This essay explores the problems children pose for Renaissance writers, particularly women. Margaret Cavendish, the most prolific woman writer of the period, seems to have viewed her intellectual creativity as dependent on her lack of children. Although she herself repeatedly attempted to bear children and stopped only when reproduction seemed impossible, in her plays and letters she regularly sets physical and literary progeny against each other. She further posits that a woman’s exclusion from the system of patrilineal inheritance in early modern England meant that not only her money and her property but also her children were never her own. Although “they keep alive the Memory of her Husbands Name and Family by Posterity,” everything that is hers is inevitably lost.
Cavendish further satirizes the common contemporary male fear that, in a different way, their children might not be their own. They were necessarily produced by untrustworthy women, who could, at any time, have cuckolded their husbands. The Unnatural Tragedy, Cavendish’s adaptation of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, makes clear what is suggested in the original play – that from a certain male perspective, incest seems a way of ensuring the purity of paternal line by keeping reproduction “all in the family.” She takes her critique even further in another play, Loves Adventures: here, an anxious lord attempts to choose his own son and heir by adopting his (disguised female) page, whom he eventually marries. The play creates a closed circuit of male reproduction in the lord’s fantasy relationship, which effectively excises woman and the problem of uncertainly she represents. At the same time, Cavendish seems to present the page (who is at one point betrothed to him/herself) as an emblem of her own “singularity,” her individual independence from conventional structures.
There is, of course, a literary dimension to all this. The practice of adopting literary “Sons” was the particular modus operandi of Ben Jonson, who had his own vexed relation to the competing claims of art and family. His followers were proud to be “adopted” rather than fleshy children – children of his spirit, rather than his lust – and they tried to reproduce that spirit in their poems. Cavendish frequently mentions Jonson in the prefaces to her plays, and her relationship to him seems quite paradoxical. He is clearly positioned as her masculine antitype – the upholder of the classical unities and the most prominent figure, in her view, in a purely male literary tradition. Her assumed ignorance of that tradition (despite the many allusions in her texts) means, she asserts, that she alone is truly original. Simultaneously, though, her attitude toward her audience and her insistence on her own autonomy often recall Jonson’s stances. As a result, he functions not only as her masculine opposite and poetic rival, but also as her Laius – the Oedipal father whom she must confront, destroy, and replace. One might even say that she creates herself as his latter-day adopted child, implicitly declaring, in the words of one of her characters’ most famous models, Viola in Twelfth Night, that she is “all the daughters of [her] father’s house, / And all the brothers, too” (2.5.117–18).