Blackfriars Conference 2013–Colloquy Session #3: The Feminine in Early Modern Plays

Hi Everyone! Sarah Martin here at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel Skyline Room to liveblog Colloquy Session III: The Feminine in Early Modern Plays at 2:30pm on Wednesday, October 23. The chair for this Colloquy is Christopher Clary from Emory and Henry College and features presenters Sonia Desai from University of California Irvine, Amber Karlins from Hillsborough Community College, Paris Shun-Hsiang-Shih from National Chengchi University, and Karoline Szatek from Curry College.

Professor Clary opened this Colloquy Session with the announcement that Amber Karlins will not be presenting, but has still submitted her paper for discussion. Amber Karlins’ paper deals with models of femininity that are both within and outside of the law. Professor Clary then asked each presenter to say a bit about their specific paper topics. Professor Karoline Szatek’s  paper deals with how Shakespeare’s birds represent both women and men. PhD candidate Sonia Desai’s paper is about moments when Shakespeare references the boy actor under a woman’s costume. Paris Shun-Hsiang-Shih is presenting a paper about the role of the eunuch in Twelfth Night and Professor Christopher Clary’s paper is about the anatomy of Moll in Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl.

Professor Clary began discussion with a question about the role of gender in boy actors and eunuchs: are they gendered or non-gendered? Desai and Shun-Hsiang-Shih discussed how eunuchs employ a liminal space in terms of gender as Shun-Hsiang-Shih argued that Viola uses the role of eunuch to her advantage. He explained that in ancient Chinese folklore, the eunuch is always underestimated and then becomes successful because no one views the eunuch as a threat. Desai brought up The Country Wife as an example of another character who uses the guise of eunuch-hood in order to get what he wants–in this case, the other women in the play. As the discussion of power and the role of the eunuch continued, Clary pointed out that Caesario’s state as a eunuch is usually de-emphasized in performance, but it greatly affects the relationship between the characters. For example, a potential marriage between Caesario and Olivia would be childless and Clary asked if Olivia desires Caesario because of the power that she would hold over him.

Desai discussed the theatrical practice of “double vision” where an audience sees both the “mechanics of theatre” and the imagined characters and story itself–in this case, that an early modern audience both follows the narrative of the play while constantly aware that the characters they are watching are being played by boys.

Clary then turned over the discussion to Professor Szatek’s paper on ecofeminism with a question about how Shakespeare’s female characters relate to nature. Professor Szatek argued that Shakespeare contrasts women and men through how each group treats nature. Szatek explains that males in Shakespeare’s plays are, “often equated with hunting” and that, “women are treated as prey”. Szatek argued that in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare reverses that practice. Clary and Szatek discussed the role of pollution and how pollution, essentialism, and nature interconnect.

Clary continued the Colloquy with a discussion of the role of what Desai calls, “true femininity” in the early modern period. Desai explored how “true” can mean both honest and legitimate and how that would be performed on an early modern stage. This, Clary pointed out, is something that would change over time just as the plays themselves do.

The Colloquy concluded with a brief discussion of Clary’s paper in which he explores the anxiety over the possibility that Moll could become male through her use of male clothing and how gender that is performed reflects or subverts the biological anatomy of the actors portraying the characters– a shared interest among the presenters at this afternoon’s  informative and fascinating Colloquy.