‘She has that in her belly will dry up your ink’: Femininity as Challenge in the ‘Equitable Drama’ of John Webster

  • Ina Habermann
Part of the Language, Discourse, Society book series (LDS)


Theatre in early modern England has for some time been recognized as a crucial form of cultural exchange. It not only expresses but also inquires into and mediates between different types of social performativity, thus cutting across the boundaries of institutional discourses. This essay will focus on the dialogue between theatre and the law, emphasizing both the historical and structural dimensions of this exchange. The notion of equity — painstaking inquiry and fair judgement in consideration of the particular circumstances of a case — emerges as a privileged point of contact between the court and the stage.1 While equity appears as a crucial and contentious subject of contemporary legal debate, drama deals in the particular and unusual, and seeks to interrogate the ethics and the complexity of social interaction. The most complex cases in a patriarchal society often involve women, and John Webster perhaps more than any other contemporary playwright used the stage to explore the relation between women and the law. I will argue that his is a type of forensic drama which foregrounds equity by placing the issues of female characters at the centre of the action — as the law interrogates femininity, femininity interrogates the law.


Female Character Patriarchal Society Early Modern Period Female Protagonist Forensic Inquiry 
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  1. 1.
    I use the notion of equity, or epieikeia, in the Aristotelian sense that was prominent in the early modern legal debate. Equity is needed to supplement law, which must necessarily be general and therefore cannot include individual circumstances. As such, equity creates a justice that goes beyond the letter of the law, and it should be applied in every branch of jurisdiction. Due to the influence of Thomas Aquinas, the canon law notion of equity is associated with the Christian concept of charity, or misericordia. Both concepts are related to, but not identical with the discretion of the judge within prerogative jurisdiction, especially the Court of Chancery. In later times, equity principally came to denote a technical aspect of the Chancery jurisdiction. On this aspect see W. Ashburner, Principles of Equity (Butterworth, 1902). On the legal history of equity see P. Vinogradoff, Outlines of Historical Jurisprudence (Oxford University Press, 1922); M. Hamburger, Morals and Law: the Growth of Aristotles Legal Theory (Yale University Press, 1951); C. St. Germain, Doctor and Student, eds T.F.T. Plucknett and J.L. Barton (Selden Society, 1974); J.H. Baker, The Reports of Sir John Spelman (Selden Society, 1978). On equity in the context of literature see the excellent overview by T. Ziolkowski, The Mirror of Justice: Literary Reflections of Legal Crises (Princeton University Press, 1997); K. Eden, Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition (Yale University Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    D. Goldberg, Between Worlds: a Study of the Plays of John Webster (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1987), 11.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For theatrical activities at the Inns of Court see A. Wigfall Green, The Inns of Court and Early English Drama (Benjamin Blom, 1965) (1st edition 1931); P.J. Finkelpearl, John Marston of the Middle Temple. An Elizabethan Dramatist and his Social Setting (Harvard University Press, 1969); J.H. Baker, Readings and Moots at the Inns of Court in the Fifteenth Century, vol. II: Moots and Reader’s Cases (Selden Society, 1990). The prominence of court-room drama in modern cinema testifies to the affinity of public entertainment and legal procedure.Google Scholar
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    On women and the law in early modern England see M. Cioni, Women and Law in Elizabethan England with Particular Reference to the Court of Chancery (Garland, 1985); M.J. Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570–1640 (Cambridge University Press, 1987); L. Boose, ‘Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman’s Unruly Member’, Shakespeare Quarterly 42:2 (1991), 179–213; A.L. Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (Routledge, 1993); F.E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England (Cornell University Press, 1994); J. Kermode and G. Walker (eds), Women, Crime and the Courts in Early Modern England (UCL Press, 1994); L. Gowing, Domestic Dangers. Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Clarendon Press, 1996); T. Stretton, Women Waging Law in Elizabethan England (Cambridge University Press, 1998).Google Scholar
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  11. 13.
    For a discussion of this play see A. Kusunoki, ‘A Study of The Devils Law-Case: with Special Reference to the Controversy over Women’, Shakespeare Studies, The Shakespeare Society of Japan, 21 (1982–3), 1–33. Kusunoki draws attention to powerful women’s involvement in law cases of the Jacobean period. Quotations from Webster’s plays will be taken from the following edition: Rene Weis (ed.), The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays (Oxford University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    On Webster’s source for this see D. Carnegie, ‘Selden’s Duello as a Source for Webster’s The Devils Law Case’, Notes & Queries 46 [244:2] (1999), 260–2. Carnegie refers to John Selden’s ‘antiquarian handbook’ The Duello, or Single Combat (1610). For a discussion of alternative theatrical jurisdictions related to the chivalric code of honour see P. Goodrich, Law in the Courts of Love. Literature and Other Minor Jurisprudences (Routledge, 1996).Google Scholar
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    D. Kezar, Guilty Creatures: Renaissance Poetry and the Ethics of Authorship (Oxford University Press, 2001), 88. The antitheatrical text Kezar mainly draws on in this context is Stephen Gosson’s Playes Confuted in Five Actions (1590?); see also his The School ofAbuse (1579).Google Scholar
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    C. Luckyj, A Winters Snake: Dramatic Form in the Tragedies of John Webster (The University of Georgia Press, 1989), 114.Google Scholar
  15. 21.
    K.R. Finin-Farber, ‘Framing (the) Woman: The White Devil and the Deployment of Law’, Renaissance Drama 25 (1994), 221. As regards language, Finin-Farber draws on Patricia Parker’s seminal study Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (Methuen, 1987). See also G. Greene, ‘Women on Trial in Shakespeare and Webster: “The Mettle of (Their) Sex”’, Topic: A Journal of the Liberal Arts 36 (1982), 5–19.Google Scholar
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  17. 23.
    Ibid., 235.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 233.Google Scholar
  19. 25.
    Quoted from C. Bowen, The Lion and the Throne (Little, Brown, 1957), 360.Google Scholar
  20. 26.
    For similarities between these characters see also Bradbrook, John Webster, 158; E.C. Bartels, ‘Strategies of Submission: Desdemona, the Duchess, and the Assertion of Desire’, Studies in English Literature 36 (1996), 417–33.Google Scholar
  21. 27.
    For the relationship between authorship and femininity see L. Hutson, The Usurers Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England (Routledge, 1994).Google Scholar
  22. 29.
    For an excellent discussion of the metaphysical dimension of the play see M.C. Bradbrook, ‘Fate and Chance in The Duchess of Malfi’, in N. Rabkin (ed.), Twentieth Century Interpretations ofThe Duchess of Malfi’ (Prentice Hall, 1968), 27–40.Google Scholar
  23. 32.
    The relationship between inwardness and public display is discussed in K. Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance (University of Chicago Press, 1995).Google Scholar
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    A. Henderson, ‘Death on Stage, Death of the Stage: the Antitheatricality of The Duchess of Malfi’, in Dympna Callaghan (ed.), The Duchess of Malfi, New Casebooks (Macmillan, 2000), 64. The essay was first published in Theatre Journal 42 (1990), 194–207.Google Scholar
  25. 35.
    C. Luckyj, ‘Gender, Rhetoric, and Performance in John Webster’s The White Devil’, in Viviana Comensoli and Anne Russell (eds), Enacting Gender on the English Renaissance Stage (University of Illinois Press, 1999), 219, 229.Google Scholar
  26. 36.
    On the subject of boy actors in Webster’s tragedies see L.L. Behling, “S/he scandles our proceedings”: the Anxiety of Alternative Sexualities in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi’, English Language Notes 33:4 (1996), 24–43.Google Scholar
  27. 37.
    M. de Montaigne, ‘On Experience’ (orig. 1588), The Essayes of Michael Lord of Montaigne (1603), transl. John Florio, vol. 3 (Dent n.d.), 331.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2005

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  • Ina Habermann

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