Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen

By Philippa Berry | Go to book overview

Chapter four

Carnival at court: contests for authority in Elizabethan aristocratic pastimes

Both Petrarchism and Neoplatonic love philosophy exhibited a distinct ambiguity towards the natural world. Did the lover’s impulse towards an idea of perfection require the rejection and transcendence of nature, or was it possible that it could itself be redeemed? In spite of the dualistic attitudes which had shaped these systems, they both articulated some hope of the transformation of man’s earthly environment. In terms which paralleled biblical descriptions of the Wisdom figure, the love discourses represented the female object of a chaste desire as a vital point of intersection between a fallen and mutable material world and a transcendent and unchanging realm, equivalent to the Platonic World of Ideas. Petrarch’s Laura was represented within an earthly paradise (like Dante’s Beatrice when he first encountered her in the Purgatorio); the Neoplatonist Giordano Bruno described Elizabeth I as engirdling the new world of the Americas. Thus paradoxically, while the fear of sexuality which was central to these systems (especially the sexuality of woman) involved a rejection of the materiality of the body, the female beloved also emblematized in her person the possibility of a golden age in which spirit would once more be immanent in matter.

As I have already indicated, the emphasis of the love discourses was usually on the meaning of this figure for an individual masculine subject. In this context, she mediated between the male lover’s fallen self, unable to master his own destiny or his environment, and his desire to become an heroic or angelic being, with the power to control his own life, to shape himself according to his own desires and consequently to impose his will upon nature. In other words, the beloved conferred upon him the equivalent to a religious state of grace. Within the discourse of Renaissance absolutism, however, a similar female figure was accredited with a collective rather than an individual experience of earthly paradise, in the form of the benefits conferred by the absolutist state upon its members. Thus we find pastoral and golden age motifs being used to legitimate a particular political and social order. In Elizabethan absolutism, the paradisal theme was lent especial emphasis by the female

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