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The term she-tragedy, also known as "pathetic tragedy" refers to a vogue in the late 17th and early 18th centuries for tragic plays focused on the sufferings of a woman, sometimes innocent and virtuous but often a woman who has committed some sort of sexual sin. Prominent she-tragedies include Thomas Otway's The Orphan (1680), John Banks' Virtue Betrayed, or, Anna Bullen (1682), Thomas Southerne's The Fatal Marriage (1694) and Nicholas Rowe's The Fair Penitent (1703) and Lady Jane Grey (1715). Rowe was the first to use the term "she-tragedy," in 1714.

When English drama was reborn in 1660 with the re-opening of the theatres, the leading tragic style was the male-dominated heroic drama which celebrated powerful, aggressively masculine heroes and their pursuit of glory, as rulers and conquerors as well as lovers. In the 1670s and 1680s, a gradual shift occurred from heroic to pathetic tragedy, where the subject was love and domestic concerns, even though the main characters might be public figures. After the phenomenal success of Elizabeth Barry in moving the audience to tears in the role of Monimia in Otway's The Orphan, she-tragedy became the dominant form of pathetic tragedy and remained highly popular for nearly half a century.

The realm of pathetic tragedy became an exploration of the female experience as the private female sphere, that of the domestic, was put on the stage and publicized. The she-tragedies demonstrated the psychology and behavior of women in their private sphere and presented it for public consideration, a new concept that emerged as women began to star in main roles instead of only supporting characters. For the first time, plays were written that had a woman as the main character and that followed her experiences and emotions. She-tragedies brought what was once solely internal (emotions and thoughts) out for external display. The rise of pathetic tragedy commodified the female experience and women themselves with the transition from men (dressed as women) playing the female roles to women acting on the stage themselves. Actresses, while not unusual in Continental Europe, were just beginning to be accepted as a novelty by the predominantly male audience. The idea of the woman, occupier of the private sphere, as a public figure was bizarre. As a result, actresses often had a bad moral reputation as before the Restoration, public women were immoral women. However, royal sanction gave actresses more opportunities and opened the way for new dramatic possibilities.

  • Canfield, J. Douglas (2001). "The Broadview Anthology of Restoration and Early Eighteenth-Century Drama". Broadview Press. ()
  • Howe, Elizabeth (1992). The First English Actresses: Women and Drama 1660–1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ()
  • Staves, Susan (1979). Player's Scepters: Fictions of Authority in the Restoration. Lincoln, Nebraska. ()
  • Stewart, Ann Marie (2010). "The Ravishing Restoration: Aphra Behn, Violence, and Comedy". Susquehanna University Press. ()


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