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  • Manhood and the Duel: Masculinity in Early Modern Drama and Culture
  • Stephen Cohen (bio)
Manhood and the Duel: Masculinity in Early Modern Drama and Culture. By Jennifer A. Low. New York and Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. xviii + 238. $59.95 cloth.

Jennifer Low's ambitious and thought-provoking Manhood and the Duel takes as its subject the origins, procedures, and meanings of the duel of honor in England from its rise in the 1580s through the early decades of the seventeenth century. Drawing on fencing manuals and anti-duelling tracts, and an eclectic array of plays ranging from Much Ado About Nothing, 1 Henry IV, and Hamlet to such lesser-known works as Beaumont and Fletcher's Love's Cure and the anonymous Swetnam the Woman-hater, Low makes an original and largely persuasive case for the duel as the touchstone of aristocratic masculinity. Her aristocratic focus provides a firm center for Low's wide-ranging exploration of the duel in early modern English culture; it also produces some unfortunate distortions on its self-defined peripheries.

Low's account of the duel of honor as a fundamentally aristocratic practice is rooted in what Lawrence Stone called the "crisis of the aristocracy," which saw the power and identity of the English upper class threatened by the decline of their relevance as a military elite and the concomitant shift in economic and cultural capital to an increasingly centralized monarchy and a rising middle class. The aristocracy's attraction [End Page 108] to the duel is based on its location at the intersection of medieval chivalric militarism and humanistic self-fashioning, an embrace of both old and new that employed the prestige of ritualized violence in the quest for an "honor" based on the willingness and ability to defend one's claim to possess it. Low distinguishes the duel of honor from the medieval judicial duel, or trial by combat: while the latter was a legal procedure with the power to determine truth, the duel of honor, often fought for the most trivial of reasons, was concerned less with truth than reputation, or the intraclass struggle for place in a self-created and self-policed hierarchy.

Low adds depth to her portrait of aristocratic male self-definition in a series of chapters contrasting the duellist with his social, sexual, and gendered Others. Chapter 2 offers early modern fencing manuals' emphasis on "wards"—the stances used to defend a space around the fencer from an opponent's invasion—as the origin of the expansive bodily carriage and sense of personal space that distinguished the aristocratic male from both women and lower-class men. The connection this chapter proposes between physical stance and social status presents an intriguing perspective on the semiotics of early modern staging which Low illustrates with a speculative but compelling reading of The Alchemist. Chapter 3 argues that because women and boys had less expansive, more permeable senses of personal space, the duellist whose ward was penetrated by a successful opponent was effeminized or juvenilized in a way that figured defeat as sexual subordination. Low relies here on familiar assumptions about the relations between sex and violence, supported by the fencing manuals' "unintentionally suggestive language" (76) of thrusting, entering, and sword length. The book's exploration of the gendering of the duel concludes with a discussion in chapter 5 of the fictive female duellist, shedding new light on the figures of the early modern androgyne and transvestite in a series of readings which argue that, despite their masculine appearance or behavior, in women's hands the duel serves the ends not of honor but of a surprisingly conservative didacticism, teaching their male opponents to value them not for their valor but for their virtue.

It is when Manhood and the Duel turns from sex and gender to class that the analytical hierarchy implicit in Low's treatment of male aristocrats and their Others becomes problematic. Chapter 4 reads a series of anti-duelling treatises, attributing their failure to curb the practice to the inability of their middle-class authors to understand aristocratic honor. Her discussion of the corresponding middle-class notions of honor and the duel is...


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pp. 108-110
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