Female Mourning and Tragedy in Medieval and Renaissance Drama: From the Raising of Lazarus to King Lear

By Normington, Katie | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Female Mourning and Tragedy in Medieval and Renaissance Drama: From the Raising of Lazarus to King Lear


Normington, Katie, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


Female Mourning and Tragedy in Medieval and Renaissance Drama: From the Raising of Lazarus to King Lear, by Katharine Goodland. Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005. Pp. 254. Cloth $94.95.

Reviewer: Katie Normington

Katharine Goodland' s Female Mourning and Tragedy in Medieval and Renaissance Drama is a welcome addition to the growing field of study that crosses the previous critical boundaries of medieval and Renaissance drama and instead analyzes the influences and echoes that can be found within these two eras. It is much to Goodland' s credit that she spends equal time discussing each period rather than compressing the discussion on medieval theater to favor the Renaissance, as is often the case.

Goodland sets out to show how grieving women on the early modern stage are not influenced only by classical drama but developed from the Catholic past (2), and the importance of the cultural trauma of the Reformation in shaping mourning (7). She does this by identifying a series of laments that can be found within the medieval Lazarus plays, the Nativity and Passion plays, and the Resurrection plays before examining mourning women in early modern English tragedies: King John, The Spanish Tragedy, The White Devil, Hamlet, Lucrece, and Titus Andronicus, as well as looking at how lamentation frames Richard III and the figure of King Lear as symbolic of a female mourner.

During the introduction Goodland interweaves examples from classical, medieval, and Renaissance drama. The examples demonstrate a large and impressive arena of scholarship, but often there is a tendency to dash between the examples without making clear the substantial differences between the contexts of the chosen plays. For example, Goodland begins by stating that, "In the world that extends from Homer to Hamlet grief is a performance incumbent upon the female relatives of the deceased, simultaneously a responsibility, a right, and a source of pride" (9). She illustrates her point by reference to The Trojan Women, the N-To wn Raising of Lazarus, the Digby Mary Magdalene, Electra, and Antigone. So while the breadth of Goodland' s examples is to be commended, she often fails to distinguish how these dramas are also part of differing cultural worlds. In fact this is symptomatic of a larger problem: Goodland gives little time to establishing the cultural, social, or political milieus of the worlds that she examines. She often makes useful references to other literary writings, but this in fact increases the sense of drama existing in a vacuum with little attachment to real life. This problem decreases during the course of the book, however, so that by the final couple of chapters the textual analysis and argument is more grounded.

Part 1 of the book examines the figures of women mourners across a range of medieval "cycles" and the Digby Mary Magdalene play. In the first of these sections she concludes that the Lazarus plays "attempt to resolve the inherent opposition between the residual practice of lament and the dominant Christian eschatology" (52). This section, and the two that cover the Nativity, Passion, and Resurrection plays, undertake detailed textual reading of the plays. …

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