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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32.2 (2002) 305-326

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The Invisible Spouse:
Henry VI, Arthur, and the Fifteenth-Century Subject

Thomas A. Prendergast
College of Wooster
Wooster, Ohio

"What God hath conjoined then, let no man separate." I am the husband, and all the whole island is my lawful wife; I am the head, and it is my body; I am the shepherd, and it is my flock.

—James I 1

Rather than ask ourselves how the sovereign appears to us in his lofty isolation, we should try to discover how it is that subjects are gradually, progressively, really and materially constituted through a multiplicity of organisms, forces, energies, materials, desires, thoughts, etc. We should try to grasp subjection in its material instance as a constitution of subjects.

—Michel Foucault 2

Michel Foucault's exhortation to displace the isolated spectacle of monarchy with an examination of cultural subjectivities might be termed a critical watershed which located the production of power in the construction of the subject, rather than, as it had been traditionally situated, in the phantasm of the sovereign. Recent treatments of medieval and early modern literature and culture have, however, returned to the spectacle of the sovereign, noting that the maintenance of sovereignty and the creation of subjectivity are inextricably intertwined. Illuminating as these post-Foucauldian studies have been, they tend to focus solely on the ways that the ruler is visible to his or her subjects; yet power is also encoded in those aspects of kingship that remain invisible to subjects. As Claude Lefort puts it (reformulating Ernst Kantorowicz's classic thesis concerning the king's two bodies), "the natural body . . . because it is combined with the supernatural body, exercises the [End Page 305] charm which delights the people" (my emphasis). 3 The invisible body, in this formulation, invests the "terrestrial" body with a kind of fascination for the ruler's subjects. So powerful is this fascination that, as Slavoj Zizek argues, the more frail, weak, and ordinary the king appears, paradoxically "the more he remains king . . . at the very moment of his greatest abasement, he arouses compassion and fascination." 4

One way of looking at this seeming paradox is that the critical juncture when the king's legitimacy seems most threatened is precisely the moment when that legitimacy becomes manifest. It is at this moment when it becomes apparent that the king's legitimacy lies not in what people can see, but in what remains hidden or private. Public or visible powerlessness, then, leads to an appreciation of that which really makes a man a king—that which is private or invisible. Where, then, Kantorowicz and Lefort focus on the sempiternal aspects of the king's body, Zizek focuses on how that body produces a private sphere that reinforces the kingliness of the king. As Zizek implies, this private sphere can actually be made manifest by royal families themselves which "incite rumours about . . . intrigues . . . love escapades, and so on—all . . . to enforce the charisma of the royal figures." 5 It might be said that these rumors produce in the king's subjects an understanding of kingship which includes not just the public power that he wields but a private space which he can lay claim to. In the Middle Ages, as A. C. Spearing puts it in a slightly different context, "possession of such a private space is an index of the power that is exercised outside . . . it." 6 But what happens when the privacy of this metaphorical space is eroded—when the rumor, in other words, becomes fact?

The fifteenth-century texts that I examine in this essay, produced during the precarious reign of Henry VI or shortly thereafter, highlight how the production and destruction of this private sphere depends on the "other" body par excellence, the body of the queen. Yet where the historical texts focus on the disquieting visibility of Margaret's body, the Arthurian text details the way in which the gaze upon the queen remains unfocused as Guenevere slips...