Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English

Volume 17 – The Pragmatics and Stylistics of Identity Construction and Characterisation

Article Contents

1. Introduction

2. The ‘mad woman’ in Shakespearean drama

3. Linguistic politeness and the mad woman in non-Shakespearean Early Modern drama

4. Conclusions




“Thus to make poor females mad”: finding the ‘mad woman’ in Early Modern drama

Heather Froehlich
University of Strathclyde


This article explores how the phrase ‘mad woman’ is used to construct gendered face-threatening actions in Early Modern dramatic writing. Although literary scholars are familiar with the more canonical mad women, I show that feminine madness in Early Modern dramatic writing is not always described so bluntly. Using the simple quantitative technique of counting instances of lexical realizations of ‘mad woman’ in the Shakespeare His Contemporaries corpus (Mueller 2015), this article shows that while we can easily recognize the so-called mad women in drama, the characters we expect to find are not always named as such. Finally, I suggest that accusations of madness in women can be used to identify a variety of politeness strategies in use in Early Modern drama.

1. Introduction

Figure 1. Ophelia (1851-2) by John Everett Millais. Oil on canvas.

Figure 1. Ophelia (1851–2) by John Everett Millais. Oil on canvas.

Some of the more famous mad women in Early Modern drama include The Jailer’s Daughter (The Two Noble Kinsmen), Zabina (1 Tamburlaine), Isabella (The Changeling) and Isabella (The Spanish Tragedy), though perhaps no female figure in Early Modern drama is more canonized than Ophelia (Figure 1), the young Danish noblewoman who goes mad and drowns herself; Elaine Showalter goes so far to describe her as “a potent and obsessive figure in our cultural mythology” (1994: 221). In other words, the mad woman is one of the more recognizable stock characters in Early Modern drama. The presence of the canonical mad woman is apparent, as are her fits of hysteria, but it is unclear whether she would actually be described as such in Early Modern drama. Her presence as a recurring character trope may play a potentially contradictory role in construing Shakespeare as a feminist. In this essay I ask how Shakespeare and his contemporaries use the phrase ‘mad woman’ and if it is really as salient as characterization would imply by comparing both frequency and sociopragmatic context in Shakespeare’s plays to a corpus of 54 other authors, spanning a total of 339 plays.

Shakespeare is often presented as the totem Early Modern dramatist, and his presence in print culture primes his corpus as a model for Early Modern drama. Unlike other authors from the same period, Shakespeare’s plays remain widely read and performed. For example, Sarah Werner argues that Shakespeare’s centrality is an almost incontestable truth (2010: 1); the volume of studies discussing Shakespeare’s use of gender runs the risk of perpetuating the idea of Shakespeare as in some way exceptional to the other of the Early Modern playwrights. Others have argued whether or not Shakespeare was a proto-feminist (Dusinberre 1975, 5; Kemp 2010: 173), but this level of attention has not been given to his contemporaries.  As the issue of gender in Early Modern English can be indexed through (biological) sex to create a non-arbitrary system, nouns connoting specifically male or specifically female mirror what can be considered “real-life distinctions” (Nevalainen 2006: 80–81; Livia 2001: 28–30).

Social histories of the Early Modern period (Amussen 1993, 1984; Mendelson & Crawford 1998) suggest male and female social roles were clearly demarcated. Furthermore, as humoural balance dictates male and female temperaments, melancholy in particular was strongly associated with femininity. Hysteria and greensickness remained a female condition due to their close association with melancholy: womanhood was to be viewed as volatile, unpredictable and governed by the ‘cold’ humor melancholy (Burton 1621, Paster 1998). As a result, an imbalance of melancholy in women skewing for madness is not just a bodily condition but also a mental one. Thus, a female character considered ‘mad’ is not just out of her wits or outside the logical world but also inherently dangerous. When Gail Kern Paster describes the embodiments of the four temperaments as governing not just physical but also social understandings of the differences between men and women. ‘Madness’ is therefore the tension between performing the bodily imbalance and the potential for losing self-control in the male-dominated Early Modern English society (Amussen 1993).

Although a relatively small number of female characters are available in Shakespeare’s plays, feminist literary scholars claim that Shakespeare’s treatment of them is in some way exceptional. For example, Kemp (2010: 173) argues that Shakespeare’s portrayal of women in general challenges norms of female behavior in the period and beyond while Dusinberre (1975: 5) claims Shakespeare is downright modern in his treatment of women. Despite claims of female representation in Early Modern drama, Shakespeare’s female characters are actually underrepresented according to word-frequency and total speaking time. [1] Especially in Elizabethan theatre, female roles are often played by boys and most actors played multiple roles in Early Modern theatrical performances, meaning there is a low potential for one female character to actually speak to another if only one actor is hired to play them both. Biber and Burges (2000: 27) and Culpeper and Kytö (2010, chapter 14) note that male to male dialogue in plays is generally more common than male to female, female to male, or female to female overall. The relative social power of male characters compared to female characters is largely dependent on social class and social identity (eg Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 1994, 1996, Archer and Culpeper 2003, 2005).

The use of the phrase ‘mad woman’ can have strong implications for linguistic politeness. Brown and Levinson (1987) consider ways that various pragmatic strategies can be used to mitigate requests and statements to adhere towards politeness strategies in social interaction, both real or fictional, through the use of Face Threatening Actions (FTAs). Non-adherence to these strategies in utterances is considered to be rude or otherwise impolite. Actions which are face-threatening are not inherently negative, but they do challenge the addressee using pragmatic strategies which affect the speaker or hearer’s self-image. While historical sociopragmatics is a relatively new field of study, the general trend has been towards literary-historical, sociopragmatic empirical models (Taavitsainen and Jucker 2015). Therefore, FTAs for the speaker can be positive (such as through the giving of criticism, interruptions, or complaining) or negative (accepting compliments or offering apologies, in which the speaker aims to protect themselves) in nature. Confusingly, FTAs can be positive when they attack the hearer through disapproval, accusations, criticism, expressing violent thoughts or actions, accusations, epithets or through interruption, whereas they are negative for the hearer when suggesting, reminding, making requests, or expressing positive emotions towards the hearer (Brown and Levinson 1987: 65–68, Locher and Watts 2005). In other words, FTAs are a way of expressing positive and negative social outcomes through linguistic expression (c.f. Culpeper 2010: 3234) and maintaining social stability in Early Modern England. For some, such as Culpeper (1996, 2005, 2009; Culpeper et al. 2003) and Bousfield (2008) the issue of constructing impoliteness makes it easier to define what makes an utterance polite: linguistic impoliteness hinges on a “negative evaluation of behavior” (Culpeper 2010: 3233). A negative evaluation of behavior would evoke the use of epithets or insults as a positive face-threatening strategy towards a hearer: these are negative in that they are attacking the hearer and designed to emotionally affect the speaker. In particular, Jucker (2011: 187–9) and Kopytko (1993, 1995) argue for a high predominance of positive face in Early Modern English social interaction; this study aims to test ways that direct references to ‘mad woman’ are indicative of positive face.

In this study I will use the Standardized Spelling WordHoard Early Modern Drama corpus (Mueller 2010), curated from the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership initiative (EEBO-TCP). It includes a full copy of Shakespeare’s plays, easily setting up comparisons between Shakespeare and his contemporaries; it is an early version of the data now available in the Shakespeare his Contemporaries corpus (Mueller 2015). It excludes extra-textual information, such as speech prefixes, act/scene divisions, and front matter. Included metadata includes authorship, genre and year of publication sourced from Annals of English Drama, 975–1700 (Harbage, Schoenbaum, and Wagonheim 1989) and the Database of Early English Drama (Farmer and Lesser 2007). [2] All plays are preprocessed for modernized spelling and are distributed in a plain-text machine-readable format. Using concordance software such as AntConc (Anthony 2012), one can identify each instance of ‘mad woman’ in Shakespeare and his contemporaries’ plays using a simple string-matching search. [3]

2. The ‘mad woman’ in Shakespearean drama

Ophelia may be the token madwoman character in Shakespearean drama, but there are others, including Katherine (The Taming of the Shrew), Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Cassandra (Troilus and Cressida), Volumnia (Coriolanus), and arguably Desdemona (Othello). The sociopragmatic construction of the mad woman functions as a marker of a specific kind of female character – particularly one who is no longer herself, overtaken by emotion, and lacking rationality; this definition is easily applied to the characters listed above. However, there are three examples, and they are not from Hamlet, Macbeth, Troilus and Cressida, Coriolanus or Othello. Instead, the Shakespearean plays containing the construction ‘mad woman’ or its plural ‘mad women’ are Richard II, Merchant of Venice, and Timon of Athens. Each play has one example, and each example functions slightly differently. In Richard II, a husband calls his wife a mad woman for not complying with his wishes; in contrast, in Timon of Athens, Apemantus describes the dancing women as mad. Finally, in the Merchant of Venice, ‘mad woman’ Portia uses off-record utterances in reference to herself out of her disguise. Each instance presents a sense that a female character has lost her senses and/or her understanding of herself, making her potentially dangerous according to Early Modern understandings of social order (Amussen 1993; Mendelson and Crawford 1998, Gowing 1998).

Figure 2. First folio of William Shakespeare’s plays.

Figure 2. First folio of William Shakespeare’s plays.

For example, Edmund of Langley calls his wife the Duchess of York a ‘mad woman’ in Richard II. Their son, the Duke of Aumerle is trying to conceal a letter; upon reading it, Edmund declares his son a traitor and prepares to leave. As his servant re-enters with his boots, the following exchange between husband and wife occurs (V.ii.94–108):

Duchess of York. Strike him, Aumerle. Poor boy, thou art amazed.
Hence, villain! never more come in my sight.
Edmund of Langley. Give me my boots, I say.
Duchess of York. Why, York, what wilt thou do?
Wilt thou not hide the trespass of thine own?
Have we more sons? or are we like to have?
Is not my teeming date drunk up with time?
And wilt thou pluck my fair son from mine age,
And rob me of a happy mother’s name?
Is he not like thee? is he not thine own?
Edmund of Langley. Thou fond mad woman,
Wilt thou conceal this dark conspiracy?
A dozen of them here have ta’en the sacrament,
And interchangeably set down their hands,
To kill the king at Oxford.

Edmund declares his wife a ‘mad woman’ in line 104; in doing so he attempts to illustrate and exert power as the head of the house; she is unpredictable and volatile by comparison. While female melancholy leads to the Duchess exhibiting signs of hysterical disorder, Edmund attempts to illustrate ways that social power is established through the use of negative politeness strategies (Culpeper 2011). Edmund’s description of his wife as a ‘mad woman’ further emphasizes his role as the dominant figure in the family, and presents the Duchess of York as unruly, unpredictable and not acting like herself. By declaring his wife’s behavior as deviant and his as normative, the imbalance of power here between husband and wife over their son, is quite visible.

In the example from Merchant of Venice, Portia is in disguise as Balthazar; she uses positive face strategy combined with off-record politeness strategies as a way to hint at her true identity. Rather than using direct face-threatening action, she is employing a face-saving strategy in which she aims to not cause offense towards Bassanio but also while threatening him with the actions of a ‘mad woman’.  As Portia initially gave Bassanio the ring, she implicitly understands the conditions surrounding the ring he is so reluctant to give up:

Bassanio. Good sir, this ring was given me by my wife;
And when she put it on, she made me vow
That I should neither sell nor give nor lose it.
Portia. That ‘scuse serves many men to save their gifts.
An if your wife be not a mad-woman,
And know how well I have deserved the ring,
She would not hold out enemy for ever,
For giving it to me. Well, peace be with you!

She tries to insinuate that if he were to give – in this case, return – the ring, his wife would find it to be acceptable. In her disguise as Balthazar, she must perform the more masculine and thus more choleric humor, rather than the supposedly ‘cold’ feminine melancholic (Burton 1621, Paster 1998; 2010, Chapter 2). Portia’s use of ‘mad woman’ shows her employing positive face rather than attacking with negative FTAs. As a result, she must fulfill all aspects of a masculine performance, and her attempt to subvert her disguised gender invokes positive politeness strategies and off-record utterances.

Where Edmund constructs his wife as having lost her mind over their son and Portia promises to not do the same, Apementus describes the dancers as behaving in a frenzied and manic way, as if controlled by external forces, but he extends this metaphor to describe madness more broadly as “the glory of this life” (Timon of Athens I.ii.135). He considers life to be like the instability of women’s melancholy – prone to unpredictability, unexpectedness and unbalance. Although Apemenatus is a cynical and critical figure, he uses bald on-record reporting, indicating a minimal face-threat threshold towards the dancing women when he describes them as mad women:

First Lord. You see, my lord, how ample you’re beloved.
[Music. Re-enter Cupid with a mask of Ladies]
as Amazons, with lutes in their hands,
dancing and playing]
Apemantus. Hoy-day, what a sweep of vanity comes this way!
They dance! they are mad women.
Like madness is the glory of this life.

Apemantus’ perspective remains one of relative power and privilege, due to his observation of women performing for him; while he is skeptical later in his speech act, the initial use of the phrase ‘mad woman’ is not particularly face-threatening, impolite or socially unacceptable. The humoural instability that governs women’s emotional states is implied to hold in his extended metaphor about the unpredictability of life as problematic, but he does not use any particular face-damaging strategies to achieve this. As Culpeper (1996: 365) considers sarcasm to be a form of mock politeness and Bousfield (2008: 118) considers this to be closely related to Leech’s construction of irony (1983: 82, 142), this description is not causing any direct harm to his audience. Where Edmund describes his wife as a ‘mad woman’, he flouts linguistic politeness strategies by trying to cause harm to his wife. In contrast, Apemantus’ use of the same phrase has the inverse effect, in which he emphasizes the positive facets of the women’s actions. His use of sarcasm and cynicism in his declarative utterance is “obviously insincere” (Culpeper 1996: 356). Bousfield (2008: 198) claims examples such as this require an implied face attack to be unacknowledged. Because Apemantus’ use of sarcasm and cynicism in his declarative utterance above inverts the expectation he says opposite of what he means, flouting Grice’s (1975) guides to effective communication.

The ‘mad woman’ in Shakespeare’s play is unpredictable, hysterical, and irrational in each of the contexts outlined above. In each example, a male character speaks of a female character as a mad woman; he may only be able to do so from a place of relative social power, wherein men have more social standing and autonomy than women (Mendelson and Crawford 1998, Gowing 1998).  Extrapolating from men and women to male and female characters assumes that social roles on-stage reflect the reality of the Early Modern world, following the models set out by Culpeper and Kytö (2010) and Lutzky (2012). The cold disposition ascribed to women in the Early Modern period construes femininity as unstable and unpredictable, with the phrase ‘mad woman’ in Shakespeare’s plays applied only where social power threatens to become unbalanced: when a wife tries to make an independent decision, or when a woman acts otherwise outside social norms. These circumstances produce three individual modes of sociopragmatic markers through the presentation of feminine melancholia and implicit power structures enacted between male and female characters in Shakespearean drama: positive politeness, negative politeness, and obvious insincerity.

3. Linguistic politeness and the mad woman in non-Shakespearean Early Modern drama

However, Shakespeare’s plays are just a very small subsection of Early Modern drama which may not be indicative of larger patterns of usage in the corpus. Although Shakespeare’s mad women are perhaps the most famous and therefore most visible ‘mad women’ characters, there is no dearth of other examples in a diachronic view of plays written for the stage: “By the time of the Restoration, madness on the stage became confined almost entirely to women […] restoration writers presumably realized that madness could provide actresses with ‘depth and scope’, and that the it could also offer the audience titillation, for many of the conventional signs of madness were sexually suggestive” (Leigh 2014: 30). In other words, the use of a ‘mad woman’ character would be a highly familiar and highly entertaining figure. While Leigh (2014) argues for the possibility of female characters to retain agency in their madness, her conception of agency does not invoke socio-pragmatic modes of social power. Female characters such as Moll Cutpurse (The Roaring Girl), Zabina (1 Tamburlaine), Isabella (The Changeling) and Isabella (The Spanish Tragedy), the Jailer’s Daughter (Two Noble Kinsmen), or the Duchess (Duchess of Malfi) may have bodily and physical agency in the worlds of the play-texts, but their actions do not precipitate an escape from a highly socialized hierarchy.

Despite the relative visibility of unruly female characters in non-Shakespearean drama, the question of which non-Shakespearean plays use the phrase ‘mad woman’ remains. While the Standardized Spelling Corpus of Early Modern Drama is not exhaustive, it can serve as an indication of Shakespeare’s relationship to his contemporaries. Table 1 indicates the plays which use the phrase ‘mad woman’ or its plural ‘mad women’, as well as their authors and the number of times this phrase appears in each text. Table 1 also shows authorial use of the phrase ‘mad woman’ out of a total of 55 authors including Shakespeare: [4]

Play Author Genre (Assigned) Frequency
The Honest Whore, part 1 Dekker comedy 2
Northward Ho! Dekker comedy 1
The Night Walker Fletcher comedy 1
The Chances Fletcher comedy 1
The Wild Goose Chase Fletcher comedy 1
Two Noble Kinsmen Fletcher tragicomedy 2
All’s Lost by Lust Rowley tragedy 1
Richard II Shakespeare history 1
Merchant of Venice Shakespeare comedy 1
Timon of Athens Shakespeare tragedy 1

Table 1. Use of mad woman in the Early Modern Modernised Spelling Corpus.

Overall, Shakespeare is very unlike his contemporaries in his use of the phrase ‘mad woman’: he is one of four total authors to use this construction, in that very few other playwrights use this phrase. [5] Shakespeare has the highest quantity of plays in the reference corpus from all these authors (Fletcher has a total of 14 plays and Dekker has a total of 16). Shakespeare’s use of the phrase is therefore not in line with his contemporaries from a strictly quantitative perspective, but I am interested in showing how authors use this particular phrase. In other words, Table 1 makes the argument that Shakespeare is quite unlike his contemporaries in his use of the phrase, but the sociopragmatic contexts in which ‘mad woman’ is used is still debatable.

So while Shakespeare is one of four playwrights to use the phrase ‘mad woman’ compared to his contemporaries, the noun phrase in question is much less frequent than literary scholars may have anticipated. From a strictly generic standpoint, non-Shakespearean drama uses the phrase most frequently in comedies, whereas Shakespeare’s usage is skewed towards his tragedies. Because women’s bodies and by extension their internal states are policed so forcefully by Early Modern standards, any deviance from this enforced norm is anticipated to be explicit. But, the way these women are widely understood to be performing madness do not map directly to the use of the phrase ‘mad woman’.

In other words, this is not a high-frequency realization of the idea of a woman acting erratically, unpredictably, or otherwise beyond the prescribed social structure of Early Modern England. While the concept may be highly recognizable as a feature of characterization, the use of the phrase is highly marked due to its comparative infrequency in the larger reference corpus of Early Modern drama. Plays with more visible critical attention given to mad women stock characters such as Marlowe’s 1 Tamburlaine, Middleton’s The Changeling and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy – Charney and Charney’s visible ‘mad women’ (1977: 451), are not at all represented in Table 1. With the exception of Two Noble Kinsmen, Charney and Charney’s (1977) initial claim of mad women as “strongly defined” may not be true of understanding ways madness in women is truly represented on-stage. Moreover, the low-frequency usage in 339 Early Modern plays covering 148 years suggests that ‘mad woman’ is simply not as widely used to describe a woman who deviates from social norms. Thus, the plays using the phrase ‘mad woman’ are perhaps best considered outliers in the corpus of Early Modern drama as they are very much unlike the rest of the corpus.  The relative infrequency of this phrase in Early Modern drama suggests there could be alternative terms which describe the same phenomenon, accounting for its limited and highly-coded use.

The non-Shakespearean plays which use the phrase ‘mad woman’ fall into two broad categorical uses: first, as an epithet to describe a female character who acts, or threatens to act, beyond the social norms of the period; second, but related, when one character uses the epithet as a face-attacking strategy towards a character on-stage with them, but is not meant to cause direct offense to the addressee. These two dominant modes echo the examples found in Shakespeare’s plays, in which the use of the phrase ‘mad woman’ is a literal description or intrinsically linked to the threat of a woman acting outwith the social norms for the period, as seen in Merchant of Venice and Richard II.  The metaphoric and ironic use of ‘mad woman’ can only be concluded to be very rare in this corpus: one such example can be found in Timon of Athens.

A strong sense of social order and humoral balance dictates ways that men and women should act; even the threat of disorder may be enough for a male character to declare a female character a mad woman. An extreme example of this lurking danger is found in an Honest Whore part 1, wherein Bellafront is preparing to stab herself when Hippolito enters and stops her:

Bellafront. O fit instrument
To let forth all the poison of my flesh!
Thy master hates me, ’cause my blood hath ranged:
But when ’tis forth, then he’ll believe I’m changed.
Hippolito. Mad woman, what art doing?
Bellafront. Either love me,
Or split my heart upon thy rapier’s point:
Yet do not neither; for thou then destroy’st
That which I love thee for—thy virtues.
(Scene 6, A20062)

Bellafront, the eponymous whore, is clearly preparing to harm herself over her lack of attention from Hippolito, a count. His reaction – to ask what she is doing – is prefixed with the descriptive mad woman. Hippolito, a man of considerably more social clout, declares Bellafront to be a mad woman. Here, the phrase is an epithetical term of address which is designed to provoke, making this an example of a bald, on-record positive face strategy: Hippolito uses ‘mad woman’ as a criticism towards Bellafront; she rebukes this attack with a negative face strategy, suggesting his two options are to leave or stay.  Hippolito believes because he has social power in the situation, he will be in control, but Bellafront’s response implicates the face damage is instead aimed at him.

Meanwhile, the final scene of The Honest Whore part 1, Castruchio declares Candido’s wife mad, and attempting to leave her husband equally so: “This mad woman is his wife, and though she were not with child, yet did she long most spitefully to have her husband mad” (Dekker 1604, A20062). In both instances, a male character with relative social power emphasises his position over a less powerful female figure. One such strategy is by naming and defining another character’s existence through bald on-record reporting. In first example from The Honest Whore, the use of ‘mad woman’ is a reference to the female character in question, whereas the second example uses the phrase as a referent. Despite this, in both instances the female character in question tries to invert the dominant model of social power while a male character realigns it by centralizing her as the weaker, unpredictable, and irrational woman from his stronger position of social power. Indeed, this example evokes Shakespeare’s Ophelia, the model mad woman. In both examples from The Honest Whore, the female character in question is defined exclusively through her relationship to a higher-status man (following Froehlich 2011, 2013 on conceptual possessive ownership in Shakespeare’s plays). Both examples here illustrate ways bald on-record face-threatening by male characters about female characters’ actions can be enacted.

This perspective is inverted in The Wild Goose Chase and Two Noble Kinsmen. While remaining an epithet towards unruly women, the social power structure is inverted: these examples show a woman of relative social standing and lower-status men in discussion. The Wild Goose Chase has Belleur, a clown figure, describe women to Mirabelle, the so-called goose (i.e. love interest) as  “[they are] cozening mad, they are brawling mad, they are proud mad; they are all, all mad. I came from a world of mad women, mad as March hares: get ‘em in chains, then deal with ‘em. There’s one that’s mad; she seems well, but she is dog-mad” (4.3). Unlike previous examples, where high-status men cast judgement on the mental and physical health of lower-status women, this model is somewhat inverted. Here, the lower-status men confront unstable bodies and minds of women with equal or greater social prestige to them. A similar example is found in Two Noble Kinsmen, in which the Countrymen describe the Daughter as a madwoman twice in rapid succession:

Third Countryman. There’s a dainty madwoman, master,
comes i’ th’ nick, as mad as a March hare. If we
can get her dance, we are made again. I warrant
her, she’ll do the rarest gambols.
First Countryman. A madwoman? We are made, boys.
Schoolmaster. And are you mad, good woman?
Daughter. I would be sorry else.

In both instances, the male characters (the countrymen, the clown figure) describe feminine bodies as unpredictable, unbalanced and otherwise dangerous. This male perspective, in aggregate with the other examples discussed thus far, draws a wide circle around how male characters understand and construct feminine instability. The Daughter’s response is a sarcastic off-record impoliteness strategy, as if to say she wishes nothing more than to be observed in this way, whereas Belleur’s blanket approach of declaring women-kind to be unruly and in need of control takes a more bald on-record strategy. Moreover, both strategies are equally successful in their attempt to police women’s bodies using a male understanding of female and feminine bodies. While the roles of status and prestige are inverted in these two examples, the politeness strategies are not at odds: the male characters continue to dictate what normal feminine bodies are like, and anything outwith that is understood as problematic for Early Modern social norms, through bald on-record strategies, which do not appear to take issues of face into account.

A third example of politeness strategies in non-Shakespearean drama can be seen in the exchange between Margaretta and Fidella in Rowley’s All’s Lost by Lust. Margaretta invokes the description of the mad woman as a cultural marker of instability to her waiting woman. Unlike the examples discussed previously, here a female character declares herself as mad, and Margaretta invokes mental and physical instability as a feature of characterization through register-dropping:

Fidella. Madam, sweet Madam.
Margaretta. Madam! prethee mock me not, nor gard my folly
With such a linsie wolsie ornament.
Madam, is the mad dame, and thence mad woman:
Define it so and I will borrow still
That little of my store. A coat of tissue
If a foole weares it, is but a fooles coat.
(A11155) [6]

Here, Margaretta describes herself to be the mad woman after Antonio’s unjust actions, which send her spiralling into humoral imbalance. She claims this makes a fool of her, making her crazy for his attention, but the shift Margaretta describes from madame (the mad-dame) to the mad woman suggests a marked decrease in social standing. A dame is the feminine equivalent of  knighthood, whereas a woman is an unmarked and untitled individual. Margaretta’s discrepancy between the mad-dame and the mad woman is that the mad-dame is one of clear social choices. A high-status woman in Shakespeare’s plays is more likely to be described in positive terms, whereas lower-status women are more likely to be described in negative terms (see Froehlich 2016); here Rowley uses a similar convention. Margaretta’s choice to re-articulate her own identity from the higher-status madam to the lower-status woman here is indicative of a socially-motivated stylistic shift. The identification and defining of mad women in the Early Modern social space is attainable through pragmatic strategies such as direct reference to the individual in question through the use of negative face strategies by either the speaker or hearer.

The examples thus far from non-Shakespearean plays have been directed face-attacks towards a specific woman. In The Night Walker, the male characters discuss book shopping while generalizing that all women are untrustworthy and unstable before aiming this criticism directly at the Lady character at the end of his exchange:

Lurcher. Of rude, malicious women, of proud women, of scolding women, we shall ne’er get in.
Boy. A ballad of wrong’d maids.
Lady. I’ll buy that.
Lurcher. A little, very little book, of good and godly women, a very little one, so little you may put it in a nutshell.
Toby. With a small print that nobody can read it.
Nurse. Peace sirrah, or I’ll tear your books.
Justice Algripe. Open the door and let him in, I love him.
Lurcher. A book of evil magistrates.
Lady. I marry d’ye hear that Justice.
Lurcher. And their eviller wives, that wear their places in their petticoats.
Justice Algripe. D’ye hear that Lady.
Boy. A book new printed against playing, dancing, masking, may-poles; a zealous brothers book, and full of Fables.
Lurcher. Another Book of women, of mad women, women that were born in March. [Exit.]

This passage includes several examples of face-aggravating utterances positing women as mad, but Lurcher aims his criticism at the Lady before he takes his exit. As a pragmatic strategy, the aggregated buildup of using face-threatening acts and the final accusation of “women [that were] born in march” as the final insult, is a clever way of attacking the Lady through indirect address finally applying the metaphorical ‘all women are mad’ to the more pointed ‘the Lady character is mad’.  Justice Algrippe uses face-threatening acts towards the Lady (“d’ye hear that, lady”), but it is Lurcher who directs his accusation through an indirect offense: the previous descriptions he offers about what is ostensibly a book but is truly descriptive towards the Lady; she is to be understood as rude, malicious, scalding and increasingly insinuated to be evil. In his final utterance, he declares another book of women to be of mad women, by which he deftly uses negative politeness strategies to suggest the mad woman’s book is indeed the Lady’s book. But Lurcher does not use direct references to the Lady. 

Figure 2. British playwright John Fletcher. Artist unknown.

Figure 3. British playwright John Fletcher. Artist unknown.

Similarly in The Chances, The Landlady accuses Frederick and Don John of running tricks around her; they imagine her as an old mad woman. Here, the use of the epithet ‘mad woman’ is not strictly a face-threatening act, though it could be perceived as one. This is another example of indirect impoliteness, wherein the addressee is present on-stage but not necessarily privy to the discussion between John and Frederick.

Landlady. You’ll leave this ropery when ye come to my years.
John. By this light,
Thou art not above fifteen yet, a meer girle,
Thou hast not half thy teeth—
Frederick. Prithee John
Let her alone, she has been vext already:
She’l grow stark mad, man.
John. I wou’d fain see her mad,
An old mad woman
Frederick. Prithee be patient.
John. Is like a Millers Mare troubled wi’th’ Tooth ache.
She makes the rarest faces.
Frederick. Go, and do it, and do not mind this fellow.
(III.i, A39799)

Frederick’s reply “prithee John, let her alone” is an indirect reference to the Landlady and from this moment on, and regardless of the Landlady’s presence on-stage, the discussion is no longer directed towards her. But the implications that she will “grow stark mad” and John’s assertion that he “would fain to see her … an old mad woman” is a clear insult to the Landlady. After Frederick warns John that she may grow mad if he continues to be rude, John’s reply comes off as aggressive and face-threatening, despite not quite being directed at the Landlady. His use of the epithet is in direct reference to her potential to act unstably and otherwise dangerously. John’s exchange with Frederick are best described as bald-off record, as this example is not directed entirely at the Landlady. Although she is ostensibly the recipient of the face-attack, she is only indirectly implicated in this exchange between the two men.

Finally, in Dekker’s Northward Ho, the use of the phrase ‘mad woman’ is again referential and conventionally polite: Philip begs Doll to not take up arms against another woman whose actions are deemed irrational or otherwise unpredictable. Doll, quick to act, is told off:

1. Servant. Gentlemen break not the head of the peace; it’s to no purpose, for he’s in the laws clutches, you see he’s fang’d.
Doll. Uds life, do you stand with your naked weapons in your hand, and do nothing with em? put one of em into my fingers, I’ll tickle the pimple-nosed varlets.
Philip. Hold Doll, thrust not a weapon upon a mad woman, Officers step back into the Tavern, you might ha’ tane me i’th’ street, and not I’th’ Tavern entry, you Cannibals.
Servant. We did it for your credit Sir.

Here, Doll is not the mad woman being referenced; instead, Philip addresses Mayberry the barmaid, on-stage with them. Rather than Philip accusing Doll of madness in her brash actions, it is Mayberry who bears the brunt of the offense caused. And not entirely unlike the example from The Chances, the face-threatening act is reduced through moving the conversation away from the subject of discussion. This utterance is perhaps best described as a bald off-record impoliteness strategy encompassing a FTA (c.f. Bousfield 2008, chapter 4). Like Frederick and John, Philip and Doll briefly discuss Mayberry as if she was not there, despite the fact that she can clearly hear their conversation. Even if they are trying to cause direct harm to Mayberry, this does not necessarily produce an FTA but an off-record utterance which can be perceived as a negative  face Again, the addressee is present and clearly hears the utterance, but the harm-causing utterance that she is a mad woman is implicational in nature rather than direct. The offence caused is still available, but is indirect in nature. Previous examples illustrate how an impolite utterance can be used towards an addressee whereas less impolite as off-record strategies are used for the referee over an addressee. And this is yet another example of male characters defining female characters through a framework of social structure and implicit power.

The non-Shakespearean plays using this construction continue to uphold the humoral, physical, and mental working definitions of ‘madness’, particularly as they are applied to female characters from the perspective of male characters. In each example from the non-Shakespearean plays, male characters use the epithet ‘mad woman’ as an offense-causing utterance towards a female character. Individual authors with more than one example of the phrase in question, such as Fletcher and Dekker, use both of these strategies, though the explicit face-threatening act is only slightly more common in non-Shakespearean drama. Furthermore, the use of this phrase in non-Shakespearean drama shows a distinct social imbalance, in which male characters uphold social norms. In other words, the threat of deviation from this social norm is met with concern and the phrase ‘mad woman’ can be applied to this kind of threat to social imbalance, exclusively by male characters to female characters.

4. Conclusions

There are a number of highly visible mad women characters in Early Modern drama, but as this study has shown this phrase is rarely used to describe them outright. Although the salience of the mad woman as a literary trope is widely established, especially Shakespeare’s mad women characters, these highly visible female characters are not directly referenced by this specific noun phrase in his plays. The three instances of ‘mad woman’ in Shakespeare’s plays are never in reference to his notoriously irrational or otherwise unstable characters. Instead, the phrase ‘mad woman’ seems to be used primarily as a way to enact various politeness strategies rather than identify specific characters. It is used self-referentially in Merchant of Venice, as a  face-attacking strategy to the Duke’s wife in Richard II, and as a distancing strategy in Timon of Athens. However, bald on- and off-record reporting, positive and negative face through the manipulation of distancing strategies are all issues which are enacted through multiple playwrights’ use of  his phrase, implying that it has potential to be a marker for identifying various politeness strategies in Early Modern Drama. John Fletcher is most like Shakespeare in his use of ‘mad woman’ by Although Shakespeare’s centrality to the Early Modern period is well established, out of 327 other plays by 54 other authors, only three other authors use this same construction in a total of 12 plays. Therefore is also clear that the use of the phrase ‘mad woman’ is not indicative of the most visible mad women of Early Modern English drama, the way Elaine Showalter (1994: 221) initially posits. Finally, the overall infrequency of this phrase in Early Modern drama despite the highly-visible characters suggests there are further sociopragmatic implications accounting for its limited and highly-coded use, such as using other phrases which code for misbehaving women.


[1] See https://hfroehli.ch/2013/02/19/how-much-do-female-characters-in-shakespeare-actually-say/; As You Like It has the highest percentage of words spoken by female characters (40%) whereas the rest of Shakespeare’s plays show that words spoken by female characters are 30% or less. Relatedly, Biber and Burges (2000: 27) discover in 17th and 19th century plays, male to male dialogue is far more common than male to female or female to female dialogue overall. [Go back up]

[2] The full list of included plays, with their assigned authors, genres and dates can be downloaded from here. The expanded Shakespeare His Contemporaries corpus (Mueller 2015) is available from http://shakespearehiscontemporaries.northwestern.edu/shc/home.html [archive.org]. [Go back up]

[3] If this study considered editorializations which may make the noun phrase ‘mad woman’ into a compound noun our list of usage would increase very slightly. The only additions to Table 1 below would be that Killigrew’s The Parson’s Wedding, Thomas Heywood’s The Wise Women of Hogsdon and Rowley’s The Birth of Merlin would have one instance each; The Honest Whore part 1 would have two additional instances. This would increase the frequency of usage for Dekker from two to four, making him second only to Fletcher in his use of the phrase in question. [Go back up]

[4] Because the Standardized Spelling WordHoard Early Modern Drama corpus contains Shakespeare’s plays, the results of Table 1 may inadvertently make him look quite central to Early Modern drama in his use of the phrase. [Go back up]

[5] For better or worse, the metadata for this corpus does not allow for instances of multiple authorship. While contemporary authorship attribution generally agrees that The Honest Whore part 1 was written by both Dekker and Middleton in collaboration, the metadata provided considers this play to be primarily Dekker’s, presumably because he is billed as first author. This is an inherently imperfect system - but even including Middleton in this count would not particularly help the case that ‘mad woman’ is a phrase widely-used by non-Shakespearean authors. [Go back up]

[6] Act and scene divisions are editorial interventions and therefore not necessarily invoked across every play-text in the Early Modern Drama corpus. [Go back up]


See lines from the following characters on the Open Source Shakespeare site:

Speeches (Lines) for Apemantus in Timon of Athens: http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/characters/charlines.php?CharID=Apemantus&WorkID=timonathens

Speeches (Lines) for Bassanio in Merchant of Venice: http://opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/characters/charlines.php?CharID=Bassanio&WorkID=merchantvenice

Speeches (Lines) for Duchess of York in Richard II: http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/characters/charlines.php?CharID=DuchessYork&WorkID=richard2

Speeches (Lines) for Edmund of Langley in Richard II: http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/characters/charlines.php?CharID=EdmundLangley&WorkID=richard2

Speeches (Lines) for First Lord in Timon of Athens: http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/characters/charlines.php?CharID=FirstLord-tim&WorkID=timonathens

Speeches (Lines) for Portia in Merchant of Venice: http://opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/characters/charlines.php?CharID=Portia-mv∓WorkID=merchantvenice

See texts from the examples on the Folger Digital Texts site:

Merchant of Venice: 4.1.462 http://www.folgerdigitaltexts.org/?chapter=5&play=MV&loc=line-4.1.462

Richard II: 5.2.104 http://www.folgerdigitaltexts.org/?chapter=5&play=R2&loc=line-5.2.104

Timon of Athens: 1.2.135 http://www.folgerdigitaltexts.org/?chapter=5&play=Tim&loc=line-1.2.135/

Two Noble Kinsmen: 3.5.87 http://www.folgerdigitaltexts.org/?chapter=5&play=TNK&loc=line-3.5.87

Other sources

The honest whore with, the humours of the patient man, and the longing wife on the University of Oxford Text Archive (from example 4 above): Scene 6, A20062 http://tei.it.ox.ac.uk/tcp/Texts-HTML/free/A20/A20062.html

The Wild-goose chase 4.3 http://people.exeter.ac.uk/pellison/BF/chase/a4s3.htm

A tragedy called All’s lost by lust on the University of Oxford Text Archive (from example 6 above): A11155 http://tei.it.ox.ac.uk/tcp/Texts-HTML/free/A11/A11155.html

A tragedy called All’s lost by lust on EEBO-TCP (from example 7 above): A00966 http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A00966.0001.001

The chances a comedy, as it was acted at the Theater Royal / corrected and altered by a person of honour. on EEBO-TCP (from example 8 above): III.i, A39799 http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A39799.0001.001

North-vvard hoe Sundry times acted by the Children of Paules on the University of Oxford Text Archive (from example 9 above): A20098 http://tei.it.ox.ac.uk/tcp/Texts-HTML/free/A20/A20098.html


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