Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 579-582
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Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance
Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance. By Kathryn Schwarz. Series Q, edited by Michèle Aina Barale et al. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000. Pp. 248. $54.95 (cloth). $18.95 (paper).
Kathryn Schwarz contends that Westerners have always been fascinated by and searched for Amazons, and nowhere was this more true than in Renaissance England. Here Amazons were paradoxical--exotic and fantastic at the same time that they could be disturbingly familiar. Stories about Amazonian women positioned them out of reach and alarmingly close to, if not within, the home. It was precisely this dualistic nature of Amazons that led Schwarz to devote a book to Renaissance texts about these female warriors. Because Amazons are women who look and act like men, they inhabit multiple subject positions. They simultaneously reveal and complicate early modern ideas about heterosexuality, homosociality, and homoeroticism.
Schwarz divides her book into two parts. The first, entitled "Abroad at Home: The Question of Queens," explains that Amazons surface in all kinds of Renaissance texts--Sir Walter Raleigh's The Discoverie of Guiana, William Shakespeare's Henry VI plays, and the masques performed at the court of James I. Schwarz's textual readings in this section are provocative. In New World exploration narratives such as Raleigh's, Amazons are sought but never found (just like gold). Any time warrior women are encountered they are found to be not Amazons but merely warrior wives. This enables such women to be understood or "brought home," as Schwarz says, but also acknowledges the power of women within the domestic [End Page 579] sphere. The same is true in the Henry VI plays, which feature the warrior-virgin Joan of Arc, a clear Amazon acting outside the bounds of normative womanhood, as well as a more subtle Amazon in the character of Queen Margaret. Like a good woman, Margaret marries and produces a son, but then this wife/queen destroys both her family and her state through her participation in the Wars of the Roses. Schwarz's reading is that occasionally the Amazon appears in an unexpected location, on the inside. Another English queen who took it upon herself to play the Amazon was Queen Anne. Anne's patronage of and participation in the masques held during the reign of her husband, James, included her evocation of Greek goddesses such as the warrior Athena and the virgin Diana, as well as the Amazon queen Penthesilea.
In the second part of her book, "Splitting the Difference: Homoeroticism and Home Life," Schwarz uncovers the Amazons in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Sir Philip Sidney's The Arcadia, and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Spenser's Britomart, a woman who cross-dresses and acts like a knight, sheds light on the relationship between male homosociality and heterosexuality by engaging in both without being a man. But cross-dressing can go both ways. Schwarz uses Sidney's The Arcadia as an example of a number of texts in which a man dresses as an Amazonian to get close to a lady. She shows us how a man who assumes feminine dress to obtain a woman is a perfect symbol of the emasculating nature of heterosexual desire. Schwarz lastly looks at Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, a character in A Midsummer Night's Dream's framing narrative. According to myth, Hippolyta was either seduced or killed by Theseus, either conquest symbolizing the era's power dynamic between the sexes. But Schwarz argues that the play's very doubleness, repetitiveness, and farcical nature belie the security of this gender dynamic.
So what do Amazons tell us about early modern sexuality? Schwarz shows that they are a useful example of how gender is performed, in particular, how masculinity can be separated from the male. Amazons also occupy multiple subject positions, being simultaneously masculine and feminine. For instance, Schwarz uses the case of Britomart and Artegall...