Margaret Cavendish’s Female Fairground Performers

Katritzky, M. A. (2020). Margaret Cavendish’s Female Fairground Performers. In: Sewell, Jan and Smout, Clare eds. The Palgrave Handbook of the History of Women on Stage. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 151–175.

Abstract

The vast majority of the documents – visual as well as textual – on which we base our knowledge of early modern performers, were produced by men, and most concentrate squarely on male performers. Exceptionally, the 195th of the Sociable Letters of Margaret Cavendish contains a substantial description of professional performers neither written by a man, nor sidelining the contribution of women to early modern performance culture. Having noted that typical fairground performances involve: ‘Dancers on the Ropes, Tumblers, Jugglers, Private Stage-Players, Mountebanks, Monsters, and several Beasts’, Cavendish focuses on two ‘Sights and Shews’ in which female performers take centre stage. In these, Cavendish (c.1623-73), natural philosopher, poet and playwright, draws on eye-witness experiences gathered during her mid-seventeenth-century years of royalist exile, when she overcame the restrictions inhibiting those of her class and gender from joining spectators at public stages by hiring rooms for private views of her favourite acts at Antwerp’s fairgrounds. Drawing on my ongoing archival and cultural researches into performing monsters, mountebanks, quacks and itinerant commedia dell’arte troupes, my chapter analyses and contextualizes Cavendish’s description of female fairground performers which, despite its essentially literary character, contains considerable documentary value for an understanding of early modern women on stage.

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