Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen

By Philippa Berry | Go to book overview

Introduction

What is the genealogy of western ideas of love? And what can a feminist interpretation of a specific instance in this complex chain of representations reveal? In undertaking this literary critical project, which is also an essay in cultural history, my aim is to clarify the contradictory relations of gender inscribed in the discourses of idealized love which influenced so much Renaissance literature: Petrarchism and Neoplatonism. What, I ask, are the implications of the paradox that is central to both Petrarchism and Renaissance Neoplatonism, whereby the elaboration of new concepts of masculine subjectivity was dependent upon an image of woman? And why does woman function in these systems as the privileged signifier of a sacred or supernatural dimension?

These issues are thrown into vivid relief by a consideration of the curious interrelationship between the love discourses and the literary ‘cult’ of a female Renaissance ruler—Elizabeth I of England. In the literary texts which the book considers, issues of sexual authority are often closely intertwined with a contest for political as well as imaginative power. I explore the implications of the fact that in sixteenth-century France as well as England, idealized attitudes to love were appropriated by the ideology of absolutist monarchy, and helped to shape the aesthetic representation of ideas of kingship. My argument is that with its assimilation of Petrarchism and Neoplatonism, Renaissance absolutism adopted a potentially unorthodox model of gender relations, whose inner contradictions became especially apparent in literary representations of an unmarried queen as an object of sublimated desire. Most importantly, the idea of feminine chastity which was emphasized by Petrarch and the Renaissance Neoplatonists acquired a new and unexpected significance when associated with a woman who was possessed of both political and spiritual authority.

Attitudes to love derived from Petrarchan love poetry and Florentine Neoplatonic philosophy were widely disseminated among western courtly societies during the European Renaissance. Although, as I shall show, these discourses differed in several respects, both systems combined a

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