The Female Tragic Hero in English Renaissance Drama

By Hodgdon, Barbara | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Female Tragic Hero in English Renaissance Drama


Hodgdon, Barbara, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


The Female Tragic Hero in English Renaissance Drama, edited by Naomi Conn Liebler. London and New York: Palgrave, 2002. Pp. X + 242. Cloth $65.00.

"Female" and "tragic hero": together in the same space? The seeming oxymoron buried beneath the terms comprising Naomi Liebler's title signals a somewhat challenging project. For from the outset, a critical tradition that marks tragedy as a form controlled and managed by a masculine imaginary creates something of an obstacle, inviting readers to find gaps where something like "female heroics" can emerge. Growing from a 1998 Shakespeare Association of America seminar entitled "Wonder Women: Female Tragic Heroes in the Plays of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries," this collection brings together a series of resistant readings-a familiar province for feminist criticism of early modern drama. Perhaps not surprisingly, contributors situate themselves variously in relation to Liebler's aim-to explore the dimensions of a feminist tragic heroic discourse-as they negotiate this somewhat uneasy territory. Overall, the result represents a contribution to what might be called a re-knowledging of women's roles and histories as well as an invitation to rethink the genre's constraints.

Rehearsing the grounds offered by previous theoretical and critical agendas, Liebler's Introduction offers an astute map of where feminist criticism has been and where this collection attempts to take it. Wiping away the notion that an agon staged in a domestic rather than public sphere is less rigorous and lacks political significance, she effectively marginalizes several myths about female roles, dislodging previous assumptions. Moving to the terms that have dominated the debate, Liebler notes that whereas most feminist writing on early modern drama has focused, in varying degrees, upon the overwhelming misogyny of its representational practices, she instead perceives, in the fashioning of women's roles, an "energetic and powerful resistance to oppression, suppression, silencing and eradication" (5). Her statement offers a powerful, much needed corrective to a critical history that, to be frank, has not advanced the feminist project but left it stalled in anger at the patriarchal bard. She also zeroes in on the potential damage done by psychoanalytical and cultural materialist discourses in circulating a false dichotomy that marks women as "other," different from and lesser than men. With the help of historians, critics, and theorists, liebler deftly dismantles these binary moves, and by anatomizing tragedy's discursive parameters and moving past the cultural markings stamping this drama as populated by women victimized either by males or by their own (self )-undoings, she takes up issues of naming and the ownership of labels in order to discern the DNA of a female heroic: the "genetic code of the [early modern] drama is a double helix of feminist and misogynist strands" (6).

In opening up a space for these re-readings, liebler faults a "blinkered critical sexism" for downplaying female heroics. She outlines three exempla for the female tragic hero: (1) in plays with eponymous male protagonists that position women as "other" to the male protagonist's "self"; (2) in plays with eponymous female protagonists (the Duchess of Main" or Mariam) and with singularly misogynistic contexts, against which women stand before being destroyed; and (3) in plays whose titles, equating male and female, make them shared tragedies (19-20). However usefully liebler's frame takes an interventionary posture, and although it is not difficult to envision the women in early modern drama as "tragic," it takes a critical dance or twoand with the right partner(s)-to envision them as "heroic." And indeed what follows is a series of elaborate dances in close reading and double mapping of texts and contexts that argue for the presence and present-ness of women as tragic heroes. The essays are organized in the chronological order of the plays they discuss, from the earliest Elizabethan examples to Jacobean texts, an arrangement that not only suggests how certain topics and parameters of roles coalesced in the drama at particular historical moments but also echoes liebler's brief history of plays published in the periods, noting the cycles and recyclings of those featuring women.

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