UNCG Research

Falling in love with British Renaissance Literature, Dr. Michelle Dowd [Faculty Perspective]

Posted on Monday, May 27th, 2013 by UNCG Research.

Repost from the Fall 2011 UNCG Research Magazine, “Powerful prose”

Outside the history books:  What I’m interested in thinking about is not how real women lived, because that’s a historian’s project, but thinking about what fictional narratives can tell us about what people were thinking, what ideas people were concerned about, what maybe was scaring people, what solutions were being proposed. These texts I think are rich for those kinds of questions. They might not map on to what really happened. But they tell us something really important about a separate issue, which is that women were participating actively in discourse and there was a lively debate about women’s roles as workers in this period. And that debate was not always one-sided, certainly, and we see that through these texts.

Women writers:  In my first book I looked at a lot of women writers who we might consider or call extra-literary, meaning they’re not necessarily poets or playwrights. I was interested in looking at things like diaries, prose texts. There were advice books women wrote to their children, for example. What I was interested in in that book was the way in which certain narratives about women’s work appear throughout a range of texts, whether it be a play by Shakespeare or a woman’s diary. It was striking to me that you see similar narratives reappear in very different kinds of texts, similar stories getting told about women’s housework, for example.

What’s next:  My current project is more about the stage — the way in which the stage represented changes in inheritance patterns which were happening in the same period, the turn of the 17th century. There were a lot of historical transformations in this period in terms of England’s expansion within a global economy and the ways in which inheritance was thought about in terms of land and property. … You have debates about long-standing traditions such as primogeniture, the legal system in which the oldest son inherits everything. There were some really heated controversies about such questions as: What if the older son is a bad son? What if he wastes his inheritance? What about that younger son? What about women?

Taking it to the stage:  Again, what I think is interesting is that the drama is a multivocal medium. You have multiple voices and personalities. You have debate. Conflict and debate is the focal point of drama. So that provided a forum in which to air these different concerns. Not all texts, of course, came down on the same side of each issue. … I do find it interesting to think about how these fictions, these popular forms of entertainment, were actively participating in this process of struggle, change, debate, and what that can tell us about what was possible to be imagined in the period, even if some of those changes didn’t end up occurring until much later.

A young interest:  I’m an odd person in a way because I’ve been interested in this for a very long time — since I was in grade school. Essentially, it comes through theater. I did amateur theater, through my childhood and in high school. So I was always fascinated with theater and with drama. But specifically, I saw a televised play that was a production of “The Taming of the Shrew” and I saw it in maybe 6th or 7th grade. I was absolutely entranced by it. I mean, it was a fantastic production itself but I had never really seen Shakespeare before. Seeing it performed — rather than reading it — for the first time, I do think makes a huge difference, because you see it as embodied and lively and funny and active rather than perhaps just text on a page.

More than words:  Fictions are powerful. I really believe that. It’s not “just” a fiction (or “only” literature or “only” a fantasy), but fictions can be extremely powerful. They don’t just reflect what goes on and tell what goes on but they create it, they mold it, they shape it. It’s sometimes not obvious how that happens and that’s what my research is aiming to do.



Dr. Michelle Dowd, Associate Professor, English

Dr. Michelle Dowd is passionate about British Renaissance literature and what it can tell us about the issues and changing values of early modern society. Her first book, “Women’s Work in Early Modern English Literature and Culture,” delves into the working roles of women from a variety of sources – from Shakespeare to advice books written by mothers. Her next project will look at inheritance.  Dowd joined the UNCG faculty in 2004 and is an associate professor in the Department of English.

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