Writing Women, Writing Wax: Metaphors of Impression-Possibilities of Agency in Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece and Twelfth Night

By Maxwell, Lynn M. | Criticism, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Writing Women, Writing Wax: Metaphors of Impression-Possibilities of Agency in Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece and Twelfth Night


Maxwell, Lynn M., Criticism


Wax is a material that can be imprinted and inscribed. It can hold a shape but can also be softened and made malleable, melted and re-formed, transformed on every sensory level.1 These material possibilities correlate with the uses that wax was put to in early modern England, many of which concern the practice of writing. Wax was used to seal letters, and, impressed with a signet stamp, a wax seal could indicate ownership, authorship, and speak to questions of privacy and authority. Wax tablets were used for school exercises and account books because they could be wiped of impressions and redeployed, retaining only traces of previous inscriptions. Perhaps most importantly, at least for the purpose of this essay, wax was a material deployed within a wide range of early modern texts as an object and a trope. In this article, I interrogate Shakespeare's use of wax and particularly his attachment of wax materiality to women in The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and Twelfth Night (ca. 1601-2). There Shakespeare suggests that women's minds and hearts are like wax, as he also had done in Я Midsummer Night's Dream (1595-96) where Theseus suggests to Hermia that in relation to her father she should be "as a form in wax, / By him imprinted, and within his power / To leave the figure or disfigure it."2 In Я Midsummer Night's Dream, Hermia's waxiness would be a performance of filial duty-one she refuses. In The Rape of Lucrece and Twelfth Night, women's waxiness becomes a matter of truth, a representation of what they are rather than what they should be; thus the implications of women's connections to wax in these works are more far-reaching and potentially devastating than they otherwise would be.

At first, Shakespeare's attachment of wax materiality to female agential and affective locations in these works seems to endorse a binary system of gender difference,3 of feminine susceptibility to masculine influences. Just as a signet ring pressed on a piece of hot wax leaves its print on the surface of the wax, so men, at least by the logic of the trope, have the power to shape women, while neither signet ring nor man is transformed by the encounter. According to this schema, women are soft, weak, and vulnerable, whereas men are hard, strong, and impervious. Yet, as we shall see, these narratives of difference are complicated by the immediate contexts of their deployments and Shakespeare's engagement with questions of reading and writing in each work. In The Rape of Lucrece, the narrative of binary difference is offered as an explanation for the maid's tears and competes with alternative possibilities for the source of those tears while participating in a larger conversation about Lucrece's relationship to authorship and text. Shakespeare raises similar questions in Twelfth Night when Maria copies her mistress's hand and steals her signature impressure, "her Lucrece," to trick the steward, Malvolio, into fashioning himself into a fool.4 By staging a wax Lucrece, Shakespeare literalizes the metaphor, continuing to explore both the connection of female bodies with texts and the possibility of female authorship through the intersections of Lucrece, Olivia, Maria, and Malvolio. Finally, when the cross-dressed Viola laments Olivia's newfound desire for her alter ego, she offers up a new version of the original metaphor, once again narrating female weakness as a way of explaining feminine susceptibility to desire, even though there is no true masculine pressure to work on Olivia.

In each case, relationships between women disrupt and challenge the narrative of gender difference that the trope of signet-seal provides. Thus, even as the trope works to narrate difference, it also destabilizes the binaries of active and passive, dominant and submissive, and hard and soft that mobilize the trope, suggesting that the relations it describes are not as straightforward-or as straight-as they might appear. The malleability of wax leaves the relationships narrated by the metaphor of signet and seal open to renegotiation, invades the narrative of difference, and allows it to speak multiply. …

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