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  • Incest and Agency in Elizabeth's England
  • Jane Donawerth
Maureen Quilligan . Incest and Agency in Elizabeth's England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 282 pp. index. $59.95 (cl), $22.50 (pbk). ISBN: 0–8122–3863–X (cl), 0–8122–1905–8 (pbk).

In Incest and Agency in Elizabeth's England Maureen Quilligan builds on recent feminist anthropological studies and historical analyses of the empowerment of women through kinship structures in England to explore the interest early modern literature (especially by women writers) takes in incest as a means of portraying aristocratic endogamous marriage and the ways some women might be freed from the patriarchal traffic in women. In the introduction Quilligan surveys theories of society by Claude Levi-Strauss, Gayle Rubin, and others, arguing that early modern English society imagined female agency as a monstrous growth predicated on incestuous female desire.

In the second chapter Quilligan turns to that most famous sixteenth-century product of incest, Queen Elizabeth I (whose mother, Anne Boleyn, was accused of incest with her brother). Quilligan examines portraits of Elizabeth, her letters, and poetry to uncover the "incestuous eroticism underlying Elizabeth's famed virginity" (34), and demonstrates how Elizabeth's translation of Marguerite de Navarre's Glass of a Sinful Soul, published five times from 1548 to 1590, deploys metaphors of incest to depict the relationship of soul to God and reflects the use Elizabeth made of her incestuous past to keep herself an untraded woman. Later publishers thus appropriate Elizabeth's translation in a variety of ways, Cancellor's 1568 edition arguing for a restoration of the Catholic Church, Bentley's Monument to Matrons empowering female voices, and Ward's 1590 edition reissuing the radically Protestant text of John Bale. Thus discourse concerning incest became a means of articulating female agency during Elizabeth's reign.

In chapters on Sir Philip Sidney, Mary Sidney Herbert, and Edmund Spenser's Britomart, Quilligan explores how the ambitious brother and sister echo and respond to Elizabeth's emphasis on incest. Sidney deploys his male status to argue for a traditionally endogamous aristocratic marriage to Elizabeth's cousin Dudley, while Mary Sidney Herbert uses her identification with her brother to empower her own authority as writer and politician in the service of the family alliance. Quilligan reads Spenser's Britomart in this context.

In her two best chapters, Quilligan links Lady Mary Wroth's romance to this Sidney family heritage and offers a reading of King Lear as a family romance depending on the fantasy of incest. In Wroth's Urania, Quilligan argues, the generic form of the medieval romance (which justifies how a class by definition competitive and violent yet reproduces by intermarriage) is updated to explore the situation at the early modern English court: Urania, written by a woman who has two illegitimate children by her cousin, is dedicated to a female cousin, and depicts the lifelong love affair of two cousins. The Sidney family romance makes its appearance in the many intertwined plots of Urania, where brothers trade sisters, and where Pamphilia transgressively chooses a cousin as lover, freeing herself to rule her country if not her heart and to become the poet who makes art out of her suffering. In the final chapter on King Lear, Quilligan begins with a crucial [End Page 624] question: why does Shakespeare have Cordelia die when earlier sources do not? Quilligan answers by comparing the initial scene, where Cordelia refuses her father's fantasy of incest and is cast out, to the final scene: Cordelia's return as head of an army to rescue her father is the same fantasy of incest halting the traffic in women as that of the evil sisters. The tragedy results from Cordelia at last succumbing to the fantasy, paying for it with her life. Her death is punishment in Elizabethan terms for her transgressive desire.

At times Quilligan loses control of the many threads she is interweaving: for example, in the chapter on Lear the section on dutiful daughters leading blind fathers in Elizabethan Oedipus cycle literature seems to be headed toward an examination of Lear's role, but instead breaks off with a fairly superficial connection between Elizabethan...


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pp. 624-625
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Archived 2009
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