Ferdinando order to question the epistemological social order

Ferdinando Pulton’s 1609
treatise, ‘De pace regis et regni’ presents a summary of “the great and
generall ofences of the realme.”1
One of these offences is the threatening, potentially damaging power of words,
in particular slander. He writes:


There is another foule puddle
that ouzeth from the same corrupt gogmire, and distilleth out of a heart
likewise infected with malice and enuie, but is deuised and practised by
another meane that the former, which is by libelling, secret slandring, or
defaming of another.2

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The distasteful, pejorative
tone aligns gossiping and slander with dirtiness and corruption. Pulton’s
writing is evidence for the increase in slander in sixteenth century England,
which threatened to destabilise communities and social bonds. Kalpan’s work has traced this rise, locating it as a concern not only national
but also within individual communities – anxiety over reputation was
rife at a time in which the economic status of individual and family could
fluctuate rapidly. Shakespeare explores this anxiety through the dramatic
disruption of communication networks and the persecution of characters. He
presents a tension between two different orders of knowledge inherent within slander’s
fraught nexus, that of first-hand experience, and knowledge received at removes.

Shakespeare focuses on the gendered perceptions of this epistemological
phenomenon through creating oppositions between textual and oral authority,
domestic and civic space and the liminal figure of the midwife, who both exists
within the private feminine realm of the birth room, yet also holds great power
in shaping patrilineal futures. This essay will argue that Shakespeare examines
gossip transmission within feminine communication networks in order to question
the epistemological social order of Early Modern England. Whilst learned
knowledge – presented as masculine – is often foregrounded, it is simultaneously
questioned and undermined by a feminine model which depends upon oral interactions.

Shakespeare is drawing upon cultural concern in this juxtaposition of male and
female voice, questioning which is the most important in shaping his characters’


The association between women
and gossiping can be traced etymologically. Originally used to refer to
baptismal sponsors, these gender-neutral origins were soon influenced by their
link with birth, leading to associations with unruly female speech.3
From the concept of baptismal sponsors the nexus of mothers, births and
gossiping was borne, unmistakably gendered female. Caroline Bicks explores this
gendering, noting “the connection between midwives, gossip, and tale telling
was developing whilst Shakespeare was imagining his dramas.”4
Open Source Shakespeare cites the word ‘gossip’ as appearing eight times across
Shakespeare’s corpus, most often in speech about feminine, illegitimate forms
of information transmission.5
In The Merchant of Venice it appears
twice in reports of Antonio’s ships. In recounting what he has heard, Salarino
adds “if my gossip Report be an honest woman of her word”, slyly undermining
the woman’s reputability.6
To this Salanio responds,


I would she were as lying a
gossip in that as ever

knapped ginger, or made her
neighbours believe she

wept for the death of a third



In his textual notes, John
Drakakis writes that ‘knapped ginger’ can be glossed as “fabricated spicy
In wishing the rumours false, both men highlight the unreliable associations
surrounding women’s speech, yet also its vital role in channelling information
throughout communities. In A Midsummer
Night’s Dream, Puck inscribes himself into a scene of female discourse,
lurking in the “gossip’s bowl”, as male eavesdropper and interlocutor.8
In his attempts to disrupt their conversation Puck incarnates male anxiety about
gossiping women. Rewriting their talk as a farcical scene, “each trick is an
attempt to stop up the channels of female speech by negotiating inside and
around female bodies.”9
The concern with the female body is central to the role of midwife as gossip.

Private, female-exclusive sites were the ideal sites for women to talk without
male supervision.


Shakespeare explores anxiety
surrounding the female leaky body through the figure of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. She is a wet-nurse, a
position which, similar to that of the midwife, requires feminine space. Lord
Capulet explicitly scolds the Nurse as a gossip when she tries to defend Juliet.

He first commands, “Hold your tongue, / Good Prudence, smatter with your
gossips, go”, before sharply seeking to silence her again: “Peace, you mumbling
fool! / Utter your gravity o’er a gossip’s bowl, / For here we need it not.”10
Her speech is relegated, exiled from the realm of masculine authority. The
plural ‘gossips’ in the first assault recognises the existence of a designated space
for female speech, yet highlights Capulet’s disquiet about this. The reference
to the ‘gossip’s bowl’ aligns gossiping with drunken inconsistencies. Overtones
of religious desecration are introduced, as the image of the Christening cup is
tainted with notions of loose talk. Alongside these negative associations,
however, the image of the cup also becomes a symbol of strong communal bonds
between women. The counterpart exclusion to this is emphasised through the
irony of Lord Capulet’s mistaken understanding of Juliet’s grief. His
denunciation of the Nurse as a “mumbling fool” highlight’s his own lack of
understanding, mistaking Juliet’s tears for grief over Tybalt’s death. The
pertinence of femininity within this exchange is revealed by the invitation
extended by Juliet to Lady Capulet to enter the network she shares with the
Nurse. Juliet addresses her mother directly, as she could not her father, entreating
her to delay the upcoming marriage. Lady Capulet’s response – “talk not to me,
for I’ll not speak a word” (III.v.202) – denotes a speech-dependent act of
self-exclusion. Removed completely from this feminine communication network,
Lord Capulet’s attempts to control his daughter are continually undermined.

Shakespeare creates a sharp juxtaposition of male and female epistemological
forms throughout this scene through contrasting private and public space.


After the Capulets depart, Juliet
and the Nurse are alone and the bedchamber it is restored to the sanctity of
the female gossips’ space. Uninhibited speech is once again enabled. The Nurse
sets out a plan, encouraging Juliet to marry Paris, in speech tinged with the
indecorous tone of gossiping innuendo. She declares, “O, he’s a lovely
gentleman! /Romeo’s a dishclout compared to him” (III.v.219-20). This
comparison of men is a stereotypical depiction of ‘girl’s talk’. The focus is
not on making her parents happy, but Juliet’s own pleasure. Despite agreeing
with Lord Capulet, the Nurse could not say so in front of the patriarch – her
“gravity” depends upon the means of gossip. We see what Bernard Capp notes, that
“a woman’s best prospects generally lay in triggering the active support of her
gossips by working with the grain of community opinion, appealing
simultaneously to their compassion, solidarity and self-interest.”11
Gossiping offers women agency – in a world dictated by patriarchal hegemony,
female connections granted greater force in communities. A similar
contradiction between male and female speech is seen in the conflict between
Paulina and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale
about Perdita’s birth. Unlike the Nurse, Paulina offers a legitimate, validated
speech. Her version of the story, attesting to Hermione’s fidelity, is still disregarded
by Leontes because it stems from women’s talk. The transition to present Perdita
in court moves Paulina between symbolically gendered space, yet she has to
bring epistemologically feminine discourse. In discussion with Emilia, she


He must be told on’t, and he
shall. The office

Becomes a woman best; I’ll
tak’t upon me.12


Paulina recognises that she is
the only figure who can attempt to transfer knowledge between the two spheres,
having unique access, as Bicks notes, to “a maternal utterance and a paternal
Believing the child to be a bastard Leontes will not accept her story, and enraged,
refers to Paulina as “midwife” (II.iii.158). The word encapsulates all latent
male hostility towards feminine epistemology. Because Paulina denies Leontes’
narrative authority, he sees her tale as a narrative construction spun from idle
birth room talk. Having negotiated a chain of informants, Paulina’s knowledge
is presented at a series of removes. Leontes believes the baby to be Polixenes’
because he thinks he witnessed the affair. Unfailing belief in male authority
triumphs over Paulina’s feminine truth, simply because this truth stems from a
space from which man is denied. The conflict between the written masculine and
verbal feminine is extended through the trial scene. The establishment of
“sessions” (III.ii.1) over which Leontes presides denies idle chatter and upholds
official currents of discourse. It is significant that the indictment is read
from transcript, as written legislature is more reliable than the feminine oral.

The formal language which accuses Hermione, “thou art here accused and
arraigned / of high treason” (III.ii.13-4) is cold, using, as Pitcher notes,
“hostile, insulting pronouns”.14
It is formal, standing in stark contrast to the appeals made by Paulina, choosing
aggressive masculine reason over women’s plaintive discussions.


Two different, gendered
registers of epistemology are again demonstrated in Much Ado About Nothing. As the characters contrive to engineer love
between Beatrice and Benedick, they come up with a plan which depends upon gossip,
and which Shakespeare uses to demonstrate how this operates in male and female
spheres. In a mirrored pair of scenes in the orchard, first Don Pedro, Claudio
and Leonato talk in deliberate earshot of Benedick of Beatrice’s love for him;
in the next scene Hero and Ursula do the same about Benedick for Beatrice. The
fundamental difference in the two ploys regards the origins of the information framed.

In the male exchange, it is continually stressed that the information has come from
Hero: “you heard my daughter tell you how” (II.iii.111), “‘Tis true indeed, so
your daughter says” (II.iii.126). In fewer than eighty lines there are eight
references of this kind. In contrast, Hero and Ursula only mention their male
sources once, when Hero says “so says the prince and my newly-trothed lord”
(III.i.38). The emphasis upon
Hero as source reflects the anxiety of female conversation. More detail
is required because of the connection between female gossiping with unreliable
narratives. It also presents Hero as violating the sanctity of female space –
in relaying the information back to these men, she is disrupting gender and
spatial boundaries. As Claire Gueron notes, “Hero, like the biblical Eve, is the victim of a male
discourse positioning her as the transmitter of forbidden knowledge.”15 The
men are also complicit, but it is the woman who is denigrated. Even as the men
participate in the gossip that both the Nurse and Paulina were silenced over,
it remains female – troublesome because it is unregulated. Despite
the apparent reciprocity of male and female attempts to foster the relationship
of Beatrice and Benedick, the masculine account is supposed to be more


The masculine anxiety inherent within female talk is reflected in the
interactions within Shakespeare’s drama. Women gossiping becomes a site of
cultural agency, and for Shakespeare, the discursive female character offers a site of disruption. The
legitimacy of these voices is often questioned, reflecting an Early Modern
concern with epistemological authority. Despite male attempts to silence them,
however, their traces always remain, stretching back into an oral tradition of
collective cultural agency – as Hermione comes back to life at the close of The Winter’s Tale, Paulina’s tale is
validated, but only after the breach of sixteen year’s harm.


1 Ferdinando
Pulton, De pace regis et regni
(London, 1609), cited in M. Lindsay Kalpan, The
Culture of Slander in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1997).

2 Pulton
in Kalpan, p.21.

3 ‘Gossip,
n.’, Sense 1: ‘One who has contracted spiritual affinity with another by acting as a
sponsor at a baptism’, OED Online,
(entry first published 1900, accessed

4 Caroline
Bicks, Midwiving Subjects in
Shakespeare’s England (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), p.17.

5 ‘Gossip,
Open Source Shakespeare Concordance,
accessed on 24.10.17,

6 William
Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, ed.

John Drakakis, III.i.6-7 (London: Arden
Shakespeare, 2015). Further quotations from this text are given in brackets.

7 Drakakis
(ed.), p.280.

8 William
Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed.

Sukanta Chaudhuri (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2017). Further quotations from
this text are given in brackets.

9 Bicks,

10 William
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet,
III.v.170-1, III.v.172-4, ed. Rene Weis, (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2012). Further
quotations from this text are given in brackets.

11 Bernard
Capp, When Gossips Meet: Women, Family
and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2003), p.126.

12 William
Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, ed.

John Pitcher, II.ii.29-31, (London, Arden Shakespeare, 2010). Further
quotations from this text are given in brackets.

13 Bicks,

14 Pitcher
(ed.), p.222.

15 Claire
Gueron, ‘Rumour and Second-Hand Knowledge in Much Ado About Nothing’, pp.93-103
in The Circulation of Knowledge in Early
Modern English Literature, ed. Sophie Chiari, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate,
2015), p.102.