Disclaimer: It should be noted that this paper gives a rough look at females in leading comedic roles. However, this paper is not all-inclusive and has no doubt left out other important key-texts. It does try to look at a range of works (novels and plays), but does not delve into poetry or lyrics. Nor, does it focus on in-depth descriptions of plot for each individual work mentioned in order to give brief overview of many texts rather than an in-depth analysis of a few.
An analysis of comedic literature shows that comedic roles were often lead by male protagonist. In early literature woman played minor parts, often relegated to that of a comic foil. But when did women emerge in predominantly leading roles in literature-based comedy?
In order to find out when women entered the comedic literature scene, we have to look at some of our oldest literary texts. We know that the Epic of Gilgamesh is perhaps our oldest written story written somewhere between 2700 and 2500 BCE. It originates from Ancient Samaria and is written on twelve clay tablets and recounts the story of King Uruk. (Gilgamesh)
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It took sometime before writing moved from a written history to entertainment. Several things had to happen; first, man needed to find a material other than clay and rock to record on, such as papyrus, linen and eventually paper. Secondly, there had to a large enough literate population to inscribe and record the information. All this took considerable time and it wasn’t until 500 BCE that Greek comedies first appeared. Greek dramatist, Epicharmus is “often credited with being the first comic writer, having originated theâ€¦Sicilian comedic form,” (wiki1). These plays were usually preformed as part of competition in Athens in honor of the god or fertility and wine, Dionysia (Wiki2).
By 411 BCE, Arophates wrote Lysistrata. It is the first comedic-writing I found that features a woman in a lead role. The play, a satire, tells how Lysistrata calls a meeting of women, from all over the world, and tries to convince them to withhold sex from their husbands as a way to end the Peloponnesian War.
I imagine the play was controversial during its time, as the roles of women were that of a housewife and child-bearer. They were also expected to be sexually submissive to their husbands and obey their demands at all times. However, in Lysistrata, the women are independent, outspoken and have a ferrous sexual appetite. They feel that by withhold sex from their husbands they will gain the ultimate control over them because they are weak in comparison.
By the second century, libraries were starting to appear in Rome and I can assume some of the first modern novels appeared. I can also conjecture that literacy was increasing, based on the building of these libraries, and perhaps some of these would have been comedies. However, the next comedic text I can find that feature a leading female is Chaucer’s, Canterbury Tales, which was written in the late 1300s CE. That’s an incredible time span or gap and even then, “The Wife of Bath,” is not a perfect example. The “Wife of Bath” tells a meta-story. It’s the prologue of the story that tells of a woman who has had five husbands. She claims that she can “accurately” tell a good story because of her experience. This wife seems to like the performance of her story more than the story she is trying to tell. This is apparent, in the fact, that the prologue is twice as long as the story itself and that she loses her place several times–caught up in the moment. This satire, illustrates the shortcoming of this woman, although I am not sure it was meant to show the apparent shortcomings of all women. Chaucer’s texts have never been overtly feminist. On one hand, she seems strong to take the lead in telling this story, however the content of which lends her in bad light. The fact that she has had five husbands either makes her seems promiscuous or money-hungry. And her long-winded intro makes her seem like a woman who wants attention more than one who has a story to lend.
By the late 1500s CE, Shakespeare was writing and producing comedies. The play, “Taming of the Shrew,” is a romantic comedy in which there is not single protagonist, but several main characters. Katherine, daughter of Baptisa Minola, is the “shrew” in that she is ill-tempered, disobedient (at first) and overly brash. Her completely opposite sister, Bianca, is beautiful and much desired by male suitors. However, Katherine being the eldest must marry first. After a series of twists, a bribe, and arranged marriage, Katherine is betrothed to Petruchio. He only seeks her fortune and takes some pride in his ability to “tame” her. He is also doing Bianca’s suitors a favor by getting Katherine out of the way.
Although seemly un-comedic, its rhetoric is actually very light, while is comedy is a bit dark. It’s able to grapple some very controversial issues, surround marriage and roles of the wife. By making Katherine go from being crazy- wild to so easily tamed and submissive is what draws attention to its absurdities and the absurdities of the social institution of marriage. I also find it a bit ironic to know that the roles of Katherine and Bianca were most likely played by pre-pubescent boys on stage during the Elizabethan era.
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Perhaps the next notable novel, Emma, was actually written by a woman, Jane Austen, nearly two hundred years after Shakespeare. The protagonist, Emma, plays an ill-fated match-maker who cannot seem to get out of her own way. This story has a lot of situational-irony laced throughout. Emma leads Harriet, her matchee, away from an acceptable suitor to chase one that is not interested and who then proposes to Emma. There are numerous plot-twists and in the end everyone finds somebody to love.
This “comedy of manners” focuses primarily with the upper social classes and its humor capitalizes on their behavior or mannerisms. You have Emma, an unwed twenty-something who is trying to match up everyone around her–but herself. Although she is clumsy and at time awkward, Emma is breaking traditional customs unlike the females of Taming of the Shrew.
In 1932, Stella Gibbons published her novel, Cold Comfort Farm. Flora Post, a recent orphan, decides to move to the rural countryside to live with extended family after reject numerous offers from family. Flora, who is referred to as “Robert Post’s Child,” uses her modern thinking to transform the family and farm. The story is overly satirical, even absurdist, and Flora is portrayed as being both naÃ¯ve and culturally insensitive. However, she does take a lead role and her awkwardness at the farm lends to most of the humor. The rest of the humor revolves around the family and their backward and outlandish rituals. They are merely stuck in their ways and Flora’s decisive attitude brings the farm out of its curse. But the price they all pay is high, the father left his wife, Seth, the son, leaves to pursue a career in the movies leaving behind four bastard children, and Flora falls in love with her cousin. Not exactly the prize role for lead females.
Even with the few stories and plays featuring women in lead comedic roles– none of them portray women in particularly favorable light. These women seem dingy and unintelligent and their comedy comes from either there ignorance (Emma and Cold Comfort Farm) or their absurd ideas (Lysistrata). None of these features woman who are strong, independent and intellectually witty. They never outsmart their comic foil nor do they appear genuine. And, it seems that when they do get the upper hand, it’s usually either illegal or absurd.
As I continue forward along the literary timeline, I find more and more stories that repeat the same rhetoric. Whether it’s Fey Weldon’s, Life and Love of a She-Devil (1983) ,Gregory McGuire’s, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995) or Rebecca Well’s, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, woman cannot seem to get the same literary roles as their male counterparts. It seems that females are more excepted in dramatic roles than comedic ones, and when they are given the lead role, it is that of the buffoon or dimwitted idiot. I will continue to look for a clean-cut, witty intellectual female in comedy, until them I return to my ironing.
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