THE FEMININE RECLAIMED

(Also published as THE IDEA OF WOMAN IN RENAISSANCE ENGLISH LITERATURE)

 

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1 Stevie Davies (Manchester), author of Renaissance Views of Man gives us Renaissance views of women in The Feminine Reclaimed (University of Kentucky Press, 1986). The female principle as found in ancient authors was revived and reshaped in the Humanist and especially Neoplatonic ideas of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, while in society at large the nature and place of Woman was being hotly debated and forever altered. Plus ça change...

As might be expected from the scholar who wrote Images of Kingship in <<Paradise Lost>> : Milton's Politics and Christian Liberty, the book is best toward the end, but the earlier sections on The Faerie Queene and the late plays of Shakespeare are well worth reading and enriched by a very broad reference to the whole cultural context of those times.

The University of Kentucky Press has been notable lately for books with a feminist perspective such as Nussbaum's The Brink of All We Hate: English Satires on Women, 1660 -1750 and Dreher's Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare (previously noticed in these pages). With The Feminine Reclaimed that tradition continues and the standards rise. Professor Davies is lively as well as erudite and broadminded as well as idealistic. Her work can be said to have a feminist perspective rather than a feminist bias and is all the better for lacking the tone of preaching to the converted which is so evident in much of the recent studies of women in literature and history.
  Bibliotheque d'Humanisme et Renaissance
(Geneva, Switzerland) Tome XLIX - 1987- no.3

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In this densely written and alternately stimulating and maddening book, Stevie Davies argues that Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton are engaged in reasserting the value of the feminine through involvement with, and artful use of, learned material from myth and mystery. Long index entries under such headings as coincidentia oppositorum, Eleusinian Mysteries, Isis, hermaphrodite, and Orpheus indicate the kind of myth and mystery we are dealing with. All three writers, the author suggests, subvert traditional patriarchal structures, both literary and social, by their celebration of the power of the feminine as it embodies ideas of integration, unity, continuity, generation and reconciliation. Such power is exercised not only by obviously competent and active female characters – Spenser's Britomart, or the heroines of Shakespeare's middle comedies – but by those who are more easily seen as victims of male domination, tyranny and lust, such as Florimell in The Faerie Queene, Hermione in The Winter's Tale and Eve in Paradise Lost.

The argument does not stride imposingly from page to page, but surfaces in occasional generalization, insinuates itself through the accumulation of detailed comment grouped round key values and an eclectic range of classical reference, and is accompanied by the regular assertion of the aesthetic value of both method and subject. Such an approach is familiar, in particular from a tradition of writing about Spenser, and Spenser is indeed Dr Davies's starting-point. However, although she makes some interesting local comments on the central books of The Faerie Queene, the most surprising and persuasive applications of her ideas come in the substantial chapters on Shakespeare and Milton.

Shakespeare does not lend himself immediately to talk of Eleusinian mysteries or hermeticism, so in addressing herself to his plays Davies has burrowed below the surface to almost vestigial shapes of action and structure. Thus Viola in Twelfth Night is compared to the figure of Hermes as presented in a Homeric Hymn: a messenger, an improviser of music and song, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night and an impersonator. Through such analogies, precisions of plotting and atmospheric magic are brought into illuminating alignment. The central interest, though, is in the late romances: the long section on The Winter's Tale is the best thing in the book.

The final section pokes fun at Miltonic misogyny; there are some wonderful quotations from the History of Britain and its portrait of Boadicea as a "complete maniac". More seriously, Davies goes on to argue for a reading of Paradise Lost in which Milton's mysterious honouring of Eve, "our general mother", offers a lifeline to the natural and the erotic. This is heretical and "flamboyantly at odds with Milton's professed aim" of justifying a patriarchal God in what might be expected to be "a retributive and punitive poem". The idea is sympathetic but is on occasion pushed too far at the expense of accurate reading. It is not true to say of Adam's discourse on human love to Raphael that

We recognize what Adam is trying to tell Raphael because eros survives the Fall, to be enjoyed and, perhaps, outside Eden's habitual joy, to be more fully appreciated, as a form of knowledge in its pristine condition, formulated at the end of the poem as "A Paradise within thee, happier far".

Milton's habitual striving after distinctions, a habit at odds with any simple use of a rhetoric of myth, makes his poem more complicated and ambivalent than readings like this suggest.

Stevie Davies is herself using her arguments to reclaim the feminine. Her book offers a revisionary reading of Renaissance feminism through a deeply felt and enthusiastic commitment to a particular version of the Renaissance philosophic world.

  Times Literary Supplement

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The subtitle of this book itself qualifies any feminist expectations conjured by its title; for the word Idea, the Preface discloses, has Platonist overtones. In the introductory chapter, Davies traces the roots of the "Renaissance feminine" to the humanist rediscovery of classical writers and their influence on the iconography and philosophy associated with Neoplatonism. In revaluating mythical, especially pastoral contexts, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton reclaim not any particular women or their concerns, but, rather, the emblematic force of the female pagan deities. In light of a Renaissance iconography of the feminine based in part on the Hermetica and The Orphic Hymns, Davies re-interprets Book III of The Faerie Queene, the last plays of Shakespeare, and much of Paradise Lost. She discovers that female characters in these texts take on the emblematic qualities of the major goddesses — Aphrodite, Demeter, Persephone, Diana, Isis — and appear, against the background of such archetypal female images as moon and sea, in situations resembling ancient fertility myths and initiation rites. As if to complement these feminine images, each poet's work is largely an effort to communicate with the "woman-in-himself", a longing for androgyny which is in turn represented most effectively by the figure of the hermaphrodite.

Ordering the book chronologically allows Davies to follow a continuum from Spenser's Idea of the feminine, as it was influenced by Tudor mythology and the cult of the Virgin Queen, to Shakespeare's reliance on ancient mother-goddesses and mother-laws, to Milton's "extension of the Elizabethan humanist dream … carried forwards into a new age of political and social upheaval and overt spiritual dissension". After the introductory material, she begins each chapter with a biographical note, demonstrating the psychological relationship between the "real" world in which the poet lives and the Ideal world about which he writes. Each of the poets, striving for Unity through submission to the feminine principles of love and creation, believes his work offers a specifically feminine, if idealistic alternative to patriarchal reality, and envisions "other kinds of power than the male politics of the daylight world".

Newsletter readers will find chapter 1 especially interesting. Davies argues here that instead of regarding the feminine principle as a dangerous force to be tamed or subdued, Spenser "internalises" it: "He seems to locate and see, not an image of the 'other' — foreign, alien, antithetical — but fugitive reflections of the psyche itself". Most of the chapter focuses on Book III of The Faerie Queene and Britomart, who comes to signify the "transcendence of male by female law". A woman in the male world of action and aggression, Britomart is a Diana-figure complicated by her "allowable human desire" for Arthegall and by her predicted fertility as a mother of kings. Although one could counter that this reminder that her assigned role in English history is to yield to patriarchal power and provide legitimate male heirs does offer Elizabeth a problematic message, Davies believes that Spenser's Britomart / Elizabeth draws "the 'female' element of the nation into a fuller equivalence with the 'male"'. As a syncretizer of the pagan goddesses, Spenser sees beyond the conflict between a Venus and a Diana-figure to their eventual reconciliation (III.vi.25).

Davies also analyzes Spenser's treatment of what men perceive as the "dark" side of the feminine. Britomart's wounding of Marinell and his removal to the submarine, womb-world vault of Cymoent reveal the threat of feminine power in the relationship between sex and death, the womb and the grave, the pangs of generation and regeneration. In both the Marinell and the Garden episodes, Spenser identifies masculine fears, but he does not sanction them. Like most critics, Davies compares the Garden to the Bower of Bliss, equating the Bower with "sterile sexual fantasy" and the Garden with the "fruitfulness of joyous sexual love". She spends several pages exploring the iconographical and symbolic force of Venus and the Garden; both are central to her argument that Spenser recognizes and submits to the female principle in its most paradoxical forms.

The Rape of Innocence, a general theme explored in The Feminine Reclaimed, involves what Frye would call typically mythical figures of innocence — childlike, virginal, Persephone-figures. In The Faerie Queene one finds, among other treacheries, Amoret's imprisonment, Florimell's continual flights from assault, Chrysogone's "benign" rape, and the somewhat pornographic tapestries in the House of Busyrane. Yet Davies also discovers that, as with Adonis, the destructive instinct of male sexuality can be restrained if it yields, of its own accord, to female sexuality. The male poet, another potentially abusive figure, must question the motivation of his own work: "In attempting the role of creator-creatrix of his poem, Spenser everywhere concedes the doubt that he may be acting merely as its fabricator, the Archimago or Busyrane of the poetic world". Davies argues that as narrator of the tapestries displaying Jupiter's rapes, Spenser is "ironic"; he is aware that in III.xi.32 (Leda and the swan) it is insidious to depict a woman as desiring rape. The figure of the hermaphrodite perhaps serves as an antidote to the many violations against women one finds in The Faerie Queene. Two important bisexual figures, the goddess in the Temple of Venus (Book IV) and Dame Nature (Mutabilitie Cantos) appear to be more Aphroditic than Hermetic; their mysterious powers are procreative. Davies' analysis of the frenetic productivity of the Garden suggests a primarily feminine emblem of the hermaphrodite at the center: "Venus and Adonis in the act of coition make up an androgyne within the feminine gender. Venus is spoken of in the active voice, Adonis in the passive; Venus represents the transforming spirit, Adonis the transformed matter. She descends upon the acquiescent male in a direct reversal of the rape motif exemplified in the behaviour of the 'Stygian gods'; thus Venus 'Possesseth him', 'takes her fill' of Adonis, at the discretion of her own lively appetite". Davies prefers the 1590 ending of Book III because Scudamour and Amoret's unifying Neoplatonic embrace stresses the bisexual schema of the poem. The last stanzas compare the couple to a "faire Hermaphrodite," a final coalescence of male and female principles.

If Spenser questions patriarchy with his female warrior and maternal goddesses, Shakespeare also challenges paternal power while retaining the family as the basic social unit. In the tragicomedies, especially the "sea-world" plays, he tries "to redress the lost balance of gender" and to create worlds where the "law of the fathers" submits absolutely to the "law of the mothers" (Davies does not seem to invoke here any Freudian or Lacanian formulae). Frye has noticed that as some of the plots of Shakespeare's last plays become less plausible, their mythical outlines become more visible, especially the plight of the Persephone-figure, or the "comic theme of ritual assault on a female figure, a theme which stretches from Menander to contemporary soap operas." Davies' readings of Twelfth Night, Dream, Pericles, Winter's Tale, and Tempest extend the theme further; she finds that the resolutions of these plots rely heavily on the mythical associations of Demeter as an earth / mother-goddess and law-giver, and on the revelations of her power and promise with the "materialization" of Persephone in the Eleusinian ceremonies. Pericles finally "abdicates his gender", and in Winter's Tale there occurs "an inversion of the patriarchal norm" as Leontes eventually submits to the "grace" of Paulina and allows her Orphic magic to revive the "statue" of Hermione. The hermaphrodite is also an important figure for Shakespeare, whose girls disguised as boys move between both male and female spheres, as does Viola / Cesario, to educate other characters about the limitations of insisting on a singular nature.

In her re-interpretation of Paradise Lost, Davies takes on the enormous task of defending Milton's portrayal of woman. Despite the obvious antifeminist tone and substance of some of his prose pieces and conversational phrases, Milton is not a crude misogynist: "Such outbursts should be understood not as a constitutional undervaluing of woman but as symptoms of thwarted idealism". He reveals instead a complex of attitudes toward women, which ultimately becomes feminist in Paradise Lost. Although he often thinks of himself as a "Masculin Birth", he sees the creative process, described in Books I and VII, as essentially bisexual. Unlike Adam, Milton does not fall into misogyny; while Adam's reason undergoes a thorough education, Eve achieves the more highly valued gnosis: "to know by insight and to be reborn through that illumination". Davies' analysis of Satan, his entrance to the Garden, and his "rape" of Eve frees the reader to scrutinize his actions, often overshadowed by his magnificent speeches. She compares him to a Dis-figure who, having violated the innocence of a female figure, blights the world forever. Eve serves as both mother and daughter, Demeter and Persephone, at once; Paradise Lost thus becomes a "great fertility myth" and Milton actually absolves Eve from severe condemnation.

Davies' study takes on an historical perspective when it considers the Neoplatonic influences on Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, but it tends to ignore the larger contemporary debate (in poetry, prose, and drama) on the nature of the feminine and of female roles; one must, of course, narrow one's subject. Perhaps a more obtrusive characteristic of the book is its inability to clarify some of its important terms. While positing a difference between "Ideal" and real versions of the feminine, Davies allows the terms to slide into meanings which invalidate or contradict her separation of them. When she writes "Archetypally, the sea is female" she seems to mean "archetypally, the sea is biologically birth-giving"; for although "amniotic fluids" are applicable to females alone, they are hardly applicable to all females. When she writes "feminine," as opposed to any historical woman, she again often assumes that her audience will recognize and accept some sort of universal, biological female role (e.g., maternal, nourishing), instead of a role formulated by a male writer. Although the first sentence of the introduction reads "Woman in life and woman in art are not the same person", the book does not always consider that Jungian archetypes and the foundations of most "myth criticism" are also "male art". The myths and their accepted readings are neither absolute nor free from patriarchal biases.

With its bold, richly detailed, comparative readings of canonical texts, Davies' book offers new possibilities for Renaissance studies. Perhaps an update of the reception of myths in English Renaissance texts might incorporate some of the work on ancient myths recently undertaken, by classicists, femininists, anthropologists, and historians, on the social and political functions of ancient myths. Their reconsiderations of mythical representations of the feminine apply directly to some of Davies' own concerns. Throughout the book she acknowledges among the three poets a desire to overcome the great male anxiety — womb-envy one might call it — over the inability to give birth. Spenser deals "with the problem which has beset the male-centered society from its very origins: how man can bear children … It is not through the denial of male aggression and rapacity that this illumination [the vision of Venus and Adonis] is revealed but through the yielding of coercive power to the female, together with the language by which it finds expression". It has been suggested that creation or "miraculous birth" stories represent, among other things, masculine fears of the Rule of Women and attempts to assimilate and contain their potential sexual power; in fact, "the struggle of the male to control or usurp the reproductive function is a repetitive motif in Greek myth." Thus the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus, after he has swallowed his powerful wife Metis, finalizes the efforts of the sky-gods to control the sexuality and fertility of the earth-goddesses. In the process, "male generative creativity is displaced from phallos to head, or rather, put somewhat differently, phallos and head are associated together." In a reversal of the paradigm, Satan as Zeus may reveal the sinister nature of unilateral reproduction, in marked contrast to Adam and Eve. Davies begins to suggest this reversal in her discussion of Sin: "The point of the bisexual scheme upon which Milton structures Paradise Lost becomes clear at this point, where Sin like a defective Athena comes clear of Satan's head, in parthenogenesis. A mind is equated with a world, a world with a womb". The birth of Sin is singular and masculine, the womb usurped and controlled by the male mind (head / phallos).

  Spenser Newsletter 18:2 (Spring / Summer 1987)
 

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This entire presentation Copyright © Stevie Davies