Category Archives: Laura Rosenthal

When you’re done grading, go to the theater



Ever on the lookout for productions of drama from the extra long eighteenth century, I am passing along the announcement of this production of Le Cid (1636) by Pierre Corneille (translated by Richard Wilbur) at the Storm Theatre in New York.  This is the same theater and the same director responsible for an outstanding production of The London Merchant,  discussed here and here on this blog. The Red Bull Theatre’s production of Volpone might also be of interest.  I have not yet seen this, but admired this company’s deliciously bloody Revenger’s Tragedy a few years ago and hope to see Volpone as well.  Finally, today’s New York Times reviewed a production of Amy Freed’s play, Restoration Comedy, based in part on Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift. The review did not make the production sound particularly tempting, but I would be happy to hear from anyone with a different perspective.

What Matters in Humanities Education

Since we like to talk about teaching here too, readers might be interested in my report on the Teagle Foundation‘s convening on “What Works and What Matters in Student Learning.” The conference specifically addressed the humanities. This link will take you to the web page for the event; scroll down a bit for reports by me and by Ashley Finley of AAC&U. I welcome comments and feedback on what you think matters.

John Locke on Gay Marriage

In 1988, Carole Pateman discussed the strange misalignment between modern contract theory, as conceived by John Locke and others, and the special case of the marriage contract: “unlike other contracts, the marriage contract cannot be entered into by any two (or more) sane adults, but is restricted to two parties, one of whom must be a man and the other a woman” (167).  One would think that in a true contract society, this restriction on marriage contracts would be a contradiction because the status of the two parties should not be a factor.  But for Pateman, there is no contradiction but instead a misunderstanding of contract: the “attack on sexual difference [by those advocating for individual equality] . . . suffers from an insuperable problem: the ‘individual’ is a patriarchal category” (168)

Her argument was that the sex-designation of the marriage contract has not resulted from the failure to overcome this last remnant of status difference (as others have argued), but rather has deeper roots.  While Locke “remarked that marital society established through the marriage contract, ‘consists chiefly in the spouses’ ‘Communion and Right in one another Bodies,’” Pateman argues that it is actually based on “male sex-right” rather than an agreement for mutual access.  Locke, she argues, did not advocate an egalitarian contractarianism over a Filmerian patriarchy, but rather located political authority in one sphere and domestic authority in another.  Thus, “Locke agrees with Filmer that there is a natural foundation for a wife’s subjection.”  The original husband in Locke “must have exercised conjugal right over his wife before he became a father” (93) and was able to exercise political authority.  So Locke, Pateman argues, assumes that the the non-political authority of the male in the natural (“non-political”) sphere comes first and is not negotiated (or negotiable—no matter what goes on between Mirabell and Millamant). 


 The husband’s dominance is instead founded on the assumption of male sex-right.  This is the hidden contract behind the contract; it is the reason why the marriage contract can, contradictorily and unlike in any other contract, designate in advance the sex of each party.  The sex-designation of marriage reveals for Pateman not so much the limits of contract theory, but the patriarchal assumption behind the very category of the individual.  The individual of “individualism” is a Lockean, political subject who has already exerted natural (non-political) rights over a woman to place him in the public sphere as the representative of a family.

Maybe it’s way too early to say “until now.”  But what does it mean for the sexual contract that a US President can defend marriage equality?  Many will say that this is not a feminist issue or a contract theory issue at all, but rather an issue of the relative authority of religion.  But the way religion makes its way into policy has always been highly selective.  Dante placed sodomites and usurers in the same circle of hell (number 7!). 


I have yet to meet a Christian who eschews usury out of conscience or fear of hell, nor can I think of a government policy designed to eradicate it.  On the contrary, it seems to be encouraged. 

At its most radical, Pateman’s Sexual Contract suggests that individualism and contractarianism do not represent progress; on the contrary, they are impediments to feminism because they are designed to assume a particular, hidden hierarchy.  The category of the “individual” will never include everyone, and the best evidence for this was the (contradictory) sex-designation of the marriage contract.

What does Obama’s declaration do to this argument?  Does it suggest that the category of the “individual” is expandable after all?  Was “male sex-right” actually a residual hold-over, as the theorists to whom Pateman objected had claimed, rather than an inherent aspect of contract?   

  Liberals argue that gay marriage does not change the definition of marriage.  But if Pateman offers any insight into Locke and early concepts of individualism, then gay marriage does redefine the marriage contract. And maybe that’s the best part.

Works Cited

Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.


The (Other) London Merchant

Millwood’s character might be the hardest to read in the play, but the Storm Theatre’s production offered a successful interpretation.  In the opening of this performance, Millwood (played brilliantly by Jessica Myhr) appears on one side and Thorowgood on the other.  While Thorowgood instructs his apprentices on the higher purpose of the merchant, Lucy transforms Millwood, through dress, hair, and makeup, into a fashionable beauty with (I think significantly) no obvious markers of her profession.  Thus Thorowgood and Millwood are set off against each other from the beginning.

One surprising possibility that this production brought out but that is less obvious in reading is the comic potential of the first half of the play.  Millwood could have been Helena from The Rover, flirting impishly with George.  She is manipulative, but performs these scenes with a light touch.  While readers of the play know what will happen and critics pause over her ominous lines about treating men like the Spaniards treated the native Americans, in this production Millwood seduces the audience along with George.  Even when she returns with the story about the rapacious guardian, the scene has a more comic than ominous effect, like a Restoration play in which a husband needs to be manipulated so that a lover can sneak out the back door.

Millwood’s character takes a darker turn in the second half of the play.  Interesting, though, her most truly nefarious demands take place off stage, reported by Lucy.  This, one the one hand, makes the play a bit talky.  On the other hand, it seems actually to preserve Millwood’s character in certain ways.  Lillo seems to be leading us toward maintaining some sympathy for Millwood by leaving the murder request off stage. We don’t actually know exactly what transpired between her and George.  If this scene were staged, it would clearly occupy the center of the play, as George would be choosing between his passion and his sense of humanity.  It is worth thinking about, then, that Lillo didn’t want this decision to displace other tensions in the play.

Critics have often read Millwood as simply evil.  Feminists have alternatively pointed to the ways that Lillo builds sympathy for her position through her sense of her own victimization.  But this production did not take either of these routes.  Myhr’s Millwood is instead a Hobbesian, a rationalist, and a skeptic.  In the hanging scene at the end (included in this production), George and Millwood stand side by side awaiting their death.  George prays, then prays for Millwood; the performance compares her panic to his resignation.  Thorowgood observes that while the laws of man cannot distinguish them, a higher law will recognize the difference.  Nevertheless, we see them dramatically meet the identical fate, walking in coordinated rhythm to the same gallows.

Myhr’s powerful Millwood, then, does not assert female victimization, but instead demands that we consider the possibility that nothing exists beyond the material world as she and Barnwell sink into the same abyss.

The London Merchant at the Storm Theatre/Blackfriars Repertory

I recently had the privilege of seeing George Lillo’s The London Merchant performed in New York at the Storm Theatre/Blackfriars Repertory.  The entire short run has sold out:  good news for the theatre but bad news for everyone else (unless you have tickets for next weekend).  The production demonstrated the extraordinary stageworthiness of this play.  I hope to put up a few posts on the different character portrayals to suggest how much depth this company discovered in a play routinely dismissed as either morally simplistic or ideologically overburdened. I will begin with Thorowgood, and the recognition of how much of the interpretation of this play depends on the way he is played.

In this production, Thorowgood is not a looming tower of strength, but a rather weak and ineffectual; he represents himself as knowing, but turns out to be somewhat baffled by the passions of the young .  Remember, he has no idea that his daughter loves his apprentice, even though she comes close to revealing this when she refuses the attentions of the men who court her.  In this production he walks with a cane; he is literally and perhaps metaphorically “lame.” An early scene gives him a crucial opportunity to save George.  George begs his master to hear his confession of the night of passion with Millwood, but Thorowgood refuses to listen.  We can’t really tell why.  Is Thorowgood uncomfortable hearing about George’s sexuality?  He seems like he is trying to be generous and forgiving, but there is an undertone in his refusal that suggests something else.  It need not be sinister; he might simply be oblivious. As George’s sins accumulate, we realize that had Thorowgood allowed George to confess at this early stage, then George might have discussed with him Millwood’s subsequent claim to distress. Thorowgood probably would have seen through her manipulation and thus prevented the entire tragedy which depends, after all, on George’s isolation.  Millwood is able to lead to George further and further astray because George becomes so ashamed of his own desires that he won’t share his predicament.  Unlike Thorowgood, Trueman begs to hear about his friend’s source of misery, but the damage has already been done. The only authority figure in the play has essentially rejected his plea for counsel.

This reading of The London Merchant is consistent with some other moral texts of the period.  Richardson, for example, makes clear in Clarissa that her tragedy could have been prevented by a more forgiving father.  Young people get in deep trouble in these texts when figures of authority abandon them, or simply prove weak.

Thorowgood’s weakness becomes further apparent in his confrontation with Millwood.  Disarmed of her pistol and thrown to the ground by Trueman, Millwood delivers her damning speech against men on her knees.  Yet, with these two men towering over her, she nevertheless astonishes and humiliates them.  When she refutes Thorowgood’s milquetoast speculation that she must have known only bad men by reporting how she has served the full gamut, he looks sheepish.  Maybe even guilty.  He admires her wit.  When reading the play, “wit” always came across to me as devious cleverness.  But in this production, it seems to mean “brilliance”; or more specifically, Hobbesian rigor.

By the time we get to Thorowgood’s  directive to “See there the bitter fruits of passion’s detested reign” as George lies in the dungeon,  we know what the merchant does not: that passion cannot entirely explain the horrific chain of events that lead George to this dismal scene.  George, like Millwood, has fallen victim to institutional as well as personal failures.

This is not to say that it was a “pro-Millwood” production.  That would be inaccurate.  The Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, according to the program, was “the first professional religious theatre ever tried in New York City.”  In spite of– or perhaps because of– connections to Catholic institutions, this production took a play that appears to be about moral certainly and revealed it to be, in fact, nothing of the kind.

Gaming Table at the Folger

Here is story in today’s Washington Post on the Folger production of Centlivre’s play (The Basset Table), in which I am quoted praising her feminism.  There are also links to the production in progress.

The London Merchant

The Storm Theatre and  The Blackfriars Repertory Theatre in New York are now producing George Lillo’s The London Merchant!  The play received a favorable review in The New York Times.  I have never seen this play produced or even heard of a modern production, but students consistently like it. The production seems like it would be well worth seeing.

MLA 2012: The Future of Early British Studies

A Marketplace of Ideas? The Future of Early British Literary Studies

Presiding: Robyn Malo, Purdue Univ., West Lafayette; Manushag Powell, Purdue Univ., West Lafayette

1. “Problems for the Future,” Helen Deutsch, Univ. of California, Los Angeles

2. “Curricular Requirements and the Problems of the Present,” Seth Lerer, Univ. of California, San Diego

3. “Solutions?” Emily Hodgson Anderson, Univ. of Southern California

The subject of this panel was the challenges and opportunities facing Early British Studies in the current climate. What kind of future does Early British Studies have in higher education?  How can we engage students?  The panelists considered these questions in various ways.

Helen Deutsch looked back in order to look forward, we might say.  She implicitly argued against the suspicion that Early British Studies have no relevance to what people care about now.  Her strategy was to demonstrate in fascinating detail the influence of Jonathan Swift over Edward Said.  She reminded us that Said had long planned a book on Swift; she suggested the profound connections between the kind of public intellectual that Said became and vigorous eighteenth-century models for such a position.

The next two panelists focused on student engagement with the period.  Seth Lerer discussed the challenges of teaching Early British Literature to a new generation of students.  He described a large lecture class he was teaching at San Diego, in which the majority of students spoke English as a second language and only one had brought the book.  The rest were reading the material on their iPads, laptops, and even iPhones.  Yet in spite of this set-up, the talk did not turn curmudgeonly.  These students were welcome on his lawn, and he took seriously the challenge of communicating with them.  He proposed that we include the history of technology in the way we teach Early British Literature, drawing connections between the move to the digital and the transition to the codex.  He argued that this kind of contextualized narrative would be consistent with the discipline itself, suggesting that one of the distinguishing characteristic of humanities disciplines was concern with its own history.  The sciences, he pointed out, supersede their history and thus have little interest in what came before.

Finally, Emily Anderson offered some thoughts about the problem of “relevance.”  She noted tensions in eighteenth-century courses between our impulse to historicize and the student desire to find themselves in the literature, collapsing those historical differences.  She pointed out that students often come to literature classes out of a desire to write their own story.  Her strategy, which she has found to be effective, has been to use this to her advantage and cultivate this impulse, but then also, we might say, to theorize the impulse itself.  For this she uses Tristram Shandy, though a difficult text for undergraduates, as a model, which is after all the story of someone writing himself into being. She has even started to offer students a creative option to the usual critical paper, although they also need to discuss their choices and strategies in a critical way.

Overall, a worthy and engaging panel, filled with great ideas about how to bring Early British Studies into the 21st Century.


MLA 2012: When Assessment Goes Bad

[x-posted at]

On the first day of MLA 2012 I attended “Assessing Assessment(s),” chaired by Jeanne A Follansbee (Harvard), with talks by Donna Heiland (Teagle Foundation), John M. Ulrich (Mansfield University), and Eve Marie Wiederhold (George Mason). Reed Way Dasenbrock was unable to attend, which is a shame because I heard an excellent talk that he gave last year and was looking forward to his perspective on this issue. (I have also taught his essay from Falling into Theory in my “Critical Methods in Literary Study” class.)

All the papers were sharp and interesting, with Heiland considering the role of assessment in cultivating student learning, Ulrich reporting on the highs and lows of his institutional practice, and Wiederhold offering a vigorous critique.

But what really enlightened me at the panel was the Q&A, during which it became clear that there was a lot of really terrible assessment going on out there. One speaker described how an “assessment professional” had been hired at her institution to set the learning outcome goals for all the programs. Another reported that he regularly turned in a series of graphs charting student grades, much to the delight of local assessment administrators.

I had mostly assumed that everyone hated assessment because it is part of the paradigm shift described by Tagg and Barr from “Instruction” to “Learning” (a point discussed by Heiland) which pretty radically goes against the status quo and thus makes people anxious. (Maybe this goes back to Dave’s discussions of “threshold concepts.”) Further, I too hated it at first, as it seemed redundant and intrusive. Now, though, I see it as part of a potential change from counting credit hours (or as my former provost used to say, “butts in seats”) or relying on student evaluations (or, as Roksa calls them, “student satisfaction surveys”) to opening up new ways of emphasizing, appreciating, and thinking about learning itself as the goal, which in turn leads to thinking that there might be better ways to get there than counting up things up, be they credit hours or survey scores. So while assessment has the reputation of bean counting, in fact we are currently wading through heaps of beans (credit hours; evaluation scores; grades; office hours; chairs bolted to the floor; multiple choice tests) without even noticing them as they have become so natural to our environment. In a true “culture of assessment,” there would be fewer beans.

It seems, though, at some institutions assessment has not been part of a larger consideration of student learning, but instead the evil bureaucratic exercise that many feared it would become.

Why do students hate groupwork? Part 2

[X-posted on Assessment for Learning 101]

One of the most-read posts on this blog is David Mazella’s classic, “Why do students hate groupwork?”  The original post prompted a lively discussion, including comments by students themselves telling us why, in fact, they hate groupwork.

I was thinking about this discussion yesterday at my MLA panel, “Academically Adrift,” which featured Josipa Roksa, one of the authors of the book after which the panel took its name.  Offering a brief overview of her findings (with co-author Richard Arum), Josipa introduced the section on study groups by saying, “This is the one that always gets me in trouble.”  And indeed, part of the discussion that followed concerned this issue.

In short, Arum and Roksa found that students who worked in study groups showed significantly lower learning than those who studied on their own.  What does this mean for collaboration?

To me, the most interesting point that came out of the conversation was that the problem might not be group work itself, but the way it is done.  Roksa speculated that there is a tendency for the professor to assign group work without enough structure and also without providing any training for students in collaboration itself.  We tend to come up with a project, give it to a group of students, and say “go collaborate,” which turns out to be ineffective.  She briefly discussed a colleague of hers who teaches a semester-long course specifically on collaboration.  So perhaps her answer to the question posed by Dave’s original post might be that students hate it because they don’t know how to do it and as a result they don’t learn much.

What I found particularly interesting was Roksa’s emphasis on collaboration as a skill that needs to be learned.  As someone raised on theory that taught me how gender, race, and all kinds of identity formations are constructed, I had never given much thought to collaboration as “constructed” as well.  Perhaps for too many of us, it seems like something that students should just know how to do.  But apparently they don’t (and in fairness, we often don’t either).  I wonder, then, if we should be thinking about ways to get collaboration skills into the curriculum—not just in the form of collaborative assignments but as a learning outcome goal in itself.