The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation by Peter France 28 Introduction



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4.2 Jacobean Era


During the last decade of Elizabeth I’s reign she became less popular. Her “combination of dominance and coquetry” (Allman 29) became problematic because she was already old and the courtiers found it more and more troublesome to flatter her according to her Cult. So the “coquetry” of her feminine part being unwanted, her “androgynous structure began to dissolve, her mystical male body alone commanding respect” (Allman 29). During these years the queen’s subjects were looking with expectations across the borders to Scotland, were James lived and ruled, already having sons to succeed him.

James’ accession, even though it was long wished for, was almost as troublesome as Elizabeth’s. Neither of them accessed to the throne in a patrilineal way – James derived his claim to the throne from his great-great-grandfather, Henry VII. England thus had “seventy-three years without the royal passing reassuringly from father to eldest son” (Allman 25). The fact that his claim was preserved through daughters is also the reason for another problem – he was born in another country. His problematized roots, or his personal preference, caused that he created his royal persona as androgynous as well. But his androgyny was different and more disturbing. It did not honour women, as Elizabeth’s androgyny honoured men – because it did not need to, in fact adding the feminine side to the image of a male king was only compromising “the presumed superiority of male” (Allman 30). He was not fond of women as sex and he isolated himself from them whenever it was possible – this attitude “rendered his rhetorical assumption of women’s biological capacities a hostile appropriation” (Allman 29). He was androgynous and yet fully masculine – he “absorbed, in order to eliminate, women” (Allman 30).

This emphasized masculinity brought another problem connected to his reign – the position of his male subjects. Just as Elizabeth, James I during his coronation pronounced himself married to the kingdom of England – but this time was the nation his bride – he “metaphorically transformed the men of England, accustomed to playing Elizabeth’s male consorts, into submissive and obedient wives, bodies to his head” (Ibid.). He was also a pacifist and seemed to his male subjects as cowardly and womanish because during Elizabeth’s reign people tend to define manhood in terms of military prowess. But the most problematic were James’ public displays of love towards his male favourites. Allman quotes Francis Osborne who speaks about the king’s “love, or what else posterity will please to call it” for his favourites and comments on his “kissing them after so lascivious a mode in publick, and upon the theatre, as it were, of the world” (Allman 30). English court gossip in general suggested that the king was homosexual, yet they never used the word sodomy. This behaviour put heterosexual men again in the positions of subjection. During Elizabeth’s reign their maleness remained normative – it was normal to flatter a woman, who even claimed to be their metaphorical wife. But being forced into homosexual behaviour was different – Sir Henry Rich is known for losing “an opportunity for advancement” by “turning aside and spitting after the king had slabbered his mouth” – he rejected the king on the basis of his sex and gender having a “divine sanction” which he did not want to compromise – he chose God over the king. This marginalization of heterosexual men brought them to the same position as women. There were two possible outcomes for women from this situation – it could create “a male backlash of sympathy and respect” because of “the seemingly tyrannical rule of another man” (Allman 32); or it could be the other way around. Because the equality in position was based on a diminution of men’s authority, it could create a defensive exaggeration of men’s difference from women – misogyny.

While Queen Anna was not allowed to the court, she created her own – “an important centre of patronage in the arts” (Allman 32). The women of the court were reduced as well – Arbella Stuart and Mary Wroth were “forcibly restrained from asserting the political and artistic rights of their birth” (Ibid.). Women were put in pressure to behave as “unthreateningly foolish creatures that they are assumed to be” – woman’s place at the court was quite simple – she had to be apart from men, procreating at her husband’s will, “spending her time in gossiping benignly in the space allowed her life” (Allman 32).

Elizabeth during her reign widened the cultural split in the category of women – if women were not like her, they were “inherently wicked and licentious” (Ibid.) and even the queen was often a victim of rumours of promiscuity. But her female presence on the throne made public expression of misogyny unacceptable. Yet it lived in its underground exile and was getting only stronger in the last decade of Elizabeth’s reign, when her Cult was getting more and more ridiculous and her control over sexual ideology was too long.

4.2.1 Jacobean Revenge Tragedy


To find the origins of the Jacobean revenge tragedy it is important to look back to the Elizabethan era, to the second half of her reign. While the English drama was developing from the medieval forms, influenced by classical plays and foreign writers, there appeared a special kind of play – the Tragedy of Blood. While the drama was still immature, these plays were characterized by bombast and pathos – “the action of these tragedies was a prolonged tempest. Blows fell like hail-stones; swords flashed like lightning; threats roared like thunder; poison was poured out like rain” (Symonds 388). To provide a sort of relief, the authors “strove to play on finer sympathies by means of pathetic interludes and lyrical interbreathings – by the exhibition of a mother’s agony or a child’s trust in his murderer, by dialogues in which friend pleads with friend for priority in death or danger” (Ibid.) and many other similar images. The first real Tragedy of Blood is The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. This play includes all the stock characteristics of the genre: “a ghost [...]; a noble and courageous lover, young Horatio, traitorously murdered; [...] a generous open-hearted gentleman, Hieronymo, [...] a villain, Lorenzo; [...] a beautiful and injured lady, Bellimperia, [...] a play within a play, used to facilitate the bloody climax” (Symonds 389). As this tragedy is of blood, there are “at least, five murders, two suicides, two judicial executions, and one death in duel” (Symonds 390). Only few characters survive to bury the dead.

Kyd’s tragedy inspired Marlowe to write his The Jew of Malta which then influenced other dramas, among them Titus Andronicus. As the time went on, the genre of tragedy was developing, female characters were given more space and the plays became, at least partially, less bombastic and pathetic. When the social changes connected to the accession of James I shifted the position of women into an even more subordinate position and there was no official Cult to make a woman extraordinary, the way was largely open for the advent of misogyny. This new aspect changed the genre and from the Tragedy of Blood there evolved the Jacobean Revenge tragedy, which brought its own characteristics – among them the even more visible division of female characters to angels and to whores. But this division was not simple and both opposites played their role in diminishing women.

The female characters of Jacobean Revenge tragedy can be divided into two groups – the victims and the idealized women. According to Eileen Jorge Allman “the plays idealization of virtuous women, a cultural stance now widely accepted as the mirror image of misogyny, cannot [...] be dismissed as inseparable from contempt and equally disempowering and dehumanizing” (17). She claims that the idealization of women is not the opposite of misogyny – it rather is a “benign” option of patriarchy in opposition to the “violent” option of open misogyny.

These idealized virtuous female characters (such as Castiza in The Revenger’s Tragedy) are not silent and obedient – they have moral authority over other characters and dramatic authority over the audience – these characters are those that people follow and wait for their decisions. Constance Jordan (quoted by Allman) claims that even misogynist literature can have a feminist dimension – allowing its female characters to act and to think – so, setting aside the fact that they are a patriarchal construct, the female characters of the Jacobean Revenge tragedy are important.

Allman also claims that it is important to focus not only on the men-women relationships but also on those of men and other men. In any culture where the “signs of dominance are gendered [...] men use the verbal and physical signs that indicate dominance over women to assert themselves against other men” (Allman 19). When the government is tyrannical, it means that one man dominates over other men – they find themselves sharing the subordinate position with women – “their voices are silenced, their social and familial authority is usurped, and their sexuality is controlled” (Allman 19). This is present in the language of the revenge tragedy – when a man is defeated by another man, he is “unmanned and feminized” (Allman 20). This use of language is a “sign of loss” – while the man is still male, he is “forced to submission and is coded female” (Allman 20) – it does not mean that his sex is changed, it means that his masculinity is denied to him – this “sign of loss” can then be displaced on women in terms of misogyny.

Other than misogynist reaction to the submission of men is the above mentioned rejecting the tyrant’s dominance and turning to the spiritual world – turning from the king to the God. In the spiritual world there exists equal authority because virtue is “degendered and depoliticised” (Allman 20). By asserting their obedience to a higher authority, men are enabled to obey women (as Antonio in The Duchess of Malfi). This refusing to obey the king and turning to God instead was possible because “Protestantism’s emphasis on individual conscience, reinforced by the revolt against and continued opposition to Catholicism” was creating in post-Reformation England a “potential conflict with the state” (Allman 20).

Another theoretical collision caused by submission of men in tyranny is the destabilization of binary opposites. If a man is called effeminate, it supports the theory of binary oppositions. But the problem lies with the fact that it shows that “the signifiers of subjection have a life of their own and can separate from one group and attach to others” (Allman 21). If gender is separated from the sex it means that the assumed theory of difference between sexes composed in form of binary opposites is not working. When men are “effeminate” it means that women have to be diminished even more to stabilise to dynamic of men superior to women.

Together with the submission of men during the Early Modern era in England other aspects of social change were at work – “the rise of capitalism, destruction of rural life, the swelling of urban centres, the discovery of human societies functioning outside the boundaries of Europe” (Allman 23). But these changes were not foreshadowing a future development – “the greater the turmoil, the more violations of the theoretical social order; the more violations, the stronger the reactionary impulse to strengthen that order” (Allman 23) – that means that instead of moving forward, these changes only reinforced the old social order. This social order worked according to a scheme that “men actively impress themselves on women and, through women, on the world; women passively accept and bear the impress” (Allman 24). It means that “no less than the world’s balance hangs on women’s fulfilling their part of the binary bargain” (Ibid.). And, obviously, women were charged for all those unwonted changes in the social order – because they did not want to fulfil their part, the world was falling apart. They were punished for this disobedience by being “banished from the public to the private, used as commodities in economy’s burgeoning capitalism, denied subjectivity and voice” (Allman 24). Yet the solution was easy: “if women would only hold their tongues and keep their places, all would again be well” (Allman 24). This scapegoating of women was a practice inseparably connected to the misogynist world of Jacobean era.

One of the literary tools of diminishing women, both to idealize and victimize them, is turning them into scattered objects. Laurie A. Finke in “Painting Women: Images of Femininity in Jacobean Tragedy” comments on the tradition of Renaissance poets of “killing a woman into art” – the author of Renaissance sonnets “attempts to deny mortality and neutralize the threat posed by woman’s carnality by transforming her, through his lyric, through art, into an ideal, eternally changeless because essentially lifeless” (Finke 361). The fragmentation of a woman is “implicit in her transformation from body to text” (Finke 362) but the effect is not caused by the fact that her image is turned into words, it is created by the choice of those words – “she becomes a collection of exquisitely beautiful, dissociated objects, which fail to add up to any coherent or human whole” – her features are described in terms of jewels or metals, her face fragmented into “lilies, roses, cherries, pearls, angles, and bows” (Finke 362). Nancy J. Vickers, quoted by Finke, claims that the result of such fragmentation and idealization of women is a “code of beauty” that presents the idealized body as a norm and it creates pressure on women to become this ideal “beautiful monsters composed of every individual perfection” (Finke 363). This tendency to look like the ideal proved fatal for the Renaissance women for the effects it had on their bodies and their reputation. Because cosmetics used in the Early Modern times contained mercury, women were poisoning themselves while trying to become the ideal. Finke quotes Thomas Tuke’s “A Treatise Against Painting” to show the horrifying results of using cosmetics: even young women “turn old with withered and wrinkled faces like an ape, and before age comes upon them, they tremble (poor wretches) as if they were sick of the staggers, reeling, and full of quicksilver for so they are” (Finke 364). The facial cosmetics, a sort of modern make-up, cleared the face of various spots and colour differences, but it also slowly consumed the skin and flesh and practically destroyed the face that wanted to look beautiful and forever young. The evolution of the “painted woman” situation can be summarized thus into a short line of interdependent events – the authors of sonnets and other lyrical poetry create an idealized woman and praise her for her immortal beauty; these sonnets are highly fashionable and popular, which means they are read and admired; women want to be admired for their beauty and want to go with the current fashion, so they start using mercury-based make-up to look like the idealized woman; they actually ruin their natural beauty by striving for the artificial; they become subjects of criticism and ridicule and it only feeds the already existing fear of women deceiving men (considering adultery), and their artificial beauty covering ruined skin is just an available argument for the critics.

In Jacobean tragedy the female characters are often victims of this objectification and fragmentation. One of the obvious examples is Gloriana from Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. Her lover, Vindice, uses her skull in his revenge plot to punish the Duke for her untimely death. He not only decapitates the dead body of his beloved, he also paints the skull and poisons it and disguise it as a country lady (however unimaginable it is). Gloriana’s body is abused even though she is already dead. In later tragedies the women are usually alive at the beginning of the play and they are subjects of various violent misuses “including rape, prostitution, and murder” (Finke 359). In the plays women are reduced “to mere objects whose femininity is exclusively defined by their sexuality” and they are “also potentially sexual threats because they are all potentially false lovers” (Finke 359) – this aspect of seeing women as deceivers is in the plays, as well as in the criticisms as it was mentioned above, often connected to the artificial beauty, as for example when Vindice says “See ladies, with false forms / You deceive men, but cannot deceive worms” (Finke 358). By this fear of men, women are reduced to “whores or potential whores” (Finke 359). Female characters facing this accusation of being whores, and being punished for their sin, are for example the Duchess in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, Annabella in Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore or Vittoria in Webster’s The White Devil, Bianca in Middleton’s Women Beware Women or Beatrice in The Changeling. In all these cases the real sin lies in the fact that these women choose their lovers or husbands on their own, without getting approval of the representatives of the patriarchal society.

On the character of the Duchess Finke describes yet another aspect of diminishing women – she is silent: “she can talk, but she cannot speak; she can make noise, but can have nothing to say” (Finke 366). While she speaks openly when with her husband Antonio or with her maid, her eloquence is reduced to a small number of lines when she is in the presence of her brothers who present the patriarchal oppression. When she is alive, she “remains outside language and powerless precisely because she is silent” (Finke 367) and when she is strangled, she is silenced forever. Finke comments that “sexual hostility most frequently results in the silencing ʻdecapitationʼ of the tragic heroine: Lavinia raped, her tongue cut out (and her hands cut off so she cannot write) in Titus Andronicus, Desdemona strangled in Othello” and already dead Gloriana in The Revenger’s Tragedy is “reduced to a grinning skull” (Finke 367). Another mutilated woman is Annabella from ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore – she is praised only for her beauty, not for her actions. Her sin lies in her choosing her own brother as a lover, while she is married to another man. The relationship with her brother is based on his trying to “eliminate” her difference from him – she “becomes a passive and silent mirror of her brother and, like a mirror, she can only be a physical, and hence unthreatening, reflection” (Finke 368). Both her husband and her brother try to make her constant by fragmenting her, at first only verbally, into pieces. When she changes – becomes visibly pregnant – “their language of verbal dismemberment becomes more and more violent and the insistent repetition of these conventional images becomes more disturbing” (Finke 369). At the end of the play her brother kills her by stabbing her into the stomach, killing their unborn child, and then appears on stage with her heart impaled on his sword.

While Ford’s treatment of Annabella is misogynistic in the violence used against her, Middleton’s tragedies are not based simply on violent punishment of sinful women and he also does not criticize only women but also men. Albert H. Tricomi in “Middleton’s Women Beware Women as Anticourt Drama” describes how Middleton criticizes the corrupt court of James I and deconstructs the power symbolism – “the [...] systematic juxtaposition of the beneficent public images of authority with the sordid, private reality [...], its exposure of the court as an over-sophisticated, morally effete institution” and showing the similarity with the Court of James I by introducing “topical, Jacobean grievances of enforced marriage and ward-ship” (Tricomi 65). Middleton shows the corruption of the Court by presenting “the Duke’s potent power to exploit his exalted, public presence to achieve lowly, private ends” (Tricomi 66). This exploitation of power is also connected to the story of Isabella who is forced into marriage with Ward – it shows the unjust “misuse of positions of trust to exploit those who should be protected” (Tricomi 71). When James I succeeded Elizabeth I on the English throne, the Parliament wanted to abolish the institution of wardship – while James agreed to a sort of compromise, it was never enacted and the wardship became more unjust than before – “the king sold warships in reward for service to gentlemen and nobles for a handsome fee. The appointed guardian loved this political plum because he could bilk the ward’s estate during the ward’s minority and could also marry his charge off to the highest bidder” (Tricomi 71). The wardship element is not present only in the Isabella plot, as Tricomi suggests, but also in the story of Bianca. Her young husband leaves her at home with his mother to guard her. Even though Tricomi describes the Mother in terms of “trusting simplicity” (68), but Richard A. Levin has in his “If Women Should Beware Women, Bianca Should Beware Mother” clearly a different opinion on this character. He claims that the Mother is not naive at all, but rather experienced – he supposes that she once experienced a similar situation to Bianca’s. The Mother belongs to the fallen gentry and in several situations she seems to understand that there are certain merits to the infidelity of her daughter-in-law. She is not happy that her son has a wife, because they were poor even before they had another person to support. Levin claims that from the beginning the Mother is thinking about how to better her situation through this unwanted daughter-in-law. Thus, even though she is not a proper ward of Bianca, she is betraying the trust of her son and his bride, and instead of protecting Bianca, she quickly and cunningly introduces her to the higher society of Florence, to the life of debauchery.





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