The Early Modern Italy was the centre of new thoughts stemming from the rebirth of classical knowledge in the framework of the medieval culture. The studies of classics turned scholars and artists from the religious world to the secular – the Renaissance humanism brought, above all, the interest in individuality and in everything human. The shifts and changes caused by the new way of thinking and by turning the attention back to the ancient times were not only on the theoretical level – while “humanism, in stressing the classics, made way for a new emphasis on the individual, on the dignity of man, and on human possibilities in general,” the urban societies “with their new social mobility, provided a practical counterpart to these theories, and arena in which they could be tested” (Gundersheimer 11). While in other parts of Europe the societies were still rather rigidly divided according to the medieval tradition, “the cities of Italy in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were surely the most exciting cities in Western cultural history” (Gundersheimer 11-12). The modern urban societies of Italy “left priceless heritage of achievements in the arts, literature, classical scholarship, archaeology, and historical and political thought, as well as impressive contributions in philosophy, economic theory and practice, and education” (Gundersheimer 12). The importance of Italian influences on England and the Early Modern English drama – and its female characters in particular – is undeniable because Italy was the first Early Modern country to think about human possibilities – and not only those of men, but also about the possibilities of women.
3.1 Defences of Women
Italy, as the cradle of Renaissance and humanism and of the interest in human that evolved from that, is also the country where appeared the first literary attempts to defend women – to challenge “the central orthodoxy” that “woman’s capacity for the cardinal virtues is partial, if it exists at all” (Benson 4). According to Pamela Benson, there were mainly two ways of defending women – seeing them as extraordinary or as exemplary. The first model sees women as being capable “in just the same ways men are because they are endowed with the cardinal virtues as men are and because they suffer no special disabilities because of their reproductive function” (Benson 4). Virtue is still only masculine, as well as the women “endowed” with it. But these women are not seen as violating the rules of nature (in comparison with Greek women who, as “intruders”, acted against their gender roles when they left the oikos, but their “masculine” behaviour was unnatural). This model praises women for actually not being feminine. Nevertheless, the capacity of being endowed with cardinal virtues was “essential for good political action” (Benson 5), which means that women had right to enter the political life – “given the education and opportunity, women can play all the roles men can with equal skill, wisdom, and virtue” (Ibid.) Benson thus calls this group of women “independent” because they are not dependent on men for governance, both moral and political. The second model “transforms qualities traditionally considered liabilities into assets” (Benson 4). Women have specific female virtues and “they can be strong in a feminine way because of their reproductive function” (Ibid.). According to this model both sexes are capable of virtue, but they have to express exactly those appropriate to their gender. In this a masculine woman is violating the rules of nature. But, there is a special explanation for this excess: “if this violation of nature is socially beneficial, it may be described as miraculous rather than as unnatural; the woman might be described as temporarily containing a male soul within her female body” (Benson 5). Except this supernatural explanation, this model usually sees feminine virtue as superior to masculine virtue and actually praises women for being female. Preferring feminine virtues (love and care) over the cardinal ones then could suggest that the political system should be redefined and should use the superior feminine virtues. But in the gender-divided society these feminine virtues were connected only to the private sphere (taking care of the family) – the virtuous women would thus engage in the public sphere only during a crisis “when the boundary between the political and the domestic broke down and male spirit miraculously entered them” (Benson 5). Benson calls these women “interdependent” because they are capable of self-government but not of public-government.
But because of “the central orthodoxy”, writing to defend women, regardless of the chosen model, was problematic, even paradoxical: “because woman’s inferiority to man was assumed, a text that proposed to defend her and praise her excellence or superiority was attempting to defend the indefensible and praise the unpraisable” (Benson 3). And if the text was successful in doing that, it undermined the societal assumption – and many authors of these texts were not ready to do that. Because of this many of the texts do not only incorporate both above mentioned models, but also content defences of men. Women could not be equal to men, because “attributing the same kind of virtue to each sex did not necessarily mean attributing the same quantity of virtue to each” (Benson 5). This means that women are not equal and can remain excluded from the politics. And women could be in some feminine way superior to men, but they still cannot enter the politics, because “male political systems are necessary to govern the corrupt world and protect good women” (Benson 5).
Benson divides the authors of literary defences of women in three groups – the first group focused primarily and consistently on the first model, the “extraordinary” woman: the Italian humanist, Agostino Strozzi, and the English Catholic Henry Howard; the second group focused on the “exemplary” woman: Bartolomeo Goggio, an Italian humanist, and many English defenders of women; the third group provided “mixed” defence: Castiglione’s Cortegiano, Elyot’s Defence, Orlando Furioso by Ariosto and The Faerie Queene by Spencer. While most of them became marginal and forgotten, the works by Castiglione, Ariosto and Spencer were very popular. Benson states not only that The Faerie Queene is “deeply connected” to Orlando Furioso, but also that it is a “conspicuous refutation of Ariosto’s handling of the woman problem” (7). While Orlando Furioso focuses more on the first method – women being equal to men in their virtue – The Faerie Queene is dealing with the second one – feminine virtue being superior to the masculine.
Even though he was not mentioned above, Benson claims that the founder of “Renaissance profeminism” is Boccaccio with his De mulieribus claris. It is a book consisting of stories about famous women, except for saints and martyrs because their stories were remembered by historians – they were the only group of women with documented past and the non-existence of other literary evidence of other famous women was the reason that brought Boccaccio to write this book. He aimed the lessons of his stories at both sexes and made it clear that the book is also for the male readership – “if male historians have ignored women, they must be made to read about them” so that he would be able to change the historical record, as he states as his “goal” (Benson 17). Nevertheless, he does not blame the male historians for not recording the women’s history and in comparison with later women defenders, he does not think that the fact that many women were nameless, even though their deeds outlived them, was because the male historians leaved them out on purpose – that “troubled by female fame, men conspire to exclude women from history” (Benson 15). The women he chose for his book were of all kinds and they were “mixed together” in the book: “conventionally heroic, chaste women like Penelope and Lucrece appear alongside ruling queens and Amazons like Semiramis and Penthesalia and alongside wicked women like Medea and Flora” (Benson 9). Their connection is “being renowned for whatever it is they have done” (Benson 9). This book is problematic because of its ambivalence – at one hand he sees women as strong and capable and seems to “suggest social remedies for the perceived weakness of women”, at the other he often describes these women and their behaviour as extraordinary and miraculous. These inconsistencies thus enable two readings of the text: “it may be dangerous and subversive of established social order” or “it may be safe and supportive of existing gender roles” (Benson10).