Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen

By Philippa Berry | Go to book overview

Chapter two

A curious conjunction: discourses of love and political power in the French Renaissance

In both Petrarchism and Renaissance Neoplatonism, the definition of masculine identity through or across a female figure had a secular as well as a spiritual dimension. Petrarch’s Rime Sparse established a metonymic relationship between his private experience of love and the moulding of an objective public identity, as a successful poet. And Baldessare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano founded its definition of a ‘courtly’ aristocratic identity upon the Neoplatonic conception of love. But the impact of the love discourses upon the formation of social identity was not restricted to the poet or courtier; in some contexts it extended to the figure of the ruler. In the first half of the sixteenth century, Petrarchan and Neoplatonic attitudes were assimilated by the aesthetic strand of French absolutist ideology in order to forge a new image of the monarch. Both the biblical Wisdom figure and its medieval equivalent had often been depicted as the attribute of kings; French Renaissance literature and art briefly represented a Diana-like female beloved as the custodian, not merely of self-knowledge or of worldly success, but of absolute political power. The importance of this theme within French culture declined in the latter part of the sixteenth century; however, it was taken up and reformulated in courtly representations of Elizabeth I. In this gynocentric cult of an unmarried queen, the emphasis of the love discourses upon masculine subjectivity was to be seriously undermined. Yet the prominence earlier accorded Diana in French absolutism was an important prelude to this phenomenon.

A central theme which appears again and again in the ideologies of Renaissance absolutism relates to the divinely sanctioned power of their monarchs. As proof of this sacred character of their rule they were asserted to wield an especial authority over the natural world, comparable to that claimed by ecclesiastical authorities for the figure of Christ as a second Adam. Of course an emphasis upon the especial holiness of the Christian ruler was not new; it dated from the reign of the Emperor Constantine, and in France itself had been the basis of a cult of royalty in the high middle ages. 1 But the representation of Renaissance

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