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Motherhood and meaning: the transformation of tradition and convention in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama

Dunworth, Felicity Elizabeth (2004) Motherhood and meaning: the transformation of tradition and convention in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.94319) (KAR id:94319)


By the sixteenth century the figure of the mother had an established and complex significance. The traditions of Christian and classical culture contributed to a double-edged ideal which signified both authority and vulnerability, spirituality and corporeality, sacrifice and beastliness. As provider of heirs and nurse, the mother mediated the public and political and the most private; her office was both mystical in its significance and practical in its implications. Such complexity imbued the mother figure with unique narrative potential as a container of opposites, a place where ideals collided and were contested, where conflicts could be mediated and synthesised. The Reformation endowed motherhood with political and religious significance, as reformers and counter-reformers developed competing readings of traditional emblems. In the competition which characterised mid-sixteenth century politics, Catholic and Protestant propagandists fought over the mother figure as a benign allegory of church or nation, confirming her emblematic importance as a political and religious signifier. Later sixteenth- century dramatisations of English history developed and exploited this significance which allowed the creation of a complex historical narrative. This thesis argues that the dramatic representation of the mother was continuously modified in response to cultural, political and religious shifts in ideas and practice. Traditional comic narratives and moralities were appropriated by Elizabethan and, especially, Jacobean dramatists to offer a more prurient pleasure. The popular genres of city comedy and domestic tragedy told jokes or salacious tales about contemporary motherhood at the same time as the constitution and social function of the family were under scrutiny from Protestant reformers. Tragedies such as Hamlet and Coriolanus interrogated those same concerns and created versions of motherhood where the reconciliation of the ideal and the practical is poignantly impossible, and Puritan idealisation of the family influenced plays such as The Winter’s Tale and The Duchess of Malfi which explored the idea of perfect maternity characterised by suffering and spiritual triumph.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Mcluskie, Kate
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.94319
Additional information: This thesis has been digitised by EThOS, the British Library digitisation service, for purposes of preservation and dissemination. It was uploaded to KAR on 25 April 2022 in order to hold its content and record within University of Kent systems. It is available Open Access using a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-commercial, No Derivatives ( licence so that the thesis and its author, can benefit from opportunities for increased readership and citation. This was done in line with University of Kent policies ( If you feel that your rights are compromised by open access to this thesis, or if you would like more information about its availability, please contact us at and we will seriously consider your claim under the terms of our Take-Down Policy (
Uncontrolled keywords: Elizabethan drama, Jacobean drama
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN1600 Drama
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of English
SWORD Depositor: SWORD Copy
Depositing User: SWORD Copy
Date Deposited: 18 May 2023 15:44 UTC
Last Modified: 18 May 2023 15:44 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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