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  • Gender identity and androgyny in Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando:A biography
  • Maureen M. Melita

I. Introduction

Separated by nearly four hundred years, two literary works by Ludovico Ariosto and Virginia Woolf follow the story of the same chivalrous knight. In Ariosto’s epic poem, Orlando Furioso he continues the story of Orlando, a warrior of Charlemagne who has returned from the Orient and is madly in love with Angelica, the daughter of the King of Cathay. The origins of Ariosto’s poem are first seen in the French chansons de geste and later in Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato. Ariosto begins his narrative where Boiardo left off and though he subscribes to the established conventions of the chansons de geste as well as those of Boiardo, he also brings to the forefront the issue of gender identity and female representation in Renaissance literature. Along with magical creatures, mystical woods and a cast of numerous characters, the poet reintroduces two of Boiardo’s characters, Marfisa and Bradamante: both androgynous in nature, who will become role models for future generations of female writers, including Virginia Woolf. It is in 1928 that Woolf will publish her own version or rather her reimagining of Ariosto’s master work in Orlando: A Biography.

In her early twentieth-century novel about a nobleman named Orlando, Woolf reexamines Ariosto’s literary innovations and in doing so creates an Orlando capable of being both male and female, literally and figuratively. Woolf’s tale is full of mystical and somewhat fantastic events. Perhaps the most obvious example of fantasy within the novel is the title character’s sudden change of gender. After living as a 30-year-old male [End Page 123] for several decades, Orlando wakes up in Constantinople (considered by some to be an exotic and mystical place) only to discover that he has become a woman. The reasons for his lack of aging and his gender change are never fully explained within the text of the novel. The meaning of these two curious occurrences has only been tentatively hypothesized through recent scholarship, with particular attention being paid to the question of gender roles, identity and androgyny in the novel.

This essay will explore the ways in which these issues weave in and out of both works, through the use of specific characters: Orlando (in both stories and in both genders) as well as Marfisa and Bradamante in Ariosto’s poem. In each case the writer calls attention to the gender identification of their own characters in an original way. Woolf herself was writing at a time when female writers were not taken seriously and many critics feel that Orlando: A Biography was a literary response to the fickle society in which she lived and worked (Miracky 2). This particular novel was a way for her to reconcile being a woman in what was arguably a man’s profession (Scott 84). Ariosto, for his part, was careful to present characters not only in new and modern ways, but also in traditional roles that would not upset the perceived societal norms within the poem or within the reader. No matter how progressive both authors were for their times, they were also confined to working within the constraints of their culture and the limitations of the age in which they lived.

Before moving on to the argument, it is important to note that while Ariosto relies on a cast of hundreds in his poem, Woolf’s novel focuses only on Orlando and his/her interactions with others. This essay will also explore the hypothesis that Woolf’s Orlando is an obvious amalgam or reinterpretation not only of several of Ariosto’s characters, but of very specific qualities and virtues embodied by those characters, which will undergo several evolutions throughout the novel’s more than three centuries of narrative.

II. Orlando / Angelica / Medoro and Orlando / Sasha / Seaman

In Pauline Scott’s essay entitled, “The Modernist Orlando: Virginia Woolf’s Refashioning of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso,” she discusses the love and subsequent madness that overcome the title characters of both works (92). A good starting point for this discussion of gender identity [End Page...


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pp. 123-133
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