Wet Nurses’ (In)visible Presences. Ethics of Care and Dependency Critique in Selected Early Modern English Dramas
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
Copyright (c) 2022 Skenè. Journal of Theatre and Drama Studies
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Open Access Policy
This journal provides immediate open access to its content on the principle that making research freely available to the public supports a greater global exchange of knowledge.
This Journal is a CC-BY 4.0 publication (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/). This Licence allows others to share the work with an acknowledgement of the work’s authorship and initial publication in this Journal, providing a link to the Licence and explicitly underlining any change (full mention of Issue number, year, pages and DOI is required).
- The Author retains (i) the rights to reproduce, to distribute, to publicly perform, and to publicly display the Article in any medium for any purpose; (ii) the right to prepare derivative works from the Article; and (iii) the right to authorise others to make any use of the Article so long as the Author receives credit as Author and the Journal in which the Article has been published are cited as the source of first publication of the Article. For example, the Author may make and distribute copies in the course of teaching and research and may post the Article on personal or institutional Web sites and in other open-access digital repositories.
- The Author is free to enter into separate, additional contractual arrangements for the non-exclusive distribution of the Journal’s published version of the work, with an acknowledgement of its initial publication in this Journal and explicitly underlining any change (full mention of Issue number, year, pages and DOI is required).
- The Author is permitted and encouraged to post their work online after the evaluation process has been successfully passed, as it can lead to productive exchanges as well as to a wider dissemination of the published work.