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  • Women, Violence, and English Renaissance Literature: Essays Honoring Paul Jorgensen
  • Susan Ahern
Linda Woodbridge and Sharon A. Beehler, eds. Women, Violence, and English Renaissance Literature: Essays Honoring Paul Jorgensen. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 256. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2003. xliv + 446 pp. index. illus. bibl. $40. ISBN: 0–86698–299–X.

Shakespearean scholar Paul Jorgensen's former students commemorate his mentorship in a volume of feminist and historical essays on representations of violence perpetrated by and upon women in Renaissance literature. This anthology is remarkable for its sweeping range of images of violence, from rape, kidnapping, and child murder to the language of cooking in a wide array of Renaissance poems and plays. Its materials extend from the Continent to the New World and challenge conventional ideas about women's capacity for violence and their significance as victims and agents in both early modern and contemporary discourses. The editors draw our attention to literature's suppression of discourses critical of wife beating, as well as its misrepresentations of the forms and extent of violence by and upon women.

Linda Woodbridge maintains that the Renaissance shift from violence and militarism to verbal artistry precipitated male frustrations that vented themselves in violence against women that was both literary and real. It is based on a distrust of female interiority that is paradoxically denied, penetrated, and refigured in narratives of violent assault. Carolyn See establishes the legal framework for distinctions between rape and ravishment and the failure to enforce male accountability. She highlights the erasure of the resisting female mind and body from the legal discourse of women's physical submission and the displacement of male accountability in the cultural discourse of female shame. Karen Bamford and Karen Robertson examine cultural refigurations of the crime: Bamford explores the idea of redemptive rape, in which female resistance and injury is suppressed in favor of the reform of the rapist through marriage. Robertson traces the disguise of the rape and kidnapping of Pocahontas by the narrative of religious conversion. Michael Hall observes male ambivalence about rape in Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece: Tarquin's split consciousness and Lucrece's vocalized subjectivity accommodate both the thrill of the chase and disapproval of the crime. Barbara Mathieson addresses the psychology of rape in Fletcher's plays, where female desire (however false) proves repugnant and thwarts the act.

Regarding issues of female interiority, Akiko Kusunoki explores the narrative implications of the gap between women's feelings of selfhood and the cultural expectations of them, which often results in a fragmented consciousness and sexual independence that men regard as duplicity. Violence is their attempt to destroy evidence of a secret self. Ellen Caldwell perceives a cultural fascination with [End Page 722] voyeurism and violence in medicine, science and religion that provides the surgical metaphors in The Duchess of Malfi, where literature dramatizes the violence excited by the resistant body.

In a section on Othello, Sara Deats and Edward Pechter offer opposing views on the role of Desdemona. Deats observes the collapse of Desdemona's self-assertions as Emilia's personality emerges, arguing that Desdemona ultimately complies with Iago's depiction of her as a whore. By contrast, Pechter uses performance history to argue that Desdemona's original resistance has been suppressed by centuries of male criticism that demanded her passivity. He suggests that twentieth-century perceptions of Desdemona as passive perpetuate the violence inflicted upon her character. Lynda Boose revives the theme of voyeurism in the final scene, linking the audience's curiosity and prurience to Iago's pornographic imagination.

Four essays on violence by women raise questions about degrees of agency and meaning. In her appraisal of female duelists, Jennifer Low maintains that women fight to rehabilitate their reputations and their opponents, not for vengeance. She positions these duels and the surrender of weapons as challenges to constructions of gender and rank and as reflections on male violence. Catherine Thomas argues that the mother-murderer dichotomy in representations of child murder combines both misogyny and anxiety about succession in a nation that interprets Elizabeth's reluctance to name an heir as a failure of nurturing. Similarly, images of slaughter...


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Archived 2009
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