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"Assay the power you have": Compromised subjectivities and English Renaissance literary women

Suzy Beemer, University of Nebraska - Lincoln

Abstract

This project uses constructivist theory to consider female sexual subjectivity in early modern English texts. The introductory and concluding chapters are concerned primarily with theoretical issues of feminism and subject construction, and the application of such theories to Renaissance writings. The second chapter examines the convent and asceticism as they relate to autonomy. The ascetic agency found in Catherine of Siena's life and letters resonates with the masochism of Pauline Reage's The Story of O, where female sexed subjectivity is obtained curiously, even detrimentally. This work is included because its historical and thematic dimensions correlate to those of the following chapters. Chapter three considers the convent and marriage as they affect Isabella's sexual subjectivity in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Invoking Spivak's notion of uterine, as opposed to clitoral, social organization, this work suggests that the new post-Reformation active ethic of married chastity, while seemingly liberating, functioned to bring women into the role of object. Chapter four continues Spivak's clitoral/uterine discussion to explicate the hesitant sexuality of Lady Mary Wroth's love sonnets. The primary question explored is whether a heterosexual female in a subject position, such as Lady Mary's thinking and writing narrator, can effectively use sexual verse as a function of subjectivity, or if heterosexuality necessarily inscribes women as objects. Female sexual agency here is found to be complicated and often compromised, particularly as it contends with the male gaze. Chapter five considers Ben Jonson's The Masque of Blackness, Elizabeth Cary's The Tragedy of Mariam, and John Fletcher's The Knight of Malta to address the role of "race" in early seventeenth-century cultural productions. English women derived subjectivity both as members of the English nation and as participants in the increasingly common practice of deeming the African as distinct other. At the same time, the manufacture of race as a foundational category functioned as an injunction against English women's sexual agency.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Womens studies|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Beemer, Suzy, ""Assay the power you have": Compromised subjectivities and English Renaissance literary women" (1996). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI9628222.
https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/dissertations/AAI9628222

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