Women In Renaissance Tragedy: A Mirror Of Masculine Society Essay, Research Paper
The life of Renaissance women was not one that was conducive to independence, or much else, outside of their obligations to her husband and the running of the household in general. Women, viewed as property in Renaissance culture, were valued for their class, position, and the wealth (or lack thereof) that they would bring into a marriage. This being said, the role of women in the literature of the day reflects the cultural biases that were an ingrained part of everyday life. The depiction of women in theatre particularly, is evidence of the patriarchal society that dominated the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And as the genre of tragedy emerges into Renaissance culture, the depictions of women as romantic ideals to be worshipped and sacrificed for are slowly replaced by images of the female as a tragic catalyst for many of the leading male characters.
The literary significance of these characters is largely due to these depictions and, while the male dominated society still precludes them from assuming a more powerful and positive role in the theatre, they are no less important to the overall movement of such tragedies as anonymously penned The Arden of Faversham and Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. These two plays hold a wealth of examples of the female catalyst in theatre. Particularly in examining the roles of Alice in The Arden of Faversham and Bel-Imperia of The Spanish Tragedy the audience is presented with two different ideas on women in Renaissance culture. Alice, the conniving, and conspiring adulteress is an intensely catalytic force throughout The Arden of Faversham, while Bel-Imperia is evidence of the chaste and male-defined woman so highly valued by the masculine society of the day.
In these two plays, the main action of the work, as well as the rising conflict within the play, is sparked by the relationships of these women to the men in their lives. Don Andrea is murdered, and it is at this point that Bel-Imperia first introduces the idea of revenge to the play. As soon as she finds out that Andrea is dead she vows to kill his murderer. She demands, “revenge [for the] death of my beloved” (I.IV.65). She immediately vows that Balthazar shall “reap long repentance for his murderous deed”.
Following the death of Don Andrea, Bel-Imperia’s relationship with other men, particularly Horatio, again dominates the action of the play. Horatio, Bel-Imperia’s suitor, is the son of Hieronimo, a civil servant; Lorenzo is the son of the Duke of Castile, and Balthazar is the Prince of Portugal. Once Lorenzo and Balthazar discover that Horatio is Bel-Imperia’s suitor, Balthazar comments, “Ambitious villain, how his boldness grows!” (II. ii. 41) indicative also of the reigning justice of the ruling class. Horatio is viewed as trying to attain status beyond his station in life and hereby gains the spite of Lorenzo and Balthazar. This coupled with Balthazar’s desire for Bel-imperia drive them to murder Horatio. Bel-imperia pleads for his life, claiming that she bore him no love, to which Balthazar replies, “But Balthazar loves Bel-imperia” (II. iv. 59) with a simplicity that implies that his mere desire for Bel-Imperia is reason enough for the death of Horatio.
These events trigger a number of events, including the murder of Balthazar at the hand of Bel-Imperia. Her mere presence in the play, acts as a vehicle for the forward momentum that follows. But it is the very character of Bel-Imperia, a woman, that exacts final revenge by taking Balthazar’s life, and finally her own life so that she may no longer be manipulated by the men surrounding her.
When Hieronimo asks, “what’s a play without a woman in it?” he suggests that a woman’s role in a play is primarily as a lover, due to the fact that each of the other roles that we find, primarily that of the avenger could be, and are, played by men. In presenting her in this way only, Kyd would reduce the women of the play to merely that of a man’s counterpart, or an object of contention when wanted by more than one man. However, Kyd’s depiction breaks from this confining definition of women, and in the case of Bel-Imperia fulfilled the roles of lover, avenger, and martyr. And although the character retains a number of complexities, her actions are above all determined by the male influences in her life.
The tragic strength of Bel-Imperia in The Spanish Tragedy is admirable to a point; however, it is a very different depiction of the Renaissance woman that we find in The Arden of Faversham. Within the first few lines of the play, Arden’s wife Alice is portrayed as a “false and wavering” woman, and her changeability is further evidenced by her affair with Moseby, and her lack of emotion for him after her husband’s murder. The adulteress is a familiar role to find women of the Renaissance theatre in, however, it is this very stereotype that forwards the movement of the play.
The action of the play surrounds the attempted murder of the Arden by a number of different characters, but it is Alice whose motive gains the majority of our attention throughout the play. Her changeable character, and inconstant love for both Arden and Moseby, creates a less than flattering depiction of women in general. Her distorted image of what the murder of her husband, seemingly out of mere boredom, will accomplish for her is so obvious that it is nearly laughable.
The numerous failed attempts on Arden’s life also assist in creating the image of this incapable, and inconstant woman. As the story progresses, and the murder attempts are continuously thwarted, Alice’s perceptions of the events become increasingly distorted. Her musings over Moseby and comparison to Endymion (XIV, 141-153) illustrates Alice’s absurd naivet? in imagining the murder as a fairy tale romance.
Her intentions are apparently clear at the beginning of the play when Alice states, “Yet nothing could enforce the deed/But Moseby’s love. Might I without control enjoy thee still, then Arden should not die;/But seeing I cannot, therefore let him die” (I. 273-276). And yet we find her in scene VIII uncertain of her plot, and resigned to her life with her husband, “Ay, to my former happy life again; / From title of an odious strumpet’s name / To honest Arden’s wife” (VIII, 71-73).
Although her intentions waver, Alice is the first character met by the audience with the “motive” to kill Arden. The subsequent plots against Arden’s life and wealth are further proof of Alice’s role as a catalyst in the play; for although Alice views Moseby as a means to an end, their “love” is just as false for him. Driven by the idea of usurping Arden’s land and power, Moseby explicitly relates his motives when he reveals, “Ambition, avarice, lust/ …drove me on to murder” (V. II.44-5).
The relationship between Alice and Arden, and her consequent affair with Moseby further demonstrates the driving force provided by women in the theatre, while still maintaining these roles within the confines of the masculine ideas of women for the time period. In placing Alice in the unflattering role of murderess, we are reminded of Lady Mac Beth when, after realizing the consequences of her actions, is tormented by her guilt. It is this very lamenting over the loss of her “innocent and noble” husband that similarly leads to the exposure of her guilt, and subject to proper punishment.
The genre of tragedy throughout the Renaissance is consumed by male characters driven to horrific acts and tragic ends. Yet, “behind every great man, is a woman” and as we find in The Arden of Faversham and The Spanish Tragedy, these feminine characters do much more than stand and “look pretty.” Although the female entities present in each of these plays remain confined to a masculine definition of feminine stereotypes, they nonetheless accomplish a great deal in the plays themselves.
The forward momentum provided by these women, in these plays, is crucial to each plot in very powerful ways. And although each of these women do little outside of what the patriarchal and male dominated society of the time would allow, they assert themselves as catalysts within the plays, and within the genre itself. Women in the Renaissance had little control over their own fates, and although these two examples fall within the stereotypical ideas men held on women, they nonetheless demonstrate the crucial, and necessary, presence of women and their consequent influence over life and society in any time period.