Showing like a Queen: Female Authority and Literary Experiment in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton

Showing like a Queen: Female Authority and Literary Experiment in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton

Showing like a Queen: Female Authority and Literary Experiment in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton

Showing like a Queen: Female Authority and Literary Experiment in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton

Synopsis

For most Renaissance English thinkers, queenship was a catastrophe, a political accident that threatened to emasculate an entire nation. But some English poets and playwrights proved more inventive in their responses to female authority. In "Showing Like a Queen," Katherine Eggert argues that Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton turned the political problem of queenship to their advantage by using it as an occasion to experiment with new literary genres. Unlike other critics who have argued that a queen provoked only anxiety and defensiveness in her male subjects, Eggert demonstrates that even after her death Elizabeth I's forty-five-year reign enabled writers to entertain the fantasy of a counterpatriarchal realm. Eggert traces a literary history of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in which the destabilizing anomaly of female rule enables Spenser to reshape the genre of epic romance and gives Shakespeare scope to create the ruptured dynastic epic of the history plays, the psychologized tragedy of Hamlet, and the feminized tragedies of "Antony and Cleopatra" and "The Winter's Tale." Turning to the second half of the seventeenth century, Eggert reveals how even after more than sixty years of male governance, Milton bases his marital epic "Paradise Lost" upon the formulae of queenship.

Excerpt

If nearly tweny years of new-historicist studies of early modern England have taught us anything, it is that England’s literature from 1558 to 1603 was preoccupied with the anomalous gender of the country’s monarch, Elizabeth Tudor. In other words, Elizabethan literature must be regarded as just that, Elizabethan, in ways that earlier critics did not take into account. Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) set the pattern by juxtaposing Elizabethan queenly and literary style, paralleling “Elizabeth’s conscious sense of her identity as at least in part a persona ficta and her world as a theater” with Edmund Spenser’s conscious and unconscious fashionings of his fictive faery realm. Greenblatt’s point is that the queen and the poet capitalize upon, even while both help create, a pervasive culture of strategic self-representation. But Louis Montrose’s influential work on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, published in its first version in 1983, goes further than Greenblatt’s placement of Elizabeth and Elizabethan literature in the same cultural pool. In Montrose’s view—first articulated in his study of Spenser’s praise of Elizabeth in The Shepheardes Calender’s “Aprill” eclogue —the queen has a uniquely reciprocal and interdependent relationship with the literary productions of her subjects. “[T]he pervasive cultural presence of the Queen,” writes Montrose, “was a condition of [A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s] imaginative possibility. And, in the sense that the royal presence was itself represented within the play, the play appropriated and extended the imaginative possibilities of the queen.” More than simply adopting similar representational strategies for similar ends, the queen and the poet-playwright meet within the fictional . . .

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