Let His Conscience be her Guide: Ethical Self-Fashionings of Woman in Early-Modern Drama

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Female characters in early-modern drama, even when following the dictates of conscience, appear inextricably bound to patriarchal expectations. This paradoxical situation is explained by two elements that have affected the Renaissance playwright's depiction of woman as moral agent. First, the playwright's education would have included a traditional body of philosophical opinion regarding female intellectual and moral capacities that would have tried to explain rationally the necessity of woman's second-class status. However, by its nature, this body of information is filled with contradiction. Second, the playwright's education would have also included learning to use the rhetorical trope et utramque partem, that ... continued below

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Penque, Ruth Ida August 2003.

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  • Penque, Ruth Ida

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Female characters in early-modern drama, even when following the dictates of conscience, appear inextricably bound to patriarchal expectations. This paradoxical situation is explained by two elements that have affected the Renaissance playwright's depiction of woman as moral agent. First, the playwright's education would have included a traditional body of philosophical opinion regarding female intellectual and moral capacities that would have tried to explain rationally the necessity of woman's second-class status. However, by its nature, this body of information is filled with contradiction. Second, the playwright's education would have also included learning to use the rhetorical trope et utramque partem, that is arguing a position from all sides. Learning to use this trope would place the early-modern dramatist in the position of interrogating the contradictory notions of woman contained in the traditional sources. Six dramas covering over a sixty-year period from the mid-sixteenth to the early seventeenth centuries suggest that regardless of the type of work, comedy or tragedy, female characters are shown as adults seeking recognition as autonomous moral beings while living in a culture that works to maintain their dependent status. These works include an early comedy Ralph Roister Doister, a domestic tragedy A Woman Killed With Kindness, a closet drama The Tragedy of Mariam: The Fair Queen of Jewry, two romances, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale, and a tragedy The Duchess of Malfi. What these plays suggest is that throughout early-modern drama, the female character is often depicted as resisting patriarchal demands that are inherently irrational, especially when these demands contradict ethical behavior that the culture ostensibly supports. The Renaissance playwright's depiction of woman as moral agent is encouraging in that even though the female character may not be successful within the parameters of the drama, nevertheless, the fact that her moral dilemma is described in ways that question the validity of patriarchal expectations indicates a certain level of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

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  • August 2003

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  • Feb. 15, 2008, 2:56 p.m.

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  • Oct. 30, 2013, 1 p.m.

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Penque, Ruth Ida. Let His Conscience be her Guide: Ethical Self-Fashionings of Woman in Early-Modern Drama, dissertation, August 2003; Denton, Texas. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc4254/: accessed December 13, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; .