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Better a Shrew Than a Sheep; Women, Drama, and the Culture of Jest in Early Modern England

by Pamela Allen Brown - £23.99  Cornell University Press (2003)
paperback    ISBN 13: 9780801488368 | ISBN 10: 0801488362

In a study that explodes the assumption that early modern comic culture was created by men for men, Pamela Allen Brown shows that jest books, plays, and ballads represented women as laugh-getters and sought out the laughter of ordinary women. Disputing the claim that non-elite women had little access to popular culture because of their low literacy and social marginality, Brown demonstrates that women often bested all comers in the arenas of jesting, gaining a few heady moments of agency.
Juxtaposing the literature of jest against court records, sermons, and conduct books, Brown employs a witty, entertaining style to propose that non-elite women used jests to test the limits of their subjection. She also shows how women’s mocking laughter could function as a means of social control in closely watched neighbourhoods. While official culture beatified the sheep-like wife and disciplined the scold, jesting culture often applauded the satiric shrew, whether her target was priest, cuckold, or rapist.
Brown argues that listening for women's laughter can shed light on both the dramas of the street and those of the stage: plays from The Massacre of the Innocents to The Merry Wives of Windsor to The Woman’s Prize taught audiences the importance of gossips’ alliances as protection against slanderers, lechers, tyrants, and wife-beaters. Other jests, ballads, jigs, and plays show women reveling in tales of female roguery or scoffing at the perverse patience of Griselda. As Brown points out, some women found Griselda types annoying and even foolish: better be a shrew than a sheep.

"Witty and unruly women are all subjects of discussion in Pamela Allen Brown's engrossing and meticulously researched study of the ways in which women might resist, through jokes and ridicule, the models of virtuous and submissive behavior aimed at them from the pulpit, the theatre and the print-shop. . . . Tracing the connection between a female comic tradition and popular culture at large, she draws also on the lives of women such as Alice Mustian, contrasting dramas of everyday life with those presented on the stage."
—Lucy Munro, Times Literary Supplement, 9 May 2003
"Brown’s focus on female storytelling and women’s reception of men’s stories shifts the reader’s perspective away from seeing early modern women as mere victims to viewing them as powerful agents who employed laughter to effect social transformation. . . . Brown. . .succeeds in bringing to our attention the ways in which early modern women of the lower classes resisted cultural norms by insisting that it is far better to be a shrew than a sheep."
—Margaret Dupuis, Comparative Drama, December 2004
"Pamela Allen Brown does an entertaining and enlightening job with the ballads, popular plays and jigs, and jest literature and more of the Early Modern period in which caricature reflects the stereotyping of women and offers a basically serious new side of the debate over the place of women in society. The women had plenty to scold. Ms. brown concludes that ‘just as no man is born master, no woman is born a tame fool.’ These are Renaissance women; hear them roar (with laughter)."
—Bibliotheque d'Humanism et Renaissance, 2004
"As entertaining a take on the ‘women’s war' in the Renaissance as you could wish for. Lawsuits, ballads, and plays are beautifully excerpted and contextualized to show the highlights of the conflicts between women and men. I could not imagine a more trustworthy and fun-loving assembly of colourful examples from the time."
—Andrew Gurr, University of Reading
Pamela Allen Brown is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, Stamford.

(Price & availability last checked: June 2018)

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