Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Assembling Radigund and Artegall: Gender Identities in Spenser's Faerie Queene

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Assembling Radigund and Artegall: Gender Identities in Spenser's Faerie Queene

Article excerpt

The story of Britomart, Spenser's famous cross-dressing lady knight, runs through Books III, IV, and V of The Faerie Queene (1590/1596).1 Dressed in armour and therefore performing the functions of a presumably masculine knight, and disguised at times even from the reader, Britomart quickly adopts a subject that allows her to travel alone and to fight. At the same time, however, her body retains feminine gender markers that allow it to assert a feminine gender whenever it is revealed. Britomart is not alone in cross-dressing in the poem: other cross-dressed characters include the villainous Amazon Radigund, who uses her armour to subjugate men, and Britomart's destined husband Artegall, who is forced to cross-dress by Radigund. These three characters present a collective model of gender that is tightly tied to the physical objects associated with their bodies. Since Spenser's characters are allegorical, their clothing and other props serve as markers of a character's current state.2 Thus, for instance, Artegall's sword, Chrysaor, broken by Radigund after his defeat, reappears apparently unharmed during his later battle with Grantorto. Spenser does not represent this object for its own sake, but in order to signify an aspect of its owner. As the allegorical manifestation of his characters' states, the physical objects within Spenser's gender model develop their own agency alongside those of the characters carrying them. Human and object are also sometimes fused into a single entity, amplifying the effects of what might otherwise be considered superficial physical changes into a new gender role.

To better theorize this object-related gender model, I turn to assemblage theory. Originating in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the term 'assemblage' describes a collection of agentive parts that together form a collective but not unified whole. As Deleuze and Guattari describe it, 'an assemblage comprises two segments, one of content, the other of expression. On the one hand it is a machinic assemblage of bodies, of actions and passions, an intermingling of bodies reacting to one another; on the other hand it is a collective assemblage of enunciation, of acts and statements, of incorporeal transformations attributed to bodies.'3 Assemblages are physical collections of objects but they are also the ways those objects are used and deployed. Objects and actions assemble a given identity in tandem. At the same time, however, assemblages are always temporally bounded: while they might, conceivably, given the right circumstances, endure forever, every assemblage carries within itself forces that seek to preserve the assemblage's current configuration as well as forces that seek to break it. Deleuze and Guattari describe these forces as territorializing (i.e., stabilizing) and deterritorializing forces respectively.4 In deploying a language of territorialization, that is to say, a language of staking out boundaries, Deleuze and Guattari posit that assemblages are not destroyed so much as reconfigured. Components may enter and expand an assemblage; alternately, components may also push against the boundaries of an assemblage and eventually break out of it again. Assemblages consequently possess a great potential for reconfiguration: 'one of the chief traits of such wholes is that a component part of an assemblage may be detached from it and plugged into a different assemblage in which its interactions are different.'5 Assemblages are not static but constantly being re-inscribed and modified by their components, which simultaneously push against and reinforce their current configuration.

Assemblage theory tends to focus on larger social institutions, which focus has, perhaps inadvertently, occasionally resulted in human individuals being viewed as little more than building blocks for such larger assemblages; while their own assembled nature is gestured at, it is also dismissed as being of comparatively little interest. …

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