ASSIGNMENT The Jacobean Era refers to the period in English and Scottish history that coincides with the reign of King James VI (1567–1625) of Scotland, who also inherited the crown of England in 1603 as James I. The Jacobean era succeeds the Elizabethan Era and specifically denotes a style of architecture, visual arts, decorative arts and literature that is predominant of that era. It is agreed upon by many that an era’s social, political and religious concerns are reflected in the literature of that era.
Queen Elizabeth’s reign was characterised by a nation which was expanding its powers, increasing its wealth and could therefore keep at bay its serious social and religious problems. This was therefore reflected in the literature of the age. Disillusion and pessimism followed, however, during the unstable reign of James I (1603–25). The 17th cent was to be a time of great upheaval—revolution and regicide, restoration of the monarchy, and, finally, the victory of Parliament, landed Protestantism, and the moneyed interests.
We begin to see the characteristics of the Jacobean era reflected in the plays of the era. We see some of Shakespeare’s greatest and darkest plays emerging in this era. The dominant literary figure of James’s reign was Ben Jonson, whose varied and dramatic works followed classical models and was enriched by his worldly, peculiarly English wit. Along with these came the horrific revenge tragedies of John Ford, Thomas Middleton, Cyril Tourneur, and John Webster. The Duchess of Malfi’ is seen as one of John Webster’s greatest work, noteworthy alongside ‘The White Devil’. Both plays reflect the characteristic darkness and profound consciousness of evil that characterized the Jacobean period, an age that questioned the preceding Elizabethan era’s belief that all social, political, and even spiritual relations were defined in an unchanging hierarchy. The suggestion that chaos lies beyond such order glimpsed in Elizabethan drama become increasingly explicit in Jacobean drama.
In particular, English society grew steadily more concerned with Machiavellianism following the publication of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513), which described politics as an amoral and ruthless striving to acquire and maintain power. The spread of such ideas contributed to the deterioration of faith in traditional values and fostered a general anxiety associated with societal disarray—the fear being that following the breakdown of order, people would drift aimlessly through a meaningless world.
The influence of this pessimistic worldview is evident in The Duchess of Malfi. Another feature of Jacobean drama is a general movement from early idealisations of women based on Petrarchan and courtly love influences, to analyses of female power and virtue during the reign of Elizabeth I, to cynical litanies of women’s failings. Authors and playwrights began to create a different kind of female character; this character is multi-dimensional and just as complex as the male characters. She rests anywhere between the opposite poles of willful witch and helpless virgin.
The plays of Thomas Middleton illustrate this feature of the era most aptly. One play which deserves mention above the rest is ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’. Middleton has been acclaimed for ‘his discernment of the minds of women,’ and certainly his female characters have a psychological realism not found elsewhere in the period. Elements of sexism and misogyny are prevalent in most Jacobean drama, where the female characters are portrayed as embodying the above traits, and whose sole purposes are to be divided off in to pieces that please their male counterparts. The Revengers Tragedy’ is racked with sexism and misogyny, with the main character Vindice’s quest to avenge his murdered bride, Gloriana. Although Vindice is plagued by rage and possessed by revenge, he forsakes the love he has for Gloriana and uses her skull as a kind of disturbing fetishised prop in his game of deception. The fact that Vindice abducts Gloriana’s skull from the rest of her skeleton not only portrays the morbid use of the woman in Jacobean drama, but also stands as a physical representation of the metaphorical ‘splitting up’ of women to serve the untoward purposes of men.
While one can argue that Vindice’s quest for revenge seems honourable, it is hard to overlook the fact that he decimates his wife’s tomb and commits a hideous crime by using a piece of her to enact his retribution. This is an example of the Jacobean woman being used to a gruesome end, as Vindice sexualises her dead skull, and facilitates his loving memories of her to direct him towards a path of murder and repugnance bordering on necrophilia. Another aspect of this play which deals with the representation of gender is a view on Vindice’s character.
Vindice resorts to murder by poisoning, which for ages past has been categorized as a woman’s method of murder. This points towards the fact that he is slightly feminine in nature and does not do the conventional masculine thing and challenge the duke to a duel, but like a scorned woman, opts for trickery instead. This coupled with his lunatic portrayal paints a grim picture of women. John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ is another play of the era which combines the reality of male domination with a non-traditional, realistic view of women.
Through the example of characters, he displays the injustice of the common treatment of women, and shows that strength and pride are not purely male characteristics. The Duchess, for example, is neither a villain nor a heroine. She is not merely an innocent victim of her brother’s cruelty; she is a flawed, key player who is in control of her own actions. She, like the rest of the women in the play, is ill-treated and demeaned by the male characters. This kind of oppression extends to all the female characters in the play, from the Cardinal’s mistress to the murdered Cariola.
The Duchess is, no doubt, a very strong woman and the more dominant spouse. She is very proud of the fact that she played the suitor to Antonio rather than vice versa. Another way in which we can see the crumbling of the prevalent stereotypes of woman is the stark difference in the manner of the death of The Duchess and Cariola. Cariola struggles with every ounce of energy she can muster. She bites and scratches, and pleads, declaring that ‘I will not die’. The Duchess, on the other hand, goes to her execution with grace and dignity.
No matter what the villains say to her, she holds her head up proudly and proclaims, “I am the Duchess of Malfi still,” and “Dispose my breath how please you, but my body/ bestow upon my women, will you? “. Thus we see how some women of the Jacobean period end up subverting gender roles, and using the conventions of masculinity to play against their male opposites. This is again evident in Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. The character of Cleopatra in this play is seen as one bordering on masculinity.
As Cleopatra’s lover, Antony is feminizing his masculine role and is empowering Cleopatra in her role as a masculine leader. Both are transgressing their prescribed, gendered boundaries. Perhaps the strongest example of gender-role reversal occurs in Act 2, Scene 5. In this Act, Cleopatra describes to her attendants a night she had with Antony where, upon waking the next morning, she dressed him in her clothes, and then donned his sword. Not only is this important in that Cleopatra was wearing Antony’s sword, which is symbolic of his virility and of Rome, but that she was the one that dressed him.
Cleopatra took control, she put her clothes on Antony, and while he sat in the clothes of an Egyptian queen, she wore his Philippan sword. This act shows a seemingly playfulness between the lovers, but also demonstrates Cleopatra’s hold and command over Antony. She has a strong influence over him that pulls him away from Rome, and into her Egypt. In doing so, Cleopatra is adopting the masculine qualities of Antony. Hence through an analysis of the plays of the Jacobean era, we see how the concerns of the era are reflected in its drama. ANCHIT SAGAR B. A. (HONS. ) ENGLISH SECTION A 53014