Reconfigured Spheres: Feminist Explorations of Literary Space

By Margaret R. Higonnet; Joan Templeton | Go to book overview

Fallen Women and Upright Wives: "Woman's Place" in Early Modern Tragedy

JOAN TEMPLETON

In one of the least recognized examples of what genre owes to gender, the derogatory notion of "woman's place," both in its nineteenth-century manifestation and in its status as one of history's "true universals," occupies a crucial role in the development of modern tragedy.1 The genre's first important theoretician, Friedrich Hebbel, chose woman's social and sexual oppression as the subject of the bourgeois tragedy he was inventing in Maria Magdalena ( 1844), for the subject was both "timely," a contemporaneous preoccupation, and "eternal."2Hebbel's successor, Ibsen, in the greatest and most influential of the early modern tragedies, Ghosts ( 1881), crafted a drama whose power springs from its female protagonist's poisonous submission to the ideals of "woman's place." Strindberg seized on the contemporary feminist debate to write his own Darwinian brand of modern tragedy; Miss Julie, the woman who would defy the social and sexual constraints placed upon her by class and gender, represents an aberrant species doomed to destruction.

In Hebbel's Hegelian poetics, great drama occurs only in periods of great historical change and takes as its natural subject the dialectical struggle between the old and new epochs. The "world-wide historical process" bringing to birth the modern world makes possible the third great period of world drama, after Greek and Shakespearean; the former, which "gave form to Fate," was called forth by the waning of paganism, and the latter, which "emancipated the individual," resulted from the rise of Protestantism (75, 77). Reflecting its epoch, modern tragedy of necessity will be

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