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Under my thumb: Women and authority in the literature of Renaissance England

Linda A Krisak, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


The querelle des femmes, or woman question has long been debated with little resolution. Patriarchal thought has secured the rule of men in society and placed them in a position of dominance over women. When Elizabeth I ruled England, the matter of woman's authority became particularly complicated. Even with a queen on the throne, equality between the sexes did not exist during the Renaissance. While popular belief held that Renaissance woman should be silent, chaste, and obedient, a great number of woman defied this stereotype. Elizabeth's successful reign forced authors to rethink their approach toward gender issues. Although some Renaissance literature, particularly Jacobean, expressed strong opinions about women and power, most works deliberately placed woman in a poorly-defined position. This ambiguity leaves the door open for wide interpretations of woman's authority in Renaissance literature. By analyzing several texts, I intend to show the complexity of the power hierarchy in Renaissance England. Although they lived in a patriarchal society, women had alternatives to the submissive and meek role set before them. However, to achieve social acceptance, they could not appear to stray too far from the conventional model. A woman could have power as long as she was perceived not to possess it; or, if she were in a powerful position, she must constantly appear to defer to male authority. The works I have chosen—Spenser's Amoretti and Epithalamion, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, and All's Well That Ends Well, Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, and Wroth's Pamphilia to Amphilanthus—demonstrate a variety of power relationships between the sexes. From Spenser's traditional views to Wroth's liberal beliefs, all of these works show that woman's social position was not static but was constantly evolving. Women were not locked into one image but could, and often did, create lives for themselves which challenged patriarchal edicts. Mirroring the works of their times, these women usually shrouded themselves with ambiguous definitions. While I cannot solve the querelle des femmes, I hope to clarify some of the ambiguity surrounding women and authority in Renaissance literature.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Womens studies|European history

Recommended Citation

Krisak, Linda A, "Under my thumb: Women and authority in the literature of Renaissance England" (1999). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI9929211.