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Cavendish X Molière: Braiding The Politics of Inter-Gender Dialogue

Cavendish X Molière: Braiding The Politics of Inter-Gender Dialogue

This post is part of a series authored by our collaborators on the Intertextual Networks project. For more information, see here. 

By Arnaud Zimmern, Ph.D. Candidate in English, University of Notre Dame

Were it but for matters of language—that Margaret Cavendish’s French was, like Molière’s English, non-existent—the titular resonance between her 1662 The Female Academy and his 1662 L’Ecole des femmes would defy coincidence. Similarly, the ambitions for all-female education and for celibate female autonomy at stake in her 1668 The Convent of Pleasure would find their satirical counterpoint in his 1672 Les Femmes Savantes. And thus the influence of Restoration England’s most under-appreciated female playwright on early modern France’s most admired male comedian would be unmistakably sealed.

Unfortunately, as Laura Carraro and Antonella Rigamonti intimated in 2000, scanty evidence that the two playwrights ever referenced each other makes it that Cavendish’s plays and persona as a learned lady can only be considered a loose “subtext” of Molière’s, nothing more (138). Whether these contemporaries read each other’s works or drew on common sources of inspiration are points of intertextuality clamoring for further elucidation. But let me propose that we take intertextuality from a less verbal and more structural vantage point. In the absence of a common language and common sources, did Molière and Cavendish share a common dramaturgical approach? More specifically, did they stage dialogue in similar ways, especially dialogue between witty, learned women and the men who would oppose and/or espouse them? If both playwrights staged the figure of the learned lady, whether satirically or heroically, did they give her distinct idiosyncratic modes of conversation or analogous ones? That, at least, is the question I’m setting out to answer for my project for Intertextual Networks. In this first post I want to present in some detail the historical background I’m addressing and I want to introduce the particularities, strengths, and weakness of the visualization method I am currently developing in order to track and compare dialogue, a method we can provisionally call “braiding.” My hope is that in bringing a visualization method to bear on the work of a woman writer who disparaged the Royal Society for its microscopes and who rightly elevated baking and cosmetics to the status of “chymistry,” I’ve at least paid her the homage of drawing my guiding metaphor from the realm of brioches and hair fashion.

That Cavendish knew of Molière by the time she self-published her second volume of plays, Playes Never Before Printed (1668), is rather safely attested. In 1667, her husband, William Duke of Newcastle, translated the Frenchman’s early play L’Etourdi (to be later revised and staged by Dryden). In September of the following year, William was also the dedicatee of Thomas Shadwell’s The Sullen Lovers, an overt adaptation of Molière’s Les Facheux. William’s contributions in verse to Margaret’s The Convent of Pleasure—which she carefully identified with individually pasted markers in the folio editions of the Plays (think early-modern Post-Its)—suggest the couple collaborated and would have discussed the latest trends in the comédie de moeurs (comedy of manners), as several scholars have noted.1

It would be difficult also to underestimate the press surrounding Molière’s L’Ecole des femmes, in equal parts a box-office smash and a tabloids scandal. The controversy cut on both sides of Molière’s professional and private lives. Hardly four years into his Paris career, Molière single-handedly relaunched the querelle des femmes, or debate on women’s education, as he satirized the efforts of the middle-aged Arnolphe who tries to keep his ward and bride-to-be, Agnès, untainted from all forms of knowledge, be they scientific or carnal. Molière opened himself to identical satire as he set about marrying his young ward, the actress Armande Béjart, whom many alleged to be his own illegitimate daughter. In February of 1662, under a chorus of wedding bells and a storm of gossip, Molière effectively succeeded where Arnolphe comically fails. 2 Unabashed, Molière rode the waves of popular attention to financial gain, producing in the following year a response play, La Critique de l’Ecole des femmes, which netted record profits.

Charles Robinet’s Panégyrique de l’Ecole des Femmes, the last of several published critiques of the original play, reports on the stir that Molière’s Ecole caused especially in England, where debonaire British husbands allegedly found the play’s male protagonist too tyrannical in his efforts to preserve Agnès’ innocence and ignorance.3 Whether Robinet’s report can be taken at face-value remains to be corroborated. For instance, his claim that the British have little appetite for Molière’s variety of “languishing comedies” but feed rather on a regular diet of the purest Tragedy, is historically specious.4 The most recent study of Molière’s impact on England suggests rather that his brand of comédie de moeurs—combining social documentary and lampoon—“parallels… the great manners tradition in Restoration comedy.”5 But Robinet’s characterization of laxer, more complaisant British husbands does seem to match Margaret Cavendish’s portrait of an obliging William Cavendish in her defensive biography, the Life of the Duke (1667). So with that point of sympathy in mind, we can conclude that if Margaret did not hear about L’Ecole des femmes from the public sphere, she knew of its author from the private sphere of her husband’s theatrical work and his collaboration, and of its themes from the kind of gossip that dogged her own marriage, as snide critics labelled her as pseudo-intellectual and her husband as lackadaisical.

Whether Molière, in turn, knew of the Duchess of Newcastle or of her works is a question altogether harder to answer and perhaps less promising. If he knew of her or of other learned women’s intellectual ambitions, he seems to have made both much and little of them, as the whim suited him. Ian MacLean reminds us: “Why should an opportunistic playwright in search of controversial material limit himself to a single view or consistent line? Education for women is implicitly defended in L’École des femmes; its excesses are attacked in Les Femmes Savantes. Women’s literary creativity in the form of romances is satirized in Les Précieuses Ridicules; the restrictions of women to such domestic activities as needle-work and sewing and their exclusion from education are impugned in L’Ecole des femmes.”6 Scholars often point to Mademoiselle de Scudéry, the 17th century female novelist, as a particular target of ridicule in Molière’s misogynistic plays. But there is no reason Cavendish should be exempt from her company, for Molière’s satires are capacious. Specific evidence, however, remains hard to come by in the plays themselves.

At stake then in finding intertextualities beyond the usual inter-citational or referential patterns, are two portraits. The first is that of Cavendish as a playwright more acutely aware of, adaptable to, and critical of continental trends in dramaturgy than the recent scholarly focus on her Shakespearean, Jonsonian, and purely anglo-English inheritance has suggested.7 If she responded vividly to the scientific discourses of René Descartes and Pierre Gassendi, whom she hosted at her table, there is little reason to doubt she responded with the same energy to developments in French theater. The second portrait is that of Molière, whose dramaturgical debts might extend across the channel in ways historians tracking his relationship to (and largely unilateral influence on) Restoration drama thus far could not account for.8 Their oversight, if it indeed it is one, would stem in large part from the fact that Cavendish’s plays have remained in the bibliographic shadows—a dilemma presently being resolved. But it would stem also from a lack of methods with which to track various kinds of non-verbal intertextuality—a dilemma I want to try to address with braiding.


Braiding sounds tricky but isn’t—in fact, it’s almost naïvely simple. In this second, more DH-heavy half of the post, I want to introduce it as a method for visualizing, tracking, and comparing structures of dramatic dialogue.

Let me begin by saying that, just like my first-year students (albeit for different reasons), I often get so lost in the language of the 17th century that I forget to read plays with an eye for who is talking to whom when. It takes considerable familiarity with a particular play, its characters, its plot, &c. to back up from the content of the speech-acts and look instead at their patterning, their sequencing, the rationales for the turn-taking within a given conversation, and identify the politics (whether gendered, racial, class-based, &c.) that are determining those turns, sequences, and patterns. It is a matter of the scale at which we read, whether close or distant, but also of the scale at which our methods make us comfortable reading. For instance, in Shakespeare studies, Anthony J. Gilbert tried early on to introduce literary scholars to the terminologies and questions of conversation analysis defined by anthropologists like Harvey Sacks—elements like indexicality, sequence, pre-sequence, announcements, pre-announcements, turn-taking, etc. But 1997 was perhaps still too early in the digital era to envisage how Sacks and Gilbert’s terms could help scholars understand intertextuality. Rather than stimulate scholars to look for analogous structures and strategies of dramatic-speech across plays and playwrights, Sacks’ abstruse terminology likely came across as another alien import from the social sciences that we would be better off not learning. So rather than propose a distant-reading tool predicated on Sacks’ anthropology and its set of assumptions, one that would markedly distinguish itself from the more comfortable realm of close reading, I want to propose braiding as a method that enables what Martin Mueller calls “scalable reading,” or the transition from close, formal analysis to the more structural, big-picture concerns of conversation analysis, and back again to the text.9 I’ll start by presenting the specificity of braiding in contrast to the better-known techniques of network analysis, and conclude with a few remarks on how attention to author-specific strategies of staging dramatic conversation might help us see Molière and Cavendish’s plays informing each other.

If we wanted a snapshot of the dialogue between characters in a given play, we might opt for a character network analysis, like Franco Moretti’s social network of Hamlet below, where an edge or link between two character-nodes represents a spoken transaction between those characters.

The Hamlet Network.

But networks are notoriously poor at representing the passage of time. With a network, a play or a short-story’s diegetic time gets compressed down to a single plane: you see the whole plot summarized in one instant. If we want to see changes in the network within time, if we wish to see the plot unfold, we may resort to a kind of flipbook of consecutive networks, flipping through various instances of the plot (this is often called a dynamic network). But the same problem ultimately persists: at each instant, we can consider only how the present network compares to the network from the previous instant or the upcoming one; we cannot visualize the overall change. What’s more, networks are poor at enabling multiple-graph comparisons. While we can handle comparing two simple network side by side, the intuitive benefits of that visualization break down once we’re looking at six or seven networks: the visual patterns simply cease to stand out because the cognitive load is too great. Networks therefore don’t encourage studies of multiple similar texts or of a single text’s transformation across several editions in historical time.

That’s where braiding intervenes as a supplement to social character network graphs. For clarity’s sake, let me use a text many of us will know well: Little Red Riding Hood (hereafter LRRH). In the scene excerpted below from Charles Perrault’s 1697 version of the tale, Wolf knocks at Grandmother’s door and pretends to be Riding Hood. Imagine Wolf’s voice as a strand in a braid, rather than an edge in a network, and let it cross over Grandmother’s strand to represent that Wolf speaks to Grandmother.

Braiding Demo – Little Red Riding Hood

That’s our first “crossing” within the braid, and we’ll encode it as a “braid-letter.” Assuming Wolf is character 1, and Grandmother is character 2, that braid-letter looks something like (102) where the 0 is a placeholder dividing addresser and addressee. When Grandmother responds and for each distinct ensuing speech-act, repeat the process — and so on and so forth for the rest of the story.

The visualization and the string of braid-letters (or “braid-word”) that emerges by the end is dependent on how you, as reader and encoder, have interpreted what constitutes “conversation.” Does a non-verbal knock at Grandmother’s door count as a speech-act? Is Grandmother responding at once to Riding Hood (in her mind) and to Wolf (in reality) when she responds, in which case the braid-letter might not just be (102) but (1023), entwining Wolf and Riding Hood’s strands together before having them cross under Grandmother’s strand? Similar questions of confused identity famously arise in early modern drama, especially in Shakespeare and Cavendish with their cross-dressing characters. It is precisely to avoid losing this important part of subjective interpretation that I propose braiding as a method and not a tool. I hope thereby to leave braiding available to multiple research interests, including those that need to pay attention to character confusion, focalization through a specific character’s experience of the plot, direct vs. indirect discourse, etc. I hope to encourage the kind of scalable-reading mentioned earlier, where the assumptions driving a visualization-technique are legible first and foremost to the reader/user.

A method though it might be, an important tool-like aspect of braiding, however, does emerge once we’ve encoded several conversations or several versions of a story into braid-words. In the following sample of 12 LRRH stories written between 1697 and 1899, we can certainly proceed visually and intuitively with the braid diagrams with relatively little cognitive difficulty, looking for patterns our eyes are rather good at picking up on.

Twelve Versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Braided and with Braidwords. Note how the dialogue structure of the 1697 Perrault version gets reproduced almost exactly in 1729, 1879, and 1891, while the introduction of the hunter figure at the tail end of the 1812 Brothers Grimm version leads to subsequent adaptations both minor (1889, 1894) as well as major, for instance in 1888 and 1898 when grandmother loudly assumes the hunter’s role.

But we can also quantitatively sequence the “braid-words” to retrieve patterns or near-patterns using rudimentary sequence-parsing algorithms borrowed from genetic sequencing. Braiding becomes an instrument for pattern-recognition and pattern-discovery across relatively large and complex corpuses, in ways networks do not readily allow for. For a brief (and somewhat naïve) gloss of a few interesting patterns in this sample of LRRH stories, you’re welcome to check out an embarrassing TEDx talk I gave my senior year of undergraduate studies at Southern Methodist University. The more important result I want to focus on, the one more relevant to the interests of our group at WWO—which emerges quite palpably from the picture above—is that braids offer the opportunity to consider at a glance the complex ebb and flow of conversations, and to some extent even of plot-line, within one story (synchronically) as well as across stories (diachronically). Moreover, they invite our visual intuition to collaborate with sequence-parsing algorithms, and they allow our comfort with close-reading specific passages to merge with more distant considerations of patterning across a text or multiple texts. Lastly they invite us, upon discovering a pattern, to return to the details of the relevant passage or set of passages to consider what, at the level of power-play and politics, is conditioning that particular pattern. They enable and enact scalable reading in ways I find few DH tools currently encourage.

All is not rosy-eyed, of course: I have yet to automate the transition from braid-words to braid-diagrams. The picture above is made entirely by hand. But my first step for the WWO project will be to automate the transition from braid-word to braid-diagram using either the python-based Numpy library or the MathML braid-visualization library.10 Charming and vintage as Microsoft Paint and manual labor might be, no one has that kind of time to spend. I welcome any suggestions or questions on how best to go about that part of the project and look forward to any thoughts or concerns it might elicit.

To bring things back finally to Molière and Cavendish and to conclude this long post, my project will begin with identifying a set of scenes within the plays aforementioned and others from their corpuses wherein male and female characters, learned ladies and their male antagonists, exchange contested words. As the Women Writers Lab pointed out early on with its helpful visualizations (reproduced below), Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure is not especially marked by male-female interactions, and we might add that Cavendish’s 1662 The Female Academy is even less so.

Margaret Cavendish, The Convent of Pleasure, 1668. This visualization illustrates the percentage of female & male speakers in each scene of Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure (1668). In ten out of a total of twenty scenes, female characters are sole speakers. Image reproduced from WWLab.

But the WWO Lab’s visualization depends on whether we encode the play’s central cross-dressing figure, the Prince who eventually marries the learned-lady figure, as male or female. By allowing for multiple possible encodings of the gender dynamics in these scenes, I hope to show that we can think about the cross-dressing Prince as someone who simultaneously parodies, venerably imitates, and obligingly enables the conversational patterns of the play’s learned lady. My literary-historical hunch (and I welcome any critiques or responses to it) is that in the gap between Cavendish’s first collection of plays (1662) and the second (1668), she has had time to consider and digest how Molière and his various critics/imitators represent the learned lady’s conversational patterns in L’Ecole and the Critique de l’Ecole. She is more attune to the learned lady’s strategies for intervening in natural-philosophical or proto-scientific discussions, where the politics of turn-taking are dominated both by intellectual hierarchies and age-hierarchies, and most importantly by gender norms. She is therefore better able to respond to Molière’s Ecole des Femmes in the Convent of Pleasure than she was as she composed The Female Academy. By allying a new scalable reading method with elements of conversation analysis, I hope to capture a glimpse of that otherwise illegible intertextuality.