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Introduction: Shakespeare’s sisters and household theatre

Watch Alison Findlay explain how the men and women of the Sidney family made different kinds of theatre in the age of Shakespeare.
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Welcome to week 3 of the course, in which we explore the Sidney’s dramatic writing. Our perceptions of theatre in the 16th and 17th century are unsurprisingly dominated by the building of the first professional theatres, such as the Globe in London, which was owned by Shakespeare’s company. This was an all-male world in which women’s parts were played by boys and youths. Virginia Woolf famously lamented that it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare, because of the restrictions placed on women’s behaviour at the time. While this was undoubtedly accurate for the professional theatre, Woolf doesn’t tell the whole story.
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This week, we will introduce you to other forms of theatre performed in the great households of the nobility, where women, including the Sidney women, did participate. Sir Philip Sidney’s drama, The Lady of May, from which will study an extract, was written to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Wanstead House, home of the Earl of Leicester, Philip’s uncle in 1578, and was designed with its own political agenda to promote Leicester’s interests to the queen. Unlike the commercial theatres where anyone could pay to watch, such performances were offered to a specific group of invited guests, which made them an elitist arena in which women could perform with less risk to their reputations.
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In the early 17th century, the Sidneys became closely involved in court entertainments, because Robert Sidney was appointed as Lord Chamberlain to King James I’s queen, which meant that he organised all her court entertainments. Queen Anne of Denmark brought with her a continental tradition of performance in which women danced in court masks, though they did not speak. Robert’s daughters took part in at least two of Anne’s masques. Lady Mary Wroth was one of the dancers in The Masque of Blackness in 1605, a performance which scandalised the Venetian ambassador, since the queen and her ladies wore black makeup and what he called courtesan-like costumes.
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One of the many autobiographical characters in Wroth’s prose romance, The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, written in 1621, says, “My fashion being free, and such as having been bred in court, I carried with me into the country.” Court fashions of freedom in performance may well have been something that Sidneys carried with them from the court into the country. As part of such a courtly tradition, it’s perhaps not so surprising that the Sidney women chose to express themselves through drama. Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, wrote a pastoral Dialogue Between Two Shepherds, Thenot and Piers, in Praise of Astrea, for a visit of the Queen Elizabeth to Wilton house.
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The royal visit did not take place, but Mary Sidney did, however, publish the first English dramatisation of the Antony and Cleopatra story in her translation the play by Robert Garnier in 1592, which she dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. We’ll study an extract from her tragedy of Antony. Lady Mary Wroth, daughter of Robert Sidney, and niece of Mary Sidney Herbert, went one stage further, in writing an original pastoral play, Love’s Victory, where the romantic adventures of the shepherd community are overseen by Venus and Cupid. This week, we explore how she used drama to shape a new romantic relationship with her cousin William Herbert, by focusing on one scene of her play in the script and in performance.
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Although Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, and Lady Mary Wroth, were part of a vibrant family culture of courtly performance, we mustn’t forget the extraordinary nature of these female-authored plays, written in spite of a very male-dominated tradition, as Virginia Woolf’s comments remind us. This week, we’ll introduce you to the relatively unknown tradition of household theatre and women’s drama, which casts new light on the mainstream performance history of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

This week we will study how the men and women of the Sidney family made different kinds of theatre from those which took place in the London playhouses of Shakespeare and Marlowe.

As you are watching the Introduction to the week, think about what kinds of theatre you already know – from Shakespeare’s day and from your own experience.

NB It may be helpful, this week especially, to make use of the on screen captions button for the videos. You can activate these by pressing the small red button on the bottom right of the video screen and clicking ‘English’.

  • How does theatre in the Sidney households and at court differ?
  • Are there any similarities to theatres or theatre-going that you know?

Post a comment to share your thoughts.

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Penshurst Place and the Sidney Family of Writers

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