The old woman’s resolution: female aging in early modern drama

  • Anna Graham

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


In early modern England, the aging woman did not have a designated role in society. Throughout my study of aging women in early modern drama, I examine how aging female characters are represented in a number of significant character types on a spectrum of marginalization by society. By identifying and examining the contradictory beliefs about female aging during the early modern period, this thesis analyses how these contradictions are used in drama to create diverse expressions of aging for women throughout genres. I identify four common character types for aging women in drama, the widow, the mother, the working woman, and the witch. In my analysis of each of these character types, I identify how age based rhetoric is used as a means of female empowerment, and to control transgressive female behavior. Through a combined approach of gender studies and literary gerontology, this thesis establishes how the figure of the aging woman functions in drama as a facilitator to male desires, and an explanation for male deficiencies. She can be an embodiment of economic wish-fulfilment, and provide access to illicit affairs, or she can be an emasculating figure, one who threatens patriarchal security. When the aging woman has the potential to become a threatening figure, the threat is mitigated through a sustained process of demeaning her appearance through age revulsion. The findings of this project do not only reveal new ways to view the intersection of aging and gender in early modern drama, but offer a fresh way to engage with a range of other topics including the changing role of the family, the developing economy, and the supernatural. As such, this thesis uses female aging as a means of providing original enquiry into well-known plays, offering a new insight into gender dynamics that has not yet been recognized. This thesis establishes the importance of examining age in studies of gender in early modern drama. The figure of the aging woman poses questions that are inherently linked to how gender is presented in the period, including ideas of fertility, female work, beauty, and sexuality. By foregrounding the figure of the aging woman in studies of gender, this thesis offers a new perspective on gender relations in early modern drama.

Thesis is embargoed until 31 July 2028.
Date of AwardJul 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorGeorgina Lucas (Supervisor), Edel Lamb (Supervisor) & Mark Burnett (Supervisor)

Cite this