Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"No Crime to Be Bashful": Social Anxiety in the Drama of Margaret Cavendish

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"No Crime to Be Bashful": Social Anxiety in the Drama of Margaret Cavendish

Article excerpt

The Thoughts that Bashfulness leaves in the Mind, are as great an Affliction as the Mind can have for a Crimeless Defect, for 'tis no Crime to be Bashful. --Margaret Cavendish, Sociable Letters (196) 

This essay will discuss the role of social anxiety in the work of Margaret Cavendish, with a particular emphasis on introversion and speechlessness in her dramatic work. Cavendish was one of the most prolific writers of the seventeenth century, but she also experienced lifelong difficulties with social interaction. Nancy J. Hirschman notes that "disabled individuals were [...] both a commonplace and intimate part of the dominant [seventeenth-century] society and excluded from it in various ways" (169). While this dominant society often critiqued the very notion of disability, the dramatic work of Margaret Cavendish celebrated atypical sociability and radical difference. It seems vital, then, to connect Cavendish's writing on anxiety to a broader discussion of disability studies, given the ways in which her dramatic characters negotiate a confusing, sometimes hostile ideal of sociability. This essay will focus on her dramatic representations, both in her play-texts and the Sociable Letters, an epistolary text which crosses genres and presents a number of dramatic identities. I've chosen to address her hybrid drama because of its many challenges to the stage as an arena for sociability and the containment of difference. I side with Karen Raber's argument that the "ill-adapted" (465) plays are actually "an appropriate reformulation of the concept of theatre" (466) during a time when theatre was especially being policed. I will extend this point further by placing Cavendish's dramatic work within the context of transgressive sociability, and argue that her anxious characters form a positive representation of neurodiversity. Nick Walker clarifies this term by stating that "there is no 'normal' or 'right' style of human brain or human mind" (228), and I will discuss how Cavendish's atypical dramatic work makes a similar point.

The texts that I've chosen all engage with social performance in some way, and present characters or perspectives which illustrate the challenges of social interaction. Cavendish dramatizes anxiety and introversion--often read as modesty--through play-texts such as Lady Contemplation, The Presence, and The Female Academy. I'll also discuss her prose text "The Contract," which engages with a court masque and the anxiety that it produces. I'll return throughout to various scenes within Sociable Letters, which is hazily autobiographical while also serving as a study of difficult social situations (including how to entertain guests, and how to rein in one's imaginative thoughts in public). In Recovering Disability in Early Modern England, Allison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood argue that "the notion of early modern disability is not anachronistic because human variation, though conceived of and responded to diversely, has always existed" (7). This essay will address some of the ways in which seventeenth-century writers responded to anxiety, including philosophical works and dramatic representations. My goal is not to align Margaret Cavendish with a precise lived experience of disability, but rather to discuss how her treatment of shyness, introversion, and anxiety represents a historical contribution to disability studies. Her characters challenge what it means to engage socially, to appear "on stage," and to negotiate encounters that demand compliance. Lady Contemplation, and Margaret Cavendish herself, remains fiercely non-compliant, or "singular," in Cavendish's own words. In The Blazing World, Cavendish's Duchess affirms that "I would rather appear worse in singularity than better in mode" (218), setting a standard for Cavendish's own radical individualism.

In the period following the English Civil War, during which Cavendish produced much of her writing, there was an ongoing philosophical discussion focused on managing passions. …

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