Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure is a play that envisions a female utopia. When the play begins we learn that the main character the Lady Happy has just inherited a large sum of money from her father’s death, and the male suitors Monsieurs Take-Pleasure, Advisor, Facile, and Courtly immediately draw up schemes to marry her and have control over this vast fortune. Lady Happy, however, decides that rather than give up her money and her power, she will found a Convent of Pleasure, a women-only retreat that, despite calling itself a “Convent”, will be devoted not to religious observance but to broadening the realm of female experience: women will have the space and leisure to act out plays, talk about philosophy, and form female friendships apart from the world of heteronormative romantic and sexual coupling. The Convent is not just a social or political experiment, though: it is also, as we learn in the long justification given by Lady Happy in Act 1 scene 2, grounded in a philosophy of nature that aligns the pleasures of a personified Nature with religious belief, insisting that anything that causes our bodies pleasure cannot be unnatural.
Of course, the plot itself will immediately press on and complicate this initial expression of the “naturalness” of bodily and mental pleasures. The male suitors, assisted by the go-between Madam Mediator, will consistently scheme about how to break into the Convent, and stress how unnatural it is to separate the sexes. The Convent will be visited by a foreign Princess who presents as masculine and who often dresses up in male apparel to “pretend” to court the Lady Happy; the same-sex attraction that Lady Happy feels for the Princess causes her to question the boundaries between the natural and the unnatural. The play seems to end in a very different place from which it started; does this departure show the ideals described in Act 1 to be unworkable in reality, or are we meant to see in the dissolution of this secular convent a warning about the specific kinds of pressures that will be brought to such utopian feminist ideals? There is some difficulty in answering even the fairly straightforward question: does The Convent of Pleasure have a happy ending?
Formally the play is also very complicated. Though it is divided into acts and scenes, it is very different than many other early modern plays (by, e.g., Shakespeare–Cavendish was the first person to write a critical essay on Shakespeare’s drama in the modern sense of criticism).1 Cavendish herself notes her very different approach to dramatic form in the numerous prefatory essays to her first collection of plays published in 1662.2 Convent of Pleasure, like all of Cavendish’s plays, is a closet drama, meaning it was written with no real intention for it to be staged on a public stage or in a public theater (though many closet dramas were acted out in households and private spaces). She seemed to find it both frustrating and liberating to not write for the public stage, to write plays that she knew would probably never be acted out: frustrating in her lack of an audience, liberating in her ability to do things with dramatic form that went well beyond the norms of the public stage. A vast majority of The Convent of Pleasure is made up of things that are not dramatic action: we get interpolated songs, long philosophical speeches on the nature of pleasure, and numerous plays within plays. The middle of the play gives us an explosion of small micro-scenes (acted out by the members of the Convent) depicting the unhappinesses of childbirth, families, and marriage–which makes the ending of the play (which shows a marriage) all the more unstable. The Convent of Pleasure is nevertheless probably Cavendish’s most-performed play in the twentieth and twenty-first century, and as you read I invite you to think about questions of theatricality. What would it mean to you to imagine this play acted out? Do you think it can and should be performed? How might we have to adapt it to a modern audience?
Textual and Editorial Note
Margaret Cavendish’s play The Convent of Pleasure was first published in 1668, as part of a larger collection of plays called Plays Never Before Printed. This 1668 collection was printed in folio (a large and expensive format in the early modern period), like nearly all of Cavendish’s printed books, and Cavendish was invested in the book’s success after its printing. Both the 1668 Plays Never Before Printed and her first collection of plays (the simply named Plays published in 1662) were collected by Cavendish or an agent on her behalf, batch-bound so that the covers would match one another (more unusual in early modernity than today), and distributed to individual colleges in Cambridge and Oxford Universities, as well as to personal friends, which ensured that multiple copies would survive and would be accessible to scholars for centuries.3
She also had a secretary alter books after they had come back from the printer but before they went out to readers: in nearly all copies of this book that survive, there are both hand-corrections (a secretary correcting printing errors) and small printed paper slips inserted.4 These printed paper slips read “Written by my Lord Duke” or “VVritten by my Lord Duke” and mark out specific scenes or passages as written by her husband William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle. We can tell that these changes were made at her direction because they are identical to one another, and also survive in so many copies. Together, the printing format and care taken with the printed books tells she cared not only that her books survive, but also that they exist in corrected copies. Though she never got Convent of Pleasure onto a stage in her lifetime, she did get them into readers’ hands and libraries.
Our goal as editors was to attempt to live up to what we took to be her ambition for her plays: to take the same care with her text that she took in having printing errors corrected, and also to produce a version that would make her easier to read, and accessible to a larger audience of university students in particular. We began by collating multiple copies of the 1668 printing (copies from Chawton House in the UK, the US Library of Congress, and the Clark Library in Los Angeles) looking for stop-press changes and post-printing modifications; we also spot-checked a large number of copies using photographs of copies taken by Liza Blake on research trips. Once we believed we had found all early variants, we produced a text that allows readers to learn about the interesting features of the original text (where hand corrections appear, and where paper slips appear, for instance), but which is also readable and easy to navigate.
We have modernized Cavendish’s spelling (including expanding contractions in non-poetic speeches), capitalization, and punctuation. When updating spelling to conform to modern expectations we collapsed many instances of “my self” or “her self” into “myself” and “herself”; though we believe this best captured what Cavendish intended in these moments, we also wanted to note that Cavendish often thinks of the self as a separate entity and we may have erased a possible double meaning in this modernizing decision. We also modernized and regularized typography (removing many gratuitous italics), except that we left stage directions in italics, as well as certain poems and speeches that appear to be marked out as something more than a character’s speech (for instance, the epilogue, or Lady Happy’s first speech). Where we introduced an emendation that went beyond changing accidental features, we added a footnote calling attention to the emendation.
We also added some additional features to help readers navigate and cite the play. We have retained and marked page breaks from the original play, so readers wanting to refer back to her printed text can easily compare our edition to the original, and to allow for accurate citation. In Cavendish’s printed codex the printers used headers (text at the top of the page) to inform readers of what act they were in; because we cannot make use of headers in this online edition, we added act numbers (in square brackets) before scene numbers to assist our readers with navigation.
Speech prefixes in early modern texts are often given in abbreviated form (e.g., Prin. for Princess); we expanded these speech prefixes to make it easier for our readers to keep track of who was speaking, and put them in small caps to make them more easily distinguishable from the speeches themselves. We note here that this process was not without its editorial complications. The Princess’s gender in particular is a complicated question, especially because by the end of the play there are two characters with the speech prefix “Prin.”; we note here that by expanding the original’s printing’s “Prin.” to “Princess” we have lost the generative gender neutrality or ambiguity of the original speech prefix.A full list of characters (called “List of Actors” can be found at the end of the text itself). Cavendish also sometimes combines speech prefixes with stage directions (e.g., “L. Happy to the Prin.”); in those instances we have expanded the speech prefix and changed to small caps, and then put the stage directions in italics and in parentheses (e.g., “Lady Happy (to the Prin[cess])”).
- See Margaret Cavendish, Sociable Letters (London 1664), letter #123, pp. 244-48. ↩
- See Margaret Cavendish, “A General Prologue to all my Playes,” in Plays (London, 1662), sig. A7r-A8r. ↩
- See Liza Blake, “Margaret Cavendish’s University Years: Batch Bindings and Trade Bindings in Cambridge and Oxford,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America (accepted without revisions and forthcoming). ↩
- On hand corrections, see James Fitzmaurice, “Margaret Cavendish on Her Own Writing: Evidence from Revision and Handmade Correction,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 85 (1991): 297–307, and Liza Blake, “Pounced Corrections in Oxford Copies of Cavendish’s Philosophical and Physical Opinions; or, Margaret Cavendish’s Glitter Pen,” New College Notes 10 (2018), no. 6: 1–11. On paper slips, see Jeffrey Masten, ‘Margaret Cavendish: Paper, Performance, “Sociable Virginity”’, Modern Language Quarterly, 65 (2004), 49–68. ↩
Convent of Pleasure
ACT I. SCENE I.
Enter Three Gentlemen.
1 Gentleman. Tom, where have you been, you look so sadly of it? 2 Gentleman. I have been at the funeral of the Lord Fortunate, who has left his daughter the Lady Happy very rich, having no other daughter but her. 1 Gentleman. If she be so rich, it will make us all young men spend all our wealth in the clothes, coaches, and ladies to set our wooing hopes. [page 2] 3 Gentleman. If all her wooers be younger brothers, as most of us gallants are, we shall undo ourselves upon bare hopes, without probability. But is she handsome, Tom? 2 Gentleman. Yes, she is extremely handsome, young, rich, and virtuous. 1 Gentleman. Faith, that is too much for one woman to possess. 2 Gentleman. Not if you were to have her. 1 Gentleman. No, not for me—but in my opinion too much for any other man.
[ACT I.] SCENE II.
Enter the Lady Happy and one of her Attendants.
Servant. Madam, you being young, handsome, rich, and virtuous, I hope you will not cast away those gifts of Nature, Fortune, and Heaven upon a person which cannot merit you? Lady Happy. Let me tell you that riches ought to be bestowed on such as are poor and want means to maintain themselves, and youth on those that are old, beauty on those that are ill-favored, and virtue on those that are vicious: so that if I should place my gifts rightly, I must marry one that’s poor, old, ill-favoured, and debauched. [page 3] Servant. Heaven forbid. Lady Happy. Nay, Heaven doth not only allow of it, but commands it, for we are commanded to give to those that want.
Enter Madam Mediator to the Lady Happy.
Madam Mediator. Surely, Madam, you but talk, and intend not to go where you say. Lady Happy. Yes, truly, my words and intentions go even together. Madam Mediator. But surely you will not encloister yourself as you say. Lady Happy. Why, what is there in the public world that should invite me to live in it? Madam Mediator. More than if you should banish yourself from it. Lady Happy. Put the case I should marry the best of men, if any best there be, yet would a married life have more crosses and sorrows than pleasure, freedom, or happiness; nay, marriage to those that are virtuous is a greater restraint than a monastery. Or should I take delight in admirers? They might gaze on my beauty and praise my wit, and I receive nothing from their eyes nor lips, for words vanish as soon as spoken, and sights are not substantial. Besides, I should lose more of my reputation by their visits than gain by their praises. Or should I quit reputation and turn courtesan? There would be more lost in my health than gained by my lovers; I should find more pain than [page 4] pleasure. Besides, the troubles and frights I should be put to with the quarrels and brouilleries that jealous rivals make would be a torment to me, and ’tis only for the sake of men when women retire not. And since there is so much folly, vanity, and falsehood in men, why should women trouble and vex themselves for their sake? For retiredness bars the life from nothing else but men. Madam Mediator. O yes, for those that encloister themselves bar themselves from all other worldly pleasures. Lady Happy. The more fools they. Madam Mediator. Will you call those fools that do it for the gods’ sake? Lady Happy. No Madam, it is not for the gods’ sake, but for opinion’s sake, for can any rational creature think or believe the gods take delight in the creature’s uneasy life? Or did they command or give leave to Nature to make senses for no use, or to cross, vex, and pain them? For, what profit or pleasure can it be to the gods to have men or women wear coarse linen or rough woollen, or to flay their skin with hair-cloth, or to eat or saw through their flesh with cords? Or what profit or pleasure can it be to the gods to have men eat more fish than flesh, or to fast, unless the gods did feed on such meat themselves? For then, for fear the gods should want it, it were fit for men to abstain from it; the like for garments: for fear the gods should want fine clothes to adorn themselves, it [page 5] were fit men should not wear them. Or what profit or pleasure can it be to the gods to have men to lie uneasily on the hard ground, unless the gods and Nature were at variance, strife and wars? As if what is displeasing unto Nature were pleasing to the gods, and to be enemies to her were to be friends to them. Madam Mediator. But being done for the gods’ sake, it makes that which in Nature seems to be bad, in divinity to be good. Lady Happy. It cannot be good, if it be neither pleasure nor profit to the gods; neither do men anything for the gods but their own sake. Madam Mediator. But when the mind is not employed with vanities, nor the senses with luxury, the mind is more free to offer its adorations, prayers, and praises to the gods. Lady Happy. I believe the gods are better pleased with praises than fasting, but when the senses are dulled with abstinency, the body weakened with fasting, the spirits tired with watching, the life made uneasy with pain, the soul can have but little will to worship. Only the imagination doth frighten it into active zeal, which devotion is rather forced then voluntary, so that their prayers rather flow out of their mouth than spring from their heart, like rainwater that runs through gutters, or like water that’s forced up a hill by artificial pipes and cisterns. But those that pray not unto the gods, or praise them more in prosperity than [page 6] adversity, more in pleasures than pains, more in liberty than restraint, deserve neither the happiness of ease, peace, freedom, plenty, and tranquillity in this world, nor the glory and blessedness of the next. And if the gods should take pleasure in nothing but in the torments of their creatures and would not prefer those prayers that are offered with ease and delight, I should believe the gods were cruel, and what creatures that had reason or rational understanding would serve cruel masters, when they might serve a kind mistress, or would forsake the service of their kind mistress to serve cruel masters? Wherefore, if the gods be cruel I will serve Nature, but the gods are bountiful and give all that’s good, and bid us freely please ourselves in that which is best for us: and that is best, what is most temperately used and longest may be enjoyed, for excess doth waste itself and all it feeds upon. Madam Mediator. In my opinion your doctrine and your intention do not agree together. Lady Happy. Why? Madam Mediator. You intend to live encloistered and retired from the world. Lady Happy. ’Tis true, but not from pleasures, for I intend to encloister myself from the world to enjoy pleasure and not to bury myself from it, but to encloister myself from the encumbered cares and vexations, troubles, and perturbance of the world. [page 7] Madam Mediator. But if you encloister yourself, how will you enjoy the company of men, whose conversation is thought the greatest pleasure? Lady Happy. Men are the only troublers of women, for they only cross and oppose their sweet delights and peaceable life; they cause their pains, but not their pleasures. Wherefore those women that are poor, and have not means to buy delights and maintain pleasures, are only fit for men: for having not means to please themselves they must serve only to please others. But those women, where Fortune, Nature, and the gods are joined to make them happy, were mad to live with men who make the female sex their slaves—but I will not be so enslaved, but will live retired from their company. Wherefore, in order thereto, I will take so many noble persons of my own sex as my estate will plentifully maintain, such whose births are greater than their Fortunes, and are resolved to live a single life and vow virginity. With these I mean to live encloistered with all the delights and pleasures that are allowable and lawful: my cloister shall not be a cloister of restraint, but a place for freedom; not to vex the senses but to please them. [page 8] For every sense shall pleasure take, And all our lives shall merry make; Our minds in full delight shall joy, Not vexed with every idle toy. Each season shall our caterers be, To search the land and fish the sea, To gather fruit and reap the corn That’s brought to us in plenty’s horn, With which we’ll feast and please our taste, But not, luxurious, make a waste. We’ll clothe ourselves with softest silk, And linen fine and white as milk. We’ll please our sight with pictures rare, Our nostrils with perfurmèd air, Our ears with sweet melodious sound Whose substance can be nowhere found, Our taste with sweet delicious meat, And savory sauces we will eat: Variety each sense shall feed, And change in them new appetites breed. Thus will in Pleasure’s Convent I Live with delight, and with it die.