Civic Affect and Female Political Agency in Sir Thomas More
In their pioneering feminist study Engendering a Nation, Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin explore the agency women exert “as orators, as warriors, [and] as custodians of dynastic legitimacy” in Shakespeare’s English history plays. By representing women’s participation in affairs of state, the English histories, Howard and Rackin argue, contributed to the “process of national consolidation,” or the conceptual development of the nation as a “geographical and cultural entity composed of distinct, particularized regions.”1 In this essay, I build on Howard and Rackin’s foundation by considering the relationship between female political agency and the more local dynamics of urban consolidation in Sir Thomas More.2 By “urban consolidation” I refer to the social, economic, and ethical values that shaped the ideology and practices of citizenship in early modern London. My focus is Doll Williamson, a citizen wife who stresses the importance of being a “good housekeeper” even as she functions publicly as an orator, warrior, and custodian of civic (if not dynastic) legitimacy during the Ill May Day uprising of 1517 depicted in the first part of the play (6.67-68). Drawing on familiar domestic sentiments, Doll publicly embodies and advocates a civic affect that binds the individual householder with the larger urban community in mutual relations of honesty and obligation.