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  • A Woman’s Touch: Astrophil, Stella and “Queen Vertue’s Court”
  • Sally Minogue

When Sidney, in 1581, presented to his Queen the New Year’s gift of a jewel in the shape of a diamond-bedecked whip, how did she take it? Not, we presume, lying down, since in this relationship it had already been made clear to Sidney who had the whip-hand. To be in a position to exchange New Year’s gifts with the Queen was itself a mark of favor (one used by Steven May as a means of confirming who was an actual courtier to Elizabeth rather than a court hanger-on). 1 Sidney was in that position in both 1580 and 1581; but those dates punctuate a period when at least some commentators see him as having been banished from Court because of pressing too strongly the case against Elizabeth’s possible marriage to Alençon. 2 Given that in 1579 John Stubbs had had his writing hand amputated for an over-fierce public attack on the Alençon suit (a medievally brutish form of retributive censorship), Sidney must have known when he was preparing the Alençon letter that his favored position was at the very least at risk, if not his own person; at that point he clearly thought the risk worth taking. 3 The long period of rustication which followed the delivery of the letter (according to most authorities, late in 1579), was perhaps signalled by his being pushed down to the very end of the New Year’s gift rolls in 1580, and it evidently led him to reflect more fully on the Queen’s authority. 4 Sidney’s 1581 gift looks like a sign of his recognition of Elizabeth’s absolute power over him, a witty, coded self-abasement, an acceptance that such power was the necessary accompaniment of a royal favor which he was pleased to have, against the odds, sustained or retrieved. 5 The teasing nature of such a gift does however imply a closeness of relationship with Elizabeth not typically attributed to Sidney; its symbolic nature is in keeping with the fashion of the time, but there is a self-conscious and personal dimension which does fit with what we know of Sidney’s wit. 6 Here I shall look at two of the sonnets from Astrophil and Stella, 9 and 83, and suggest a reading of them as poetic versions of the jewelled whip, dramatizing both the public monarch-courtier relationship between Elizabeth and Sidney and a possible private relationship where at least the rhetoric of sexual subjection is used at [End Page 555] once playfully and not-so-playfully. In sonnet 9, I will suggest, Sidney prostrates himself; in sonnet 83, he gives the Queen a speaking part and foretells his own possible political fate. The diamond sparkle of his wit, somewhat darker in the second poem, does not disguise, indeed it deliberately highlights, that he is under the whip.

Of particular interest to me in these readings is that, even while they seem to fall in with some of the current patterns of Renaissance criticism, they also cut against new orthodoxies insofar as they place Elizabeth as a woman firmly at the center of Sidney’s poetic practice, and they also posit a Sidney showing signs through these sonnets of the frustration which resulted from his required submissiveness, a frustration which seems to have hardened later into positive dissent. My argument is conducted in terms not of discourse, but of materiality; it is realist and empiricist; in this I seek to add my voice to those which are now beginning to question the politics of new historicism. M. D. Jardine has convincingly demonstrated the potentially politically reactionary nature of certain versions of new historicism, arguing that:

it is now more important than ever that critics on the left argue strenuously for the presence of competing sets of values and practices, before human struggle to overthrow systems which kept them from power is removed from our record of the past. 7

While I recognize the ironies involved in attempting to answer this call by emphasizing the radical dimension of a period of monarchy, and...

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