Labors Lost: Women's Work and the Early Modern English Stage

Labors Lost: Women's Work and the Early Modern English Stage

Labors Lost: Women's Work and the Early Modern English Stage

Labors Lost: Women's Work and the Early Modern English Stage

Synopsis

Labors Lost offers a fascinating and wide-ranging account of working women's behind-the-scenes and hitherto unacknowledged contributions to theatrical production in Shakespeare's time. Natasha Korda reveals that the purportedly all-male professional stage relied on the labor, wares, ingenuity, and capital of women of all stripes, including ordinary crafts- and tradeswomen who supplied costumes, props, and comestibles; wealthy heiresses and widows who provided much-needed capital and credit; wives, daughters, and widows of theater people who worked actively alongside their male kin; and immigrant women who fueled the fashion-driven stage with a range of newfangled skills and commodities.

Combining archival research on these and other women who worked in and around the playhouses with revisionist readings of canonical and lesser-known plays, Labors Lost retrieves this lost history by detailing the diverse ways women participated in the work of playing, and the ways male players and playwrights in turn helped to shape the cultural meanings of women's work. Far from a marginal phenomenon, the gendered division of theatrical labor was crucial to the rise of the commercial theaters in London and had an influence on the material culture of the stage and the dramatic works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Natasha Korda is Professor of English at Wesleyan University.

Excerpt

Scholars have long sought to explain the anomaly of the all-male stage in Shakespeare’s time but have failed to consider working women’s contributions to theatrical production behind the scenes. Situating the commercial playhouses within the broader economic landscape of early modern London, this book argues that the rise of the professional stage relied on the labor, wares, ingenuity, and capital of women of all stripes, including ordinary crafts- and tradeswomen who supplied costumes, properties, and comestibles; wealthy heiresses and widows who provided much-needed capital and credit; wives, daughters, and widows of theater people who worked actively alongside their male kin; and immigrant women who fueled the fashion-driven stage with a range of newfangled skills and commodities. Marshaling a broad range of evidence on these and other women who worked in and around London’s public and private playhouses, Labors Lost seeks to recover this lost history by detailing the diverse ways in which women participated in the work of theatrical production and the ways in which male playwrights and players in turn helped shape the cultural meanings of women’s work.

At stake in the representation of working women on the early modern stage was the status and legitimacy of playing itself as profession. the parameters of legitimate trade underwent tremendous pressure in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century London due to exponential population growth, an influx of migrant and immigrant labor, and a rapidly expanding informal economy. Women, whose labor was often proscribed or restricted within the formal economy regulated by guilds and civic authorities, predominated in the informal networks of trade that flourished in the suburbs and liberties where the commercial theaters were located. the players relied on such trade, creating new opportunities for working women—who furnished costumes, properties, credit, and a hand in the theaters’ day-to-day operations—while at the same time excluding women from the visible workspace of the stage itself in an effort to define “playing” as legitimate, manly work. Far from a . . .

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