"You were an actor with your handkerchief": Women, Windows, and Moral Agency


Cynthia Lewis


The figure of the woman at the window recurs in both early modern English theater and seventh-century European visual art. To date, the many instances of the icon in Renaissance theater have been catalogued, but not extensively interpreted. They can be approached partly through works by various artists, which, in the absence of knowledge about original staging, can provide clues as to how parallel images in the theater would have been understood by the plays’ original audiences. Images of women at windows repeatedly frame moral choices for characters and moral issues for audiences. Part of the challenge they pose is disentangling a female character’s responsibility for her actions from male characters’ responsibility. Is she an actor in the sense that she is following a script written for her by a man, or in the opposing sense of someone who is acting independently of others, according to her own will? Jonson’s Volpone complicates the matter of Celia’s role in encouraging Volpone’s lust, and, in The Merchant of Venice, tonal ambiguity surrounds Jessica’s elopement, as well as her absconding with her father’s ducats, through the window of Shylock’s house. Women Beware Women is, in large part, structured around a series of images in which Bianca is framed by a window as she faces a moral dilemma. The off-stage window scene in Much Ado about Nothing is a crux through which Margaret’s character is elaborated, though hardly clarified.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.