Higginbotham wins Sixteenth Century Literature Prize

January 22, 2019
Jennifer Higginbotham

By Avery Samuels

There are very few children in Shakespeare’s work. Excluding the occasional infant, and capping the age at tween—thereby excusing Romeo and Juliet and their teenage peers—there are only a handful of actual children. And even when children are included, their roles are often cut for the sake of conciseness. So what is the point of including them in the first place? Jennifer Higginbotham, an associate professor who specializes in Renaissance and early modern women’s literature within the English department, was plagued by this question as she wrapped up her 2013 book about young girls in Renaissance drama, The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Sisters.

There was one girl in particular that continued to haunt Higginbotham long after she first began writing about her in 2008, during the initial research for the book. This girl can be found in one of Shakespeare's best-known works, yet she has a total of seven lines and is often cut from the play entirely. Ultimately, Higginbotham’s ideas about this child never found their way into her book, and so she channeled her fascination into an article.

The girl’s role is “Clarence’s Daughter” from Richard III, a character based on the real-life figure of Margaret Pole, a Catholic martyr and one of the most tenacious women of her time. Higginbotham’s article “Finding Margaret (Pole)” recently won the Sixteenth Century Society Conference Literature Prize.

For those unfamiliar with the play, the plot follows Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as he amasses power for himself in an effort to ascend to the throne and become King Richard III. Along the way, he executes his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, for treason, and Clarence’s children, including young Margaret, are disinherited. Disgusted by the actions of her uncle, who intends to marry her off to a “mean” man, Margaret echoes the voices of the adults around her in a call for vengeance against Richard.

Although her role is minor, audiences at the time would have probably known who Margaret Pole, née “Clarence’s daughter,” was. “Because she went on to become so well known, and became a martyr,” says Higginbotham, “ it seemed likely that the audience would have been aware of who she was in the future.” Higginbotham’s interpretation of Margaret’s inclusion in the play is complex, and it is relevant both to Richard III’s history as well as the subsequent, more widely known Tudor monarchs who replaced him: Henry VII, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

Higginbotham says, “I argue that what you have in little Margaret is a reminder of the house that the Tudors displaced and the inevitability in the forthcoming years that the Tudor line was going to die out, so there's this reminder of past wrongs as well as a warning that future wrongs are possible.” Audiences, she hypothesizes, would have watched this play about a monarch they knew to be long dead, who belonged to a house that had been firmly displaced, only to be reminded that the surviving member of this house was a daughter and that she had been known to them as a martyr. It would have also reminded audiences that the reigns of the Tudors, or at least the first two of them, were just as bloody as the reigns of previous monarchs and houses.

Higginbotham says that, in order to achieve her specific and refined conclusion about Margaret’s character, and to argue it as convincingly as possible, her article had to undergo a number of revisions. “It was also rejected at least three times,” she says. “I like to tell my graduate students: don't give up, keep working on [your writing], send it back out. There's no shame in rejection. It'll be better in the end. And it turned out to be really, really true for [this article] because it was more in-depth, and I think the reading had the benefit of so much feedback.”

She enlisted several colleagues from the Department of English to read her work and give feedback that ultimately shaped the paper. Chris Highley, Hannibal Hamlin and Richard Dutton in particular assisted the project in its early stages.

“It's never very easy to say something entirely important or original about Shakespeare, so much already having been written,” Professor Dutton says. “But this essay is a masterclass in how it can be done, finding a small, barely noticed feature of a text even as well-known as Richard III and demonstrating its actual resonance. Jen does this by mixing a variety of approaches: she is very attentive to nuances in the early texts (the early quartos and the later First Folio), where she sees subtle but significant differences in how the small role registers, and following this through in the work of later editors, but also engaging with modern scholarship about boy actors and how their roles were doubled.” Part of her paper features analysis of the doubling of certain characters, keeping in mind that these roles for women and girls would have been played by young boys who probably had more than one role; i.e. Margaret Pole might have also been played by the boy who was the dowager queen Margaret.

In addition to helping with edits, Chris Highley also supplied the illustrations of Magaret that Higginbotham used in her paper. “Jen's award is richly deserved and recognizes her exciting work at intersection of Shakespeare studies and women's history,” Highley says. “Jen's article shows how the supposedly 'minor' character of Margaret is not only integral to the major themes of Richard III, but could also provoke complex and often uncomfortable associations in early audiences. Jen's essay reminds students and scholars alike that Shakespeare's plays remain full of interpretive possibilities and that a kind of archaeological attention to apparently small or insignificant details in texts can yield striking insights.”

Robyn Warhol, the chair of the Department of English, says, “It’s wonderful that Professor Higginbotham’s research has been honored by the other experts in her field who gave her this award. Her work is important for helping us see the women in the Renaissance who are still invisible in so many studies of literature and history. She is also an award-winning teacher, and this prize emphasizes how lucky we are to have her in the English department.”

Higginbotham came across the Sixteenth Century Journal by way of the Sixteenth Century Society Conference, her “absolute favorite academic conference.” Interdisciplinary but not overwhelmingly so, the conference is frequented by scholars of history, English, the history of art, Italian, French and more. The journal is attached to the conference, and the award is presented there every year after an academic committee assesses all of the journal’s annual publications. Because of its close relationship to the conference, the journal is a mixture of literary scholarship and historical scholarship—perfect for Higginbotham, since “Finding Margaret (Pole)” is a literary argument made in the historical context of Margaret Plantagenet’s reputation and legacy.

Hannibal Hamlin, also a Shakespearean scholar, understands how significant of a win this is. “To have an article published in SCJ is already an achievement. They receive around 150 submissions annually and publish only about 25 (in 2017, the year Jen's piece came out, there were 27)… The article is deeply rooted in the historical context, but it also depends upon careful close reading, and it's remarkable for opening up so much in so famous a play by focusing on one neglected detail. And of course it's another argument for the importance of girls (‘Girl Power,’ in the popular phrase Jen plays with in her book).”

Promoting Girl Power is an imporant aspect of this research for Higginbotham. “As you learn more,” she says, “you can really unpack the idea that there’s a history that isn’t always told there,” lurking in Shakespeare’s lines. One of her favorite things about this research is the language itself, and how Clarence’s daughter’s seven lines have a powerful and historical depth of meaning. In addition to analyzing the language, Higginbotham’s other favorite thing about researching topics like these is, simply, the women themselves. By this she means both historical women and female characters. She takes pleasure in finding out about their rich and complex private lives, especially in cases where the structure of the play and contemporary analysis writes them off as unimportant.

Margaret Pole survived the death of her father and her two uncle-kings. She survived the imprisonment and death of her younger brother at the hands of Henry VII, who also married her to his cousin, Sir Richard Pole. When he died, she became a widow with five children, and she had neither money nor prospects for several years, during which time she devoted her son Reginald to the church and caused a splinter in their relationship that would never fully heal. Margaret Pole was brought to and banished from court repeatedly. She raised herself up out of nothing and returned to favor when Henry VIII ascended to the throne. Eventually, she was executed, but not before she made a name for herself as a Catholic martyr (indeed, she was later beatified by Pope Leo XIII). She was a force to be reckoned with.

“If she were here in this room right now,” Higginbotham says, laughing, “I would want to ask her for financial advice because she became one of the richest landowners in England. So I would want to give her my 401k and have her tell me what to do. She would just come in and organize my life.”