Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

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

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

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

Article excerpt

Showing Like A Queen: Female Authority and Literary Experiment in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. By Katherine Eggert. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2000. ix + 289 pp. $45; 33.50 [pounds sterling].

As Katherine Eggert points out at the beginning of this book, New Historicist criticism has illuminated the extent to which Elizabethan literature is marked by male anxiety about female authority, the stimulus for this anxiety being, of course, the presence of a woman on the English throne. Eggert, however, detects in such formulations the assumption that female authority has an inherently debilitating and circumscribing effect on male writers. In countering this, she takes one stage further Diana Henderson's argument (in Passion Made Public: Elizabethan Lyric, Gender, and Performance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995)) that Elizabeth's presence legitimized `feminine' literary forms such as lyric, romance, and drama: writers such as Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton `turn the political "problem" of queenship, either current or remembered, to their advantage by reconstituting it in terms of new poetic and dramatic genres' (p. 7).

In the two chapters that follow this introduction, Eggert identifies the different ways in which a late-Elizabethan hankering after masculine rule impels Spenser (in The Faerie Queene, Book v) and Shakespeare (in Henry V) towards the creation of new literary forms. Britomart's decapitation of the Amazon Radigund parallels a shift of idiom from romance to a historical allegory purged of feminine influence; in Henry V, Shakespeare attempts to create a peculiarly masculine brand of epic theatre by investing the heroic king with a theatrical authority that in the earlier histories (whether it has belonged to Joan La Pucelle or Richard III) has been gendered feminine. Eggert revisits this question of the gender of theatre in a study of (Jacobean) Antony and Cleopatra. Elizabeth's absence ppermits nostalgia for charismatic feminine rule: Shakespeare's compelling Cleopatra both evokes the dead queen and, in the endless fecundity of her imaginative production, stands for the alluring theatre itself. …

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