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The Convent of Pleasure

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Originally published


Margaret Cavendish

Observations upon experime, The Blazing World, Select poems of Margaret, Paper Bodies: A Margaret, Grounds of Natural Philosophy

Scenes from the convent of pleasure by margaret cavendish

The Convent of Pleasure is a closet drama and example of an Early Modern text written by a woman. The playwright was Margaret Cavendish and the play was published under her own name in 1668, though two passages in the play are credited to her husband. The Convent of Pleasure is a play about a group of unmarried women who choose to avoid the pains of men and marriage by creating their own community. The main characters of this play are Lady Happy, the Monsieurs, and the Princess, a cross-dressing prince who joins Lady Happy's convent and woos her.


Act I

Scene 1: Several gentlemen resolve to woo the newly-wealthy Lady Happy.

Scene 2: Lady Happy and Madam Mediator engage in a lengthy philosophical discourse on pleasure and marriage. Lady Happy resolves to use her wealth to live encloistered with unmarried women according to principles of pleasure. She closes her discourse with a poem imagining their delight.

Act II

Scene 1: The gentlemen lament Lady Happy’s decision and scheme to force her out. On Madam Mediator’s advice, they resolve to petition the State to force her out.

Scene 2: Lady Happy describes to Madam Mediator in lush detail how much she and her ladies are enjoying their life in the convent.

Scene 3: Madam Mediator talks to two married woman (one of whom is Lady Vertue) about a princess who has just joined the convent. The married women wish they could experience the convent’s pleasures, but Madam Mediator tells them its delights are unimaginable.

Scene 4: The men scheme again to force the women out of the convent, then scheme to sneak in. They banter wittily, but with an edge of violence and innuendo to their conversation. They decide to disguise themselves as working-class women to enter.


Scene 1: The Princess asks to “act Lovers-parts” in male attire with Lady Happy, who gladly agrees.

Scenes 2 through 9: A play-within-a-play is staged, presenting the various woes of marriage (infidelity, domestic violence) and pregnancy.

Scene 10: The play concludes. The Princess expresses mild disapproval, saying that more people are happy in their marriages than are unhappy. The gentlemen conclude that the convent cannot be dissolved.

Act IV

Scene 1: Lady Happy wanders sadly dressed as a shepherdess, feeling that her love for Princess is too much. The Princess arrives dressed as a Shepherd and they affirm their love, embrace, and kiss. There is a pastoral scene: another shepherd woos Lady Happy in iambic pentameter couplets but is rejected; the Princess woos Lady Happy in iambic trimeter couplets and is accepted; there is a dance with a prize awarded to the best dancers, who “happen to be” Lady Happy and the Princess. The pastoral scene closes with verses indicated to be written by Margaret Cavendish’s husband.

At the conclusion of the pastoral scene, the Princess soliloquizes, resolving to remain with Lady Happy rather than return to the masculine outside world.

Lady Happy is again melancholy about the extent of her love; Madam Mediator notes it, but the Princess insists that Lady Happy is as lovely as ever.

An extended water-nymph scene begins: the Princess, dressed as Neptune, and Lady Happy, dressed as a sea goddess, sit surrounded by sea-nymphs and describe in iambic tetrameter couplets their rule over the ocean and their luxurious underwater kingdom. A sea nymph sings a song.

Act V

Scene 1: Lady Happy and the Princess arrive at a dance together, with the Princess dressed in masculine apparel. Madam Mediator arrives and announces that a prince is in disguise within the convent. The Princess calmly expects to be above suspicion, but an ambassador arrives, kneels at the Princess’s feet, and reports that their kingdom is planning invade the kingdom under the suspicion that their prince has been kidnapped. The Prince(ss) announces: “since I am discover'd, go from me to the Councellors of this State, and inform them of my being here, as also the reason, and that I ask their leave I may marry this Lady; otherwise, tell them I will have her by force of Arms,” but promises to leave the rest of the convent intact.

Scene 2 (written by the Duke): Madam Mediator weeps to the gentlemen of the town that the reputation of the convent has been destroyed by the discovery of a man within its walls. She says that she had noticed an unusual closeness between Lady Happy and the Princess but didn’t mention it. There is some innuendo mocking Madam Mediator's sexual appetite. She asks the gentleman to keep the Princess’s sex a secret and not to mention her as the source of the information; they tell her that the news is already broadly known.

Scene 3: Lady Happy and the Prince are married. They dance. Lady Happy addresses Lady Vertue to talk about her fool, Mimick, who banters with her and the Prince. The Prince promises to maintain the convent for virgins and widows. After a comic false start, Mimick delivers an epilogue asking for praise.


The Convent of Pleasure's heroine, Lady Happy, begins the play firmly positioned within the heterosexual, reproductive economy. But she soon launches a resistance. As an "extream handsome, young, rich, and virtuous woman" who also happens to be an heiress, she is a valuable commodity in the multiple senses of the term. When she announces her intention to "incloister" herself from the "World," Lady Happy angers the patriarchy by taking her body and her possessions out of circulation (p. 3). She founds an institution open only to women on the margins of the patriarchy: maids and widows. Unlike the Female Academy, which expresses defiance through its architecture only, the convent's discourse reinforces its separatist stance. Lady Happy's rhetoric celebrates the convent's paradoxical walled freedom, refashioning marriage into the true cloister. "Marriage to those that are virtuous is a greater restraint than a Monastery," she insists (p. 3). Her incloistered women even stage a convent drama that depicts the physical and emotional pains of being a wife, redirecting female desires toward other spheres (pp. 24–30). Because the convent rejects marriage, it threatens larger political contexts. Monsieur Facil voices a masculinist conflation of family and state; when he hears of Lady Happy's retreat, he declares, "Let us see the Clergy to perswade her out, for the good of the Commonwealth" (p. 11).

Cavendish suggests the convent's pleasures are inaccessible, and even inconceivable to those positioned within the patriarchy. When Monsieur Courtly asks, "But is there no place where we may peak into the Convent?" Monsieur Adviser replies, "No, there are no Grates, but Brick and Stone-walls" (p. 19). Grates are absent by Lady Happy's decree, making her institution more insulated than the Female Academy, where perforated walls enable limited exchange. The convent is sealed not only from men, but from wives as well. As married women, Lady Amorous and Lady Virtue can only wonder about the delights within the convent. Their only glimpse of the convent comes through Madame Mediator, a widow who occupies a position inside and outside both the patriarchy and the convent. Madame Mediator has a limited capacity to describe the convent's rituals and pleasures to those firmly ensconced within the patriarchal economy: men, wives, and sometimes even the play's readers. But Madame Mediator's discourse provides only partial access to the utopian cloister. When Lady Virtue exclaims, "Well might I wish I might see and know, what Pleasures they enjoy," Madame Mediator responds, "If you were there, you could not know all their Pleasure in a short time, for their Varieties will require a long time to know their several Changes" (p. 17). Here, the widow's language is enticingly vague, suggesting the convent's "Varieties" of pleasure are unimaginable to those doomed to live outside its walls.


The Convent of Pleasure Wikipedia

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