Playwrights and Plagiarists in Early Modern England: Gender, Authorship, Literary Property
Passage of the first copyright law in 1710 marked a radical change in the perception of authorship. According to Laura J. Rosenthal, the new construction of the author as the owner of literary property bore different consequences for women than for men, for amateurs than for professionals, and for playwrights than for other authors. Rosenthal explores distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate forms of literary appropriation in drama from 1650 to 1730. In considering the alleged plagiarists Margaret Cavendish (the Duchess of Newcastle), Aphra Behn, John Dryden, Colley Cibber, and Susanna Centlivre, Rosenthal maintains that accusations had less to do with the degree of repetition in texts than with the gender of the authors and the cultural location of the plays. Questions of literary property, then, became not just legal matters but part of a discourse aimed at conferring or withholding cultural authority. Struggles over literary property must be seen in the context of competing conceptions of property in general, Rosenthal asserts, and she shows how both Filmerian and Lockean models gender the position of the owner. Drawing on feminist theory and from scholarship in history, philosophy, and political science, Rosenthal debates the relationship between women and property in modern England. Gender and class, she contends, continue to influence judgments as to what stories a playwright can own or use, as to whom critics praise as heirs to Shakespeare and Jonson, and as to whom they damn as plagiarists.
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