Staging Slander and Gender in Early Modern England

By Bensel-Meyers, Linda | Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Staging Slander and Gender in Early Modern England


Bensel-Meyers, Linda, Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research


Ina Habermann. Staging Slander and Gender in Early Modern England. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2003, 210 pp. $79.95 US, £45.00 GBP, cloth.

. . . let her weare a velvet hood, made iust in the fashion of a great Tongue, in my conceit 'tis a verye pretty Embleme of a Woman.

Lingua 5.19

One of the most revealing emblems from the early modern period contains a woodcut of a nude female without a head and the accompanying motto: Search for monsters farre and wide, none so monstrous as a woman who lacks a guide. The gendering of reason and the mind, of passion and the body, has never been more commonplace than in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although Ina Habermann does not cite this particular emblem, her argument in Staging Slander and Gender in Early Modern England makes a compelling argument for the interconnection between descriptive iconography and prescriptive treatises: the woman without a head [or mind or man] should hold her tongue, lest her emotions make her an embodiment of traitorous, slanderous prattle. By locating the argument within the rhetorical, legal, and religious treatises of the time, Habermann weaves a justification for how slander as an act of "fashioning others" made the theater a potent site for cultural inquiry.

The book is part of Ashgate's formidable series, "Women and Gender in the Early Modern World," edited by Allyson Poska and Abby Zanger. The series is unique in that it expands arguments about women and gender in the early modern period beyond the confines of genre and western culture. Other works in this diverse series include: Women, Art and the Politics of Identity in Eighteenth-Century Europe, eds. Melissa Hyde and Jennifer Milam; Architecture and the Politics of Gender in Early Modern Europe, ed. Helen Hills; Gender, Society and Print Culture in Late-Stuart England, by Helen Berry; and Widowhood and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe, edited by Allison Levy. These broad collections enable Habermann to cast her net widely, to explore the early modern stage as a site of cultural deliberation about how reality is constructed, for better or worse. What I find most beneficial about the study is that Habermann, a Lecturer in English and Cultural Studies at Friedrich Alexander University, Erlangen, Germany, weaves her argument from rhetorical scholars too seldom acknowledged by American critics of early modern drama. By utilizing the work of Joel Altman, whose Tudor Play of Mind exposed how a renaissance rhetorical education shaped the drama into deliberative inquiry, coupled with work by Kathy Eden and Wayne Rebhorn, Habermann is able to draw connections among rhetorical, philosophical, and religious treatises that justify how the drama became the site of imagistic debate and affective rhetoric for the age.

Habermann explores how drama became preferable for her inquiry into the gendered dynamics of slander because, unlike the treatises, the drama "actively and self-consciously" negotiates the issues it introduces. Slander or oral defamation is not just a "negative fashioning of others" but depends on a theatrical dynamic, what she calls the "theatrical constellation" of slanderer, listener, and victim. Habermann contrasts the province of rhetoric, where the art of slander, vituperation, is just a formal exercise, to the theatre as a forum for "thinking with images"-an evocation of passionate responses to an exemplary narrative. …

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