Excerpt: Separation Scenes

The following is excerpted from Separation Scenes: Domestic Drama and Early Modern England by Ann C. Christensen (Nebraska 2016).


The Drama of Separate Spheres, a New Critical Approach

The four tragedies and the little-known hybrid play in this study could be called something like absent-husband or separate-spheres dramas. However, because all but Launching of the Mary are recognizable as domestic tragedy, I find that category useful as a kind of family tree for the plays that I call “domestic drama.”

Critics use different but related criteria to explore the various ways that domestic tragedies organize visible and ideological articulations of what is tragic about domesticity and how tragedy can have a domestic focus. Because feminist scholars of early modern domesticity understand prescription and legislation within domestic-conduct literature and law as anxious (re)assertions of traditional hierarchies in the face of the new pressures on marriage and family life, they find the “multivocal genre” of domestic drama an especially robust cultural form representing domestic life in crisis.16 I agree that domestic dramatists gather the social tensions and contradictions irresolvable within traditional domestic discourses and, in staging them, permit the “irresolution” of everyday life to confront and also coexist with formulaic prescriptions and regulations.17

Three overlapping feminist historicist approaches to early modern English society and drama inform my own methodology: (1) scholarship on post-Reformation constructions of gender roles and sexuality with respect to the institutions of marriage and household structure and conduct;18 (2) studies that address theatrical and social performances of domesticity and violence;19 and (3) studies of domestic labor, space, and environment.20 In the past critics focused emphatically on the sexual (mis)conduct of the wife. But today the “domestic” in “domestic tragedy” is widely understood to extend beyond what Rebecca Ann Bach once derided as “the space of the heterosexual bedroom” and what Catherine Richardson sees as the “emotional dynamics [of] . . . family members.” For these and other scholars, the genre does not isolate the husband-wife dyad (though it does stress the “centrality of the physical household”).21

Property, household space, and other aspects of the economy and the environment are among the elements that domestic tragedy engages with as feminist materialist critics like Catherine Richardson have also shown. Rooms, properties, and activities associated with home life contain information about gender, hierarchy, and sometimes civic and national identifications. And, as my work shows, business and mobility are likewise dense transfer points of meaning in the plays. These different settings, objects, and so on manifest onstage in the form of (say) tables, candles, and supper crumbs in Woman Killed with Kindness, and a crowded London lane in Arden. Offstage, they are imagined in the wife’s meal preparation and the husband’s activity on the Exchange in Warning for Fair Women. Mindful of these differences, Richardson accounts for the “physical shape and the nature of [the household’s] different rooms,” to conclude that “the majority of the action of these plays takes place within the house, but that enclosed world is subject to the scrutiny and judgment of family, friends . . . [and] the community surrounding” the households.26


I extend these feminist studies to show the absence of husbands as vitally defining the “enclosed” yet scrutinized domestic world, a fact that informs the somatic and the spatial, the theatrical and the juridical. While some critics have also observed correlations between the absence of a husband and the vulnerability of the wife and household in domestic tragedy, none has shown, as I do, that because these plays explicitly ascribe male absence to the culture of business, they thereby connect domestic dissolution to business travel. Dolan, for example, notes that a husband’s “prolonged absences diminish the effectiveness of . . . surveillance and expose its inadequacy” so that “household and marriage confine without protecting [the wife].” Dolan’s analyses of violence and domestic crime in popular literature and drama observe the penetrability of “the violated home,” and, particularly, the commonly staged and ideologically charged sites of bed and board.27 For Dolan the husband’s absence (in, for instance, Warning for Fair Women and Yorkshire Tragedy) prevents the protection of “his own domestic interests,” and such men fail as householders by “abdicating” place, privilege, and power, rather than governing. A husband leaves for reasons of “riotous living” or in “retreat” from an oppressive family, as in Yorkshire Tragedy; or to give his wife the space to reform, like the willing cuckold Arden; or to conduct business on the Exchange, like George Sanders in Warning for Fair Women. Both Dolan and Orlin have analyzed such absences in terms of what they see as the domestic governor’s “abdication” of authority.28

Although I concur that household failures do follow in the wake of husbands’ absence, I argue that these situations are presented less as matters of voluntary “abdication” than as conditions of employment in a commercial milieu. Furthermore the surrender or even the temporary transfer of domestic power from absent husband to present wife is never a given, but always gnarled. Building from Dolan’s and Orlin’s frameworks, this book demonstrates the ways that business travel in particular—not only business and not merely absence—troubles domestic life. Absence for commercial travel is as basic to the core domestic dramas as other social, economic, and theatrical factors discussed by critics.29 Whereas a husband’s absence for business was seen as legitimate—“necessary” when following his “lawfull” calling, as William Perkins and other domestic conduct writers defined certain travel in the period, playwrights put pressure on that formulation to show the effects of male absence on the understandings and experiences of both home and business.30



16. Comensoli, Household Business, 25, 9.

17. I am using the term advisedly from Gutierrez, “Irresolution of Melodrama.”

18. See especially Amussen, Ordered Society; Belsey, Subject of Tragedy; Giese, Courtships, Marriage Customs; Helgerson, Adulterous Alliances; McQuade, “Labyrinth of Sin”; and Orlin, Private Matters.

19. See especially Balizet, Blood and Home; Dolan, Dangerous Familiars; Dolan, Marriage and Violence; and Martin, Women, Murder, and Equity.

20. See Dowd, Women’s Work; Korda, “Judicious Oeillades”; Richardson, Domestic Life; and Wall, Staging Domesticity.

21. Bach, “Homosocial Imaginary,” 504. Richardson’s study examines “the relationship between the spatial containment, which is an essential feature of a house, and the dynamics of representation on a comparatively ‘bare’ stage.” Richardson, Domestic Life, 5, 6.

26. Richardson, “Tragedy, Family and Household,” 21.

27. Dolan, “Gender, Moral Agency,” 203; Dolan, Dangerous Familiars, 31, 29. See also Dolan, Marriage and Violence. Dolan’s larger argument is that domestic crimes and their punishments are central in the society and culture of early modern England, and predominate in domestic tragedy. Orlin, in her explication of the phrase “a man is the king in his castle” also uses the term “abdication.” See Orlin, Private Matters, esp. 228–45.

28. Other critics similarly argue that domestic plays expose men’s shortcomings in teaching and modeling correct behavior. See Miller and Forse, “Failure to Be a ‘Goode Husbande.’

29. Critical interest in the intersections of commerce and domesticity in the drama has understandably clustered around another contemporary genre, city or citizen comedy, while travel is more often associated with romance or “adventure drama.” …

30. When discussing vocation, period advice writers often qualify men’s calling as “lawfull”; Perkins distinguishes between desertion and “an honest and just cause” for a married or affianced man to depart. Perkins, Christian Oeconomie, 81, 101.


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