A Bold Stroke for a Husband, or What You Will: Hannah Cowley’s Interpretation of William Shakespeare

A Bold Stroke for a Husband, or What You Will: Hannah Cowley’s Interpretation of William Shakespeare

This is the first post in a series that will be authored by our collaborators on the Intertextual Networks project. For more information, see here. 

By Tabitha Kenlon, Assistant Professor at the American University in Dubai

For Intertextual Networks, I’ll be looking at Hannah Cowley’s uses of Shakespearean tropes in her plays. Cowley worked with David Garrick, who almost single-handedly renewed eighteenth-century audiences’ interest in Shakespeare; he revolutionized the way actors portrayed Shakespeare’s characters, and he and other writers re-wrote some of the plays. Garrick, for example, wrote Catharine and Petruchio, which was a re-shuffled version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Cowley’s experimentation with the bard’s material was not without precedent, then, but her method was different—in many ways more subtle, but accompanied by a sharp commentary. My project attempts to tease out Cowley’s reinterpretation and critique of Shakespeare by examining plot devices that seem to borrow from or allude to his plays.

In my preliminary reading, I’ve focused on A Bold Stroke for a Husband, which premiered in 1783. In this play, Cowley re-imagines two Shakespearean tropes: One of her heroines is Olivia, a highly self-aware iteration of Katherine (“the shrew”), and the other is Victoria, a cross-dressed woman trying to win back the man she loves. With these characters, Cowley questions both eighteenth-century and Shakespearean representations of women and sexuality.

Olivia makes her entrance screaming and throwing things at her maid, who has hinted in a previous conversation with another servant that Olivia might not be what she seems. Don Garcia, the prospective suitor who witnesses her tantrum, introduces the comparison with Katherine when he tells Olivia, “perhaps you may meet a Petruchio, gentle Catherine, yet” (1.2). But Olivia responds with scorn; rather than aligning herself with the infamous shrew, she questions Katherine’s credentials, saying,

Olivia: But no gentle Catherine will he find me, believe it.—Catherine! why she had not the spirit of a roasted chesnut—a few big words, an empty oath, and a scanty dinner, made her as submissive as a spaniel. My fire will not be so soon extinguished—it shall resist big words, oaths, and starving. (1.2)

Just a few minutes later, though, the audience discovers that Olivia’s temperamental behavior has been an act, a performance calculated to rid herself of an unwanted marital prospect. Her damnation of Katherine is thus complicated by questions of intent. If Katherine was behaving naturally, perhaps she was indeed “tamed.” But if Olivia is acting a part that she has assumed of her own volition, she cannot be broken, because there is no actual “shrew” to break.

An ink drawing of Katherine breaking a lute over Hortensio's head by Louis Rhead. The illustration was designed for an edition of Lamb's Tales, copyrighted 1918. Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection
An ink drawing of Katherine breaking a lute over Hortensio’s head by Louis Rhead. The illustration was designed for an edition of Lamb’s Tales, copyrighted 1918. Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection. Creative Commons license. Wikimedia Commons.

Olivia’s juxtaposition with Katherine invites questions of her predecessor’s motives as well. It is intriguing to consider whether Shakespeare’s Kate, like Olivia, was merely waiting for her father to present her with a suitor she found worthwhile, protesting against the trading of women by complicating the transaction. Her recuperation at the end of the play increases her value, after all, as her father promises Petruchio more money in addition to her original dowry because he sees in her a new woman. Olivia seeks to minimize her own value and thus preserve herself for a man of her choosing. Her father describes her as “pretty, and witty, and rich—a match for a prince,” and Olivia knows that her wealth makes her highly attractive. In a brief soliloquy, she admits that only one thing will put an end to her bad temper: “Hah! my poor father, your anxieties will never end ’till you bring Don Julio.—Command me to sacrifice my petulence, my liberty to him, and Iphigenia herself, could not be more obedient” (2.2). Olivia’s pretense gives her the right to choose her own husband, one who will satisfy her, not her father.

While the Shakespeare connection is stated by the characters in Olivia’s situation, Victoria’s cross-dressing receives no such internal analysis. Cowley reverses the order of character introduction—Shakespeare gives us the woman first, who explains her decision to dress as a man before we see her do it. Cowley introduces the character of Florio in the opening scene of the play, when Don Carlos complains that his mistress Donna Laura has deserted him for a new lover, Florio. But we never see him. Not until Act 2, when we encounter Victoria for the first time, is the truth revealed. When Olivia asks her usually gloomy cousin why she is smiling, Victoria responds, “who could resist such a temptation to smile? a letter from Donna Laura, my husband’s mistress, stiling me her dearest Florio! her life! her soul! and complaining of a twelve hours absence, as the bitterest misfortune” (2.2). Presenting Victoria to the audience in the midst of her success rather than at the planning stages establishes Cowley’s character not as a victim seeking refuge in a disguise, but as a powerful manipulator reveling in her progress.

Victoria does explain some details of her scheme. She describes her initial decision to present herself to Laura as the act of a desperate woman—she wanted to see what charms Laura possessed so she could imitate them and perhaps get her husband back. But when she learns that Carlos has given Laura the deed to the family fortune, Victoria chooses to find a way to get the deed returned (hoping that Carlos will follow the money).

Victoria also divulges how she won Laura’s affection. Olivia asks what “witchery” she used, and Victoria maintains that she did not need to consult the supernatural, just “the knowledge of my sex. Oh! did the men but know us, as well as we do ourselves;—but thank fate they do not, ’twould be dangerous” (2.2). The insinuation is that a cross-dressed woman’s efforts to seduce a woman will meet with more success than a man’s attempt, which is not without precedent.

Viola and the Countess by Frederick Richard Pickersgill. Published in Shakespeare Illustrated, 1859.
Viola and the Countess by Frederick Richard Pickersgill. Published in Shakespeare Illustrated, 1859. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Shakespeare gave us six cross-dressed women, and the two who seem most closely related to Victoria are Julia from Two Gentlemen of Verona and Viola from Twelfth Night. In both plays, the women have disguised themselves as pages to travel alone safely, and they are employed by the men they love to woo other women on behalf of the men, whose efforts have been soundly rebuffed. Julia, as Sebastian, visits Silvia for Proteus, but Silvia remains faithful to Valentine and pities the unknown Julia whom Proteus has forsaken. Viola, as Cesario, woos Olivia, who is not in the least interested in Orsino, but falls for Cesario instead.

Shakespeare provides both pathos and dramatic irony in his scenes of two women discussing a romantic situation that involves both of them, though only one of the pair is aware of the fact. In contrast to Julia’s sad encounters with Silvia, Viola’s dealings with Olivia are largely comic. Instead, it is her discussions of love with Orsino that carry moments of intense melancholy and longing. A key difference between the two situations is where the affections of the lady in question land. Silvia remains devoted to the exiled Valentine, which allows a certain degree of commiseration between her and Julia, since each is separated from her lover, either by geography or circumstance. Olivia, however, who has never been interested in Orsino, is now quite beguiled by his irreverent messenger, proving that without even trying, a woman is the better wooer of a woman. (Men might also be most successful with other men, as Viola effectively wins the affection of Orsino while in her male disguise; upon discovering her true identity, Orsino is quick to announce his intention to marry her, and he persists in calling her “Cesario” until Viola resumes her female dress, but that’s another story—as is the fact that in the original productions, Viola and Olivia were both played by men.)

Cowley’s use of the cross-dressed woman as suitor departs from Shakespeare’s model in significant ways. First, she rearranges the love triangle and removes the man from the position of power. Whereas Julia and Viola are emissaries from the men they love, Victoria originates the action she takes as Florio. Although the goal of her mission is to regain the affection of her wandering husband, he is not the director of the situation, but an unhappy participant, and even a pawn. This realignment puts the wronged wife in an unusually strong position. Rather than content herself with the tears and hysterics Carlos complains of early in the play, Victoria asserts the knowledge she possesses as a woman, which she recognizes as being greater than a man’s and unknown to him.

Second, Victoria is married to the man she pursues, while Julia and Viola were unwed. Cowley’s heroines are capable of employing complex disguises and schemes to secure appropriate husbands for themselves, but this transgressive act of purposefully seducing another woman is reserved for the most dire of circumstances; the restoration of a family justifies all. Victoria establishes her unselfish (and nonsexual) rationale for her scheme, asserting that this task is distasteful to her, telling Olivia,

Victoria: You, who know me, can judge how I suffered in prosecuting my plan. I have thrown off the delicacy of sex; I have worn the mask of love to the destroyer of my peace—but the object is too great to be abandoned—nothing less than to save my husband from ruin, and to restore him, again a lover, to my faithful bosom. (2.2)

Her explanation reassures the audience of her adherence to eighteenth-century expectations of appropriate female behavior. Everything she has done has been to secure the return of her husband, first through a discovery of the charms he found so enticing in Laura, and then by a restoration of the family’s fortune. Victoria, in a sense, blames her wedding vows for her current undertaking. As a wife, her promise to “honor and obey” still stands, and by remaining faithful to her husband, she proves herself more honest and worthy of respect than he is.

Whereas Shakespeare’s cross-dressed women frequently relish their disguise and the freedom it affords, not all of them do, and Victoria seems ambivalent. Although she tells Olivia that she dislikes the endeavor, her initial lines on the subject indicate otherwise when she asks, “who could resist such a temptation to smile?” as she reads Laura’s expressions of love (2.2). Perhaps she is merely pleased that her plan is going well, or maybe she’s happy to have a little power over a situation for a change. Victoria’s subtext might be an echo of what Viola says when she discovers that she has accidentally won Olivia’s heart, “I am the man!”

In the coming months, I will explore in greater depth the parallels between Cowley’s heroines and Shakespeare’s in A Bold Stroke for a Husband and extend the examination to other plays. For example, what did Cowley learn about men dressing as women, a device she employed in the farcical Who’s The Dupe?, from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor? The larger question of what Cowley hoped to accomplish through this intertextual conversation with her dramatic predecessor will also be addressed—was she aligning herself with the revered bard to borrow some of his authority, or was she questioning it?

This visualization shows variations in Cowley’s reception over time by representing positive evaluations with dark green circles and negative evaluations with dark red circles. Each circle represents a cluster of reception evaluations at that point in time and the size of each circle is proportional to the number of evaluations. Visualization courtesy of Steven Braun.

If you would like to see more of Cowley’s works, visit the Women Writers in Review.

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