Adapting Marriage: Law Versus Custom in Early Modern English Plays
Kraemer, Jennifer D
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Since Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), new historicist critics have analyzed the historical context of plays and how those plays reflect their culture’s preoccupations. However, they have largely refrained from considering these plays as adaptations, or, to paraphrase adaptation theorist Linda Hutcheon, works that are both autonomous from and deliberately evocative of their source texts. Early modern playwrights drew inspiration liberally from poetry, short fiction, mythology, history, and true crime stories to appease their society’s appetite for entertainment. Though they are ever expanding their range of study to include new forms of media, adaptation theorists have for the most part ignored looking backward in time at very old adaptations. This dissertation seeks to combine new historicist and adaptation theory methodologies in the examination of early modern plays, with the goal of determining what solutions or commentary these plays were offering on the time period’s cultural anxieties surrounding marriage. It will observe areas where playwrights expanded, complicated, and excised material from their source texts to highlight cultural anxieties of their own era. In my study, I will examine four areas of anxiety surrounding marriage—broken betrothals, clandestine marriage, coerced marriage, and divorce—in a state of flux in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I argue that early modern English playwrights adapted their sources to exacerbate these issues, arguing for either a more traditional solution to problems based on centuries of common custom or advocating for a legal reform of marriage.