Viviana Comensoli. "Household Business": Domestic Plays of Early Modern England. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1996. 238 pp. ISBN 0-8020-0733-3 Cloth.
Julie Sanders
Keele University

Sanders, Julie. "Review of
'Household Business': Domestic Plays of Early Modern England." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 (September, 1998): 23.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-2/rev_sand.html>.

  1. Viviana Comensoli's study of early modern domestic drama is an essential read for both students and scholars alike. Fluently written, the book, a detailed and revealing investigation of the genre, engages the attention throughout. Comensoli stresses early on that it does not constitute an inclusive survey of the form; nevertheless her introduction should become standard reading for students looking into the area for the first time.

  2. That introductory chapter raises important and persuasive points about genre and considers the medieval origins of this dramatic subgenre. The second chapter extends these arguments, highlighting parallels with specific medieval pageant plays, in particular those relating to the stories of Abraham and Isaac or Noah and his wife, and bringing this source material into clear focus for the reader.

  3. In subsequent chapters informative close readings are offered of individual domestic dramas such as A Woman Killed with Kindness, Arden of Feversham, A Warning for Fair Women, and The Witch of Edmonton. Particularly impressive, in my view, was Comensoli's awareness and careful articulation of the performative aspects of these playtexts as well as the spatial dynamics of the genre as a whole when staged in the early modern public theatres. One fine example of this is Comensoli's vivid interpretation of Frankford's retreat into his closet-study in A Woman Killed with Kindness after having witnessed his wife Anne's adulterous liaison with his friend Wendoll. The polysemous operations of public and private space (and their attendant signifiers on the early modern stage) in a scene of this kind are exquisitely observed. The connections Comensoli identifies in the process between stage space and social change, particularly in relation to issues of gender, constitute a significant contribution to early modern studies, both literary and historical.

  4. By comparison, the social construction of the witch figure and her (for it is always, seemingly, a "her") relationship to the garrulous wife or shrew archetype is nothing new in terms of social history but Comensoli deploys these understandings of community history and practice to offer a profound reading of domestic drama's, and in particular Dekker, Ford, and Rowley's The Witch of Edmonton's, centrality to any study of the seventeenth-century "witchcraze." The "unique status" she accords the latter play may be overstating the case slightly: inevitably the privileging of certain texts means that others slip from view: Ben Jonson's The Devil is an Ass (1616) and The Sad Shepherd (1637) are just two examples of other contemporary plays that offer equally rationalized accounts of witchhunts. Despite these necessary qualifications, however, the lucid way in which Comensoli constructs her argument makes this another important section of the book.

  5. "Household Business" as a whole offers a helpful critical induction for students embarking on research in this area and the footnotes and bibliography are particularly user-friendly and extensive in this respect. As a study of domestic drama this book is never less than inspiring about its subject. My only real quibble is with the "Epilogue" or concluding chapter, which, in the massive leap it makes forward it to more recent "domestic drama" -- that is to say to plays produced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a move which sees Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Caryl Churchill and Eugene O'Neill uncomfortably yoked together -- undermines the nuanced and historicized approach Comensoli has adopted elsewhere in the book with such success.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(LH, RGS, 19 July 1998)