Playing inside The Convent of Pleasure Manju Sivasankar
In Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure, the ladies of the convent watch a play as a way to pass time. In this “play within a play,” occurring during the third act of Convent of Pleasure, interesting ideas about the status quos surfaced and are questioned. The play within the play mainly addresses the hardships of being a married woman via two major situations, the indiscretions of men and the horrifics of childbirth. It is an object lesson on married life, and a warning to its audience.
In the first situation, the women (actors) discuss their husbands’ harmful habits concerning money, affairs, etc. For instance, two women converse about their husbands explicating that they were spending all their money drinking, resulting in their families to starve and suffer. They also mention that even if they attempt to hinder them:
Second Woman: We shall be both beaten by them. First Woman: I care not: for I will not suffer him to be drunk. (3.2)
The two women reveal that despite their willingness to try and stop their husbands from spending all their money, they are certain yet blasé that they will be beaten for it. In a later scene, another lady laments that “my Husband hath play’d all his Estate away at Dice and Cards, even to the Clothes on his back...[he] hath not only lost his own Estate, but also my Portion...so that I must beg for my living” (3.4). The women highlight that while they are forced to suffer and endeavor to care for their families and themselves, their husbands are carelessly spending away their money. The play within the play emphasizes the struggle that married women go through, specifically with their husbands.
Furthermore, the women discuss the pains of childbirth, and the anguish it causes. The first instance of this concept is a concise scene where a lady bemoans her sickness while a maid assures her that she is only pregnant. Despite this, the lady is not pleased (3.3). Later on, the lady returns, exclaiming, “Oh! my Child is dead, my Child is dead…who can have patience to lose their only Child? who can!”(3.5) Here, there is the implication that something has gone terribly wrong, for the scene depicts the lady being confused and terrified and the Maid, being passive about the whole situation. This reveals that, while the incident seems confusing and horrifying, it could have been considered “normal” for women to go through. Later on in the play within the play, the scenes depict a lady in labor, waiting for a midwife; however, the midwife is “with another Lady...she hath been with a Lady that hath been in strong labour these three days of a dead child, and ‘tis thought she cannot be delivered” (3.7-9). Despite the implications of this, when the midwife arrives they still usher her into the Lady’s room to help with the birth. These scenes portray the pain and struggle behind childbirth.
The play within the play highlights these struggles that most married women at the time had to face. Not only does it allow the ladies of the convent to express their views towards married life, but also further solidifies their beliefs. By presenting the hardships of married life, specifically through the venues of childbirth and husbands' bad habits, the ladies could be increasingly influenced into remaining in the convent and continuing to abstain from marriage and their social lives.