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SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.1 (2001) 25-48

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Relational Antifeminism in Sidney's Arcadia

Bi-Qi Beatrice Lei


Sir Philip Sidney is often considered a profeminist participant in the Elizabethan polemics of gender. His biographers stress the influence of loving, intelligent women in his life, and many critics have found a sympathetic literary treatment of women in his fictional works, especially in the Arcadia, 1 a text that is said to show more sympathy toward women than Queen Elizabeth ever expressed. 2 Sidney's view of women is generally acknowledged to be unbiased, even by the critic who most vigorously exposes Arcadian analogies to Elizabeth that reflect the many ways in which the queen falls far short of Sidney's expectations of her. 3 Unlike many of his contemporaries, Sidney does not deny women's moral potential or political rights. Biological difference between the sexes does not govern character or behavior: a woman can be virtuous or vicious, rational or passionate, chaste or lustful, a good or a bad ruler, just as a man can be. The Old Arcadia, itself dedicated to Sidney's beloved sister and addressed to "fair ladies," abounds with defenses of women; in the New Arcadia, there are numerous positive female characters, from shepherdess to queen regnant. 4 The range of his female characters shows that Sidney "disregards conventional judgments and rejects stereotypes." 5 In various ways, Sidney seems to transcend not only the gender hierarchy, but also the gender ideology of his age. Constance Jordan highlights Sidney's powerful exposition of the notion of androgyny, extended critique of patriarchy, and vigorous defense of woman and of woman's rule; to conclude, she calls the Arcadia a feminist text. 6 [End Page 25]

However, Sidney's conception and treatment of the gender issue are far more complex than some accounts have made them. C. S. Lewis insightfully remarks that the Arcadia can "easily be misrepresented by a one-sided choice of quotations." 7 To read the work as a straightforward legend of good women is undoubtedly reductive, if not incorrect. In this essay, I argue that the Arcadia can easily be (mis)read as antifeminist propaganda: there is a misogynistic subtext, an internalization of gender ideology, an undercurrent of gynophobia that operates on a different discursive level from the work's apparent profeminism. Despite their legitimate claims as individuals, there exists an effective mechanism, a "sex/gender system" in Gayle Rubin's words, that redefines and discredits women through their relations to men. 8 The mechanism prevails in the Arcadia and calls attention to the work as a man-made fiction, an ideological construct. In recent years, feminist critiques have shed brilliant light on the Arcadia, but their discussions mainly center on a small group of characters and episodes, mostly in the revision. 9 Deeply indebted to their studies, my essay aims at discovering the overall structure that encompasses all female characters.


The ubiquitous anxiety about masculinity in Renaissance England is a subject which has been amply explored. 10 Mark Breitenberg applies Stephen Greenblatt's classic theory of self-fashioning to the construction of early modern masculinity: "Self-fashioning is achieved in relation to something perceived as alien, strange, or hostile. This threatening Other--heretic, savage, witch, adulteress, traitor, Antichrist--must be discovered or invented in order to be attacked and destroyed." 11 Breitenberg remarks, "early modern masculinity relies on a variety of constructions of woman as Other." 12 Gynophobia is a common phenomenon in various aspects, "from the widespread literary attacks on women to the antifemale impact of witchcraft persecutions." 13 The years between 1550 and 1650 are recognized as "a particularly gynophobic century." 14 In antifeminist literature, male authors project the dreaded qualities within--carnality, irrationality, vulnerability, and so on--upon women, who are often tagged with a "catalogue of vices, an endlessly random list of faults." 15 Directly articulated or not, antifeminist sentiment was more pervasive than many critics are willing to admit today. Among those most likely to transcend the prejudices of their...


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