“Next Unto the Gods My Life Shall Be Spent in Contemplation of Him”: Margaret Cavendish’s Dramatised Widowhood in Bell in Campo (I&II)

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Abstract

Margaret Cavendish (1623–1673) is nowadays remembered as one of the most outspoken female writers and playwrights of the mid-seventeenth-century; one who openly promoted women’s right to education and public displays of creativity. Thus she paved the way for other female artists, such as her near contemporary, Aphra Behn. Although in her times seen as a harmless curiosity rather than a paragon to emulate, Cavendish managed to publish her plays along with more philosophical texts. Thanks to the re-discovery of female artists by feminist revisionism, her drama is now treated as a valuable source of knowledge on the values and norms of her class, gender, and, more generally, English society in the seventeenth century.

Cavendish’s two-partite play Bell in Campo (1662) is a fantasy on the world where women can fight united not only against misogyny but also against an actual enemy. While the two plays seem to be focused on the valiant Lady Victoria and her female “Noble Heroicks”, Bell in Campo likewise offers an odd subplot featuring two widows and their lives without their beloved husbands. In the secular discourse of the seventeenth century, widowhood has been seen as either liberating – as when the woman became the sole owner of her husband’s estate and goods, or regained her own, and thus more independent – or degrading – when she became the not-so-welcomed burden on her children’s shoulders and pockets. Other studies on widowhood likewise state its symbolic function, showing women as the bearers of memory, predominantly of the husband and his virtues, and often attending to the spouse’s site of memory. While discussing the cultural history of properly performed widowhood, seen as the final (st)age of a woman’s life, and taking into account Cavendish’s remarkable biography, the present paper offers a close study of her propositions for appropriate widowhood and its positioning in contrast to other states of womankind as presented in Bell in Campo.1 It will likewise take into account the more or less sublimated evidence for gerontophobia, particularly in relation to women, as shown in Cavendish’s play and seventeenth-century culture.

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