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  • 2018cortesephd

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Women's wit on stage, 1660-1720

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date2018
Number of pages308
Awarding Institution
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


My thesis entitled ‘Women’s wit on stage, 1660-1720’ argues that women’s wit emerged as a distinct category from masculine wit, due to the advent of the actress on the public stage and the professional woman dramatist. I explore the shifting representations of women’s wit as a popular concept in the work of both male and female dramatists. Although women dramatists such as Catharine Trotter, Delarivier Manley, and Mary Pix were referred to as ‘the female wits’ during their life-time, women’s wit has not been the focus of academic study in their work or the work of male dramatists from the Restoration onwards. I expand the view of wit as intellectual or humorous discourse to develop women’s ‘pregnant wit’ which relies on practical knowledge, disguise, and acting on impulse, to acknowledge actions as well as language as witty. My research is informed by a variety of approaches such as feminist theory, performance, new materialism, including thing theory and affect theory. Alongside literary analysis of women’s wit in drama by male and female playwrights, I consider the various nuances of the term ‘wit’ across the period using the tool cqpweb developed by Andrew Hardie from Lancaster University. I use this tool to chart whether reference to women’s wit increased throughout the period and to track the way in which perceptions of wit changed throughout the period.
After outlining the shifting and conflicting characteristics of women’s wit as creative, vengeful, supportive, subversive, conservative, and competitive, I explore the way in which the heroine’s linguistic wit differed from the male rake’s onstage. I acknowledge the previously neglected connection between wit, stage action, and performance, through ‘wit in action’ or ‘embodied wit’, which refers to the manipulation of space, objects, and people through the witty exploits of female and male tricksters. I argue that wit is present in tragedy in the form of vengeful plotting and stage spectacle which deconstructs the abject through performance. I identify theatrical paratexts in comedy, tragicomedy, and tragedy as miniature forms of wit which manipulate spectators’ responses to the play. My thesis creates the term ‘Sapphic wit’ to refer to the supportive network of wit between women both in and outside of the theatre, from characters onstage, to dramatists, actresses, patronesses, and theatre spectators. Evidence of these networks, along with acknowledgement of female spectators exists in prologues, epilogues, prefaces to the plays, and in the plays themselves. Through cross-comparison of female and male-authored plays, I expose the distinctive features of women’s wit in this period.