Attitude or Age

Girlhood in Renaissance England

in Girlhood Studies


Jennifer Higginbotham. 2013. The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Sisters: Gender, Transgression, Adolescence. Edinburgh Critical Studies in Renaissance Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

While there has been recent scholarly interest in boys in the Renaissance period, there has, until now, been an absence of studies about girls. Instead, girls, like maids, wenches, and damsels, have been lumped together and categorized as women, a term that fails to recognize the fragmentation of gender at the time. In The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Sisters, a continuation of her doctoral research on girlhood, Jennifer Higginbotham investigates the apparent absence of girls in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century drama and not only clearly demonstrates their presence, but also makes an important contribution to our understanding of girlhood and girls, and how they were defined during the period. She writes, “When we ignore girls, and indeed, when we ignore female human beings who do not fit into the category of ‘woman’, we unwittingly buy into the patriarchal narrative that depends upon collapsing difference between female identities in order to define male identities against them” (2).

The concept of girl in Renaissance England differs markedly from contemporary ideas and requires us to expand our current understanding of who a girl is if we are to find them in the drama of the period. Higginbotham determines that “a girl is a ‘girl’ when she is called one” (7), citing Ludwig Wittgenstein, who states, “‘the meaning of a word is its use in language’” (quoted in Higginbotham 7). Higginbotham identifies seventeen plays in which pre-adolescent females appear and notes that there are girls in all types of Renaissance literature, including conduct books, pamphlets, and autobiographies. The more girls she found, however, the more she discovered that

[t]he category of the ‘girl’ was neither monolithic nor easily defined; the fair maid and the golden girl, the female infant on the stage, the saucy servant in a Tudor interlude and the great-great-great-granddaughter copying her ancestor’s autobiography were all part of a society in which girlhood was under construction. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English writers struggled to articulate their understandings of female youth, and girls in turn challenged them to renegotiate the boundaries of the sex-gender system (15).

In the medieval period, girl could refer to either a male or female child, but by the sixteenth century, the term was applied only to females, though in contest with a variety of other words such as maid, wench, damsel, and lass. By the eighteenth century, girl had become the most common descriptor of a pre-adolescent female. In chapter one, Higginbotham examines the many terms used to refer to a female child and determines that “[d]istinctions … are clearly relational and intertwined with other contextual factors, including social status, sexuality, familial ties, occupations and historical position” (23). In contrast to maid which identified a woman as both single and either virginal or in service, and which stood in contrast to wife, girl could be used for females who were, like Juliet after her clandestine marriage to Romeo, “in liminal social or sexual positions” (26). In consequence, the term challenged the usual division of a woman’s life into the categories of maid, wife, and widow. In the early seventeenth century, however, there was a shift in how girl was used as Higginbotham shows through her analysis of the two parts of Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West, (c. 1600–1603 and 1630). The title character, Bess Bridges, is frequently described as a girl in Part I as she resists gender and social categorization. In Part II, she is described as a girl only once as she is transformed from the “swashbuckling, cross-dressing entrepreneur [of Part 1] to being a damsel in distress” (43). As girl became the primary descriptor of female children, the word lost its association with female resistance to social and sexual boundaries.

In chapter two, Higginbotham continues her examination of female characters in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century drama, looking at those who resist such social boundaries. Girlhood was a space of greater freedom, especially when compared to womanhood, which, even when idealized, was associated with restraint. Adult women who transgressed political, social, and sexual limits were therefore often described as girls. So it is with Elinor in Gascoigne’s The Adventures of Master F. J. (1573), Joan la Pucelle in Shakespeare’s The First Part of Henry the Sixth (1592) and Moll Frith in Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl (1611). Reading these plays alongside conduct manuals of the period, Higginbotham points to how all these texts reveal gender to be socially constructed, learned, and performed, not an innate biological entity. Cross-dressing so-called girlish characters such as Joan la Pucelle and Moll Frith make this especially clear since not only do such characters riff on how boys performed female roles on the Renaissance stage, but also raise questions about how men might be distinguished from women. Girlhood was not simply a stage of life, but a time of actions, particularly those of “transgression and transformation” (89) that could be performed by anyone, regardless of age or sex. Further, behavior defined as girlish varied widely, suggesting flux within the category itself. Higginbotham cautions, however, that while girlhood granted agency to female characters on the English stage, this did not necessarily translate into a similar power for females in society.

The concept of girlhood is further expanded in chapter three to include female infants in early seventeenth-century drama. Unlike children and adults, infants, both off and on the stage, wore gender neutral clothing so sexual difference was not immediately obvious. On stage, inanimate objects such as blankets and dolls substituted for infants, the illusion of humanity being created when a character imbued these objects with a gender. Higginbotham examines this phenomenon in Shakespeare’s late plays, specifically Pericles (c. 1607–1608), The Winter’s Tale (c. 1609–1611), and Henry VIII (1613), in which daughters, rather than sons, ensure the succession of the ruling family. She notes that with these daughters, “Shakespeare rewrites the dynastic family narrative as an affective family romance” (105). The same gendering of infants occurs in Middleton’s A Fair Quarrel (c. 1615–1616) and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (c. 1613), which concentrate on how merchant-class girls can expand the family network. By constructing an infant past for their royal and middle-class female characters, these playwrights engage in a “cultural reimagining of girlhood” (114). Girls are thereby given a counterpart to the narrative of boyhood and the transition from boy to man. Despite this, they have limited agency when segregated into their own category. Female infants and girls may play crucial roles in a family’s lineage and connections, but only in the service of patrilineal inheritance.

Having noted the presence and importance of female infants in Renaissance drama, Higginbotham moves on in chapter four to consider the apparent absence of pre-adolescent girls. While female children are scarce in the traditional canon of Renaissance drama, they are present in several other plays. An examination of these reveals the same shift in dramatic representations of girlhood as that noted previously in the definition of girl. In mid-sixteenth century Tudor interludes, girl characters are often rebellious and vociferous. However, in later plays, they are generally static, emblematic characters who reflect the concept of girlhood as a time of helplessness and innocence. Nice Wanton (c. 1550), in which two children refuse to go to school, reveals that even when boys and girls engage in the same behaviors, their punishments are gendered, with the girl Dalila becoming a prostitute and dying of syphilis, while her brother is condemned to death for theft. Even as she ignores it, a sense of duty invests Dalila’s girlhood, and this is also apparent in Jacob and Esau (c. 1554), in which a young female servant, Abra, resists her subservient position, suggesting that girlhood incorporates both service and resistance to it. Another mid-century play, John Phillips’ The Comodye of Pacient and Meeke Grissill (1559), offers a more idealized depiction of girlhood in which Grissill’s daughter adopts the same meek, submissive role as her mother. Grissill, then, is not only the ideal wife, but also the ideal mother who has taught her daughter well. In addition, these plays indicate the complexity of categorizing girlhood, given its association with service and, therefore, with social class. In the last section of this chapter, Higginbotham discusses female children as consumers of and participants in English drama, citing the royal performance of Robert White’s Cupid’s Banishment (1617) by the students at Ladies Hall, Rachel Fane’s dramatic entertainments and masque, and Jane Cavendish and Elizabeth Brackley’s The Concealed Fancies (c. 1645). Higginbotham rightly concludes that “[g]irls are only absent from English Renaissance drama if we limit ourselves to the public stage, and then only if we take a canonical view of which early modern plays count” (174).

The final chapter offers a different perspective on girlhood altogether by examining female autobiographical writings. Higginbotham quickly acknowledges that these are not transparent reflections of lived experience but governed by accepted narrative structures, and she focuses on “the way that early modern texts produced girls’ perspectives in order to label them as girls’ perspectives” (181). The writings of Margaret Clifford, her daughter Lady Anne Clifford, Grace Mildmay, and Rose Throckmorton suggest that these women saw their childhoods as quite conventional, their responsibility being to conform to the appropriate gender roles for their social class. They regarded girlhood as a stage of life in which they learned what was expected of them. Both Grace Mildmay and Anne Clifford depict their younger selves as observers, learning from the adults around them, even as they were often invisible to those same adults. Further, while marriage was recorded as a significant event, it was not the only formative occasion, and these writings challenge the idea that female development was that of maid, wife, and widow. For example, Margaret Clifford’s life story is organized not in terms of her marriage and motherhood, but based on her reaction to the challenges she faced. Repeatedly, these women write of their response to girlhood experiences as both a predictor and an explanation of characteristics they possess as women. As Higginbotham states, they “share a conviction that political and social events play significant roles in girls’ lives … [and] that girls play significant roles in political and social events” (197–198).

Higginbotham’s extensive research into girls and girlhood in Renaissance culture makes The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Sisters a valuable resource, as does her careful analysis of how the category of girl shifted through the period, and how it challenged both the tripartite division of gender into men, women, and boys, and the structuring of female life stages as maid, wife, and widow. This book also draws attention to the way literary canons can distort our understanding of a culture, and includes discussion of several plays that are often overlooked. Moreover, it underscores why “scholarship that puts girls and women, not just gender or kinship formations, at the centre of its investigational questions” is important. Such scholarship keeps “women at the forefront of our discussions even as we remain cognizant that there is nothing essential about either ‘girls’ or ‘women’” (203). As the first book-length study of girlhood in English Renaissance literature, it will appeal to scholars interested in girl studies as well as in women and gender studies, and to those interested in English Renaissance culture, especially drama and women’s life-writing. My hope is that by providing a solid base for future research, this study will inspire others to investigate and add to our understanding of girlhood in Renaissance England. Like Higginbotham, others may discover girls where none were thought to exist.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.