Sexual discourse in the Jacobean theater of social mobility
Sticpewich, Margaret M.
Skura, Meredith A.
Doctor of Philosophy
Social mobility was a feature of life in early modern England, and its effect on the gentry was the material for a number of plays written in the first decades of the 17th century: Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, Massinger's The Maid of Honour and The Bondman, and Middleton's The Changeling. In these plays the dramatists examine the moral questions of fitness for membership in the elite. They use received notions of sexual desire and gender hierarchy together with a narrative of social mobility to question and to legitimate this mobility. Social aspiration and sexual desire could be put into a productive dramatic relationship because in contemporary thought they were connected at a fundamental ethical level. Their theatrical conjunction put sex into discourse in Foucault's sense and deployed it in new ways. The first three plays investigate the possibility of a more inclusive elite which would be open, through marriage, to virtuous outsiders. Though the social mobility of the protagonists does not threaten the hierarchy, the erotic energy which is inseparable from their aspiration has a disruptive potential which calls their project into question. Nothing less than a transformation of the desiring self is required to legitimate their ambition. In the downward mobility represented in The Changeling there is no transformation of the self; uncontrolled desire leads to chaos in the social order, and the play constructs a cleavage between the respectable and the morally reprehensible parts of society. Though the plays endorse the control of desire as the touchstone of acceptance into the elite, the theatrical representation of this desire in the struggle to deserve status functions in a productive rather than a repressive way. It creates a secular sexual discourse which became an integral part of the entertainment provided by the commercial theater. Moreover, this representation of desire is deployed to change the way society is perceived. The audience is persuaded to envisage an elite reformed by the inclusion of people of merit from outside it, and to accept the corollary of this--the separation and exclusion of the morally reprehensible.
European history; Theater; English literature