Serpents and Sisterhood: Feminine Homosocial Power in Chester’s Play of Adam and Eve and Play of Noah’s Flood
In Chester’s Play of Adam and Eve and the Play of Noah’s Flood, Eve and Noah’s wife defy their husbands and the word of God. These acts of do not stem solely from their own desires but rather are the result of their own unique forms of female bonding. In the Play of Adam and Eve, Eve is persuaded by the Devil to partake in Eden’s forbidden fruit after the Devil dons a woman’s face and speaks to her; Noah’s wife in The Play of Noah refuses to board the ark despite her husband’s urging without her close friends and family. In both plays, these actions can perhaps be read as silly, the result of a particularly feminine form of weakness and with severe consequences, however, I argue that these exchanges, these close feminine connections, help create a collective female power that allows for greater resistance against the patriarchal world of the Bible in the Chester plays. This sisterhood is a necessary support system for Eve and Noah’s wife as they act out against and question the male dominated authority of the world around them.
This particular argument has not been widely acknowledged in contemporary scholarship. Christina Fitzgerald, for example, in her work The Drama of Masculinity and Medieval English Guild Culture is largely concerned with how civil politics and guild culture inform the masculinity of the plays. “The very act of performing the plays,” she writes, “produced homosocial masculine communities doubled by those of the men depicted in them” (Fitzgerald 2). She argues that the plays of York and Chester represent a drama of masculinity, while I argue that such a masculine presence is counter-balanced, perhaps even threatened by, important homosocial female bonds. Katie Normington in her article “Giving Voice to Women: Teaching Feminist Approaches to the Mystery Plays” looks at female power in the mystery plays in a number of ways, most important for this article is her focus on the “unruly,” rebellious woman, but her approach does not consider how specific instances of female homosocial bonding contribute to a feminist reading. Colleen Donnelly, writing on the contemporary work of Margery Kempe, claims that it is a lack of sorority, a “self-exile from any sisterhood” that allows Margery to “escape the imprisoning drudgery she saw as the life of a medieval matron and thrust herself into the influential circle of the male episcopate” (Donnelly 419). The potential for genuine moments of female independence and power as a result of homosocial bonding has not been adequately explored, and much of previous work looks at the plays in conjunction with historical and societal realities, while I am focussing more on the plays as literary texts to be close-read.
Linda Pollock begins her article “Childbearing and Female Bonding in Early Modern England” by commenting on the work of feminist scholar Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and outlining why “sisterhood has been so important to women’s history” (Pollock 286). She defines sisterhood as a term that “refers to both the oppression experienced by all women, and to the nurturing culture forged within that oppression” (286).
With this in mind, it may at first seem peculiar to consider the encounter between Eve and the Devil in the Play of Adam and Eve as a nurturing, communal feminist act, since the Devil, a male entity, is manipulating the female form in order to gain greater access to Eve’s trust and ultimately betray her. The Devil is hoping to take advantage of Eve’s apparently specifically female weakness to complete his ruse:
Should such a caytiffe made of claye [Eve]
Have such blisse? Nay, by my laye!...
For her to disceave I hope I may…
For shee will doe as I her saye…
That woman is forbidden to doe
For any thinge she will thereto.
Play of Adam and Eve 178-187
It is clear from this passage that the Devil believes Eve will do as he suggests almost solely because she is a woman (which is odd in itself since Eve is the first ever woman and therefore there has been no prior female behaviour upon which to base such assumptions). However, when it comes time to actually convince Eve to take the apple, the Devil uses a perhaps surprising tactic:
A maner of an edder is in this place
That wynges like a byrde shee hase.
Feete as an edder, a maydens face:
Hir kynde I will take.
And of the Tree of Paradice
Shee shall eate through my contyse
Immediately after acknowledging the weakness of women, the Devil chooses to wear a female face in order to interact with Eve. John K. Bonnell in his article “Serpent with a Human Head in Art and Mystery Play” proposes that this technique was used in drama “to facilitate the dialogue between Eve and the serpent,” but this idea can be taken further, and perhaps illustrates the Devil’s understanding of the kind of innate female power that is present in face-to-face connection (Bonnell 255). The Devil, in his attempt to hold power over Eve, chooses to do so with a woman’s face, which indicates he believes there is some kind of intrinsic power present in the female form that will aid him.
Using such a disguise allows the Devil to create an intimate female bond with Eve, which eventually leads her to understand her own potential for curiosity and defiance in the restricted environment into which she has been born. The Devil’s feminine disguise is not a simple act of treacherous malice but rather comes from a deeper understanding of the powerful dynamic that can potentially be established between female confidantes; he is not debasing femininity but actually recognizing its unique power and the special support system female bonding can create in the face of oppressive systems. Of course, in a wider theological context and other versions of this biblical story, the Devil does not use a woman’s form in this scenario, which makes it even more important that it was done here, in the Chester play. The Chester Devil makes specific reference to becoming Eve’s “kind,” which, I argue, indicates that he believes he can achieve a level of bonding, trust, and communication with Eve while embodying femininity that would have been otherwise impossible. One possible note of contention here is that the Devil is an essentially male figure, and that Eve is not asserting her independence from Adam and God but rather moving from one sphere of male-dominated power to another. I would push back against this notion, however, and point out that the Devil as a male entity actually holds no power over Eve. He must use a woman’s appearance and even then can only try to convince her. He cannot and does not force her to step outside the current bounds of God’s authority; ultimately, it is Eve’s choice, although the female-centric encounter with the Devil gives her the opportunity to make that choice in the first place.
This encounter with the feminine Devil not only gives Eve the power to question and defy the arguably arbitrary rules of God’s paradise, but also encourages her to exert power over Adam, who, up until now, has been a huge force of authority in her life, something exceedingly evident from the moment of her creation:
DEUS: Ryse, Adam, and awake.
Heare have I formed the[e] a make [mate];
Hir to thee thou shalt take,
And name hir as thee liste.
Eve’s entire existence depends upon being a mate for Adam; her sole purpose is to serve as his companion, she is not even given enough authority to choose her own name. She is bound by the word of a man she did not choose, and it is only after her conversation with the Devil with the female face that she has any inkling of her own possible power for resistance. While it is true that her actions have disastrous consequences for herself and subsequently the rest of humanity, that does not undermine the fact that her encounter with the Devil was perhaps the only thing that encouraged her to exercise her own potential for patriarchal defiance.
Like Eve, Noah’s wife in the Play of Noah’s Flood resists male dominance over her actions because of the connections she has with her family and friends. Unlike Eve, however, Noah’s wife is resistant from the beginning of the play; when Noah begins to instruct her in the construction of the Ark, she responds by saying,
In fayth, Noe, I had as leeve thou slepte.
For all thy Frenyshe fare,
I will not doe after thy reade.
Play of Noah’s Flood 99-101
She is not like the acquiescent Eve from the beginning of the Play of Adam and Eve, and yet it is not at first clear why she is so resistant to Noah’s instructions, especially when her behaviour is set up against the sharp contrast provided by her sons’ obedient wives. Cam’s wife, Sem’s wife, and Japhett’s wife work in accordance with their husbands’ and father-in-law’s orders, and eschew the special bond and consequent feminine defiance that solidarity with Noah’s wife would have provided. Instead, they rely on their subservient connection to the men in the family to sustain them, and follow direction without question.
Noah’s wife finds it impossible to emulate the obedient behaviour of her daughters-in-law, the reason for which becomes clear the moment it is time to board the ark:
NOE: Wyffe, come in. Why standes thou there?...
Come, in Godes name; halfe tyme yt weare,
for feare lest that wee drowne.
NOES WYFFE: Yea, syr, sett up your seale
and rowe forthe with evell hayle;
for withowten any fayle
I will not owt of this towne.
But I have my gossips everyechone,
one foote further I will not gone.
They shall not drowne, by sayncte John,
and I may save there life.
They loved me full well, by Christe.
But thou wilte lett them into thy chiste,
elles rowe forth, Noe, when thy liste
and get thee a newe wyfe.
Noah’s wife’s defiance has not come from a selfish place of arrogance, but rather from the desire to remain with and hopefully save her “gossips,” her family members and good friends. People like her mother, sisters, and female friends would have been included in this group. The OED defines gossips as close friends, godparents, and/or the female friends invited to witness a woman giving birth. The latter point is something Linda Pollock also touches on. She writes that “[t]he attendance of women at childbirth [in Early Modern England] was an expected part of community culture… the rituals of childbirth… created not only bonds of sisterhood, but also formed part of female resistance to patriarchal power” (Pollock 288). It is very likely then that the gossips of Chester’s Noah’s wife included women whom she had witnessed giving birth, and who in turn had witnessed and helped her birth her own children. Noah’s wife’s close domestic connection with these gossips is what spurs her on to defy the word of Noah and, subsequently, of God. Even her sons, who as men still have authority over her, cannot persuade her:
JAPHETT: Mother, wee praye you all together –
for we are here, your owne childer –
come into the shippe for feare of the wedder…
NOES WYFFE: That I will not for all your call
But I have my gosseppes all.
SEM: In fayth, mother, yet thow shall
Whether thou will or nought.
Noah’s wife is willing to be forever separated from her children, willing to risk her own life, in order to remain with her domestic relations, and defies the male authority of her husband and sons, and even the authority of God himself, in order to defend her friends and her principles. One could argue here that we cannot say with certainty that Noah’s wife’s gossips are the only reason for her defiance. However, if we use the evidence present in the text, this is actually the safest, most logical conclusion. The only concrete reason that Noah’s wife gives for her subordination is her desire to save her other relations; if she did not have such close bonds with her gossips then it is certainly possible that she would have simply obeyed her husband, and God, and mounted the ship once she understood the danger of the rising water.
One main difference between Eve and Noah’s wife lies in the success of their defiance. Eve, after communicating with the feminized Devil, is successful in the process of taking the fruit and convincing Adam to do the same. Noah’s wife does not achieve her goal; she is carried onto the ark against her will and is forced to leave all her gossips behind. What does not change between the two plays, however, is the support and encouragement these two women gain from their various close female bonds. While Eve’s and Noah’s wife’s relative acts of defiance had very different outcomes, that does not change the fact that they both, in their own ways, drew on the supports of sisterhood to engage in their own meaningful acts of feminine resistance. Eve is bound by God’s word to a man she did not choose, trapped in a gilded cage; Noah’s wife, despite her protests, is subdued, even physically restrained, by the authority of her husband and sons; both women draw the strength to resist these oppressive environments, in their own ways, from the connections with other female entities that they forge.
This paper does not argue that these close feminine bonds are necessarily healthy or wholly positive, however, in fact one could argue that Eve’s and Noah’s wife’s resulting actions are ill-thought out and potentially destructive. In Eve’s case, such destruction is evident, far-reaching and terrible as she follows the advice of the treacherous female-faced serpent and brings down the whole of humanity; Noah’s wife puts herself and her closest family in harm’s way in an effort to save her other friendships and relations. These interactions and connections have devastating consequences, and yet they are important and necessary facets of Eve’s and Noah’s wife’s experiences. The outcomes of their forms of resistance, and the nature of the female bonds themselves, are not as important as the fact that both Eve and Noah’s wife are able to come to understand and express their own unique sense of power and defiance as a direct result of the communications they have with other female figures. Female homosocial bonds are the essential catalyst for feminist resistance in the face of male power in the Chester Plays of Adam and Eve and Noah’s Flood.
Adam and Eve. Medieval Drama: An Anthology. Ed. Greg Walker. Hoboken: Wiley- Blackwell, 2000. Print.
Noah. The Chester Mystery Cycle. Ed. R.M. Lumiansky and David Mills. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974. Print.
Bonnell, John K. “Serpent with a Human Head in Art and Mystery Play.” American Journal of Archaeology. 21.3 (1917): 255-291. Web. April 14 2016.
Donnelly, Colleen. “Menopausal Life as Imitation of Art: Margery Kempe and the Lack of Sorority.” Women’s Writing. 12.3 (2005): 419-432. Web. April 14 2016.
Fitzgerald, Christina. The Drama of Masculinity and Medieval English Guild Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.
Normington, Katie. “Giving Voice to Women: Teaching Feminist Approaches to the Mystery Plays.” College Literature.
Pollock, Linda A. “Childbearing and Female Bonding in Early Modern England.” Social History. 22.3 (1997): 286-306. Web. April 14 2016.