Feminism in The Unhappy Penitent: A Secondary Literature Review

By Sarah Thompson

Despite being nowadays a relatively unknown playwright compared to her contemporary, Aphra Behn, Catharine Trotter remains the subject of multiple secondary criticism across literary disciplines, most interestingly, feminist and ‘Women’s Studies’ scholars. Reviewing this literature allows for an evaluation of The Unhappy Penitent as an influential feminist work of drama, more specifically tragedy. The literature brings to light the importance of this play within the Restoration women’s studies canon, and how its themes and ideas are arguably forward-thinking for the date of performance (1701, Drury Lane Theatre). The term ‘feminism’ can be contentious when used retrospectively, however, for the purpose of this literature review the term will be applied to the secondary literature.

The scope of literature reviewed will be four, carefully selected,  twenty-first century journal articles or scholarly books writing on a range of themes, but ultimately all analysing aspects of feminism in Trotter’s play. There is somewhat of a dearth of accessible secondary sources surrounding The Unhappy Penitent (many of the sources are out of print, or behind paywalls), further reasoning as to why a literature review is needed to establish the key arguments of readily available criticism, and further encourage theatre companies to resurrect Trotter’s play for new, wider audiences.

Firstly, I will summarise each work individually and their relevance to a feminist reading of The Unhappy Penitent. After this, review of the patterns across literature, and the debates set up between secondary critics. The conclusion of the literature review will look ahead to possibilities for further study or secondary literature, gaps among the literature, and the influence of this review.

The oldest piece of secondary literature discussed here is also arguably the most in-depth: Anne Kelley’s book, Catharine Trotter An Early Writer in the Vanguard of Feminism. You can read about Kelley’s discussion of passion and philosophy here. Chapters such as “Trotter as a Woman Writer: A Critical Appraisal” (45-53) and “Trotter’s Depiction of Women” (112-134) hold the most relevance when exploring The Unhappy Penitent as a feminist work. Kelley’s anthology is arguably the strongest of the four, clearly explaining the intricacies of Trotter’s theatrical world, and consistently arguing throughout for the playwright’s importance for understanding Restoration theatre studies through a feminist lens.

Mihiko Suzuki’s article is comparative in nature, analysing two plays in addition to The Unhappy Penitent, thematically linked by their female authors and their use of political plots for feminist purposes. The article’s strength is its analysis of political and monarchical symbolism and how this effects the female characters in the play(s) – as with much Restoration drama, the plot can be difficult to follow at times, but Suzuki concisely links each plot point to political significance and subtexts.

Pilar Cudar-Dominguez places Trotter within a prestigious canon of female playwrights writing in the Stuart era, reading closely the way she uses tragedy to explore moral dilemmas . She sees Trotter as a highly influential writer within Restoration tragedy, focusing on genre, gender dynamics and morals (Cuder-Dominguez 105) to further her profile of The Unhappy Penitent and its playwright.

Finally, the most recent piece of literature – Joanne Myers’ article – argues that religion is the main concern of Trotter’s canon, most importantly “claims of conscience” (70). Further consideration of how Trotter presents women’s faith vs men’s, would be applicable to this article.

Several common themes, gaps and critical debates arise across the secondary literature. Two critics – Suzuki and Kelley – analyse the importance of female friendships in the play. Whilst the former focuses on friendship presented as superior to heterosexual marriage bonds (Suzuki, 557), Kelley comments upon “the unusual strength and supportiveness of female friendship in her texts. Conventional  Restoration drama depicts women as jealous rivals, or somewhat empty-headed flirts pursuing their own ends with little consideration for others” (121). Here, Kelley’s comment on genre conventions of the time furthers our understanding of The Unhappy Penitent as a protest against other works surrounding her, as well as acting as a voice for women, by women.

Cudar-Dominquez makes a similar comment to Kelley regarding Trotter’s breakaway from traditional, female rivalries in Restoration theatre “Although the plot would appear to pitch the two women characters as rivals for affection and the hand of the king, nothing would be farther from the truth” (Cudar-Dominguez 112). Taken together, Kelley and Cudar-Dominquez’s comments situate Trotter as a writer of sorority, favouring women’s collaboration in a time where arguments were rife among theatre actresses such as Anne Oldfield.

Another debate across the literature is Trotter’s radicalism, and the way she subtly weaves her resistance against patriarchal constraints within The Unhappy Penitent. Cuder-Dominguez argues Trotter’s “agenda was at odds with that of the male practitioners of the genre, even those who were most adept at writing she-tragedies” (104). Suzuki’s article also attests to the play’s radical nature, arguing “Congreve’s well-known suggestion to Trotter that she soften the heroic and virtuous female protagonists and emphasize their love interest in order to please her female audience – a suggestion Trotter declined to follow – indicates the strong resistance to Trotter’s emphasis on the political motives and actions of her characters” (560) . Reference to William Congreve adds a powerful, historical anecdote to the literature, humanising the forgotten play and bringing it to life more than would occur by merely reading the script alone. Throughout the literature, a sense of admiration for Trotter as a daring, female playwright is clear, with critics such as Cuder-Dominguez claiming her as “no doubt the female playwright of the period who gave tragedy the most thought” (104), taken together with Kelley titling Trotter a “vanguard of feminism” and concluding; “Trotter’s writings are dynamic and challenging in their radical femino-centrism” (219).

In conclusion, the current state of secondary literature surrounding The Unhappy Penitent is deep but sporadic. Areas for further criticism or study include: the role of men and masculinity in The Unhappy Penitent, or the influence of Trotter’s feminism upon other contemporary plays. Reviewing the secondary literature on this subject has added to my understanding of Trotter’s radicalism, political contexts in a feminist light. In the context of producing the play in 2020 and beyond, this literature review would also be a resource for companies wishing to produce a feminist adaptation of The Unhappy Penitent, or analyse the subtext of Trotter’s tragic, political drama.

Works Cited 

Cuder-Dominguez, Pullar. Stuart Women Playwrights 1613-1713. Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011.

Kelley, Anne. Catharine Trotter: An early modern writer in the vanguard of feminism. Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002

Myers, Joanne E. “Catharine Trotter and the Claims of Conscience.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 31, no. 1/2, 2012, pp. 53–75.

Suzuki, Mihiko. “Recognizing Women’s Dramas as Political Writing: The Plays of 1701 by Wiseman, Pix and Trotter.” Women’s Writings, vol. 18, no.4, 2011, pp. 547-564 https://doi.org/10.1080/09699082.2011.600053

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