restricted access Fletcher's The Tragedie of Bonduca and the Anxieties of the Masculine Government of James I
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Fletcher’s The Tragedie of Bonduca and the Anxieties of the Masculine Government of James I

Bonduca. A woman beat ‘em . . . a weak woman, A woman beat these Romanes. Caratach.    So it seems. A man would shame to talk so.

(I.i.16–8)

In the above exchange from John Fletcher’s The Tragedie of Bonduca (1610–14), Bonduca (Boadicea)—the Iceni queen who challenged Roman rule and was praised throughout British, particularly Elizabethan, history as a national heroine, female worthy, and capable queen and warrior—is rendered boastful and incompetent: a man would shame to talk as she does. Caratach, historically a brother or cousin of Boadicea, is the “real” hero of Fletcher’s play. Swetonius, the Roman governor of occupied Britain, dismisses Bonduca as a “proud woman” but speaks respectfully of Caratach as the central threat against Roman occupation: “The vertues of the valiant Caratach / More doubts me then all Britain.” 1 Caratach himself further rebukes Bonduca, declaring that she is, like most women, not a conqueror at all, “but a talker” (I.i.24). Afer being represented as incapable and thus in need of male governance and guidance, Bonduca asks, “What wouldst thou make me, Caratach?” (I.i.127), reestablishing the proper patriarchal order of things in which men are the makers of society and the rulers of women.

Bonduca was originally performed in the first decade after James I’s accession, and some critics have seen Caratach as a figure for James, while others have interpreted the relationship between Caratach and Bonduca [End Page 357] in terms of gendered responses to war and as representative of competing ideas of honor. 2 In this paper I build upon such readings by examining the play’s topical and political implications in terms of the functional problematics of James’s reign and his relationship to Elizabeth I. I do not offer a reading that posits one-to-one topical corollaries (that James I is Caratach and Elizabeth I is Bonduca), but I do argue that Fletcher’s Bonduca articulates an important cross-section of anxieties and conceptual shifts about women worthies and male homosociality that alludes to the court and reign of James I. The figure of Boadicea as a powerful, warlike, or “Amazonian” woman identified with British nationalism necessarily constituted a challenge to the official ideology of James’s court. Fletcher’s Bonduca, with its emphasis on military loyalty and honor, contains the threat Boadicea represented, but the imaginative reformulation is not absolute. Fletcher’s play seems to promote a male ruler’s usurpation of a woman warrior’s historical and representational role when Caratach denigrates and displaces Bonduca, but Caratach himself is not unequivocally heroic. Just as James’s homoerotic and even sodomitical behaviors compromised the homosociality of his court and further troubled public perception of his ability to govern England, in Bonduca, Caratach’s over-zealous allegiance to male alliances and affinity for all things Roman trouble his heroism and cast doubt on his ability to serve the Britons.

The Amazon, as critics have pointed out, was a multi-valenced representational force during Elizabeth’s reign. 3 The specter of the Amazon was wielded to warn against the rule of women, as in John Knox’s First Blast against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558), but it was more often used to flatter the reigning monarch. Winfried Schleiner and Gabriele Bernhard Jackson remark that “only ‘good’ Amazons appeared in entertainments and masques in Elizabeth’s presence” and that “Elizabethan stage Amazons are all either neutral or positive.” 4 Elizabeth was specifically identified with Amazons in 1579, when in the presence of the agent of Elizabeth’s suitor Alençon, “an entertainment in imitation of a tournament between six ladies and a like number of gentlemen, who surrendered to them,” 5 was performed, suggesting a comparison between Elizabeth and the victorious Amazons on the one hand, and between Alençon and the surrendering gentlemen on the other. 6 Supporters of Elizabeth also used “female worthies,” historical and powerful biblical women of repute, to justify or buttress the idea of female rule. Celeste Turner Wright points out that female worthies were used to discredit the...