Alexandria Digital Research Library

Domesticating Vengeance: The Female Revenger in Early Modern English Drama, 1566-1700

Stanavage, Liberty Star
Degree Grantor:
University of California, Santa Barbara.English
Degree Supervisor:
Kearney James
Place of Publication:
[Santa Barbara, Calif.]
University of California, Santa Barbara
Creation Date:
Issued Date:
Early Modern
Gender - history

This project examines the female revenger on the early modern stage and how this figure dramatizes cultural tensions about gendered identity in early modern England. Despite the tremendous critical attention early modern revenge tragedy has received, and despite attempts to read revenge in relation to gender, few scholars have offered a sustained reading of the female revenger. By focusing almost entirely on male revengers, studies of revenge tragedy have created an oversimplified narrative of the revenge tradition and its relation to conceptions of gender in the early modern period. I contend that female revengers on the Renaissance stage have a profoundly different relationship to revenge than their male counterparts, who are typically characterized as effeminate and self-alienated. I begin with the simple observation that female revengers of the Elizabethan period are able to channel the dangerous passion of revenge without experiencing any threat to their sense of self. My project tracks a shift in the gendering of revenge and charts the gradual disempowerment of the female revenger across the early modern period, relating the diminished rhetorical agency of the figure to shifting cultural ideas about the passions, heroism and the gendered body. I trace this female revenger from neo-Stoic translations of Seneca in the 1560s, particularly John Studley's reworking of Seneca's <italic>Medea</italic>, through plays from the 1580s and 1590s (Kyd's <italic>The Spanish Tragedy</italic>, Shakespeare's <italic>Henry VI</italic> tetralogy and <italic>Titus Andronicus</italic>, and the anonymous <italic>Arden of Faversham</italic>) and the Stuart stage (Shirley's <italic>The Maid's Revenge</italic> and John Ford's <italic>'Tis Pity She's a Whore</italic> and <italic>Love's Sacrifice</italic>). I conclude the dissertation with Ravenscroft's rewriting of Shakespeare's <italic>Titus Andronicus</italic> and Congreve's comedy, <italic>The Way of the World</italic>, arguing that the failure of female revenge on the Restoration stage demonstrates a shift in the perception of revenge from an `effeminizing' heated and embodied drive to a rational, if amoral, masculine "dish best served cold." By highlighting the critically neglected figure of the female revenger and tracking its transformation from the Elizabethan era through the Restoration, my project challenges our understanding of both the revenge tradition and early modern gender.

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