Monday, 13 December 2010

Literary Characters - 17th to 18th Century Female Characters

In the restoration comedies, female characters were witty, beautiful and often the male characters' equals. As the centruries progressed, however, certain processes turned these independent characters into innocent victims and chaste wives which, in Alexander Pope's words "have no characters at all" (77). This post will trace this trajectory.

The Restoration saw the first female actresses entering the stage. Previously, female characters had been played by boys who often did not possess the same skills as their older counterparts (which might account for the comparatively few lines given female characters). With an actress-mad king (whose most famous mistress was the actress Nell Gwynn) and the rise of the restoration comedy, female characters on stage would equal male ones in wit and design to the extent of wearing breeches. (So called "breeches parts" would not only show off actresses' legs, but also comment on the boys playing female roles earlier on.). This equality, finding precedents in Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, could be seen in plays like John Dryden's Secret Love and Marriage á la Mode and William Wycherley's The Country Wife.

Nell Gwynn

With female characters claiming more influence in new dramatic genres it was inevitable that they should enter the formerly male dominated tragedy. Nicholas Rowe's "she-tragedies", like The Fair Penitent and The Tragedy of Jane Shore turned the tide for the female character. In these tragedies, the female character would regret and ripe the results of her Restoration exuberance and women would increasingly be portrayed as victims, as witnessed in Samuel Richardson's Clarissa which relies heavily on Rowe. With the decline of the rake came the decline of its female counterpart. Both Lovelace and Clarissa dies, preparing the ground for the female character who has learned.

Charlotte Lennox' The Female Quixote is the arena in which the several female roles are sorted. The independent heroin of her own romance, Arabella, is at odds with or even above society throughout the novel. At the end, however, after encountering a fallen woman (the Country Maid Miss Groves), the Town Lady Miss Glanville, a cross-dressing Tommy prositute, the Learned Lady (the Countess) and being lectured by a clergyman, she becomes the ideal 18th century heroine. The submissive, passive and chaste wife or victim.

Source: Elaine M. McGirr, Eighteenth-Century Characters: A Guide to the Literature of the Age (Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

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