When Isabella, a nun-to-be in Shakespeare’s
The idea that nun’s sexual unavailability ironically provokes even the most austere mind is in the same line with anti-Catholic rhetoric that condemns Catholic monasticism for breeding social corruption rather than contributing to a community’s spiritual welfare. The sexual attraction that Isabella presents for the male protagonists, Angelo and the Duke, involves a homosexual dimension, too, as the officially declared asexuality of nuns conveniently overlaps with in-between sexuality of boy actors on stage. Both Catholic nuns and boy actors were regarded as sexually attractive, but unavailable for marriage and reproduction, which, ironically, contributed to their sexual appeal. Isabella in nun-novice’s habit has a potential to expose her transvestite identity whenever her sexuality is challenged on stage. Angelo’s angry but almost desperate line of “Be that you are. / That is, a woman. . .By putting on the destined livery” (2.4.134-35,138), expresses his uncomfortable anxiety about falling for a sexually unavailable female of nun-to-be status, or a boy, equally unavailable and definitely not a woman.
Contrary to Isabella, who has been received relatively weighty critical attention for her religious and female identity, the Abbess in
1All quotations from the play are taken from Measure for Measure in The Norton Shakespeare,edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine E. Maus, and Andrew Gurr in1997. 2The following discussion on Isabella’s role will be based on the assumption that she was staged in nun novice’s habit. There are critics like Andrew Gurr and Jean McIntyre who argue that Isabella wearsa gentlewoman’s garments instead of a nun’s habit, but based upon the textual clues, the stage presence of Isabella in religious vestments has been accepted in scholarly criticism. 3Robert F. Fleissner argues, while discussing Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, that “none” was homophonic with “nun,” and the none/nun wordplay would have sounded irreverent enough to cause the elimination of the play from the Valladolid Folio by a Jesuit.
The Abbess in
One of the negative connotations that Protestants attached to Catholicism was its effeminacy in relation to idolatry, illiteracy, and carnality. While identifying Protestantism as masculine, patriotic, honest, and logocentric, Catholicism is sided with effeminacy, often negatively associated with deceptiveness, foreignness, and vulnerability to physical, visual, and sensual affects. Arthur Marrotti asserts that “women and Catholicism were both feared as intrinsically idolatrous, superstitious and carnal,” (4) and Regina Buccola points out that Protestants feminized Catholicism for all its emphasis on so-called female elements: ornaments, artifice, costuming, and cosmetics (144). Frances E. Dolan also argues that illiterate and unlearned women were considered prone to convert to Catholicism (27).
The dichotomy of Catholicism as feminine vice and Protestantism as masculine virtue is captured in the visual image of the Whore of Babylon, a female, sensual, and monstrous anti-Christ identified as the Pope. This metaphor chosen by Protestant reformers to describe the popish anti-Christ accentuated both its femininity and its sexual promiscuity. Combined with public distrust of priests’ sworn celibacy in monasteries, celibate appearance masking disorderly sexual desire was one of the conventional suspicions Protestants leveled against the Catholic clergy. While formulating Catholicism as feminine and Protestantism as masculine, Protestant reformers readily depicted vested Catholic clergy as “men in women’s clothes,” another analogy often adapted to refer players on the early modern Elizabethan stage. The “unnatural” sexuality of Catholic clergy had been overtly criticized by Protestant reformers until it became an integral part of the conventional Protestant rhetoric, and the reproduction of the image was theatrically much more effective when it coincided with the tradition of boy actors.
Although all sorts of female characters might, arguably, be revealing of the contemporary interests in transvestism intertwined with religious polemics, women in religious dramas or religious women characters would betray the most obvious pictures to analyze. Lewis Wager’s explicitly Protestant play,
For Elizabethan playwrights, it might be easier to present sexually ambiguous witches and promiscuous whores than to stage a chaste and honest female saint unavoidably impersonated by boy actors. John Anson explains how the legends of female saints, especially those who disguised themselves as men, satisfy male readers and audiences with the imaginary female presence in the male-dominated space of monasteries and how their final sacrifice, which compensates for the guilt that male readers might feel, is inevitable to keep the sacred community pure (30). From the Protestantperspective, female transvestism, just like Mary Magdalene’s divestments, can be received somewhat positively, as the individual’s efforts to remove her former femininity ultimately correspond to the aim of embracing masculine Protestantism. It was the same expectations Elizabethan people might have toward Queen Elizabeth, the most sacred presence in England, to leave her femininity behind and to assume the male vocation successfully, unlike “the monstrously feminine and feminizing Catholic reign of Mary Tudor” (Hill-Vásquez 185). As lenient as Elizabethan people were, at least on a metaphoric or fictional level, to the issue of female transvestism, they were harshly critical of male transvestism, as a man in woman’s clothes suggests a degradation to a more corporeal presence arousing homosexual erotic desire and the regression to a more immature, prepenitent, Catholic state. For boy actors, whose profession could not avoid the hostile charge of male transvestism, the most challenging job was to take the role of sacred women and to earnestly express their saint-like chastity and spotless honesty.
It might be the character of the Catholic nun for an Elizabethan audience that embodies the meta-dramatic dilemma that boy actors cannot avoid as men in women’s clothes, declaring oneself to be asexual or chaste, but subject to criticism for encouraging homosexual as well as heterosexual desires. Mostly due to their religious identity accompanied by compulsory celibacy, Catholic nuns on stage, more than any other transvestite female characters, could hardly escape from the meta-dramatic dimension of the plays, presenting nun’s habits as costume, and swearing chastity as performance, which consequently thwart the audience’s sympathetic identification with the character and their complete absorption in the play. Their presence on stage suggests the combination of contemporary negative values derived from femininity, homosexuality, Catholicism, and theatricality, which limit their representation to be sincerely spiritual or heroically tragic.
4Badir suggests that Wager’s Mary might have followed “the convention of performing public penance en chemise or in loose undergarments” (13). 5All quotations from the play are taken from the Mary Magdalene in Reformation Biblical Drama in England: An Old-Spelling Critical Edition edited by Paul White, New York: Garland Pub, 1992.
The world of
The role of females, especially of wives, gets weighty attention throughout the play, which soon leads to reflection on contemporary religious polemic. The way Adriana treats her husband is often discussed and criticized by other female characters, such as her sister Luciana and the Abbess. In addition to Luciana’s relevantly mild, suggestive criticism, the Abbess harshly rebukes Adriana for making her husband mad with “The venom clamours of a jealous woman / Poisons more deadly than a mad dog’s tooth” (5.1.70-71). The Abbess finally concludes that Adriana’s “jealous fits / Hath scared thy husband from the use of wits” (5.1.86-87). Although it turns out that her husband is not mad and Adriana is also a victim of the confusing dramatic plot, David Mann argues that the condemnation of the Abbess is allowed to stand with her authority “both of being a Good Wife and of resolving the plots,” and it reflects that the contemporary society was not lenient on wives’ shrewishness (21). The critical eye on Adriana shows the contemporary patriarchal values imposed on women, and it also suggests heightened public expectations about the role of “good wife.” Richard Strier points out that the scene of the Abbess confronting Adriana originates from a conflict between “Catholic and Protestant sanctity, holy place and holy (secular) ‘office’” of wife (30). The Abbess’s institutional authority to confine a husband apart from a wife in order to complete “A charitable duty of my order” (5.1.109) conflicts with Adriana’s claim as a wife to take care of her husband in her own way. The tight dramatic tension is built between a Catholic religious authority and a secular office of ordinary wife, considered “holy” enough for Protestants. However, the tension soon disappears when the Abbess herself turns out to be a wife, and it seems that she appears ready to resume the role, ormore accurately speaking, seems to have always been a wife faithful to her husband rather than a celibate nun.
When the Abbess reveals herself as a wife in the final act, it is supposed to create the most dramatic moment of the play, resolving all the misunderstandings, ending the confusing anxieties, and launching a feast to celebrate it. Although it would not have affected the main plot, the identity switch from the Abbess to Emilia, or the convergence of the two contradictory identities, is dramatic enough to entertain the audience. It is apparent that she voluntarily resumes the role of wife when, with reference to Egeon, she claims that she “will loose his [Egeon’s] bonds / And gain a husband by his liberty” (5.1.340-41), and asks Egeon to “speak unto the same Emilia” (5.1.346). The transition is sudden but definitely not forced; it is welcomed, voluntary, and actually long expected by the Abbess herself. Her sacred vocation is soon reduced to her external appearance when she accounts for her current position as just the “fortune that you see me in” (5.1.362), a role forced upon her by circumstance. Her wish to be called as “the same Emilia” and to “gain a husband” demonstrates the continuation, rather than the rupture between, the roles of wife and the Abbess. Without a moment of hesitation, she willingly takes the role of wife, and her last speech confirms her long expectation to recover the secular role despite retreating into the abbey. Inviting everybody to the abbey for a feast, she uses a pregnancy metaphor to describe her joyful family reunion: “Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail / Of you, my sons, and till this present hour / My heavy burden ne’er delivered” (5.1.402-04). Although it certainly is not an appropriate, but almost weird, image to describe a celibate nun, no one in the play argues against her blasphemous confession that she has not been completely separated from her secular self while living as the bride of Christ in the abbey. The two identities, once considered contradictory, now converge into the character of the Abbess, Emilia, not polemically, but rather optimistically suggesting a different “sacredness.”
Through the presentation of the Abbess, the play proposes a Protestant type of “sacred” woman, not necessarily a virgin, but a faithful and productive wife. Strier explains that the play, more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, celebrates bourgeois life and presents a Protestant conception of “inner-worldly holiness” (17). Contrary to Catholicism’s ostentatious “holiness,” the dramatic world reveals sacred “secularity,” defining married life as more sacred than celibate convent life, supporting a wife’s authority for a sick husband over the institutional authority of the Abbess. Since the forced closing of convents and monasteries in 1539, women had been stripped of an opportunity to live in all-female communities, to receive higher education, to practice spiritual leadership, and, most of all, to live unbound to the duties of wife and mother. Instead of removing holy vocations as a way of life for women to choose, reformers preached the sacredness of daily “ordinary” life, and “holy” motherhood and marriage (Stjerna 33). As the Reformation forced more than religious conversion to the “unmarried full-time religious women,” their search of a new calling and new home in secular world was not smooth as seen in the case of Emilia.
The dissolution of the abbeys engendered the problem of a large population of placeless single women, and their economic poverty was radically aggravated. Natasha Kordaargues that the increased number of single women ranging from widows to never married and lifelong single women became the responsibility of the state when there was no longer the option of abbeys.7 Pre-dissolution nuns become a social burden to relocate in the patrilineal system of post-Reformation England, and marriage is an ideal option that Protestant society provides to the nun-to-bes and ex-nuns, not much welcomed, but no alternative options remain. Emilia’s easy transition to the role of wife, her insistence upon having been a wife all through the thirty-three years of ascetic convent life, and lastly, the festive public acceptance of her, are all ideally Protestant. The play does not depict the Abbess as a woman in Catholic religious vocation from an anti-clerical perspective, but as a wife located in an unusual situation, with no choice but to undertake convent life for protection of her marital fidelity. Her territorial authority over the abbey reminds one of Adriana’s over her mansion of Phoenix. Adrianna controls the admittance to her house, directing Dromio to “let no creature enter” (2.2.210), while she finally dines with Antipholus of Syracuse, mistaking him for her husband. Similarly, the Abbess, to keep the same Antipholus in the abbey, firmly rejects Adrianna’s admittance, declaring “not a creature enters in my house” (5.1.93). As keeper of the house that they take charge of, both women show domestic authority in controlling their space, which demonstrates a Protestant interpretation of female sacredness transferrable from religious vocations to the office of ordinary housewife.
To embrace the ex-nuns in patriarchy’s limited system of marriage and motherhood, and to fulfill the successful companionate marriage that Protestants idealized, expectations for a “good wife” might well be heightened to the level of impossibility. The Protestant ideal of female sacredness is self-contradictory as it cannot dismiss “often despised” female corporeality, the ability to attract male suitors, and to conceive offspring. In addition to Adriana often being criticized for being shrewish, the Abbess herself, who confidently speaks up against Adriana, chiding her negligence of wifely duty, fails to meet the expectations of a “good wife.” While Egeon reveals his past stories, he describes how he was married to “a woman happy but for me / And by me happy” (1.1.37-38), and how she became “A Joyful mother of two goodly sons” (1.1.50) through “the pleasing punishment that women bear” (1.1.46). With a happy marriage and joyful motherhood, Egeon describes Emilia to be following the most blessed path for females. Soon, however, Egeon does not hesitate to attribute his misfortune to her lack of wifely virtue. Egeon explains that his early departure for home and the unfortunate encounter with the storm were due to the fact that “My wife, not meanly proud of two such boys / Made daily motions for our home return,” although he was “Unwilling”(1.1.58-60). He continues to blame his wife for not being supportive when facing “a doubtful warrant of immediate death,” although “myself would gladly have embraced” that fate (1.1.68-69). Remembering “the incessant weepings of my wife / Weeping before for what she saw must come” (1.1.70-71), Egeon describes Emilia to have been weak-minded, emotional, cowardly, and immature in dealing with critical situations. In his description, Emilia is not much different from Adriana, whom Emilia herself condemns for having “scared thy husband from the use of wits” (5.1.87). In her marital relationship, the Abbess seems to have beenunqualified to be an exemplary wife as an ideal companion, and shrewish Adriana just embodies her past self, if Antipholus in Ephesus reflects young Egeon before the storm as Barbara Freedman suggests (“Egeon’s Debt,” 369).
Although Emilia has grown more mature as an Abbess, has learned to be a “good wife,” probably through convent duties, and lastly has demonstrated her change by preaching against the female shrewishness exemplified by Adriana, she is still not an appropriate saintly figure in Elizabethan public theater. In contrast to all the other characters, who are extraordinarily honest and sincere, the Abbess is the only one who has been hiding her true identity under the nun’s habit. The dual identity of nun and wife has been hidden until she finally encounters her husband, Egeon, and is able to resume her “real” identity as a wife. The Catholic vestment of the nun’s habit, not contradicting public expectations, has something to be unmasked although the revelation is not fulfilled through stripping of the garments or humiliating the wearer, but redefining what the garments represent. Elizabethan audiences might be accustomed to the dramatic technique of exposing something contradictory or something “not spiritual” hidden beneath Catholic vestments, and the scene is designed to meet their expectation shaped through Protestant culture.
Not only is the Abbess the only character who reveals something beneath or beyond her apparel, but also the moment of her identity disclosure is the only dramatic “revelation” moment reserved for the audience. As Freedman points out, Shakespeare contrives to give full privilege to the audience about the knowledge of the twins from the beginning, but allows this knowledge to be revealed to the characters only at the conclusion, and this brings about the situation of “We know everything; the text knows nothing - - or so we think” (
Their unusual reticence about the presence of Emilia as the mother and wife makes us question their welcoming reception of her to the family, and thus her smooth transfer from religious leadership to her domestic authority. Surely, there is always a possibility that their eventual reconciliation might have been presented nonverbally on stage, and the scene rather presents a performing potential of various theatrical interpretations, just as does the silence of Isabella in the last scene of
Among the flat characters that never learn about themselves or their neighbor as a result of the errors, the Abbess/Emilia is the only one who confronts contradictory dual identities to choose among domestic wife/mother and religious vocation, and desires to change her social role. She is not overtly attacked, mocked, or criticized with social stereotypes of the hypocritical and promiscuous Catholic nun, but rather leniently depicted authoritatively as a nun keeping the abbey, and as a wife and mother verifying the family relationship. As the contemporary reformed culture sanctions marriage and motherhood instead of sworn celibacy to God, her easy assumption of the past role of wife and mother might be read as a smooth transition to another sacred female role. However, the transition cannot but be accompanied with deliberate disguising of one’s true identity under a nun’s habit. In addition to the Abbess’s mildly offensive hypocrisy, which renders her less than ideal, the Protestant ideal of sacred wife and mother, and their ultimate goal of companionate marriage also seem to be too hard to reach for women who have been considered to be corporeal, emotional, and immature by the same reformers. Her return to the family is not much welcomed by her family members, and her stage presence loses its due elegance, instead producing a comic or weird effect, at best, especially when she tries to reassume the role of wife and mother recalling the corporeal duty of pregnancy. She might not be dangerously sexual, but neither is she invincibly sacred. The vested Abbess on stage loses her religious authority along with domestic authority, and represents the identity crisis of female sacredness: no longer identifiable with a religious vocation in reformed Englandnor defined as a holy symbol of celibacy or marriage and motherhood.
What singles out the Abbess from the other nuns or nun-tobe characters on the sixteenth-century English stage, is her age. The Abbess is presumed to be in her fifties, based on her confession that she spent last thirty-three years in the abbey. She is no longer as young as Ophelia in
6All quotations from the play are taken from The Comedy of Errors in The Norton Shakespeare,edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine E. Maus, and Andrew Gurr in 1997. 7According to Natasha Korda, “in Holkham in 1600/1, women represented 75 percent of those on poor relief . . . and in Wighton in 1614-5, a staggering 90 percent of all recipientswere women” (178).