Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature

By Claude J. Summers; Ted-Larry Pebworth | Go to book overview

William Shullenberger


Milton's Lady and Lady Milton

Chastity, Prophecy, and Gender in
A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle

It seems that whenever one ventures to comment on Milton, one risks treading on, and opening up, a fault line in the field of English Renaissance studies. This became startlingly evident to me at a recent conference, where I had read a paper on the poetics of the Lady's Echo Song in Milton's A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle. The moderator of the panel took me to task for implying that Milton developed progressive attitudes toward women's roles and women's speech that were anachronistically at odds with seventeenth-century English Protestant conceptions of gender roles and relations in general, and with the evidence of Milton's misogyny in particular. I had not intended for the paper to be so provocative, in part because I had naively assumed that the gender wars of the 1970s and 1980s over Milton and women were behind us. Instead, I rediscovered that Milton—or that complex of text and history that we agree to designate “Milton”—continues to be a contested site, a fault line in the field, on this topic and many others. The following essay enters more directly into these controversies by considering Milton's imaginative gender crossing in his creation of, and identification with, the heroic Lady of his Maske. It is my contention that chastity in the Maske is the gender crossroad where Milton discovers his prophetic voice, and that this voice, as articulated by the Lady, activates and authorizes, rather than appropriates and suppresses, a public speaking site for liberatory female speech. The essay thus engages at least three unsettled and unsettling questions in contemporary Milton studies: the question of whether the radicalism of Milton the English revolutionary is already evident in his early poetry, the question of the meaning of chastity for Milton's poetry and poetics, and the question of Milton's politics and theology of gender. 1.

____________________
1.
Relevant critical texts that engage these questions will be cited in the course of the essay.

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