The Fergusonia File

Friday, November 17, 2006

Hannah Cowley, The Belle's Stratagem, 1780

Interestingly, stratagem backwards reads megatarts. A tart is a promiscuous woman, like Kitty Willis. Neato.

O.K., time to get serious. I enjoyed Hannah Cowley's comedy, The Belle's Stratagem. I found it a little long toward the end when all the characters were conspiring to trick Doricourt into marrying Letitia Hardy. It seemed like they kept yakking about the plan scene after scene, instead of actually getting to it. That said, I did enjoy the trickery scene: there's something delightfully perverse in how the characters kept twisting the knife, especially given that Doricourt's offence was relatively minor (relative to other plays we've read, that is). It's generally true that there is a lot of lead up in this play, of talk about what a character(s) is going to do, instead of actual portrayal of the action.

One thing I found unsettling was how our Megatart (Kitty) is baldly portrayed as at the bottom of the social barrel. That is, she can't sink any lower on the social ladder (or slide), so she's useful as a pawn in the intrigues of the other characters. When she is unmasked before the dumbstruck Courtall, the first Mask mocks her, adressing her as "Your Ladyship" (4.2.57). It's as though she's not even a real person; she's a tool unworthy of civil treatment. She does seem to enjoy duping Courtall, but the fact that she's likely trying to recover a sense of self-worth by rubbing it in renders her action somewhat pitiful.

I would say that Cowley leaves most English women in a pretty good spot by the end of the play--Doricourt realizes that he shouldn't constrain Letitia's personality, and Lady Frances reaches a favourable understanding with her husband--but women who lie beyond the pale of chaste, marriagable women fare less favourably. I'm looking forward to a discussion of the intersection of nationalism and gender in this play.


Blogger Brenna said...

I don't know how I feel about our "megatart." I was really troubled by her depiction (too troubled to blog about it, it kept making me decidedly angry), buuuuuut...

Since you mentioned it, I'll bite. :)

I think what troubled me most about her is that promises are made to Kitty en masque -- at least as much as any other masqued woman who ends up married -- and she has been "knelt to, prayed to, and adored." But promises to her mean nothing, because of her sexuality.

I guess, after reading the Finberg intro, I was expecting something more challenging to the status quo. I get the whole "look how all it takes is clothes to confuse a lady with a whore" idea... but I guess I just thought we'd get a stronger statement from Cowley.

7:25 PM  
Blogger Kirstie said...

The real problem from a contemporary perspective is not just that clothing defines the class of woman, but that sexuality in any woman is frowned upon. The very idea of denigrating a whore is constantly disturbing to me, because somebody has to want to pay for it to make it prostitution.

More topically, I too found Kitty's portrayal quite unsettling, but I do hesitate to attribute feelings of low self-esteem to her. She is in on the plot from the beginning, and I read her as engaging in the deception willingly for the sake of a wage paid by Saville (is this an oblique variation on Save All?). Certainly, he is more effective at rescuing Kitty than Belvile is at saving Florinda in _The Rover_. Maybe this is merely the "Knight in Shining Armor" syndrome, but at least he is active and effective.

I would be curious to know whether as a group we think Behn is more progressive/subversive than Cowley. Is it better to show a bleaker set of circumstances, because it is unromantic, than to people your play with idealists like Saville?

6:58 PM  
Blogger Susie said...

Megatart. Wow, maybe you are discovering a new literary theory of reading the title backward to discover a hidden meaning..

6:13 AM  

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