Bridget Orr
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Laboratories of subjectification
Characters and stereotypes in late Stuart and Georgian theatre
in Stereotypes and stereotyping in early modern England

Some chapters in this volume explore how stereotypes served heuristic functions in political and religious spheres. This chapter complements these by considering how stereotypes conditioned the formation of identity more broadly during the long eighteenth century. At its heart lies the centrality of stereotypes in shaping identities: subjectivity depends on our being cast in gendered, raced, classed and sexual roles from our entry into the world. Admittedly, late Stuart and Georgian theatre, depending on stock characters, is often considered aesthetically inferior to early modern counterparts populated by characters like Hamlet. Yet the theatre of the long eighteenth century is important because it was a ‘laboratory of subjectification’; dependence on stock types was used to model the differentiation from norms by which individuality is achieved. The chapter shows that the commercial stage of the period did much more than produce and circulate new stereotypes (as indicated in Chapters 2 to 4). On the stage the audience found struggles with social, political, racial and gender stereotypes; heightened comic and moralised versions of their own experience, anxieties and aspirations. Thus, the theatre continued to attract diverse audiences while playing a pivotal role in developing new stock characters and even national and racial identities.

The ‘stereotype’ is a category elaborated by Walter Lippmann which migrated many years ago from twentieth-century American sociological discourse into humanities disciplines. Although invoked by literary scholars interested in analysing conventional characterisations in terms of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation, reliance on the term has been limited because the reductive and coercive dimensions of the stereotype are not only suspect in themselves but often seem too crude to illuminate the more subtle and ambiguous effects of literature and performance. Undoubtedly the most influential repurposing of the category in literary scholarship is Homi Bhabha’s mobilisation of the term in his much-republished essay ‘The other question: stereotypes and colonial discourse’, a foundational text in post-colonial scholarship.1 Bhabha’s essay identifies the stereotype as the master trope of colonial discourse, a rhetorical strategy intended to create subject nations through rendering people knowably, visibly ‘other’, constructing populations of ‘degenerate types’ on the basis of racial origin to justify conquest. Bhabha is concerned with the processes of subjectification enabled by stereotyping rather than identifying the positive or negative valences of images, but he also shows how the apparent fixity of stereotypes is repeatedly transgressed by differences which reveal the limits and instability of colonial discourse and thus the possibilities of subversion and resistance.

Bhabha’s work is illuminating in thinking about the later Stuart and Georgian theatre as a central location in the construction of colonial discourses facilitating the continuous expansion of imperial power in this period. At the same time, however, it is important to bear in mind that the stereotype is not the only rhetorical category the primary function of which was to establish fixed, knowable and visible subjects. The early modern European theatre inherited from Greek and Roman drama a range of figures known as stock characters, including the jealous patriarch, the bombastic soldier, the naive rustic and the cunning slave.2 As with the stereotype, these characters’ fixity serves to underscore their essentialising function as representative embodiments of particular social and sexual types. Chapters in this volume have shown the remarkable degree to which early modern men and women contested negative stereotyping to which they were exposed. Here I wish to argue that frequently theatrical stock characters themselves reveal a degree of significant divergence from their models, a process that not only has a powerful individuating effect but serves to underscore the role of performativity in subject formation on and off the stage. Notwithstanding the views of Romantic critics, whose fetishism of Shakespeare as the creator of characters with unique and complex individual personalities we have inherited, the universal dependence of early modern theatre on stock types serves as a reminder that subjectification per se, not just that of colonial subjects, depends on our being cast in gendered, raced, classed and sexual roles from our first appearance in the theatrum mundi. One of the greatest fascinations of theatre is witnessing the process by which individuation is constructed through characterological deviation from a normative role, thereby offering a model and a commentary on the processes of self-fashioning in which we are all imbricated. The proliferation of stereotypes in late Stuart and Georgian plays can be seen not as a sign of an aesthetic defect but as offering a particularly rich series of case studies revealing the workings of social casting and the ensuing negotiations that lie at the heart of this volume.

The importance of stock types and stereotypes in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century drama arises in part from the theatre’s dependence on a series of particular genres, all of which employed predictable figures. Manners comedies, comedies of intrigue, sentimental comedy, heroic tragedy and she-tragedy all deployed character types with which contemporary spectators were fully familiar. The theatre largely depended on an equally familiar set of play texts which formed a stable repertory, in which certain stock parts were frequently performed by particular actors. The genres themselves both encoded social, political and cultural tensions, such as anxieties over companionate marriage or the rise of the ‘monied interest’, and were shaped by the capacities and theatrical skills of charismatic performers. Within this largely stable and predictable theatre system, new kinds of character emerged by virtue of their contrast with or development of well-known types.

Theatre as laboratory of subjectification

When late eighteenth-century critics and scholars looked back at Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, they saw characters – larger-than-life protagonists like Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III and Prospero but also such memorable figures as Falstaff, Malvolio, Iago, Jacques and Beatrice. So compelling were such figures that they bred a new form of dramatic scholarship, practised by scholars like William Richardson and critics like William Hazlitt, which explored the complexities and ambiguities of these inimitable persons. Richardson’s Essays on Shakespeare’s Dramatic Characters (1812) went through many editions and provided a powerful model of analysis that focused on figures whose lifelikeness Richardson ascribed to Shakespeare’s unique ability to channel the feelings animating his creations, as ‘the Proteus of the drama’.3 Richardson believed that Shakespeare created characters through the imaginative inhabitation of their passions, in contrast to a dramatist such as Pierre Corneille who, he believed, simply (and infinitely less plausibly) ‘describes’ them from a thoroughly external perspective. In a challenging test case, moreover, Richardson explored what he saw as Shakespeare’s originality in creating characters who exhibit ‘national’ characteristics, including in this category Jews, Africans, Scots, Irish and Frenchmen. He argued that no ancient comic dramatist, from Aristophanes to Plautus, produced stock characters determined by ‘nation’ and compared Shakespeare favourably with recent and contemporary playwrights who specialised in the recuperation of such figures, notably sentimental dramatist Richard Cumberland. Richardson argued that Shakespeare anticipated his successors by making his ‘national characters’ sympathetic individuals rather than the more usual ‘aggregate of all the individuals that belong to one race or community’.4 He observes that ‘National Manners – of Jews, of Negroes, of Frenchmen; of Scotsmen and of Irishmen have with great success, employed the exertions of contemporary, or modern, ingenuity’ but mostly, he emphasises, the effect of such representations is deliberately and degradingly ‘ludicrous’. ‘It is only with writers of superior merit, that we have such judicious discrimination as we feel illustrated in the Fluellen of Shakespeare, the Jew, and Colin MacLeod, of Cumberland’,5 he remarks, explaining that Fluellen, like Shylock and Othello, are representations of individuals who ‘are not to be despised’.6

Richardson’s attempt to harmonise Shakespeare’s invention of stock types based on race, community or nation, whose later deployment he acknowledged was generally hostile, with his admiration for the dramatist’s individuation of particular figures such as Fluellen, articulates a contradiction he cannot fully resolve. If Shakespeare was responsible for extending stock characterisation to invent figures primarily defined by race, ethnicity, nationality or religion, he had a crucial role in transforming a venerable staple of European comic drama into Bhabha’s colonialist stereotype, a trope intended to define, degrade and rule. From this perspective, however persuasive their reality effect as individuated dramatic personae, characters such as Othello, Shylock and indeed Fluellen might be considered as no more than racist projections.

Is there a way through this problem? Northrop Frye came at the issue of stock type and individuation from a robustly formalist perspective that suggests a proleptic awareness of more recent formulations of subjectification as a general social process. Writing in 1953, with an impatient contempt for historicist critics of Shakespeare who read his plays primarily in terms of contemporary political reference, Frye argued that the playwright’s characterisation was not shaped to refer to current political figures but was governed primarily by dramatic necessity.7 Shakespeare, he claimed, used precisely the same cast of stock types who had populated drama for the last two and a half thousand years. He was not a different kind of dramatist to his peers – he was simply better, using ‘the same formulas, but in a much more subtle, complex and unpredictable way’. Frye went on to write:

It is because he can get every ounce of dramatic effect out of his situation that Shakespeare’s characters seem so wonderfully lifelike. I am not trying to reduce them to stock types but I am trying to suggest that the notion of an antithesis between the lifelike character and the stock type is a vulgar error. All Shakespeare’s characters owe their consistency to the appropriateness of the stock type which belongs to their dramatic function. That stock type is not a character but it is as necessary to the character as a skeleton to the actor who plays it.8

Frye’s brilliant aperçu – that it is the variations and play on or difference from the stock character which creates the effect of lifelikeness or individuation – is consonant with modern accounts of subject formation that argue that we are all ‘called’ into a given social role. One famous formulation of this process is provided by Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation, in which we are ‘hailed’ into our subject position. Althusser identified families, schools and churches as ‘ideological state apparatuses’ that call us into being even before we are born, identifying us as, for example, Catholic, female, working-class.9 A more recent version of this view is articulated by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble, in which she argues that we are cast as gendered, raced subjects within a heteronormative matrix that requires us to perform a given identity from our infancy.10 In both these accounts, individuals do not express a deep interior personhood but are cast from birth in roles that many find onerous, even imprisoning, as in the case of those who reject their initial gender assignment. Stock types and stereotypes can thus be seen not just to encode specific ideological presumptions (about gender, sexuality, religion, class, ethnicity and so on) but, more importantly, to be a point of departure from which subjectification is established and (sometimes) contested.

One of the most significant dimensions of theatre is that the constructedness and conventionality of subject formation – dependent on a communal willingness to subject ourselves to shared fantasy in accepting artificial identities – is so acutely modelled by the experience of performance and of spectatorship. Audiences of early modern plays knew everyone in the dramas they watched had a conventional role, but theatrical texts and performers took great delight both in undermining and underscoring the arbitrary and fictitious nature of that imaginative presumption, not least through metatheatrical commentary. For all their overt polemical and ideological purposes, early modern theatres can be seen as laboratories of subjectification, in which the audience might witness elite men and rebellious women, revolting slaves and vengeful bastards exhibiting a refusal to accept their assigned roles and attempting to assert other particular or chosen forms of identity.

Later Stuart and Georgian plays: case studies

The theatre of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods has been privileged by late twentieth-century scholars, who emphasised the institution’s peculiar capacity to provoke reflection on the intrinsically social nature of subject formation, with Hamlet as Exhibit A.11 This is not unconnected to the idolisation of Shakespeare’s virtuoso characterisation of Hamlet by Romantic writers, who regarded Restoration and eighteenth-century theatre as inferior to the theatre of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Late eighteenth-century commentators did name-check more recent theatrical figures, such as the Plain Dealer Manly, Sir Fopling Flutter, Captain MacHeath and the Fair Penitent Calista but these characters failed to generate the same depth of fascination as their predecessors. They were prominent because they were exemplary – they were recognisable as models and as types – they were imitable, sometimes most improperly so. William Cooke reports that magistrate Sir John Fielding, Henry Fielding’s half-brother, ‘once told the late Hugh Kelly’, on a successful run of The Beggar’s Opera, ‘that he expected a fresh cargo of highwaymen in consequence at his office’. Upon Kelly’s being surprised at this, Sir John assured him ‘that ever since the first representation of this piece, there had been, on every successful run, a proportionate number of highwaymen brought to the office’.12 Shakespearian avatars appear to have been harder to detect.

Differences between early modern and long eighteenth-century dramaturgy have generally been used to denigrate the latter, although the explanations for the inadequacy of Georgian theatre differ. To the question ‘Why there are so few good modern Comedies?’ William Hazlitt replied ‘[w]e are deficient in Comedy, because we are without characters in real life’, arguing that by the early nineteenth century strong personalities had been reduced to ‘spectators, not actors in the scene’.13 After some brilliant gleams in the Restoration, the literary quality of theatre is regarded as declining while the power and prestige of the performer waxed in the Ages of Betterton, Barry, Quin, Cibber, Clive, Garrick, Siddons, Kemble, Jordan and Kean. The Elizabethan Age was the age of the dramatist, but the eighteenth century was the age of the actor. Even scholars of the period, such as Allardyce Nicoll writing in the 1950s, viewed eighteenth-century dramaturgy as largely valueless: ‘with respect to the stage, the eighteenth century was in many ways a period of decay and disintegration … perhaps the greater the oblivion that could fall on the dramatic productivity of those years, the better’.14 In the 1970s and 1980s, more sophisticated explanations of this gloomy narrative were articulated by critics such as David Marshall, Richard Sennett and Jean-Christophe Agnew. In their accounts, as social personalities became more performative, dramatic personalities lost their representative power and theatrical writing gave way to forms better suited to express individual subjectivity, such as the novel.15 Theatrical and performative metaphors were crucial in defining identity and relationships, but these critics uniformly agree that drama as a form and theatre as an institution degraded in the eighteenth century.

These judgements have come under pressure over the last two decades, in part because scholars take a more expansive view of the cultural significance of celebrity performance and partly through a recuperative attitude to eighteenth-century dramaturgy. Joseph Roach has argued that the theatre became the site of quasi-religious enchantment in an increasingly secular age, with theatrical stars the focus of devotional fan cults that still inform contemporary psychology.16 He has also explored the ways performers were able to invest their roles with a sense of psychological depth, easier in the case of Shakespeare’s brilliant characterisation but still possible with the threadbare scripts of late Georgian tragedy. Stereotypes enter our discussion in this context. Felicity Nussbaum has shown that actresses modelled adventurous forms of identity that laid the ground for new kinds of female selfhood. On the dramaturgical side, Lisa Freeman has suggested that the stage provided a powerful model of character – one situationally and socially inflected, shaped by generic constraints and expectations but powerfully resonant just the same – that rivalled the attractions of the mode of subjectivity supposedly articulated in the emergent form of novelistic fiction, complex interiority.17 Freeman’s argument is particularly suggestive for our purposes in that her stress on the way generic expectations shaped character types understood by actors and audiences alike meant a particularised character could emerge when created as a complex variant of a familiar figure. Freeman also reminds us that, along with the subtleties generated by the play on generic expectations, audience familiarity with aspects of the actors’ and actresses’ reputations and offstage lives frequently inflected both the delivery and the reception of their performances, reducing a sense of theatrical character as ‘natural’ but enforcing a belief in its existence as a complex, legible series of surfaces.

Further, during the eighteenth century, particularised dramatic stereotypes often assumed an extraordinary auratic power, generating multiple textual and dramatic representations as characters were appropriated by other writers and imitators, moving well beyond their original scene of production. An excellent example is Tony Lumpkin, Oliver Goldsmith’s cunning yokel in She Stoops to Conquer (1773). Lumpkin is an utterly familiar stock type, the agroikos or rustic first named in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and occurring frequently in ancient and early modern comedies. Although often simply a foil to more intelligent urban or higher-status characters, eighteenth-century rustics increasingly provided vertical invaders from the city with a run for their money in plays such as Charles Johnson’s The Country Lasses (1715), George Lillo’s Silvia; or, the Country Burial (1730) and John Burgoyne’s The Lord of the Manor (1787). Goldsmith’s Lumpkin is not the hero of the comedy but he dominates its action, successfully tricking all the apparently wittier and more sophisticated characters and ending by achieving his own emancipation from paternal authority. Crucially, his successful trickery is not that of the cunning servant (another stock type) but depends on his use of local knowledge, an ability to predict urban presumption and exploit outsider ignorance of local topography. Goldsmith’s unsentimental but affectionate reworking of the country bumpkin in Lumpkin underscores his attachment to country life, the endangerment of which he mourns in the poem The Deserted Village (1770) at the same time as attacking the vices of commercial empire.

Lumpkin is a powerful example of the kind of character who generated spin-offs, prequels, sequels and fan lit in Georgian culture. The initial expectations for She Stoops to Conquer were low, but the casting was widely regarded as turning the play into a hit, with an initial run of twenty nights, a more-than-respectable figure given that authors were relieved if their plays ran for three nights and gave them a ‘Benefit’, the evening’s takings. Recalling the initial run in 1803, ‘The pic nic’ remarked that ‘the part of Tony Lumpkin was assigned to Quick and if we may compare great things to small, Booth gained no more fame in Cato than Quick in Tony’.18 But the play became a repertory staple on the basis of its dramaturgy as much as its star performers, with Richard Sheridan including a rustic role (Bob Acres) in The Rivals (1775) two years later and Lumpkin himself reappearing in a successful farce by the prolific Irish comedian John O’Keeffe, called Tony Lumpkin in Town (1778). Commentary on the farce underscores the characterological continuity between Tony’s two outings, with one reviewer remarking that Lumpkin ‘appears still more of a country savage than he is drawn by Dr Goldsmith’ while another expresses admiration for his sardonic commentary on ‘macaronis’, fashionable dandies whose excessive preoccupation with dress disturbed contemporary assumptions about masculinity.19 In O’Keeffe’s play, Lumpkin expands into a protagonist whose boisterous physicality and rhetorical ‘savagery’ enforces rather than delegitimating a conventional rustic critique of urban masculinity at a time when war with the American colonies put a premium on male aggression rather than politeness.

Proliferating national and ethnic stereotypes on stage

Tony Lumpkin’s success provides a provocative example of the continuing theatrical and cultural power of stock types in eighteenth-century theatre, challenging the assumption that a shift towards a proliferation of stereotypical characters in drama from the late seventeenth century forward is a sign of dramatic debility. After all, as Chapters 2, 3 and 4 by Peter Lake and Koji Yamamoto have shown, Elizabethan and early Stuart plays also contained (and often invented) a range of stock types including the alchemist, the puritan and the projector, which firmly engaged with the advent of the Protestant Reformation, commercialisation and state formation. Looking at the rise and adoptions of the phrase ‘sin and sea coal’ in plays across the seventeenth century, William Cavert’s Chapter 8 has shown that Caroline and post-Restoration plays both exhibited subtle acknowledgement (and even knowing acceptance) of urban sins of commercial consumption and sexual promiscuity. Thus, one should exercise caution when contrasting early Stuart and later Stuart plays. But it is certainly the case that, from the Restoration forward, predictable stereotypes are easily identifiable in dominant genres such as manners comedy or the heroic play, as stock types become even more emphatic than in earlier seventeenth-century drama. The comedy of manners is likely to include a (possibly reforming) rake; a witty heroine who may be a coquette (together conceived of as a ‘gay couple’); a fop (a sexual and sartorial fool); a rattle (a talkative fool); a pert maid; and a pair of ageing, often inappropriately desirous, guardians, male and female, who act as blocking agents. A heroic play will include an ungoverned ruler, a Herculean hero, a domineering virago and a virtuous and pacific virgin. An Ottoman ruler in a heroic play is likely to be despotic, with at least one cruel and fanatical pasha or vizier, and his harem will likely include women of great passion, ambition and cunning.20

City comedies and comedies of intrigue expand the range of stereotypes, often along spatial as well as class and vocational lines. Easily gulled merchants and clownish country squires were joined by flotillas of navy officers with their own maritime argot, such as Ben in William Congreve’s Love for Love; during the period leading up to the Act of Union in 1707, ‘North Britons’ or Scots proliferated in comedy, sometimes becoming the romantic lead. The expansion of trade and colonial activity introduced new comic types such as nabobs and planters, and the latter part of the period saw multiple iterations of cunning servants of African origin. The stage Irishman was a fixture from the appearance of Teague in Sir Robert Howard’s The Committee (1672) forward.

A major factor in this proliferation of national and ethnic stereotypes is the increasing awareness that the theatre served as the mirror of the nation. Although the Restoration and eighteenth-century theatres were commercial operations, they were objects of intense interest to successive monarchs and governments and functioned self-consciously as arenas of interstate cultural rivalry. The enthusiasm of Charles II, in particular, for French dramatic genres and performance practices ignited a long-running debate over the extent to which English theatre was being infiltrated and at worst debauched by foreign influences. Under attack by champions of neoclassical decorum, the irregularity and excess of the English repertoire was frequently defended by reference to the peculiar political constitution of the British Isles, with its unparalleled degree of liberty. From this point of view, Shakespeare’s highly individuated characters could be seen as consonant with his idiosyncratic dramatic structures, the latter’s untrammelled mixture of low mirth, intense pathos and violence a striking (and to some Continental critics, savage) travesty of proper theatre. From the point of view of many English critics, however, Shakespeare’s lack of decorum was held to reflect a native soil that encouraged imaginative originality and force.21

Michael Ragussis has been particularly interested in tracing the emergence of what he calls the multiethnic spectacle on the Georgian stage, noting that dramatic characters frequently embodied negative ethnic stereotyping but arguing also that audiences and dramatists often actively resisted offensive representations.22 In his account, the stage was a space in which the circulation of stereotypes was contested. One of his several striking examples of such incidents is the success of the Jewish community in driving Thomas Dibdin’s anti-Semitic Family Quarrels off the stage in 1802. But while there were some successful interventions in shutting offensive plays down, many such plays remained in the repertoire. Further, even when stock types of ethnicity, gender or religion were deliberately revised along ‘positive’ lines (as in the cases William Richardson cites), usually the resulting character still incorporated stereotypical features. Such ‘individuated’ figures thus remained in a kind of characterological prison insofar as their theatrical representation reiterated a particular ethnicity or religion or gender or class or occupation as the fundamental and inescapable ground of personhood. Perhaps it was in response to this proliferation of typology in characterisation (and casting) that Samuel Foote – known as the ‘English Aristophanes’ – achieved such success in dramatising and performing versions of real, identifiable people through the 1750s, 1760s and 1770s. A poor actor of repertory parts, Foote made a fortune imitating real people – including, bizarrely, a certain Mr Apreece who begged Foote to put him on stage – and changed his mind after a wave of humiliating notoriety that made his personal affectations a city-wide laughing-stock.23 The dangers of such a career course were made plain when the Duchess of Kingston, in retaliation for his caustic depiction of her in A Trip to Calais (1775), not only had the play refused a licence but caused Foote’s prosecution for sodomy and his premature death.24

Negotiating stereotypes: actresses, ‘gay couples’ and playwrights

Foote’s unhappy experience suggests that generalised caricatures were safer than mimicry but the proliferation of dramatic stereotypes after 1660 has a lengthy back story. As we have noted, stock types that originated in Greek and Roman plays re-emerged in early modern English dramaturgy but their recirculation in commedia dell’arte also contributed to Spanish, Italian and French comedies that influenced Restoration English dramatists whose royal patrons had enjoyed such plays in exile. Thus, a turn to neoclassical and Continental dramatic models stuffed with stock characters, encouraged by royal patronage, combined with an ever more expansive spectatorship interested in seeing emergent kinds of social types to generate the stereotypical turn. These developments in taste aside, there remains the larger question of the extent to which new habits of thought and discourse which privileged categorical and systematic ways of thinking about peoples and cultures also reshaped the terms in which human difference might be represented and performed.25

To turn from the general to the particular is, however, to be reminded of the importance of individual performers and writers in this larger process. The most striking change in late seventeenth-century theatre is the advent of the actress. It is perfectly apparent that having ‘real, beautiful women’ on stage altered dramaturgy. The exploitation of female performers’ sexual allure is obvious in the huge expansion of breeches parts, with over eight hundred created between 1660 and 1714 and an equally striking proliferation of ‘couch scenes’ (such as Desdemona being discovered in bed).26 Increasingly women en deshabille were presented as victims of violence as well as seduction – in a notorious scene from Mary Pix’s Ibrahim the Thirteenth Emperor of the Turks (1696) the heroine Morena is shown bleeding and dishevelled after being wounded and raped, and Elkanah Settle’s The Conquest of China (1676) ended with a pile of raped and murdered women on stage. Obviously, both these scenes not only emphasise women’s corporeal vulnerability to male power but reinscribe stereotypical English assumptions about the violence to which women were presumed vulnerable in ‘oriental’ states. Sometimes however, women dramatists invoked such orientalist stereotypes of hyper-masculine despotic oppression to question English presumptions that their own gender order was superior to that of the Asian world, Delarivier Manley’s Almyna (1703) being a case in point. Here, the text makes full use of the orientalising stereotypes of a harem setting populated by murderous mutes armed with strings. Importantly, however, the heroine’s rational discourse reforms the hitherto ungoverned sultan. Her eloquent attacks on the degrading effects of miseducation and enclosure are as pertinent to the position of Englishwomen as to Arabians.27

While the advent of women actors as a class created new theatrical possibilities, particular performers were also strikingly influential in shaping dramatic stereotypes. An obvious example of this is the establishment of the ‘gay couple’, often described as the most important innovation in Restoration comedy.28 While the pairing of a witty rakish hero and an equally articulate heroine had precedents in plays by Shakespeare, Richard Brome and James Shirley, it became a recurring element in comedy of this period and can be traced to the brilliance of Nell Gwyn in partnership with Charles Hart. From their first appearance as the anti-Platonic lovers in James Howard’s All Mistaken (1665) audiences were highly enthusiastic about these partners who agreed to be ‘as mad as we please’. Plays with similar couples – James Howard’s The English Monsieur (1674) and Richard Rhodes’ Flora’s Vagaries (1663) – were revived to be played by Hart and Gwyn; the second Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers adapted John Fletcher’s The Chances (1682) to provide a free-spirited role for Gwyn and in 1667 John Dryden wrote Florimell in Secret Love for Gwyn with Hart as her Celadon. Secret Love was followed by An Evening’s Love (1668), George Etheredge’s She Would if She Could (1668), Thomas Shadwell’s Epsom-Wells (1672) and many others.

While Nell Gwyn’s personality and reputation were crucial in the establishment of the witty heroine as a favoured stereotype, the gay ingénue outlived Gwyn herself. Further, a crucial dramatic element of manners comedy, the proviso scene in which the lovers mutually recognise the difficulties of marriage and try to safeguard freedom and commitment, points us to reasons beyond performative charisma in the popularity of these comic types. In a context in which the importance of love within marriage and a greater degree of equality between spouses were increasingly debated, often in terms that invoked contract theory, it is hardly surprising that spirited and independent heroines demanding greater freedom within marriage were popular.29 It is also important to remember that the English increasingly thought of their irregular drama – and their comedy in particular – as reflective of the peculiar liberty they enjoyed in the political realm, so the freedom of thought, speech and conduct demonstrated by the witty heroine were also markers of a superior, more generous gender order, against which the confinement of women in Latin Europe and the Orient was implicitly and explicitly defined.

While Gwyn played a crucial role in the development of the madcap heroine, as Elizabeth Howe has shown, two pairs of tragic actresses were central to Restoration tragedy’s repeated use of contrasting women locked in erotic rivalry. First Rebecca Marshall and Elizabeth Boutrell and then Elizabeth Barry and Anne Bracegirdle played chaste and gentle characters contrasted with figures of ungoverned passion. Marshall and Boutrell’s initial pairing in William Joyner’s The Roman Empress (1670) was followed by appearances in Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada (1670), where Marshall played the wicked Lyndaraxa and Boutell the loving and virtuous Benzayda. These castings were followed by roles as the corrupt Poppea and the pure Cyara in Nathaniel Lee’s The Tragedy of Nero (1674), the passionate Berenice and the pious Clarona in Crowne’s The Destruction of Jerusalem (1677) and, most successfully, as Roxana and Statira in Lee’s Alexander the Great (1677). The last play became a fixture of the repertoire and the rival queens Roxana and Statira were later played by Barry and Bracegirdle. In their pairing, Bracegirdle always played the innocent virgin, whether cast as Barry’s rival, daughter or friend, while Barry, who excelled in tragedy, played the passionate ‘darker woman’ in plays including Congreve’s The Mourning Bride (1697), William Mountford’s The Injur’d Lovers (1688), John Bancroft’s King Edward III (1690), Delarivier Manley’s The Royal Mischief (1696) and Charles Hopkins’ Boadicea (1697), among others.

These contrasted parts and casting, reiterating highly stereotypical characterisations of women as angelic or vicious, drew not just on ancient traditions of misogyny but on the sexual reputations of the actresses concerned: while Barry had a vivid personal life, Bracegirdle, ‘the Diana of the Stage’, was famously pure – on one occasion being sent £1,000 by a group of aristocratic male fans to celebrate her chastity. Barry’s warmer reputation combined with her skill to inspire Thomas Otway, Thomas Southerne and Nicholas Rowe in their creation of the ‘she-tragedy’, a genre that departed from the heroic mode to focus on the sufferings of a victimised and sexually exploited woman. The debt these playwrights felt to Barry is succinctly stated in Southerne’s dedication of the hugely successful The Fatal Marriage (1694): ‘I made the Play for her part and her part has made the Play for me’. Elizabeth Howe argues that such was Barry’s charisma and skill, she generated a new type of heroine – sexually passionate and unchaste but still deeply sympathetic, thus deconstructing the fundamental binary of female identity between virgin and whore – examples being Angelica in Aphra Behn’s The Rover (1677) and Southerne’s The Maid’s Last Prayer (1693).30

Howe’s virtuoso demonstration that plays inspired by actresses contributed hugely to modifying stereotypical assumptions in female roles is a crucial insight for the broader argument of this chapter. In real life, as on stage, influential actresses, when coupled with matching stories, helped challenge existing gender stereotypes while giving rise to new ones.

In other words, although the parts for women in drama after 1660 still drew on stock types, the range of those types expanded and female characters acquired new complexity. In discussing Shakespeare’s characterisation of Imogen (from Cymbeline), Hazlitt remarks that ‘(Imogen) is only interesting herself for her tendency and constancy to her husband. It is the peculiar excellence of Shakespeare’s heroines, that they seem to exist only in their attachment to others. They are pure abstractions of the affections.’31 Hazlitt’s admiration for these cipher-like figures is highlighted by his dissent from Colley Cibber’s rather different estimate of the situation:

Cibber, in speaking of the early English stage, accounts for the want of prominence and theatrical display in Shakespear’s [sic] female characters from the circumstance, that women in those days were not allowed to play the parts of women, which made it necessary to keep them a good deal in the background. Does not this state of manners itself, which prevented them from exhibiting themselves in public, and confined them to the relations and charities of domestic life, afford a truer explanation of the matter? His women are very unlike stage-heroines; the reverse of tragedy queens.32

While overtly arguing against Cibber’s suggestion that the presence of women actors changed female characterisation, citing different social customs as a cause of their previous uniformity and marginality, Hazlitt nonetheless implicitly acknowledges that female performance has reshaped women’s parts by generating ‘stage-heroines’ and ‘tragedy queens’. Distasteful and artificial he may have found them, yet such figures crowded the stage. But the quarrelsome and passionate virago was by no means the only heroine in town: the late seventeenth-century ‘she-tragedies’ were not populated by strident, squabbling ‘rival queens’. Laura Brown has argued persuasively that the deeply feeling, tortured heroines of pathetic tragedies such as the eponymous heroine of Rowe’s Tragedy of Jane Shore (1703) provided a model for the new-style protagonists of eighteenth-century domestic fiction, anticipating the creation of characters with a complex interiority we associate now with subjective depth and individuality – the very antithesis of the stock type.33

It is also important to bear in mind that the new characterisation of women in both serious and comic drama was informed by ethnic, religious and cultural stereotypes: in plays depicting the clash between ‘the Crescent and the Cross’, for example, generally the gentle figures of female virtue were Christian and the passionate viragos were Muslim. But again, ethnic and religious stock characters of both genders were often very deliberately reshaped: some women writers (such as Manley) remodelled viragos as embodiments of female rebellion. Tolerationist dramatists writing in the first half of the eighteenth century, such as John Hughes, also scrambled the characterisation of male and female Muslims alike in such plays as The Siege of Damascus (1718) and Zara (1736), both highly successful texts that presented Muslim characters as tolerant, rational and humane.34 These latter modifications were driven by the dramatists’ desire to mount enlightened, Whiggish arguments against bigotry, not by the availability of particular performers. Reshaping stereotypes required new writing as well as new performers.

Shaping and reshaping Jewish characters

The shared, alternating capacity of performer and dramatist to shape and reshape stereotypes is nowhere more apparent than in the extended oscillation in the eighteenth-century theatricalisation of Jews. In 1741, Charles Macklin appeared as Shylock in a version of The Merchant of Venice. Macklin is still credited, along with Garrick, with introducing a new, more naturalistic style of acting to the Georgian stage.35 His performance as Shylock established not only a new mode of acting but a new version of the character. Shylock was previously played as a comic figure indebted to the commedia dell’arte tradition, most famously by Thomas Doggett. By contrast, Macklin prepared for the role through participant observation. As George Colman and Thomas Bonnell commented in The Connoisseur in 1754, ‘he made daily visits to the centre of business, the ’Change, and the adjacent Coffee-houses; that by a frequent conversation with “the unforeskinned race” he might habituate himself to their air and deportment’.36 He researched Jewish costume in Venice, discovering that Jews habitually wore red hats, and he pored over Josephus’s History of the Jews, noting down high points in his commonplace book. He did not share his plans for his ambitious revisionist interpretation of the part with his fellow actors, who were as amazed as the audience by the overwhelming power of his performance. For the rest of the eighteenth century – up until Edmund Kean’s equally revolutionary sympathetic reinterpretation in 1814 – Macklin’s Shylock was ‘the Jew of Venice’. This performance emphasised the most negative aspects of Jewish stereotyping: avarice, cruelty and vengefulness. The performance was so terrifying that George II was said to find it impossible to sleep after seeing it while one young man fainted when Macklin approached Bassanio with his knife ready to slice off the infamous pound of flesh. The German traveller Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who witnessed Macklin’s performance in 1775, had no doubt the performance was anti-Semitic, commenting ‘the sight of this Jew is more than sufficient to awaken at once in the best-regulated mind all the prejudices of childhood against this people’.37

There is no more powerful instance of an actor’s entrenchment of a stereotype on the eighteenth-century stage. But Macklin’s performance did not go unanswered. Picking up the enlightened project of toleration initiated by Hughes and Aaron Hill, in 1794 dramatist Richard Cumberland expanded his mission to rebuke ‘national reflections’ and ‘to do away with old prejudices; and to rescue certain characters from the illiberal odium to which custom has marked them’.38 Having already rehabilitated the West Indian and the Irishman in The West Indian (1771) and the Scot in The Fashionable Lover (1772), Cumberland created a play, The Jew, in which Sheva, the title character, serves as the moral centre, educating and disciplining an unprincipled English merchant and rescuing needy Christians. The play was extremely successful and generated an enormous amount of public discussion.

Michael Ragussis credits Cumberland’s play with softening the hardened anti-Semitism of Macklin’s Shylock, not just through recording the enthusiastic contemporary reception but by analysing the play’s commentary on the constitutive power of stereotypes. When Sheva is unveiled as a secret benefactor, not only the audience but the character himself is confused by the removal of his disfiguring persona. At the moment that Sheva is able to ‘present’ himself rather than be ‘represented’, Ragussis suggests, ‘he finds it impossible to recognise himself in the praise of others’, still trapped in the negative stereotypes of anti-Semitism.39 This moment is another heightened reminder that identity is constituted through the repetitive re-enactment of an enforced social role, through interpellation and performance. An egregious mask might be forced onto an individual by a hostile society but, however disfiguring, it becomes an element of social personality that cannot simply or easily be removed.

Other scholars, such as Jean Marsden, regard The Jew with much greater scepticism, arguing that Sheva’s unmasking simply recasts him as a secret sharer in Christianity. In this account, the Jew’s recuperation made the English audience feel complacently proud of their peculiarly tolerant and humane culture without causing any real questioning of prejudice.40 But it is suggestive to consider that when William Hazlitt wrote in praise of Edmund Kean’s equally revolutionary, because sympathetic performance of Shylock in 1814, he suggested that the brilliance of the role lay in its revelation of the way a brutalised person may become themselves an agent of aggression.

Theatre historians concur that Kean’s revisionary interpretation of Shylock reflected his own bitter experience as an outcast, illegitimate, poor and perpetually insecure.41 Whatever its sources, Kean’s performance remains culturally and politically significant for the way in which it effectively sidelined Macklin’s previously dominant interpretation, creating a complex and nuanced figure who served as a locus of sympathy rather than revulsion and fear. Like Macklin, Kean did not draw attention to his wholesale revision of the role in rehearsal and his performance, although initially poorly attended, fell on London audiences like a thunderclap. Deliberately using a style of acting the fluency and careful shading of which stood in contrast with that of his rival John Philip Kemble, Kean invested Shylock with an explosive feeling that, as Judith Page summarises, reinvented the character, challenged the Venetian stereotype of Jewishness and redefined the play as a romantic comedy. Page persuasively suggests that Kean’s performance of Shylock not only drew on a new cultural veneration for ambiguity and empathy but points to a potential parallel with Mary Shelley’s creation of Frankenstein’s monster, in which the creator of monstrosity recognises that being characterised as malign by a scornful world actually generates disfigurement.

Accounts of Kean’s transformational recreation of Shylock place a good deal of stress on his presumed identification with another ‘outsider’. This understandable but perhaps problematic impulse to identify the player with the played recurs with Charles Macklin, a peculiarly fascinating figure in this context because he not only reiterated stereotypes as a performer and writer but also tried to modify them. His reworking of the stage Irishman in Love à la Mode (1758) is commonly reckoned to be the most successful rehabilitation of the figure, achieving wide popularity in its presentation of the Hibernian hero as a noble, brave and successful lover, even as he created a series of repellent Scotsmen in the forms of Sir Archy MacSarcasm and Sir Pertinex Macsycophant in The Man of the World (1785). There is no agreement over the extent to which the dramatic modification of the Irishman diminished prejudice but one of the most intriguing recent lines of argument on this issue points out that extant frames of analysis may be inadequate precisely because they are themselves entangled in stereotypical thinking. David O’Shaughnessy argues that it is wrong to think of Macklin as a ‘mutilated Irishman’, a perpetually angry Hibernian other raging against English oppression, pointing out that Macklin’s extraordinary career – including an incident in which he killed a fellow actor in the green room by pushing a cane into his eye in a dispute about a wig – has made it easy to characterise him as a stock figure himself. This has prevented us from recognising the extent to which he was involved in the prosperous, intellectually and politically sophisticated circles of enlightened Irish in London. Thinking about Macklin as a committed Whig, well read in the Commonwealth classics of Algernon Sidney and James Harrington, with a wide variety of affiliations with affluent, not marginal, fellow Irish beyond the theatre, suggests his mobilisation of stereotypes – as in the case of his Scotophobic depiction of Sir Archy MacSarcasm – may be more strategic and contingent than it initially appears, servicing a Whig critique of corruption rather than expressing ethnic hatred.42

The genres that thrived in Restoration and eighteenth-century English theatre deployed highly conventional stock types, often modified or joined by new kinds of character who reflected changing social, economic and political realities. For much of the last three centuries, scholars and critics have denigrated this period of theatre by comparing its characterisation to that of Shakespeare and finding it artificial, predictable and narrow in comparison with the Bard’s creation of memorable individuals. Such assessments fail to recognise not just the palpable richness of particular characters in eighteenth-century dramaturgy but also the larger fascination of the theatre system in which they played their parts. When we track the development of female characterisation in the Restoration, it becomes obvious that ‘real, beautiful women’, both players and playwrights, actively modified stock types and stereotypes, considerably expanding the repertoire of roles for women both onstage and off. Dramatists were equally concerned with generating or modifying new versions of familiar figures by creating civil Muslims, men of feeling, benevolent Jews and heroic Irishmen. More subtly, the theatre of the long eighteenth century used its dependence on stock types and stereotyping to model the process of differentiation from norms by which individuality is in general achieved, as characters emerge as complex variants of familiar social and dramatic roles. And in certain instances, the theatrical interrogation of and departure from stereotype revealed the intense brutality of subjectification in a hierarchical, intolerant and imperialist society.


1 Homi K. Bhabha, ‘The other question: the stereotype and colonial discourse’, in K. M. Newton (ed.), Twentieth-century literary theory: a reader (London, 1997).
2 See Erich Segal, Roman laughter: the comedy of Plautus, 2nd edn (New York and Oxford, 1987).
3 William Richardson, Essays on Shakespeare’s dramatic characters: with an illustration of Shakespeare’s representation of national characters, in that of Fluellen, 6th edn (London: printed for Samuel Bagster, 1812), p. 31.
4 Richardson, Essays on Shakespeare, p. 377.
5 Richardson, Essays on Shakespeare, p. 393.
6 Richardson, Essays on Shakespeare, p. 393.
7 Northrop Frye, ‘Characterization in Shakespearian comedy’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 4 (1953), 271–7.
8 Frye, ‘Shakespearian comedy’, p. 277.
9 Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and ideological state apparatuses (notes towards an investigation)’, in Lenin and philosophy and other essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York, and London, 1971).
10 Judith Butler, Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity (New York, and London, 1990).
11 For influential discussions, see Catherine Belsey, The subject of tragedy: identity and difference in Renaissance drama (London, 1985; 2014); Jonathan Dollimore, Radical tragedy: religion, ideology and power in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries (Chicago, 1984; Durham, NC, 2004); and Christopher Pye, The vanishing: Shakespeare, the subject and early modern culture (Durham, NC, 2000).
12 William Cooke, Memoirs of Charles Macklin (London: James Asperne, 1806), p. 64. Articulating one of the most ancient anti-theatrical fears, Cooke is emphatic about the ill effects of the ‘lower orders’ watching the play and ‘having (their) ambition whetted to rise in a superior style’: p. 63.
13 William Hazlitt, ‘On modern comedy’, in The collected works of William Hazlitt, eds A. R. Waller and Arnold Glover, intro. W. E. Henley (12 vols, London, 1902), vol. 1, pp. 10, 12.
14 Allardyce Nicoll, A history of English drama, 1660–1900, vol. 2, Early eighteenth century drama, 3rd edn (Cambridge, 1952), pp. 1–2.
15 See Richard Sennett, The fall of public man (New York, 1977); Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds apart: the market and the theater in Anglo-American thought 1550–1750 (Cambridge, 1986); and David Marshall, The figure of theater: Shaftesbury, Defoe, Adam Smith and George Eliot (New York, 1986).
16 Joseph Roach, It (Ann Arbor, MI, 2007).
17 Felicity Nussbaum, Rival queens: actresses, performance and eighteenth-century British theater (Philadelphia, PA, 2013) and Lisa A. Freeman, Character’s theater: genre and identity on the eighteenth-century stage (Philadelphia, PA, 2002).
18 ‘The pic nic’, The Theatre, London: Issue 2 (15 January 1803), 49.
19 ‘Short account of Tony Lumpkin’, The Universal Magazine, 62:434 (June 1778), 367–8.
20 English depictions of Ottoman Muslims are discussed in William J. Bulman’s Chapter 10.
21 For discussions of these issues, see Michael Dobson, The making of the national poet: Shakespeare, adaptation and authorship, 1660–1769 (Oxford, 1992); Bridget Orr, Empire on the English stage, 1660–1714 (Cambridge, 2001) and Freeman, Character’s theater.
22 Michael Ragussis, Theatrical nation: Jews and other outlandish Englishmen in Georgian Britain (Philadelphia, PA, 2010).
23 For a discussion of this episode, see Jane Moody, Illegitimate theatre in London, 1770–1840 (Cambridge, 2000).
24 For a recent account of this unhappy story, see Matthew J. Kinservik, Sex, scandal, and celebrity in late eighteenth-century England (New York, and Basingstoke, 2007), pp. 177–92.
25 The classic account of this development is Michel Foucault, The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences (New York, 1970; French original, 1966). See also Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment and why it still matters (New York, 2013).
26 For the first and fullest discussion of this process, see Elizabeth Howe, The first English actresses: women and drama, 1660–1700 (Cambridge, 1992). Many of my examples below are drawn from Howe.
27 For discussion of orientalist dramatic stereotypes, see Orr, Empire on the English stage.
28 For the inaugural account, see John Harrington Smith, The gay couple in Restoration comedy (Cambridge, MA, 1948). See also Howe, First English actresses, which reveals how important the actress was to the development of this staple of Restoration characterisation.
29 For a feminist assessment, see Carole Pateman, The sexual contract (Cambridge, 1988); for audience concerns, see David Roberts, The ladies: female patronage of Restoration drama, 1660–1700 (Oxford, 1989).
30 See Howe, First English actresses, chs 3, 6.
31 Hazlitt, ‘Cymbeline’, in Collected Works, vol. 1, p. 180.
32 Hazlitt, ‘Cymbeline’, in Collected Works, vol. 1, p. 180.
33 Laura Brown, English dramatic form, 1660–1760: an essay in generic history (New Haven, CT, 1981).
34 For fuller discussion, see Bridget Orr, British Enlightenment theatre: dramatizing difference (Cambridge, 2019), pp. 60–112.
35 See William Worthen Appleton, Charles Macklin: an actor’s life (Cambridge, MA, 1960).
36 The Connoisseur (31 January 1754).
37 Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Lichtenberg’s visits to England: as described in his letters and diaries, trans. and ed. Margaret L. Mare and William Henry Quarrell (New York, 1938), p. 40.
38 The phrase is taken from another play, by George Colman: ‘Prelude’, in New hay at the old market: an occassional drama, in one act (London: printed by W. Woodfall for T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1795), no page.
39 Ragussis, Theatrical nation, p. 117.
40 Jean I. Marsden, ‘Richard Cumberland’s The Jew and the benevolence of the audience: performance and religious tolerance’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 48 (2015), 457–77.
41 See, for example, Judith W. Page, ‘“Hath not a Jew eyes?”: Edmund Kean and the sympathetic Shylock’, Wordsworth Circle 34 (2003), 116–19.
42 David O’Shaughnessy, ‘“Bit, by some mad Whig”: Charles Macklin and the theater of Irish enlightenment’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 80 (2017), 559–84.
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