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date: 15 August 2020

(p. 75) Early Modern Women’s Lives

Insisting that even as scholars employ gender flexibly as an analytical tool they keep an eye on the situation of early modern women, the four essays in this section focus on Shakespeare’s representation of women’s corporeal, political, and domestic lives. Confronting both the constraints of official patriarchalism and the social contradictions that enabled female agency, the section begins with an essay that addresses one of the greatest challenges to a project of feminist recovery: the attempt to reveal ‘the fraught historical embodiment of subaltern women from the Islamic world in Elizabethan England and their neglected, albeit constitutive role in its literature, including Shakespeare’s plays’. Bernadette Andrea’s analysis of the Gesta Grayorum, the Christmas festivities performed at Gray’s Inn during 1594–5, and the subsequent Masque of Proteus performed at court, reveals a ‘patriarchal web of empire’ that links figurations of Amazons, Turks, and Tartars to Islamic women of African descent living in London such as ‘Lucy Negro’, as well as ‘Ippolyta the Tartarian’ who, abducted (or purchased) in central Asia, served in Queen Elizabeth’s court. In addition to exposing the presence of subaltern women—and men—as recorded in the imaginaries of the Inn’s future imperialists, Andrea’s historical contextualization places The Comedy of Errors—performed as part of the revels on December 28—squarely within the history of Western empire.

Lucy Negro appears to have supported herself as a prostitute and brothel owner; she thus enacted a complicated form of agency by sexually serving men to whom she was subordinate while engaging women in work that could be exploitative and dangerous, while also being their only possible means of financial support. Women’s agency has long been a central feminist concern, and the following two essays examine the different strategies by which women at the helm of their countries are represented as negotiating the (p. 76) contradictions of gendered power. Stephen Spiess’s three-pronged reading of Jeanne la Pucelle—as historical woman, as ‘Joan de Puzel’ in The First Part of Henry VI, and as the ‘Joan of Arc’ of literary criticism—indicates that the exceptional woman is vulnerable to being framed through knowledge practices that position her as a ‘whore’. But for Spiess, this label is not self-evident; his analysis of language, gender, and embodiment demonstrates the extent to which Jeanne ‘is a puzzle that generates a desire to proclaim who she is, and what her body means’. The epistemological conundrums posed by this puzzle—which lead to a proliferation of ‘proclamations’ that attempt to fix her—implicate critics as much as early modern chroniclers and Shakespeare’s characters. Spiess finds Jeanne’s resistance to this ‘framing’ in her canny rhetorical prowess, both during her trial and in her reincarnation in Shakespeare’s play, where the relations of language to embodiment continue to be ‘puzzled out’. Emphasizing ‘the cultural labour necessary to stabilize her excess significance’, he derives from this layered history a methodological ‘template for analysing embodiment-as-process’.

The uncanniness of Jeanne elucidated by Spiess is related to the demand that she authenticate the origin of her claims to power. In her analysis of the gendering of sovereignty, Susan Frye zeroes in on the spectrality of rule. Shakespeare’s histories and romances create dramatic situations in which the spectres of Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots make felt their uncanny presence. Because these plays are preoccupied with grounding royal legitimacy in the female body, when they ‘place female sovereignty on trial’ they also show how ‘the female body bends the category of “sovereignty” ’. Examining how queens come and go, Frye proposes that their untimely bodies serve to articulate the recursive movements of time itself: ‘They are in the past and about the present and future, or in the present and about the past and future.’ In this respect, Frye introduces what will become an abiding concern throughout this volume: the conflicting imperatives of linear and recursive understandings of temporality.

Each of these essays strives for a balance between what can and cannot be known about early modern women’s lives; they confront how female bodies, in particular, present problems of knowability or, in Spiess’s terms, epistemology—both for early moderns and for us. Wendy Wall, in contrast, locates the question of knowledge in the activities of the early modern kitchen, understood as a space of knowledge production, particularly about how to care for bodies that become ill. Women’s ‘recipe cultures of knowledge’ and the related ‘dispositions’ they support open onto a multivalent reading of health care in All’s Well That Ends Well, including its complex articulation of female agency, the involvement of women in the development of evidentiary standards of proof, and the role of seasoning in philosophical understandings of time. When Wall explicitly positions Shakespeare’s play and women’s recipe writing as ‘mutual glosses for and on the other’, she concisely conveys the historicist method to which each of these essays might be said to enact.