Conduct Literature and the Making of the Virtuous Woman in Early Modern England
A new way of looking at behavioral expectations for women in early modern England
While many scholars find the early modern triad of virtues for women—silence, chastity, and obedience—to be straightforward and nonnegotiable, Jessica C. Murphy demonstrates that these virtues were by no means as direct and inflexible as they might seem. Drawing on the literature of the period—from the plays of Shakespeare to a conduct manual written for a princess to letters from a wife to her husband—as well as contemporary gender theory and philosophy, she uncovers the multiple meanings of behavioral expectations for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century women. Through her renegotiation of cultural ideals as presented in both literary and nonliterary texts of early modern England, Murphy presents models for “acceptable” women’s conduct that lie outside of the rigid prescriptions of the time.
Virtuous Necessity will appeal to readers interested in early modern English literature, including canonical authors such as Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton, as well as their female contemporaries such as Amelia Lanyer and Elizabeth Cary. It will also appeal to scholars of conduct literature; of early modern drama, popular literature, poetry, and prose; of women’s history; and of gender theory.
“The author treats conduct manuals and household management guides as worthy of critical attention in themselves, rather than as mere oddities or as supplements to literary texts. The inclusion of ballads is particularly inspired, demonstrating that combining the productions of high culture and popular culture results in richer, more textured readings.”
—Kathleen Kelly, Northeastern University
Praise / Awards
"[Murphy] aptly identifies the English tradition of conduct literature as distinct from the strain of Continental conduct books written 'by men for men,' and she reconfigures representations of female chastity through close readings of household documents, prose advice, Spenser, Milton, Shakespeare, and others."
"Through her masterful and innovative reading of feminine virtue, [Murphy provides] a fresh way of thinking about this
genre. She also provides an important reminder that women’s history does not adhere to simple narratives. This work will be of interest to scholars of early modern conduct literature, women’s writing, and Shakespeare alike, as
well as early modern historians more generally."
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