"That Which Marreth All": Constancy and Gender in the Virtuous Octavia (Critical Essay)

By Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England

  • Release Date - Published: 2009-01-01
  • Book Genre: Performing Arts
  • Author: Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
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"That Which Marreth All": Constancy and Gender in the Virtuous Octavia (Critical Essay) Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England read online review & book description:

In his study of the influence of French Senecanism on the drama of the Pembroke circle, A. M. Witherspoon effectively dismisses Samuel Brandon's 1598 closet drama, The Virtuous Octavia. Calling it "a servile imitation of [Samuel Daniel's] Cleopatra" (1) Witherspoon suggests that Brandon chose to dramatize the plight of Octavia because all the good dramatic subjects--namely Antony and Cleopatra--had already been taken by other playwrights. There are compelling reasons for Brandon's choice of Octavia, however--as well as for Daniel's own choice of her as a character in his "Letter from Octavia to Marcus Antonius" and for Fulke Greville's choice of her as a character in "Letter to an Honourable Lady." The Octavia figure, in classical sources as well as in Renaissance representations, epitomizes the long-suffering and long-virtuous wife of a philandering husband, an epitome of direct consequence for the dedicatees of Brandon's, Daniel's, and Greville's works. But Octavia, chosen ostensibly by these poets to exemplify a feminine ideal of Christian Stoic resolve, serves as more than a classical model for a few literary patrons; she is also used to explore the inadequacies Christian Stoicism's hybrid morality presented to women, as this hybrid was popularly understood to exist in late Elizabethan England. The treatment of Stoicism in this group of writings centers on "the heroics of constancy," to use Mary Ellen Lamb's expression. (2) "Constancy" itself is a vexed term, not only because it resists stable definition, as any abstraction does, but also because its meaning is fluid in both the classical and early modern understanding of Stoicism. For example, Guillaume Du Vair, in La Philosophic Morale des Stoiques, translated into English as The Moral Philosophy of the Stoicks in 1598, the same year Brandon's drama was registered by the Stationers' Company, follows Seneca in expressing the belief that "the good & happines of man consisteth in the right use of reason, and what is that but vertue, which is nothing els but a constant disposition of will." (3) Seneca describes this "constant disposition" variously, however, as ratio immutabilis, moderatus, firmitas, and constare, and he distinguishes his Stoicism from "Certain of our school [who] think that, of all such qualities, a stout endurance is not desirable." (4) Joseph Hall, the "English Seneca," writing shortly after the turn of the seventeenth century, identifies "tranquillity" as one of Stoicism's chief virtues, but in his lengthy Christian interpretation of it, he calls it variously "constancy," "controlement," and "composedness of mind." (5) Montaigne, who takes issue with Stoic precepts throughout his essays, defines constancy in "Of Repenting" as a "languishing and wavering dance" and questions the supremacy of reason itself in "Of Constancy." (6) Cicero's De Officiis, the least purely Stoic of his philosophical works but the most popular in the sixteenth century, appearing in nearly twenty translated editions or reprints, is, like Du Vair's work, an amalgam of ethical instruction that promulgates the cardinal virtues, glossed in translation as wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance, but variously defined and described by Cicero. "Constancy" may correspond either to fortitude or to temperance, but both qualities are interpreted similarly, as states of a soul that holds external things in contempt [quarum una in rerum externarum despicientia ponitur] and controls all its own perturbations [omnisque sedatio perturbationum animi]. (7)

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