Women on Trial: Representing Women Litigants in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama
Schotland, Sara Deutch
Orlin, Lena C
My thesis provides a close examination of the ways in which women are represented at trial--not only to examine the attitude towards women in litigation but also to illuminate contemporary concerns with the justice system.We know the severe disabilities that women labored in the Renaissance court system. Tim Stretton and other historians have provided valuable research on the extent of participation of women in various courts but there has been little attention to the way women are portrayed in trial scenes in Renaissance drama or to the manner in which the plays address the problems of judicial partiality that vexed the court system. My study addresses two questions: (i) How do we explain the positive portrayal of women in the trial scenes in these plays? (ii) What do the plays tell us about the problems that vexed the contemporary legal system, in particular the problem of the partial judge?The trial scenes in the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas invite consideration of serious problems that vexed the legal system of the period. I examine the role of women at trial in The White Devil, Appius and Virginia, The Devil's Law Case, Henry VIII, The Winter's Tale, The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt, Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, and The Queen of Corinth. I consider in particular the problem of the partial judge. I argue that through the trial scenes the playwrights engage in an important topical debate as they criticize the biased and/or overstepping judge.The women defendants in the plays that I examine stand alone before their accusers, highlighting procedural shortcomings of Renaissance trials. As presumptively helpless females, these defendants appear more vulnerable, more sympathetic, and more heroic in these plays even as the legal system appears more tyrannical. Then and now, laymen feel vulnerable to the judicial system not only because of the coercive force of the tribunal but also because of the impenetrability of legal technicalities, complicated rhetoric, and unfamiliar jargon. Through the vehicle of women defendants, the playwrights could illustrate the quandary experienced by uneducated defendants in the face of bewildering, obfuscating language. Thus, far from using the trial scenes to contain women or discipline insubordination, the playwrights through female protagonists demonstrate the problems of judicial partiality and other infirmities and unfairness in the trial process.
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