- While the term Renaissance was once regarded almost exclusively by cultural historians in terms of an epoch of humanist learning and courtly or aristocratic writing, its boundaries, temporal and ideological, are in the process of being re-mapped by New Historicist, Cultural Materialist, feminist and post-colonial critics. More materially based criticism has stressed social and political discontinuities, tensions and ruptures rather than the coherence and order which were associated with an earlier idealist criticism. The perpetuation of literary styles and forms has warranted a broader application of the cultural concept of Renaissance. Despite the obvious changes in the aesthetic and ideological assumptions during the late Tudor and early Stuart period, the term Renaissance in England is now commonly perceived as extending to the early decades of the seventeenth-century. At the same time, the canon of Renaissance literature has expanded to include texts which would not formerly have been judged literary, while familiar texts have been re-appraised in the light of different ideologies of power and gender. A broader, culturally hybrid and less socially exclusive analysis of the English literary Renaissance is amenable to a study of contemporaneous women's writing. The writings of women, whether religious, popular, humanist or courtly, had in the mid sixteenth to early seventeenth century at least one common aspect: women writers represented in their work an alternative culture which ran alongside the dominant culture and in writing as some did with a view to publication, they were transgressing boundaries.
- 'I perceive that learned women be suspected of many', wrote Juan Luis Vives in his Instructions of a Christian Woman (Vives 1529, D2v). Vives is here articulating just one of the cultural assumptions which inhibited women's reading and, by extension, writing during the Renaissance. In positioning women as subjects, male humanists such as Vives, Erasmus, Thomas More, Thomas Elyot and Roger Ascham held comparatively advanced views on the education of women, specifically noblewomen; nonetheless the aim of female learning was narrowly perceived as personal cultivation rather than the acquisition of formal skills. 1 In Instructions of a Christian Woman, Vives's declared purpose is to provide 'precepts and rules howe to lyve' (Vyves 1529, B1r) and his emphasis accordingly is on the practical application of knowledge in the constitution of a moral and pious life. Women were excluded from rhetorical training on the assumption that its performative element conflicted with notions of female decorum. Reading material was carefully regulated. Certain works - including, for example, romance literature, with its emphasis on knightly conduct - should be prohibited, for 'it can not lightly be a chaste mayde that is occupied with thynknge on armour' (Vives 1529, E3r-E3v). Instructions of a Christian Woman was commissioned by Catherine of Aragon for her daughter Mary, later Mary Tudor, but ideas directed at royal and aristocratic learning filtered gradually through to other social classes as the work became a popular conduct book, reaching its ninth edition in 1592.
- Conduct books, aimed primarily at a middle-class audience, also reiterated the end to which female learning was to be directed. Thomas Salter's translation in 1579 of Gian Michele Bruto's La Institutione di una Fanciulla Nate Nobilmente as the Mirrhor of Modestie stresses the acquisition of the traditional female virtues of chastity, piety and humility. In the inculcation of male constructs of female virtue, the Bible, the teachings of the Church fathers and narratives of virtuous women are judged appropriate reading material. Philosophy, poetry and rhetoric are considered inappropriate studies, as they may produce self-expression, seduce women away from simple Christian truths and activate a desire to participate in the public world. In these contexts, Bruto reserves his greatest opprobrium for romantic, chivalric fiction and plays.
- In 1582 Thomas Bentley, a lawyer of Gray's Inn, assembled a collection of both male and female authored texts, The Monument of Matrones, which is illuminating because it exemplifies the texts specifically judged fit for a female readership. In his Introduction Bentley stresses female piety and natural subordination. The argument is once more supported by recourse to the Scriptures, but here Bentley is tellingly selective. He omits two verses from his Pauline texts (I Corinthians 11: 11-12) which stress the independence and even equality of men and women. As Suzanne Hull has commented, this is an example of the power of omission used to affirm the idea of submissiveness (Hull 1982, 141). The selection of devotional works, prayers, pious meditations and Biblical extracts is premised on the understanding that this celebration of female piety from different ages corresponds with norms of current female virtue in which all women should rejoice.
- We should not necessarily see as homologous exhortatory patriarchal discourse and female practice. The link between dominant cultural assumptions about learning and gender, as manifested most frequently in writing by men, and contemporaneous writing by women is at best tenuous. In the Renaissance, reading material was proscribed for both men and women and whilst women's entry into writing and into print was sometimes apologetic and cautious, the same could be said of male authors who apologized for publication or, by circulating their works in manuscript, disdained it altogether. Nevertheless, a sense of feminine literary decorum and the limits placed upon female education did contribute to the genres and subjects of women's literature during the early Renaissance. This consciousness, for example, would have precluded women from contributing to an emergent popular vernacular literature, primarily expressed in drama and prose fiction. Women's initial entry into print was largely through translation, a medium which allowed the female voice to co-exist with that of the original author. But the choice of text for translation, for instance John Jewel's An Apologie or answere in defence of the the Churche in England undertaken by Anne Cooke in 1564, could be a politically controversial one (Beilin 1987, 55). In other genres, women writers were more obviously obliged to negotiate inventively the restraints, formal, social and moral, imposed upon them. Such strategies might take the form of a challenge to the authority of male readings of the scriptures. Another technique was the appropriation of the modesty topos. The apologetic or self-deprecating idiom of several of the texts which will be considered needs to be read at other than face value. Paradoxically, to draw attention to a lack of learning or seemingly to acquiesce in patriarchal notions of female inferiority could disarm the male reader and prove an enabling device for the publication of women's writing.
- The term 'Renaissance', despite its familiar associations, nevertheless embodies a period of change rather than one which is culturally monolithic. Social and political conditions in Jacobean England seem to a limited degree less constrictive towards female literary discourse. In the early seventeenth-century women appropriated the hitherto male-authored genres of romance, the love sonnet, political tragedy and polemical writing. Distinctions between the works of women in the early and the late Renaissance periods respectivly can, however, be misleading when the writing of women outside or on the margins of the dominant discourse is considered. Going beyond culturally sanctioned writing practices, Anne Askew, Margaret Tyler and Isabel Whitney produced respectively a religious testimony, the translation of a romance and popular poetry.
- The radicalism of Anne Askew (1521-46) is apparent in her Protestant conversion, her resistance to her Catholic landowner husband, Thomas Kyme, and in her autobiographical record of opposition to the Henrican backlash against the reformers. When Kyme evicted her from the family home, Askew removed to London where she petitioned unsuccessfully for divorce and became associated with the Protestant Reformist circle of Catherine Parr, Henry VIII's sixth wife. The King's break with Rome and the suppression of the monasteries had not entailed changes to Catholic doctrine itself and in 1539 this position was reinforced by the Act of Six Articles which decreed severe penalties for denying the doctrine of transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, private masses and auricular confessions (Dickens 1964, 173). First examined for heresy in 1545 concerning her refusal to accept Catholic doctrine in respect of the sacraments, Askew was released because of insufficient evidence. She was examined and released a second time before her final gruelling imprisonment in the Tower. Askew was subjected to intensive interrogation and, contrary to the usual understanding that women should not be tortured, was racked in an attempt to make her recant and incriminate Protestant women at court. Not only did Askew remain steadfast, but she left a remarkable written account of her interrogations and her spirited refutations of the charges made against her, and through her unwavering assertions of belief she presents a powerful self-portrait. The First Examinacyon of the worthy Servant of God Mistresse Anne Askewe (1546) and The lattre examinacyon of the worthye servaunt of God mastres Anne Askewe (1547) conform to no easily identifiable genre. They are part diary, part spiritual autobiography and part testimonial; as Askew records the questionings of her interlocutors and her responses, the texts also exhibit a dramatic quality derived from their origins in oral discourse.
- Askew's testimonies of her examinations were published with an Introduction, interpolations - classified as 'elucydacyon'- and summaries written by the Protestant bishop and polemical playwright John Bale. Bale, in his address to the Christian readers of the First Examinacyon, valorizes Anne Askew's faith, whilst citing the commonplace argument that the strength of God is vindicated through the use of such a weak vessel:
- ...concernynge her, it may wele be sayde, that Paul verifyeth 2 Cor 12. The strength of God is here made perfyght by weaknesse. When she semed most feble, than was she most stronge. And gladlye she rejoyced in the weakenesse, that Christes power might strongelye dwell in her. Thus choseth the lorde, the foolish of this worlde to confound the wyse, and the weake to deface the myghtye.
(Askew 1564, 9v)
Bale's displays of scripturalism are, however, technically surpassed by Anne Askew's skilful use of Biblical statement, language and metaphor, with which she records her examinations at the hands of the bishops. Throughout her interrogation on matters of doctrine and of religious practice, Askew reclaims Biblical teaching in advocating the Protestant position. She is questioned on the truth of a statement which she is alleged to have made, that she would rather read 'fyve lynes in the Bible, than to heare fyve masses in the temple'. In answer, she begins by cleverly and boldly subverting the question:
- I confessed, that I sayd no lesse. Not for the dysprayse of either the Epistle or Gospell. But because the one ded greatly edyfye me, and the other nothinge at all. As Saynt Paul doth witnesse in the xiiii chaptre of his first Epistle to the Cor where as he doth say If the trumpe geveth an uncertaine sounde, who will prepare hymselfe to the battayle?
(Askew 1546, 3)
Later in the text, she records that she is rebuked by the Bishop's chancellor 'for uttering the scriptures when St Paul had forbidden women to speake or talke of the worde of God'. Here, she uses her more refined interpretation of the Epistles to correct her accuser:
- I answered hym that I knewe Pauls meaninge so well as he, which is I Corothians xiiii, that a woman ought not to speake in the congregacyon by the waye of teachinge. And then I asked hym, how many women he had seane, go into the pulpett and preach. He sayde, he never saw none. Then I sayd, he ought to find no faulte in poore women, except they had offended the lawe.
(Askew 1545, 10r-10v)
In drawing this scriptural and legal distinction, Askew argues the weakness of the case against her and her innocence in the face of Biblical authority. Later, when asked by the Bishop of London why she has so few words, she skilfully appropriates in her own defence the frequently cited cultural ideal of the silent women: 'I aunswered, God hath given to me the gift of knowledge, but not of utterance. And Solomon sayth, that a woman of few words, is a gift of God' (Askew 1546, C4v).
- Repeatedly, Askew outwits the divines with her verbal skills. In the first Examinacyon she is questioned obliquely on the Catholic sacrament of Confession and on the status of the individual 'conscience'. In advocating the exposure of conscience to priestly counsel, the Bishop of London employs the simile of a wound, which must be revealed to the surgeon before he can act. Askew takes up the image and in response implicitly rejects confession: 'I answered that my conscience was clere in all thinges. And for to laye a playstre unto the whole skynne, it might appear moche folye' (Askew 1545, 23v). In the second Examinacyon she is relentlessly interrogated on the doctrine of transubstantiation, and, in her refutation, argues with sophistication that it rests on a selective literalism. If the communion bread is indeed the body of Christ, she asks, why are not other Biblical metaphors so literally transformed? 'Ye maye not here (sayd I) take Christe for the materyall thynge that he is syngnfyed by. For than ye wyll make hym a verye dore, a vyne, a lampe, and a stone, cleane conttarye to the holye Ghostes meanynge' (Askew 1546, 21). There is a lightness of tone in the economical rejection of a doctrine which fuelled the major controversies of the Reformation.
- The formal recall of dialogue in Askew's text gives it an immediacy of impact as well as a dramatic quality. Further, as she narrates the locations and conditions of her examination, the reader becomes conscious of the narrative of persecution. In the second Examinacyon, as the interrogation intensifies, Askew includes her meditations on the scriptures. Her circumstances change. She is removed from Newgate prison to the Tower. Her scorn for her questioners deepens: 'Master Ryche and the Bishopp of London with all their power and flatteringe wordes were about to persuade me from God. But I ded not esteme their glosynge pretences.' Later, on refusing to betray her female co-religionists, she records dispassionately:
- Then they ded put me on the racke, by cause I confessed no ladyes nor gentyllwomen to be of my opynyon, and theron they kepte me a longe tyme. And because I laye styll and ded not crye my Lord Chauncellor and mastre Ryche, toke peynes to racke me their owne handes, tyll I was nygh dead
(Askew 1546, 45).
The same stoical resilience is present in the ballad which Askew wrote and apparently sang when she was imprisoned in Newgate and which is printed after her prayer of forgiveness for those who have committed violence against her. Here Askew represents herself as the Christian knight with faith as both shield and weapon. The armour of faith - a popular image, culled from Paul's letter to the Ephesians - enables her to go amongst her foes:
- Faythe in the fathers olde
Whych make me verye bolde.
To feare no worldes dystresse.
I now rejoyce in hart
And hope byd me do so
For Christ wyll take my part
And ease me of my wo
(Askew 1546, 63-4).
The masculine imagery of crusading gives way to feminine as Askew draws attention to her testamentary act of writing:
- I am not she that lyst
My anker to lete fall
For everye dryslynge myst
My shyppe substancyall
Not oft use I to wryght
In prose nor yet in ryme,
Yet wyll I shewe one syght
That I sawe in my tyme.
I sawe a ryall trone
Where Justyce shuld have sytt,
But in her stede was one
Of modye2 cruell wytt
Absorpt was ryghtwysnesse
As of the ragynge floude,
Sathan in hys excesse,
Sucte up the gyltlesse bloude
(Askew 1546, 63-4 and Travitsky 1989, 185-6)
Askew defines her political act of defiance as a record of oppression which she feels impelled to make; she is determined to authenticate 'one syght' of her time. The verbal skills and the depth of knowlege revealed in the text, not to mention the evidence of physical and mental endurance, make the Examinacyons remarkable literary texts and historical documents. In the very act and manner of recording her experiences and convictions, Askew repudiates all conventional notions of woman's physical and moral frailty and intellectual inferiority.
- Anne Askew's direct, self-conscious style is reflected in the poetry of Isabella Whitney, who, uniquely for a woman in this period, wrote and published popular poetry. Whitney produced two collections, Copy of a letter, lately written in meeter, by a Yonge Gentilwoman to her unconstant lover (1567) and A sweet Nosegay,or pleasant Posye, contayninge a hundred and ten Phylosophicall Flower (1573). She may also have contributed, as the only female poet, to two popular anthologies published by Richard Jones, the publisher of The Copy of a Letter (Fehrenbach 1981, 85-87). In one of her verse epistles attached to A Sweet Nosegay and addressed to her sister, Whitney draws attention to her single state, which enables her writing: 'But til some household cares me tye/ My bookes and Pen I wyll apply' (Whitney 1573, D2r). The poetry often appears semi-autobiographical as Whitney alludes to economic hardship through loss of employment, personal illness and family relationships. Since so little is known of her life, however, the autobiographical constructions may serve as a different form of modesty topos.
- The Copy of a Letter is interesting as an example of love poetry which is neither courtly nor neo-Platonic, written from a female perspective. In form, the poem is loosely modelled on Ovid's Heroides, which comprised verse epistles written between legendary lovers, a genre later adopted by Aphra Behn. In Whitney's verse, the female voice is by turns jocular, teasing and sceptical, far removed from the plaintive tones of the dominant cultural form of male-authored Petrarchan love poetry. Whitney's female persona, in popular ballad metre, addresses a former lover who she has heard is to marry another. The poet seems to want to test the authenticity of the lover's vows made to her and to others:
- And if you cannot be content
to lead a single lyfe.
(Although the same right quiet be)
then take me to your wife.
So shall the promises be kept,
that you so firmly made:
Now chuse whether ye wyll be true,
Or be of SINONS trade.
(Travitsky 1989, 118-9).
There follows a catalogue of unfaithful or destructive male lovers, Aeneas, Theseus, Jason and Paris, punctuated by allusion to the faithful Troilus, but without any of the customary misogynistic references to Cressida. The woman would like to cast the lover as Troilus, setting the ideal imaginary against the probable reality; but she is resigned to rejection, so long as she knows the truth:
And unto me a Troylus be,
if not you may compare:
With any of these parsons that
above expressed are.
But if I can not please your mind
for wants that rest in me:
Wed whom you list, I am content,
your refuse for to be
(Travitsky 1989, 118-20)
Part of the interest and appeal of the poem lies in the ambiguous situation to which it alludes. The relationships, past and present, appear deliberately underwritten as the reliability of all words, including rumours and vows, is questioned. Despite the commonplace appeal to mythical lovers, there is a freshness and unconventionality in the voice of the unself-pitying subject.
- In A Sweet Nosegay, Whitney's second published collection of verse, the poet's voice is more obviously derivative. Whitney's dedication to George Mainwaring contains an apology for her borrowings: 'Though they be of anothers growing, yet considering they be of my owne gathering and makeing up: respect my labour and regard my good wil' (Whitney 1573, A4v). The dedication is followed by a prose and verse address to the reader. In the first she plays on the association of 'nosegay' as a protection against infection, but then disclaims any similar powers for her own poetic garnering. The verse epistle takes the form of autobiography, as Whitney, still drawing on the imagery of harvesting, alludes to her unemployment, illness and subsequent preoccupations:
- This harvest tyme, I harvestlesse
and servicelesse also:
And subject unto sicknesse, that
abrode I could not go.
Had leasure good, (though learning lackt)
some study to apply:
To reade such Bookes, whereby I thought
my selfe to edyfye.
(Whitney 1573, A5v)
Yet she self-deprecatingly dismisses the scholarly disciplines as 'past this head of mine' and turns instead to popular poetic, from which she culls her verse maxims and moralizings. Later in the collection, however, she recovers her own voice in the verse epistles she directs to her brothers, sister and cousin and, most strikingly, in the long poem her 'Wyll and Testament' (Whitney 1980, 76-95), in which, making London her executor, she rhetorically takes her leave of the city.
- The poem's originality lies in its anthropomorphic and phantasmagoric evocation of London occasioned by the poet's wish to make various bequests to the city and its inhabitants:
- I first of all to London leave
because I there was bred:
Brave buildyngs rare, of Churches store,
And Pauls to the head....
I Goldsmithes leave, with Juels such,
as are for Ladies meete.
And Plate to furnysh Cubbards with,
full brave there shall you finde:
With Purle of Silver and of Golde,
to satisfye your minde.
(Whitney 1980, 84-6).
After describing in lively and ironic detail the various merchandise she will leave to the already wealthy city - fashionable clothes, boots, shoes, artillery, luxury foods, wines, medicines and the specific places where they can be sought - Whitney turns to the city's underclass, the criminals, the alleged lunatics of Bedlam, debtors and prisoners. To the debtors' prison, Ludgate, she initially decides to leave nothing because, she reasons in a moment of realism, she will need to keep a place there for herself while she lives:
- I am not now in case to lye,
here is no place of jest:
I dyd reserve, that for my selfe,
if I my health possest.
And ever came in credit so
A debtor for to bee.
When dayes of paiment did approach,
I thither ment to flee.
(Whitney 1980, 90).
The irony deepens as, reminding herself that no one is likely to offer her any credit and that she will therefore have no need of Ludgate, she decides to leave the prison a legacy of some bankrupts. The fantastic endowments completed, the poet's impecunious condition is now revealed, as she declares that she has no money for her own burial:
- And though I nothing named have,
to bury me withall:
Consider that above the ground,
annoyance bee I shall.
And let me have a shrowding Sheete
to cover mee from shame:
And in oblivyon bury mee
and never more mee name
Ringings nor other Ceremonies,
use you not for cost:
Nor at my buriall, make no feast,
your money were but lost.
(Whitney 1980, 93)
The desire for self-erasure is contrasted with Whitney's earlier references in the poem, first to the bequest she would like to make to her printer and then to her books, which she wills her friends to buy. Whitney's feminism is apparent in the way she fashions herself as independent and free-thinking and establishes her identity through authorship.
- In the act of writing and publishing popular verse, Whitney was breaking the bounds of both her class and sex. A similarly transgressive act was A mirrour of princely deedes and knighthood, a translation by Margaret Tyler of the first part of a Spanish romance by Diego Ortunez de Calahorra. The novelty of Tyler's work lay in her choice of the romance, a genre which, with its valorizing of sexual love, was viewed as risqu� reading for women. Moreover, the lengthy translation is accompanied by a purposeful prefatory letter which is highly revealing about the restrictions imposed on female literary production (Travitsky 1989, 144-46). In an aside, Tyler comments that, amongst her ill-wishers, she hopes that there will be none who would wish her 'either not to write or to write of divinitie', but then adds, perhaps in mock self-deprecation, that she cannot comprehend such controversies. She draws attention to an apparent contradiction between the large number of books dedicated to women and the absence of female authorship. If women may read, why may they not 'farther wade in them to the serch of a truth. And then much more why not deale by translation in such arguments'. Translation, she suggests, is theoretically defensible as woman's work, since it does not require 'deep invention or exquisite learning', but after this apology she concludes on a much more assertive note: 'My perswasion hath bene thus, that it is all one for a woman to pen a story, as for a man to addresse his story to a woman'. Throughout the address, Tyler engages vigorously with the idea of feminine literary decorum. She recognizes that some will see her translated story as 'prophane' and a matter more manlike than becomes her sex; but, she remonstrates, 'every man holds not the plow, which would the ground were tilled: and it is no sinne to talke of Robinhoode though you never shot in his bow'. Tyler's prefatory material thus discloses the woman writer's awareness of the boundaries which circumscribed her work and acknowledges the gesture she is making, in her act of translating romance, against cultural authority.
- It might be argued that whilst aristocratic women may have had more leisure to write and greater opportunity to circulate in manuscript or publish their work, their prominent social profile might render them more inhibited in the nature of their literary output. The work of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, most clearly exemplifies the Renaissance ideal of female authorship, imperfectly as that may have been understood. Apart from a few original poems - which include the pastoral 'Dialogue between two shepherds, Thenot and Piers', ostensibly in praise of Elizabeth I as Astrea, and the encomium to her brother, 'To the Angel Spirit of the Most Excellent Sir Philip Sidney', prefaced to her version of the Psalms - Mary Sidney was active in the field of translation.
- 'A Dialogue between two shepherds' was written in anticipation of a visit, which did not materialize, by the Queen to Wilton, the Pembroke estate, where Mary Sidney presided over a literary coterie. The short entertainment reveals a translator's preoccupation with words, their limitations and indeterminacies. One of the shepherds, Thenot, speaks an official language of praise: he claims that his panegyrical images will rightly convey the essence of Astrea's greatness. The other, Piers, disputes the claim and, when Thenot asks why his panegyric to Astrea should fail to convey his meaning, Piers's reply undermines the efficacy of language itself:
- Words from conceit do only rise,
Above conceit her honor flies,
But silence, nought can praise her.
(Travitsky 1989, 130).
This represents at one level a modest, but effective, dismantling of the rhetoric of compliment lavished on the Queen throughout her reign in lyrics, drama and courtly pastime. At another level, Piers's quasi-mystical approach proceeds from the premiss that human words can never seek to encapsulate the divinity of transcendence, which equates Astrea with God.
- Generically varied, Mary Sidney's choice of texts for translation is characterized by their academic nature and by their links with the cause of international Protestantism. Following the death of her brother, killed in 1586 at Zutphen after he had volunteered against the Spanish, Mary Sidney completed his translation of the Psalms. The Countess's other translations were those of a closet drama Marc Antonie by Robert Garnier; discours de vie et de la Mort, the work of Philippe de Mornay, a Huguenot and friend of her brother; and Trionfo della Morte, one of the Trionfi, Petrarch's six vernacular poems in terza rime.
- Artistically and politically, the Psalms occupy an important place in Protestant poetics; their translation was perceived as both a literary and a devotional act. In his Defence of Poesie, Philip Sidney had praised David's Psalms as representing exemplary poetry. As the psalmist had imitated 'the unconceivable excellencies of God' (Sidney 1987, 108), so must the translator elucidate the words of David. Studies of the Sidneian psalter have invariably drawn attention to its intra-lingual nature, that is, the harnassing of different translations from the Hebrew, interpretative additions, the borrowing of an image from one psalm for another and the careful selection of images from working models, all of which make it a creative endeavour. 3
- Like her brother, Mary Sidney consulted a range of translations of, and glosses on, the Psalms and adapted the stanzaic and metrical forms and rhyme schemes of the French psalter. Implicit themes are forcefully conveyed. Thus is she able to emphasise the foolish pretensions of earthly endeavours, the limits of human knowledge and, repeatedly, the Calvinist doctrine of the insufficiency of humankind unaided by God's grace, which is notably conveyed in the alliteration of the second stanza of Psalm 51: 'For I, alas, acknowledging do know/ My filthy fault, my faulty filthiness/To my soul's eye uncessantly doth show' (Sidney 1992, 48). The apprehension of unworthiness in this psalm, well known as neck-verse, is accompanied by the violence of the language which describes the fate of the psalmist's enemies and, by implication, the opponents of the Protestant cause. The third stanza of Psalm 58 opens with a ferocious apostrophe which is sustained in the destructive images which follow:
- Lord, crack their teeth! Lord, crush these lions' jaws!
So let them sink as water in the sand.
When deadly bow their aiming fury draws
Shiver the shaft ere past the shooter's hand.
So make them melt as the dishoused snail,
(Sidney 1992, 55)
But the stanza concludes with the image of a still born child:
Or as the embryo, whose vital band
Breaks ere it holds, and formless eyes do fail
To see the sun, though brought to lightful life.
(Sidney 1992, 55)
The graphic description can be more fully appreciated when it is compared with the text in the Great Bible of 1539, translated by Miles Coverdale: 'like the untimely fruit of a woman and let them not see the sun'. Tension is created here by the interaction of the vehicle - the stillborn child - and tenor - the destruction of the enemy - which constitute Mary Sidney's metaphor. The poetic urgency, vigorous syntax and the emotional intensity of the translation anticipate the lyrics of John Donne, who expressed his admiration of the Sidneian psalter.
- The rendering of the Psalms into English by Protestant reformers was equally a political undertaking. Sung, set to music, read privately, or re-written as consolatory exercises (as both Thomas Wyatt and Anne Askew did in prison), the Psalms enabled an exploration of subjectivity whilst representing the spiritual life of the Reformed church. In England the Reformers saw the state as a new Israel and the suffering, faith and joy recorded by the protagonists of the Psalms were states of being with which they identified. Begun by a Protestant cultural hero in her brother, Mary Sidney's translations acquired an additional political significance in their dedication and presentation to Queen Elizabeth, who is likened to David. This is no empty praise, but carries with it an exhortation to the Queen to fulfill her obligations, defend the true faith and 'doo what men may sing'. Her essentially scholarly act thus has its motivation in upholding the Sidney tradition by stimulating an active Protestant and nationalist aristocracy.
- It is possible to see the Jacobean period as a transitional moment for women seeking to gain access to the circulation, if not the publication, of literary works which were neither strictly devotional nor translations. Early seventeenth-century texts authored by women begin to explore questions relating to female identity, subjectivity and subjectification submerged in the act, if not the choice, of translation. Aemelia Lanyer, in her long poem partly concerned with the passion of Christ, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), uses her Biblical sources much more obviously to women's advantage. Elizabeth Cary's original closet drama Mariam (1613) is self-evidently female centred; but in its representation of subjectivity as a loci of consciousness, it goes further than other dramas of female heroism. In the poetry and prose of Lady Mary Wroth there is some exposure of the cultural codes and networks which constrain women. Finally, and perhaps most significantly from a cultural point of view, women entered the formal controversy which had long surrounded the roles and alleged dispositions of the sexes.
- Lanyer's poem Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, comprising nearly two thousand lines, is at once a vivid narration of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, at times echoing the Gospel of Matthew almost verbatim, and a moral vindication of women. The Passion constitutes only one component of a narrative described on the title page as also containing 'Eve's Apologie in defence of women', 'The Teares of the Daughters of Jerusalem' and 'The Salutation and Sorrow of the Virgine Marie'. The close reading of scripture is in keeping with Lanyer's Protestantism, but events are narrated so that the significance and nature of women's roles in the story are foregrounded. In her meditative repudiations of the cultural stereotyping of Eve and in her address to virtuous women, Lanyer is self-consciously writing against patriarchy and patristic discourse. The poem contains a number of novel perspectives on the feminine. It is unusual, for example, to approach Mary's virginity in terms of her being 'from all men free' (Lanyer 1993, 97; my italics), as opposed to her being untouched, or unsullied, by man. Lanyer reverts to the medieval tradition in describing Christ through the imagery of female beauty, in contrast to a tradition which depicted Christ as the male lover wedded to his faithful (female) Church. It is, moreover, provocative to depict the Countess of Cumberland receiving the keys of St Peter, with all the authority that bequest implies. Of all the virtuous women whom she could have chosen from the Old Testament, Lanyer chose Deborah, Judith, and Esther: three formidable figures who would not in any way approximate to contemporary notions of female passivity. 4 Such a questioning, feminine poetic consciousness in a religious text is a remarkable new departure in this period.
- The work begins on a secular note with a nostalgic evocation of Elizabeth I as Cynthia, whose death has caused the poet to immortalize Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland, in her stead. After a meditation resonant with language from the Psalms and Gospels on the glory and ubiquity of God, represented in familiar images of monarch and bridegroom, Lanyer addresses and idealizes the countess. Her portrayal of Margaret Clifford's seclusion at Cookham is at odds with the material reality of the countess's seclusion: Cookham was a temporary refuge while she and her daughter were striving to retain lands willed by her husband to his brother. But in Lanyer's text the countess, who through her virtue and piety shows her contempt for worldly things, shares the divine glory. Recalling pronounced anti-court sentiment in Jacobean satire and drama, Lanyer applauds Margaret for her withdrawal from the society of the court:
- Thou from the Court to the Countrie art retir'd,
Leaving the world, before the world leaves thee:
That great Enchantresse of weak mindes admir'd,
Whose all-bewitching charmes so pleasing be
To worldly wantons: and too much desir'd
Of those that care not for Eternitie
(Lanyer 1993, 58)
There is nothing new in these representations of seclusion from the world, but in representing a woman as withdrawing from the essentially male world of court politics and prefering 'to serve a heav'nly King', Lanyer gives the motif a more feminist nuance. In these early stanzas she engages with other familiar poetic motifs, notably the idea in much neo-Platonic and courtly love poetry that beauty can be equated with virtue. Lanyer distances herself from other, male, poetry of praise: 'That outward Beautie which the world commends,/Is not the subject I will write upon'. Through the evocation of various women whose beauty led to distress and downfall, Lanyer returns to the supreme quality of grace which makes the Countess pleasing in her maker's sight.
- After this lengthy introduction, with its interrogation of conventional poetics, Lanyer addresses the reader and seeks to justify her involvement with her elevated theme. At first, she is apologetic, invoking the image of Icarus, fearing that her muse may be flying above its 'appointed strain'. But then, as did Askew, she appropriates the Biblical commonplace that the weaker the vessel used for divine purposes, the more is God glorified:
But yet the Weaker thou doest seeme to be
In Sexe, or Sence, the more his Glory shines,
That doth infuze such powerfull Grace in thee,
To shew thy love in these few humble Lines;
(Lanyer 1993, 63)
A modesty trope is re-written so that the poet is able to claim (as did Milton in far more rhetorical terms in the invocation to Paradise Lost) that the poem is divinely inspired.
- The Biblical narrative begins with the intensely dramatic events of Gethsemene: at this point the narrator's voice is largely subsumed in the story. Her style, however, remains personal in its emotionally sympathetic descriptions and perspectives. In a style characteristic of the Baroque, Lanyer evokes the figure of the praying Christ at Gethsemane:
- Thou prayedst more earnestly, in so great feare,
That precious sweat came trickling to the ground,
Loke drops of blood thy sences to confound.
(Lanyer 1993, 69)
She differentiates between the patriarchial God and the Son: 'Loe here his Will, not thy Will, Lord was done'. She stresses Christ's innocence, his suffering, humility, gentleness and obedience - those virtues commonly associated with the female - while noting that his betrayers and persecutors are all men. Even the disciples forsake Christ, and 'do like men, when dangers overtake them'. Only Pilate's wife intervenes in an attempt to prevent the violation of justice, and her voice and that of the narrator intermix in their plea, 'Let not us Women glory in Mens fall/Who had power given to over-rule us all' (Lanyer 1993, 84).
- The implication that men's involvement with the death of Christ is the equivalent of a second Fall represents a startling re-writing of traditional doctrine. Lanyer takes this further and, subverting centuries of misogynistic interpretations of the Fall, claims (as later would Rachel Speght) that Eve was less culpable than Adam. Again, she appropriates familiar concepts of the primal relationship. Since Adam was the physically stronger of the sexes and had more direct communication with God, it lay with him to resist temptation. Man's greater involvement in the act of Original Sin occasions a return to men's betrayal of Christ, culminating in the stanza in which the narrator makes an impassioned plea for female equality:
- Then let us have our Libertie againe,
And challendge to our selves no Sov'raigntie;
You came not in the world without our paine,
Make that a barre against your crueltie:
Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine
Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?
If one weake woman simply did offend,
This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.
(Lanyer 1993, 87)
To reinforce the stanza's final bold assertion, Lanyer re-tells the events leading to the Crucifixion, in which the 'daughters of Jerusalem' assume a central significance. The poet addresses the women and in opulent language describes their empathic relation to Christ: 'Your tearefull eyes, beheld his eies more bright...Your Eagles eyes did gaze against this Sunne/ Your hearts did thinke, he dead, the world were done' (Lanyer 1993, 93-4) The scene shifts to focus on Mary the woeful mother, 'all comfortlesse in depth of sorow drowned', then reverts to the other iconic representation of Mary, the virgin of the Magnicat. Here, Lanyer seems to revive the pieties of the later medieval religious lyric. Moreover, the Magnicat, with its destruction of the proud and its elevation of the lowly, is an appropriate verse for Lanyer to employ in her programme for the return of women's 'Libertie'.
- Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is ostensibly a religious poem which imports into a Protestant poetic some aspects of the long Passion lyrics of the fifteenth century. However, it also has to be read as a medium for Lanyer to express contentious ideas in a bid for female patronage. When the poem was originally published in 1611 it contained eleven elaborate dedications, all to women, including Queen Anne, and a further poem addressed to 'all vertuous Ladies in generall'. Among the dedicatees was Margaret, Countess Dowager of Cumberland: the poem opens and closes extolling her virtues, a motif which recurs throughout the text. From the country house poem 'The Description of Cooke-ham' which concludes the volume, it is apparent that Lanyer had resided with the Countess and that she hoped, through her poetic offerings, that some economic favour might continue. There is, however, no evidence that Lanyer received any financial reward or preferment through her writing. While patronage was offered by women - and there are numerous tributes to female patrons from Daniel, Jonson and Donne - it was not yet open to them as writers and poets.
- As a country house poem, 'The Description of Cooke-ham' is interesting in its female adaptation, rather than appropriation, of a male language of clientage. A useful comparison can be made with Ben Jonson's more well-known celebration of the Sidney family estate 'To Penshurst', which may post-date Lanyer's poem. In Lanyer's work, however, the house and the estate are subordinate to the presence of the Countess and to the poet's memory of the Countess's daughter, Anne Clifford, who has departed to marry the Earl of Dorset. As the verse moves towards the fragmentation of the female household, the language changes from its initial celebration of the Countess and its appreciation of the house as vitalized by her presence. With Anne's departure the character of the estate is metamorphosed. Images of desolation body forth Lanyer's sense of loss at Anne's absence and presage her own imminent departure from the same privileged world. At one point, the poet's personal voice breaks through the patterns of conventional praise as Lanyer self-consciously complains about the social distance between herself and her would-be patrons:
- Unconstant fortune, thou art most to blame,
Who casts us downe into so lowe a frame:
Where our great friends we cannot dayly see,
So great a difference is there in degree.
(Lanyer 1993, 134)
This sense of grievance about class distinctions is also conveyed in several of the dedications to the volume. In contrast, Jonson's voice in 'To Penshurst' is impersonal and assured, betraying nothing of Lanyer's insecurity in his role as poet/client. The fantasized notion of lower class femininity as a site of greater freedom which subsists in both male and female authored texts of the period is far removed from the material reality of the socially subordinate writing woman.
- Lack of access to publication may explain why Elizabeth Cary's original closet drama The Tragedie of Mariam was not published until 1613, nearly a decade after it was apparently composed. Written when she was seventeen, the play, based on Thomas Lodge's translation of Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews, exemplifies Cary's precocious scholarship, which was later demonstrated in her translation of a controversial Catholic work, The Reply of the Most Illustrious Cardinall of Perron, to the Answeare of the Most Excellent King of Great Britaine (1630) and in her political history The History of the Life, Reign, and Death of Edward II, published only in 1680.
- Mariam draws on episodes from Josephus's account of early Palestinian history: the consolidation of Herod's power as King of the Jews, his marriage to his second wife Mariam, the murder of her brother and grandfather, the arousal of his jealousy fuelled by his sister Salome and the subsequent execution of Mariam. Josephus emphasises the price paid by Herod within his own house for his public domination. It is this aspect of domestic relations played out against larger political events that engages Cary, but with the notable difference that Mariam is not represented merely as victim of Herod's jealousy, but as a subject who constructs herself in opposition to her husband's tyranny.
- The play conforms to the conventions of neo-Senecan closet drama. As the final Chorus reminds the reader, the dramatic unities have been preserved in so far as all the vicissitudes of events have been compressed into one day. There is one location, that of Jerusalem, and the action is clearly focussed on the domestic intrigues and emotions which contribute to Mariam's tragedy. In keeping with the convention of reporting rather than representing violent, climactic events, a messenger relays the news of Mariam's death while Herod's crazed grief and remorse are expansively articulated. At the end of each act, the Chorus offers a moralistic interpretation of events which is sometimes at odds with the tensions and complexities of the drama. Despite its formal adherence to the strictures of closet drama, Mariam is self-evidently more dramatic in its plotting and characterisation and has more theatrical potential than earlier examples of the genre. 5
- The inner dynamics of the drama are boldly established in the first scene. This comprises Mariam's soliloquy, which is premissed on the presumptuous rumour that Herod has been executed by Caesar in Rome. Mariam's speech encapsulates a turmoil of feelings: she had begun to hate her husband for his cruelties while he lived, but now believing him dead, she recalls his love for her, which demands some kind of recognition. Emotions again fluctuate as she considers Herod's despotic order, relayed to her by his counsellor Sohemus, that in the event of his death she is to be executed. Interestingly, Cary adds additional domestic intrigue and some parallelism to the plotting, which involves Salome's desire to rid herself of her husband in order to marry her lover Silleus, Prince of Arabia. Salome is an unambiguously malevolent character, resembling Iago in her manipulative skills; nevertheless she is given resonant lines about the unfairness for women of laws governing divorce. Her assertions that she means not to be ruled by precedent and that she will secure a divorce from her husband provoke an enraged response:
- Are Hebrew women now transformed to men?
Why do you not our battles fight.
And wear our armour? Suffer this, and then
Let all the world be topsy-turved quite.
(Cary 1994, I: vi: 421-4)
The means by which Salome acquires her freedom are, however, entirely reprehensible and as such they cast into relief the integrity of Mariam's expression of autonomy.
- That the report of Herod's death is false merely serves to confirm Mariam's hatred of her husband. When Herod returns to Jerusalem, eagerly anticipating his reunion with Mariam, she has determined on opposition: 'I will not to his love be reconcil'd, With solemn vows I have forsworn his bed.' In a defiant speech, she recognizes that she has power to beguile and manipulate Herod, but disdains to do so. She will maintain her own identity, depending on her reputation, which she believes - too confidently, as it turns out - will protect her from slander. Such bold assertions provoke a reaction from Sohemus - 'Unbridled speech is Mariam's worst disgrace' - and a more moralizing caution from the Chorus. When Mariam meets the returned Herod, she confronts him with his past crimes against her family. From there, with little preparation, Salome's plot against Mariam takes over. Manipulated by his sister, Herod's abrupt reversion from uxoriousness to distrustful jealousy to revenge is powerfully communicated. Mariam's response to Herod's accusation that she is plotting to poison him ('Is this a dream') anticipates Hermione's response in The Winter's Tale to the tyrannically jealous Leontes ('My life stands in the level of your dreams'), while Herod matches Leontes in his vituperation and obsessive jealousy. Yet at a psychological level, Cary's play is in some ways more complex. Mariam's only half-spoken antipathy towards Herod facilitates Salome's plotting and Herod's intuition of it works subliminally to make him believe something which he knows not to be true. His disordered thought is evident in his request to Salome to order Mariam's execution and then enact physical reparation:
- Why, let my love be slain,
But if we cannot live without her sight
You'll find the means to make her breathe again.
(Cary 1994, IV: vii: 385-7)
- The final scenes are dominated by Herod's remorse and self-recrimination, which are predicted by Mariam in the messenger's report to her husband: '"By three days hence, if wishes could revive/I know himself would make me oft alive"'. Herod's self-lacerations contrast with the description of Mariam's stoical death and the economy of her language. It is as if she had internalized the strictures on feminine silence earlier articulated by the Chorus and Sohemus. Her prison soliloquy in act four suggests some kind of retraction of her former assertion of self:
- Had not myself against myself conspir'd,
No plot, no adversary from without
Could Herod's love from Mariam have retir'd
Or from his heart have thrust my semblance out....
Had I but with humility been grac'd,
As well as fair I might have prov'd me wise:
But I did think because I knew me chaste,
One virtue for a woman might suffice.
That mind for glory of our sex might stand,
wherein humility and chastity
Doth march with equal paces hand in hand.
(Cary 1994, IV: viii: 533-65)
Here, Mariam seems at one level to be endorsing cultural prescriptions of feminine behaviour and accepting that transgression of such boundaries can only bring misfortune. It would be a mistake, however, to foreground the speech as conveying the play's central perspective on gender. Mariam's words are spoken with only partial knowledge of the extent of Salome's plot against her. However much she may try to rationalize her downfall as a consequence of 'unwomanly' behaviour, this is not endorsed by the play. Constabarus on his way to execution comments:
- But no farewell to any female wight
You wavering crew; my curse to you I leave,
You had but one to give you any grace:
And you yourself will Mariam's life bereave.
(Cary 1994, IV: vi: 310-13)
This misogynist speech has, nevertheless, a ring of truth about it. Mariam is destroyed by another woman, as Othello is destroyed by another man. What Herod praises as Mariam's 'world-amazing wit' plays into the hands of Salome; but it does not in itself cause her tragedy.
- In her redaction of early Jewish history, thereby giving Mariam a voice, Cary was re-interpreting historical material from a woman's perspective and achieving something quite novel. Unlike other plays of the period in which the female heroine is central - albeit plays performed in the public playhouse and not, as Mariam, read aloud - the conflict is here consistently presented from Mariam's position. Mariam's psychology, Herod's explosion of jealousy, the irony caused by the concealment for half the play that Herod is alive and the control of intrigue further reveal Cary's dramatic skills. Yet the drama to some extent remains inhibited by the formal constraints of its genre. The sententious Chorus and the stoical suffering and death of Mariam rest uncomfortably in a play where human conflicts are so fully realized.
- Like Elizabeth Cary, Lady Mary Wroth broke new ground in writing within genres hitherto authored by men. Her prose romance Urania, and sonnet sequence 'Pamphilia to Amphilanthus', published in the same volume in 1621, are important as the first of their kind to be written by a woman, but they are also significant as late interventions in genres whose appeal had reached its peak during the previous century. The fact that these works are female authored and that they were composed with an aesthetic self-consciousness of out-moded conventions makes their writing strategies and perspectives particularly novel.
- Urania, as a late Jacobean text, is quite different in narrative detail and in tone from the Elizabethan pastoral romance epitomized by The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1590), written by Wroth's uncle Philip Sidney for his sister Mary Sidney. Urania does not present a coherent world of moral mythology, but rather depicts the frailty of human emotion and purposes in continually shifting political and personal circumstances. Love and passion, treated humorously by Sidney, are often treated ironically by Wroth. Nevertheless, at a local level, Urania does recall aspects of its generic antecedents. The very title of Wroth's romance recalls the opening chapter of Arcadia, where the shepherds Claius and Strephon are mourning the absence of the recently departed shepherdess Urania. Wroth's romance, however, opens in the presence of Urania, who, having discovered that she is not, as she thought, the daughter of the shepherds, is mourning the loss of her identity. 6 Wroth, after Sidney, draws on Platonic and Protestant associations of Urania as the heavenly muse, the higher type of Venus. In Sidney's story, Urania had slipped from view and so, also, some way into Wroth's narrative Urania is for a considerable time abandoned by the narrator. While Urania is left imprisoned in the Tower of Love - an allegorical construct reminiscent of Spenser - the role of female heroine is assumed by Pamphilia, the daughter of the King of Morea, later Queen of Pamphilia and, most importantly in the context of Book One of Urania, lover of Amphilanthus. Thus, in its own way, Wroth's title is as misleading as that of Sidney, in so far as much of Sidney's story is located in the false pastoral idyll of Basilius's country court.
- As representative of a genre which specializes in multiple narrative strands, numerous inset stories and apparently chaotic plotting, and which privileges the arbitrary and the contingent event over cause and effect, Urania excels. In its multiplicity of detail as well as its occasional use of allegory and symbolism, Wroth's romance is closer to Spenser's Faerie Queene than it is to Arcadia. Aspects of Shakespeare's late romances also seem to figure in the representation of the sundering of friends, family and lovers, although unlike Shakespeare's last plays there are few reunions and reconciliations signifying closure. Indeed, the last sentence of Book Four of Urania, which ends the published volume, is, like Arcadia, incomplete and, even as it again unites Pamphilia and Amphilanthus, suggests another journey:
- ...Amphilanthus must goe, but intreates Pamphilia to goe as far as Italy with him, to visit the matchles Queene his mother, she consents, for what can she denye him? all things are prepared for the journey, all now merry, contented, nothing amisse; griefe forsaken, sadnes cast off, Pamphilia is the Queene of all content; Amphilanthus joying worthily in her and
The romance ends formally on a provisional note. The journey will continue; Pamphilia will accompany Amphilanthus only 'as far as Italy'. Indeed, the sense that the reunion of the lovers is temporary only is borne out by Wroth's sequel, preserved in manuscript and never published, in which Amphilanthus and Pamphilia are married to others.
- There is no real focal point to Urania, as the action shifts across Europe and Asia and encompasses the fortunes in love and adventure of the younger generation of royal children. The political world depicted in episodes of tyrannical rule and usurpation is harsher than the false pastoral idyll of Sidney's Arcadia. Love is often unrequited, or blighted by inconstancy. The unhappy love affair between Perissus and Limena which Perissus recounts to Urania at the beginning of the romance, is one of the few relationships to be ultimately fulfilled. Perhaps reflecting the sexual intrigues of Jacobean court circles known to Wroth, betrayal is common. Parselius, brother of Pamphilia, for instance, grieves over his separation from Urania, but readily betrays her when he encounters the charms of Dalinea:
- All this Parselius beheld, but most the princess who he so much admired as admiration wrought so far as to permit him to think that she equalled Urania. This was a sudden step from so entire a love as but now he vowed to his shepherdess, being an heresy, as he protested, for any man to think there lived a creature like his love. But into this he is now fallen, and will lead the faction against her. Uncertain tyrant love, that never brings thy favourites to the top of affection but turns again to a new choice! Who would have thought any but Urania's beauty could have invited Parselius to love?...
He was not so struck with wonder when he first saw Urania(though with it he lost his liberty) as he was now wounded todeath, losing life if no compassion succeeded. This firstsight won him and lost his former bondage; yet was he freed but to take a new bond upon him.
(Wroth 1991, 149)
Love as bondage is a recurrent metaphor, but one which is more apt for women, who have limited modes of agency, than for men. Antissia, daughter of the King of Roumania, finds herself in love with Amphilanthus, a condition which, the narrator comments, leads to 'her lost liberty'. Separated from Pamphilia, Amphilanthus, whose name literally means lover of two, unthinkingly responds to her passionate feelings. The narrator's tone is dry and ironic as Amphilanthus's dalliance with Antissia is described: 'He, the more he saw her respect to him, answered it with his to her. Kindess then betrayed them, she showing it, he (as a kind hearted prince to ladies) receiving it' (Wroth 1991, 74). In a syntactically complex sentence, the convention of chivalric love is again treated with wry understatement: 'He was not inexperienced, therefore soon saw remedy must be given, and cruelty he imagined it would be in him, who discerned he might by his art help, if he refused that good to one so fair and so kindly loving'(Wroth 1991, 75). In contrast with this almost studied engagement of feeling, Antissia suffers the torments of jealousy and Pamphilia pain from the knowledge of Amphilanthus's faithlessness. Further, the inherent dishonesty of the knightly code can be contrasted with the directness of Pamphilia toward the love-making of Steriamus: 'Leave this folly and I will wish you well' (Wroth 1991, 85).
- Through the figures of Urania, Antissia and particularly Pamphilia, we have the first exploration in English romance literature by a woman writer of female subjectivity which initiates action. Urania's mode of agency is as a counsellor to others, whereas, interestingly, Pamphilia is presented as a writer. Authorship is seen as one of the few modes of self-expression available to her as a woman. Although Pamphilia tells Antissia that 'many poets write as well by imitation as by sense of passion' (Wroth 1991, 114), it is clear that for Pamphilia, writing becomes a refuge for feelings which she is culturally conditioned to suppress. Even Antissia, who is far more uncontrolled in exposing her jealous feelings, recognizes that writing will enable her 'to put her thoughts in some kind of measure'.
- As a romance, Urania explores female rather than male heroism, in so far as the challenges laid down are of love rather than of conflict. When male heroism is on display, as in the rescue of Limena, Wroth casts an oblique light on it. The description of Limena's bondage is erotic, apparently pandering to male voyeurism:
- he tied her to it [a pillar] by the hair, which was of great length and sun-like brightness. Then pulled he off a mantle which she wore, leaving her from the girdle upwards all naked, her soft, dainty white hands he fastened behind her with a cord about both wrists, in manner of a cross, as testimony of her cruellest martyrdom.
Wroth 1991, 101-102)
From this state of abjection Limena is rescued by Parselius, who is 'quickly put out of his admiration, hasting to revenge her wrong'. In the midst of the conflict, another knight arrives and unties Limena. With a light comic touch, Wroth conveys Parselius's offence at being thus upstaged: 'whereat Parselius was offended, thinking himself highly injured that any, except himself, should do that service, telling him he much wondered at his boldness' (Wroth 1991, 102). Whereas men suffer love and desire as much as woman, they are perceived to find self-expression in their public roles and martial exploits. Steriamus, who is in love with Pamphilia, is counselled by Amphilanthus to return to Albania because 'the rest of the world hath need of such princes' (Wroth 1991, 85), and not to allow passion to overthrow a brave spirit. Women are seen to have no such recourse to action and, in addition, have to suffer the torment of male inconstancy.
- Soon after Urania was published, Wroth was forced to withdraw it on the grounds that it contained covert allusions to contemporary court affairs. John Chamberlain, writing to Dudley Carleton, reported that Lord Denny had taken exception to allusions to himself and his family. According to contemporary opinion, relayed by Chamberlain, Wroth's audacity was displayed in her barely concealed purposes, which she had expected to pass unnoticed: she had taken 'license to traduce whom she please, and thincks she daunces in a net' (Lewalski 1993, 249-50). Denny vented his anger in a satirical poem, in which he addresses Wroth as 'hermophradite in show, in deed a monster' and admonishes her to 'leave idle bookes alone/For wise and worthyer women have writte none'. In support of his censoring activity, Denny was able to invoke the notion of writing as an unwomanly activity. Wroth retaliated with her verses, chiding Denny, 'lett rauling rimes alone/For wise and worthier men have written none.' In this confrontation over a woman's text, the woman was silenced, but so was her male critic.
- In the sonnet sequence, 'Pamphilius to Amphilanthus', composed before Urania, the persona of Pamphilia is consistent with the character of the romance. The early sonnets record her sufferings at her lover's inconstancy. Here Wroth expands the nature of the genre to explore the experience of love itself. Philip Sidney's 'Astrophel and Stella' might be regarded as a model for Wroth's work, in so far as she was consciously returning to a genre of Petrarchan love poetry which had been culturally displaced by the metaphysical style. There are, however, significant differences between the two. 'Astrophel and Stella' is dominated by a powerful subjectivity and dramatization of the self. The sequence creates the persona of the lover as a subject in a continual state of restless excitement; he is always on the verge of new feelings of hope or frustration. Stella, the unattainable woman, is evoked, but she remains the silent interlocutor. She is an absent presence. In 'Pamphilia to Amphilanthus', the personality of the subject is less dominant and there is no direct role reversal in the sense of a female lover's overt and passionate solicitation of the male beloved. The latter is displaced and silenced as the relationship and the feelings it elicits, rather than the beloved himself, becomes the focal point. Indeed, in none of the sonnets is Amphilanthus specifically evoked.
- That love itself rather than the beloved is the stimulus to poetry is conveyed in the opening sonnet, 'When nights black mantle could most darknes prove'. Recalling Petrarch's 'Trionfe d'Amore', Pamphilia experiences a dream vision in which Cupid and Venus triumph over her heart:
- Butt one hart flaming more than all the rest
The goddess held, and putt itt to my brest,
Deare sonne, now shutt sayd she: thus must wee winn;
Hee her obay'd, and martir'd my poore hart,
I, waking hop'd as dreames itt would depart
Yett since: O mee: a lover I have binn.
(Wroth 1991, 85)
- Later, in subsequent sonnets, the persona struggles to free herself from the will of the gods and discover the nature of love for herself. The closing couplet of sonnet seven is an address to Cupid and an assertion of self: 'Yett this Sir God, your boyship I dispise;/ Your charmes I obay, but love nott want of eyes'. This rejection of the familiar idea of love rendering its victim blind and helpless is only momentary and the struggle between states of surrender and autonomy becomes the thread throughout the sonnets. Sonnet fourteen, for instance, opens with a despairing recognition of the paradoxical nature of enslavement: 'Am I thus conquer'd? have I lost the powers/ That to withstand, which joy's to ruin mee?' But, although the persona attempts to assert her freedom, love is more coercive: 'I love, and must: So farwell liberty'. The opposition of love and liberty in Wroth's sonnets replaces, for most of the sequence, the more familiar conflict in the male-authored sonnet between physical desire and neo-Platonic notions of love leading to virtue and supreme reason: although, in 'A Crowne of Sonnets dedicated to Love', which completes 'Pamphilia to Amphilanthus', love is represented as enhancing reason.
- Wroth recalls a whole discourse of passionate, unrequited love to explore female subjectivity. Although she exploits the conventions associated with Petrarch and the familiar images of night, sleep, grief and absence, she often uses such tropes in a subtle, skilfully sustained manner. Sonnet forty-three is one of a group of sonnets conveying a sense of loss at what is presumably the absence of Amphilanthus. In the opening lines the poet builds up conventional associations of eyes as supreme, 'lights and guids of love', but then reverses such associations. In the absence of the beloved, eyes are no longer associated with light: they become 'poore lost roomes' possessed by darkness. Skilfully weaving the literal and the symbolic, Wroth demands an abnegation of all light in sympathy with the lover:
- Soe bee all blessed lights from henceforth hid
That this black deed of darknes have excess,
For why showld heaven afford least light to those
Who for my misery such darknes chose
Here, and elsewhere, Wroth reworks and revises standard tropes in the service of a poetics of love designed not to court a lover or to express the physical charms of a desired object, but to enact a drama of love, desire and loss in the consciousness of the woman-lover-poet.
- In the history of the literary Renaissance, the work of Cary, Lanyer and Wroth significantly marks the female appropriation of male authored genres so as to offer fuller expression of female agency and subjectivity. Of equal cultural significance were the women who had no connection with writing through birth or patronage, but who intervened as authors in the formal debate about the nature of women. Rhetorically constructed attacks upon and defences of women, sometimes by the same author, were popular reading material throughout the sixteenth-century and presumably contributed to essentialist concepts of the sexes. 7 Whatever the motivation for entering into the debate, the premiss of this literary genre was a gendered one. Certain assumptions were held about the female nature, regardless of any cultural influences on behaviour and of class and social differences between women. Whether in the form of denunciation or defence of women, tracts were authored by men.
- One early exception may have been 'Jane Anger', who published Jane Anger, Her Protection for Women in 1589; although the name is most probably a pseudonym, it seems likely, in view of its sustained lambasting of misogynist attitudes, that the text is female-authored. It is difficult to assess the qualities of a work belonging to a genre which had never been associated with integrity and sincerity. As Linda Woodbridge has commented, overt sincerity and righteous indignation can themselves be sophisticated poses (Woodbridge 1984, 57). Nevertheless, Anger's pamphlet is witty and vigorous in her puncturing of crude male prejudices against women and also in exposing some of the inherent contradictions in male polemic. Adopting the structures of formal indictments of women, men are attacked for inherent vices - notably, lust, deceit and malice - and a catalogue of both exemplary and unexemplary men is offered. The argument might be simple - if there are bad women in history, there are also bad men - but it needed to be voiced. In shifting some of the ground of the controversy, Anger's pamphlet represents a key text.
- One particularly virulent attack on women in the Jacobean period, by Joseph Swetnam, a fencing teacher, provoked other female authors to enter further into the formal debate. The title of Swenam's tirade The Arraigment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women; or the vanity of them, Choose You Whether. With a Commendation of Wise, Virtuous, and Honest Women published in 1615 was misleading, since it contained no commendation of women whatsoever. Instead, the pamphlet consists of invective, replete with fantastic allusions to women's sexuality and their alleged desire to dominate and usurp power in the household. Men are oppressed, women are the vocal sex with tongues that cause terror and wreak utter confusion on their sorry victims. Clearly, Swetnam was exploiting the lucrative market for anti-feminist polemic, and the replies of Rachel Speght, and of the pseudonymous Ester Sowernam and Constantia Munda, fuelled interest in the controversy. 8 Of the responses, Speght's A Mouzell for Melastomus is the most interesting for the author's sense of mission, her self-proclaimed authorship (at nineteen), and the lucidity of her refutation of Swetnam's hysterical polemic.
- Speght's Calvinism is apparent in her self-fashioning as God's warrior, a revealing appropriation of a religious image for an ostensibly secular purpose, and as a protective guise against the popular charge of woman's unruly speech. She continues to express her objectives in biblical terms, claiming that she will expose the speciousness of Swetnam's use of scripture and in so doing 'comfort the minds of all Hevah's sex', so that they need not 'fear the darts of envy or obtrectators' (Speght 1985, 59-60). Confuting the popular prejudice of woman's irrationality and lack of control, Speght's argument is reasoned, logical and cleverly scriptural. In her Preface she had accused Swetnam of 'wresting and perverting every place of Scripture' (Speght 1985, 62), and her text reveals a lucid exposition of Swetnam's misconstructions. Like Lanyer, Speght shows an awareness of how the Bible has been misappropriated to legitimate a view of woman's moral inferiority and subordination. Revising the conventional idea of woman's weakness, she argues that men and women must take equal responsibility for the Fall:
- [Eve] being the weaker vessel was with more facility to be seduced: Like as a crystal glass sooner receives a crack than a strong stone pot. Yet we shall find the offence of Adam and Eve almost to parallel: For as an ambitious desire of being made like unto God, was the motive which caused her to eate, so likewise was it his.
(Speght 1985, 66)
- Again, like Lanyer, Speght is writing purposefully against the particularly interesting that she is doing so within the limited scope of the satirical pamphlet, which was often regarded as a salacious and scandalous medium.
- Four years after Speght had entered the arena of the formal controversy, she published her second and quite different work, a verse meditation, Mortalities Memorandum, with a Dreame Prefixed, imaginarie in manner; reale in matter (1621). The well-established genre of the allegorical dream vision is here used creatively to expose the educational restrictions placed on women and the morally destructive aspects of misogyny as represented by Swetnam.
- A Dreame begins with a speaker in an ailing condition which has been caused by the disease of ignorance:
- My grief, quoth I, is called Ignorance,
Which makes me differ little from a brute.
I hungry am, yet cannot seeke for foode;
Because I know not what is bad or good
(Speght 1621, 2)
Experience, personified, tells her that only true knowledge which 'by labour is attain'd' in Erudition's garden can help her. The anti-feminist position is expressed by 'Disswasion', who argues the personal difficulties of attaining knowledge, including the speaker's dullness and defective memory, and then, tellingly, her 'time and sex'. Disswassion is silenced by Desire, supported by Industry and then by Truth, who tells the speaker that according to Paul both men and women have 'bodie, soule and spirit' and thus that 'a Woman have her intellect in vaine/Or not endevour Knowledge to attaine' (Speght 1621, 5). Again, a woman writer has deftly reclaimed St Paul for her own purposes. The 'journeyes end' of the speaker is an Edenic paradise, where she tastes of all types of knowledge and where intellectual desire is represented as 'lawfull avarice'. The visionary, allegorical nature of the poem allows Speght the freedom to imagine a utopia in which female learning is venerated. The experience of the dream is, however, shattered by the intrusion of the present and the speaker's recollection of her opposition to Swetnam:
- I therefore to that place return'd againe.
From whence I came, and where I must remaine.
But by the way I saw a full fed Beast,
Which roared like some monster, or a Devill,
And on Eves sex he foamed filthie froth;
As if that he had had the falling evill;
To whom I went to free them from mishaps,
And with a Mouzel sought to binde his chaps.
(Speght 1621, 9)
The inter-textual allusions draw attention to Speght's self-identity as a writer, even though she acknowledges that it was not she, but Constantia Munda, who had succeeded in silencing her opponent. The sequence continues with allusions to the depredations of death as greater even than those inflicted on women by Swetnam and the poem becomes more personal as it concludes with the author's grief over the death of her mother.
- Mortalities Memorandum, with its Biblical maxims and sermonizing tone, lacks the originality and daring of A Dreame. The structural imbalance between the challenging Dreame and the ideological commonplaces of Mortalities Memorandum may in part be due to the position of the female writer discovering strategies for public expression. Despite the pedestrian nature of Mortalities Memorandum, Speght continues to consolidate her Christian defence of women: death was inflicted as a curse, but 'womans seede hath brooke the serpants head' (Speght 1621, 15). With its emphasis on the familiar contemptus mundi theme, the work might be interpreted as an appropriate leave-taking of a literary, creative life, a departure, referred to in passing in A Dreame. In the latter text Speght had alluded to some unspecified 'occurance' which called her away from the pursuit of knowledge. From the outspokenness of A Mouzell through the female consciouness of the visionary Dreame to the retreat into the anti-worldliness of Mortalities Memorandum, Speght defines her ambitions as polemicist and poet.
- Speght's work provides an illuminating comparison with that of Anne Askew. Both women wrote as part of their Christian duty and regarded their faith as sanction for their public testimonies. But, whereas Askew's Examinations were endorsed because they could be harnessed to the Protestant cause, the reception of Speght's Christian defence of women was less favourable. She records in the opening address of Mortalities Memorandum that she has been both censured for her intervention in popular controversy and deprived of authorship:
- I know these populous times affoord plentie of forward Writers, and criticale Readers; My selfe hath made the number of the one too many by one; and having bin toucht with the censures of the other, by occasion of my mouzeling Melastomus, I am now, as by a strong motive induced (for my right's sake) to produce and divulge this of spring of my indevour, to prove them further futurely who have formerly deprived me of my due, imposing my abortive upon the father of me, but not of it.
(Speght 1621, A2v)
The reason for publishing a second time is to claim rightful authorship of A Mouzell, which, despite Rachel Speght's name on the title page, seems to have been accredited to her father. Evidently some readers could not accept that a satirical pamphlet in defence of women had been written by a woman.
- This is a salutary reminder that, despite the emergence of original writing by women in the Jacobean period, a female author was more open to censure than her male counterpart. Speght's perception of women in terms of their Christian mission was not shared by a society which allowed numerous re-printings of Swetnam's tract. Urania was suppressed, while court satire in Jacobean drama was allowed some freedom. Lanyer's bid for patronage appears to have failed, whereas male poets could earn some renumeration or combine writing with a professional life. Nevertheless, the remodelling of cultural representations of women which we find in all the texts of Jacobean women writers and the increasingly confident articulation of public speaking voices were contributory factors in the gradual shift away from Renaissance ideals of exemplary femininity.
I would like to thank Danielle Clarke, John Flood and John Gallagher for reading and commenting on this chapter. I am also grateful to students at Goldsmiths' College, particularly Lucy Tunstall, and M.A. students at UCD who contributed enthusiastically to courses on women's writing in the early modern period. This article will be published in a different form in An Introduction
to Women's Literature: from the Middle Ages to the Present, edited by
Marion Shaw (Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1996).