'Thy Speech eloquent, thy wit quick, thy expressions easy':

Rhetoric and Gender in Plays by English Renaissance Women



  1. In The English Gentlewoman (1631), a book aimed at the 'education of young ladies', Richard Brathwaite stated that 'it suits not with her honour for a young woman to be prolocutor [. . .] especially when either men are in presence, or ancient matrons, to whom she owes a civil reverence' (Tt1v). Brathwaite's well known admonishment illustrates the stock notion of woman's voice which dominated English society throughout the Renaissance period. A woman would risk her 'honour', that is, her sexual reputation, by asserting her voice, for a woman's speech was considered to be the mark of lewd conduct and sexual incontinence. The veneration of the voiceless female in English Renaissance culture implied that women were discouraged from engaging with rhetoric as well: rhetorical discourse, described by Aristotle as the as the art of discovering all the 'available means of persuasion' (Aristotle 1954, 24), and defined as 'the art to set forth by utterance of words matter at large' by Thomas Wilson in An English Rhetoric (Wilson 1999 [1560], 76) implied self-expression.

  2. Furthermore, in many cultural expressions from the Renaissance period, and in drama in particular, women employing rhetoric were stereotypically identified with sexual seduction. A significant early example of a play which demonizes female eloquence is William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (c.1591). The tragedy stages Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, who is represented as a sexually promiscuous woman, having an adulterous affair with the moor Aaron. At the same time, the wanton Tamora proves to be eloquent, seeing her tongue as a smooth weapon by means of which she can easily win people over. Tamora convinces Emperor Saturninus that she will manipulate Andronicus through the power of her persuasive tongue: 'I will enchant the old Andronicus / With words more sweet and yet more dangerous [. . .] For I can smooth and fill his aged ear, with golden promises' (IV.iv.88-89). Since Tamora employs rhetorical skills as the means to wreak havoc upon others, the play demonizes female rhetoric.

  3. Likewise, at the other end of the great period of English Renaissance drama, James Shirley's The Politician (c.1639) identifies woman's rhetoric with wantonness. Marpisa conforms to the stereotype of the lascivious, wordy woman. She is bound by marital contract to the king, yet she makes a cuckold out of him by paying the politician Gotharus 'fair conditions' (III.iii) in return for Gotharus's help in introducing her to the king and socially advancing her. Ill-reputed for her wanton conduct, at the same time Marpisa possesses a verbal power through which she is said to cast a spell on others. Olaus, the king's uncle, believes that Marpisa had 'charm'd' her former husband Altomarus 'by the flattery and magic of her [. . .] tongue', and openly accuses her of making 'an idol' of 'the device of tongue and soft phrases [. . .] to disguise her heart' (III.i).

  4. In the light of the problematic relationship between femininity and rhetoric in seventeenth-century England, I will focus on the engendering of rhetoric and the representation of the female rhetorician in three plays by Renaissance Englishwomen: The Tragedie of Mariam (c.1604, published in 1613) by Elizabeth Cary and two plays by Margaret Cavendish, The Unnatural Tragedy and Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet (c.1655). Cavendish's plays were published in the 1662 edition of her dramatic corpus, consisting of thirteen closet plays, which were probably written in Antwerp in the late 1650s. 1 Because the manuscript of plays intended for an earlier printing was lost at sea and had to be re-edited from original copies, the publication of the plays was delayed (Shaver 1999, 177).

  5. It is relevant to explore the representation of female rhetoric by these two women dramatists in the light of the role played by rhetoric in their lives and works. As a child, Elizabeth Tanfield Cary received an extraordinary education for a girl. As the biography of her life by one of her daughters reveals, Cary's 'father [. . .] loved very much to have her read' (Cary 1994, 188), and allowed his daughter to become proficient in many foreign languages: she taught herself Latin, French, Spanish, Hebrew, and translated the Epistles of Seneca, and the works of Blossius out of Latin. Through her training, Cary must have been familiar with formal rhetoric.

  6. The young Margaret Cavendish did not receive the kind of education which would have provided her with a familiarity with rhetoric, yet she may have gleaned some knowledge of rhetorical strategies from her husband William, Duke of Newcastle. Furthermore, despite her own restricted education, Cavendish engaged with rhetoric in her Orations, of Divers Sorts (1662). In this work Cavendish discusses subjects, such as death, kingship and literature, from different possible perspectives in the form of imaginary formal speeches in which the speaker attempts to persuade an imaginary audience of listeners to a particular viewpoint. Cavendish adopts both feminine and masculine discourses, and both feminine and feminist voices, apparently enjoying the debate of issues from different positions. As if she were a crossdressing actress on an imaginary stage, Cavendish assumes the male personae of a Privy Counsellor, a Soldier, and a King in 'A Kings speech to rebellious Subjects' (R2v). Thus, as a writer she speaks in a male voice on masculine political topics. At other points she assumes a woman's persona and voice, for instance, in 'A Young Virgins Dying Speech' (T3r), and tries to convince her imaginary listeners of the fact that women 'should imitate men, so will our Bodies and Minds appear more masculine and our Power will Increase by our Actions' (Gg2v).

  7. While both Cary and Cavendish displayed a concern with rhetoric in their lives or in other writing, it is particularly important to study the three mentioned plays in relation to rhetoric. Both Cary and Cavendish depict women who transgress the boundaries of feminine silence by engaging with rhetoric: Mariam and Salome in The Tragedie of Mariam, the sociable virgins in The Unnatural Tragedy, and Lady Sanspareille in Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet. Both women dramatists portray rhetoric in relation to gender roles, and woman's position in particular. Furthermore, the three plays deserve further attention, in that Cary and Cavendish legitimize woman's adoption of rhetorical strategies, both in relation to themselves as writers and in connection with their female dramatis personae. Finally, an examination of Cary's and Cavendish's representation of female rhetoric is relevant, since both writers use drama, and closet drama in particular, as a generic and discursive form, in order to negotiate a role as a female rhetorician. By investigating The Tragedie of Mariam, The Unnatural Tragedy and Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet we may therefore discover in which ways gender, genre and rhetoric interacted in seventeenth-century English culture.

    Elizabeth Cary: a silent and virtuous rhetoric

  8. In Elizabeth Cary's The Tragedie of Mariam, which was written by 1604 and published in 1613, woman's self-expression is the major issue, both in the main plot and in the subplot. Not only does the play contain characters' parts that are 'extremely long, running between four and twelve lines on the average' (Day Merrill 1996, 193); Cary also explores the conflict between a woman's desire to speak her mind and society's ban on woman's 'unbridled speech' (III.i.183), and the play displays many different, contradictory views on female utterance. On the one hand, Cary appears to undermine the cultural silencing of women, by allowing her heroine to unfold her mind and express her thoughts through long soliloquies. 2 On the other hand, the chorus of Jewish men implicitly criticizes Mariam's assertion of voice in public, by arguing that a woman 'usurps upon another's right / That seeks to be by public language graced' (III.i.239-40). As a result of this centrality of the public female voice in The Tragedie of Mariam, it is interesting to examine the relation of rhetoric to gender in the play.

  9. While in Renaissance England drama was conventionally concerned with poetical discourse in the Aristotelian sense, in some plays 'the poetical and rhetorical standards of Aristotle' were 'simultaneously applicable' (Howell 1975, 61), when an address was spoken by a dramatis persona to an audience of other characters within the play. This is, for example, the case in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, where Brutus and Antony address the Roman mob in Act III, scene ii: 'Then follow me, and give me audience, friends'. When we investigate the contexts in which the female protagonist of Cary's tragedy, Mariam, employs rhetoric, we notice that these are mainly soliloquies: for instance, in the opening scene Mariam enters alone and seems to speak to the air when she legitimizes her frequent running on 'with public voice' in front of an imaginary critical audience. Attempting to persuade an absent audience of listeners, she argues that she should be given 'pardon' for her outspokenness, because 'mistaking' is with women 'but too too common', and because 'Herod's jealousy / had power even constancy itself to change' (I.vii.23-24). 3 Thus Mariam uses an apostrophic mode of rhetoric, in that she addresses an imaginary, absent audience.

  10. The absence of an audience of listeners to Mariam's discourse serves as a legitimization of the heroine's use of rhetoric: Mariam's rhetorical speech takes place in the context of solitude and the private chamber, and therefore does not transgress the gender norms which condemn female public utterance. This legitimization is endorsed by the fact that Cary's play was written as a closet drama, that is, as a play that was 'not written for performance but for reading, either alone or within small groups' (Guttierez 1991, 236). While soliloquies in drama performed on stage imply an audience that have to be persuaded by the speaker's rhetoric, namely the theatre audience, dramatic monologues in closet drama do not imply an audience of listeners. In this respect, Mariam's rhetorical exposition of the motivations for her behaviour is not only confined to her private cabinet, but restricted within the private, enclosed form of the drama as well. As a result, the impression that Mariam adheres to the feminine norms of discursive modesty is enhanced, while Cary herself can also persuade her readers of her points, seemingly without appropriating the masculine territory of public, rhetorical self-expression. Closet drama appears to be used as a rhetorical strategy in itself which must persuade the readers of Mariam's and Cary's appropriate feminine modesty. 4

  11. At the same time, Cary exposes the ineffectiveness of this rhetoric that is restricted to private contemplation and solitude. Through her soliloquy at the beginning of the play Mariam can convince the readers of the tragedy of her motivations for her growing dislike for Herod, and of her sexual purity. She can explain that she started to hate Herod because he murdered her male relatives, driven by his own lust for power, and because of his jealousy. At the same time, her rhetorical discourses in the soliloquies convince the readers of her sexual purity despite her 'unbridled speech' (III.i.183): 'For he, by barring me from liberty, / To shun my ranging, taught me first to range. / But yet too chaste a scholar was my heart, / To learn to love another than my lord' (I.i.25-28).

  12. However, when Herod falsely accuses Mariam of adultery, as a result of his envious sister's slandering of his wife's good name, Mariam does not employ rhetoric to defend herself against these false imputations. When Herod demands an answer to his question 'Why dids't thou love Sohemus?', Mariam does not attempt to refute his erroneous supposition through elaborate speeches. Rather, she leaves it to others to plead her cause: 'They can tell / That say I loved him; Mariam says not so' (IV.i.193-194). Mariam's failure to display all her rhetorical skills at this moment eventually leads to her death: Herod accepts Salome's slander for truth, and orders Mariam's execution. Mariam recognises her tragic error in believing that the beautiful innocence of her face will be a non-discursive form of rhetoric through which she could persuade Herod of her innocence: 'Am I the Mariam that presumed so much / And deemed my face must needs preserve my breath?' (IV.i.524-25). The play suggests that Mariam could have been more successful if she had tried to convince Herod through pleasing, persuasive speeches.

  13. This suggestion is confirmed when one considers the successes enjoyed by the female protagonist of the subplot, Salome, who consciously manipulates the other characters through her eloquent, rhetorical speeches: 'And for my will, I will employ my wits' (I.i.296). For instance, she manages to persuade her brother Pheroras into betraying Constabarus's transgressions of Herod's laws to the king himself in order to have Constabarus murdered and be freed from her marital vows to him: ''Tis not so hard task: it is no more, / But tell the King that Constabarus hid / The sons of Baba [. . .] ' (III.i.69-71). Furthermore, she uses her eloquent tongue as the tool through which she makes Herod falsely believe that Mariam is unchaste, as the means to take revenge upon her sister-in-law. While using her own tongue to a wicked end, Salome cleverly alludes to the dominant gender idea that a woman who is eloquent is promiscuous as the means to unjustly damage Mariam's chaste reputation: 'She speaks a beauteous language, but within / her heart is false as powder, and her tongue / Doth but allure the auditors to sin / And is the instrument to do you wrong' (IV.i.428-31).

  14. The main plot and the subplot of The Tragedie of Mariam intersect in that Salome, who is central to the subplot, is indirectly involved in Mariam's death because of her rhetorical manipulation of Herod. It is intriguing that, whereas the outspoken heroine of the main plot must die, the assertive woman of the subplot survives. While Salome is represented as the villainess, she is not punished for her demonic eloquence at the end of the play. Most eloquent and outspoken female characters in Renaissance tragedy have to atone for their transgression of feminine modesty by being deprived of their rhetorical skills and by being eternally silenced. For example, in Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling (1622) the assertive heroine Beatrice-Joanna displays a well-developed skill in rhetoric, managing to persuade De Flores into murdering Alonzo for her, and making Alsemero fall in love with her through a witty discourse in which she compliments him on his ability to 'sing at first sight' (I.i.66), that is, to make love at first sight. However, at the end of the tragedy Beatrice-Joanna has lost her former rhetorical power: being locked up in a closet, she hears De Flores slandering her good name. Yet this time she fails to exercise rhetorical power: she is not heard by Alsemero when she tries to defend herself by suggesting that she has been 'true unto your bed' (V.iii.82). Subsequently, she is silenced for good, her life being ended cruelly by De Flores.

  15. Similarly, while William Shakespeare's Othello (c.1604) undermines the conventional association between female rhetoric and sexual looseness, by depicting the eloquent Desdemona as a virtuous wife, the tragedy does not grant its heroine a lasting rhetorical power. At the beginning of the play Desdemona exhibits a great capacity for eloquence, for employing her tongue as a means of charming, and thus, disempowering men. She also grants herself the liberty to speak her mind openly. For instance, when Othello has dismissed Cassio for his rude behaviour, Desdemona attempts to talk Othello into reconciliation with him. She openly expresses her mind on the subject, having the confidence she will 'watch him tame and talk him out of patience' (III.iii.23). However, towards the end of the play she loses her power to argue her case successfully. Desdemona is not granted the possibility to defend her own sexual purity against Othello's imputations, for he commands her to hold 'peace and be still!' (V.ii.47). In contrast with the conventional eloquent tragic female character, Salome survives at the end of the play. Although Herod ultimately rejects her as a 'foul-mouthed Ate' (IV.i.509), Salome neither has to relinquish her powerful eloquence, nor her influence on the course of events in the plot. The outspoken heroine of the subplot who intrudes upon the main plot and appears to push the woman who refutes rhetoric aside, survives.

  16. Through the contrast between the heroine of the main plot, Mariam, whose silence is self-incriminating, and the female protagonist of the subplot, Salome, whose eloquence makes it possible for her to exert influence in patriarchal society, Cary implies that rhetoric is an empowering quality for a woman. At the same time, though, Cary identifies Salome with wantonness, thus evoking the cultural equation of the outspoken woman with sexual looseness: Salome seeks to 'divorce' Constabarus from her bed, '[t]hat my Silleus may possess his room' (I.i.317-318), in the same way as she had previously had her husband Josephus eliminated to satisfy her lust for Constabarus.

  17. Identifying Salome's eloquence with wanton desires, deceit and slander, Cary represents Mariam as a speaker of truth who refuses to feign and will not cover up the plain truth by beautiful, flattering language that will please her audience. Confronted with Herod's suspicions and anger, Mariam scorns to use a form of language or gestures through which she could persuade Herod not to have her killed and through which she could conceal her hatred:

    I know I could enchain him with a smile
    And lead him captive with a gentle word.
    I scorn my look should ever man beguile,
    Or other speech, than meaning to afford. (III.i.163-167)

    Cary appears to privilege Mariam's forfeiture of rhetorical discourse in this respect over Salome's eloquent, convincing language: Mariam is continuously associated with white, the colour of purity, as becomes clear from a phrase such as 'Oh what a hand she had, it was so white; It did the whiteness of the snow impair' (V.i.150-51). By contrast, Salome is identified with the colour black, being described by Herod as a 'black tormenter' (IV.i.512). In addition, Mariam's refusal to use her rhetorical skills as the means to slander Salome is figured in terms of her determination to keep her discourses pure and white rather than polluted by Salome's 'black acts' (I.i.244). Thus, in the play a distinction is made between a virtuous form of discourse on the one hand, and an impure form of rhetorical discourse, as employed by Salome.

  18. A contradiction can be found in Cary's representation of rhetoric. While, on the one hand, Cary implies that a woman needs to employ rhetoric for her survival, on the other hand she creates the impression that silence can be a very effective form of rhetoric in itself. In view of this contradiction, it is helpful to consider Christina Luckyj's analysis of the role of silence in early modern English culture, 'A Moving Rhetoricke': Gender and Silence in Early Modern England (2002). Christina Luckyj argues that 'it is misleading and historically inaccurate to locate power in speech alone' (vii), since in Renaissance England, under the influence of the Puritans and in the context of religious persecutions, silence became increasingly viewed as a tool of political resistance and rebellion. As she illuminates in chapter two of her book, the association of silence with power implied that the ideal of feminine silence came to be regarded not just as a sign of submission, but also as a marker of subjectivity, and female silence was increasingly represented as a form of rhetoric through which women could manipulate men, as well as a sign of female anarchy.

  19. This idea of silence as an expression of rebellion also figures in The Tragedie of Mariam. In the subplot of the play, according to the Nuntio, when she was led off to be executed, Mariam 'made no answer [. . .] yet smiled, a dutiful, though scornful smile' (V.i.50-52). Mariam's silence makes her 'stately' (V.i.27) and powerful: her silent scorn clearly expresses the fact that she is neither mentally touched nor overcome by Herod's cruel power, and suggests a hidden rebellion towards Herod's authority that the latter cannot know and contain, precisely because it remains unspoken. Herod's inability to control Mariam's thoughts is emphasised by his comment 'Is there no trick to make her breathe again?' (V.i.89).

  20. This remark shows that Herod had thought of his execution of Mariam as a game at first: a process that could be reversed, and one that he was completely in control of. However, as his remark 'Oh, that I could that sentence now control' (V.i.75) indicates, Herod has not only lost command over the 'sentence' that he pronounced over Mariam, but in particular over her discourse: he can no longer determine the presence or absence of Mariam's speech, since her voice cannot be revived at his command. This, in turn, entails Herod's rhetorical incompetence: he can no longer persuade Mariam into raising her voice again, now that her head is severed from her body. In this respect, the play suggests Herod's gradual loss of command over rhetoric, for earlier on Herod fails to persuade Mariam of his affection for her, yet he displays a very powerful and even violent rhetoric when he claims that he 'will not speak, unless to be believed' (IV.i.138).

  21. Interestingly, whereas Mariam's rejection of rhetorical discourse during her life proved inadequate for convincing Herod of her chastity, after Mariam's death Herod appears to be persuaded of her purity. Herod comes to realize that he has falsely suspected his wife of adultery, being blind to the fact that 'heaven' in Mariam 'did link / A spirit and a person to excel' (V.i.245-46). Yet, it remains unclear how Herod comes to be persuaded of his tragic error. On the one hand, it seems that the Nuntio's report of Mariam's Christ-like courage and dignity has led to a change of Herod's attitude. Thus, the intervention of a male dramatis persona appears to be needed as the rhetorician who has to redeem the female protagonist's reputation.

  22. On the other hand, Mariam's argument to the Nuntio, as passed on by him to Herod, that the king will come to regret his decision of having his spouse killed 'by three daies hence', wishing her 'oft alive' (V.i.77), appears to affect Herod's mind. The subsequent lines reveal that Herod has become persuaded of his mistake and his desire of seeing Mariam alive again. Mariam exerts rhetorical power in relation to Herod, but only through the Nuntio as a discursive medium, and only after her death, when her potential for speech and agency has disappeared altogether. While Mariam's rhetorical discourse is thus presented as legitimate, effective and virtuous, at the same time this female rhetorical power no longer poses an actual threat to gender hierarchies, since the speaking subject is dead.

  23. However, Mariam's death has affected Herod's rhetorical power. In the final act of the play, Herod seems to have lost all sense of logical argumentation, raving madly, as becomes clear from his belief that he may revive the decapitated Mariam. Furthermore, gradually becoming conscious of the fact that Mariam has been silenced for good, Herod rejects communication for the rest of his life. He aims to seclude himself from the outside world: 'I'll muffle up my face in endless night' (V.i.247). Retreating into solitude, Herod's voice will no longer be heard in public. His own loss of rhetorical power seems a punishment for his illegitimate silencing of Mariam's eloquent voice, and thus woman's public speech appears to be legitimized.

    Margaret Cavendish: chaste rhetoric and rhetoric as the instrument of survival

  24. As we have seen, the representation of gender and rhetoric in Cary's play is rather complex: on the one hand, in her depiction of Salome, Cary endorses the dominant association of female rhetoric with wantonness; on the other hand, she suggests possibilities for virtuous, legitimate female rhetoric in her representation of Mariam who refuses to feign and flatter. Furthermore, whereas Cary suggests an appropriately feminine form of rhetoric in the form of private speech and silence, she also suggests that a woman who abstains from rhetoric cannot survive. The representation of rhetoric and gender in Margaret Cavendish's plays The Unnatural Tragedy and Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet is more radical in that Cavendish dissociates female rhetoric from its conventional connotations with sexual promiscuity and exposes the ideology of feminine silence as a tool of oppression. Yet, at the same time, her plays betray a sense of anxiety about female rhetoric.

  25. Both The Unnatural Tragedy and Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet depict women characters who engage with rhetoric as speakers. The subplot of The Unnatural Tragedy presents us with a group of young women, called the 'sociable virgins', who eloquently debate on subjects such as literature, matrimony and women's position is society, trying to convince the conservative matrons of their gender-subversive viewpoints: 'Why we are not Fools, we are capable of Knowledge, we only want Experience and Education, to make us as wise as men' (II.x). The young women even try their own rhetorical skills on the subject of rhetoric: 'But the speeches that Thucidides sets down, may be better credited, because most of them were premeditated, and soberly, orderly and quietly deliver'd, which might more easily be noted, and exactly taken to deliver to posterity' (II.xiii). These witty, wordy young women are virgins who 'resolve to live a single life' (I.vii), 5 and in naming her outspoken female characters 'sociable virgins' Cavendish combines the two incompatible concepts of virginity on the one hand, and female speech and rhetoric on the other.

  26. In doing so, Cavendish challenges and deconstructs the dominant gender ideology which equates female rhetoric with wantonness. At the same time, she identifies male rhetoric with vile passion. Frere, who has an incestuous desire for his sister, openly speaks of his lust for Soeur, and tries to persuade her into an incestuous relationship with him: 'Sister, follow not those foolish binding Laws which frozen men have made, but follow natures Laws, whose Freedome gives a Liberty to all' (IV.xxv). Soeur, by contrast, employs rhetoric in order to convince her brother of his immorality and his need to convert. As she angrily remarks in response to his wanton rhetoric: 'Brother, speak no more upon so bad a subject, for fear I wish you dumb: for the very breath that's sent forth with your words, will blister both my ears' (V.xxxi).

  27. Furthermore, Cavendish points to the violent, uncivilized ways in which men in particular try to effect persuasion. Like Cary's Herod, who insists on being heard by Mariam, Frere does not accept the fact that Soeur will not be convinced by his arguments in favour of an incestuous relationship. Since he cannot persuade Soeur by rhetoric, he will have his will by his violent rape and assassination of his sister. In fact, Frere's rhetorical powerlessness, which so dramatically ends in violence, is even implictly linked with Frere's rejection of rhetoric. Frere argues that 'Affections [. . .] can neither be perswaded either from or to' (II.ix), thus discarding rhetoric as the means to dissuade himself from his illegitimate desires. By thus associating men's rejection of rhetoric with sin and violence, and contrasting men's violent oppression with women's reasonable efforts to persuade their speaking partners, Cavendish depicts rhetoric in general and women's use of it in a positive way.

  28. There is a parallel between the sociable virgins and Lady Sanspareille in Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet. Lady Sanspareille is a young virgin who, as her father claims, is endowed with a 'tongue volable', a 'voyce tuneable', a 'speech eloquent' a 'wit quick', and 'expressions easy', among other things. Encouraged by her father, she delivers long rhetorical speeches in front of a male audience, on a variety of subjects, such as the importance of rhetoric as a subject of study: 'Wherefore, parents that would bring up their Children elegantly, and eloquently, they must have a learned Grammar, and a wise Tutour at the first, to teach them [. . .] but certainly the Oratours of this Age for eloquence, and elegancy, come not short of the eloquent oratours of Athens, or any other state, they only use it to better designs' (Part I, V.xv).

  29. Like the sociable virgins in The Unnatural Tragedy Lady Sanspareille argues unconventional, gender-subversive points: for instance, she convinces her father of her need to remain single , since by marrying she would run the risk of having to refrain from making her discourses and views known to the world: 'but if I marry, although I should have time for my thoughts and contemplations, yet perchanced my Husband will not approve of my works, were they never so worthy, and by no perswasion, or reason allow of their publishing' (Part I, II.v). Furthermore, as in the case of the sociable virgins, Cavendish undermines the conventional association between woman's public voice and sexual incontinence, representing her female rhetorician as a virgin who sets great store by her spotlessness: 'For I will never be so dishonourable, perjurious, and impious, to break the holy Laws, and pull the Virgin Altars down' (Part II, I.iv).

  30. Through the opening conversation between Father Love and Mother Love, Sanspareille's parents, Cavendish further challenges the connection between female rhetoric and sexual looseness. Father Love claims that 'noble Arts' such as rhetoric are 'not the cause of lewd actions' nor are 'unseemly for any Sex' (Part I, I.i). By contrast, the silent rhetoric of body language that is taught to most women, their eyes being the instrument to shoot 'such sharp darts [. . .] as may wound the hardest and obduratest hearts' is identified with vile lust. The phrase 'wanton glances' (Part I, I.iii) that Lady Sanspareille uses in this respect indicates this.

  31. In the two plays rhetoric is also represented as the instrument through which women can express a consciousness of the wrongs done to the female sex. Rhetorical debates are seen as instruments through which alternative ideas on women can be voiced. In their debates about woman's position in marriage the sociable virgins in The Unnatural Tragedy touch upon some important truths about the ways in which silent, submissive wives are maltreated by their husbands, as becomes clear from the parallel situation of Madame Bonit whose modesty and obedience lead to her husband's abuse of her. While thoroughly identifying the ways in which the ideology of feminine silence contributes to woman's powerlessness, the virgins voice this radical exposure of the existing gender ideologies in their discussions: 'Husbands think a cross and contradicting Wife is witty; a bold and commanding Wife, of a heroick spirit [. . .] And for those good qualities he loves her best, otherwise he hates her; nay, the falser she is, the fonder he is of her' (I.vii). In Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet Lady Sanspareille employs her orations as the means to legitimize woman's right to public speech: 'And why may not women speak in publick and to publick assemblies, as well as in private visits, and particular entertainments, and to particular persons and acquaintance? And in reason it should be more commendable, that women's discourse and actions are such, as they fear no witness' (Part I, III.ix). As this oration reveals, Lady Sanspareille questions the social taboo on woman's public speech by suggesting that a woman who speaks in public will not cover up sins in silence.

  32. Moreover, in the two plays by Cavendish rhetoric is represented as the quality which empowers women and helps them to improve their social position. At the onset, the gentlemen who have been invited by Sanspareille's father to listen to his daughter's orations, view her as a beautiful object that titillates the eye: 'Sir, we perceive now, you have invited us to feast our eyes, not our eares' (Part I, III.ix). In addition, they think that she will cause them 'sport' (Part I, II.vii). However, once Lady Sanspareille displays her rhetorical skills through her speech, that conventional attitude towards Sanspareille as an object of visual and erotic pleasure changes. The philosophers are impressed by her rhetorical discourse and are now only full of admiration for her ideas and delivery: ' honour this Virgin whose wit is supreme, whose judgment is Serene as the Sky, whose life is a Law unto her selfe and us' (Part I, iii.ix). The philosophers even think their own insights worthless compared to Sanspareille's, and therefore wish to shave off their beards of wisdom and burn their books.

  33. By contrast, the character Lady Innocence, who is falsely accused of having stolen Lady Incontinent's chain, cannot properly defend herself because she fails to use rhetoric, and because she has always relied on her beauty as the instrument of persuasion. As Lady Incontinence argues, Lady Innocence claims that Innocence may 'perswade a heart to love her; for certainly, she is very beautiful' (Part I, I.iv). In other words, it is suggested that Lady Innocence manages to win people for her through her beauty. However, as the rest of the play reveals, Lady Innocence's beauty is of no use to her when she tries to convince Lord de l'Amour of her innocence. In fact, it is Lady Innocence's failure to use rhetoric which makes her unsuccessful in removing de l'Amour's doubts of her nature. Earlier on in the play we already learn that Innocence feels very uncertain about her rhetorical skills: 'so I doubt my wit, is imperfect, and the ignorance of youth makes a discord in discourse' (Part I, II.vi). When she is accused of theft, Lady Innocence is so troubled by the false imputations that 'my words can neither flow easie, nor free' (Part II, III.ix). Furthermore, finding herself unable to defend herself rhetorically, she asks 'two invisible Witnesses, Conscience and Innocency to plead for me' (Part II, III.ix). However, her refutation of rhetorical agency cannot protect her against the evil intents of others, for no one will be convinced of her purity. Besides showing, through the example of Lady Innocence in the subplot, that beauty is not an effective tool of persuasion, Cavendish indirectly comments on the main plot in which Lady Sanspareille dismisses her mother's view that beauty is an appropriate persuasive tool for a woman. The importance that Lady Sanspareille attaches to rhetoric, as an instrument of persuasion, is thus further underlined in the subplot.

  34. Similar to Youth's Glory, The Unnatural Tragedy suggests that a woman needs rhetorical self-expression in order to survive. Second, the main plot of the play stages several female characters who suffer immensely as a result of men's abuse of them. Madame Bonit embodies the chaste, silent and obedient wife. She never contradicts her husband, for she readily parts with her jointure upon his request, without bringing in any counter arguments. Similarly, when she has turned away the maid Nan, with whom her husband has an affair, Madame Bonit soon gives up her efforts to persuade her husband about the wisdom of her decision by giving in to his viewpoint that the maid should stay: 'Truly I do not remember that ever I had a dispute or quarrel with any servant since I was your Wife [. . .] Let it be as you say: for I will not contradict you' (II.xi). However, submitting to her husband's wishes without arguing her own case, Madame Bonit falls victim to her own goodness. Her husband ignores her, and Nan comes to dominate their household.

  35. Yet Madame Bonit is determined to observe a feminine silence, even when her husband is unfaithful to her. She will not attempt to persuade other people of the wrongs that her husband afflicts on her, out of fear of becoming 'the publick discourse of the Town' (I.v). Since Madame Bonit will not speak up against her husband, nor publicize his maltreatment of her, she cannot regain control over her life and improve her circumstances. Thus Cavendish suggests that a woman's silence leads to powerlessness and victimization; a suggestion which implies a criticism of the cultural idealization of the voiceless female.

  36. Similarly, it is through her silence that Soeur loses control over her existence. When her brother's vile passion has become known to her, Soeur nevertheless endeavours to dissuade Frere from his plans of seducing her, yet she does not try to publicize these desires to others in order to convince them of her need for help: 'I would willingly hide your faults, nay I am asham'd to make them known' (V.xxxi). However, Soeur's determination not to speak about her brother's passion to anyone eventually makes her the helpless victim of his rape and murder of her.

  37. In contrast with the victimized Madame Bonit and Soeur, the sociable virgins flourish at the end of the play. One of the virgins, who has become Monsieur Malateste's second wife, has even managed to survive his cruel temper through her assertive eloquence, which triggered his admiration for her and even caused his submission: 'Wife, I am come an humble Petitioner to you [. . .] ' (V.xxxii). In the many disputes between Monsieur and Madame Malateste, it is always the wife who displays the greater rhetorical power. When Monsieur Malateste attempts to persuade his wife of the necessity to keep Nan, Madame Malateste is not convinced of his opinion, and will not give in to his will: 'I say she shall go away; nay more, I will have her whip'd at the end of a Cart, and then sent out of doors' (IV.xxxii). Cavendish thus implies that a woman who employs her eloquence and wit will fare much better in life than a woman who observes a feminine modesty of expression. Interestingly, as in Cary's play, the female characters of the subplot represent self assertion, and survive at the end of the play, in contrast with the female characters of the main plot, who abstain from rhetoric at critical moments.

  38. While Cavendish clearly favours woman's public, rhetorical discourse in her two plays, at the same time The Unnatural Tragedy and Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet display anxiety about female rhetoric. The Unnatural Tragedy hints that a woman who has become powerful as a result of her eloquence, may turn into an immoral, violent creature in her competition with man. The virgins talk about a 'Combat of Eloquence' in which they will act like 'a valiant man in a battel', thus employing tropes of war in relation to rhetoric. Moreover, the virgin who marries Monsieur Malateste has to 'match' his bad 'nature and disposition' (III.xxiii) in order to survive, and therefore commits adultery and commands rather than persuades him: 'I hate such an old-fashioned House; wherefore pray pull it down, and build another more fashionable [. . .] ' (III.xxvii). The fact that the virgin adopts Malateste's name – in contrast with Malateste's first wife, Madame Bonit – symbolizes her assumption of a behaviour that will equal her husband's domineering, wanton nature. At the same time, Cavendish appears to display unease about women who seek to imitate male models of behaviour, as far as self assertion and sexuality are concerned. While Madame Malateste justly punishes Monsieur Malateste for his maltreatment of Madame Bonit, she represents the spectre of the woman who is outspoken and eloquent as well as sexually immoral.

  39. Furthermore, unease about rhetoric is expressed through the virgins' association of rhetoric with deceit. The virgins argue that rhetoric often implies that facts are dressed up with falsehoods in order to make speeches more beautiful and eloquent: 'But by your leave, let me tell you, that Chronologers do not only new dress truth, but falsifie her' (II.xiii). In this respect, The Unnatural Tragedy is similar to The Tragedie of Mariam, which, as we have seen, suggests that speaking the plain and unadorned truth is better than expressing beautiful but insincere speeches.

  40. The sociable virgins are represented as debating, and the two unnamed gentlemen in the play suggest that they will go and listen to the virgins' discourses, implying that the virgins will speak in front of an audience: 'But pray what are those sociable Virgins, you would have me go to see' (I.iii). However, in the play the virgins are never actually shown to address a public of listeners. In fact, their debates take place in an all-female setting, in that their discussions are 'staged' as taking place only amongst themselves with the matrons as listeners and commentators. 6 Although the virgins criticize woman's exclusion from politics and government in their discussions, they never move into the public arena themselves. Woman's entry into the masculine world as a rhetorical agent and speaker is thus merely anticipated as a possibility in the play.

  41. In this respect, there is a contrast between the private speeches delivered by the sociable virgins and the public orations given by the virgin Lady Sanspareille in Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet. Lady Sanspareille's long speeches in front of a male audience constitute a more drastic challenge to the dominant gender discourses which consign the female sex to silence and privacy. Lady Sanspareille's public orations, which take up the greater part of the play, are represented as highly theatrical through stage directions which imply movements, gestures and a particular mode of acting: 'a large roome, nobly furnished, whereat one end or side is a place raised and railed with guilt rayles; for the Lady Sanspareille to stand on [. . .] After the Lady by her Civill bows had given respect to all the Company, with a modest and amiable Countenance, with a gentle and well pleased eye, and a gracefull and winning behaviour, thus speaks' (Part I, III.ix). The performative elements and the setting of a public oration that are suggested by these stage directions reinforce the public nature of Lady Sanspareille's rhetoric. The restricted rhetorical space of the virgins in The Unnatural Tragedy reveals two things. First, it shows that Cavendish envisaged woman's participation in the public sphere as a mere possibility, not a reality. Second, Cavendish's strong emphasis on the private setting in which the virgins debate creates the impression that Cavendish deliberately distanced herself from the public theatre, which is in line with her choice of the genre of closet drama.

  42. In Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet unease about female rhetoric becomes clear from the fact that Sanspareille, after giving a very successful oration, falls victim to a mysterious illness and dies. The once eloquent public female voice is thus eliminated from the play, although Sanspareille voices her last desires for burial and memorialization extensively before she breathes her last: 'let spotless Virgins bear me to my grave, and holy Anthems sing before my Herse [. . .] and one my Coffin spread upon a covering of smooth Sattin, white, to signify here how I lived a Virgin, pure I lived and dyed. ..and let my works, which I have wrought, and spun out of my brain, be given to times Library, to keep alive my name' (Part II, III.xiv). When Lady Sanspareille has passed away , it is Sanspareille's father, Sir Thomas Father Love, who will now 'Study' and 'offer up' his 'Aged life unto her Memory' (Part II, III.xvi) by passing on his daughter's fame and ideas to audiences of listeners. The role of the rhetorician is thus appropriately transferred to a male figure. However, at the same time, this transference of the role of the rhetorician is short-lived: having given an oration at Lady Sanspareille's funeral Sir Thomas Father Love 'falls back on his Chair and is dead' (Part II, act V, scene 22). In fact, it is suggested that his last rhetorical exercise has caused his death, almost as if his appropriation of the rhetorical voice is illegitimate: 'But Oh! my words have spent my stock of breath' (Part II, V.xxii). That Sir Thomas Father Love is not actually to replace Lady Sanspareille as a rhetorician is also revealed by his distraction at his daughter's death. While his madness ensues from grief about the loss of his daughter, at the same time, his distraction prevents him from engaging adequately with 'Mercury', the God of wit: 'wherefore Mercury farewel' (Part II, III.xvi). He can barely speak his daughter's funeral oration 'with my last words'. Intriguingly, while both Cary's The Tragedy of Mariam and Cavendish's Youth's Glory end with a male speaker, in both cases the men cannot replace the eliminated female voices because of their own distraction, through which they lose command over rhetoric.


  43. In the earlier mentioned The English Gentlewoman Richard Brathwaite tries to dissuade women from employing public rhetorical discourse. Quite contradictorily, Brathwaite envisages the personification of 'Decency' as a female rhetorician who should convince women of the value of feminine silence. According to Brathwaite, when Decency spots women who act wantonly and speak clamorously, she 'labours to reclaim them: with amorous, but virtuous rhethoric' (Tt1r).

  44. As we have seen, the plays by Elizabeth Cary and Margaret Cavendish are also full of contradictions on the issue of rhetoric and gender. Both women dramatists display anxiety about women's public rhetorical discourse, depicting eloquent female characters who are sexually loose and immoral, contextualizing woman's rhetoric in enclosed, domestic settings and having their persuasive heroines die in the course of the plot. In other words, Cary and Cavendish sometimes demonize, privatize and eliminate female rhetoric, probably as a strategy to convince their reading audiences of their adherence to the codes of femininity. On the other hand, however, Cary and Cavendish dissociate female rhetoric from its conventional connotations of sexual impurity, and in Youth's Glory Cavendish even places female rhetoric in a highly theatrical, public setting which involves an audience listening to the female rhetorician. Moreover, both Cary and Cavendish do not assign rhetorical power to their male protagonists after the heroine's deaths. In The Tragedie of Mariam Herod appears to be deprived of rhetorical power after Mariam's death, and in Youth's Glory Sir Thomas Father Love is so distracted and weakened by grief that he fails to replace Lady Sanspareille's rhetorical power.

  45. Intriguingly, in The Tragedie of Mariam and The Unnatural Tragedy the interaction between the main plot and the subplot suggests a positive attitude towards female rhetoric on behalf of Cavendish and Cary. In The Tragedie of Mariam and The Unnatural Tragedy the characters of the subplot, who eventually come to take the place of the female protagonists of the main plot, are all assertive women who survive through their use of rhetorical speeches. By contrast, the female protagonists of the main plot refuse to use eloquence and, as a result, die as vulnerable victims of male oppression. Thus Cary and Cavendish represent rhetoric as a tool for survival, convincing their readers of the inappropriateness of the ideology of feminine silence. Cavendish makes a stronger point of this than Cary, probably because her play was written three decades later, when, due to the Civil War, society had become more familiar with women writing and speaking for a public, as pamphleteers and prophets. Though writing within the private context of closet drama, Cary and Cavendish appear to have sought ways of persuading their society of the value of female self expression.


  1. In Annals of English Drama, ed. A. Harbage and S. Schoenbaum (1964), the plays are listed as written between 1653 and 1658.


  2. Margaret Ferguson argues that Cary 'test[s] [. . .] the rule proscribing "public voice" for women', the heroine Mariam signifying 'evidently [. . .] an aspect of the author's own conscience or superego' (Ferguson 1991, 239-240).


  3. As Alexandra Bennett argues, '[t]he fact that a woman chooses to begin her play with her heroine musing upon the significance of public utterance is highly suggestive of the metadramatic possibilities of the text, the transgressive nature of both Mariam's and her creator's public words' (Bennett 2000, 298).


  4. It must be noted that The Tragedie of Mariam contains many aspects which suggest performativity. A close look at Cary's text reveals that the visual plays an important role in the play. For example, the speech that Herod utters on being informed of Mariam's death, consists of various references to the faculty of seeing: 'I never more shall see so sweet a sight [. . .] let Jewry's eye no more distinguish what is day and night [. . .] The night's pale light for angry grief would shake/ To see chaste Mariam die in age unfit [. . .] And never let mine eyes behold the night' (V.i.152-248). Moreover, in his tribute to Mariam Herod dwells upon Mariam's exterior, as he once could behold it, speaking of her white hands, her forehead and her eyes. Herod's concern with the absence and presence of the visual and his re-evocation of a visual image of Mariam imply a stress on visibility as a faculty. Besides, the Nuntio's description of Mariam's execution contains a lot of visual detail: 'Her look did seem to keep the world in awe [. . .] she looked the while [. . .] Yet smiled a dutiful, though scornful smile' (V.i.26-52). As Hodgson-Wright points out in the video production of a performance of Cary's play (Lancaster University, Television Studio, 1999), these references to the visual often serve as stage directions. Uttering her long monologue, Salome announces Silleus's entry upon the imaginary stage by her exclamation: 'Silleus said / he would be here, and see he comes at last' (II.i.322-324). Although Yvonne Day Merrill argues that the play is 'hardly playable', since 'there is little physical action, [and] the characters' parts are extremely long, running between four and twelve lines on the average' (Merrill 1996, 193), the visual discourses draw attention to the nature of the play as a text which could be performed and visualised on the stage, rather than being just read out in a private circle. As such, the enclosed and private nature of the play is implicitly questioned from within the text.


  5. Linda Payne argues: 'Not only can Cavendish's heroines envision life without marriage, but they can also envision life without men' (Payne 1991, 25).


  6. Hero Chalmers talks about a 'self-sufficient feminised space' (Chalmers 1999, 88) of communication in this respect.


List of Works Cited

Aristotle. 1954. Rhetoric. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts. New York: Modern Library.

Bennett, Alexandra. 2000. 'Female Performativity in The Tragedie of Mariam.' Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 40.2: 293-309.

Brathwaite, Richard. 1641 [1631]. The English gentlewoman. In The English gentleman and The English gentlewoman Both in One Volume Couched. The 3rd edition. London: John Dawson.

Cary, Elizabeth. 1994. The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Iewry with The Lady Falkland her Life by one of her Daughters, edited by Barry Weller and Margaret W. Ferguson. Berkeley: University of California Press.

—. 1996 [1613]. The Tragedie of Mariam. In Renaissance Drama by Women: Texts and Documents, edited by S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies. London: Routledge, 48-75.

Cavendish, Margaret. 1662. The Unnatural Tragedy. In Playes; Written by the Thrice Noble, Illustrious, and Excellent Princess the Lady Marchioness of Newcastle. London: A. Warren for John Martyn, James Allestry, and Tho. Dicas.

—. 1662. Youth's Glory and Death's Banquet. In Playes; Written by the Thrice Noble, Illustrious, and Excellent Princess the Lady Marchioness of Newcastle. London: A. Warren for John Martyn, James Allestry, and Tho. Dicas.

Chalmers, Hero. 1999. 'The Politics of Feminine Retreat in Margaret Cavendish's The Female Academy and The Convent of Pleasure.' Women's Writing 6.1: 81-94.

Ferguson, Margaret. 1991. 'The Spectre of Resistance: The Tragedy of Mariam (1613).' In Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, edited by David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass. New York: Routledge, 235-50.

Guttierez, Nancy. 1991. 'Valuing Mariam: Genre Study and Feminist Analysis.' Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 10.2: 233-51.

Howell, Wilbur Samuel. 1975. Poetics, Rhetoric and Logic. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Luckyj, Christina. 2002. ' A Moving Rhetoricke': Gender and Silence in Early Modern England. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Merrill, Yvonne Day. 1996. The Social Constitution of Western Women's Rhetoric before 1750. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Middleton, Thomas and William Rowley. 1990 [1622]. The Changeling, edited by Joost Daalder. New Mermaids. London: A & C Black.

Payne, Linda R. 1991. 'Dramatic Dreamscape: Women's Dreams and Utopian Vision in the Works of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.' In Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theater 1660-1820, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski. Athens: Ohio University Press, 18-33.

Shakespeare, William. 1995 [1591]. Titus Andronicus, edited by Jonathan Bate. London: Routledge.

Shaver, Anne. 1999. 'Agency and Marriage in the Fictions of Lady Mary Wroth and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.' In Pilgrimage for Love: Essays in Early Modern Literature in Honor of Josephine A. Roberts, edited by Sigrid King. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 177-90.

Wilson, Thomas. 1999 [1560]. 'An English Rhetorick.' In English Renaissance Literary Criticism, edited by Brian Vickers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 73-125.

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Contents © Copyright 2003 Marguérite Corporaal.
Format © Copyright 2003 Renaissance Forum. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 6, Number 2, Winter 2003.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated 18 December 2003.