The Invention of the Renaissance Woman: The Challenge of Female Independence in the Literature and Thought of Italy and England

The Invention of the Renaissance Woman: The Challenge of Female Independence in the Literature and Thought of Italy and England

The Invention of the Renaissance Woman: The Challenge of Female Independence in the Literature and Thought of Italy and England

The Invention of the Renaissance Woman: The Challenge of Female Independence in the Literature and Thought of Italy and England

Synopsis

During the Renaissance the nature of womankind was a major topic of debate. Numerous dialogues, defenses, paradoxes, and tributes devoted to sustaining woman's excellence were published, and in them history was rewritten to include the achievements of womankind. Often these texts demonstrate that women are capable of acting with prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, and thus are capable of being independent of male political and moral authority, yet, Pamela Benson argues, the writers use literary means (genre, characterization, narrator, paradox, plot) to defeat the political challenge posed by female independence and to restrain women within a traditional role. The Invention of the Renaissance Woman is a study of the literary strategies used both to create the notion of the independent woman and to restrain her. Traditionally, the profeminism of most of these texts has not been taken seriously because their playful or extreme styles have been read as a sign that they were nothing but a game. Benson demonstrates that the flamboyant and frequently paradoxical style of these texts is the key to their successful profeminism. She defines the literary and conceptual differences between the Italian and English traditions and argues that two of the greatest literary works of the Renaissance, the Orlando furioso and The Faerie Queene, are major texts in the tradition of defense and praise of women. The Inventions of the Renaissance Women is the first substantial contextual discussion of the majority of the Italian texts and many of the English ones. Benson uses the insights of feminist theory and of cultural studies without subordinating the Renaissance texts to a modern political agenda. Among the authors discussed are Spenser, Boccaccio, Ariosto, Castiglione, Vespasiano da Bisticci, Thomas Moore, Thomas Elyot, Juan Luis Vives, Richard Hyrde, Jane Anger, and Henry Howard.

Excerpt

Late in his lifeGiovanni Boccaccio, author of many works dedicated to his "dearest ladies" and of Il Corbaccio, a scurrilous antifeminist satire, produced the De mulieribus claris, a collection of biographies of over one hundred famous secular women. This work was different from any other work about women in Boccaccio's opus and, as he says in his Proem, different from any known postclassical work by any author. It praised many women for acting with strength, valor, fortitude, and intelligence, that is, for exercising "manly" virtues in traditionally male fields (xxxvii).

Enthusiastic as the author represents himself to be about his literary endeavor, however, the text is shadowed by fear. Writing praise of women for such actions might have real political consequences; it might lead a reader to the conclusion that the traditional powerless and inferior position of woman cannot be reconciled with her capacity for political action and that, therefore, social and political institutions ought to be modified in order to accommodate this new woman. Such a radical political conclusion is forestalled by the frequent assertion that the famous women were miraculously endowed with the qualities that enabled them to succeed, and, thus, cannot be models for ordinary women, and by the drawing of ethical rather than political morals from the exemplary lives. By these means the tension between the content of the lives and existing political and social structures is resolved in favor of the status quo.

In its reluctance to follow its own evidence that women are capable of performing like men to its logical political conclusion, the De mulieribus claris forecast the attitude of the works that followed in its wake. First, in collections of biographical sketches of famous women written in imitation of Boccaccio's, then, in a variety of documents about the education of women, in encomia and defenses of womankind, in dialogues on the nature of woman and her . . .

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