"The Wreck of Order" in Early Modern Women's Drama
Irene Burgess
Wheeling Jesuit University

Burgess, Irene. "The Wreck of Order" in Early Modern Women's Drama. Early Modern Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 6.1-24 <URL:

  1. At the end of Elizabeth Cary's Tragedy of Mariam, The Fair Queen of Jewry, a messenger informs the distraught King Herod that his wife is dead by stating flatly, " her body is divided from her head" (5.1.90). Although the messenger uses this to assure the guilty king that his wife cannot be revived, it is a telling commentary on the role of women in the play. Throughout, Mariam is referred to by her beauty, and when she tries to use her powers of reason, she is quickly thwarted and finally killed. In essence, her appearance in death is not that different from her role in life. Ironically enough, Salome, her sister-in-law, remains whole after engineering the dissolution of Mariam's and every other character's life. This dichotomy clearly delineates the difference between a bad woman, Salome, and a good woman, Mariam. Bad women keep their heads and use them to facilitate the conjunction of body and head in some form of action. Good women divorce the body and the head in an attempt to control them and thus must always suffer. [1]

  2. According to Early Modern cultural strictures, properly deferential women do have the ability to unite their reason and their sexuality, but it is at a cost. By now, Elaine Beilin's description of the appropriate behaviour for Renaissance women as "chaste, silent, and obedient" has become a critical chestnut. [2] Whether viewed as a causal chain or a coexisting set of conditions, these descriptors show that women's reason can only be applied to trying to obtain appropriate obedience and submission. The very need for continued conversation around this topic during the Early Modern Period through the querelle des femmes as well as other tracts considering the mores of gender relations suggest the difficulty and unlikelihood of this behaviour. [3] This theme of chastity and appropriate deference to one's husband is also a major aspect of what defines a bad woman: a woman who cannot fulfill the code of deference adequately because she allows some sort of conjunction of mind and body and thus does not enable the properly submissive relationship with men. As a result, cultural mores provided women with few options in their behaviour. If a good woman's essence was an obedient body, then the very sexuality of that body suggested possible means of deviant behaviour through the excessive demands of female sexuality. If a bad woman's essence stemmed from her willingness to use her mind in conjunction with her body, then both mind and body must disintegrate in the cultural attempt to sever the two. The awkward differentiation of bad versus good becomes even more complex when one realizes that goodness is at best relative for women; all women are inherently corrupt, yet some are able to overcome their natural defects for at least a little while.

  3. Given this state of affairs, what does one do if one is a female playwright during the Early Modern Period and wants to represent women as characters in a drama? Interestingly enough, in many of the early dramatic works there is a seeming celebration of what are often corrupted women. Elizabeth Cary's Mariam is not the only early modern text written by a woman that presents clearly the conundrum faced by female characters when they must choose between "bad" behaviour and "good" behaviour. In this essay, I want to examine how female authors of early modern dramas use "bad" women to disturb this dichotomy between good women and bad women as a societal determination of feminine behaviour and essence. Cleopatra in Mary Herbert's translation of Garnier's The Tragedy of Antonie, Salome in Elizabeth Cary's The Tragedy of Mariam, Fair Queen of Jewry, and Venus in Mary Wroth's Love's Victory are all clearly corrupt women who by various means exploit what these associations with iniquity mean for gender relations. Ultimately, the characters force the texts to both placate and expose the patriarchal societies which produce these women as figures of questionable behaviour. In doing so, we see the head become reattached to the body in ways that are challenging to the contemporary discourse of early modern culture. Yet, this reattachment is an uneasy process for the women writing these works; for them, too, these women are corrupted individuals, and the playwrights need to expose the stitching that occurs when the head becomes rejoined with the body.

    Cleopatra and Mary Sidney Herbert's The Tragedy of Antonie

  4. In the earliest play of the three we are looking at, we see one of the more frequently cited figures of women's duplicity: Cleopatra. In her use as an exemplary image during the early modern period, she was frequently a divided figure, both good and bad. As Mary Hamer points out in her examination of the figure in Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Weiditz:

    it is the power Cleopatra wielded through her sexuality that is emphasized. In this sense she is capable of being constructed as the representative of all women, at the same time as she is a warning to them. She is both what they must not be and what they inevitably are. (Hamer 38)

    Despite this sense of women's evil that Cleopatra emanates, she does become redeemed from the status of "a cultural artefact, a signifier" (Hamer 24) of women's overweening sexuality and the horror it causes men by some writers of the early modern period. Hughes-Hallet notes that many writers of this period, including Chaucer, saw Cleopatra as "a paradigm of female goodness, a heroine who proved her virtue by committing the one act capable of absolving a woman from the baseness inherent in her gender, that of killing herself for love of a man" (113). Yet, she concedes later on in the same paragraph that "behind the acclamation lies the suspicion that the person she killed--herself--was, like all sexually active women, bad"(113). Cleopatra is frequently a divided figure, torn between what is seen as her essential female nature and the patriarchal conception of that nature. As an example of womanly evil, she is criticised; the female sexuality that causes these perceptions remains the foundation for both her good and her evil. Although, as a ruler, she must use her head to lead effectively, she quickly becomes an embodiment of treachery through her physicality. In Herbert's translation of Garnier's play, even Cleopatra herself recognises the costs of combining the two, and like the cultural commentators around her, subsumes herself to a physical image at the cost of any autonomy that was attained through the combination of her reasoning and her physicality.

  5. Mary Sidney Herbert's The Tragedy of Antonie at first seems to reveal the conventional version of Cleopatra as the sexually entrapping woman who cannot control her powers. Ironically enough, we see this version through Antony's eyes. From his initial statements, we see Antony bewailing his outcast state and blaming it on Cleopatra:

    For love of her, in her allurements caught,
    Abandoned life. I honour have despised,
    Disdained my friends, and of the stately Rome
    Despoiled the empire of her best attire,
    Contemned the power that made me so much feared;
    A slave become unto her feeble face. (I.11-16)

    As Krontiris (72) and Waller (112) have suggested, Antony here is showing an unfortunate lack of responsibility for his rule in his defeat and blames it all on Cleopatra's wiles. In this selection we see him vacillating between Cleopatra or himself as the source of his lack of will. Initially, he claims it is "for love of her" that he did what he did, but eventually, he portrays himself as enthralled, "a slave" to a "feeble face" that comes from a "cruel traitress, woman most unkind" (I. 17). In this phrasing as well, Antony is tying together her political treachery with her sexual treachery by parallelling "traitress," a strongly political term, with "woman."

  6. Ultimately, he sees his downfall as a force of nature that has been visited upon him instead of the actions of his own desire, exemplified by his statement that, "by nature women wavering are; / Each moment changing and rechanging minds" (1.145-46). According to him, Cleopatra's presumed treachery at Actium and afterwards comes not from his own lack of constancy when it comes to his political desires but her innate womanly inability to be true to him and his wishes, both sexually and politically. If Cleopatra is allowed to use her head, as she must as ruler, she will cause a downfall that reveals her innate evil. When the Chorus speaks after this, they underscore how he has been put to the test by the natural misbehaviour of women: "Nature made us not free / When first she made us live; / When we began to be, To be began our woe" (1. 173-76). Although this statement of Stoic pessimism is part of the nature of Senecan closet drama and perhaps a reflection of Mary Herbert's own feeling about her place as a more radical Protestant, [4] it also reaffirms the "natural" quality of women's iniquity with regard to men and sexuality as the patriarchy perceives it. Here the chorus only reasserts the blindness of men who think they can change the natural evil of women's sexuality. When we see the Egyptian Philostratus emerge at the beginning of the next act, he too asserts the naturalness of what has happened in Egypt: "All-knowing gods our wracks did us foretell / By signs in earth, by signs in starry spheres, / Which should have moved us, had not destiny / With too-strong hand warped our misery" (2.61-65). These are traditional Renaissance topoi of the fortune-telling of the natural world; nonetheless, they underscore the patriarchal view of Egypt's troubles as stemming, naturally, from women. Both the Roman conquerors and the Egyptian state use Cleopatra's physical being as the nexus of their fierce battles for control and dominance, let alone the personal costs of male sexual vulnerability.

  7. When Cleopatra speaks for the first time, she too wants to assert her own role as an evil woman in this broil, but her serving women, Charmion and Eras, refuse to allow her an easy passage to her proposed death. In marked contrast to Antony's desire to blame anyone but himself, Cleopatra spends much of her first speech beating her breast: "My evils are wholly unsupportable, / No human face can them withstand, but death" (2.189-90). Yet, even with this assumption of guilt that can only be assuaged by death, Cleopatra realises how she has been shortchanged by her erstwhile lover, who has not recognized all she has given up for him. As she points out, losing Antony is greater than all her other losses, as great as they are: "did not I sufficient loss sustain / Losing my realm, losing my liberty, / My tender offspring, and the joyful light / of beamy sun, and yet, yet losing more" (2.168-71). When the waiting women enumerate the drawbacks to her position of absolute guilt, she remains obstinate in her conviction of her own responsibility. They suggest that Antony's problems stem from several sources: his own fear of woman, his inability to protect her, and the destiny that the gods impart. The aim of these speeches is a desire to keep Cleopatra from losing herself and what made her important to the Egyptians. Eras asserts in a practical vein, "No more henceforth can him with comfort raise; / Withdraw you from the storm, persist not still/ To lose yourself; this royal diadem / Regain of Caesar" ( 2.294-97). Charmion echoes Eras' claim of Cleopatra's best political strategy by connecting it with a personal strategy: "Ill done to lose yourself, and to no end" (2.313). However, Cleopatra answers with a resignation to the destiny that she sees as inherent in her womanly role as a body instead of a united being.

  8. Eras and Charmion end with a plea that she think of the other duties she owes, but Cleopatra rejects these in favour of what she sees as her ultimate fault: her connection with her sexuality. As Krontiris(70), Lamb (131), and Cerasano and Wynne-Davies(17) have suggested, Cleopatra is set up in this translation as a wife and mother, domestically hapless instead of sexually dangerous:

    ... I
    The crown have lost my ancestors, me left,
    This realm I have to strangers subject made,
    And robbed my children of their heritage.
    Yet this nought (alas!) unto the price
    Of you, dear husband, whom my snares entrapped. (5.11-16)

    Yet, even with this appeal to her domesticity, her sexuality overwhelms her role of mother and wife, and she ultimately cannot serve in the roles she has set up for herself. Instead, she is defined by her failure in the domestic arena caused by the sexual lens through which she is always perceived. In addition to her faults as wife and mother, she also is lacking as a sovereign of her inherited land. She has been unable to serve either her political or domestic role adequately, and this inability stems from her role as a sexual being. Although she refers to Antony as her "dear husband," Cleopatra, in essence, is blaming her innate sexuality for what she has done.

  9. As the "bad" character in this play, Cleopatra seems sympathetic, but she recognises what she has done to the patriarchy she belongs to and participates in. Contrary to what Cerasano and Wynne-Davies aver, this is not an image of unmitigated female agency and self-assertion. [5] Although the Stoicism of the Senecan drama make Cleopatra's suicide a heroic gesture, it is a gesture aimed at what the play represents as the essential nature of females, their sexual allure. Indeed, Cleopatra seeks to erase the signifiers of her position to her onlookers as they mourn: "With violent hands tear off your hanging hair, /Outrage your face" (5.196-97). By erasing beauty or "outraging" the face and hair, Cleopatra tries to remove the very sexuality from herself. She wants to erase her womanhood from her face, the ultimate symbol of her allure. Unfortunately for her, she cannot do this and returns to the material world of sexuality, as she, in an almost blason-like fashion, describes the pieces of her dead lover that she is kissing. Cleopatra is immersed in the physicality of sexuality and beauty, and even at death, is unable to emerge from that immersion, no matter how much she wishes to.

  10. The use of the duality of Cleopatra in Garnier's text allows Herbert to present a vision of womanhood based on multiplicity. Although the Roman and Egyptian leaders that surround Cleopatra see this multiplicity as a symptom of duplicity, the text suggests that the iconic image of Cleopatra is neither to be reinforced or denied. As a woman and ruler, Cleopatra has let her sexuality override all other considerations, and within this culture, a woman's body can only mean disaster. If the sexuality of her body means loving domesticity, then it has failed; if it means rampant passion, that too has failed. In the world that both Cleopatra and Herbert live in, female sexuality is determined by a male-centred system of valuation. The multiplicity of vision recognises the ultimate irreconcilability of the larger social system and its symbols with women who must act in the world. Instead, we see that neither position of corrupt woman or proper woman is allowed her. Her mind and her rationality become totally divorced from what her body has done, and she must suffer because she has no place in a world that defines her functions as a woman so narrowly.

    Salome in Elizabeth Cary's The Tragedy of Mariam, Fair Queen of Jewry

  11. Salome in Elizabeth Cary's The Tragedy of Mariam, Fair Queen of Jewry proves to be a character, who, like Cleopatra, reveals all the faults that are part of the corruption of the female, but unlike Cleopatra, she revels in these faults. It is precisely these faults that allow her to live and prosper in the face of all other female characters' downfalls. Additionally, unlike Cleopatra, there is little that is domestic about Salome; her passions and desires are worldly and are all focused on personal power because she is able to manipulate the male-centred system to achieve exactly what she wants through her combined bodily desires and rational ability. Since this Salome is an earlier Salome than the one we tend to associate with the dance of the veils and John the Baptist, Weller and Ferguson suggest we are to understand Salome as a composite character much as audiences of the period understood Herod as a composite character of roaring evil and lunacy (40). Even if their explanation is not necessarily compelling, certainly the character that Cary portrays for the play is a monster on many levels. The evil that women can bring comes from the immensity and senselessness of their desires, and Salome is a potent image of those uncontrolled passions.

  12. In the play, Salome's greatest desire is to get rid of her current husband, Constabarus, and marry her lover, Silleus. Although she is frequently cited as a foil to Mariam's dilemma in the face of Herod's supposed death and his unexpected return alive, this desire on her part also makes her a foil to her brother. In fact, the connection between Salome and her brother is quite strong; she recognises that all her power rests on her brother's life and his ability to rule. In the middle of the play, when it is announced that Herod does indeed live, the stichomythia between her younger brother, Pheroras, and herself shows a large contrast between how she feels and how the rest of the kingdom feels about the king's unexpected return:

    Salome: How can my joy sufficiently appear?
    Pheroras: A heavier tale did never pierce mine ear.
    Salome: Now Salome of happiness may boast.
    Pheroras: But now Pheroras is in danger most.
    Salome: I shall enjoy the comfort of my life.
    Pheroras: And I shall lose it, losing of my wife. (3.2.51-56)

    For Pheroras, as for most of the other characters, the original news of the king's death opened up the possibility of what he most wants: freedom from the strictures of being what Andrew Hiscock refers to as a "political dependent" (104) in this world of autocratic, patriarchal rule. This is a world based on the fear of the seemingly omnipotent male, Herod. In the face of the enormity of his control, both males and females are rendered powerless in the wake of his will.

  13. It is ironic then, that of all the characters, it is the flamboyant woman, Salome, who benefits from the return of masculine, controlling rule. Laurie Shannon has noted how Salome in effect, creates "chaos" out of the patriarchy by fulfilling patriarchal rules and using the system which she perceives as both confining and understandable. [6] As Karen Raber points out, "Salome is rewarded for being able to read and reproduce the logical extremes of absolute rule: her behavior is self-consciously the product, not the antithesis of both familial patriarchy and political tyranny, and so achieves a productive symbiosis with her brother's jealous despotism" (336). Salome's exploitation of what the political system offers allows her to implode the system upon itself to feed what she desires. Jonathan Goldberg characterises her as a woman who is not just the prototypically "evil" icon, but "as a woman whose will to power entirely operates within, even when it seems to violate, the patriarchal subordination of women" (180). By taking advantage of patriarchal expectations, both with regard to her desires and to the desires of the women around her, Salome establishes herself in the end as the victor over and the spoiler of oppressive male rule. Given the time and place it occurs in, though, this unfortunately does not get expressed in any visions of solidarity and sisterhood with Mariam; instead, Salome, "man- like" in this Machiavellian world, triumphs by her resolute championing of herself.

  14. Salome's ability to thrive within the system also depends upon the confluence of the domestic and the political at the court. Tellingly, her brother, Herod, when he is cunningly led by both Salome and Pheroras to condemning Constabarus to death and allowing Pheroras to marry, conflates his sister and his wife when he says, "I will requite / Thee, gentle Mariam--Salom, I mean" (4.2.83-84). He tries to excuse himself by saying that he has been thinking of Mariam so much that her name is always on his mind, but, in actuality, he has not referred to Mariam in over forty lines. Salome is on his mind because she has violated the strictures of Mosaic Law with regard to marriage, presumably, as Pheroras presents it, all for the love of Herod, who just a few lines before was complaining about the likelihood of Salome "whining" to save her husband (4.2.76). Herod does not perceive Salome's wifely duties that would force her to value the wishes of her husband over the wishes of her birth family because that would mean he, as the egocentric nexus of the public world, would lose out to the private, domestic world that excludes him. Instead, Herod's function as king means that he has feels his sister should save her greatest loyalty for him; when she does do this, he places her in the position of dutiful wife for just a moment in recognition of her seeming loyalty to him.

  15. Since Herod cannot recognise what is due to him privately versus what is due to him publicly, he is ripe for Salome's plans catering to his overwhelming egotism. After Salome's seeming proof of loyalty, Mariam's arguments with him in the scene following seem like so much carping and not the proper sort of behaviour for recognition of a husband and king whom she had missed while he was gone. Ultimately, Salome's weapon against her brother results from rigid patriarchal understanding: an unreasonable expectation of loyalty on the part of her brother as head of the country and their family and a stunning naiveté about how language really works. Ferguson (243), Kennedy (114), and Hiscock (100) have seen Salome as a play about the slipperiness of language, particularly women's language in the early modern period. After all, women speak out frequently in the play and one of Mariam's faults is seen to be her speaking. Unlike some of these women, Salome speaks frequently but to the point. In an important interaction with Herod about Mariam's future, Salome responds to his ravings nonchalantly; as Herod tries to figure out the best way to kill Mariam, she offers up options, none of which he is willing to commit to. Herod makes the ridiculous claim that when Mariam is killed, if he cannot stand being without her, "You'll find the means to make her breathe again, / Or else you will bereave my comfort quite" (4.7.387-88). Salome, in a triumph of Nixonian double-speak, replies, "Oh ay, I warrant you" (4.7.389). She, like the Iago she is often compared to, speaks the truth, but Herod, Othello-like, cannot hear the truth because it would rip from him all sense of comfort and loyalty in the world that he, by his own machinations, has made a dishonest and disloyal world. When he does decide to remand the issuance of Mariam's death sentence, he offers to do so, ultimately, on the basis of Mariam's physical beauty. Comparing Salome to her, he says, "You are to her a sun-burnt blackamoor: / Your paintings cannot equal Mariam's praise, / Her nature is so rich, you are so poor" (4.7. 461-63). Salome does not respond with anger as one would expect from a woman whose main means of impressing the patriarchy, her beauty, has been devalued; instead, she merely replies, "I'll stay her death; 'tis well determined: / For sure she never more will break her vow, / Sohemus and Joseph both are dead" (4.7.502-04). With her very words, she uses rationality to exercise her will; she clearly sees Herod's irrationality and knows that only her clear-headedness will get her what she wants. Instead of the battle between rationality and passion (or will) that Laurie Shannon sees as part of the theme of the text (148), Salome uses reason to exploit others' passions and fulfill her own ambitions.

  16. An important interpretative mystery in this play is why Salome remains alive at the conclusion of the play. Her very nature would seems to suggest that she be killed at the end; all theatrical conventions demand that the parasitical Vice figure lose her life at the end. Yet, she lives, and with the man of her choice, having got rid of all the enemies who stand in her way. Since Herod speaks threateningly of the Arabs, there is a suspicion that her affair with the Arabian Silleus may cause problems, but we do not see that by the end of the play. Why does Salome win out and get what she wants? She triumphs, because, unlike Mariam, she accepts the rules of the societal game as a given, but she recognizes she can use the rules to her own advantage. Unlike Constabarus, who knows he has broken one set of rules (Herod's laws) to fulfill another set of rules (the code of honour and friendship), Salome recognises the supremacy of no rules except her will and her wit, tempered by her pragmatism. She is a supremely ambivalent figure for an early modern character. Although we are supposed to accept the edict of Constabarus' fulminations that women "are the wreck of order, breach of laws. / [Your] best are foolish, froward, wanton, vain, / Your worst adulterous, murderous, cunning, proud: / And Salome attends the latter train" (4.6.332-35), nevertheless, she is alive and represents what society offers. She is the ideal consort for her brother, who is just as morally repellent but lacks any personal courage. Although she recognises the ambivalence of Cary's position in creating this kind of character, Travitsky has tried to explain Cary's motivations for producing a character of this ilk as a possible subversive intent against cooptation by the patriarchal system (192). In reality, this character is neither a representation of one nor the other. Instead, we see the dangers of a system that sets women up to be caricatures of themselves; for the canny, the fulfillment of the caricature can mean the dissolution of society, and for the naive, the fulfillment of the caricature can mean the dissolution of the self.

    Venus in Mary Wroth's Love's Victory

  17. The final play, Wroth's Love's Victory, is not only the latest of the three but also encompasses a very different genre: the pastoral comedy. Whereas Salome and Cleopatra are major figures in tragedies and thus are tainted in some respects by the tragic ending, Venus, the final corrupting woman we will be examining, serves as the manipulator of both the lovers' troubles and their conquests. Her subversiveness within the text supports the genre in a way that Salome's subversiveness does not. Salome's behaviour seems monstrously evil given the ending that her presence supports while Venus, although not a benign figure by any means, finally does let all the lovers come together. Like Cleopatra, Venus has multiple roles, representing both domestic passion and sensual passion; like Salome, she is able to connect the body and head to achieve her own power through these multiple passions. Ultimately, through the machinations of comedy, she becomes a figure of great power who overwhelms mere human wishes in the wake of her own will.

  18. Venus was traditionally viewed as a dual figure during the Early Modern period. Lucy Hughes-Hallett cites the medieval Silvestris on the nature of Venus as goddess as follows: "there are two goddesses of love, the gracious Venus who is 'worldly music, that is, the equal proportion of worldly things . . .' and 'the shameful Venus, the goddess of sensuality . . .the mother of all fornication" (136). McLaren clarifies this for the early modern period by pointing out that Venus was a symbol of sexuality, sometimes chaste, domesticated marital love, at other times lascivious, passionate adulterous love (290). In an era where women's sexuality was the basis for the oppression of women by a vast majority of the culture, this divided vision of sexuality inherent in Venus is very telling. On the one hand, we can see in this combination of domesticated sexuality with undomesticated sexuality, the fear that even in marriage, all women will let the other side of their sexuality, the devouring side, take over. Yet, turned around, the emergence of the domestic in the passionate suggests that perhaps there may be room for both in women's behaviour; certainly in Wroth's text, it is this coupling which provides Venus with her power.

  19. Carolyn Swift and Naomi Miller both have noted the role of Venus as a figure of female agency and control. [7] Venus starts out in the play ordering her son, Cupid, to arrange love affairs between the humans in a way that they will suffer first before reaching their true love. While this provides a reassurance to the audience of a happy ending, we also see her desire to control and demand human behaviour: "Make them acknowledge that our heavenly power / Cannot their strength, but even themselves, devour" (1.1.5-6). Venus's power is capricious and exercised merely to show that it exists. In this regard, Wroth reveals the iconic nature of Venus as a symbol of passionate sexuality grown out of control. Yet, by reassuring the audience of a happy ending when Venus concludes the first scene by saying "Triumph upon their travels [travails] shall ascend, / And yet most happy ere they come to some end" (1.1.35-36), we return to the marital plot of the pastoral romance that reveals Venus' ultimately domestic sexuality. Both versions of Venus' sexuality determine how the marriages proceed in this play.

  20. Although Musella's mother (and her dead father through the demands of his will) would seem to be the main deterrence to the appropriate settlement of Musella and Philisses' marriage, that power actually resides in Venus. Musella points out to her friend Simeana in the beginning of Act Five, that she must marry the hated Rustic: "Alas, I've urged her [Musella's mother], till that she with tears / Did vow and grieve she could not mend my state / Agreed on by my father's will, which bears / Sway in her breast and duty in me" (5.1.11-14). Her mother wants to be sympathetic, yet as a representative of her father's patriarchal power, she can only follow the script laid out for her. It is Venus, in the scene at the end of Act Four that directly precedes this, who is actually controlling whether or not Musella marries. She softens at the troubles the lovers already have gone through and unsuccessfully urges her son to retreat from his torment of them, "Behold them, and accept them, and mild be" (4.2.8). In this exchange, Musella's mother becomes merely the tool of Venus and her son, Cupid. Naomi Miller maintains that nurturing motherhood is inherent in relationships of Venus and Musella's mother with the lovers: "maternal authority...has the potential to complement rather than undermine bonds of love in friendship and sexual passion alike" (215). Yet, despite Miller's observation, both mothers are scary and overwhelming. Until this scene, Venus had nagged her son to cause more pains to the humans in the course of their falling in love; Musella's mother willingly sacrifices her daughter to a marital relationship with the prosaic and boorish Rustic because of the hints of her daughter's latent sexuality as provided by the tale- telling Arcas. Both are symbols of the fear of the domestic sexuality that Venus represents; domestic sexuality implies motherhood, and in this play, motherhood is a means of entrapment. The devouring mother in this scenario is Venus; although she wavers in her control, she shows that powerful mothers can overturn even the most determined of patriarchs.

  21. This controlling domestic sexuality is aligned with the passionate sexuality of the goddess. Venus' passionate side is most apparent in Lacon's song about findng Venus with one of her lovers. When Venus and her "loving friend" (1.3.82), whom Cerasano and Wynne-Davies identify as Mars, are discovered by the narrator of the song, they can only look back at him in amazement until "a child" (1.3.85), presumably Cupid, steps forth to direct the narrator's attention elsewhere. Cupid, "in his face not actions mild" (1.3.86), tells the narrator of the song who is smitten by Venus' beauty, "'Fly away,' said he, 'for sight / Shall both breed and kill delight'" (1.3.87-88) In essence, the very acknowledgment of Venus' beauty and the sexual desire it promulgates can be dangerous to the human will. While she symbolically engenders desire, she can also be a danger to anyone who recognises that desire. This is her dual function: the joys of passion, along with its costs. Venus, in her final judgement on Arcas, finally proclaims "Love's Victorie" to be her own instead of that of the humans who have pursued the games she has set up for them. She warns all humans in the form of Arcas: "all duties are performed to Love / Look that no more our powers by scorn you move. / But be true treasures of Love's lasting glory, / And I, your princess, crowned with victory" (5.7.157-60). But this victory comes at a price: Venus must proclaim her absolute power in terms of her ability to inspire passion and as Lacon's song so aptly points out, when Venus inspires passion, humans can be hurt or even killed.

  22. Wroth's employment of Venus as a character exploits her mixed association with the simultaneously dangerous sexual passion/domestic passion. We see that the domestic Venus, really a figure of the sexually engulfing Venus, is dangerous to humans and their desires. Although Venus appears to be a woman in control of the action, much like the playwright herself, we are also aware of the manipulation involved in this act of creation. Venus, in effect, is the figure of the playwright--a woman who exceeds others in passion and power and is able to construct a world for herself based on her ability to go beyond the bounds of normal womanhood. Yet, in the process of going beyond those boundaries, she exploits the typical male concerns about women's sexuality and uses them to make herself the queen of and victor in love. Wroth cannily reveals that it is fear that makes Venus powerful in the patriarchal world of the play. Musella and Philisses spend much of the play scared of what the revelation of their mutual love will bring about, and Musella's mother remains afraid of both her daughter's sexuality and her husband's will. Such examples show that Venus' combined sexuality makes mere humans in a male-centred universe subject to error and disarray. Her ability to manipulate these fears reveals her superior control of her multiple sexualities through reason and will, a goddess-like achievement that provides her power over human fear.

  23. Like Cleopatra and Salome, Venus seems to be a highly ambivalent character, both appealing and repellent. In an era when women were supposed to be "chaste, silent, and obedient," why would these female playwrights choose, in many ways, to celebrate these iconic figures of "bad" womanhood? One answer may come from Wroth's use of Venus as pseudo-playwright, a controller of all action. These figures are representations of themselves, women acting outside the bounds, doing that which is not accepted or expected by their patriarchal culture. The characters collect the focus of any negative feeling about female-authored works into their roles as images of womanhood run amok. So, while they reflect these authors, they also deflect attention. Salome's use of the patriarchal system through clever language may be similar to Cary's decision to write, but it is different enough to absorb any animus that may be directed against Cary herself. The refraction of womanly attributes allows a plethora of assumptions to be made and then broken by any potential viewers. We are then left with a variety of reactions to women's sexuality and desire that deviate sharply from the rigid roles of such conventional works as the querelle des femmes.

  24. In addition to this refracting function the figures allow the writers, these characters who are often imaged as "bad women" also allow the playwrights to comment on the multiplicity of realities for these characters who step outside the boundaries. Inherently, this multiplicity suggests that traditional cultural ideals of women as either bad or good have little meaning in real life. Although the drama is not "real life" as much as the anti-woman pamphlets are not "real- life," the existence of these texts by women about the "bad" female and their difference from the misogynistic works of the querelle des femmes suggests a more authentic reading of the women's roles. The critique of the patriarchal cultures of the plays is not explicit but rather hidden within the refraction of these women in their roles; although these authors in one way explicitly support the values of their culture with regard to gender roles, by presenting women whose lives are both more and less than what they have been traditionally, they imply very clearly that the patriarchy has forced a mythology and meaning on women's lives that cannot be easily sustained. These characters suggest that Constabarus is right in his previously cited claim that women are "the wreck of order, the breach of laws." The societal laws that regulate women's roles are continually breached in these plays by Sidney, Cary, and Wroth, wrecking any notion of a self- evident order.


1. This project was written with financial assistance from the West Virginia Humanities Council, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

2. For the early use of this term, see Elaine Beilin's introduction to her book (xix).

3. Vives, in his influential Instructions of a Christian Woman, exhorts women to "join a chaste mind unto thy chaste body . . . shut up both body and mind, and seal them with those seals that none can open but he . . . that is thy spouse" (104). Both Vives and Swetnam point to the example of Lucretia, who committed suicide after her rape, as the perfect wife because of the way she gets rid of the dangerously publicized body and mind. Yet, women are seen as too dangerous to deal with; Swetnam's primary advice about marriage is " that a woman is better lost than found, better forsaken than taken" (5).

4. See Margaret Hannay's Phillip's Phoenix, 125-26, and the introduction to the play by S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies (16).

5. Cerasano and Wynne-Davies (17) see the play as an example of heroic female stoicism as does Lamb (132). This is also implied by Waller (112). Krontiris points out that Cleopatra's mother's role is rejected for her sexual role as lover, and she claims that "sexual love receives a kind of glorification it the play as it becomes legitimized through marital language and at the same time idealized as worthy of sacrifice" (77).

6. Laurie Shannon sums this up best when she states, in talking about the primacy of Moses' Law as the arbitrator between men and women particularly with regard to the divorce laws that Salome brings up, "This imbalance necessarily places wives in positions of dependency and contingency that make moral constancy a practical impossibility, even as it condones male inconstancy. In establishing this differential treatment, the law authorizes disorder and inconstancy on the part of men, and thus is ultimately inadequate to preserve order in the society. What appears to be a domestic issue spirals out to become social chaos" (136).

7. Barbara Lewalski, Carolyn Swift, and Naomi Miller see the play as effective representation of what Lewalski calls a world where "female agency is pervasive and positive" (306). McLaren has a bit more restrained view of agency, but she sees a tension between perceived agency and social reality, which she says is represented in the play's "special language of avoidance" (280).

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)