"Is this your manly service?": Religion, Gender, and Drama in Early Modern England, 1558-1625

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This project argues that the interplay between religion and gender on the early modern English stage was a crucial means toward religious mediation and theatrical affect. Playwrights exploited the tensions between gender and reformed Christianity to expose the inconsistencies and contradictions within the period's religious polemic, to combine various religious expressions and habits of thought, to deepen sensitivity toward England's tenuous religious settlements, and to advance their art form. Furthermore, this project argues that the theater was better equipped than any other cultural and political institution to handle England's complex religious situations. This study, then, engages a broader scholarly effort to understand the relationship between theater and religion during England's ongoing reformations. Chapter 1 discusses how reformed biblical exegesis underwrote the staging of female piety in Lewis Wager's Calvinist Life and Repentaunce of Marie Magdalene (1566). Because this play surprises audiences with its endorsement of Mary's devotion, Wager qualifies our sense that the Reformation was relentlessly committed to repressing sensual worship and stamping out iconophilic fervor. To heighten theatrical affect, his play inverts associations between femininity and sin even as he defends the theater in Calvinist terms. Chapter 2 assesses the interaction of religion, gender, and kingship in Shakespeare and company's three Henry VI plays (~1592-95). By heightening the tensions between militant Protestantism and Christian humanism, the playwrights ask searching questions about the compatibility of reformed Christianity and kingship and about the place of Christian piety on the popular stage. To test various dramatic paces, to tap the theatrical possibilities of a weak and peaceful Christian king, and to unsettle audiences, Shakespeare and his collaborators show what is lost and gained by a culture that cannot reconcile masculine rule to reformed Christian piety. Chapter 3 argues that Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger's The Virgin Martir (1622) takes advantage of Jacobean religious compromises and impasses. By staging a martyrdom that invokes sensual beauty and physical vulnerability, this play stresses reform, recalls John Foxe's Actes and Monuments, and endorses what Lancelot Andrewes called "the beauty of holiness": the iconic splendor that reformers stripped from the Mass. As it bears witness to Jacobean England's vexing religious settlement, the play exploits the recurring post-Reformation conflict between text, reform, and godly masculinity on the one hand, and spectacle, ceremonialism, and feminized piety on the other.