the outward world, and inward turning to observe the mind's functioning. Grounds of Natural Philosophy devotes seven of its thirteen parts to various aspects of human nature, ranging from digestion to "Knowledge and Perception" in a study that insists equally on human nature's materiality and its unknowability. Like Lady Vertue, Cavendish refuses the lie of objectivity, even while she shows how much she values observation, and how good at it she is.

  24. As Cavendish recognizes, women must be astute observers of human nature, for like fools their positions depend on it. And once again, Shakespeare provides the model for this kind (but not method) of study. Here Viola explains what it is about Feste that she appreciates:

    This fellow's wise enough to play the fool,
    And to do that well craves a kind of wit:
    He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
    The quality of persons, and the time,
    …. This is a practice
    As full of labour as a wise man's art …. (3.1.58-64)

    Viola understands such artful labour well. We see her skill, for instance, in her accurate analysis of Olivia's bizarre, smitten behaviour in Act two, Scene two. Likewise, much of the plot of As You Like It depends on Rosalind's astute observations of other people's moods and qualities, and her deft accommodation to the exigencies of the time.

  25. Cavendish portrays her heroines as every bit Viola's and Rosalind's equals in their mastery of this wise woman's art. Orphant demonstrates the wisdom of a female Solomon when responding to petitions (77-80); Lady Victoria (in Bell in Campo) likewise regulates her Heroickesses with great insight into human temptation and tendencies; and Lady Vertue is able to anticipate the thoughts of the brides-men at her wedding, removing her garter before they ask for it (174). In addition, whichever anchorite wrote the vivid scenes of women's sufferings that we find at the heart of The Convent of Pleasure, she is clearly one who has studied the nature of women's lives closely and well for years. The concreteness of these scenes' images and the range of their subjects acquire a power over the imagination that cannot be retroactively neutralized by the play's ending. Accurate observations, Cavendish knows, have their own vitality, one that can keep them at play on the imagination's stage long after Mimick's epilogue. The effect is one any self-respecting Fool would be proud to achieve: to unsettle patriarchy without overturning it.

  26. Indeed, to Cavendish, this selfless loyalty to the established order is an essential quality for exile, woman, and fool alike. If Cavendish offers us "pure wit" in her natural philosophy, she portrays an impure wit, that is, a Restoration wit, in Mimick, who wishes to get as much out of the established order as he can. After the exchange of orations we have already considered, Sir W. Sage warns, "Mimick, your Lady will be too hard for you," to which Mimick replies, "Yes, in Foolery, but not in Wit" (194). This is really an important distinction. Mimick leaves old-fashioned Foolery to the women, preferring to be a Wit instead, but Cavendish does not endorse his preference, and this is not just because the new generation of Wits condemns the old-fashioned similizing she (and Jaques) so cherish. To Cavendish, Mimick's self-love makes him a fallen fool, and his style of wit is simply the evidence of his fall. He and the men who speak like him and approve his speaking are representative of the new order, one which has no place in its economy for the traditional motley fool who is more family member than servant, and whose loyalty is repaid in kind.

  27. Herself proud of her loyalty to both king and husband, Cavendish aligns herself with "the feudal ideal of service," which Mary Ellen Lamb describes as follows:

    … subordinates freely offered their labor to their social superiors who in turn were obligated to offer them protection. The bond between subordinate and superior was, in theory, a matter of honor. … Individual ambition had little place, for subjects were defined, and defined themselves, by social relationships which did not change. (6)

    On these terms, Orphant is a model subordinate, repeatedly refusing all offers of honours or awards. Like Viola, she serves for protection and out of love; both end up being taken into the family of the man they serve, first as adopted son in Orphant's case, as privileged servant in Viola's, and ultimately as wife in both cases. Consider Orphant's deferential plea that she not be given credit for saving Singularity's life and his victory: "I beseech you Gentlemen, take not the honour from my Lord to give it me, for he was his own defence, and ruine to his enemies" (77). It is hard to imagine more feudal -- or more wifely -- a response to well-earned praise. And despite the honours and privileges bestowed upon Lady Victoria and her Heroickesses, their last recorded act is to distribute "all their spoils got in these Wars amongst the Common she Souldiers" (169). Although adventurous and courageous, then, Orphant and Victoria match Vertue in their lack of personal ambition; Cavendish's heroines are alike in refusing to employ their abilities to gain significant financial or political power. Using them to gain a man's love is, it would appear, acceptable.

  28. Mimick, by contrast, is a very different kind of servant, more akin to the professional entertainers of Cavendish's day than to the servant of the feudal ideal. He acts for profit rather than out of loyalty, which is, in Cavendish's terms, one of the distinguishing marks between false wit's cozening and true wit's wisdom. "Well," Mimick asserts shamelessly, "craft shall serve for wisdom, and the chief part of my craft must be to Fool this Lover [Facil], or rather to cozen him" (187). Unlike Orphant, who deceives Singularity in order to do him good and undeceive him about her true nature, Mimick deceives Facil in order to do himself good and prolong Facil's deception about Lady Amorous.

  29. In his own defence Mimick claims to serve the devil "for necessity," unlike others who "serve him for worldly honour, and some for worldly wealth, and some for worldly power" (212). But Cavendish limits the extent to which we might be willing to concede Mimick his "necessity," as he shows no sign of economic hardship, while showing every sign of possessing a quickly accumulating nest egg. [9] In this respect, too, Cavendish differs from that entrepreneur Shakespeare, who is much more sympathetic to the economics of foolery than she. As A. C. Bradley points out:

    The position of the professional jester we must feel to be more or less hard, if not of necessity degrading. In Feste's case it is peculiarly hard. … he has no Celia, no Countess, no Lear to protect or love him. He has been Fool to Olivia's father, who 'took much delight in him'; but Olivia, though not unkind, cannot be said to love him. We find him, on his first appearance, in disgrace and (if Maria is right) in danger of being punished or even turned away. His mistress, entering, tells him … that his fooling grows old and people dislike it. ... Feste is a relic of the past.… The fact is, he recognizes very clearly that, as this world goes, a man whom nobody loves must look out for himself. Hence … he is a shameless beggar, much the most so of Shakespeare's Fools. (213-14)

    In many ways Mimick is Feste's counterpart, but Cavendish portrays him as more greedy than needy; not as one who "By swaggering could … never thrive" (Twelfth Night 5.1.388), but as a swaggering, thriving protocapitalist who moonlights just because he can. I do not think we should read Lady Vertue's tolerance of his antics as approval; rather, her magnanimity is just one more evidence that in virtue, as in rank, and as in wit, she is his superior.

  30. If Cavendish will not always allow her characters to make a virtue of necessity, however, she does learn from Shakespeare's fools, and from the exiles of both genders who accompany and admire them, how to speak and survive the speaking. As one with intelligence but inadequate formal education, ambition but not the power to fulfill it, artistry but no stage to enact it, Cavendish takes her cue from such wise fools as Shakespeare's Touchstone and Feste, joining the melancholic outcast Jaques in celebrating the opportunity offered by motley. In doing so, she identifies herself with a long line of observant, witty outsiders whose motley privileges them to critique those at the centre of power. On her view, the intelligent woman, the willing exile, and the wise fool are all people with a similar problem and a similar solution: they have much to say but no authority to make others listen; they also have available to them similar strategies of persuasion. Jaques says, admiringly, of Touchstone, that "in his brain … he hath strange places crammed / With observation, the which he vents / In mangled forms" (2.7.38-42). It may not be the worst insult, after all, to say the same of Cavendish.


1. Personal conversation, February 2003. I also understand that McManus takes up this point in a forthcoming book.

2. Another poem in the same unpublished manuscript commemorates an event of "June 19, 1648" (45r), which makes the work roughly contemporary with Cavendish's.

3. Twelfth Night, 2.3.27. The parenthetical insertions are Hotson's (6).

4. The "Motley frocks" of Basse's fishermen "to their feete / Did from their shoulders come" (22r).

5. According to Barbara Swain, of the "gowns" Breughel depicts in the Fête des Fous, "some resemble ordinary monkish robes, some are cut into points that hang loose below the waist, others are plain peasant coats and still others are adaptations of the long dress-like garment that was the proper habit of the idiot" (76).

6. Whose lack of full masculine status is further advertised by the name Orphant gives her male alter ego, the feminized "Affectionata."

7. This episode differs from Shakespeare's, however, in that Affectionata tests Singularity at least as much as he her. Unlike Shakespeare's Macduff, Affectionata does most of the talking, and appears to be at least equally in charge of the conversation. The two are touchstones for one another.

8. Cf., for instance, Cavendish's short prose piece "The Travelling Spirit" in which the Man, "at last arriving where they set out" on his disembodied journey to the Centre of the Earth, "found his Body where he left it: so putting on the Body as a Garment, gave thanks to the Witch, and then went home to rest his weary Spirits, etc." (209).

9. Like the Restoration actors whose professionalism Cavendish so criticized, Mimick performs for anyone who will pay him. And by the end of The Convent of Pleasure (published after the Restoration, in 1668), Mimick, again like the Restorarion actors, may be said to have taken over the playhouse.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).