Female Spectacle as Liberation in Margaret Cavendish's Plays

Female Spectacle as Liberation in Margaret Cavendish’s Plays

Devlin Mosher, Joyce

Early Modern Literary Studies 11.1 (May, 2005)


In Cavendish’s life and in her plays, lavish confections and transsexual costumes turn woman’s status as fetish to fresh advantage. In The Convent of Pleasure, The Bridals, Bell in Campo, and Loves Adventures, the power of dress symbolizes the moment of transformation in the lives of female characters. Transgendered dressing and the gaze of the crowd accompany the female spectacle, spotlighting the central moment of the female self in process of change. The plays identify the borders of female identity and postulate ways to transcend them. Cavendish demonstrates the potential of feminine writing to circumvent and reformulate existing structures through the inclusion of other experience. Her use of cross-dressing indicates transgendered behavior that, like the female masquerade, serves the causes of freedom and self fulfillment. Her sexually hybrid characters call into question traditional gender categorizations as the first step in redressing power imbalances between the sexes. In the four plays under discussion, Cavendish seeks to masculinize the female and feminize the male in order to overcome the chasm between the sexes created by the distorting gaze of social ideologies Overdressing, cross-dressing, and assuming military garb, then, are ways that variously attract and repulse the male gaze, which allows Cavendish’s characters moments outside of time. Cavendish manipulates gender signifiers – attire, discourse, and body expressions – to replace the notion of woman as object with woman as spectacle. The force of the plays resides in their repetition of brief but insistent visions of female authority and accomplishment.

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