Women in Renaissance Tragedy A Mirror of Masculine Society
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The life of Renaissance women was not one that was conducive to independence, or much else, outside of their obligations to her husband and the running of the household in general. Women, viewed as property in Renaissance culture, were valued for their class, position, and the wealth (or lack thereof) that they would bring into a marriage. This being said, the role of women in the literature of the day reflects the cultural biases that were an ingrained part of everyday life. The depiction of women in theatre particularly, is evidence of the patriarchal society that dominated the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And as the genre of tragedy emerges into Renaissance culture, the depictions of women as romantic ideals to be worshipped and sacrificed for are slowly replaced by images of the female as a tragic catalyst for many of the leading male characters.
The literary significance of these characters is largely due to these depictions and, while the male dominated society still precludes them from assuming a more powerful and positive role in the theatre, they are no less important to the overall movement of such tragedies as anonymously penned The Arden of Faversham and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. These two plays hold a wealth of examples of the female catalyst in theatre. Particularly in examining the roles of Alice in The Arden of Faversham and Bel-Imperia of The Spanish Tragedy the audience is presented with two different ideas on women in Renaissance culture. Alice, the conniving, and conspiring adulteress is an intensely catalytic force throughout The Arden of Faversham, while Bel-Imperia is evidence of the chaste and male-defined woman so highly valued by the masculine society of the day.
In these two plays, the main action of the work, as well as the rising conflict within the play, is sparked by the relationships of these women to the men in their lives. Don Andrea is murdered, and it is at this point that Bel-Imperia first introduces the idea of revenge to the play. As soon as she finds out that Andrea is dead she vows to kill his murderer. She demands, "revenge [for the] death of my beloved" (I.IV.65). She immediately vows that Balthazar shall "reap long repentance for his murderous deed".
Following the death of Don Andrea, Bel-Imperia's relationship with other men, particularly Horatio, again dominates the action of the play. Horatio, Bel-Imperia's suitor, is the son of Hieronimo, a civil servant; Lorenzo is the son of the Duke of Castile, and Balthazar is the Prince of Portugal. Once Lorenzo and Balthazar discover that Horatio is Bel-Imperia's suitor, Balthazar comments, "Ambitious villain, how his boldness grows!" (II. ii. 41) indicative also of the reigning justice of the ruling class. Horatio is viewed as trying to attain status beyond his station in life and hereby gains the spite of Lorenzo and Balthazar. This coupled with...