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Reviewed by:
  • The Female Tragic Hero in English Renaissance Drama
  • Roberta Milliken (bio)
The Female Tragic Hero in English Renaissance Drama edited by Naomi Conn Liebler. New York: Palgrave, 2002, 242 pp., $55.00 hardcover.

In The Female Tragic Hero in English Renaissance Drama, Naomi Conn Liebler has assembled a collection of ten essays written by a distinguished group of scholars: Robert S. Miola, Judith Weil, Mimi Still Dixon, Kay Stanton, Theresia de Vroom, Martin Orkin, Linda Woodbridge, Laura Denker, Laurie Maguire, and Jeanne Addison Roberts. As the title suggests, all of the essays explore the manifestations of female tragic heroes in the English drama of the Early Modern period. A variety of female protagonists are discussed from a wide sampling of plays composed throughout the era, including Jocasta, Edward II, Tamburlaine, King John, Coriolanus, Anthony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi, The Witch of Edmonton, The Tragedy of Mariam, and A Woman Killed with Kindness. Though the specific approaches and particular plays discussed vary according to each individual author, the result is a rather unified, provoking and convincing "re-visioning" of the often dismissed and/or misunderstood female protagonists in the tragedies of this period. This book is a noble mission of reclamation, then, of rediscovery and reconsideration of female characters so that they are recognized to be as valuable, integral, powerful—as heroic as their male counterparts are.

The approach that the authors take in this eclectic collection is both novel and bold, as each essay challenges many of the conventional ways of interpreting femininity, heroics, and tragedy so as to empower tragic female protagonists to the level of heroic. Liebler's strong and skillful introduction heralds the fresh direction of these discussions and in effect binds the book together as a recognition and celebration of the complexities of feminine representation on the Renaissance stage. As Liebler states, the goal of collection is the "recover[y] of female tragic heroes," to identify "the feminine heroic as something as 'real' as the masculine" (5). Doing so requires readers to reject the either/or position previous conventional [End Page 231] and/or feminist criticisms tend to adopt whereby female protagonists are viewed as either demonized or victimized. Liebler regards such views as limited and instead advocates an approach that acknowledges and embraces the complexity that is at the heart of many Renaissance tragic characters. Thus these characters often embody the contradictions of the culture that produced them especially when they are considered alongside their male counterparts. To not acknowledge such powerful intricacies is to risk reinforcing the unsatisfying and problematic traditional view of female tragic characters that assumes heroes are masculine and, consequently, that a feminine hero is somehow markedly less than a masculine hero. Liebler and the authors in her collection refute this stance effectively, and in so doing, level the playing field for considering male and female tragic leads; they argue that a female tragic hero can and should be seen as engaging "in a struggle exactly as rigorous, exactly as dangerous, and exactly as futile as that of any of her masculine counterparts" even though she is a woman (2). The scholars in this collection demonstrate how to do just this in their consideration of specific plays. To help them do so, they draw upon a wide range of interesting sources, including for example, Greek tragedy and culture, archetypal figures, mythology, artwork, goddess culture, Neoplatonic Humanism, linguistics, Morris dancing, and witchcraft.

The beauty of their arguments is that they are so effective and convincing, so unflinchingly and refreshingly confrontational, so unapologetically bold and smart that they succeed in not only accomplishing their goal of discovering the female tragic heroes in Early Modern drama but also expanding in profoundly important ways our understanding of what a tragedy essentially is—for readers and spectators—feminist or otherwise. By yoking the issues of gender identity to conventional understandings of tragedy, in other words, by considering gender identity struggles as part of a tragedy, the possibilities for the genre are expanded and the definition of it is completed in more satisfying and meaningful ways. This allows us, in turn then, to appreciate individual Renaissance tragedies in...


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pp. 231-233
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