Measure for Measure and Rape Culture

With all the press around prominent men abusing their power lately, it’s perhaps natural that people have been reminded of Shakespeare and Middleton’s “problem play” Measure for Measure. One scene in particular is seeing renewed attention: having been told that she must have sex with the Duke’s deputy in order to save her brother’s life, Isabella tells the deputy (Angelo) that she will tell everyone, “with an outstretched throat,” what a hypocrite he is.

And he says, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?”

What’s more chilling is her echoing of this language several lines later, after Angelo has left the room: “To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, / Who would believe me?” In the space of about a dozen lines, she’s internalized the message that Angelo’s word is worth more than her own.

It was this scene that stood out to me two and a half years ago, while watching a live stream of Cheek by Jowl’s Russian-language production of the play, with English surtitles. Like a good millennial, I was watching on my laptop with other browser windows open. In this configuration, I stumbled upon an article about Emma Sulkowicz, who carried her mattress at Columbia University to protest the handling of her sexual assault.

It struck me, with an almost physical force, how similar Isabella’s and Emma’s language about their assaults was, despite a 400-year gap between their stories. I started to wonder what would happen if these women could speak to each other, and the thought stuck with me for days.

We always say that Shakespeare’s plays are still relevant today, but is that necessarily a good thing?

Eventually, I decided to actually do something about what I was thinking and feeling. And Measure (still) for Measure was born.

I’ve been working on this project on and off for the past two years, in both private and public ways, but now seems like an opportune time to bring it out into the open more meaningfully.

Measure (Still) for Measure is about bringing intersectional feminism, physical theatre, and Shakespeare together. It’s about facilitating conversations and instigating policy change. It’s about helping students think and talk and work through these issues through performance. And it’s about speaking back to Shakespeare, taking back the canon, and asserting that, had this been Isabella’s story to tell, she probably would have told it differently.

If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll check out the project website, and share your feedback. It’s an evolving and growing project, with the next phase of workshops scheduled for February 2018. I’ll be keeping that site up to date with all the news.

I wish such a project wasn’t necessary, but that’s why I’m doing it: to educate the next generation so that the headlines we’ve been seeing lately will become extinct sooner rather than later.


Review: The Changeling, 2015, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

After a long gestation period, I’m thrilled to announce that my review of the 2015 production of The Changeling at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has been published in the latest issue of Early Modern Literary Studies!

This was a pretty emotional review for me to write, partly because I had such strong feelings about the production, and partly because this was one of the first things I pulled together for publication out of my doctoral thesis. I’m grateful to the reviews editor, Dave Nicol, and to EMLS for letting me turn this into a sort of hybrid article-cum-review with more detail and research underpinning than usual.

As much as I had a lot of issues with the production, writing this chapter of my thesis totally changed the course of my academic goals, so in a weird way I’m grateful to the former Artistic Director for giving me so very much to write about. The digital culture side of this chapter is currently being prepared as a separate article, which I hope to have out next year. Keep your eyes peeled!

And, of course, let me know if you’d like to chat Globe, Changeling, or doing old plays in the present. I’m always game.

Middleton and Shakespeare

I’ve been mulling over an SAA blog post for a couple weeks now, allowing everything to percolate before committing pen to paper (or…whatever the digital equivalent is). I’ve also been a little busy since returning from Atlanta rehearsing for a little show I’ve been working on. It’s taken me a while to get to this, but I’m glad that I waited. In my mulling time, Andy Kesson published some of his SAA thoughts to the Before Shakespeare blog; among other, equally important arguments, Kesson laments the centrality of Shakespeare even in settings that seem designed to sideline or transcend his influence. Sympathetic scholars–myself included–joined his lamentations on Twitter:



Kesson’s frustrations struck a chord with many of us who think of ourselves as “early modernists” rather than “Shakespeareans.” For me, it rephrased an issue that had come up in the Middleton and Shakespeare seminar, which I audited at SAA.

Middleton and Shakespeare was an exciting and productive seminar in many ways, but there was one thing that troubled me. There seemed to be a consensus in the room that it was Shakespeare who instigated or initiated his collaborative relationship with Middleton.

When I asked the group about the evidence underpinning this claim, their answers felt unsatisfying: there is no hard evidence, but Shakespeare was the more senior playwright and a sharer in the King’s Men at the time. Plus, he wrote a greater proportion of the plays on which they collaborated. So it makes sense that he was the dominant collaborator.

But does it? Or rather: does “dominant playwright” automatically mean “initiating playwright”?

In the absence of hard evidence, allow me to speculate (or perhaps fantasize) about a different kind of collaborative relationship between Shakespeare and Middleton.

Middleton (or ThoMidd, as I affectionately call him to myself) was a freelancer and career collaborator in ways that Shakespeare never was. While it’s true that a greater proportion of Timon of Athens, for example, seems to be Shakespeare’s, I don’t think this automatically means that Shakespeare sought out Middleton for collaboration. Indeed, I think it’s far more plausible that Middleton sought out Shakespeare.

Think about it: around the time that Timon was being written, Middleton was in the midst of an intense legal battle with his wicked stepfather. He would’ve had a strong financial incentive to seek out additional work, if nothing else. But Middleton was always more of a “gig” writer than Shakespeare, who made his real money as a sharer in a company of players. In contrast, Middleton took a job as city chronologer and wrote pageants and court masques in addition to his plays and poems. He earned his living as a writer and collaborated often in all of the various forms and genres to which he contributed. He was a skilled collaborative writer. He was a freelancer for much of his career.

Any good freelancer knows that you can’t wait for the work to come to you. You have to go out and find it. Maybe it’s because I’m so very “on the market” right now, but I can easily picture Middleton–strapped for cash, looking for additional sources of income, and just beginning to make a name for himself–approaching Shakespeare with a pitch.

What impetus would Shakespeare have had to seek out a collaboration of this kind with a very junior colleague, unless he was astonishingly generous?  He was comfortably ensconced as a sharer and was effectively the house playwright for the King’s Men. He had job security in a way that Middleton did not at the time. Perhaps this created an environment in which he felt safe taking a risk on a collaboration with a talented but less experienced writer. Perhaps he was feeling stuck and needed another head in the mix to shake things up. There are, of course, a million possible reasons why a senior, comfortably employed Shakespeare might seek out the assistance of an up-and-comer like Middleton.

But based on the evidence available, isn’t it as least as likely that it was the other way around?


SAA Provocation: Shakespeare and Fan Theory

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been writing! I’m working on a bunch of projects as I navigate the academic job market (again). So here’s something new that I tested out on my Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) workshop group. I’m hoping to build this idea up into an article, so any feedback will be very much appreciated 🙂

It’s a provocation: adaptations of Shakespeare should be more like fan fiction.

Building on Abigail De Kosnik’s work in Rogue Archives, this provocation theorizes adaptations of Shakespeare in relation to fan fiction. Can we understand the derision that sometimes follows adaptations of Shakespeare as similar to the derision that accompanies fandom? Do Shakespeare adaptations occupy a queer and feminine space in the way that De Kosnik suggests fan fiction does? What does fan theory offer scholars of Shakespeare in adaptation and adapters of Shakespeare that other theories of adaptation do not?

Shakespearean adaptation—like fanfic—is both granted and stripped of legitimacy by virtue of its relationship to the source text or ‘canon.’ Fanfic, like some of the best adaptation, often grows out of a love-hate relationship with the canon: fans obsess even as they recognise the shortcomings of their chosen source text. As Aja Romano puts it in her analysis of Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical sensation, “Hamilton is fanfic, which means its function is partly to argue with its canon, not to simply celebrate it” (np). In Shakespeare terms, this impulse to “argue with the canon” can manifest along a spectrum from Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female casts at the Donmar Warehouse to wholly re-written or re-imagined takes on the plays such as the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

For the purposes of this short paper, I am particularly interested in De Kosnik’s assessment of fan fiction archives as queer and feminine spaces. Without claiming that these “rogue archives” “close gaps in computing access or skill between large numbers of people”, De Kosnik does argue—convincingly—that they are “archives of women’s digital culture and queer digital culture” (10-11, 12). Put another way, fan fiction archivists “pry open ‘the archive’—digital cultural memory writ large—to include their idiosyncratic repositories, and thus foist some measure of democratization onto the field of contemporary archival practice” (18). They appropriate the tools of traditional, institutional archivists (18) in order to rewrite and even transcend the canon (21). Indeed, De Kosnik argues, rogue archives are “intrinsically opposed to the very notion of canonicity” (21).

De Kosnik’s ground-breaking work obviously has a number of implications for Shakespeareans. Here, however, I aim to focus on the opposition to canonicity developed through spaces that are explicitly and emphatically identified as female and queer. De Kosnik identifies fan fiction sites and their archives as “sites in which women and girls can feel that they are participating in a tradition of female writing and reading, and can experience a sense of safety in numbers” (135). As a result, “fan archives facilitate numerous acts of representation and communication that exceed the bounds of heteronormativity” (135).

De Kosnik also identifies in female-authored fan fiction an impulse that drives many adapters of Shakespeare: she reads female fan authorship “as a response by women and girls to a media culture in which they rarely see their own narrative priorities and preferences play out, and so feel compelled to create their own versions” (142). While she is not uncritical of the links that have been made between fan culture and queer culture, De Kosnik also notes that fan spaces can function—“as explicitly queer spaces do”—“as simultaneously ‘safe spaces’ and spaces of targeting” (147). Fan archives are also queer in the sense that they shift the center of the conversation, creating spaces for a cultural archive that is not canonical or mainstream. Fanfic therefore has much to teach Shakespeareans not only in terms of a more relaxed relationship to a canon, but also in terms of providing models for taking genuine risks in terms of casting and dramaturgy. Fanfic frequently recasts the main characters, bringing in a more diverse range of voices than is typically encountered in the canons it represents. And so, I suggest, Shakespeare adaptations, particularly those commissioned by major companies, should be more like fanfic in its willingness to depart from canon and take genuine risks in terms of casting, dramaturgy, and politics.

A useful lens through which to consider this provocation is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “contemporary translations” because of the tension between the democratizing intent of the project and the potential pitfalls revealed by its parameters. Play On! proudly includes voices of women and people of color among the playwrights commissioned for the project (“Play On!”). OSF is also well known for its inclusive casting policies.

The OSF website, however, is absolutely clear that “The Play On translations will not be adaptations” because “Everything to do with setting, time period, references, etc. will remain unchanged […], pop-culture references and contemporary slang will not be appropriate, and the politics of the original plays will not be cut or ‘fixed’ in any way” (“Further Reading”). Despite this, the project claims to be following a path of “experimentation, exploration, and changing the language.” As an adapter of Shakespeare, I’m intrigued by this deliberate separation between “experimentation” and “adaptation.” Experimentation, it seems, is important, meaningful, expository work—an effort that will appropriately “celebrate Shakespeare’s masterworks.” Adaptation, on the other hand, is framed as reductive, destructive, inappropriate, or—worst of all—trendy, informed by “pop-culture references and contemporary slang.” I wonder to what extent these paraded women and writers of color will be able to represent themselves under these restrictions, especially given that American pop culture and slang are derisively coded ‘Black.’ From my point of view, the emphasis placed on fidelity to Shakespeare undermines the potentially subversive work to be done in ‘translating’ Shakespeare for twenty-first-century audiences. Rather than leaving space to “argue with its canon,” the project seems to insist that the canon is unassailable.

Without having seen any of the finished products, of course, it is hard to say what these translations will ultimately achieve. Based on the information made available to the public, however, it strikes me that the safe and inclusive spaces of De Kosnik’s fan fiction archives are not echoed in OSF’s Play On project to the extent that they ought to be. If anything, the ghosts of pale, male, and stale critics, board members, and donors (exemplified, perhaps, by Shakespeare himself) haunt the initiative, preventing it from fulfilling its genuinely revolutionary potential. These spectres raise a chilling question: what is at stake in refusing to capitulate to institutional demands that Shakespeare be kept, somehow, intact? In mitigating these risks, perhaps adaptors of Shakespeare can look to fan fiction for precedents.


De Kosnik, Abigail. Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom. Boston: MIT Press, 2016.

Romano, Aja. Hamilton is fanfic, and its historical critics are totally missing the point.” Vox. 4 July 2016. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

“Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare.” Oregon Shakespeare Festival. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

“Play On! Further Reading.” Oregon Shakespeare Festival. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

Assault isn’t edgy, so let’s stop pretending: reviewing Filter’s Midsummer

Last night, I had the opportunity to see Filter Theatre‘s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. There’s a LOT that I liked about the production. Midsummer is one of those plays that bores me to tears and brings out my angry feminist most of the time, and Filter’s production certainly wasn’t boring. It definitely brought out my angry feminist, but more on that later.

CN for descriptions of sexual assault

Not sure how necessary this one is, but the show is still touring, so: SPOILERS AHEAD.



First, the good stuff. Filter’s production is really, really good at fun surprises. Oberon and Puck burst through walls, ceilings, and floors; Demetrius does a pretty spot-on Michael Jackson impersonation; and an audience plant joins the show as Bottom after a stage manager comes on to let us know that the “celebrity guest” got stuck in the lift. There’s excellent sexual innuendo with the love potion flower juice stuff. There’s a food fight. There are some good physical gags around who can and can’t see Puck and Oberon when they’re “invisible”.  And, as you’d expect from Filter, there’s some great stuff with sound. It’s a fun production. Like I said, definitely not boring.

Despite all the fun, I had two pretty basic problems with the production: 

1. Sexual assault is not cool or funny or cute. 

2. The Shakespeare was bad. And not in an ’80s way.

Let’s take those one at a time.

I shouldn’t even have to put this in writing, but as I said on my Facebook page after the show last night, I’m getting really sick of otherwise cool and/or interesting productions (especially of Shakespeare) that seem to think gratuitous sexual assault makes them “edgy”. It doesn’t. It’s gross. And it definitely should not be played for laughs.

I saw this in the RSC Cymbeline in August, and I saw it again in Filter’s Midsummer last night. I can’t tell if this is a trend, or if I’m just paying better attention because of my own adaptation project with Measure for Measure. Either way, it sucks.

For those of you who don’t know Midsummer, I’ll give a bit of context, because the plot is actually important here. In the play, there are two hetero couples with a little bit of a love triangle problem. Hermia and Lysander are in love with each other, but Demetrius also wants Hermia and has her father’s permission to marry her. Athenian law dictates that Hermia must either acquiesce to her father, become a nun, or be killed. Yay. Demetrius has previously sworn his love to another woman, Helena, who is still desperately in love with him. He’s a gentleman.

Hermia and Lysander decide to run away through the woods, and disclose their plan to Helena. Helena tells Demetrius of their flight, and he pursues them into the woods. Helena follows Demetrius, despite his protestations that he does not nor he cannot love her and his threats to rape her if she keeps following him (well, his words are “do thee mischief in the wood” but he also talks about her the “rich worth of [her] virginity”, so…you do the math).

Meanwhile, Oberon, king of the fairies, has a love potion that makes you desire the first thing you see upon awaking from sleep. He’s using it to abuse his wife (we’ll come back to that!), but he sees Demetrius and Helena fighting and decides she should have that man, dammit! So Oberon instructs his servant Puck to lay the potion on the eyes of a man wearing Athenian garments. Puck finds Lysander, mistakes him for Demetrius, and administers the love juice. The first person that Lysander sees when he wakes is Helena.

And that’s where Filter’s production went very, very wrong.

Helena, tired from chasing a dickface through the woods, pauses to catch her breath. She sees Lysander lying on the ground, and rouses him, concerned the he might be dead: “If you live, good sir, awake!”

And wake he does, immediately professing his love for Helena and his newfound hatred for Hermia. Helena is at first confused and then indignant, convinced that Lysander is cruelly mocking her miserable single life. But Lysander is persistent, insisting that he does hate Hermia and love Helen.

This is one of those tricky scenes in which someone wants to get away and has a very good reason for wanting to leave, but they can’t actually vacate the stage until they’ve said all their lines. Most productions get around this problem by creating energetic chase scenes, chock-full of near-misses, leapfrogs, and furniture tossing. This is, in itself, a little problematic, right? No Means No, Lysander. But I suppose the text must be served.

Filter’s production, however, takes things one step further. This time, Helena is prevented from leaving the stage because Lysander is physically and sexually assaulting her. Check out some of the lines that Filter’s Helena delivers while Lysander’s head is between her legs and she’s trying to push him away:

Good troth, you do me wrong–good sooth, you do–

In such disdainful manner me to woo.

But fare you well. Perforce I must confess

I thought you a lord of more gentleness.

(3.1.129-33, Norton)

Helena ends up on the ground, with Lysander engaging in some non-consensual heavy petting and over-the-clothes cunnilingus before she finally gets away.

But here’s the kicker: when Helena stands up, she has a moment where it seems like she kinda enjoyed it despite herself. With a little giggle and a coy look at Lysander, she bends at the hips and puts her hands over her crotch, then looks embarrassed and runs away.

The whole thing is played for laughs. The band/Mechanicals watch and do nothing. The take-home message for the students sitting next to me, as Roberta Barker and Dave Nicol once observed, is absolutely horrific: “Although the victim may seem unwilling, in fact it’s all a bit of saucy fun”. As Barker and Nicol go on to say, “this is hardly a productive of way of interpreting ourselves to ourselves” in a time and place where “rape victims are still subjected to humiliating cross-examinations about their sexual pasts on the witness stand”.

And that’s without considering the abuse that Titania undergoes for having the audacity to stand up for herself, or the whole Theseus/Hippolyta thing, or the fact that Demetrius and Helena end up together in the end. Can we also please stop pretending like two guys kissing each other is super good comedy? K, thanks.

Oh, and let’s not forget the part, in Filter’s production, where Lysander starts a food fight by chucking buns at a defeated, prone Hermia, who has been convinced that the guy willing to flee his home with her two scenes ago now hates her guts. SO FUNNY, RIGHT?


This leads me on to my second problem with Filter’s Midsummer: the Shakespeare bits.

Now, anyone who knows me may be surprised to find me complaining about “the Shakespeare”. I’m generally totally on board with slicing, dicing, deep-frying, digesting, and regurgitating Shakespeare as much as you darn well please. My friends and I cut the Duke from Measure for Measure for Pete’s sake. Yes, we really did. So why am I so bugged by this cut-up, no-interval, super-fun production’s treatment of Shakespeare?

To be honest, I’m having trouble putting my finger on it. But I think it’s sort of connected to the sexual assault problem. Let me explain.

What are the stereotypes about Shakespeare from people who don’t like Shakespeare, or haven’t encountered much Shakespeare? He’s boring. He’s hard to understand. Too many rhymes. So old-fashioned. Filter’s production confirmed every single one of these stereotypes. Their delivery of lines from Shakespeare was, on the whole, stilted, forced, boring, and rushed. It was like they had so much fun making the play that they forgot to do the play.

I’m going to caveat this next part by saying that I have no idea if someone who’s unfamiliar with Midsummer would’ve been able to the tell the difference between the “verbatim” Shakespeare and the paraphrased, improvised, rewritten, or newly written bits. But Midsummer has some extremely purple passages, and it’s very rhyme-y, and so it was painfully obvious to me when they were doing “the Shakespeare”. And it was also painfully obvious that they thought their material was way funnier than Shakespeare’s.

Who am I to disagree? A lot of what they were up to genuinely was way funnier than Shakespeare. Nerdy superhero Oberon and sound tech Puck watching the four-way love triangle fight from lawn chairs with snacks like they were in a cinema? GENIUS. Monty Python-style coconuts for Bottom-as-Ass walking around the stage? COMEDY GOLD. Oberon zooming around on a wheelie chair pretending to fly? WIN.

HOWEVER. That dynamic creates an impression that Filter are putting up with Shakespeare in order to have a marketable vehicle for their brand of screwball comedy. That’s absolutely fine, to an extent. But that implied relationship to Shakespeare makes it too easy to write off the stuff that isn’t funny–like that pesky sexual assault thing–as part of Shakespeare and not part of Filter.

I think that’s what I found so irritating about their failure to perform the Shakespeare bits well: it allowed them to gloss over the sticky relationship situations we find at the end of the play. Helena has Demetrius because he’s under a spell; Hermia has had her faith in Lysander seriously challenged; and Titania has basically been date-raped. None of these merit more than a passing glance in Filter’s production, because that would get in the way of the fun part where Bottom-as-Pyramus pretends to be dead for so long that everyone laughs.

My point is that it’s all well and good making Shakespeare more fun or more accessible. I’m totally and completely on board with that as a goal. But I’m not on board with productions that get away with ignoring or even endorsing the play’s really sticky politics because there was that funny bit with a spray can of whipped cream.


Taking risks with Shakespeare: lessons from the Cumberhamlet

Although I haven’t yet seen the Cumberhamlet, it’s obviously been on my radar. Reviews and opinions from friends, professional critics, respected academics, and everyone in between flood my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Theatre reviewing etiquette has been breached, with reviews hitting front pages during previews, well before the official opening night. It’s the fastest-selling ticket in British theatre history. People who would not normally go to the theatre have flocked to see Benedict Cumberbatch have a go at the most famous Prince of Denmark. The combined star-power of Shakespeare’s tragedy and the darling of popular media is irresistible. It’s being broadcast to cinemas across the country. For many, this production will be their only viewing of Hamlet in a theatre; for them, this production will be Hamlet–its imagery, its voices, its style will form their mental picture of what the play is. 

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the critical establishment has taken the opportunity to highlight all the ways in which Lyndsey Turner’s production is not the Hamlet it’s supposed to be.

First, of course, there was the problem of ‘to be or not to be’, which were the first words of the play in early previews. Kate Maltby kicked off the backlash against the shifted speech by calling the change ‘indefensible’. Michael Billington tells us that it ‘mercifully no longer opens the play’, but that there’s still too much ‘textual fiddling’ overall. They’re replaced ‘hoar’ with ‘pale’ in one of Gertrude’s lines–shock! horror! Quentin Letts complains that ‘Ms Turner has still fiddled around with the opening and the order of other scenes’–but, then, he does work for the Daily Mail.

Critics are kinder to Cumberbatch himself than they are to Turner’s production, with most agreeing that he is, in Domenic Cavendish’s words, ‘a blazing, five-star Hamlet in a middling, three-star show’. The production as a whole is considered ‘half-baked’, full of ‘ostentatious act[s] of liberty-taking’ (Cavendish again). According to Andrzej Lukowski, Cumberbatch ‘doesn’t seem to have come up with much of a reading of the doomed Dane. Or if he has, it’s drowned out by Turner’s enormous production’ (how dare she, like, actually direct the play?!).

Turner is hardly the first (nor, I hope, will she be the last) to treat a Shakespeare text playfully. Matthew Warchus’s 1998 Hamlet at the RSC, which also famously moved the opening scenes around, attracted similar kinds of critical attacks, for example. What’s worrying to me is not just that opinions of Turner’s and Warchus’s ‘textual fiddling’ are scarily similar despite the distance of seventeen years–it’s that this kind of critique seems designed to quash theatrical risk-taking, especially with “classics” such as Shakespeare.

If we are to carry on producing Shakespeare and other classic, canonical writers (as I suspect we are), we have to get better at encouraging directors’ and actors’ risks. One of the best ways to innovate with these kinds of texts, to my mind, is to do precisely the kind of ‘textual fiddling’ that the critics so abhor, and to get past the persistent desire for the reproduction of an authoritative or “authentic” text.

Frances Howard (or, what I’m working on in Texas)

I haven’t posted anything in a little while, partly because my first draft (yes, really!) was with my supervisor for a few months, and partly because I’ve been spending a lot of time doing the “boring stuff”–footnotes, lit review, checking that everything actually did make it into the bibliography…

But on Monday I started a two-and-a-half-month stint at the University of Texas at Austin, where I’m the guinea pig for a developing exchange programme between UT and Exeter. And while I’m here, I’m going to take advantage of UT’s excellent libraries to finish a second draft.

Which brings me to Frances Howard. One of the bits that needs serious re-working following the first draft is the introduction/lit review, and so I am working hard to clarify, expand, and fact-check my sloppy first go. For the past couple of days, I’ve been spending time with Middleton and Rowley’s sources for The Changeling. Today, I spent a good long time with Frances Howard and her divorce and murder trials.

I’ve never thought that much about Howard before. I knew that she had been examined by a jury of matrons and midwives to determine whether she was a virgin or not as part of her divorce trial (more on that delightful episode in a moment). I knew that it was this same trial that inspired most of Act 4 of The Changeling, including the virginity test and the bed trick. I knew that her trials were the source of much scandal in Jacobean London. I’d glossed over a lot of the details because, at the end of the day, my thesis spends more time in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than in the seventeenth.

Then I had the opportunity to teach a seminar on The Changeling as part of a module on Renaissance and Restoration Theatrical Cultures that I was shadowing. After assigning the “Court Scandals” reading group to tell the class about Frances Howard, I thought I’d better brush up on the details. Lo and behold, two things that I had completely overlooked before:

1) Howard and her second husband, Robert Carr, were pardoned and released from prison less than 6 months before The Changeling was licensed;


2) This painting:

Frances Howard, we think. Or it might be her sister. Shh…

Look at that brazen display of lustfulness! Or so commentators on Howard’s life and trials would have us think. These two overlooked factors re-ignited my interest in Howard, and I put her name on my list of things to follow up in Texas.

Fast forward to today, in the Perry-Castañeda Library, in a seat that was one of many available (*cough*Exeter*cough), when I got to sit down with David Lindley’s book-length study on The Trials of Frances Howard. Seeking to rehabilitate Howard, or at least to question the accepted narrative of her lustful maliciousness, Lindley walks us through the primary sources and suggests that we have been too quick to dismiss and condemn Howard. And his work got me thinking about one of the central pieces of my thesis: the tension that inevitably results from staging a 400-year-old play in the present. So here are some of my thoughts, as they arose today, on Howard, Lindley, patriarchy, and performance:

Frances Howard, her husbands, her divorce trial, and her involvement in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury were a huge scandal in the Jacobean period, and her release from the Tower in January 1622 would have meant that the circumstances of her imprisonment were fresh in the minds of Londoners when The Changeling premiered. In 1606, at the age of fourteen, Howard was married to Robert Devereux, the thirteen-year-old future Earl of Essex. They were kept apart and not allowed to consummate the marriage until they reached the age of majority. In 1613, Howard and her family requested an annulment of her marriage with Essex; it is usually assumed that the suit was a direct result of her supposed affair with Robert Carr, the first Earl of Somerset and the King’s favourite. Arguing that she had made every attempt to have sexual relations with her husband, but to no avail, divorce was requested on the grounds that her husband was impotent, the marriage had never been consummated, and therefore she had never truly been married to Essex. Unfortunately, the laws of the time required that he publicly declare his impotence in order to support her case, which would have precluded any future marriages on his part. Hoping to preserve his prospects and reputation, Essex declared that he was very capable of performing sexual acts with any woman except his wife. Rather than verify this claim upon his body, the court determined that Frances herself should be examined, and the status of her virginity determined. She was declared a virgin by a jury of matrons and midwives. Significantly in relation to The Changeling, her request that she be veiled during the examination fuelled rumours that she had hired a substitute—a true virgin—to stand for her. The annulment was eventually granted, largely due to the intervention of James I, who added ‘two judges bound to vote in favour’ to the commission.[1] Howard and Carr married immediately following the verdict.

A few years later, in 1616, Howard found herself on trial once again, this time for the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, her new husband’s trusted advisor and a strong opponent of their marriage (or, rather, of Howard’s divorce). She plead guilty to the charges and was imprisoned, with her husband, in the Tower. As noted above, Howard and Carr were both pardoned by King James and subsequently released from prison in January 1622. The Changeling was licensed for performance by Sir Henry Herbert on 7 May of the same year.[2]

The virginity test and bed trick sequence in Act 4 are the most obvious elements of The Changeling that allude to Frances Howard’s life and trials. As David Lindley rightly points out, there are more parallels between the real-life scandal and the play than these two episodes (although understanding these episodes in the context of the Howard divorce is crucial to an understanding of The Changeling). In his book-length engagement with the trials of Frances Howard, Lindley argues that one the most significant factors in Howard’s annulment trial and its subsequent representation ‘is the fear of female sexual expression’.[4] This fear, which Lindley argues ‘underlies, unacknowledged, much of the commentary on the divorce’, can also be read as one of the underlying, but often unacknowledged, assumptions in Middleton and Rowley’s play. An examination of The Changeling alongside Howard’s divorce and murder trials therefore calls into question Middleton’s frequent labelling as a feminist or proto-feminist playwright.

Broader concerns about the legibility of the female body and a woman’s sexual autonomy infuse both fact and fiction, and it is significant that only one known contemporary source questions the logic of testing Howard’s virginity to prove her husband’s impotence: William Terracae, who points out that she could just as easily have been having an affair, and so her sexual status tells us nothing about her husband’s.[5] Lindley spends a long section of his introduction applying an historicised understanding of these concerns to the well-known painting of Howard (see above), which has often been cited as evidence of her sexual promiscuity and maliciousness, by modern scholars as much as by her contemporaries.[6] As Lindley points out, however, ‘[m]any court ladies of unimpeachable moral life were depicted in exactly the same kind’ of low-cut dress, and Queen Elizabeth herself was famously described as wearing an open-breasted dress—which revealed her ‘somewhat wrinkly’ bosom—by a French ambassador.[7] The point is less her revealing dress and more what the gaze of the viewer reads into it.

The treatment of Howard extends to a larger question about Middleton and Rowley’s play, and indeed about Middleton and Rowley themselves, in the present day. Several prominent readings of Middleton’s canon see it as participating in a kind of proto-feminism, creating exciting, challenging roles for women and publicly questioning the oppressive patriarchal structures of their world. This reading of Middleton ignores two crucial points: firstly, that these exciting, challenging roles for women would have been played by young men, and, secondly, that these exciting, challenging women are always punished, often to the death, for resisting oppressive patriarchal structures. This is not to say that resistance cannot be staged through defeat; rather, it is an attempt to historicise and contextualise The Changeling within the frame of a Jacobean world view. Additionally, I want to be clear here that there is a difference between staging a feminist Changeling and arguing that The Changeling inherently espouses proto-feminist agenda: the former is a legitimate and often necessary theatrical manipulation of a play which is, in many ways, outdated; the latter is a distortion of history to co-opt Middleton and Rowley to an anachronistic interpretation of societal structures.

To demonstrate this difference in action, I once again call upon Lindley’s reading of Frances Howard. Musing upon Howard’s portrait, Lindley articulates a simplified version of our relationship to the past:

At one level the projection of lustful purpose into this image […] is uncomfortably close to the way in which in our society it is still possible for a rapist to plead that a girl’s short skirt might be taken as a mitigation of his crime. The desire of the beholder is converted into the intent and fault of the object.[8]

I regret to note that this comparison is as potent in 2015 as it was when Lindley was writing in 1993. It evokes a powerful current cultural touchstone, and effectively rehabilitates Howard as a victim of patriarchy rather than a malicious witch. This is important work, but Lindley’s comparison also collapses 400 years of history, placing Howard and late-twentieth-century sexual assault victims side-by-side. Although Lindley himself qualifies his comparison, there are many others who are content to let this kind of juxtapositioning stand unquestioned. The resulting accordion effect is problematic: it asks us to erase the often unsavoury and always specific cultural circumstances in which the early modern work arose.

Kim Solga addresses this problem from a different angle, with an eye to modern performance of early modern plays, when she asks ‘how do we square this work’s enormous cultural capital with its profound distance from contemporary attitudes towards social justice and human rights?’[9] In terms of The Changeling specifically, how do we stage Beatrice-Joanna’s rape without engaging with the hugely problematic assumptions that surround it? When we choose to erase the cultural gap between then and now, we risk losing sight of the fact that The Changeling and many of the other Jacobean plays (comedies and tragedies alike) are cruel, bloody, and horrible, particularly to women. And when we lose sight of that, we risk seeing Middleton, Webster, Rowley, Jonson, et al as “just like us”. And once they’re just like us, we’re less likely to confront the uncomfortable content of their work. If Middleton and Rowley are feminists, then we have to explain away the highly masculine closing of ranks at the end of The Changeling, for example. We have to conveniently forget that Beatrice-Joanna’s virginity is a ‘precious’ commodity which is being bought and sold for her as a matter of course. We have to justify, somehow, the fact that she is killed–after a scene in which she is called “whore” repeatedly–for her desperate attempts to determine her own sexual fate. We have to ignore the repeated structural and formal hints that the play drops–including the entire character of Isabella and the relentless Edenic imagery–which tell us that Beatrice is inherently bad and evil and wicked.

As I note above, I am not trying to suggest that The Changeling cannot be interpreted and performed in a way that empowers Beatrice, or at the very least suggests that she is a victim of a patriarchal super-structure rather than her own inherent wickedness (keep in mind that Middleton was a Calvinist–so in his world everyone is predestined to Heaven or Hell at birth). I would like to suggest, however, that erasing the gap between past and present is more problematic than we sometimes like to admit.


[1] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, p. 120.

[2] See M. Neill, ‘Introduction’, p. xxxiii

[3] Q1 fol. F1v

[4] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, p. 121.

[5] Cited in Lindley, p. 115. The original documents can be found in the Northamptonshire Record Office, Finch-Hatton MS 319, fol. 21v.

[6] See The Trials of Frances Howard, pp. 6-11.

[7] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, pp. 7-8.

[8] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, p. 7.

[9] K. Solga, Violence Against Women in Early Modern Performance, p. 2.

[10] Q1 fol. D3f.

[11] K. Solga, Violence Against Women, p. 7