Incest and Agency in Elizabeth's England

Incest and Agency in Elizabeth's England

Incest and Agency in Elizabeth's England

Incest and Agency in Elizabeth's England


Maureen Quilligan explores the remarkable presence in the Renaissance of what she calls "incest schemes" in the books of a small number of influential women who claimed an active female authority by writing in high canonical genres and who, even more transgressively for the time, sought publication in print.

It is no accident for Quilligan that the first printed work of Elizabeth I was a translation done at age eleven of a poem by Marguerite de Navarre, in which the notion of "holy" incest is the prevailing trope. Nor is it coincidental that Mary Wroth, author of the first sonnet cycle and prose romance by a woman printed in English, described in these an endogamous, if not legally incestuous, illegitimate relationship with her first cousin. Sir Philip Sidney and his sister, the Countess of Pembroke, translated the psalms together, and after his death she finished his work by revising it for publication; the two were the subject of rumors of incest. Isabella Whitney cast one of her most important long poems as a fictive legacy to her brother, arguably because such a relationship resonated with the power of endogamous female agency. Elizabeth Carey's closet drama about Mariam, the wife of Herod, spends important energy on the tie between sister and brother. Quilligan also reads male-authored meditations on the relationship between incest and female agency and sees a far different Cordelia, Britomart, and Eve from what traditional scholarship has heretofore envisioned.

Incest and Agency in Elizabeth's England makes a signal contribution to the conversation about female agency in the early modern period. While contemporary anthropological theory deeply informs her understanding of why some Renaissance women writers wrote as they did, Quilligan offers an important corrective to modern theorizing that is grounded in the historical texts themselves.


We have been taught by feminist scholarship that women are constrained by family structures; we have taken this as a foundational principle of arguments for the liberation of women, at least in part because we have so poorly understood the activities women have actually undertaken within kinship structures in traditional societies. If, however, we understand that traditional family and kinship structures may be radically different from our own, we may see how family rank could work to empower highly placed women rather than to limit them. in the sixteenth century the family dynasty became far more pivotal in political arrangements in absolutist Europe than it had been throughout the cloistered Middle Ages, a development that would make the Renaissance aristocratic family a potential site of real agency for women.

Before scrutinizing at a theoretical level exactly how and why traditional kinship structure might endow elite females with agency by means of an endogamous halt in what we have come to call “the traffic in women,” it will be helpful to look at a specific example of the incest taboo in a text which is central to the culture of the Renaissance. No text can be more canonical than King Lear; more important, the play clearly lays out for us the tragedy which occurs when proper intergenerational relations are not observed. King Lear outlines the profound dangers to the culture when men and women fail to abide by the law against incest.

The Cultural Paradigm: Cordelia’s Silence

In the opening scene of King Lear, Cordelia’s refusal to speak demonstrates by negative example how authoritative female speech in the Renaissance is linked with, indeed may be enabled by, the discourse of incest. Unlike her . . .

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