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SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40.2 (2000) 311-337

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Mariological Memory in The Winter's Tale and Henry VIII

Ruth Vanita

The Winter's Tale and Henry VIII are built on a paradox--their women protagonists acquire increased moral authority even while they are being demoted and persecuted. The structure of these plays supports this empowering through a series of spectacles of female fictive kinship. While male kinship, especially patrilineage, is central to the construction of Shakespeare's histories and tragedies, female fictive lineage is crucial to the vision of these two plays. Henry VIII and The Winter's Tale visually and verbally construct succession through a series of mutually sympathetic female figures who are not necessarily biologically related: Hermione/Paulina/Perdita; Katherine/Anne/Elizabeth. Shakespeare draws on a range of sources to represent women as inheriting intangible but important strengths from one another. This paper will explore how two of these sources--Marian mythology and the historical events of Henry VIII's relations with his wives and children--function in rich interplay with one another in both plays. The plays appeal to the audience's collective memory of both sources. Elements of Mariology critique male-female relations and suggest visionary resolutions which resonate with the medieval past and look forward to an imagined Utopian future. 1

I argue that these plays mourn the loss of those popular elements of the old religion that imaginatively empowered the powerless, especially women, and that combated the power of the patriarchal family through valorization of fictive kinship and same-sex community. The plays also celebrate these elements of the common culture and reinscribe them into theatrical performances that in many ways replace the cultural power of [End Page 311] communal church ritual and practice. I shall first give a brief account of some of these elements in Mariology and the saints' cults and then go on to a reading of patterns of fictive female kinship in the two plays.

The cults of the Virgin and of the female saints have been viewed with ambiguity by many twentieth-century feminists. Marina Warner's view of the Virgin as a patriarchal construct whose inimitability functions to castigate real women has tended to dominate modern feminist discourse on the Virgin. 2 More recently, however, several commentators have argued that this view of the Virgin's cult is too literalist and underestimates the medieval ability to think metaphorically. Although Mary's feat of producing a child while remaining physically a virgin is literally inimitable, it is metaphorically imitable, and Mary was constantly invoked as a model both by women who produced works of art instead of children, as well as by nuns, female saints, and religious laywomen who saw their students, followers, or the world at large as their children. It is in this sense that Mary as model is central to the intellectual and spiritual all-female lineage that Christine de Pizan constructs in her City of Women. 3 This kind of female lineage, transmitting a moral power that contrasts with and is ultimately perceived as greater than the male lineage of economic and political power, was an integral part of the Marian cults that the Protestant reformers vehemently attacked.

The cult of Mary was always grounded in popular devotion, which subscribed to such doctrines as the immaculate conception of the Virgin (that she, like Christ, was conceived without sin, as an idea in the mind of god, before the creation of the world), her Assumption into heaven, her queenship of heaven and her position as co-creatrix and co-redemptrix, centuries before they were declared as dogma by papal decree. 4 Art depicted Mary as a student--learning at the knee of her mother Anne; a teacher--instructing the child Jesus and also instructing numerous male and female scholars; and a scholar--who appears in almost symbiotic relation with the book, who composes the Magnificat, and who presides over scholarly communities on earth and in heaven. This model was given material reality by the many nuns and...


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