The Islamicate Geographies of “The Female Wits” on the Early Modern English Stage


Medieval and Early Modern Studies and English Department Lecture
Bernadette Andrea, Celia Jacobs Endowed Professor of British Literature at University of Texas, San Antonio
“The Islamicate Geographies of ‘The Female Wits’ on the Early Modern English Stage”

Tuesday, September 27, 4 – 5:30 p.m. 
Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery 

During the second half of the seventeenth century, both the suppression of the public stage and its “restoration” along with the monarchy were represented through shifting signifiers of Islam, most of them distorted by English ignorance and prejudice. Such signifiers range from Oliver Cromwell’s depiction as a “Turkish tyrant” to Charles II’s portrayal as the polygamous “Grand Signior.” The first production to test the ban on public performances — William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes in 1656 — featured a Muslim character as its protagonist. John Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada, which launched the genre of Restoration heroic drama in 1670, followed Davenant’s lead. It is within this ideological framework that English women found new opportunities for public expression as actresses, patrons, and playwrights. While other women penned and even performed plays during the Restoration, the sustained professional career of Aphra Behn, who bore the orientalist epithet “Loves great Sultana,” set the stage for the epochal season of 1695/96, when a group of female playwrights debuted together for the first time in English theatrical history: Catherine Trotter, Delarivier Manley, and Mary Pix. Two of their plays contain explicitly Islamicate themes, whereas none of the male playwrights for this season followed suit. This presentation assesses these plays, and others by “the female wits,” with attention to their “imaginative geographies” (in Edward Said’s phrase) and how their gendered themes shape a discourse of competing empires.

Dr. Andrea’s recent books include English Women Staging Islam, 1696–1707 (Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies [University of Toronto], 2012); Early Modern England and Islamic Worlds, with Linda McJannet (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); and Women and Islam in Early Modern English Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

This event is free and open to the public. Refreshments will follow.

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