‘Vs for to wepe no man may lett’: Accommodating Female Grief in the Medieval English Lazarus Plays
This article argues that the medieval English Lazarus plays attempt to resolve the inherent opposition between the residual practice of lament and the dominant Christian eschatology, redirecting and containing the potentially subversive ethos of this construction of female grief. The N-Town and Towneley plays construct mourning as a form of confinement, akin to sin, from which Christian faith provides release. The York play similarly acknowledges the centrality of the sisters’ mourning, even as it re-inscribes their grief as excessive and contrary to faith. In contrast, the Chester version characterizes the sisters as models of Christian humility, whose helplessness paradoxically endows them with the power to summon the son of God himself. Perhaps the most ambivalent representation of female grief, however, is in the characterization of the heroine of the Digby Mary Magdalene as tearless and firm in the face of her only brother’s death. As an aristocratic heroine, this stoic lady claims her superior social and spiritual status by not weeping. Instead, she acquiesces to the custom of hiring weepers to carry Lazarus to the grave, a practice that she places herself above. As the plays attempt to assimilate residual mourning practices to Christian eschatology, they also perform resistance to that teleology. On the one hand the cultural work done by these plays reinforces the gendered assumption that women are naturally more prone to excessive sorrow than men, and that grief itself is an excessive, feminine emotion. On the other hand, they acknowledge the resistant power of female grief, constructing it upon the underlying paradox that women’s tears are not only excessive and subversive, but also necessary and efficacious.
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