Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 34. The Women of the age

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 34. The Women of the age

It is impossible to close even this scanty notice of some of the social characteristics of the Elizabethan age without a more special reference to its women. For, in the history of western civilisation (not to venture on applying the remark still more widely), it is generally the women whose code of manners and of morals determines the standard of these in any given period of national life. No doubt, the women of the Elizabethan and Jacobean age, as they appear before us in contemporary drama, are, primarily, the creatures of the imagination of the dramatists; yet it would be idle to ignore the twofold fact, that the presentment of the women of this period on the stage largely reproduces actual types, and that the way in which dramatists looked upon women, their position in life, and their relations to men, was the way of the world, and the way of the age. Queen Elizabeth was not the only highly educated Englishwoman of her family or times; but, though the type, of which the continental renascence produced many illustrious examples, is never wanting in the society of the Tudor and Stewart times, it is comparatively rare and can hardly be said to be a frequent characteristic of their women. The fashions of intellectual, and mainly literary, refinement which passed over court and society, from that of Euphuism to that of Platonic love, were fashions only, to be followed for a season and then discarded. Far more striking as a distinctive feature is the virility which many women of the age shared with the great queen—the high courage, the readiness for action, the indomitable spirit which no persecution can abate and which the fear of death itself cannot quench. This quality of fortitude the women of the age shared with the men, as Portia shared it with Brutus, and to this they bore testimony with the same readiness on many occasions and in many places besides the scaffold and the stake. The German traveller, Paul Hentzner, describing England as a sort of woman’s paradise, says of Englishwomen that “they are as it were men”; and, just as we hear that ladies were willing to undergo with their husbands the toils and exertions of country life (as they afterwards came to join in its sports), so there was a noble distinctiveness in the readiness of Elizabethan women to take their part in the duties and the responsibilities of life at large, and to defy cavil and criticism in the consciousness of their own strength and steadfastness. There is not, as has been suggested, an element of mannishness in the Venetian Portia, or a touch of the virago in Beatrice: they are women born to play their part in life and society, and to stand forth amongst its leaders. But here, also, we are in the presence of exceptional personalities, though the conception remains constant in the English drama, as it did in English life, to the days of the civil war and beyond.

As to the women of everyday life, there can be no reason for doubting a close correspondence between many of their characteristic features in life and on the stage. Their emptiness and shallowness, due, in part at least, to a defective education which cared only for imparting a few superficial accomplishments, their inordinate love of dress and all manner of finery, their hankering for open admiration and search for it in the open fashion of earlier times, sitting at their doors during the greater part of the day, or, from the closing years of the reign onwards, under shelter of the masks which had become the fashion at public places—all these, and a hundred more, are follies and levities in which observation and satire have found constant materials for comment and censure. The looseness and licence of the age form a feature of its life and character well enough known to students, and were by no means, as is sometimes supposed, derived altogether, or perhaps even mainly, from the example of court or town. But a comparison, from this point of view, between different periods, whether or not adjacent to each other, is a hazardous process, and, in any case, is remote from the purpose of the present chapter. The dramatic poets discussed in the present volume and in its successor, at times, preferred to reproduce in their plays what they found in the scene of life around them; at times, they were fain to dwell on those aspects of society and its experiences which seemed most likely to serve as occasions for exciting the emotions of pity or of horror. The Elizabethan and Jacobean drama would have been unable, even if it had been willing, to detach itself altogether from the conditions of things in which it necessarily found much of its material, and to which it could not but, in many ways, assimilate the remainder. Neither, again, were its reproductions of manners always correct, nor were the “problems” of its actions always those with which the experience of the age was familiar. But, as a whole, and though it only gradually developed, and in some respects varied, the methods and processes by which it worked, this drama remained true to its purposes as an art; and, in the sphere where its creative power was most signally asserted—in the invention and delineation of character—its range was unsurpassed. In many respects, the conditions of the age might have seemed unfavourable to the production of the most beautiful, as they are the most enduring, examples of female excellence. Yet the legend of good women which a historic record of Shakespeare’s age might unfold would not be a nameless tale. And, together with the sunniest and sweetest, the very noblest of all feminine types—that of sovereign purity and that of self-sacrificing love—will not be sought for in vain in the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama; and he would err who should look for them only on the Shakespearean heights.