Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Summer 1997 v37 n3 p483(18)

Margaret Cavendish and the female satirist. Suzuki, Mihoko.

Abstract: English author Margaret Cavendish, her work and especially her authorship practices have drawn intense critical scrutiny from among other early modern women writers since about 1985. Cavendish presented herself as a satirist, a facet of the writer which appears to have gone unnoticed although this aspect of her work is very important. As a satirist, Cavendish provides a serious and rational critique.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1997 Rice University

Among early modern women writers who have been "rediscovered" in the last decade or so, Margaret Cavendish has attracted heightened critical attention, especially for the apparent contradictions in her self-presentations as royalist and feminist, as solitary genius and happy wife. In a now classic article on Cavendish, Catherine Gallagher has argued that "Toryism and feminism converge because the ideology of absolute monarchy provides, in particular historical situations, a transition to an ideology of the absolute self."(1) In examining Cavendish's authorship practices, James Fitzmaurice has shown how she carefully constructed her authorial persona as one devoted at once to "fancy" and the "family," in order to secure the protection she needed in "a society that tolerated women writing but was deeply suspicious of women publishing."(2)

Yet Cavendish's pervasive self-presentation as satirist has not received the attention it deserves; in fact, no critic, to my knowledge, has discussed this significant aspect of her work.(3) This general neglect of Cavendish as satirist derives, I suggest, from her more noted self-representations as royalist apologist and a devoted wife and biographer of her husband, as well as from her reception by contemporaries and later literary history as the eccentric "Mad Madge."(4) Both these self-representations and the reception history have tended to deny Cavendish the position of satirist who offers a serious and rational critique. Moreover, satire's generally aggressive hostility, its materializing tendencies, and the writer's engagement in the public sphere (in contradiction to both of Cavendish's self-presentations as "solitary genius" and "happy wife") all render satire a "masculine" genre supposedly unsuitable for female writers. I would suggest, however, that the very contradictions in Cavendish's self-presentations, elucidated by Gallagher and Fitzmaurice, enable Cavendish to deploy satire's ironic doubleness and its disjunctive form in negotiating the gaps and fissures of seemingly authoritative patriarchal structures.(5)

Cavendish's interest in satire is evident in many of her works; but perhaps most striking is the energetic critique in her play Matrimonial Trouble (1662) of the Petrarchan blazon, through an insistence on the materiality of the woman's body. Master Thrifty the Steward scolds Bridget Greasy the Cook: "in one place I find a piece of butter, and a greasie comb, full of nitty hairs lying by it; and in another place flour and old-worn stockings, the feet being rotted off with sweat; and in a third place, a dish of cold meat cover'd with a foul smock, and your durty shooes (for the most part) stand upon the Dresser-board, where you lay the hot meat."(6)

This tour de force mixing of the materiality of the body and of food stands for the operation of Cavendish's concrete and demystifying literary imagination, closely allied with the disruptiveness of satiric energies: the titles of both The World's Olio (1655) and The Comical Hash (1668) refer to the Latin satura, meaning both "food composed of various ingredients, a mixture, medly, olio," and "satire," with connotations of disorder and confusion.(7) In one of the vignettes in The Comical Hash, a character makes this connection explicit:

Lady Solitary. Why, Fancies are minzed Objects, pounded and chopt by Imagination, which Imaginations are the several Cooks which serve the Mind; and as skillfull Cooks of several meats make Bisks or Olioes, so doth the Imagination of several Objects.(8)

This type of satiric mixing, characteristic of Cavendish's work, expresses itself also in the juxtaposition of disparate plots in her plays. Although Nancy Cotton has faulted this procedure of taking "unrelated story lines and alternat[ing] scenes among them mechanically,"(9) such juxtapositions in fact work satirically to question and delay the progression of comedy toward its concluding marriages.

In The Religious (1662), Cavendish subverts the aristocratic and melodramatic love plot featuring Lady Perfection and Lord Melancholy by interweaving the homely and comic subplot of Mistris Odd-Humour and her maid Nan. Both plots deal with the traffic in children by their parents, but whereas the aristocratic characters apparently willingly play their allotted roles as star-crossed lovers, Mistris Odd-Humour's reluctance to marry is expressed in her attachment to a childhood chair that is now too small for her:

Nan. Yes, you would part with your little old Chair for a proper young Husband, who would set you on his knees.

Mistris Odd-Humour . . . I should find more trouble and less ease on a young Husbands knees, than on my old Chairs Seat.

(I.iii, pp. 530-1)

Despite her seeming naivete, it is Odd-Humour, rather than any of the apparently more sophisticated characters in the aristocratic main plot, who demystifies her suitor's negotiation with her father concerning her portion as "a Merchants Trafficking . . . to make a bargain, not to woo a Mistriss," arguing that such marriages represent "a Husband bought" (II.x, p. 535).

The seemingly haphazard juxtaposition of scenes from the two plots makes the satiric point implicitly: a dramatic scene in which Lord Melancholy is threatened by a father's curse if he refuses to marry the Arch-Prince's niece is artfully suspended; in the following scene, Mistris Odd-Humour's father and her suitor surprise her alone singing ballads, the chair sticks to her seat, and the suitor breaks off the agreement.(10) Although the father threatens in his anger to burn the chair, Odd-Humour is grateful that "the fates . . . have made the Chair a means to break the marriage betwixt this Gentleman and me" (II.xvi, p. 539). In the end Perfection and Melancholy "marry," but only after having taken religious vows, and the repeated interruptions by the Odd-Humour plot work to satirize, subvert, and delay the progression and resolution of the main plot. Patricia Parker has identified the woman's body as the principle of "dilation" in narrative that seeks to reach the masculine "point";(11) here, Odd-Humour's bottom stands for that principle of dilation and, I would suggest, links the satirical energies that undermine the idealizing, romantic plot to the materiality of the woman's body. Finally, while the characters in the main plot remain completely unaware of the subplot, Odd-Humour comments on the main plot, revealing herself as the satirist of this play: "for though those that are married wish to be unmarried, by reason Marriage is the most troublesome, unquiet life that is, but a Devotes life is the most peaceable and quiet life that is; so as there is as much difference in the course of a Married life and an Incloystered life, as between Heaven and Hell" (III.xxix, p. 548).

In this play, as in others such as The Comedy Named the Several Wits and Wits Cabal, Parts 1 and 2 (1662), the female satirist or the satiric perspective subverts the formal comic (and patriarchal) imperative for the characters to marry.(12) At the same time, in the Several Wits and Wits Cabal, Part 1, in order for the plays to achieve a comic resolution, the female satirists, Caprisia and Bon'Esprit, must forgo satire so that they can marry and become integrated into a patriarchal order.(13) Yet in Wits Cabal, Part 2, Cavendish modifies this pattern of domesticating the female satirist through comic marriage; she redirects the energies of misogynous satire away from the woman as victim of satire, and channels it against its source - patriarchy's control of women through such satire and through the institution of marriage.(17) Herself an often trenchant critic of patriarchy, but also a royalist who benefited from her aristocratic husband's support of her literary endeavors, Cavendish seems interested in the question of how a woman satirist can negotiate the system of which she is a critic. Although her two strategies exemplify different kinds of satire - in one, the woman is a satirist of patriarchy, and in the other, she is the victim of misogynous satire - in both instances, satire is associated with double-edged drives which empower but must nevertheless be controlled.


In the prologue to The Several Wits, Cavendish signals her focus on the relationship between gender and satire by addressing as her readers "Lady wits":

This Play I do present to Lady wits, And hope the wit, each several humour fits; For though all wit, be wit, as of wit kind, Yet different be, as men, not of one mind; For different men, hath different minds we know, So different Wits, in different humours flow.

(Prologue, p. 78)

After singling out the "Lady wits" for her attention, Cavendish emphasizes, through repetition, the possibility of enabling "differences" among the "several wits." She thus announces her interest in the "difference" that gender may make in constructing a satiric persona as well as in writing satire.

The satiric premise of the play rests on the suspension of the comic imperative that characters find their appropriate mates and marry. The first two acts are thus taken up with the wooing of various reluctant female characters by their suitors. In dramatizing these courtships, Cavendish stresses the female perspective, criticizing the male wooer's narcissistic perspective as one sided. When Monsieur Comorade chides Madamosel Solid that "you will be thought cruel, to let a Gentleman dye, for want of your love" (II.xix, p. 98), Solid retorts, using two of the satirist's most useful rhetorical strategies: reductio ad absurdum and hyperbole. If a woman were simply to follow the desires and dictates of men, and if she were wooed by multiple suitors, she would have to be their "common Mistresse": "how would you have me divide my self amongst them? . . . I cannot marry them all" (II.xix, pp. 98-9). In expressing this critique of male narcissism, Solid recalls Cervantes's Marcela, who similarly denies her obligation to return Grisostimo's love simply because he claims to love her.(15) Solid then moves to indict the sexual double standard and the reductive equation of a woman's reputation to her chastity:

for though there is some excuse for men, who hath by custom their liberty in amours, because their amours obstructs not nature, so makes no breach of honesty; but women are not only barr'd by nature, but custom of subjection, and modesty of education; wherefore, if they should take liberty to several Lovers . . . their dishonour would outreach their Posterity, and run back to their Fore-fathers, that were dead long, long before they were born; for their unchaste lives, would be as marks of disgrace, and spots of infamie upon the Tombs of those dead Ancestors, and their ashes would be sull'd with their stains.

(II.xix, p. 99)

Solid's hyperbolic rhetoric exposes and mocks the exaggerated value placed by the institution of the patriarchal family on woman's chastity.

Another female character, Madamosel Volante, also deploys hyperbole - as befits her name - in explaining why she would rather not marry: "There can be no proof of any mans Valour, Wisdom or Honesty, but at the day of his death, in aged years, when as he hath past the danger in Wars, the tryals in Miseries, the malice of Fortune, the temptations of Pleasures, the inticements of Vice . . . and to chose a Husband that hath had the Tryals, and experiences of all these, is to chose a Husband out of the Grave, and rather than I will marry death, I will live a maid, as long as I live, and when I dye, let death do what he will with me" (II.xii, p. 88). Volante's hyperbole nevertheless describes accurately the absolute dependence of a woman on her husband upon entering marriage - a state which she likens by metonymy to death, the annihilation of subjectivity. As the course of the play will make clear, marriage also spells the death of the female satirist.

Among these female characters, Cavendish singles out Lady Caprisia as the preeminent satirist who characterizes her own satiric speech as violent and destructive: "Satire shall lead my sharp words on, break ope those gates, and anger like consuming fire shall destroy your will and base desire" (I.iii, p. 80). Caprisia's mother, Madam Mere, chides her for having a "tongue . . . as sharp, as a Serpents sting" which "wound[s] as cruelly and deadly where it bites" (II.ix, p. 85).(16) Caprisia retorts by claiming that all women are satirists: "our Grandmother Eve . . . whetted her tongue with [the serpent's] sting, and ever since, all her effeminate race hath tongues that stings" (II.ix, p. 85). Blaming Eve for the Fall was the favorite justification by male satirists for the subordinate status of women;(17) Caprisia traces the origin of satire to this moment of doubleness and duplicity, and names Eve as the originary satirist, whose "womans tongue" fights back against her oppressors. Turning misogynous satire on its head and transforming Eve from a guilty victim to an enabling satirist, Caprisia shows that misogyny can be combated by satiric language, and that the tongue can be "sharp . . . poynted . . . edged on both sides" (III.xx, p. 99) - as a weapon.

Caprisia and her mother engage in an extended discussion about the implication of being a female satirist in society. Madam Mere counsels her daughter "to gain every bodyes good opinion, if you would palliate your humour, and sweeten your discourse, and endeavour to please in conversation" (III.xxii, p. 100). But Caprisia will "please [her] self," rather than "the company": "why should I make my self a slave to the several humours of mankind, who is never in one humour two minutes, and why may I not think, or desire to be flattered, and humoured, as well as others" (II.xxii, p. 101). Caprisia's satiric perspective reveals itself to be a mark of her integrity as a speaking subject, her refusal merely to please those around her by conforming to their diverse and changeable opinions. Accordingly, Cavendish gives Caprisia five scenes in which she speaks alone, at once dramatizing her interiority, and the process through which she prepares herself to fall in love with Generosity by satirizing her own "pride, disdain, and scorn": "this disapproving is that which men call cross, pievish, and froward disposition, being most commonly, accompanied with sharp satyrical words, and angry frowns" (IV. xxxiii, p. 111).

Her satiric wit enables her to discriminate between Importunate, whose suits she had been refusing throughout the play, and Generosity, with whom she engages in stichomythic dialogue. Their exchange recalls that between Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing in marking the lovers' compatibility as well-matched equals. Yet Cavendish also acknowledges that in order to fall in love and marry, thus fulfilling the requirements of comedy, Caprisia must ultimately forgo her satiric persona. Cavendish and Caprisia both reveal themselves to be clear-sighted about the costs of giving up satiric perspicuity and the vigorous language used to express it: "Hay, ho! who can love, and be wise? . . . But O! what a ridiculous humour am I fallen into, from a cholerick humour, into an amorous humour; Oh! I could tear my soul from my body, for having such whining thoughts, and such a mean, submissive, croaching, feigning, flattering humour, and idle mind" (V. xxxix, p. 115).

Although the generic exigencies of the comic plot dictate a move away from satire to achieve marriages, the marriages are nevertheless qualified by the persistence of the satiric perspective, exemplified here in Caprisia's awareness of her "ridiculous," "cholerick," and "amorous humour." This awareness of the costs of conforming to the comic and patriarchal imperative to marry is one that Shakespeare's Beatrice - whom Caprisia resembles in her lively wit as well as her independence - never voices.


Cavendish begins Wits Cabal, Part 1 by satirizing her male characters' attitude toward marriage: Monsieur Vain-glorious states baldly that he wishes to marry Madamoiselle Ambition for her riches while keeping Madamoiselle Pleasure as mistress; Monsieur Sensuality, upset that he has been fined for impregnating his mistress, complains: "what greater slavery is there than to be tyed to one woman?" (I.v, p. 250). He prefers the "Turks government" over the "Canon-Laws of Europe": "But when men have an absolute power over their wives, they force them into quiet obedience; and where men have many Wives, Concubines, and Slaves, the women are humbled into a submission, each woman striving which should be most serviceable, and who can get most love and favour" (I.v, p. 251). Cavendish then has her female characters criticize the actual conditions of marriage from the woman's perspective. While the men find Christian monogamy wanting in comparison with Turkish polygamy, the women lament the discrepancy between husbands "in [their] thoughts" and in "Romances" on the one hand, and actual husbands on the other (I.vii, p. 253). And it is precisely the powerlessness of wives, which Sensuality found so appealing for himself, that the women abhor: "I wonder our Sex should desire to Marry; for when we are unmaried, we are sued and sought to, and not only Mistris of our selves, but our Suters: But when we are married, we are so far from being Mistrisses, as we become slaves" (I.vii, p. 253). Given these opposing views of marriage, it is not surprising that the female satirists repeatedly duel with their male counterparts. For example, Madamoiselle Bon'Esprit, the preeminent female satirist of this play, characteristically debunks the overblown rhetoric of courtship, by literalizing and materializing it - the ladies devolve "from sweet-smelling flowers to stinking carrion, which are dead carkasses" (I.vii, p. 255).

In addition to this disagreement concerning marriage, the contentiousness between the sexes begins to focus on misogynous satire, particularly in the pronouncements of Monsieur Satyrical: "Women hate Satyre in Poetry, although not Wood or Forrest Satyrs; and the most extravagant and maddest Actions that were ever done, were done or acted by Women, and the truth is, Women are not only Batchelling some parts of the year, but all their life-long, for they drink vanity, and are mad-drunk with wantonnesse" (II.x, p. 259). Although other male characters also engage in satire against women, Satyrical's belittling of female creativity and authorship is particularly noteworthy, in light of Cavendish's own extensive literary activities: "Women make Poems? burn them, burn them; let them make bone-lace, let them make bone-lace . . . The best tryal of a Ladies wit is the fire; besides, the fire will supply that want of Poetical heat which should make Poems, which heat womens brain cannot suffer" (III.xxiii, p. 270). When Madam Matron reports these statements to the women, they react not with anger, but with indifference and laughter; they refuse to acquiesce as passive victims of satire, but prove to be active as satirists themselves and as readers "against the grain" of satire that seeks to subjugate them. In fact, they resolve to be revenged on Satyrical as the "Enemy to Women," despite his profession to be a "friend" who corrects them by telling the truth (II.xiii, p. 261).

Bon'Esprit, who has volunteered to "infetter" Satyrical (II.xiv, p. 262), sends him a challenge

to the Lists of Mercury . . . Where all the Muses will Spectators sit, To Judge which is the great'st Victor of Wit.

(IV.xxviii, p. 275)

The challenge makes clear that despite Satyrical's belittling of women writers, Bon'Esprit and Cavendish both believe that with words rather than swords as weapons, women can enter the lists on an equal footing with men. At this point, it is rather predictable that Satyrical will fall into "Cupid's snare" (IV. xxix, p. 277) as intended by Bon'Esprit, but Satyrical's transformation from a satirist to a lover is no less interesting than the similar transformation of Caprisia in Several Wits. In a scene with Satyrical alone (recalling the scenes with Caprisia sola in Several Wits), he begins by reiterating the familiar view of women as a necessary evil, echoing Hesiod's Theogony and Euripides' Jason and Hippolytus:(18) "I must marry, or bury succession in my Grave . . . O Nature, Nature, hadst thou no way to Create a man, unless thou mad'st a woman!" (IV.xxxi, p. 278). But after quite conventionally bewailing the general inconstancy of the female sex, he goes on to praise an actual woman:

Madamoiselle Bon'Esprit, she seems to have a Noble Soul by her Honourable Actions, which women, for the most part, are so far from, as they seem, for the most part, to have no souls at all, by their mean and petty actions: Also she hath a Supernatural Wit, I mean supernatural, as being a woman; and her Wit is not only Ingenious, but Judicious, by which she will set a value on subjects of Merit and Worth, and despise those that are base . . . she, having Wit and Honour, knows the benefit of Honesty so well, as she will be Chaste for her own sake, were it not for her Husbands.

(IV.xxxi, p. 278)

Cavendish has Satyrical himself discredit misogynous satire, by revealing the contradiction between invidious generalizations and the actuality of a virtuous, capable, and chaste woman. The refutation of misogyny by its juxtaposition to contravening evidence recalls the similar strategies of Esther Sowernam earlier in the century. In Esther Hath hang'd Haman (1617), a spirited challenge to Joseph Swetnam's extraordinarily popular Araignment of Lewde, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women, Sowernam states, "I do deliver of what estimate women have been valued in ancient and modern times, which I prove by authorities, customs, and daily experiences . . . He raileth without cause; I defend upon direct proof."(19) From France, where Cavendish attended Henrietta Maria before her marriage, we can cite the examples of Christine de Pizan and Marguerite de Navarre as women writers deploying similar strategies against misogynous satire. Pizan begins The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) by refuting the "wicked insults about women and their behavior," citing "the natural behavior and character of women."(20) Navarre sets her Heptameron (1558) against Boccaccio's Decameron by asserting that her stories distinguish themselves by being veritable histoire.(21) Thus Cavendish's critique follows a recognizable strategy successfully deployed by earlier women writers against the authority of male writings against women.(22) Her innovation lies in having the male satirist acknowledge this disjunction between the received idea of woman and an actual woman whom he has grown to admire.

Satyrical does not simply repudiate this received idea, but accepts his own responsibility in perpetuating it: he repents having "satyrically . . . translated her sweet and harmless mirth, which was presented in her Elevated Verse into a wanton Interpretation" (IV. xxxi, p. 278). This statement undercuts misogynous satires as distortions and willful misinterpretations of the behavior and nature of women. Satyrical here calls attention to satire's doubleness and duplicity, as Caprisia did in Several Wits, though with opposing implications. While Eve, according to Caprisia, challenges her subordinate status as the first female satirist, Satyrical admits that his "translation" and "wanton Interpretation" - with the adjective "wanton" being transferred, or "translated," back from Bon'Esprit to Satyrical - represents a falling off from her virtuous innocence, "her sweet and harmless mirth." Satyrical's conflation of "satire" and "satyr," cited earlier - "Women hate Satyre in Poetry, although not Wood or Forrest Satyrs" - represents an example of such "translation" and "wanton Interpretation."(23)

In Part 2, the relationship between the two satirists, Bon'Esprit and Satyrical, is resolved quite early in the play; yet their actual marriage is deferred for the remainder of the play by the plot of Mother Matron's courtship of Frisk. As Satyrical and Bon'Esprit's language becomes predictably conventional and insipid - Satyrical, for example, declares, "I am your slave" (I.ii, p. 295) - the play derives its energy from the satirizing and scapegoating of Mother Matron, supposedly for licentiousness and drunkenness.

This satire of the older woman recalls Thomas Deloney's Jack of Newbury (1597), which begins by detailing a strong-willed and intelligent widow's successful maneuvers to marry a young apprentice - the eponymous hero whose spectacular rise results from this marriage to his master's widow. Because the nameless widow makes possible Jack's advancement, she is not directly satirized; but the narrative displaces its anxiety concerning her authority to another older woman - the "tattling gossip" of his second, younger wife - by having Jack's servants ply her with liquor, so that she becomes a "drunken beast," and so humiliated that "shee troubled them no more, eyther with her company or counsell."(24) Mother Matron exemplifies these stereotypes of the older woman and her grotesque appetites: she becomes drunk and breaks her ale pot on Grave Temperance's head (I.iii, p. 296); and she is a widow of "threescore and ten, at least" who loves Frisk, "not above one and twenty years of Age" (II.viii, p. 301).

Yet Cavendish questions these satiric stereotypes, by allowing access to Mother Matron's interiority through her love letter to Frisk; she may be pathetic and misguided in loving Frisk, but she is neither disgusting nor ridiculous. Her likening of herself to an older Helen of Troy suggests that even the younger women who ridicule her will some day be old like her: "for although I am not like Hellen of Greece, yet I am like Hellen, when she was Hellen of Troy, for then, by my faith, she was in her Autumnal years, as I am, which was about fifty, or by'r Lady, somewhat more, and then she was as dear to her Paris . . . as when she was but fifteen" (II.x, p. 305). Through this letter, Cavendish gives Matron, the object of the satire, a countervailing voice that reveals in fact the cruelty of the satirists. Frisk's exaggerated reaction to the letter, together with his plan to "keep this letter to make sport amongst the young Ladies" in the hopes that he may insinuate himself into their favor (II.x, p. 306), makes him less sympathetic than Matron, the ostensible object of the satire.

The humiliation of Matron, especially Frisk's design to "jestingly Court Mother Matron" by writing her a love letter (II.x, p. 306), recalls the scapegoating of Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.(25) An upstart steward who hopes to marry his mistress Olivia, Malvolio's reaction to a counterfeit letter which he believes to be from Olivia gives his tormentors occasion to ridicule him.(26) Shakespeare balances the satirizing of Malvolio's ambition by juxtaposing it to the cruelty of his tormentors; Cavendish goes even further than Shakespeare, and accomplishes a nuanced representation of the subjectivity of the satiric victim, by introducing the letter written by Matron herself.

Like the letter, her soliloquy (III.xvi, p. 371 [mispaginated for 311]) and especially her dream - recounted by her Maid to Frisk - give further glimpses of her interiority. She dreamt that she was Diana and Frisk, Actaeon: "she in her dream did more as a Godess ought to have done, than Diana did: for she was generous in her dream, and not cruel, for instead of horning you, she invited you into her Bath" (III.xii, p. 307). Matron's tenderness toward Frisk here contrasts sharply with the violence the female satirists express toward their scapegoating victim: "We will tye him to an Asses head . . . to a Foxes tail . . . Let us transform him as Acteon did . . . we will be as Diana, that transformed him" (Part 1, V.xxxvii, p. 288). In another dream, Matron appears to acknowledge the inappropriateness of the object of her affections, in imagining herself Dido abandoned by Aeneas: "when you were ship'd and gone away, she stab'd her self" (III.xii, p. 307). Confirming her fear of his indifference, Frisk callously rejoins: "tell her I will be like AEneas, meet her in Hell" (III.xii, p. 307-8).

Frisk nevertheless finds irresistible Matron's wealth and her generous gifts: she sends him two hundred pounds to buy a nag, and her maid reports to Frisk, "if she had a million, she says, nay swears, she could bestow it all on her beloved, which beloved is your Worship" (IV.xx, p. 316). In detailing Matron's wealth, "stores of bags in her Chests" full of gold and silver she has earned "to Govern and Educate" (IV.xx, p. 316) young women, as well as the bribes and gifts she has received from the girls and their suitors, Cavendish calls attention to the social status of powerful widows who, unlike maids or wives, had access to their own property and hence were desirable marriage partners for younger men: "Widows have such a magnetick power, as one Widow will draw away the Servants and Suters from a dozen Maids" (Part 1, V.xxxv, p. 282).

By the end of the play, then, its satirical energies are no longer directed against Matron, but against patriarchy's successful indoctrination of its members to internalize the compulsion to marry. For Matron becomes an object of ridicule only because she wishes to marry Frisk, who admits to being "content to marry her wealth, and lie with her Maid" (IV.xx, p. 316); otherwise she is independent and self-sufficient, and not a ready target of satire except by the younger women who project onto her their fear of losing value in the marriage market as they themselves inevitably age. Cavendish thus reveals misogynous satire as motivated at root by the same impulse to subordinate and control women that marriages accomplish; accordingly, she transforms the satire of Matron into a satire of marriage, displacing in importance what appeared to be the promising marriage of Bon'Esprit and Satyrical, which was the earlier focus of the play, with the bitter marriage of Matron and Frisk. And Frisk's assured unfaithfulness to his future wife cannot be dismissed as an aberration from otherwise devoted husbands, for as we have seen, other male characters find monogamous marriages oppressive. When the various couples declare where they will keep their wedding feast - Vain-glorious, Heroick, and Censure at court, Tranquill in the country, Satyrical at the playhouse - Frisk declares that they will keep theirs in Bedlam. By featuring the marriage of Matron to a man whom she desired to marry but whose only motive is greed, and who considers "nothing more hateful, than an amorous fond old woman" (IV.xx, p. 316), the play ends on an ambivalent note.

Comedy's formal requirement of reconciliation and marriage is thus satisfied, but in a most tenuous and unsatisfactory manner. Shakespeare's comedies often call attention to a single character who is excluded from the marriages that conclude the plays - Jaques in As You Like It, Antonio in Merchant of Venice, Malvolio in Twelfth Night - but Wits Cabal, in keeping with its persistent skepticism toward marriage, includes three characters (two female, one male) who choose not to marry: Ease, who "love[s] a single life: for in Mariage lives too much trouble to live in Ease"; Temperance, who "love[s] to continue a Widow"; and Inquisitive, who "will remain a Batchelour: for an Inquisitive Husband would not be good, neither for his own sake, nor his Wifes" (V.xxii, p. 320). Yet even more than these characters' refusal to marry, the bleakness of Matron's marriage that concludes the play effectively works to subvert and question this generic and formal requirement of comedy, and hence the institution of marriage itself. Cavendish's innovation here lies in her satirizing marriage through a character who marries rather than through one who refuses to marry. The relative strength of the satiric emphasis on contradiction over comic reconciliation makes this play a comedy in form, but closer perhaps in spirit to tragedy.

It might at first appear that Cavendish's satire of marriage in The Religious, Several Wits, and Wits Cabal is hampered by the generic requirement of comedy to close with marriages; but in fact, her satire is predicated upon this imperative, which mirrors at once the compulsion of patriarchy to have its members marry, and the constraint under which she wrote as the wife of the duke of Newcastle. Although her plays may covertly - and at times overtly - satirize marriage, it was her own marriage to the duke that enabled the publication of her large literary output; in particular, the duke's prefaces and commendatory verses - as well as pasted-in slips announcing that sections of the plays were "Written by my Lord Duke" - mark the inescapable presence of the authorizing figure of aristocratic husband and patron. Cavendish's satiric critique of marriage in her comedies goes farther than Shakespeare's ever did in his, for as a woman whose writing was both enabled and thwarted by her position as an aristocrat's wife, she is clear-sighted in exploring the ideological contradiction - especially for its female characters - of both comedy and the institution of marriage that underwrites it.


According to Marilyn L. Williamson, Cavendish has no literary heirs, "because she lacked a discourse in which to frame the terms of her predicament."(27) Yet I would suggest that Cavendish's interest in women and satire, specifically in the satire of marriage from a woman's perspective, was carried on by a significant number of female satirists in the later Restoration and the eighteenth century.(28) For example, in Aphra Behn's The Rovers, Part I (1677), Hellena, "a Maid design'd for a Nun," speaks of marriage as "worse confinement than a religious Life" and gives a vivid and devastating account of it: "the Giant stretches it self; yawns and sighs a Belch or two as loud as a Musket, throws himself into Bed, and expects you in his foul Sheets."(29) Nevertheless, like Cavendish's female satirists, Hellena marries at the play's end. Mary, Lady Chudleigh's well-known poem, "To the Ladies" (1703), opens with the lines, "Wife and Servant are the same, / But only differ in the Name," and details the woman's loss of subjectivity in marriage, much as did Cavendish's The Several Wits.(30)

Later in the century, in Frances Burney's Evelina (1778), the protagonist - a "naif" satirist - must, like Cavendish's Lady Caprisia, become domesticated in order to marry and assume her place in the social order.(31) Evelina, like Wits Cabal, Part 2, also features older women who are either satirists or ambivalent objects of satire. Mrs. Selwyn, an intelligent, educated, and witty woman who has never married, is censured for her unmoderated satire of men. Evelina moves away from Mrs. Selwyn's model because satiric women overturn gender hierarchies and gender roles; women should not be openly and directly satiric if they wish to marry. Nevertheless, Burney repeatedly satirizes misogynous satire, most notably in the grotesque race of two old women. The juxtaposition of Evelina who pities and the others who ridicule them recalls Cavendish's strategy of calling into question who is the object of satire: the old women or those who race them like animals in order to place bets on them. In The Witlings, a play unpublished in Burney's lifetime, the satiric impulse and energy again give way to a normalizing desire - similar to Evelina's and to that of Cavendish's Lady Caprisia - to forgo satire and to marry.(32) Despite Williamson's claim that Cavendish's eccentricity isolated her and made her unavailable as a foremother for later women writers, for such women writers interested in satire as Behn, Chudleigh, Burney, and others, Cavendish represents an important and enabling authority.(33)


1 Catherine Gallagher, "Embracing the Absolute: The Politics of the Female Subject in Seventeenth-Century England," Genders 1 (Spring 1988): 24-39, 25.

2 James Fitzmaurice, "Fancy and the Family: Self-Characterizations of Margaret Cavendish," HLQ 53, 3 (Summer 1990): 198-209, 207.

3 Douglas Grant, Cavendish's biographer, makes the curious comment that "had she thought of it, she could have written social satire to effect" (Margaret the First: A Biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, 1623-73 [Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1957], p. 168).

4 Fitzmaurice, however, points out that Cavendish's practice of inking out, in copies of her biography of her husband, passages criticizing Charles I's parsimony and the ineptness of her husband's fellow commanders ironically called attention to them ("Margaret Cavendish on Her Own Writing: Evidence from Revision and Handmade Correction," PBSA 85, 3 [September 1991]: 297-308, 302-4). He further argues that Cavendish's public personality as a "harmless eccentric" offered her protection as a woman writer (p. 297).

5 Margaret J. M. Ezell argues that there was a considerable gap between patriarchal theory and actual practices, due to the looseness of the structure of patriarchal authority (The Patriarch's Wife: Literary Evidence and the History of the Family [Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1987], pp. 161-3).

6 Margaret Cavendish, Playes written by . . . The Lady marchioness of Newcastle (London, 1662), I.ii, p. 424. All further references to Cavendish's plays, except The Comical Hash (see n. 8 below), are to this edition by act, scene, and page number, and will appear parenthetically in the text. Margaret Anne Doody ("Swift among the Women," YES 18 [1988]: rprt. in Frank Palmeri, ed., Critical Essays on Jonathan Swift [New York: G. K. Hall, 1993], pp. 13-37, 26), quoting this passage, notes similarities between Swift's "The Lady's Dressing Room" and Cavendish's "fantasia of dirt and disorder." Ezell (Writing Women's Literary History [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1993], pp. 110-1, 125-6), citing the description of "Mirth" in Cavendish's poem, "Mirth and Melancholy," points out that passages including "coarse" and "disgusting" language were either excised or criticized by nineteenth-century editors of Cavendish, such as Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges, George Washington Bethune, and Frederic Rowton.

7 Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary (1879; rprt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), s.v. satura. See also the OED, s.v. "satire": "The word is a specific application of satura medley; this general sense appears in the phrase per saturam in the lump, indiscriminately; according to the grammarians this is elliptical for lanx satura (lit. 'full dish': lanx dish, satura, fem. of satur full, related to satis, enough), which is alleged to have been used for a dish containing various kinds of fruit, and for food composed of many different ingredients."

8 Margaret Cavendish, The Comical Hash, in Playes Never before Printed (London, 1668), II.vii, p. 564.

9 Nancy Cotton, Women Playwrights in England, c. 1363-1750 (Lewisburg PA: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1980), p. 46.

10 Cotton criticizes this type of juxtaposition, in which "one scene simply stops abruptly and an unrelated scene follows" (pp. 46-7).

11 Patricia Parker, "Literary Fat Ladies and the Generation of the Text," in Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 8-35.

12 Cotton characterizes Cavendish's plays as "the most ardent feminist plays ever written," but concludes that they "are the poorest of her works" because they are "structurally incoherent" (pp. 44, 46). Jacqueline Pearson, however, concludes her pioneering article on Cavendish's plays: "Margaret Cavendish's plays have never received the recognition they deserve . . . The plays are more intelligent and probing than most critics have seen" ("'Women may discourse . . . as well as men': Speaking and Silent Women in the Plays of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle," TSWL 4, 1 [Spring 1985]: 33-45, 44). Pearson argues that Cavendish's plays repeatedly take up the issue of women's access to male language, through the twin figures of the eloquent woman and the bashful woman. Sophie Tomlinson argues that "Cavendish's dramatic writing draws on th[e] changing cultural and discursive status of female performance to enable fantasies of female self-representation" ("'My Brain the Stage': Margaret Cavendish and the Fantasy of Female Performance," in Women, Texts, and Histories, 1575-1760, ed. Clare Brant and Diane Purkiss [London: Routledge, 1992], pp. 134-63, 140). To my knowledge, no critic of Cavendish's plays - and of her other literary works - has focused on their satirical aspect.

13 See Susanne L. Wofford's discussion of the "costs, especially to women, of certain kinds of literary closure, especially comic closure and the closure of stories that use marriage as a plot device to signify ending" ("Social Aesthetics of Rape: Closural Violence in Boccaccio and Botticelli," in Creative Imitation, ed. David Quint, Margaret W. Ferguson, G. W. Pigman III, and Wayne Rebhorn [Binghamton: SUNY Press, 1992], pp. 189-238, 193).

14 Robert C. Elliot distinguishes between primitive satire - allied with magic and ritual - and sophisticated, or literary, satire that satirizes the primitive satirist (The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1960]). See also Alvin Kernan, who argues that Elizabethan dramatists distance themselves from the railing satirists in their plays (The Cankered Muse: Satire in the English Renaissance [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1959]).

15 Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote, trans. J. M. Cohen (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950), pp. 108-10.

16 Marie Claire Randolph states: "Almost all of our words descriptive of satire preserve the primitive notion of destroying or harming the human body" ("The Medical Concept in English Renaissance Satiric Theory," SP 38 [1941]; rprt. in Ronald Paulson, ed., Satire: Modern Essays in Criticism [Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971], pp. 135-70, 146).

17 See, for example, Joseph Swetnam, The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women (1615): "she was no sooner made but straightway her mind was set upon mischief, for by her aspiring mind and wanton will she quickly procured man's fall. And therefore ever since they are and have been a woe unto man and follow the line of their first leader" (Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540-1640, ed. Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus [Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1985], pp. 193-4). In Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), Aemilia Lanyer defends Eve by calling attention to Adam's greater responsibility in the Fall and Pilate's more serious fault in betraying Christ (The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer, ed. Susanne Woods [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993], pp. 84-92, lines 761-944).

18 Hesiod, Theogony, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1984), lines 600-10; Euripides, The Medea, trans. Rex Warner, in Euripides I, ed. David Grene and Lattimore (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1955), lines 573-5; Hippolytus, trans. Grene, in Euripides I, lines 616-25.

19 Excerpts from Esther Sowernam's Esther Hath Hanged Haman are reprinted in Half Humankind, pp. 218-43. The quoted passages are from pp. 219-20.

20 Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards (New York: Persea, 1982), p. 4.

21 Marguerite de Navarre, L'Heptameron, ed. Michel Francois (Paris: Garnier, 1991), p. 9. In "Gender, Power, and the Female Reader: Boccaccio's Decameron and Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron," CLS 30, 3 (1993): 231-52, I argue that Navarre implicitly criticizes Boccaccio's fantasy-driven narrative by insisting upon the material conditions of women's lives in patriarchy.

22 Mary, Lady Chudleigh, in The Ladies Defence (1701), written in answer to John Sprint's misogynous marriage sermon, The Bride-Woman's Counsellor, similarly states: "The having it said they are Proud, Passionate, Censorious, Extravagant or whatsoever else Malicious People are pleas'd to accuse them of, does not make them so, neither will they be the less regarded by those who are thoroughly acquainted with their innate Worth and Value" (The Poems and Prose of Mary, Lady Chudleigh, ed. Ezell [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993], p. 6).

23 On the confusion between satiric and satyric in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, see OED, s.v. "satire," "satyr." See also Kernan, pp. 54-7.

24 Thomas Deloney, The pleasant Historie of Iohn Winchcomb, In his yonguer yeares called lack of Newberry . . ., in The Works of Thomas Deloney, ed. Francis Oscar Mann (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912), pp. 63-4. On the scapegoating of the gossip, see my "The London Apprentice Riots of the 1590s and the Fiction of Thomas Deloney," Criticism 38, 2 (Spring 1996): 181-217, 196.

25 Another striking similarity between the satirizing of Malvolio and Matron lies in the attention paid to their grotesque costumes: Malvolio is ridiculed for his "yellow stockings" (II.v. 153); Matron wears a "green Sattin gown . . . of the colour of goss-dung, and an Orange-yellow Feather on her head . . . [she is] beset with many colour'd Ribbons, as Hair-colour, Watchet, Blush-colour, and White" (II.viii, p. 300).

26 See my "Gender, Class, and the Social Order in Late Elizabethan Drama," TJ 44, 1 (March 1992): 31-45, 40-2, for a discussion of Malvolio as scapegoat. I further argue that those who satirize Malvolio are in turn satirized for their cruelty toward their victim.

27 Marilyn L. Williamson characterizes Cavendish as "Mad Madge, a deviant who has no heirs" (Raising Their Voices: British Women Writers, 1650-1750 [Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1990], p. 18). According to Williamson, "Cavendish illustrates the difficulty a female subject can have in finding a position within the hegemonic, male discourses."

28 Cavendish's stepdaughters, Lady Jane Cavendish and Lady Elizabeth Brackley, wrote a play, The Concealed Fansyes, which shares significant features with Cavendish's plays. The two female protagonists initially refuse to marry - and even enter a convent - but are finally persuaded to marry by their suitors who appear as "Gods comeing downe out of the Skye to the Nunns" (quoted in Nathan Comfort Starr, "The Concealed Fansyes:. A Play by Lady Jane Cavendish and Lady Elizabeth Brackley," PMLA 46 [1931]: 802-38, 830). Like Cavendish's female satirists, Luceny and Tattyny repeatedly express skepticism concerning marriage. Moreover, the name of Lady Tranquility - a satirical representation of the authors' stepmother - recalls the names of Cavendish's characters, such as Lady Solitary in The Comical Hash and Lady Happy in The Convent of Pleasure. The play's modern editor, Starr, dates its composition between 1642-9, and asserts that the authors had not met their stepmother when they composed it (pp. 836-7). Cavendish wrote her plays during her exile in Antwerp in the late 1640s, though they were not published until the 1660s. Thus, the relationship between Cavendish's plays and her stepdaughters' The Concealed Fansyes unfortunately remains ambiguous.

29 Aphra Behn, The Rover Part I, in Five Plays, ed. Maureen Duffy (London: Methuen, 1990), I.i, pp. 108, 110.

30 Chudleigh, pp. 83-4. Ezell gives as evidence of the popularity of this poem among female readers its being transcribed on the flyleaf of, for example, a copy of Shakespeare's first folio (pp. xvii-xviii).

For another expression of the woman's satirical perspective on marriage, see Elizabeth Thomas, "Epistle to Clemena, Occasioned by an Argument" (ca. 1700-22):

Equal's the contract, equal are the vows, Yet Custom different licences allows: The man may range from his unhappy wife, But woman's made a property for life

(in Eighteenth Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, ed. Roger Lonsdale [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989], p. 32, lines 11-4).

31 See Doody, Frances Burney: The Life in the Works (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1988), p. 47, for a discussion of Burney and her protagonist Evelina as satirists.

32 The holograph manuscript of The Witlings is located in the New York Public Library's Berg Collection. It has recently been published in The Meridian Anthology of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Plays by Women, ed. Katharine M. Rogers (New York: Meridian, 1994).

33 An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 1995 Renaissance Society of America meetings. I acknowledge with thanks grants from the Folger Shakespeare Library and the University of Miami Research Council, as well as the helpful suggestions offered by Margaret J. M. Ezell, Tassie Gwilliam, Theodora Jankowski, and Frank Palmeri.

Mihoko Suzuki is associate professor of English at the University of Miami and the author of Metamorphoses of Helen: Authority, Difference, and the Epic (1989). She is completing a book manuscript, "Subordinate Subjects: Gender, Class, and Nation in England, 1588-1688."