Female Play-going and the Good Woman

David Mann

Abstract


Is there any justification for the prevailing view that female spectators were present in large numbers at the theatres during Shakespeare’s career, and can it be said that they had any significant influence on the representation of women on the stage? One reason to doubt female influence on character representation is the pervasive male didacticism found in the 160 extant texts by his contemporaries, most often expressed through polarised stereotypical models of passive virtue and object lessons in the folly of rebellion, and to which Shakespeare to a large measure subscribes. Critics who suppose a greater measure of sympathy for the female characters, or even an unsympathetic analysis of the ‘structures of patriarchal dominance’, have failed to take adequate account of the collective endeavour of an all-male company, and in particular the nature and consequences of a late adolescent performer, more capable of empathy perhaps than a younger player, but often mockingly satirical, ultimately disengaged from the roles he played and a spokesman for the male point-of-view, employed to celebrate the rich, exciting, often dangerous possibilities of the opposite sex, but also concerned to keep women in their place.

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