Academic journal article Early Theatre

'Vs for to Wepe No Man May Lett': Accommodating Female Grief in the Medieval English Lazarus Plays

Academic journal article Early Theatre

'Vs for to Wepe No Man May Lett': Accommodating Female Grief in the Medieval English Lazarus Plays

Article excerpt

In the N-Town cycle's Raising of Lazarus, as soon as Lazarus is interred, Mary Magdalene declares to her sister Martha, 'Lete us sytt down here by be grave / or we go hens wepe all oure fylle' (167-8). (2) Martha joins her, proclaiming, 'Vs for to wepe no man may lett' (169). Their exchange suggests that they expect their weeping to provoke opposition, and it does. Four male consolers, outraged by the sisters' conduct, take turns chastising them, denouncing their behavior as shameful and offensive: 'Arys for shame ze do not ryght / streyth from bus grave ze xul go hens / bus for to grugge ageyns godys myght / Azens hyz god ze do offens' (173-6). The consolers seem unduly scandalized. How can women's tears offend one so powerful as God? But Martha explicitly poses the sisters' mourning at the grave as a form of resistance to male control, and the consolers respond in kind. They view the sisters' mourning as potent, a dangerous affront that must be curtailed. The public nature of this confrontation--in the open, at the gravesite--implies that the sisters' laments have a rhetorical appeal that the consolers find threatening to their position as the self-appointed spokesmen of 'godys myght'.

This gendered conflict between two discourses, female grief and male control, so clearly delineated in the N-Town cycle, manifests itself, albeit more subtly and in different ways, in all of the extant manuscripts of the medieval English Lazarus plays. But there is more at stake here than gender. In its deep structure it is an encounter between two different constructions of death and mourning: the dominant Christian belief that faith in God brings eternal life, and therefore one should not grieve over the dead; and the residual practice of lament for the dead, an oral tradition usually led by women in which 'eternal life'--living on in the memory of the community--depends upon repetitive performances of mourning. (3) As a social practice presided over by women, ritual lament poses resistence to male social authority and the tenets of the dominant Christian ideology.

In his poetically astute reading of the Corpus Christi Passion plays Peter Dronke argues that the characterization of the mourning Virgin Mary, the Planctus Mariae, draws upon this tradition of residual lament: 'the nature of the texts we have suggests ... that the lament of Mary was not primarily a learned invention at all. On the contrary, when these laments surface in the learned world, they still bear all the marks of a non-theological genre and lyric impulse, the marks of a traditional type of woman's lament.' (4) Dronke perceives several prominent features of female lament in his analysis of the medieval Planctus: Mary's love for life expressed her laments for the decay of Christ's physical beauty; the frequent use of direct address, a key rhetorical feature of lament; and Mary's 'unredeemable grief' (116), which prevails over the Christian promise of salvation. He points to the dissonance of Mary's tone in the Christian context of the Passion plays, for her 'bitterness is unrelieved' (116). Instead of affirming the 'truth of the Redemption', Mary's 'sorrowing remains unabated to the end' (116). Dronke observes that Mary's 'unredeemable grief' is evidence of 'a particularly forceful resurgence of the ancient non-theological traditions of women's laments' (116).

As Dronke's observations indicate, the genre of female lamentation encompasses the idea that grief, or mourning, is an obligatory performance with clear rhetorical features. (5) An ancient practice, reaching back beyond the historical records of archaic Greece, lamentation for the dead continues today in parts of eastern Europe, Africa, and the Mediterranean. (6) A public performance that is usually led by the close female relatives of the deceased, its purpose is to articulate and therefore also contain the impending chaos that can accompany the intense emotions and altered social structure of a community that attends the death of one of its members. …

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