To rise and not to fall: representing social mobility in early modern comedy and Star Chamber litigation
Meyer, Liam J.
MetadataShow full item record
This dissertation examines social mobility as treated in stage comedies and litigation records circa 1603-1625. It argues that, in a historical context where rising in the world often awakened disapproval, stage representations of advantageous marriages negotiated cultural debates concerning socioeconomic change, political hierarchy, and individual aspirations. To understand the diverse meanings of social advancement, this study traces the discursive and narrative resemblances between two sets of texts: nearly two hundred Star Chamber cases that contested marital status incompatibility, and plays by Middleton, Jonson, Chapman, and their peers that dramatize intense competitions for marriages that could elevate characters in wealth and prestige. Pierre Bourdieu provides methods for approaching the multi-dimensional early modern social field with its many forms of status, and Frederic Jameson offers ways to consider the relation of fictional narratives to social and ideological problems. Using these theorists to align the two sets of texts, this dissertation reveals how London's theaters offered complex fantasies of achievement that balanced individual ambition against prevailing assumptions about gender, status, and social order. The Introduction traces relevant historical contexts, while Chapter One outlines the polyphonic features of the texts under investigation and culminates in an analysis of George Chapman's use of multiple temporal schemes in The Widow's Tears to represent a fantasy marriage as both an upstart's rise and a dynastic renewal. Chapter Two examines legal records to reveal how victims of alleged courtship frauds evoked a broad cultural script that represented social exogamy as a threat to the ruling elite. Chapters Three and Four focus on masculinity, arguing that both male defendants and playwrights like Thomas Middleton and Lording Barry responded to the cultural contradictions of social mobility by privileging alternative metrics of masculine worth and alternative trajectories of advancement. Chapter Five shows how female defendants positively rearticulated available negative stereotypes about women, especially servants, marrying up; in similar fashion Ben Jonson's The New Inn portrays a maidservant's engagement to an aristocrat as a triumph of merit. Finally, the Appendix examines one extensive case in which dozens of witnesses variously interpreted the scandalous elopement--or kidnapping--of a rich London woman.