Eighteenth-Century Losers: Anxious Performances of Masculinity in Long Eighteenth- Century England
Type of Degreedissertation
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My dissertation investigates how a group of male comedic figures (cuckolds, impotent men, and old bachelors) relate to an ongoing debate in the eighteenth century about the marriage problem. Largely ignored by scholars as too formulaic or farcical for serious critical investigation, I argue that the treatment of these men on the stage and the culture surrounding their real life counterparts (as revealed by a variety of nondramatic cultural texts: non-medical and medical advice literature, accounts of divorce trials, novels, poems, etc.) problematize the assumption that men’s experiences of marriage were eased by the advantages they accrued from their place in the patriarchal, religious, social, legal, and economic hierarchies. I use theories from performance studies as well as popular culture studies to analyze the performances of these roles on the stage and in the extratheatrical culture. What this analysis reveals is that these men, both on the stage and real life, experience significant pressures from a culture attempting to negotiate appropriate behavior for men and ways to make marriage work, pressures that cannot necessarily be revealed by more traditional approaches to the marriage problem that generally privilege the female experience of marriage as the subject of investigation. The frustrations of men within the construction of marriage are inextricably bound up with conflicting constructions of male sexuality and expectations for men within marriage. In the end, my dissertation suggests a reevaluation of what has thus far been largely ignored or dismissed in eighteenth century drama as a means for a more comprehensive understanding of the ideological aims and accomplishments of the stage.