The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature

By Juliana Schiesari | Go to book overview
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Chapter 2
Black Humor? Gender and Genius
in the Melancholic Tradition

Jennifer Radden's contention, following Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, that Western medical and philosophical practices have contributed to sexist ideology by describing women as "sick" or as "potentially sickening to man" is borne out by the tradition of humoral medicine. In particular, the impairment brought on by the melancholy humor is described as either a privileged state of inspired genius from which women are implicitly or explicitly excluded, or a pathological state—a disease—whose onset in men often refers back to some intrusive "femininity." And on the few occasions when melancholia afflicts women, it is said to occur because of the essentialized frailty and inadequacy of their "nature" (as that melancholic prince per eccellenza, Hamlet, says of his mother: "Frailty thy name is woman"). Indeed, melancholia in women is often diagnosed in terms of lack in regard to the phallus, a condition known as erotomania. 1 The divergence, however, between

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1
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Cvrus Hoy ( New York: Norton, 1963), I, ii, 146. Gertrude's "frailty," as condemned by Hamlet, is that of erotomania. He accuses her of marrying too soon after his father's death: "O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer" (I, ii, 150-51). Ophelia too would have been diagnosed as erotomanic. Cf. Elaine Showalter, " Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman ( New York: Methuen, 1985), pp. 77-105; and Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision ( London: Verso, 1986), p. 139. Sappho, of course, appears on many lists of melancholics but precisely to the extent that she represents erotomania. On melancholia and female erotomania, see Jacques Ferrand, A Treatise on Lovesickness, trans. and ed. Donald A.

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