Women's Work and the Early Modern English Stage
"This is a very exciting book. Its chief claim, more than amply substantiated, is that women played a much more active role in the production of early modern theater than prior scholarship has asserted. Labors Lost offers a rich and nuanced picture of the many different ways in which women took part in the early modern theatrical world."—Jean E. Howard, Columbia University
"Long before they were regularly seen on stage, women were of crucial importance to the commercial theater behind the scenes. In Labors Lost, Natasha Korda argues that female labor was central to the development of Elizabethan and Jacobean theater. . . . Korda evidently relishes the abundance and variety of her subject, using economic and commercial history as a lively and even lyrical approach. . . . Her subtle readings show that women's role in commercial theater was not just an issue behind the scenes, but one which was regularly dramatized by (all-male) casts on stage."—TLS
Labors Lost offers a fascinating and wide-ranging account of working women's behind-the-scenes and hitherto unacknowledged contributions to theatrical production in Shakespeare's time. Natasha Korda reveals that the purportedly all-male professional stage relied on the labor, wares, ingenuity, and capital of women of all stripes, including ordinary crafts- and tradeswomen who supplied costumes, props, and comestibles; wealthy heiresses and widows who provided much-needed capital and credit; wives, daughters, and widows of theater people who worked actively alongside their male kin; and immigrant women who fueled the fashion-driven stage with a range of newfangled skills and commodities.
Combining archival research on these and other women who worked in and around the playhouses with revisionist readings of canonical and lesser-known plays, Labors Lost retrieves this lost history by detailing the diverse ways women participated in the work of playing, and the ways male players and playwrights in turn helped to shape the cultural meanings of women's work. Far from a marginal phenomenon, the gendered division of theatrical labor was crucial to the rise of the commercial theaters in London and had an influence on the material culture of the stage and the dramatic works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
Natasha Korda is Professor of English at Wesleyan University. She is the author of Shakespeare's Domestic Economies: Gender and Property in Early Modern England, also available from University of Pennsylvania Press.