Wet Nurses’ (In)visible Presences. Ethics of Care and Dependency Critique in Selected Early Modern English Dramas


  • Katarzyna Burzyńska Adam Mickiewicz University




Although recent scrutiny of the power dynamics in early modern birthing chambers paints a complex portrait of varied (inter)dependencies, the belief in a potentially disruptive and unruly midwife as well as a spectre of a threatening maternal influence lingers in analyses of English early modern drama. Relatively less attention is devoted to wetnurses, who, as I argue, constitute ‘invisible presences’ in dramas of Shakespeare’s era. Wetnurses’ fundamental role in infants’ development is only scantly alluded to or erased. In this paper I look at wetnurses’ erasures in Shakespeare’s early tragedy Titus Andronicus, late romance The Winter’s Tale and Middleton’s city comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. Inspired by Eva Feder Kittay’s “dependency critique”, I wish to argue that nurses in English early modern drama function similarly to modern-day “dependency workers” whose role grows out of fundamental dependency; a fact of human existence obfuscated by the cult of human individualism and self-sufficiency that has historically served only the privileged select of (white) males. Depictions of wetnurses both reflect the necessity for ‘dispersed’ maternal care and simultaneously unveil the failings of a care-taking system that refuses to valorise their work. If English early modern drama reflects tangible realities of early modern women’s lives it also illustrates a systemic failure to accommodate for dependents; labouring women and their infants.

Keywords: wet-nursing in early modern drama; dependency work; dependency critique; pregnancy and maternity in Shakespeare; pregnancy and maternity in Middleton






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