Staging the Feminine Performance of Desire: Masochism in 'The Maid's Tragedy.'

By Alfar, Cristina Leon | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Staging the Feminine Performance of Desire: Masochism in 'The Maid's Tragedy.'


Alfar, Cristina Leon, Papers on Language & Literature


In The Subject of Tragedy, Catherine Belsey notes that in the Renaissance, marriage as an institution was publicly in crisis. "Marriage becomes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries," she writes, "the site of a paradoxical struggle to create a private realm and to take control of it in the interests of a public good" (130). Arising from this crisis, Beaumont's and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy can be read as a staging of female subjectivity constituted by the commodification of Evadne's body in the marriage contract, so that the play unmasks the patrilineal economy's construction of her desire as masochistic.(1) Beaumont's and Fletcher's tragedy is similar to many plays in this period, which work to produce a cautionary tale aimed at encouraging women to internalize the dictates of a patrilineal culture.(2) Like Belsey, I argue that drama provides a public forum in which the stabilizing of marriage, of the patrilineal order's control of women's bodies, is reinscribed. As with the pamphlet debates which raged during the period among writers such as Juan Luis Vives, Erasmus, Barnaby Rych, and Joseph Swetnam, who attempted in different ways to construct an "appropriate" and "moral" female subject, drama can be read as working in dialogue with these pamphlets to construct a similar female subject.(3) With various degrees of vehemence and misogyny, pamphlet writers contribute to the production of a Renaissance female subject who will not threaten the stability of a patrilineal order which depends on her uncontaminated body for its propagation. Whether by advocating "appropriate" education, by scathing critique, or by pretending praise, these writers agree that women's chastity is the basis on which Renaissance civilization will continue to grow in prosperity and moral superiority.(4) To combat the threat against patrilineal interests, drama can stage women's desire in such a way that guarantees the stability of the patrilineal order. I would like to re-read The Maid's Tragedy, then, to demonstrate that Evadne's desire is constructed by her commodification as an "appropriate" female subject in masochistic terms, which Beaumont and Fletcher both reinscribe and resist to the extent that Evadne's masochism - her internalization of patrilineal morality tyrannically enforced - generates her tragedy.(5)

Because women are restricted to and defined by commodification, their desire is limited by specific acts of which they are allowed to become the agent. Critics such as Constance Jordan have emphasized the commodification of women in the Renaissance - in fact, woman as property has become something of a truism.(6) She notes, however, that "in order for these exchanges to happen at all, the women exchanged must agree (or be forced to agree) to compliance with the terms of the exchange, in short to become human commodities, objects" (44). Jordan accounts for women's position as objects in a masculine economy of desire and establishes what can be termed a commodified subjectivity. Margaret L. King agrees, arguing that "perhaps [because women] were seen as possessing a greater sexual appetite, one quite gross and uncontrollable [,] . . . [t]heir violent sexual passions disrupted the sexual order and were seen as an attack on the social order itself" (41). In this light, the mechanism of commodification renders women's desire as "evil," and the process of internalization forces women into representations of their resulting desire as inherently masochistic. I want to make clear that the ontology of female masochism is not a biological imperative but an effect of the woman's being a market good, of never being an agent. Therefore, women are presented in the theater as capable of making choices that are irrevocably masochistic because, as non-agents, as merchandise, women fulfill only the desire of an other. In Evadne's case, we will see that her desire to be a valuable commodity is stronger than her need to live; in this sense, her desire, as a result of her commodified subjectivity, is a drive for self-annihilation. …

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