Dr. Sara B.T. Thiel on Pregnancy on the Stage in Early Modern English Drama
Theatre History Podcast #66
How do you depict pregnancy onstage when your cast is all-male? That was one of a number of problems that English playwrights and performers faced in the Stuart era, when plays like The Winter’s Tale frequently began to feature pregnancies as major plot points. Dr. Sara BT Thiel has been exploring this subject, and it’s resulted in a chapter entitled “’Cushion Come Forth’: Materializing Pregnancy on the Stuart Stage.” The chapter appears in the new book Stage Matters: Props, Bodies, and Spaces in Shakespearean Performance. Sara joins us to explain how Stuart-era playwrights and theatre companies created the illusion of pregnancy onstage, as well as the significance of her research to how we understand the depiction of women in Shakespeare’s time.
- Learn more about Stage Matters: Props, Bodies, and Spaces in Shakespeare Performance, the book in which Sara’s chapter appears.
- To find out more about Sara and her work, visit her personal website and follow her on Twitter.
- Visit Perceptions of Pregnancy, an interdisciplinary research network devoted to work by “researchers working on fertility, pregnancy and childbirth.”
- Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama, by Farah Karim-Cooper
- Inventions of the Skin: The Painted Body in Early English Drama, by Andrea Stevens
- “Performing Blackface Pregnancy at the Stuart Court: The Masque of Blackness and Love’s Mistress, or the Queen’s Masque,” by Sara BT Thiel, in Renaissance Drama, vol. 45, no. 2, fall 2017 (paywall)
- Some plays mentioned in this episode:
Michael Lueger: The Theatre History Podcast is supported by HowlRound, a free and open platform for theatre-makers worldwide. It's available on iTunes, Google Play, and howlround.com.
Hi, and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. Depicting pregnancy onstage has always been something of a challenge. That was especially true in early modern England, when only male performers were allowed to appear onstage in public. All female characters in this time were played by boys. As Dr. Sara B.T. Thiel asks in a recent essay, "What did audiences see when a boy actor played a pregnant woman?' Sara is Public Humanities Manager at Chicago Shakespeare. Her chapter, “Cushion Come Forth: Materializing Pregnancy on the Stuart Stage” appears in Stage Matters: Props, Bodies and Space in Shakespearian Performance. Sara, thank you so much for joining us.
Sara B.T. Thiel: Oh, my goodness. Well, thank you so much for having me.
Michael: You are specifically focused here on Stuart drama. Can you explain what that term means and why the so-called pregnancy play becomes such a prominent sub-genre during that period?
Sara: Yes, absolutely. By Stuart, I mean plays that were written and performed during the reign of King James I of England, and eventually his son, King Charles I. Now, their surname Stuart helps delineate drama, art, architecture, etc. of the period that came during the reign of these kings, so it's a distinction from the description Tudor, which can be used as an adjective to describe culture that emerged during the reigns of Elizabeth I and her father, Henry VIII. You'll also hear royals' first names used as an adjective to help identify particular cultural trends of the period. So of course, Elizabethan for Elizabeth's reign, Jacobean for James, and Caroline for Charles. I use Stuart specifically, because I'm studying plays that were written and performed after Elizabeth I's death in 1603, up to the English Civil War, beginning in 1642.
As to the second part of your question, why the pregnancy play became a prominent sub-genre during this time period, which is what I argue, when Elizabeth I died in 1603, she had no children, and the Tudor line ended with her. Her Scottish relative, King James VI of Scotland, was next in the line of succession, so he became king of England in 1603, while still maintaining his title as king of Scotland. Now, when James came to England, he arrived with his wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, and their three children. So whereas Elizabeth I spent her reign conspicuously unmarried and childless, hence the sort of Virgin Queen moniker, James and Anne had several children and would continue to have children when they moved to England, though none of the English-born children survived into adulthood. All told, Anne had nine pregnancies, two of which were miscarriages, and two of their children survived past the age of eighteen. That was Charles, eventually Charles I, and his sister Elizabeth.
That's sort of some historical context. Before 1603, during Elizabeth's long childless reign, pregnant characters seldom appeared in English playhouses. I hypothesize that maybe it was anxieties over Elizabeth's failure to produce an heir that made it so that representations of pregnant bodies were rare. For example, in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, which was written and staged around 1591, Tamora gives birth to Aaron's unnamed illegitimate son in Act IV; however, Shakespeare never indicates in stage directions or the spoken text that Tamora is pregnant. It's only when the midwife, the nurse, arrives onstage and announces Tamora's off-stage delivery that the audience even discovers that she was pregnant. That's one example of where we have a pregnant character that never really appears pregnant or is discussed as pregnant. When pregnant characters do appear, their presence doesn't really shape the structure of the play, as they often do with Stuart pregnancy plays.
Starting in 1603, after James comes to the throne with his wife and children, we see a kind of ... I don't know, for lack of a better term ... baby boom in representations of pregnant characters onstage. Between 1603 and 1642, there exist approximately twenty-two extent pregnancy plays. I define a pregnancy play as a dramatic sub-genre in early modern drama that portrays a pregnancy, whether that pregnancy is visible or unknown to the audience, or a pregnant character who drives the action of a plot in some significant way, or shapes the plot in some significant way. So over the span of thirty-nine years, pregnancy became conspicuous in its representation, and we can tell this by reading the plays' stage directions and piecing together what would have been necessary for an early modern audience to follow the plot.
For example, a female character is called fat, or there are references to her great belly, things like that. I argue that one of the reasons why we see so many of these pregnant characters during this time is in part because there was a very fertile family, a very fertile queen, on the throne. Elsewhere in my writing and research, I make a case for Queen Anne of Denmark specifically becoming a major influence on the dramaturgy of pregnancy plays through her own theatrical and political performances in England and even in Scotland, right before she arrives in England.
Michael: Can you give us some examples of pregnancy plays?
Sara: Yeah, absolutely. Some of the most well-known ones include, of course, those by Shakespeare. The Winter's Tale, you have a pregnant queen who sort of arrives in the first act, and her pregnancy sort of drives the plot forward through its inciting incidents. We have Measure for Measure, a similar situation. We have sort of a minor character who's pregnant, and that's the character of Juliet, but her pregnancy becomes the inciting incident for the entire play. Of course, there's All's Well That Ends Well, and that pregnancy doesn't occur until the last scene of the last act of the play, but the fact of the pregnancy becomes necessary in order to tie the play up, to wrap up the play dramaturgically. In each of these plays, the pregnant character, or the very fact of a pregnancy or the necessity of a pregnancy becomes the foundation for the play's dramaturgical structure.
There are, of course, many more plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries, such as The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore by John Ford. Now, some of my favorite of the pregnancy plays are lesser-known, never produced, and many of them are by Thomas Middleton. One of my favorites is a comedy that he wrote around 1619 called More Dissemblers Besides Women. In that play, you have a double-layered gender and pregnancy disguise plot. In the tradition of early modern drama, a young woman is scorned by her lover, and he leaves town, and she chases after him, disguised as a boy page. But this time when she arrives ... Oh, and her lover's name in this play, in More Dissemblers Besides Women, is Lactantio, so we get that sort of allusion to lactation already in his name.
She arrives dressed as a boy to tell Lactantio that he has gotten her pregnant, and Lactantio, his only concern is how are we going to dress her so that nobody knows that one, she's a woman and two, she's pregnant? Later in the play, the male page ... we never know her true name, so she's just called the page, maybe Antonio at one point ... she's forced to undergo a series of dancing exercises, because her master wants to make her more masculine, thinking that she's just a young boy who hasn't yet gone through puberty yet. Through a series of dancing exercises, the page at one point is forced to leap through the air and falls down to the ground, groaning for a midwife. Everyone just stands around quite bewildered, because this young boy is now going to give birth to a child. It's great fun. It's really one of my favorite of the pregnancy plays, and Thomas Middleton is really known for his sort of disruption of conventions in that way, or his sort of jamming together of conventions in that way.
With this play specifically, with More Dissemblers Besides Women, you can see that by the late 1610s, early 1620s playwrights, especially someone as playful as Thomas Middleton, are beginning to sort of push the envelope with respect to what's possible with the staging of pregnancy on boy actors' bodies, whereas a play like Measure for Measure, which is written around 1604, is a pretty straightforward depiction of a pregnant character.
Michael: How did theatre companies depict pregnancy on the Stuart stage? What did they use, and what's the historical evidence that we have to work with?
Sara: It was really dependent upon the play and the playwright, for the most part. We can see trends among each playwright's body of pregnancy plays, although we can see that some company trends do exist in how pregnant characters are performed and portrayed. For example, in a few Queen's Men's plays, so that would have been Queen Anne of Denmark's company, which later became the Company of the Revels or the Red Bull Company, there seems to be a great deal of engagement with metatheatrical disruptions of the pregnancy convention. We can see that in sort of company trends, as well as trends within playwrights' work.
To answer your question, in many of the plays, the belly itself is specifically referenced, using language like belly, big, great, fat, round, language like that. It really draws the reader, but also imagining this historical audience, draws their attention to the performed female pregnant body that is sort of sitting on top of this boy actor, this male actor. In many of these plays, it then makes sense for there to actually be something fat, round, big for the audience to actually see. Many times it doesn't make sense for there not to be some kind of corpulent body onstage.
To sort of call back to Thomas Middleton, who played Chaste Maid in Cheapside, the pregnant character, her name is Mrs. Allwit, she's described as this kind of corpulent grotesque, where they're sort of making fun of her before she even arrives onstage. Her body is described for the audience as being a tumbler whose nose and belly meet, so thinking of her with this puffed-up belly, whose nose is actually too close to her belly. And that's before she even comes onstage.
Without that, without her actually coming onstage looking like a tumbler whose nose and belly meet, the sort of punch line for that comedic moment is gone. Moments like that tell us that dramatically, dramaturgically, theatrically, comedically it just doesn't make sense for her not to look like that when she comes onstage. The punch line sort of lands as soon as we see her waddle onstage. She's sort of desperately looking for pickles. I mean, this is the joke, that pregnant women are just craving crazy foods and are waddling around, and they're really gross looking. And that's the joke.
If we look at what's dramatically necessary for the pregnant body, as well as the stage directions, the dialogue, the dramaturgy, etc., it becomes clear that there must have been some kind of technology that theatres were using in order to stage the pregnant body. What I have found is that it was most likely a pillow or a cushion of some kind, to make the boy's belly look rounded underneath the gown. Now, this seems fairly obvious, and it seems sort of intuitive. I mean, I think there are many of us out there who in our childhood create a play, put pillows and cushions, rolled-up clothes, etc. under our shirts to sort of play pregnant. So it's easiest to sort of point to this happening in plays where there's a fake or a deconstructed pregnancy that happens onstage.
For example, in John Webster's The Devil's Law Case, the subtitle of which is When Women Go To Law, the Devil Is Full of Business, which I think is sort of an amazing title ... It was written around 1619 as well, so similar time period to More Dissemblers Besides Women. Now, in this play a brother convinces his sister to fake pregnancy, because he has impregnated a nun in the town, and he wants to cover up the fact that he has impregnated this nun, so he convinces his sister to fake pregnancy. When the nun goes into labor, his sister pretends that she is in labor, then the baby that the nun gives birth to will become his sister's child. The sister finally agrees to this crazy plan, and they immediate begin talking about how to fake her pregnancy. They talk about how to make her look pale, how she needs to fake throwing up, how she needs to eat food to take away her color, so that people will believe that she has got morning sickness.
One of the final ways they describe talking about making her seem pregnant or look pregnant is to make a "quilted preface" out of her petticoat. So in other words, to bundle and pile her petticoat underneath her gown to, as Romelio says, "advance your belly", so to bundle up clothing underneath her dress to make it look like her belly is bigger, that pregnant distended belly. We can sort of see in the construction of a fake pregnancy, we can get a sense of what a theatrical pregnancy would have looked like.
Another example is in Thomas May's play The Heir, which was written and performed around 1620, so a lot of these plays are being written and performed around the same time. In that play, the subplot, a pair of lovers, they're scheming to figure out how they can get permission to marry, even he is below her station. They go to her father, and they say, "I'm pregnant," and she appears very pregnant in that moment. The father throws a fit, says, "You're going to marry this other guy. We'll convince him that he impregnated you, and that will be the end of it." And that plan succeeds until the end of the play, when her lover, he realizes that he's actually high born, and now there's nothing really keeping them apart anymore, because they are matched in station.
Well then at the end of the play, it turns out that her pregnancy was fake. The audience doesn't know this, the father doesn't know this. This is a surprise to everyone onstage. When they're trying to convince everyone that she's actually a virgin, she's never had sex, she's not pregnant, and now it's okay for her to marry the man that she loves, in order to convince everyone of that, she reaches up her dress, and he says, "Behold her yet, an untouched virgin. Cushion, come forth. Here, Senor Shallow, take your child unto you. Make much of it. May it prove as wise as the father." So he invokes the cushion, cushion come forth, likely reaches up her dress, and then throws the cushion. The stage directions in the original 1622 printing of the play indicate that he throws the cushion, he flings the cushion across the stage to his lover's betrothed husband. That is how her sort of fake pregnancy is revealed, and in this deconstruction of the pregnancy, we get a sense for how that pregnancy came to be constructed in the first place, theatrically onstage.
There's also, in a couple of the pregnancy plays, there are specific references to the actual prosthetic that it necessary in order to make a person look pregnant. There's also a reference to using cushions to fake pregnancy in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2. That's before the time period I'm looking at. That's around 1597, but I think it's relevant here. Doll Tearsheet, a prostitute, she's attempting to escape prosecution. She warns the officer that if he drags her to jail, she will miscarry her child, that she is pregnant. The officer doesn't believe her and insists that if Doll does miscarry, then Mistress Quickly, her friend, shall have a dozen of cushions again, suggesting that Mistress Quickly's twelfth cushion is currently stuffed up Doll's skirt to make her look pregnant so that she can avoid legal censure.
So those are some examples in drama. Outside of drama, we have several references to cushions and false pregnancies, the most notable, perhaps, being references to false pregnancy and/or nonsense sort of being referred to as "Queen Mary's cushion", which is of course referring to Queen Mary Tudor, also known as Bloody Mary, to who she was never able to have children, but claimed that she was pregnant several times. So a Queen Mary's cushion is a protuberance that produces nothing, according to Thomas Davies and John [Hallowell Phillips 00:17:21]. Even the OED has a secondary definition for "cushion", which is "a swelling simulating pregnancy" that dates to around this time period in the seventeenth century.
These are sort of several pieces of evidence I use to look at the ways in which likely materialized on boy actors' bodies. Of course, there's not any in the property register for Philip Henslowe at The Rose. There's not with the Admiral's Men. There's not a cushion to look pregnant. That doesn't appear. I hypothesize that it's because it was probably just a sort of a common soft good that existed around a theatre. Now, of course, that's for the plays when it's pretty clear that a pregnancy was visible, based on the text, based on the dramaturgical needs of the production. That's not the case with all of these plays. Sometimes the pregnancies are supposed to be secrets or hidden, and so you have to find them in the text, and you have to keep an eye out for the sometimes coded language of pregnancy that appears in many of these plays.
Michael: You point out that pregnancy becomes such a common sight on the Stuart stage that some playwrights even begin to ridicule the convention. Can you give us some examples and tell us what they reveal?
Sara: Yeah, absolutely. One way that we can tell the popularity of a convention on the early modern stage is if it's repeated. This is a commercial enterprise, so is the convention repeated and for how long? That sort of indicates to us how long audiences are willing to continue to engage that kind of convention or for how long they continue to enjoy it. For example, Thomas Kidd's The Spanish Tragedy was sort of an early modern blockbuster, for lack of a better term. What we now call revenge tragedy sort of exploded all over the early modern theatre. So revenge tragedy is its own sort of sub-genre of early modern drama. We see that in Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, where you have this sort of revenger who comes in to right a societal wrong, but then becomes corrupted himself, or herself in one case.
Finally, the convention of the revenge tragedy sort of became so well worn and predictable that playwrights had to find new ways to invigorate it, and sometimes that's by making fun of it. We see that in contemporary sort of spoof and parody films now or, for example, in sort of spoof and parody plays, like Something Rotten on Broadway. Hence, Thomas Middleton ... I'm always coming back to Thomas Middleton ... his play The Revenger's Tragedy is kind of a campy send-up of the genre.
I argue that we can apply this sort of similar principle and idea to pregnancy plays, happening in a similar way. I mentioned More Dissemblers Besides Women, where we have the boy actor dressed as a girl disguised as a boy hiding a pregnancy. That's many layers of disguise, but in that play, Thomas Middleton, who is highly theatrical and often metatheatrical with his depictions of pregnant characters, he's drawing the audience's attention to the boy actor beneath the dress, the boy actor beneath the belly. So there have been plenty of pregnant characters on public stages, and plenty of girls disguised as male pages, but Middleton was sort of the first to slam those two conventions together in this sort of deliciously campy way. He must have found success with it, because he repeated that trick in another play called The Nice Valour, or The Passionate Madman, in 1622. We also see a repeat of the pregnant page in Rowley, Dekker and Ford's The Witch of Edmonton around 1621.
Someone like Ben Jonson, who sort of was simultaneously engaging in theatrical practice and theatrical production, but also sort of self-loathing at the same time, Ben Jonson, by the time we get to like the 1630s, is much less interested in sort of sending up the genre to camp in a Middletonian way, as he is of ridiculing audiences and playwrights reliance on visual cues, and again is, like I said, engaging in that sort of theatrical self-loathing. For example, his play, The Magnetic Lady, written around 1632, he gives us a character who is conspicuously named Placentia, so sort of calling to mind placenta, just with her name. Placentia is, according to established pregnancy play conventions from the past nearly thirty years, is clearly pregnant and hiding it.
If we read the play very closely, it's clear that she's pregnant. However, nobody, especially not her inept doctor, seems to notice that she's pregnant. The only woman who does realize attempts to tell a doctor by using sort of traditional pregnancy language, puffed, blown, leavened, to indicate the shape of her body. But otherwise, that's really it. We understand that she has some cravings and that somebody is calling her puffed and blown. In that play, Placentia's belly was likely inconspicuous beneath the boy actor's gown, evinced by these sort of metatheatrical choral interludes, of which Jonson makes use to comment on the action and appropriately, the playwright's own sort of artistic merit. So in the play, Jonson is sort of complimenting his own writing, which is not uncommon for this playwright.
This happens a lot with Jonson. One of the characters is a fan of Jonson's work, and the other one is not, so during one of these interludes, the play's harshest critic, who's aptly named Damplay ... so Jonson's not very subtle with his naming of characters ... he asserts it was, a quotation from the play, "a pitiful poor shift of the poet to make his prime woman with child and fall in labor, just to compose a choral." So at one point in the play, Placentia, who is secretly pregnant, she goes into labor, because some men scare her by starting a fight. Here Damplay complains that Placentia's being with child, a surprise to him, is a contrived convention. Here we have this sort of like metatheatrical critique of the pregnancy convention. So in this way, Damply sort of performs the part of the bad audience member, who's just watching the play and not listening to Jonson's language. If you're just watching the play and not listening carefully, you might miss it that she's pregnant, until she goes into labor.
Now, Jonson's defender in this sort of interlude boy, he counters this unfounded critique, or what he thinks is an unfounded critique, and insists that Placentia's pregnancy and sudden labor pains ought not to have been a surprise to audience members who'd actually been paying close attention to the language early on in the play. In fact, her pregnancy proves to be at the heart of the play's conflict, as the boy demonstrates. So it's through this metatheatrical intervention that Jonson pokes fun at the inept audience member surprised by Placentia's pregnancy, and perhaps his fellow playwrights, who rely too much upon spectacle and prosthetics.
Simultaneously, Jonson makes fun of what he no doubt considered to be at this point, by the 1630s, a sort of hackneyed convention of the undiagnosed pregnancy, which is in a number of the popular pregnancy plays prior to 1632, including Shakespeare's plays that I mentioned before, such as The Winter's Tale, Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore by John Ford, which is dated around 1629-1630, so just a couple years before The Magnetic Lady. And so we can see that these playwrights are knowingly participating in a convention that continues through the 1630s.
Michael: You mentioned that there were a whole bunch of prosthetics that early modern English performers used to depict women. Can you tell us about some of the others, and what their use says about how women were viewed and depicted in this time?
Sara: Yeah. To perform the roles of women, boy actors, male actors wore wigs, gowns, farthingales, cosmetics, maybe prosthetic breasts. That's something that Peter Stallybrass asks. And there have been a lot of really fantastic studies of these materials by Farah Karim-Cooper, Andrea Stevens, Andrew Sofer, [Moana Carr 00:25:03], Will Fisher, Rosalyn Jones, Peter Stallybrass. The belly exists within this sort of constellation of gowns, wigs, cosmetics and prosthetics.
The best way, for my money, to understand what prosthetics were used on the early modern stage, and to what effect, is to find the sort of embedded critiques of the convention in the dramatic text or sort of metatheatrical deconstructions of the convention, like we see in Thomas May's The Heir. So there's been really a great deal of attention paid to the ways in which gender and race manifested on the early modern stage, the ways in which it was constructed and idealized onstage and then sort of proliferated throughout the culture, throughout early modern London, and sort of vice versa.
In her book on early modern cosmetics, Farah Karim-Cooper talks at length about the ways in which London's cosmetic industry was criticized metatheatrically onstage, while of course those cosmetics were being used. Through these sort of onstage critiques ... Ben Jonson's Epicoene really comes to mind here ... we can come to understand real world critiques over women using cosmetics and prosthetics to beautify, and as it appears in a lot of the anti-cosmetic literature of the time, sinning against God by using makeup. That's what Hamlet says, "God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another."
I think what we can see and understand in the staging of pregnant bodies on early modern stages are sort of incessant anxieties over women's abilities to conceive a child, to conceal a pregnancy, and to dissemble and to lie about the identity of the father, all right under even a very watchful man's nose. This sort of patriarchal anxiety comes up again and again in the plays that I study. From Leontes's suspicion that Hermione carries another man's child, in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, to the Duchess's secret pregnancies in The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, to the secret incestual pregnancy in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore by John Ford, many of these of these plays are sort of engaging real fears that men have regarding the sort of one realm over which women had more control, and that is reproduction.
That's why in so many of these pregnancy plays, there are women who attempt to hide an illegitimate pregnancy, but they're eventually exposed, or their bodies sort of betray them by going into labor. To me, these moments, like the pregnant page in More Dissemblers, reveal this sort of male fantasy of the female body that cannot hide anything from the male gaze, because eventually their bodies will betray them.
Michael: You mentioned that this is a surprisingly understudied aspect of early modern English drama. Why do you think that is, and why is it important for us to better understand this subject?
Sara: There are many answers to that, and I think they all are related to one another. In a really perhaps oversimplified way, I think that it's something that's just really easy to overlook. So it's like, okay, oh yeah, Hermione's pregnant. Got it. But what does that look like to an audience? I think at times there are some assumptions that there's no real belly there, it's just something that we're told, oh, she's pregnant. We just sort of imagine that for ourselves. But the character would have been wearing a gown and a wig and cosmetics. To me, it doesn't really make sense that these very sophisticated and savvy early modern practitioners wouldn't also give her a pregnant belly.
I think it's just really easy to overlook, and what does that pregnancy look like to an audience? What happens when the pregnancy is complicated in some way through an onstage undressing or violence to the pregnant body, which happens in a lot of these plays? That's when we really start to see it. That's when we really start to wonder, okay, how did they do that? Those really theatrically challenging moments, unfortunately, just aren't as prevalent in Shakespeare's pregnancy plays, and he is the early modern playwright who gets the most attention onstage, in the classroom, and in our scholarship.
So I do think that the pregnancy in these plays is really easy to overlook, especially if you're just looking at Shakespeare's plays. And I do think challenging ourselves to think outside the Shakespeare box can expose us to some really fun plays that pose a lot of fascinating problems for theatre historians and performance studies scholars to think about. The sort of Shakespeare centricity of our studies can really limit what we notice in the plays of the period and in the theatre history of the period.
Another reason that I think that this particular convention has been overlooked is because there's sort of a popular narrative that there are very few mothers or maternal characters in popular drama, once Elizabeth dies and James I comes to the throne. It's simply not true, but it's a pretty persistent bias. Now, some may argue that these pregnant characters that I'm looking at aren't strictly mothers or maternal, but I sort of reject that notion. That sort of bias toward the motherless Stuart stage, I think, influences the way that folks are reading these plays, and they're sort of missing these really nuanced pregnant characters.
I also think it comes with an overlooking of Queen Anne of Denmark's influence on early modern theatrical culture and dramaturgy. She was a highly theatrical person. She was really involved in the staging of court masques. She performed in court masques, and she was also very conscious of her own sort of performance of maternity, especially once she got to England and sort of became this literal gateway through which the heirs of England and the future monarchs of England would come through. And so I think her influence has been overlooked and overshadowed by James and the attention that we've paid to James.
Finally, I think that emerging scholars of theatre history and performance studies have not wholly, of course, but largely given up on this period. There are fewer new brains thinking about not only what's on the page, but how did it translate to the stage, and what does it mean once it's there? We've kind of given it all over to English lit folks, and as theatre performance scholars, we are trained to ask, what are these bodies doing? What do they mean, and how can I understand it now? I can certainly attest, by way of anecdote, that my experience as a director and dramaturge, strongly influences the ways in which I read early modern dramatic texts.
Now, of course, many early modern drama and literature scholars are asking questions about performance history and staging practices, and doing really amazing work, but that's really where the work is happening, evinced, for example, by the avid participation in staging sessions and actor involvement at the American Shakespeare Center's biennial Blackfriars Conference in Staunton, Virginia, as well as the Shakespeare Association of America Annual Conferences. That's really where the conversations about early modern theatre history are happening, and a lot of theatre folks just aren't really a part of that. That said, current studies of early modern theatrical materials and performances of maternal bodies neglect to offer any sort of sustained consideration of pregnancy as a highly visible prosthetic practice in its own right, let alone on the bodies of young actors.
So by and large, even critics who are talking about maternity in the period or performances of maternity haven't really considered how the sight of a pregnant belly onstage, that which signals both fecundity and abundant sexuality, nevermind feral sexuality that is layered on top of a boy actor's body, affect the way we might read Hermione's paddling poems in The Winter's Tale or the moment when the Duchess of Malfi ravenously devours Bosola's apricots. Too often, critics are really considering these moments as literature, outside of the performance contexts, or worse yet, they neglect the rich presence of prenatal motherhood on Stuart stages altogether, which takes me back to the sort of persistent narrative of the non-maternal Stuart stage.
Even in studies that are sort of wrestling with the presence and position of props and prosthetics in early modern performance, of which there are many, there's no examination of pregnancy as a prosthetic device. And I really think that a sustained engagement with depictions of fertile childbearing bodies in early modern pregnancy plays really help us to understand social and cultural constructions of female reproductive bodies in early modern England. These formations continue to affect the way we understand performing pregnant bodies, performances of pregnancy, and anxieties over reproductive autonomy today.
Michael: We'll post additional links on Stuart drama, as well as Sara's work, in our show notes. Thank you, Sara, for explaining this fascinating piece of costuming history to us.
Sara: No, thank you so much for having me.
Michael: If you'd like to continue today's conversation, please visit howlround.com and follow HowlRound and @theatrehistory on Twitter and Facebook. You can also visit our website at theatrehistorypodcast.net, where you can find links to all of our episodes, and you can email your questions and comments about the show to [email protected]. A big thank you to the staff at HowlRound, who make this show possible. Our theme music is The Black Crook Gallop, which comes to us courtesy of the New York Public Library Libretto Project and Adam Roberts. Thanks as well to [Tip Cress 00:34:13], who designed our logo. And finally, thank you for listening.