Of Rowe's Portrayal of Women

by Jim Farrar (1986)

According to my copy of the Oxford Companion to English Literature, it was Nicholas Rowe who coined the term "she-tragedy." This type of drama, these so-called "she tragedies," are reactionary plays, actually, in which the tone is moral and the "suffering and penitence of victimized women" is stressed, ostensibly to create a kind of pathos, or "a sort of regret proceeding from good nature."

There's an underlying form of sexism at work here, I think, of a sort that's still with us today (we don't call Hamlet a "he-tragedy," do we?). The fact is most male playwrights--this is a generality, of course--seem unable to create believable female characters, or at the very least multi-dimensional women who are intrinsically strong and well developed. Or in other words, great characters worthy of tragedy. Shakespeare couldn't. And neither did any of the great English-language dramatists that followed him. On our own stage, the man who came the closest was Tennessee Williams. How ironic it is, though not really surprising, that he was a homosexual.

Judging from the female characters in The Tragedy of Jane Shore, Nicholas Rowe also had his problems when it came to writing about women. Based on a popular legend, Jane Shore is an eighteenth century tragedy written in verse form, in imitation of Shakespeare's style. There are only two women in the play, Jane Shore and her jealous friend Alicia, both of whom seem, by twentieth century standards, somewhat simple, one-sided, and predictable.

Early in the play Alicia becomes consumed by rage for what she imagines to be an illicit affair between her lover Lord Hastings and her friend Jane Shore. Vowing revenge, she tricks her friend into delivering a letter which accuses Shore of manipulating Hasting's loyalties with her affections to the Duke of Gloster, who has plans to usurp the throne. Alicia's duplicity leads to Hastings' execution and Shore's banishment to the streets, with instructions that "none, on pain of death, presume to give her comfort, food, or harbour." Unsuspecting, Shore arrives on Alicia's doorstep, where she asks her friend's assistance but, instead, is rebuked in a passage that is very similar to Prince Hal's rejection of Falstaff in the second part of Henry IV, ending, in fact, with the very same words, "I know thee not."

What we see in these characters, then, is an essentially male vision of two female stereotypes. Of course, it stands to reason: the play was written by a man, a man living in eighteenth century England.

What bothers me is that Rowe's play seems to suggest that if a woman is to be perceived as a tragic figure, then she can only be, like Jane Shore, an innocent and pitiable victim of cruel circumstance. Such a character is not tragic in the classical or heroic sense, nor does such a character need to be particularly strong or possess the traditional tragic flaw. What we can assume, in other words, is that character need not be that well developed when dealing with a female lead, given the fact that stereotypes will suffice.

Try to imagine a similar role being written for a man, and I think you'll begin to see what I'm talking about. A male character like Jane Shore's would seem merely pathetic to an audience, not tragic at all; accordingly, his character would have to be written quite differently in order for the play to work. More strength, coupled with a sense of purpose and honor, would be needed for our man to be believable. He must actively participate and be responsible for his own tragic downfall, and for that reason alone mere banishment to the streets would not suffice. After all, a man is expected to put up a fight of some sort before he can lose gracefully and with dignity. But fight he must, for conflict is the stuff that good tragedy is made of.

Such values seem to be peculiarly male, which may explain why Rowe felt he could omit these dramatic features from Jane Shore. The only problem with this reasoning is that the material that he's left us with has been scaled down. As a result the characters seem wooden and underdeveloped. We get no real sense of Jane Shore's character and, with Alicia, we merely get a stereotype.

Jane Shore undoubtedly worked on the eighteenth century stage because of the way in which women were viewed by eighteenth century audiences. Alicia's character offers us the only other alternative in the play, that of an untrusting and jealous lover governed by emotion and irrational impulse. Rowe has created a cruelly simplified dichotomy here. In this world, women seem to be either too trusting or not trusting enough. When Hastings says the following lines to Alicia, I suspect that the playwright intends them to be delivered straight-faced:

How fierce a fiend is passion. With what wildness,
What tyranny untam'd, it reigns in woman.
Unhappy sex! whose easy, yielding temper
Gives way to every appetite alike;
Each gust of inclination, uncontroll'd
Sweeps through their souls and sets 'em in an uproar;
Each motion of the heart rises to fury,
And love in their weak bosoms is a rage
As terrible as hate and as destructive.

If that's not a stereotype, then I don't know what is. But, in all fairness to Rowe, sentiments such as these are still being touted today, some 270 years after the play was first performed.

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