"Outrage your face": Anti-Theatricality and Gender in Early Modern Closet Drama by Women
Katheine O. Acheson
University of Waterloo

Acheson, Kathy. "'Outrage your face': Anti-Theatricality and Gender in Early Modern Closet Drama by Women." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 7.1-16 <URL:

"The world is my closet, and I'm
never coming out."

-- Musty Chiffon [1]

  1. Recent influential criticism of Renaissance literature and culture has emphasized the relationship between theatricality and gender. [2] These works generally assume a liberatory potential, for both women and men, of the de-naturalisation of sexual categories and gender binaries. While copious and credible evidence indeed exists to support these claims, female-authored drama of the period does not seem to endorse them. In the plays with which this essay is concerned, The Tragedie of Antonie by Mary Sidney, and The Tragedy of Mariam, Faire Queene of Jewry, by Elizabeth Cary, the female protagonists refuse to perform: both heroines are famed for their beauty, yet both deface themselves; both are caught in snares of the gaze of others, and both escape those snares. Cleopatra does so by her desire to 'outrage' her face, by her evasion of Caesar's triumph, and by her suicide; Mariam does so by her refusal to comply with Herod, and by the invisible presence given her by the author in the last part of the play: even though her head is separated from her body, and both are off-stage, her speech is heard. Both plays also deny at least their female players the "three-dimensional space" of the "active male figure....in a landscape" (Mulvey 1449) essential to the more naturalistic public theatre, and to performative notions of gender and identity. In both plays, little effort is made to construct the illusion of 'stage' depth, room for gesture and action other than speech; there are few deictics to point at the playing space; characters, especially the heroines, speak as if facing the audience directly, for a full frontal view, or their interlocutor, for a perfect profile. These features of the plays contribute to the arch-artificiality of the dramas, and the untheatricality of their presentation of character and action; they also, as Maureen Quilligan argues about Mariam, critique the potential of gender-bending self-fashioning for women.

  2. These qualities of the plays can be read, as does Quilligan, in historicist terms. [3] In addition to highlighting the limits imposed on the performance of gender by the culture's understanding of the immutability of the female body, as Quilligan discusses, Cleopatra and Mariam's resistance to the gaze can be seen as an objection to assumptions about the innate and invisible deceitfulness of women, and their naturally misleading appearances. The flatness of the plays, and their lack of action, can be seen as a form of critique of Aristotelian and humanist conceptions of virtue as active, rather than passive, a conception possibly prejudicial to women, whose activity was circumscribed. The resistance to three-dimensional space also suggests a desire to control the representation of the self--there is nothing in a full frontal portrait that the viewer can see that the subject could not see in a mirror, so the subject appears to the viewer as the subject appears to herself. Given, say, the options in portraiture available in the period, between naturalistic and iconographic styles, this can be considered a historical phenomenon: that is, certain aristocratic women were enabled by the control over their self-representation to resist or refuse the objectifying gaze, and retain their relative autonomy, and did so in their literary works. These were women who had closets to which they could retreat: their access to power, in the form of managerial and dynastic responsibilities, and certain pleasures, in the forms of company, primarily female, books, paper, music and the like, lay away from the public gaze in the enclosed space of, and within, the country house. Indeed, in a broad historical sense, it is not until the feudal authority of aristocratic women, residual during the period up to the Civil War, largely disappears from the culture, that we see female dramatists playing with performative notions of gender and their relationship to power, and exploiting the theatrical potential of closet drama, as is the case with The Concealed Fancies (c. 1645) by Elizabeth Brackley and Jane Cavendish. [4]

  3. A historicist approach to the issue, then, illuminates the refusal of the gaze by Mariam and Cleopatra, and the untheatricality of the plays as protests against, or resistances to, the ways in which women of the period were contained or determined by being seen: that is, historicism allows us to read what is ostensibly a failure of the drama as a feature of value which provides us with knowledge of the culture, and of its ideology and of forms of resistance to that ideology. It also suggests that performative notions of gender identity, although pervasive in the culture, were not viewed uniformly as liberatory, as recent criticism would have it. There are further elements of Antonie and Mariam, however, that a historicist approach can not fully explain; these include the behaviour of the male characters, and the dramatic power of unseen, or absent, characters. If a historicist approach is supplemented with a psychoanalytic approach--particularly, psychoanalytic ideas about the dynamic of the gaze, hysteria, and the problematic of the sexual relationship--we can read both the dimension of resistance in the plays, and the dimension in which resistance and revision produce positive dramatic effects. Finally, the combination of historicist and psychoanalytic insights will allow us to see that the critique of performativity in these plays is profound and broad; it is not limited, that is, to women in particular historical conditions, but pertains to the authors' understanding of all the performers on the stage of the world, and can provide critical knowledge of similar breadth.

  4. To modern readers familiar with Shakespeare's Cleopatra, and with the criticism emphasizing her use of performance to evade ideological and gendered confinement, Mary Sidney's Cleopatra is remarkable for her untheatricality. Despite attempts by male characters in the play to insert Sidney's Cleopatra into a scopic space and subject her to the spectatorial gaze, she will not "boy" her "greatness" (Shakespeare 5.2.216), nor put on shows, as she does in Shakespeare's version, of her violent temper, her sensuality and sexuality, her cross-dressing proclivities, or her costumed, ritualistic powers. Although her "beauties" are, according to all the characters, to blame for the downfall of the lovers, ("My face too lovely caused my wretched case./ My face hath so entrapped, to cast us down,/ That for his conquest Caesar may it thank" (2.194-196)), it is her modesty and faithfulness, demonstrated by her withdrawal from the stage of the world into the enclosure of the tomb, and her self-defacement ("outrage your face" (5.197)) at the conclusion of the play, which define her character and her virtue. As S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies write, "Mary Sidney's Cleopatra is a major alteration of the traditional Renaissance view of that character. Instead of being presented as an unscrupulous, selfish and domineering seductress, Cleopatra is transformed into an example of stoic female heroism: constant in her love for Antony, she exhibits a wifely faithfulness, being prepared to die with and for him" (17). Mary Ellen Lamb concurs:

    The absence of any hint of illicit sexuality or even of Egyptian sensuality suggests the way in which Cleopatra's willingness to die cleanses her from sexual taint. Her overtly sexual lines are delivered only over Antony's dead body....[T]he confinement of Cleopatra's sexual impulses to an expression of desire for death represents a striking deviation from the conventional representation of this exotic queen of the fertile Nile (131-132).

    In this context, the neglect of three-dimensional space in the play enhances the 'chasteness' of Cleopatra, by flattening her body; without three-dimensional space to occupy, her body has no secret spaces, no unseen interior, no hidden orifices. Indeed, it is only in her suicide that the fullness of her body appears, in Diomede's description (2.489-98), and in her own speech to Charmion and Eras,

    Martyr your breasts with multiplied blows,
    With violent hands tear off your hanging hair,
    Outrage your face. Alas, why should we seek
    (Since now we die) our beauties more to keep? 5. 195-198.

  5. In Sidney's Antonie, and consistent with other versions of the story, Antonius depicts himself as a slave to Cleopatra's beauty; he is "in her allurements caught" (1.11). In contrast to other versions, however, which uncritically represent Cleopatra as a captivating spectacle, Antonie characterizes Antonius as "given up to Cleopatra's eyes" (1.78); that is, he has been made a spectacle by her gaze:

    Thou only hast me vanquished; not by force
    (For forced I cannot be) but by sweet baits
    Of thy eyes' grace, which did gain so fast
    Upon my liberty, that nought remained.
    None else henceforth, but thou my dearest queen,
    Shall glory in commanding Antonie (1.25-38).

    The entrapment which Cleopatra attributes to her beauty, then, is not a function of what she is to look at, but what she is in looking. Here, Antonius is speaking to and of himself:

    Thou threw'st thy cuirass off, and fearful helm,
    With coward-courage unto Egypt's queen
    In haste to run, about her neck to hang,
    Languishing in her arms, thy idol make:
    In sum, given up to Cleopatra's eyes (1.74-78).

    According to Diomede, in his speech after the message of Cleopatra's death has been sent to Antonius, even Jove's gaze would have been captivated and subjugated to Cleopatra's (2.459-472). Caesar, in hubristic contrast, would reverse the dynamic of the gaze, and restore it to its more conventionally gendered direction; he would give up Cleopatra to the eyes of his public:

    For this of all things most I do desire
    To keep her safe until our going hence
    That by her presence beautified may be
    The glorious triumph Rome prepares for me (4.364-367).

  6. Sidney's Cleopatra does not, however, simply refuse to be a player on Caesar's stage, as does Shakespeare's; her gaze creates the space in which others perform. Throughout The Tragedie of Antonie, it is Antonius who is the player, and the stage is Cleopatra's Egypt. Rather than functioning as a metonym for the exoticism, sensuality and 'otherness' of Cleopatra herself, as it does in Shakespeare's play, 'Egypt' in Antonie is a space constructed by Cleopatra's gaze, within which Antonius is trapped:

    Enough of conquest, praise thou deem'st enough,
    If soon enough the bristled fields thou see
    Of fruitful Egypt and the stranger flood,
    Thy queen's fair eye, another Pharos', lights (1.115-118).

    His choice of death in Egypt is depicted as a withdrawal to the feminized stage of Cleopatra's tomb: he will be a "frozen corpse under a marble cold/Within tomb's bosom, widow of my soul" (1.45-46). Cleopatra here is figured as creating, rather than occupying, three-dimensional space. Within this space, it is Antonius who plays the principal part; it is his gestures, his action, his corporeality which we are invited to imagine. In Dircetus' report of his death, Antonius performs his death theatrically, even histrionically; one might even say he "tear[s] a passion to tatters, to very rags" (Hamlet 3.2.9):

    Of speaking thus he scarce had made an end
    And taken up the bloody sword from ground,
    But he is body pierced; and of red blood
    A gushing fountain all the chamber filled.
    He staggered at the blow, his face grew pale,
    And on a couch all feeble down he fell,
    Swooning with anguish; deadly cold him took,
    As if his soul had then his lodging left.
    But he revived, and marking all our eyes
    Bathed in tears, and how our breasts we beat
    For pity, anguish, and for bitter grief,
    To see him plunged in extreme wretchedness,
    He prayed us all to haste his lingering death (4.262-274).

    The theatricality of Antonius marks him as subject not only to passions which exceed his reason, and thus in violation of stoic decorum and virtue, but also as subject to Cleopatra in a way in which she is not subject to anyone. Rather than linking performance to power, then, Sidney's play links performance to subjugation, and defines Cleopatra's authority as that which creates, rather than acts upon, the playing field.

  7. The Tragedie of Mariam shares with Sidney's play a deep and pronounced concern with the relationship between beauty and power. Mariam is a great beauty; greater, indeed, than "False Cleopatra," "that wanton queen" (4.538, 537; see also 4.547-52). Throughout the play, Mariam maintains that her beauty is no more than her virtue, and it is the latter by which she should be judged, whether in comparison with Cleopatra ("With purest body will I press my tomb,/And wish no favours Anthony could give (1.201-02)), or in general: "Who sees for truth that Mariam is untrue?/If fair she be, she is as chaste as fair" (4.581-82). Beauty, however, is as dangerous as it is bountiful; for one thing, appearance leads to reputation and its agent, rumour, both of which are powerful forces in the play. As Constabarus says, "How much a virtuous woman is esteem'd/Thou wouldest like hell eschew deservèd shame,/And seek to be both chaste and chastely deem'd" (1.392-94). Salome's false appearance of virtue is discovered too late by Herod, who derides the difference between truth and reality in her: "Myself hath often ta'en you for an ape" (4.460) he says, and "Your paintings cannot equal Mariam's praise" (4.463). As Salome's character shows, beauty is inherently unstable, even duplicitous: "Hell itself lies hid/Beneath thy heavenly show" (4.203-04), says Herod to Mariam. As Mariam tragically recognizes, beauty is not sufficient to prevent death:

    Am I the Mariam that presum'd so much,
    And deem'd my face must neeeds preserve my breath?
    Ay, I it was that thought my beauty such,
    As it alone could countermand my death (4.525-28).

    Indeed, many readers would agree with Herod: that Mariam's beauty, and the power she has gained through it, have turned against her: "Her overflow of beauty turnèd back,/And drown'd the spring from whence it was deriv'd" (5.241-42).

  8. Herod is captivated by Mariam's beauty: "Her sight can make months minutes, days of weeks:/An hour is then no sooner come than gone/When in her face mine eye for wonder seeks" (4.18-20). He praises her perfection in hyperbolic, mythological terms in the long speech which precedes the choric conclusion to the play (5.149-52, 153-258). But his attitude towards her beauty is intensely ambivalent, not only in his suspicions that beneath it, "Hell itself lies hid," but in his understanding of the direction of the gaze between them. When he says "Her looks alone preserv'd your sovereign's breath" (4.254), "looks" could be either her appearance to his gaze, or her gaze upon him. As often as Herod praises her 'looks' in the first sense, he praises her 'looks' in the second. To Salome he says, "One smile of hers--nay, not so much--a look/Was worth a hundred thousand such as you [Salome]" (5.167-68). Mariam's eyes, according to Herod, shine forth as sources, rather than objects, of the gaze, just as do Cleopatra's:

    ...Mariam will appear,
    And where she shines, we need not thy dim light,
    Oh, haste thy steps, rare creature, speed thy pace:
    And let thy presence make the day more right,
    And cheer the heart of Herod with thy face (4.7-11).

    Repeatedly, Herod describes Mariam's eyes as lights which define space, rather than eyes within space:

    But can her eye be made by death obscure?
    I cannot think but it must sparkle still:
    Foul sacrilege to rob those lights so pure,
    From out a temple made by heav'nly skill (5.183-186).

    The executioner, he says, must be both deaf and blind, "For if he see, he needs must see the stars/That shine on either side of Mariam's face" (4.440-42). Herod is captivated doubly by the sight of Mariam, in both its directions, as is Antonius by Cleopatra.

  9. In both these plays, then, the heroines are victims for being looked at, and victors for the looking; in both plays, they define, rather than occupy, three-dimensional, performative space; in both plays, they eschew the powers of theatricality in favour of a stiff and unyielding image of virtue. In Sidney's Antonie and Cary's Mariam, the critique of women as spectacles contributes to the establishment of women as points-of-view, and to the validation of the control over historical events and accounts which Cleopatra and Mariam are given. For these reasons alone, we can see the untheatricality of the plays is consistent with their representations of women and their status and social conditions, and we can see that they offer a distinctive and critical perspective on the relationships between performativity and gender. Historically, the untheatricality of the plays can be seen as protests against, or resistances to, the ways in which women of the period were contained and determined by being seen, and challenge the assumption that performative notions of gender were uniformly regarded as liberatory by the culture. In this light, it is noteworthy that the first female-authored drama to positively highlight the potential of performance-based identity for female characters is dated c. 1645. In The Concealed Fancies by Elizabeth Brackley and Jane Cavendish, the women are archly artificial, acknowledge themselves as performers, and appear to believe they can exploit the gaze to their advantage:

    Luceny: ...Prithee, tell me how you acted your scene [with your lover]?
    Tattiney: I beg your excuse, a younger sister cannot have the confidence to teach an elder.
    Luceny: Well, then I'll begin first. I dressed myself in a slight way of carelessness which becomes as well, if not better, than a set dress; and when he made his approaches of love, by speaking in a formal way, I answered him: I could not love so dull a brain as he had, always to repeat he loved me. I had rather have him say he hated me, for that would be some variety! (1.4.2-13).

    For these characters, performance of gender and identity allows them to manipulate the outcomes of the marriage plots to their advantage. The whole performance is offered, however, by the authors and the characters to their father, and their control of the scopic economy must be seen as limited within his purview; as Tattiney says in the "Epilogue" to her father, "[Now] are our scenes even happy in your sight" (110). Perhaps the fantasy of escaping the scopic economy, or of at least criticizing it, has evaporated by this point in history; the suspension of courtly culture, and the decline in the real authority of women in the centres of power of that court and at the country estate, may have meant that upper class women's options for self-representation were more severely limited than they had been in earlier times. Whatever the cause, the female characters in plays by female Restoration playwrights exist, as do Luceny and Tattiney, within a narrow, if manipulable, sphere, in which their disguises, deceptions and performances earn them advantages in relation to other women in competition for the best marriages, but fix, rather than unfix, their relations to the world of men. [5]

  10. Sidney's Antonie and Cary's Mariam, however, also critique performativity in general--that is, not just for women--and produce from that critique powerful dramatic effects. The means of this critique are amenable to a psychoanalytic approach. First, psychoanalysis provides insight into the meaning of the reversal of the gender roles in the plays. In both plays, recasting the source of the gaze as the women has significant effects on the representation of the male characters, and these effects undermine the value of performative identity in general. In both plays, the heroines are as much source of the gaze as objects of it; the male characters perform within their purview. In light of the female gaze, Herod and Antonius behave hysterically. According to Renata Salecl, the male hysteric questions his gender; certainly Antonius suffers from such uncertainty. The hysterical demand to have his gender confirmed is only one of the questions he might ask, however, all of which revolve around the need to be told what he really wants and who he really is by the gazing other. As hysterics, Antonius and Herod suffer from self-division and profound confusion, expressed in oxymoronic speech and contradictory impulses and actions. Reversing the polarity of the gaze in these plays, then, reveals deep and intractable instability in the nature of identity constructed within the dynamic of the gaze, including, although not limited to, issues of gender. Second, both plays, as plays, rather than as ideological critiques, depend upon the failure, rather than the simple reversal, of the gaze, for both produce significant dramatic power from absent, invisible, and even dead (or presumed dead) characters. Psychoanalysis enables us to read the dramatic power of these features, particularly in Mariam, in which Herod is absent for the first half of the play, and yet all is performed in relation to him, and Mariam is absent in the last act, yet all is performed in relation to her. Third, psychoanalysis allows us to see the ways in which the plays exploit the tragic potential of the failure of the sexual relationship. Because this failure is also a historical phenomenon, the plays provide a singular opportunity to combine the heuristic powers of psychoanalysis and historicism. Finally, because of the prevalence of the failure of the sexual relationship in Renaissance drama, this nexus of interpretation offers insight into a range of texts greater than the limited set comprised by closet drama authored by women.

  11. In Lacan's theory of the gaze, [6] the dynamic of the gaze shows the subject to be split, incommensurate with both itself and its intersubjective environment. By way of example, Cleopatra and Mariam suffer from profound, psychological ambivalence as both objects and subjects of the gaze; each of their first speeches, riddled as they are with oxymoron and images of self-destruction, express the divisions of their selves. As the dynamic of the gaze is such that the subject looks at, and is looked at for, what she lacks, the exchange reveals the failure, in Lacan's terms, of the sexual relationship. [7] Certainly, the relationships of both plays' female protagonists with men are shown to be impossible: between Cleopatra and Antonius, and Mariam and Herod, 'sexual' takes on an antagonistic role with regard to 'relationship.' As the men who do the looking are not only lovers and husbands, but fulcrums of the symbolic order or public power, their gaze is also that of what Lacan calls the big Other. According to Slavoj Zizek, the subject addresses the big Other with the question, "Why am I what you are saying that I am?" (113). This question is "hysterical;" it is "an articulation of the incapacity of the subject to fulfil the symbolic identification" (113). As examples again, Mariam and Cleopatra will not, or can not, give up the question, "Why am I what you are saying that I am?;" they resist not only intersubjective interpellation, as obedient wives, but ideological interpellation, as women. In these ways, the psychoanalytic dimension of the plays accords with the historically conditioned ideological critique of the role and position of women in society and in terms of spectacle. But the shift of the locus of this set of problems from the women to the men, which is accomplished by the recasting of the gaze in the plays, generalizes the critique of performative notions of identity, and broadens the significance of the psychoanalytic import of the relationships between the gaze, gender, sexuality, intersubjective relationships, and psychic integrity.

  12. In both plays, being beholden by women causes division of the self and the failure of self-recognition in the male leads. Herod describes Mariam, for example, as a mirror he has broken, thereby destroying the image of himself she sustained:

    But when on it my dazzl'd eye might rest,
    A precious mirror made by wondrous art,
    I priz'd it ten times dearer than my crown,
    And laid it up fast folded in my heart:
    Yet I in sudden choler cast it down,
    And pash'd it all to pieces: 'twas no foe
    That robb'd me of it; no Arabian host,
    Nor no Armenian guide hath us'd me so:
    But Herod's wretched self hath Herod cross'd.
    She was my graceful moiety; me accurs'd,
    To slay my better half and save my worst (5.124-34).

    The way that the men speak also reveals their perplexity: both Antonius' and Herod's final speeches are replete with oxymoron (e.g., Antonie 3.45-66; 275-308 and Mariam 4.239-258) which reflect the ambivalent positions in which "fair and foul" (3.212) Egypt has placed Antonius, and the fight between "love and hate" (4.244) induced in Herod by Mariam. In Antonius' final scene, the figure which best represents the oxymoronic condition of self-division is the man-woman figure of the effeminized Hercules, as in Lucilius' long speech at 3.343-368 and Antonius' reference at 3.201.

  13. Such a figure is literally and etymologically hysterical, as it is excessively feminized; it is also psychoanalytically hysterical. According to Renata Salecl, the male hysteric asks, "What kind of mask am I wearing...Am I a man or a woman?" (183). In a broader sense, the hysteric is profoundly confused as to what sort of performative mandate is presented to him, and responds ambivalently to that mandate: as Slavoj Zizek writes, "the logic of the hysterical demand is 'I'm demanding this of you, but what I'm really demanding of you is to refute my demand because this is not it!'" (112). In Antonius' case, the hysterical demand is embedded in his suicide, as he kills himself to restore his reputation for courage: "I must deface the shame of time abused,/ I must adorn the wanton loves I used,/ With some courageous act..." (3.377-79). Both his degradation and the redemption from degradation are ascribed to Cleopatra, as she is both the cause of his enfeeblement and the stimulus to his noble suicide. In Herod's case, the hysteria surrounds his order to execute Mariam; as "hideous horrors at [his] bosom pull" (4.522), he demands both her death, and that she refute that demand.

    Soldier: You bade We should conduct her to her death, my lord.
    Herod: Why, sure I did not, Herod was not mad.
    Why should she feel the fury of the sword?
    Oh, now the grief returns into my heart,
    And pulls me piecemeal: love and hate do fight:
    And now hath love acquir'd the greater part,
    Yet now hath hate affection conquer'd quite.
    And therefore bear her hence: and, Hebrew, why
    Seize you with lion's paws the fairest lamb
    Of all the flock? She must not, shall not, die.
    Without her I most miserable am,
    And with her more than most. Away, away,
    But bear her but to prison, not to death:
    And is she gone indeed? Stay, villains, stay,
    Her looks alone preserv'd your sovereign's breath.
    Well, let her go, but yet she shall not die;
    I cannot think she meant to poison me:
    But certain 'tis she liv'd too wantonly,
    And therefore shall she never more be free (4.239-58).

    Inscription in the scopic economy as objects destroys these men, not only as heroes and leaders, but as men. In the works of these women writers, then, adherence to a notion of performative identity induces self-division, self-destruction, hysteria and even fatal gender confusion in women and men alike. For all of the principal characters in these plays, "[I]f we cannot live without her sight" (4.386), as Herod says, we must not live at all.

  14. Underpinning these plays, then, is a conception of a world closed to the gaze and to its powers of interpellation, both psychoanalytic and ideological: a conception of a world, that is, as a literal closet, an enclosed and private space to which to retreat. This space is not, however, simply a space of withdrawal; in both plays, the voices of the principal female characters persist after their 'deaths' (Mariam's real death, and Cleopatra's false one), from, as it were, their final closets. In both plays, then, dramatic effect is produced through absence and invisibility, or absolute untheatricality. Furthermore, this effect is not limited to female characters: perhaps the most significant of all aspects of Mariam is that the most extreme emotions--indeed, the twinned tragic emotions of fear and pity--are evoked by invisible characters. In the first half of the play, the absence of Herod is more powerful, even terrifying, than his presence, and in the last act, the absence of Mariam is more poignant, more devastating, to the audience than her presence. In the first half, all the action revolves around Herod's absence; in the second half, it all revolves around Mariam's. In Antonie, the authority and dramatic power of absence is conventional to the plot; hence the poignancy and irony in Antonius' line, "I should have died in arms" (3.231), which could stand as subtitle of the play as a whole. But Antonie insists to the end on the displacement of spectacle from the stage, by having the reunion of the lovers reported rather than enacted. This choice is true to its source, of course, and to Senecan convention, but it also has emotional impact: in Antonius' last scene, he plays to the absent Cleopatra, and in Cleopatra's, she plays to the dead Antonius. In terms of theatricality, and performative notions of identity, it is deeply ironic that the most powerful drama of these plays is evoked by the invisible, motionless, even dead or presumed dead, absent central characters. It is also with irony, in literary historical terms, that we experience the power of these features of the plays, moved as we are to cathartic emotion by the absence or displacement of dramatic spectacle.

  15. Perhaps the final irony of this feature of the plays is critical and theoretical, as the power of absence resonates both psychoanalytically and historically. Normally, the two modes of criticism are exclusive, for psychoanalysis claims that history is produced by the phenomena it studies (see Copjec 6-11, and Zizek SO, 50 and 142-145), while historicism claims that history produces the possibility of psychoanalysis (see Greenblatt "Psychoanalysis," Parker 54, Foucault, Guillory). Within each of these paradigms, the other must be derivative or symptomatic, and each must be blind to the other's foundational claims (Zizek, SO 50). Selected points of convergence between historicism and psychoanalysis, however, have been used by recent critics (such as Harry Berger, Jr., Joel Fineman and Lynn Enterline) to turn the double-blind into sites of doubled insight. In the present paper, the convergence of history and psychoanalysis is at the point of Lacan's statement, "there's no such thing as a sexual relationship" (Encore, "Aristotle and Freud" 57). This statement resonates historically in the early modern period, during which forms of sexual relationship were changing profoundly, in which intense anxiety, both painful and playful, is exhibited throughout the culture over sexual and gendered identity, and during which the literature, thematically, formally and materially, instantiates these conflicts. Particularly, the statement pertains historically to each play, in which gendered roles--as examples, either Antonius' conflicted masculinity, or Mariam's equally conflicted femininity--force sexuality to work against the possibility of intersubjective communication, or relationship. Equally, the statement resonates psychoanalytically in both plays, as in each desire, manifest in the dynamic of the gaze, fatally, unavoidably and ahistorically opposes the consumation of relationship. The statement similarly does double-duty in illuminating the power of absent or dead figures in the plays. The failure of the sexual relationship in historical terms, because of the destructive nature of the period's conceptions of masculinity and femininity, is echoed in the eery, poignant, and essentially tragic voices from beyond the grave which feature in both plays. In psychoanalytic terms, the voices can be read as emanating from what Zizek coins the "sublime body" (SO 132-136), which appears in the space between actual and symbolic death; [8] they materialize "the terrifying, impossible jouissance" (SO 71) which is the residue of the failure of the sexual relationship, or the persistence of desire beyond the authority of the law of the symbolic (see TS 152-158). As such, they also evoke an emotional response, of pity and of fear, greater than reason requires. The combination of historical and psychoanalytic foci on these features of the plays, then, allows us to see fully the tragic potential of the sexual relationship both here and now in early modern England, and in a broader sense, in the performances of all the players on the stage of the world.

  16. Historically and psychoanalytically, then, the anti-theatricality and untheatricality of these plays are the source of their deepest and most meaningful affect upon the audience. In this way, they contradict influential generalizations about theatricality, gender and sexuality which have been made in recent criticism of English Renaissance literature and culture. For example, Stephen Orgel has written, of the theatrical representation of gender in the public theatre, that "this is a world in which masculinity is always in question" ("Subtexts" 25); certainly Antonie and Mariam confirm this statement. But Orgel goes on to say, in light of the characterization of gender through performance in The Roaring Girl, that "[a]cting like a man is the most compelling way [in this culture] of acting like a woman" (25); Cary and Sidney, to the contrary, suggest that acting like a man in this world is impossible, acting like a woman undesirable, even suicidal, and acting like a man in love with a woman, or a woman in love with a man, is unbearable. The final words of Mariam go to the Chorus, which despairs of an audience with sufficient constancy of gaze to have looked upon the spectacle without confusion:

    Whoever hath beheld with steadfast eye
    The strange events of this one only day
    How many were deceiv'd, how many die,
    That once today did grounds of safety lay!
    It will from them all certainty bereave,
    Since twice six hours so many can deceive (5.259-64).

    If even the most "steadfast eye" is bereaved of "certainty," then there is no appearance which can be presumed to work as reality, in terms of ethics, gender, or identity. These plays, then, cogently critique the pleasures and persuasions of performance, gendered and general, as put forward not only in the public drama of the period, but in the most important and influential examples of recent criticism of that theatre. The plays, in turn, produce their own generalizable insights: if the root of the perplexity over gender and sexuality, as expressed in the literature of the period, is the psychoanalytic and historical truism that there is no sexual relationship, and if that failure is aptly detailed through examining the nodal points of contact between looking, desiring, acting and dying, then these plays may serve to illuminate climactic moments in canonical drama of the period: moments in which, for example, Hamlet, Lear and Othello are profoundly, tragically, and movingly bereaved of all certainty, shattered by the loss of love, and destroyed by the inability to enact the roles and expectations they deeply desire to perform.


1. Musty Chiffon is a female impersonator whose lounge act I saw in San Francisco in 1996. This line is printed on the back of the promotional t-shirt sold at the event.

2. From Louis A. Montrose's depiction of Queen Elizabeth as performative Queen (308-311), through Stephen Greenblatt's account of sexual inversions ("Fiction and Friction," Shakespearean Negotiations), Stephen Orgel's roaring girls in Impersonations, Peter Stallybrass's musings on the breasts of the boy actor, Jonathan Dollimore's invitation to Mick Jagger to play Cleopatra (493), and Madelon Sprengnether's carnivalesque Cleopatra and Juliet Dusinberre's hyper-performative Egyptian queen, gender is asserted to have been a kind of performance in early modern culture.

The genealogy of these critical notions is handsome and respectable; they join Greenblatt's great heuristic, the notion of 'self-fashioning' (RSF), with Thomas Laqueur's groundbreaking work on the history of sexuality, with the instability of gender introduced by Michel Foucault's discursive map of sexuality in The History of Sexuality, Vol. I, and with postmodern ideas about gender as articulated most influentially by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble.

3. These features can also be read in generic terms, as untheatricality is a convention of a genre comprised, in the words of one critic, of "lengthy rhetorical declamation, larded with phrase-making and proverb-mongering" (Seronsy 43). The moral and philosophical underpinnings of the genre suggest reasons for its untheatricality: Laurie J. Shannon writes that "[t]he formal attributes of the closet drama are well-suited to extended philosophical analysis or rumination....closet drama makes use of long monologues and sparsely populated scenes to elaborate intellectual or philosophical issues" (145). Marta Straznicky adds that the stoic philosophy articulated in these plays requires "rerouting the trajectory of desire from material to spiritual goals" (115). The plays, therefore, may deliberately frustrate the anticipated pleasure of theatrical display in order to bring about just such a diversion of desire from the external world of corruption to the inner sanctum of virtue. They can also be read in philosophical terms, as anti-theatricality was an aesthetic and ideological attitude of the Sidney circle in which many of these plays were written. The concerns expressed in the anti-theatricality of the Sidney circle range from a Protestant suspicion of Catholic ostentation and display, to an aristocratic contempt for the values of the emergent consumer culture, to a stoic mistrust of materialist measures of virtue. But while these contexts help explain the anti-theatrical and untheatrical features of the plays, they do not fully illuminate the relationship of these features to gender questions raised in and around the plays. Anti-theatricality, for example, is notoriously prejudicial to women. Philip Sidney's choice of summary analogy in the section of his Defence about English drama, which compares the corrupt stage to the fallen woman, is typical of the use of gendered imagery in the genre: English drama, he writes, "like an unmannerly daughter showing a bad education, causeth her mother Poesy's honesty to be called in question" (246). In terms of character and subject choices, Cary and Mary Sidney appear to have made substantial revisions to what Marta Straznicky calls the "extremely sexist" (117) conventional representation of women in closet drama. Generic and philosophical contexts do not fully explain, then, why Cary and Sidney did not revise the anti-theatrical presumptions of their circle, and the untheatrical conventions of their genre, in their works.

4. This essay has elicited some debate among its readers about whether or not these plays were written with the intention of performance. The question is indeed worth consideration: certainly, as Findlay, Williams and Hodgson-Wright note in their article, "'The Play is ready to be Acted': Women and Dramatic Production, 1570-1670," the presumption that early modern closet drama is "unsuitable for production" (129-130) has been constructed retrospectively and used pejoratively. Findlay, Williams and Hodgson-Wright's work on productions of early modern plays by women (Women Dramatists 1550-1670: Plays in Performance, Lancaster: Lancaster University Television, 1999) certainly prove the plays are performable and enjoyable, and that they are interesting and coherent as theatre. Performability does not, however, prove that the plays were written for performance; as Lisa Hopkins says in her review of the video in this issue of EMLS, "the fact that performances have been mounted proves nothing about original intentions."

On the matter of whether or not they were intended for performance, the evidence is not, in my opinion, in, and may never be. In terms of a general consciousness, I don't find Findlay et al's claim, in the above essay, that Cary's visit to a witchcraft trial is sufficient evidence to determine her awareness, let alone exploitation, of alternative theatrical spaces, and their claim that the Paul Van Somer portrait of Cary "presents her as though standing on a stage; the red curtains on either side of the figure are suggestive of the Renaissance stage's 'discovery space'" (132) is over-reaching. Van Somer used this device in other portraits, such as those of the Earl (Richard Sackville) and Countess (Anne Clifford) of Dorset, and it is conventional; in Van Somer's case, one suspects that it was also a way to deal with the artist's difficulties, whether technical or philosophical or both, with perspectival illusion. In fact, the contrast between these portraits and the works of Anthonie Van Dyck which explicitly set figures in a theatrical space (see, for instance, the Wilton portrait of the Pembroke family) suggests that sitters who chose to be painted by Van Somer actually preferred a flattened, iconic and preternaturally still representation of themselves and their environments, and I think further that this choice could be read as anti-theatrical. Nor am I convinced by the readings of the plays in that essay; for instance, while the text of Mariam may remind "the reader of the inadequacy of the reading process," I'm not confident that the instances to which this statement refer make "an obvious plea for performance" (133).

What such evidence does show is that the plays were written in a culture which had a variety of forms of performance within it, and that the plays were written with a self-consciousness of performance and even theatricality. My argument in this essay reads the evidence conservatively, in that it presumes that, in the absence of any positive evidence, these plays were probably not performed or intended to be performed; as they are obviously plays, one can equally presume that they were written with the dramatic genre, and its wide possibilities, in mind. But more important to me than these presumptions is the fact that the plays, in my reading, whether or not they were intended for performance or actually performed, exploit the tension between their genre, which is performative, and their ideology, which critically interrogates performativity. It is in this feature of these plays, I think, that their most powerful claims upon the attention of early modern and postmodern audiences are based. In this sense, to insist upon them as EITHER reading texts OR performance texts is to diminish them.

5. I should mention here that Marta Straznicky, in a persuasive article, has argued that Margaret Cavendish, for one, used the representation of performance in her closet drama to rather more complex and interesting ends. Straznicky writes that Cavendish, "tries in many ways to recreate the effect of public performance for the reader, partly to take advantage of the cloak that dramatic writing offers the author, but also to give her readers the full educational benefit of public theatre" ("Margaret Cavendish" 378), and that in her plays "[t]he value of public speaking is...openly defended" (375).

6. For Lacan, the gaze is "one of the four media that constitute the cause of desire" (Encore, "Knowledge and Truth" 95). The counter-intuitive twist in Lacan's theory is that the gaze is "inside-out" (Lacan, 4C, "Anamorphosis" 82). It emanates from outside the subject, from within the field of vision: "[t]he gaze I encounter...[is] a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other" (Lacan, 4C, "Anamorphosis" 84). The gaze sustains the subject in a function of desire (Lacan, 4C, "Anamorphosis" 85) because of its doubling function in relation to objet petit a, the lost object cause of desire (49, 100; cf 4C, "The Eye and the Gaze" 77). The gaze is both a form of objet a, and casts the looked-upon as objet a: "The gaze is presented to us only in the form of a strange contingency, symbolic of what we find on the horizon, as the thrust of our experience, namely, that lack that constitutes castration anxiety" (Lacan, 4C, "The Eye and the Gaze" 72-73). Objet a is itself doubled and paradoxical, as it is both lack and object, the Freudian Thing: "The objet a is something from which the subject, in order to constitute itself, has separated itself off as organ. This serves as a symbol of the lack, that is to say, of the phallus, not as such, but in so far as it is lacking" (Lacan, 4C, "The Line and Light" 103; cf Encore, "Knowledge and Truth" 100).

7. Lacan says in several places that "there's no such thing as a sexual relationship" (Encore, "Aristotle and Freud" 57); cf Encore, "The Function of the Written" 32-36, "Love and the Signifier" 44-45, 47-49, "Aristotle and Freud" 57-63 and "God and Woman's Jouissance" 69, Copjec 201-236, and Salecl and Zizek 1996, "Introduction." Basically, the reason there is no sexual relationship is that sexual desire aims at objet a, the lost object cause of desire, which is not obtainable; furthermore, in a heterosexual relationship, the construction of objet a differs between the parties: the man seeks phallic jouissance, and the woman seeks the signifying power of the phallus. In another sense, 'there is no sexual relation' can be understood to mean that because the source of the desire is pre-linguistic, and relationship depends upon communication through language, desire, of the self or of the other, cannot be understood or developed. Yet another way to understand this is that sexual desire is always fetishistic, and therefore can not be of a whole to a whole; it is always, that is, of a whole with a missing part to the imaginary and misnamed form of that part. As with all of Lacan's major ideas, however, there are inconsistencies--delightful, significant, and sometimes astonishing inconsistencies, but inconsistencies, nevertheless--in the representation of this issue in his work. For a summary of the precepts underlying the issue, see Jacqueline Rose, "Introduction -- II," in Jacques Lacan and the École Freudienne, Feminine Sexuality, ed. Rose and Juliet Mitchell, trans. Rose (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Co., 1985) 30-44; for the bulk of Lacan's writings on the topic, see Encore.

8. Zizek's examples of sublime bodies include the king, the Sadean victim, and the Ghost of Old Hamlet.

Works Cited

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

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).