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  • Goddesses, Mages, and Wise Women: The Female Pastoral Guide in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century English Drama by Sharon Rose Yang
  • Jasmine Lellock

Sharon Yang, pastoral drama, cunning folk, goddess, women, carnivalesque, mage, magic

Sharon Rose Yang. Goddesses, Mages, and Wise Women: The Female Pastoral Guide in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century English Drama. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 2011. Pp. 279.

Sharon Rose Yang paints a convincing picture of the ‘‘female pastoral guide’’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This pastoral guide’s many incarnations include figures as diverse as goddesses, cunning women, Neoplatonic mages, and doctors. Yang’s tightly woven and richly nuanced argument traces the guide figure from its roots in classical antiquity through the late seventeenth century. She appears in various forms and contexts as well, though Yang’s work focuses specifically on pastoral drama, and Yang especially taps into pastoral drama’s ability to ‘‘serve as a corrective to the faults of the everyday world’’ (p. 13). Yang’s interest in the topsy-turvy world of pastoral drama facilitates her engagement with Bakhtin’s carnivalesque as a theoretical framework, particularly focusing on the idea of ‘‘woman on top’’ (p. 25). Yang’s invocation of the pastoral guide thus also draws upon feminist criticism, building upon work that explores the complexities of early modern women’s lives, or, as Yang explains, ‘‘Studying the female pastoral guide becomes important because in her varied characterizations she also reflects the complicated nuances of early modern gender relations’’ (p. 22).

Yang’s first chapter describes an evolution of this guide from ancient goddesses, such as Isis and Demeter, through its Christianization vis-à-vis Mary, [End Page 96] and then into her medieval textual precursor in Boccaccio’s Ameto. After establishing the guide’s prehistory, Yang then moves to contemporary early modern Continental versions in Sannazaro’s Arcadia and Montemayor’s Diana. This astonishingly textured survey of the guide’s ancestors and influences effectively introduces readers to the character and situates her within a textual lineage. Because of its ambitious scope, this overview is at times dizzying. In a few short pages, for instance, Yang guides us from Isis, to Inanna, to Venus, to Demeter, and to Mary. Because of the vigor with which Yang describes this trajectory, I found myself wanting Yang to linger longer with these and other foremothers of the pastoral guide.

Her remaining chapters focus on specific plays that depict various aspects of and attitudes toward the female guide, demonstrating that multiple perspectives could coexist within the same play. She sets each play within its historical milieu, as in her chapter ‘‘Mages and Sages Versus the Witch,’’ in which she handily summarizes contemporary scholarship and early modern views on witchcraft and folk magic. These exhaustive overviews helpfully illuminate Yang’s arguments about the guide’s presence in pastoral drama. Covering such a wide swath of time and such a broad range of attitudes toward magic, the chapters inevitably must gloss over some of the contingencies of the magical practices that she describes. Yet Yang manages to capture the complexities of responses to magic, to women, and to pastoral drama itself.

Yang is attentive to the particularities of different forms of magic, ranging from Paracelsian cures to folk remedies to witchcraft. One of the greatest strengths of the monograph is its sensitive handling of these diverse forms, and the ability of the pastoral guide to embody so many of them emphasizes the interconnectedness of these often-competing and very different kinds of magic. At times, however, the pastoral guide’s ability to encompass so many traits generates slipperiness of terms. Yang includes Shakespeare’s Rosalind, whose magic is purely fictional, for example; although admittedly, Yang reconciles this issue by contending that Rosalind-as-guide demonstrates that ‘‘the patriarchal authority expected by audiences to control a woman . . . is revealed to be an illusion’’ (p. 214). More careful delineating of the differences among the various categories and effects of magic, however, would strengthen the force of Yang’s already quite convincing argument.

Further, there were several transformations in magical knowledge and beliefs from the late sixteenth to the late seventeenth century. These important cultural shifts might inform the development of the...


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