Allison Machlis Meyer is an associate professor of English at Seattle University. She is the author of Telltale Women: Chronicling Gender in Early Modern Historiography (Nebraska, 2021).
This book has, like some scholarly books, a long genesis—it took me a decade to write. That decade was marked by the ebb and flow of research often in competition with other pressing personal and professional obligations (and joys): two children, two tenure-track jobs, teaching responsibilities that challenged me to expand my thinking about pedagogy and early modern literature. While a decade can make any writer feel like a turtle, this span of time allowed my thinking to evolve in productive ways. For a book that is itself about reevaluation—of the premises of source study, the boundaries of genre classifications, and women’s presence in the historical record—the slow burn of ten years of writing has helped me understand what I find most important about the work I’ve done.
My research began where many studies of early modern drama begin: with a somewhat overdetermined focus on that vexed canonical center point, William Shakespeare. The “telltale women” of his Richard III and his first history play tetralogy—historical figures like Elizabeth Woodville Grey, Elizabeth York, and Margaret of Anjou—were fascinating to me, but what these characters meant to audiences and readers and how their dramatic representations intersected with the historical materials used by playwrights was unclear. I turned to Shakespeare’s sources to try to find out. Shakespeare and his contemporaries writing history plays for the public theater relied on the massive collaborative project known as Holinshed’s Chronicles (printed in 1577 and 1587) as well as the chronicle histories of Edward Hall, Richard Grafton, and John Stow and the political histories of Thomas More and Francis Bacon. Often reprinted, included in other chronicle histories, expanded, or abridged throughout the sixteenth century, these works have composition dates spanning from 1513 to 1622. Chronicle histories are typically arranged around regnal years, and they have a reputation among literary critics as frustrating compendiums of unorganized detail, important only because of the dramatists and poets who mined them for historical events. While political histories are more tightly concentrated on the statecraft of an individual ruler than their chronicle brethren, they are still often understood as solely focused on the power of a male monarch. Both kinds of narrative historiography ostensibly hold little promise of nuanced accounts of the royal women cast in supporting historical roles.
When I began to study them, I assumed these narratives were purely historical, masculine accounts of English history with few traces of the complex lives and political power of women. I was wrong in nearly all my assumptions: about the nature of the genres I was working with, about how playwrights used their sources, and most importantly, about narrative historiography’s valuation of women. I confronted in these chronicles and political histories accounts of queen consorts, queen mothers, queen dowagers, and royal mistresses that were every bit as complex as—more so than, even, as my book argues—the plays that initially drew me to them. I found that these narratives frequently value women’s political interventions and use literary techniques to invest their voices with authority; they often depict women’s perspectives and political influence as legitimate, and they provide rich, nuanced precedents for early modern playwrights. I am very happy to have been mistaken.
I am certainly not the first scholar to see historical narratives as important source materials, to recognize their cultural and literary value, or even to turn needed critical attention to their representations of royal women. Feminist literary scholars have crucially questioned the gender politics of the history plays in relationship to the narrative historical record, and feminist historians have offered invaluable accounts of queenship that I build upon in Telltale Women. My contribution to this larger critical conversation is an identification of striking patterns: first, a pattern of representation of royal women’s political participation in narrative historiography, and second, a pattern of dramatic adaptation that responds to this representation of women primarily through a condemnation of queenship and female power.
Perhaps my favorite example, explored over two chapters in Telltale Women, is the shifting representation of Queen Isabel, consort of Edward II. The daughter of French King Philip IV and married to Edward at age twelve, Isabel was sometimes called the “She-Wolf of France.” Isabel emerges as a central figure in English politics in 1325-26 when she travels to Europe and returns with a mercenary army in order to depose her wayward husband, who alienated the English aristocracy with his favoritism of first Piers Gaveston and then the Hugh de Spencers. Isabel’s armed pursuit, capture, and execution of the Spencers, her deposition and imprisonment of her husband, and her joint rule as regent, with Sir Roger Mortimer, during her son’s minority are central to her representation in all historical accounts of Edward II’s reign. But assessments of her motivations, her role in Edward’s assassination, and her adulterous relationship with Mortimer vary widely.
In Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II, Isabel is a complicated royal figure who jealously mourns the loss of her husband’s affection, which he bestows on male lovers, and acts in response to personal, rather than national, injury. Isabel becomes both a victim of circumstance and a cruel woman driven by petty private motives to take up unmerited political power. Marlowe’s representation of her as a pitiable and unnatural queen looms large in literary history—it even becomes a source for Elizabeth Cary’s 1627 history, Edward II—but it was neither an inevitable nor a dominant view of Isabel.
Tracing Marlowe’s intertextual use of source material reveals that Isabel’s history is divided into two different narrative traditions. One tradition, most evident in Richard Grafton’s A Chronicle at Large, depicts Isabel as a patriotic heroine who grieves not only for herself but for an afflicted English nation. She is an appealing alternative ruler to her vain and ineffective husband; her power is represented as rightfully possessed, thoughtfully wielded, and supported by the English. Grafton’s view of Isabel is not an outlier but a culmination: his text incorporates a popular English translation of Jean Froissart’s medieval Chroniques to paint this vivid picture of Isabel’s righteous political interventions. A second tradition, which starts with the collaborative Chronicles’ evolving and ambivalent portrayal of her political participation and ends with John Stow’s characterization of her as a furious, cruel woman defined by the glaring limitations of her gender, became more prominent over time. But when Marlowe wrote his play, both traditions were accessible in his chronicle sources and both are evident in his work.
As this account of Isabel suggests, representations of medieval royal women in early modern narrative historiography were far from cursory or negative; nor were they monolithic in form, method, or effects. Playwrights adapted these available precedents to their own ends. Frequently, they minimized women’s political power or rendered it frightening and illegitimate. Marlowe’s play is an interesting example because it grapples—not always effectively—with its valued intertexts, and stages some fascinating traces of both historiographic traditions about Isabel. I hope new readers of chronicle and political histories will similarly grapple with the intriguing complications they find in these genres’ representations of female figures. Telltale Women reevaluates royal women as active agents of history in narrative historiography of the early modern period, but it is only one of many tales to be told about these texts and the women within them, and I hope more will follow.