Women Playwrights in Medieval and Early Modern England

Women Playwright MA & EM

Today’s post is about women who wrote plays in Medieval and Early Modern England. All of these women wrote plays before the Restoration era (which began in 1660) because, although this is not when the early modern era ended, I needed a cut off point.

I’ll be writing a couple more posts about women playwrights during WHM so I’ll hopefully be able to explore more eras and the work of more women.

Katherine of Sutton (15th century)

Katherine of Sutton, a Benedictine nun and Abbess of Barking, is often considered to be England’s first woman playwright.

During her time in office, Katherine is thought to have directed three sung Latin liturgical dramas which were performed in Barking Abbey towards the end of the fourteenth century.1 There’s no evidence to suggest that she actually wrote any new material because the surviving manuscript (which I’ve tried so hard to find online but it doesn’t seem to have been digitised) generally follows the wording and conventions of earlier Latin liturgical Easter plays.2 All of these plays were pretty much the same because they were religious plays and they were an important aspect of Easter celebrations in Medieval England.

According to scholars who have seen the manuscript (not me because I can’t even find a trace of it), Katherine did leave us with a preface in which she states that she rearranged the plays so that the Descensus and Elevatio were performed after the third responsory of Matins, instead of before Matins. The preface also (apparently) states that she did this in order to eliminate growing ‘human sluggishness’ and slack devotion among the people.

These liturgical dramas that were performed at Barking Abbey have been credited with influencing several other dramas in later years and Prof. William Tydeman noted that the theatrical literature of late medieval France, Germany and Britain contained noticeable characteristics which were modelled after the plays at Barking Abbey.4

One final note: The plays of Barking Abbey are also important because they feature nuns playing male characters. A nun played Jesus!


Jane Lumley, Baroness Lumley (née FitzAlan, 1537–1578)

Jane_Fitzalan,_Lady_LumleyKnown as the first translator of Euripides into English, Jane Lumley was a prolific translator in the sixteenth century. She was the eldest child of Henry FitzAlan, 19th Earl of Arundel and his first wife, Lady Katherine Grey (died 1542) – making her the cousin of Lady Jane Grey. Jane, along with her sister Mary, was very well-educated and this allowed her to become such a wonderful translator. She married John Lumley who was also a scholar, translator, and book collector. John Lumley supported the literary activities of his wife.

Lumley translated selected orations of Isocrates, an ancient Greek rhetorician, from Greek into Latin which highlights her proficiency in both languages. She also translated Euripides’s Iphigeneia at Aulis into English, either from the original Greek or, as suggested by Caroline Coleman, from Erasmus’s Latin translation.6 Lumley’s translation of Iphigenia is the first known dramatic work to be written by a woman in English. Although Lumley did not write ‘original’ plays, translation is both an art and a skill and Lumley’s contributions to English literature, specifically English drama, should be acknowledged and praised.


Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (née Sidney, 1561 – 1621)

1595_Tragedy_of_Antony (1)I have written about Mary Sidney before on this blog – in March 2018 to be exact – but I wanted to include her in this list because it would have felt incomplete without her.

Sidney’s closet drama Antonius or The Tragedy of Antonie (written c.1590) is a translation of Robert Garnier’s Marc-Antoine, a French play from 1578. A closet drama is a play that is not intended to be performed on stage but read by a solitary reader or sometimes out loud in a small group. However, closest dramas have also been identified as a mode of dramatic writing for those without access to the commercial playhouse – like early modern women. Sidney was a celebrated translator in her own time and, while she may have not had access to the general theatre because she was a woman, she did have access to the printing press which allowed the play to be published under her own name in 1592.

Antonius is often seen as a source for Samuel Daniel’s closet drama Cleopatra (1594) and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1607). Professor Paulina Kewes argues that ‘Sidney’s Antonius […] suggests an analogy between ancient Egypt and contemporary England which Daniel picks up and develops in his play’, suggesting a close relationship between Antonius and Daniel’s Cleopatra.7

There is so more to Antonius than just its status as a source for dramas written by men and although some critics have tended to focus on her ability as a translator, effectively erasing her potential authorial agency over the text, Eva Lauenstein has argued that ‘Sidney’s choice of Garnier is […] viewed as an act of literary discernment; Garnier’s text is a purposeful choice for Sidney because of its applicability to the lives of her English readership’.8 Basically, Sidney chose to translate this play for a reason and that is a form of authorial intent. She wanted to transform this French play into something suitable for her Elizabethan English audience because she felt it was relevant.

Thankfully, the work done by scholars such as Professor Paulina Kewes, Professor Danielle Clarke, and Eva Lauenstein gives us an insight into Sidney’s writing even though it was largely ignored until the 1980s.

The Tragedy of Antonie can be read for free via Luminarium


Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland (née Tanfield; 1585–1639)

The_Tragedy_of_MariamElizabeth Cary wrote the first original play in English by a woman. There is some speculation that Cary may have written a play before The Tragedy of Mariam that was lost. However, most scholars agree that The Tragedy of Mariam is the first extant original play written by a woman in English.9

The Tragedy of Mariam is thought to have been written between 1602 and 1604 and it was entered into the Stationer’s Register in December 1612.10 The play was printed in 1613 and the printed edition includes an invocation to the goddess Diana. It is the final two lines of this invocation that suggest Cary wrote another play before Mariam was produced: My first was consecrated to Apollo; / My second to Diana now shall follow.11 If this play is for Diana, which play was for Apollo?

The play tells the story of Mariam, the second wife of Herod the Great, King of Judea from 39 to 4 B.C. It is a Senecan revenge tragedy which includes a classical style chorus that comments on the plot of the play and the primary sources were probably The Wars of the Jews and The Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus. Cary covers a variety of themes in this play including marriage, religion, female agency, divorce, tyranny, and race. Many scholars have linked the themes of the play to Cary’s own life and marriage.

Just as with Sidney’s Antonius, it is likely that The Tragedy of Mariam was a closet drama. Much of the action of the play is described through dialogue which suggests that it was intended to be read rather than performed. As closet dramas were often used to avoid censorship, it could be suggested that Cary used the form of the closet drama to disguise potentially transgressive ideas. For example, Cary’s Salome, the play’s antagonist, often extols proto-feminist ideas and argues in favour of female liberation.

Dr Elaine Beilin has noted that although Mariam is the title character, her part in the play amounts to only about 10% of the whole play.12


Lady Mary Wroth (1587 – 1653)

NPG D37128; Maria Ann Lovell (nÈe Lacy) as Princess Diana in 'Love's Victory' published by William Kenneth

Lady Mary Wroth, niece of Mary Sidney, was primarily a poet but she wrote at least one drama in her lifetime.

Love’s Victory is a pastoral closet drama – yes, another closet drama – which was written around 1618 and it is the first known original pastoral drama and the first original dramatic comedy written by a woman.13 The play is not as well-known or as widely read as Wroth’s other works but I think it’s a wonderful play.

It is written primarily in rhyming couplets which gives it a lilting musicality. The play begins with the goddess Venus commanding Cupid, her son, to cause a group of shepherds and shepherdesses some heartache and suffering for not showing her enough reverence. This causes a series of misunderstandings which Venus and Cupid must resolve by revealing themselves to the mortals.14

The play was first performed (professionally) at Penshurst Palace, Kent on the 16th of September 2018, 400 years after Wroth wrote the play.

As far as I know, you can only read the play via the Early Modern Women Research Network but the play has been digitised and modernised spelling is also offered.


Lady Jane Cavendish (1621 – 1669) and Elizabeth Egerton, Countess of Bridgewater (née Cavendish, 1626 – 1663) 

I’m talking about these two women together because, although they were writers in their own right, they’re sisters who co-authored a pastoral masque. Masques were a form of festive courtly entertainment and in the English Tudor court, masques developed from earlier guisings, where a masked allegorical figure would appear and address the assembled company with musical accompaniment.

During the English Civil War, the Cavendish family were staunch Royalists and it was during this period of unrest that Jane and Elizabeth began compiling a variety of manuscript writings. It is thought that they maybe have started writing these pieces as early as 1635 but most were probably written during the Civil War. A manuscript of their work – Poems Songs a Pastorall and a Play by the Right Honorable the Lady Jane Cavendish and Lady Elizabeth Brackley – is currently held by the Bodleian Library and this manuscript contains two plays: A Pastorall and The Concealed Fansyes.

Both of these plays reflect the experiences of the Civil War. Dr Daniel Cadman states that in A Pastorall, the Cavendish sisters highlight the effects of the onset of civil war’ and ‘[t]his is shown most explicitly in the anti-masque delivered by a group witches that prefaces the play.’15 In this preface, these witches claim to have made ‘Brother hate brother’, ‘Sister hate Sister’, ‘Wife hate husband’, and ‘all other / kindred, hath / their divisions of hatred’ which is a pretty accurate representation of the Civil War since it was a war which divided families and the country itself.16

Cadman goes on to suggest that ‘The Concealed Fancies confronts similar questions about the plight of the aristocratic household in the midst of the English Civil War, but in a far more ambivalent way’.17 The Civil War affected these sisters so much that their literary output, at least in regards to drama, almost revolved around it.

As the theatres had been closed in 1642 – and would remain closed until 1660 – these plays were probably written as closet dramas or, perhaps, for family performances. It’s unlikely that the Cavendish sisters expected the plays to be performed in front of an audience.

A Pastorall seems to be out of print at the moment – I found an old copy via my university library – but The Concealed Fansyes can be read via the University of Pennsylvania.

DividerI have come to the end of my exploration of women who wrote plays in Medieval and Early Modern England! Researching this was so much fun and endeavours such as this make me remember why I love researching early modern drama.

If you enjoyed this post or found it interesting then please consider buying me a coffee or, if you’re interested in any of the books I’ve talked about in this post, check out my* list which features all of the books I’ll be talking about during Women’s History Month!

This post contains affiliate links which are clearly marked with an asterisk. I will receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you.

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1. Nancy Cotton, Women Playwrights in England, c.1363-1750 (Lewisburg: Buckness University Press, 1980)
2. Karl Young, The Drama of the Medieval Church (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933)
3. Jennifer N. Brown & Donna Alfano Bussell, Barking Abbey and Medieval Literary Culture: Authorship and Authority in a Female Community (England: York Medieval Press, 2012)
4. William Tydeman, “An Introduction to Medieval English Theatre” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)
5. Nancy Cotton, Women Playwrights in England, c.1363-1750 (Lewisburg: Buckness University Press, 1980)
6. Caroline Coleman, British Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide. (London: Routledge, 1989)
7. Paulina Kewes, ‘A Fit Memorial for the Times to Come…’: Admonition and Topical Application in Mary Sidney’s “Antonius” and Samuel Daniel’s “Cleopatra”’ in The Review of English Studies, 63.259 (2012): 243-64
8. Eva Lauenstein (2019) ‘Within these tombes enclos’d’: Interring Renaissance love in Mary Sidney Herbert’s Antonius, Textual Practice, 33:8 (2019): 1427-1446
9. Helen Hackett, A Short History of English Renaissance Drama (New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2013)
10. Susan P. Cerasano & Marion Wynn-Davies, eds. Renaissance Drama by Women: Texts and Documents (London: Routledge, 2003)
11. Elizabeth Cary, The Tragedy of Mariam, (London: 1613)
12. Elaine Beilin in Anita Pacheco, ed. A Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing. (London: Blackwell, 2002)
13. Marion Wynne-Davies, Women Poets of the Renaissance (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999)
14. Margaret P. Hannay, Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010)
15. Daniel Cadman, The Closet as Form and Theme in Cavendish and Brackley’s The Concealed Fancies’ in Hopkins, L., & Rutter, T. (Eds.) A Companion to the Cavendishes (ARC Humanities Press, 2020)
16. Jane and Elizabeth Cavendish, A Pastorall by Jane and Elizabeth Cavendish (San Antonio: Independent Scholar Press, 2011)
17. Daniel Cadman, The Closet as Form and Theme in Cavendish and Brackley’s The Concealed Fancies’ in Hopkins, L., & Rutter, T. (Eds.) A Companion to the Cavendishes (ARC Humanities Press, 2020)

1. Portrait of Jane Fitzalan, Lady Lumley by Steven van der Meulen (1563)
2. The title page of The Tragedy of Antony, translated into English by Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1595) – via Folger Shakespeare Library
3. The title page of The Tragedy of Mariam by Elizabeth Cary (1613) – via Columbia University
4. Maria Ann Lovell as Lady Diana in Love’s Victory published by William Kenneth (1826) – via National Portrait Gallery

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