Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Incited Minds: Rethinking Early Modern Girls

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Incited Minds: Rethinking Early Modern Girls

Article excerpt

THE HUMORAL MODEL that dominates current understandings of the early modern body has left an uninspiring legacy when it comes to the study of female minds. Women, generally unable to produce enough heat to keep their bodily fluids efficiently in motion, had sub-standard physiologies compared to those of men; as a result, their brains were deficient when it came to the heat-refining process necessary to produce quality animal spirits. Without such spirits, images and ideas could not easily and adeptly move through the brain's three ventricles: the anterior, where imagination and the five senses resided, the middle--site of judgment--and the posterior, the seat of memory. (1)

Adolescent virgin girls were uniquely disadvantaged. Their bodies were not yet broken in by marital intercourse and opened up by regular menstruation, so they were prone to the retention of seed and blood, and to the diseases of the mind that followed. Unlike her colder, older self, this newly mature female was imagined to be excessively hot, and her body and mind reacted to this atypical heat in specific ways. When abundant seed is "over long retained in Bodies prone to lust, and full of heat," wrote Lazarus Riverius, it works like yeast in the seminal vessels, inflaming sexual desire and madness: "Vapors ascend unto the Brain, which disturb the Rational Faculty, and depose it from its throne." (2) This medically-based belief found its fictional expression in characters like the raging, greensick Jailer's Daughter in Two Noble Kinsmen, who is cured of her insanity once she has sex--one of the "pushes," perhaps, wenches are "driven to / When fifteen once has found us" (2.4.6-7). (3)

Fourteen and fifteen often do appear as dangerous ages, sexually speaking, for girls in early modern discourses. In her study of teenagers in early modern drama, Ursula Potter notes that "[i]t is rare in early modern drama to find any character given a chronological age, but the exceptions to this general rule are plays that depict teenage girls whose sexual development is central to the plot." Potter considers how such plays often tag these girls' ages early on as a cue for the audience to consider "the risky sexual behaviors commonly associated with the virginal body at puberty." (4) Such a reading does help explain seemingly out-of-character comments like that made by the kind-hearted Antigonus in The Winter's Tale about his three pre-pubescent girls, ages 11,9, and 5. Should Hermione prove false, he swears to her jealous husband Leontes that "I'll geld 'em all. Fourteen they shall not see, / To bring false generations" (2.1.149-50).

The criticism on early modern adolescent girls tends to focus on their newly mature sexual bodies. Given the early modern fixation on controlling daughters, exemplified so gruesomely by Antigonus, this work is critical to understanding the larger gender-based networks of oppression in the period. As Kate Chedgzoy asks, "If ... we focus on female children as they pass through adolescence into adult femininity, what can we learn of the complex interrelations of the politics of gender, sexuality and age in Shakespeare's texts and in the culture from which they emerged?" (5) I would add to this question, and to the vital emerging field of early modern girlhood studies that informs it, the following: If we focus on the adolescent female, what can we learn about the rich interactions between girls' brains and their early modern environments, and what can this tell us about the specific and unique cultural work early moderns imagined these minds to be doing?

Older scholarship read girls' minds as passively impressionable. In 1845, N. J. Halpin wondered, for example, at Juliet's "familiarity with thoughts and expressions not likely in any other way to have obtained entrance into the mind of an innocent and unsophisticated girl of fourteen," and attributed her remarkable speech to the bridal ceremonies and masques in which she likely had participated: "Thus might she have caught up the topics and language appropriated to this species of poetry. …

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