It also widened her female audience much further than the small group of upper-class women with whom she was acquainted (ibid).
Overall, this work represented Lanyer as a complex writer who possessed significant artistic ambition and "who like other women of the age wrote not insincerely on devotional themes to sanction more controversial explorations of gender and social relations" (Miller 360).
In her work, Lanyer issued a call to political action by noting several Old Testament women who changed the course of ancient Jewish history through their bravery, humor and valor, and she recalled the favor Christ demonstrated to women in a variety of actions and by electing them as custodians of his salvational message (ibid 362). The story covered Christ's betrayal by male apostles, the arraignment before male authorities to whom Lanyer addressed complaints, and the account of Christ's procession to Calvary, the crucifixion and the drama of the empty tomb. Although it is designed to elicit an emotional response as is any similar piece, the emphasis was on demonstrating Christ's indictment of ubiquitous male cruelty and patriarchal oppression, which remains unredeemed because men continue to tyrannize women.
Not everything written during this time was as clear-cut as these two works by Speght and Lanyer. Due to the conflicting ways that women were recognized at the times, some of the literature, especially by men, was either mixed or unclear in its support of the opposite gender or outright negative. Thomas Heywood was an English dramatist and author of other miscellaneous works who was a native of Lincolnshire, born about 1575, and believed to be educated at Cambridge.
It is said that Heywood had a sharp eye for dramatic situations and great constructive skill, delighting in what he called "merry accidents" or coarse, broad farce and comical invention. It was in the domestic drama of sentiment that he won his most distinctive success. One of his better known plays, a Woman Killed with Kindness, was about Mistress Anne Frankford, paragon of grace, beauty and wifely virtues. Her husband, Master John, was kindness itself and deeply in love with his new wife. However, Master Frankford unfortunately invited Master Wendoll into his household. Master Wendoll cannot resist the charms of the mistress persuaded her to have an affair.
Of course, Master Frankford discovered his wife's infidelity and banished her from his sight to one of his manors several miles away. Here she had all the material comforts, but starved herself to death in remorse. Just before she died, her brother and his bride, with other mutual friends, persuaded Master Frankford to see her once more. Convinced of the sincerity of her repentance, he acknowledged her again as his wife and all agree that it was his extreme kindness that showed her the enormity of her offense and made her resolve to kill herself. As a final token of esteem her husband promised a tribute of his forgiveness on her gravestone.
At first reading, this play appears to be a mark against women and infidelity, which was not acceptable in any marriage codes at this time. It seems that Heywood's intention was to show the weakness of women and their lack of trust and virtue. Critic Theresia de Vroom explained this play in another way that made the mistress appear much differently. De Vroom believed that "The figure of the adulterous wife may be tragic, immoral, even sinful, given the cultural, social and religious context in which the play was written, but the act of adultery by this married woman, punished by her husband's 'kindness,' is at the same time more complex." Instead, the mistress' adultery is critical to defining and defending her fledgling heroism. "Against a comic backdrop that mocks he masculine and patriarchal world on which this marriage is necessarily based, a brief vision of female heroism emerges, a heroism that quite radically suggests that 'kindness' is really cruelty and that adultery is a flawed but singularly feminine act of heroism (119).
De Vroom continued that this play by Heywood was variously appreciated as a statement of the positive assets in a married relationship, of nobility and control in punishment, of duty and of the Christian pledge for mercy and forgiveness. In addition, the play also did not fit readily into these perspectives. The concept of kindness at the play's end, for instance, was of a heroine who was outwardly disgraced and living in exile, removed from her children and her society. She lost control over everything but her physical being, while the adulterous male was free. Her husband punished her politely, but she continued on and completely the rest of the punishment for him. This domestic tragedy, concluded De Vroom was indicative of other plays that were to follow, showing the breakdown of the marriage and domestic life. Heywood may be looking askance at the wife, but also at her husband as well.
As noted previously, Enlightenment was not a consistent time when it came to the woman question. Although some began to see women in a new light, there were others, such as Ben Jonson, who continued to see them no differently, or even in a worse light, because they were taking advantage of a changing world and forgetting their rightful place as second-class citizens.
Ben Jonson was born in 1572 and later became a friend to Shakespeare. When growing up, he attended Westminster School and developed into a well-known playwright. Not surprising, he had an unhappy marriage. A large number of his plays included information about the demotic English, which have lost much meaning since those times, but also have a humorous touch and thus stayed alive since the 1700s (Barish). However, the women portrayed in his plays were anything but complex characters as the mistress in a Woman Killed with Kindness. Instead, they were uni-dimensional with little redeeming social value. For example, Dol in the farcical play the Alchemist, and the strongest woman character, was a whore and a swindler. In Jonson's plays, two sexual types occurred, neither of whom found any satisfaction in sex. The usual wives were always ready to trap their husbands and do let them have a moment of self-confidence or peace of mind.
Betty Travitski and Anne Lake Prescott (xi) conclude that despite the fact that the most important time period for women came with the passage of the Married Woman's Property Act in the late 1800s, there were some changes in the condition of women and in the position of women writers during the Enlightenment period. However, as can be seen, such changes were slow and inconsistent and even continue to this day.
Barish, Jonas. Ben Jonson. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963.
Braun, Lily, and Meyer, Alfred. Selected Writings on Feminism and Socialism. Gary: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Castiglione, Baldassare. "The Courtier." In Three Renaissance Classics. NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953, 242-624
De Vroom, Theresia. Female Heroism in Thomas Heywood's Tragic Farce of Adultery. NY: Palgrave, 2002.
Kelly, Joan. "Did Women have a Renaissance?" Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (eds.) Becoming Visible: Women in European History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977, 137-64.
Lewalkski, Barbara Kiefer. The Polemics and Poems of Rachel Speght Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996