"Our Praises Are Our Wages": Courtly Exchange, Social Mobility, and Female Speech in the Winter's Tale

By van Elk, Martine | Philological Quarterly, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

"Our Praises Are Our Wages": Courtly Exchange, Social Mobility, and Female Speech in the Winter's Tale


van Elk, Martine, Philological Quarterly


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. …

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