Staging the Henrician Court : The Gentlewoman

This page last changed on Dec 07, 2009 by Eleanor Rycroft.

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'In no creature more beauty than in me is'

A surprising aspect of John Heywood's text is its portrayal of feminine nobility, especially when considered in tandem with lines presumed to reference Anne Boleyn. From the outset of her appearance on-stage, the Gentlewoman is subject to a series of sexual advances by Merry Report, whose comic value was no doubt heightened by their inappropriateness given the class difference between the characters. The Gentlewoman appears oblivious to these, however, or at least tolerates them: perhaps because her understanding of courtly structure leads her to realise the importance of playing along with her sexual subjugation if she is to gain access to Jupiter. She is the only character whose request for access is heard and denied, with Jupiter also assuming her motives are sexual in his statement, "that is not the thing at this time meant". Counterpointed by the Laundress and allied with the Gentleman, idleness and self-interest are at the centre of the Gentlewoman's suit for weather which enables her to preserve her looks. Far from a flattering portrait, Heywood's characterisation of the Gentlewoman doubles as a critique of the aristocratic feminine ideal. The Gentlewoman's way of life and financial dependence upon men is seen to lead directly to vice and licentiousness, the opposite of the virtuous chastity she ostensibly represents.

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