by Paul Serralheiro
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Liberal Arts College has been hosting a lecture series featuring some of its most illustrious alumni. On November 19, Marta Straznicky, who is now a professor of English at Queen's University, spoke on women and theatre in Shakespeare's time.
Straznicky's focus was on women's involvement in theatre of a non-professional or non-commercial nature. Theatre's low-brow character discouraged the involvement of women.
"Class was of more concern than gender," Straznicky explained. Publication and public performance were looked down upon for the gentry, and educated women may have been disinclined to write for such boorish audiences.
However, women were involved in theatre in many forms -- reciting and writing dramatic poetry and masques, and translating plays, as with the version of Euripides' Iphigenia by Lady Jane Lumbly.
Women were sometimes shareholders in theatres. They acted in religious and domestic plays, and toured in French and Italian companies. Companies of married couples toured with "vaudeville-style" productions featuring dancing and tumbling.
Most notable among the actresses of the time was Mary Firth, a female transvestite. She had a "very colourful public life, sometimes drawing attention from the authorities," Straznicky said. The Roaring Girl was a play written about her.
Straznicky devoted most of her attention to closet drama, a form of dramatic verse for reading in the "closet," a small room commonly adjoining the bedroom in the homes of the nobility for reflection and reading, a private place where women could pursue their intellectual interests.
There was some concern, given the kind of frank treatment given to sex in Elizabethan drama, about women reading lascivious plays in private. But women did read them -- and write them.
Elizabeth Carry, a prominent writer of closet drama in Shakespeare's time, is a central figure in Straznicky's research. The most famous female playwright among Shakespeare's contemporaries, Carry was tutored by Michael Drayton and Sir John Davies.
Her play The Tragedy of Mariam, published in 1613, is the first publicly acknowledged play by a woman. Probably based on the story of the Countess of Pembroke, it concerned "the tragic consequences of a woman speaking her mind and opposing her husband's will."
Straznicky, who went on from Concordia to complete an MA and PhD at the University of Ottawa and become a specialist on Shakespeare and his period, has published in this area and is currently studying radio adaptations of Shakespeare for the CBC from 1940 to 1950. She is also at work on a book tentatively titled Secret Discoveries: Women's Closet Drama in Early Modern England.
'I was drawn to the unencumbered aspect of the subject," Straznicky said. In her research on Shakespeare as a graduate student, she found that an extraordinary amount of secondary material exists as a kind of barrier between the reader and the Bard. In her exploration of women and theatre in Shakespeare's time, Straznicky has satisfied a "hunger for something undiscovered."