Is that a manual?" the librarian asked when I presented him with Janet Adelman's Suffocating Mothers, her celebrated study of Shakespeare's depiction of the mother. As a casual line from a stranger, this remark sticks in the mind, but it was too jagged to work as a joke and too revealing for comfort.
How we think and talk of mothers speaks volumes about individuals and society. For the early modern stage, the collision between the mother as emblem and as individual is grist to the theatrical mill, and dramatists such as Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Middleton and John Webster used this figure to create compelling viewing and inspire lingering contemplation.
Felicity Dunworth's Mothers and Meaning on the Early Modern English Stage traces the political and dramatic function of motherhood in body and rhetorical trope from the medieval to the Jacobean stage. She is concerned primarily with the textual representation of the mother, rather than with the individual experience of maternity.
Occasionally, early modern women's own writings and self-reflection make their way into the book in the moving printed testimonies of mothers who, all too aware of their vulnerability, wrote to their unborn children expressing their hopes for their good marriages and, eventually, their good deaths. Dunworth lingers on the poignant words of Elizabeth Grymeston, writing in the early 17th century to her son, Bernye. These Jacobean bestsellers were printed testimonies of a mother's love and, crucially, her piety.
Dunworth observes that, much as we may look for our own preoccupations mirrored in the past, there is little that is universal or shared about the perceptions of mothers, and she shows how the political and religious meanings of each dramatic imagining are tightly tied to their own political moment. In a way, then, it is a shame that the book does not really account for the Renaissance stage's most common estranging device - the boy actor. There is not much room here for the specificities of how a boy might have played the fatal Volumnia, the panic-inducing Gertrude, or the abandoned Lady Macduff.
One strength of the book is its refusal to isolate a single dramatist. Mothers proliferate in early modern drama in a glorious cavalcade of drunken gossips (such as Noah's wife), pimps (Middleton's Revenger's Tragedy), adulterers (Thomas Heywood's Woman Killed With Kindness), husband-murderers (the anonymous Arden of Faversham), sacrificial victims (the heroine of Webster's Duchess of Malfi), grief-stricken suicides (Kyd's Spanish Tragedy) and embalmed corpses (Marlowe's Tamburlaine 2).
Each role in the repertoire informed other roles, and each may have been part of an early modern actor's career and of the early modern audience's theatrical experiences. It is clear from Dunworth's book that to focus only on Shakespeare robs us of a full understanding of what he or his audience were doing in writing and responding to these roles.
Take the female characters of Hamlet, a play that sits in a line between Kyd's Spanish Tragedy and Middleton's Revenger's Tragedy. For an early modern audience, Ophelia gains tragic power because, unlike her predecessor - Kyd's Isabella, who stabs herself in the arbour where her son, Horatio, was hanged - the young woman who drowns herself in "the weeping brook" in grief for her murdered father will always remain a daughter and a sister, denied her potential motherhood.
In contrast, the much-vilified Gertrude looks like a paragon of virtue when compared with Middleton's luxurious Duchess, and setting Hamlet next to The Revenger's Tragedy raises the question of how harshly Shakespeare's rather enigmatic mother-figure should be judged.
Dunworth's book probably won't inspire any barbed comments from librarians, but it is a useful look at a significant figure from the early modern stage.
Mothers and Meaning on the Early Modern English Stage
By Felicity Dunworth. Manchester University Press. 256pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780719076329. Published 19 April 2009