Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Woman Question

If I could travel 27 years back in time, I would tell Linda Woodbridge, "You go, girl." Because that's when her book Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 was published. I was three years old. Weird.

This book provides context on the woman question, the age-old real-life and literary debate on the nature of womankind. Woodbridge works on several well-established assumptions. First, the formal debate about womankind is an actual genre with identifiable generic conventions, a genre strongly influenced by Agrippa and Castiglione. The essays foster a sense of genuine debate, drawing on oration and dialogue as forms; they argue a thesis with the help of logic and rhetoric; they address Woman in general, not specific women; they do, however, use exempla from classical and Biblical sources. Woodbridge argues that the works that fall into this category, however, do not necessarily mirror their authors' actual views on womankind. They were merely rhetorical exercises on a topic of sustained interest (like abortion and weed to our Freshman English students today). Just because a student decides to write a persuasive essay on abortion, does not mean that that particular student has actually had any contact with abortion in his or her real life (the same cannot always be said of weed, however). "There is not a scrap of evidence to suggest any connection with real life at all" (17). Finally, she believes that attacks on the nature of womankind were responses to defenses of womankind, and that the attacks are actually more in line with modern feminism than the defenses (which often followed a Patient Grissel line of reasoning).

There are, however, many works of literature that deal with the "woman question" that are not part of the formal genre, many of which do bear "a considerably clearer relationship to contemporary reality" (6). Many of these arose from the Hic Mulier/Haec Vir controversy over transvestitism in women beginning in the 1570's. This controversy was also linked with foppishness in men; both trends brought to mind the androgyne or the hermaphrodite, a fraught image in Renaissance society. For some, the hermaphrodite represented perfect unity, the "essential oneness of the sexes" (140). For others, the hermaphrodite became a symbol of effeminacy, impotence, and a lowering of human nature. Many times the hermaphrodite was linked to the monstrous. Woodbridge establishes these published arguments in relation to real-life events and people, and establishes later canonical Renaissance literature as having a similar relation. In these works, laudatory and satiric, women have power over men; "the quality of Renaissance misogyny was itself a tribute to the sturdiness of Renaissance women" (268).

She also discusses the stage misogynist, a stock character who is comic in nature and who hates women. This character has links to Vice characters from secular morality plays and the soldier who returns in peacetime to find that his warlike nature is inappropriate for civil society. He may hate women because he has been spurned by one particular woman. And he is generally unreliable as a narrative voice; we don't believe him because we know he's partial, and because we often see him proven wrong. Benedick falls in love. Bosola learns to admire the Duchess of Malfi. Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia was uncalled-for. This character may represent a distrust of civilian society in general, whose values are "hermaphroditic"; it may represent the adolescent fears of sex and becoming an adult. As Woodbridge says, out of the three dozen she examines, not one exists "whose misogynistic pronouncements are not undercut by context or deflated by humor" (297).

She ends her book by discussing the paradoxical nature of the woman question (Madonna/whore), of Renaissance views of women ("grafting female-dominated courtly love upon male-dominated marriage"), and of the Renaissance itself, a hermaphroditic age. This last bit gave me the most to think about, although the whole was delightful. Perhaps if I have to teach an "intro to the Renaissance" course, I will focus it around the idea of paradox and the image of the hermaphrodite.

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