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Reviews Nina S. Levine. Women's Matters: Politics, Gender, and Nation in Shakespeare'sEarlyHistoryPlays.Newark: UniversityofDelaware Press, 1998. Pp. 193. $36.00. Women's Matters: Politics, Gender, and Nation in Shakespeare's Early History Plays, by Nina S. Levine, has won the University of Delaware's Manuscript Competition for Shakespearean Literature. The judges did their job well, for this book argues its thesis with care, but also with elegance. Women's Matters focuses on Shakespeare's earlier history plays: KingJohn, Richard III, and most importantly, the three Henry VI plays, which have not received this kind of sustained attention since David Riggs's Shakespeare's Heroical Histories (1971). Levine focuses on the earlier plays because previous writers have seen Shakespearean history as moving inexorably toward the masculine triumph of Henry Vand therefore have underestimated the urgencywith which Shakespeare addresses "women's matters." Like other recent historicist critics, Levine concerns herselfwith the interaction of historical texts and English political realities in the 1590s. By focusing on the ambivalent figure ofthe female, she argues, Shakespeare rewrites traditional representations ofthe nation-state"as embodied in the figure of the male monarch" and so creates a national drama that is "more inclusive, and more iconoclastic, than either the dynastic histories set forth in the Tudor chronicles or the celebrations of power produced by the Elizabethan court" (15). Chapter 1, "The Politics of Chivalry in 1 Henry VI" revisits the thematic opposition between Talbot and Joan, the feminine figure who threatens the English "aristocratic ideal of military service and gentle blood" (27). Because Joan is positioned ambiguously, as a dangerous foreign woman who undermines English masculinity but also as a parallel to Elizabeth I, the orthodox 345 346Comparative Drama opposition between Joan and Talbot breaks down, revealing that "the most serious threat to Talbot—and to England—comes not from the outside, not from low-born French women like Joan, but from within the ranks of the English aristocracy itself" (27). Levine contrasts the way in which Accession Day tilts translated submission into heroic virtue by mythologizing the Virgin Queen with 1 Henry VTs darker vision. The image of Talbot prostrate at Joan's feet parodies the symbolism of the Elizabethan court and suggests that in a world ofdisruptive women and self-interested aristocrats, no single model ofauthority is possible. Shakespeare arrives at this position through active engagement with the chronicles, especially those of Hall and Holinshed. Neither chronicle makes one character central to the events represented in 1 Henry VI, recording instead "an endless cycle of conflict" built around "national stereotypes" (33). Shakespeare responds ambivalently to the chronicles' irresolution. His Joan is an Amazon who rejects all authority, even that ofher father. The English aristocrats , on the other hand, subject Joan to a "theater of cruelty" by joking callously about and eventually disregarding her claim of pregnancy: "We cannot support the damnableJoan, who is,afterall, England's enemy,but ifwe root for the English, we not only become complicitous in their cruelty, we also give legitimacy and power to aspiring noblemen whose interests are clearly against those of the nation at large" (45). Chapter 2, "Dangerous Practices: Making History in 2 Henry VI," offers a satisfying analysis ofEleanor Cobham's rhetorical function in that play, complementing the recent emphasis on Jack Cade's rebellion and re-examining Richard Helgerson's argument that Shakespeare was "in the business of'staging exclusion '" (50). In addition to other chronicle sources, Shakespeare turns to John Foxe's Acfs and Monuments for "methods as well as materials" (49) that help him interrogate "orthodox representations of power" (49). In Foxe's version, Eleanor Cobham and her accomplices ran afoul ofthe clergy because they were followers of Wycliff. In a similar vein, Shakespeare's Eleanor is involved with witchcraft, but she is more an observer than a participant in the conjuring ceremony and her crime is less heinous than it appears in most Tudor sources because she is used by her husband's enemies: "The duchess may think treasonous thoughts, and even consort with necromancers, but she is also the victim of what we might call political entrapment" (48). In Chapter 3, "Ruling Women and the Politics ofGender in 2 and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 345-348
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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