What happens when a woman speaks at court? Early modern representations of female courtly speech are notoriously fraught with contradiction. In Stefano Guazzo's The Civile Conversation, for instance, the perfect courtier Anniball Magnocavalli describes the speech of the exemplary court lady as follows: "her talke and discourses are so delightfull, that you wyll only then beginne to bee sory, when shee endeth to speake: and wishe that shee woulde bee no more weary to speake, then you are to heare. Yea, shee frameth her jestures so discretely, that in speakyng, shee seemeth to holde her peace, and in holding her peace, to speake." (1) While the words of the lady arouse the courtier's desire for more, her body and its gestures help to give the impression of chaste silence. The chiasmus in Anniball's description is a perfect illustration of the double injunction, to speak and remain silent at the same time, placed on the female voice in early modern representations of the Renaissance court.
Ann Rosalind Jones has examined the ambiguities that pertain to the fate of the early modern court lady in conduct books more generally. (2) Courtesy literature of the sixteenth century, she argues, contains complex attempts at handling the discrepancies between the norms of the court and patriarchal discourse about women found in medicine, law, philosophy, and religion. Whereas the court applauded the clever conversation of the lady, other cultural constructions of femininity stressed women's natural inferiority and connected chastity with silence. (3) Because of the pervasive association of female public speech with sexuality, court ladies had to perform their duties with a great deal of deliberation. In Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, Julian de Medici points out that the lady of the palace ought to be "more circumspect and to take better heed that she give no occasion to be yll reported of, and so to beehave her selfe, that she be not onlye not spotted wyth anye fault, but not so much as with suspicion. Bicause a woman hath not so manye wayes to defende her selfe from sclaunderous reportes, as hath a man." (4) For that reason, the court lady is, says Jones, "advised to defend herself through a calculated rhetoric of words and gestures" (43). As in The Civile Conversation, this construction of the ideal court lady combines with a reluctance to represent actual female speech, and women do not join in the process of prescribing courtly behavior. (5)
When Shakespeare used the Sicilian court as his setting for The Winter's Tale, the paradoxes of courtesy theory inevitably came into play. The popularity of romance plays, or tragi-comedies, as a genre among theatergoers in the first decades of the seventeenth century suggests a nostalgic appreciation of Greek romances and their Christianized versions in medieval courtly narratives. Leo Salingar recounts a host of medieval dramatizations of "persecuted queen" stories as a background for the later romance plays. (6) A Jacobean representation of a Sicilian court would evoke not only these "old tales," but also the courtly ideals of the Italian courtesy books. The most important of these, Castiglione's Il cortegiano (1528), Guazzo's La civil conversatione (1574), and Giovanni della Casa's Il galateo (1559), had all been translated in the second half of the sixteenth century, although they were also read in their original. While the number of editions of Il cortegiano and Thomas Hoby's translation suggests that these books were not as tremendously popular in England as, for instance, in France, a wealth of contemporary references shows that they were widely known, especially among the upper ranks. (7) These influential texts on courtly behavior and conversation offer valuable insight into early modern perceptions of the mechanics of social identity and self-presentation at court. Whether we choose to read The Winter's Tale as an artistic rendering of a "foreign" court or as a dramatic representation with connections to the English court, courtesy books provide us with an important cultural context for the play, known to the more privileged of the theatergoers at the Globe and especially to the play's audience at the court of King James. (8)
King James's court, with its reputation for corruption and its large contingent of powerful Scottish courtiers, was perceived as very different from the more ordered Elizabethan court. The unprecedented number of honors and titles sold by James in an attempt to bind the political elite to the court and improve his finances, along with the career possibilities for individuals of less than aristocratic birth at court, meant that to many Jacobeans the court seemed a highly unstable arena where social degree was not so much determined by birth as by money and royal whim. (9) At the same time, James's emphasis on the Divine Right of Kings countered this impression in the case of the king himself with an essentialist notion of royalty as ordained by God. The ostentation of the court is supposed to fulfill two contradictory functions at once, the confirmation of the king's unique position and the advancement of the individual interest of ambitious courtiers.
In The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare explores the contradictory constructions of gender and class that emerged from the Stuart court and the courts of early modern Europe in general. The play begins by showing the court to be a place where social identity is constructed through public, rhetorical performance. I use the term "performance" here to denote an early modern awareness of self-presentation as not necessarily directly reflective of inner identity but determined by social constraints and strategic considerations. The play explores a social, specifically courtly, identity that it presents as a product of performing, distinguished from behavior that is consistent with and reflective of one's "nature." (10) The importance of performance at court allows the queen to speak with a degree of freedom not normally afforded to women. But the connection between female speech and promiscuity, so prominent outside the court, becomes a catalyst for a crisis in which no one's position is secure and even royal power is opened up to question--the courtly emphasis on rhetorical display and public performance leads to a situation in which upward and downward social mobility becomes possible for everyone.
The oracle puts an end to this situation by re-stabilizing social position and assigning divinely ordained identities to the members of the royal household. Ultimately, this is not sufficient; a reformation of female courtliness is needed to restore harmony. Perdita's speeches, a product of birth rather than education, contrast with Hermione's rhetorical skills of the first act. And in the statue scene, Hermione regains her position as queen by presenting her courtly audience with a changed voice. Both women's speeches make clear that the female courtly voice is in the end no longer characterized by playful performance, but by a denial of its own rhetorical character. Hermione's performance as a statue serves to secure social position, making royalty once again a product of birth, divine choice, and essence.
Ultimately, Shakespeare makes clear that the female courtly presence has shifted from a verbal to a visual register. Unlike words, gesture anchors social position and avoids the dangerous association between female speech and sexuality. In presenting us with this shift, The Winter's Tale uncovers a complicated, reciprocal relationship between gender and class, suggesting why the issue of female speech haunts the courtesy literature of the period: female courtliness is a measure of social mobility at court. If women are allowed to speak with too much freedom, this indicates that social position also lacks firm grounding. The problem of class in an arena that thrives on public performance is "solved" through gender, by having women relinquish their former courtly voice and accept the limitations imposed on them at court. The significance of the play's reconfiguration of female courtliness and its connection with class has not been noted in criticism of The Winter's Tale. Feminist critics have studied the female presence in the play, but not in its specific courtly context. (11) The recent, mostly new historicist effort to establish contemporary political contexts for the romances has resulted generally in a concentration on the issue of kingship and contemporary views of James I, without making a connection with the gender issues at stake. (12)
Courtesy literature of the period highlights the importance of rhetoric to social position at court. Guazzo's courtiers in The Civile Conversation repeatedly compare courtly communication with monetary exchange, making verbal expression a salable commodity that can be used for self-advancement and is not inherently linked to birth. The melancholy William, brother of the author and accomplished courtier, expresses distaste for the crowds in the royal courts, at places of judgment, and on the marketplace. He likens the court, where "an infinite number of Courtiers assemble together, to talke and devise of many matters," to the city with its "numberlesse multitude walking upp and downe in every place, keeping a continuall mercate, where there is no other talke but of buying and selling." (13) William claims that traders and courtiers engage in conversation for two purposes, "to maintain and increase their wealth, and to mend their estate" (117). In both locations, men are driven by ambition, for the accumulation of riches or for higher social standing, and words help "buy" a better position. The comparison of civil conversation with trade is made again, more positively, by his friend Anniball, whose task it is to rescue civil conversation from William's complaints. Yet, both worry about the extent to which courtly speech has been subjected to rhetorical inflation. William remarks that "Many Courtiers carie that litle peece of suger in their mouthes, and it may bee saide, that their money seemeth to bee Golde, although in the touche it is found to bee silver, or baser mettall" (126). This means that the listener can no longer take words at face value, but has to assess whether the words are themselves counterfeit, proving the upward mobility of the speaker. Paradoxically, then, the use of eloquence to distinguish the courtier from the "vulgar sorte" (123) has made words into unreliable means of assessing social identity.
Guazzo's courtiers see eloquence as an inevitable part of their self-presentation, but given the primacy of rhetorical performance at court, they are anxious about the value of speech as evidence of "true" identity and intention. This type of equivocation is typical of courtesy literature of the period. These books tend to move back and forth between descriptions of aristocratic identity as a product of birth and prescriptions for correct elite behavior, which show class to be a product of learning and performance. In Ambition and Privilege Frank Whigham writes that courtesy theory fulfilled a double function for its Elizabethan readership. For the Elizabethan elite, he argues, courtesy books …