Women and Race in Early Modern Texts

Women and Race in Early Modern Texts

Women and Race in Early Modern Texts

Women and Race in Early Modern Texts

Synopsis

Joyce Green MacDonald discusses the links between women's racial, sexual, and civic identities in early modern texts. She examines the scarcity of African women in English plays of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the racial identity of the women in the drama and also that of the women who watched and sometimes wrote the plays. The coverage also includes texts from the late fourteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, by, among others, Shakespeare, Jonson, Davenant, the Countess of Pembroke and Aphra Behn.

Excerpt

At the end of Antony and Cleopatra, I suggested, Antony's invocation of the Aeneid works to affirm that his and Cleopatra's story can be understood as undermining the places of racial and cultural conflict in the founding legend of Romanitas. The two of them will have re-imagined the ending of meetings between east and west, conqueror and client state, male and female. Such an act of cultural will has necessarily required them to construct “new heaven, new earth” (1.1.17) as the ground for this transmutation, a new world which will recognize the erotic as the most powerful engine of human and national destiny.

But in this chapter, I turn to the myth Antony invokes at the moment of his suicide as away of revaluing the meaning of his life and death. Versions of Rome's founding legends, and particularly of the places occupied in them by women and ideas of their racial and sexual duty, are not as malleable as Antony wishfully pronounces them at the end of his life. My readings of some of these texts of Roman origins suggests instead that looking back to Rome's beginnings reinforces the bonds of gender and of race that Antony and Cleopatra can be glimpsed in the act of attempting to “melt” (“Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch/Of the ranged empire fall, ” 1.1.33–34). The arch of empire in these stories depends on carefully policing sexual and cultural borders, so that looking backwards from Antony and Cleopatra to the myths that Antony would overturn by an act of imaginative will produces a kind of tragic nostalgia for what has not been, and can never be.

In Book Six of The Aeneid, Virgil's hero – steeled in his duty by the revelations of the oracle of Apollo, and having appeased the ever-vengeful gods through sacrifice – is granted entrance into hell. There, he experiences visions which workto reconsecrate his sense of his imperial fate. But among these visions, which culminate in his father Anchises' revelation to him of the order of the Alban and Roman kings who will spring from his seed, is the sight of the shade of his late mistress Dido.

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