Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tottel's Miscellany, A Disease of Virgins, Macbeth, and Shakespeare after Mass Media

This is crazy long. Sorry.

Tottel's Miscellany (actually titled Songes and Sonettes) was originally published by Richard Tottel in 1557 and is the first published anthology of English poetry. It was incredibly popular and went through many printings, a few of which changed the composition of the book considerably, which has contributed to its being overlooked as a usual inclusion to the period's typically studied poetic canon. The book contains poems by Wyatt, Surrey, and a number of "uncertaine authors." While some of the poems do follow Gascoigne's prescription for the "sonnet" (Fourteen lines broken into three quatrains and a couplet with an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme--what would come to be called the English sonnet), most of them do not.

Helen King's A Disease of Virgins: greensickness, chlorosis, and the problems of puberty uses period and current medical knowledge to explain and disprove myths about greensickness, a Renaissance disease attributed to virgins whose cure was thought to be marriage followed soon after by pregnancy. Though physician Johannes Lange's 1554 description of the disease as "peculiar to virgins" was largely accepted, King argues that this attribution had less to do with the disease's actual characteristics and more to do with a social desire to both medicalize and prescribe femininity (I'm using the word "medicalize" as Rich does in Of Woman Born in order to describe how the female bodily experience is somehow distanced from the woman's physical body through medical procedures). King also notes that using "greensickness" first and "chlorosis" second in the title of her book both privileges the popular over the clinical as well as shows the close diagnostic link between those two categories in the Renaissance. Other important points:
  • Greensickness and the humors - linked to being hyper-sanguine and thought to have a strong connection with the onset of menstruation. When you're greensick, you're too much of a woman (Galen thought that this disease would cause menstrual blood to force itself out of as many pores as possible. I think the French feminists just found their new superpower of choice!).
  • Greensickness and food - Chlorosis was later diagnosed as a type of anemia, the cure for which is a diet heavy in iron, which means eating foods like fragrant dark greens and red meat. These foods are heavy and not feminine. In this way, greensickness has a relative in anorexia nervosa (See my post on Unbearable Weight for more).
  • The progression of greensickness - While first thought to be a digestive disease as the previous note suggests, it becomes strongly tied to virginity with Lange's letter in 1554, which argues that virginity blocks the flow of blood and must be removed (broken hymen, blood on sheets, from marriage to pregnancy, greensickness is cured).
  • Greensickness and Shakespeare - King mentions the disease's widespread literary uses. Were I to be asked to discuss its presence in Shakespeare's plays (I'm sure I will be), I would point to Hamlet and Antony and Cleopatra. In the first, Polonius--who I love to hate--calls Ophelia "a green girl." He is literally referring to her inexperience in the ways of romance while trying to learn more about her relationship with Hamlet, but his clear desire for her to be an appropriate woman so he may rise socially makes me think "green" can also be read as "greensick" there. In the second, soldiers refer to the drunk Lepidus as greensick as a way to say that Cleopatra is feminizing (read: ruining) Rome with her ladylike Egyptian influence. In a play that sets up binaries to ultimately question them, I think that's significant.

Macbeth is the second play I'm teaching in my current course on Women in Shakespeare, and I've really enjoyed going through it with my students. It's an excellent text through which to explore how female agency and female embodiment conflict, and that has been a throughline of our discussion of the play thus far. Like Richard III, women are either wives or witches, and there is a since that the former inevitably become the latter. Other than the witches, the only women who figure (semi-?) prominently are Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff. The first instructs her husband to school his face to hide his heart (like Gertrude, she "knows seems"), and the majority of my students see her as the guilty party even though her husband commits the physical acts of murder, because she spurs on the idea of those actions. We've talked a lot about the play's many uses of the word "do," and whether thinking is action or not. For them, thinking seems to be doing more than doing is doing. I've been wondering how this relates to the Cartesian mind/body split, with which Susan Bordo begins her discussion of how the female body becomes culturally subordinate. My students' model reverses this association, making the mind female and the body male, thereby aligning with the standard active male/passive female dichotomy, with a side of "woman as duplicity" thrown in. I tend to agree more with Janet Adelman, who says that both lady Macbeth's fear and her power stem from the way she treats maternity. She knows motherhood and its social position (" I have given suck..."), but she is also savvy enough to recognize that that position and its accompanying feminine norms limit her agency (breasts filled with gall, ripping the hypothetical babe's gums from her breast and bashing in its head in order to be able to commit murder).Though Adelman sees social subversion in this ability to discern and use norms to her advantage and I do also, I'm not sure I agree 100%. I do think Lady Macbeth has a power that men around her cannot comprehend (a power that Cixous or Irigaray would respect for its incomprehensibility, even as they would likely not approve of her negative invocation of bodily fluids), I think the subversion of this power is limited because she enacts it by enforcing an extremely rigid (no pun intended, I swear) masculinity on her husband. She tells him to be a man a lot, saying that he is "too full of the milk of human kindness" and that she must inject her spirit into his ear in order to win him to her point of view. That second thing literally means she wants to convince him by talking to him, but when "spirit" and milk appear just a couple of lines apart, I don't think I'm entirely remiss in reading "spirit" as "semen" as well. Not entirely. Shades of the other meaning are there, at least.

The witches also bend gender, what with their beards and their appearing not of the world. Notably, none of these women have autonomous first names (something that Lady Macbeth's Daughter, the YA adaptation I'm reading for the dissertation immediately remedies in its quest for a female community with both agency and autonomy), so while they play with gender in some ways, they reflect strict patriarchy in others. That brings me to Lady Macduff. She too wishes her husband would man up and protect their child instead of fleeing to England, and she laments her gendered response to the situation in the following passage:
Whither should I fly?
I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world, where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly. Why then, alas,
Do I put up that womanly defense,
To say I have done no harm?
Like Banquo's description of the witches, she is in the world without saying she is of it. She also mimics their comments on the lack of logic to action in their society--"to do harm is often laudable, / to do good sometime accounted dangerous folly" sounds an awful lot like "fair is foul and foul is fair." While it's easy to see how Lady Macbeth's comments on embodiment and her famous "out, out damned spot" speech, with its spell-like commands, link her to the witches, Lady Macduff's passage above proves that even fairly normal, less power-hungry wives are doomed to go the way of the sorceress eventually. This dichotomy with no way out is mirrored in the Ophelia/Gertrude madonna/whore split: the former only avoids the latter's fate (being "a breeder of sinners" in an "enseamed bed") by killing herself. Though some would say this lack of female choices is lessened in Shakespeare's comedies, I would disagree (See my posts on The Roaring Girl and Shakespeare's cross-dressing comedies for more on that).

Other topics to discuss in Macbeth: The female role in fate(weird=wyrd=weyard), Why young boys in Shakespeare fare almost as badly as young girls in the character development department

Richard Burt's Shakespeare After Mass Media is a collection of essays (Burt is editor) that aims to discuss the ways "mass media" (what Doug Lanier calls "popular culture"--and with similar Marxist caveats in place) changes Shakespeare as cultural currency. The essays feel well-written and collaborative with the exception of Burt's introduction, which coins the distasteful word "Shlockspeare" for such cultural enterprise. Like Lanier's book, this one touches on all sorts of appropriations (I'm using the loaded term rather than the more neutral "adaptation" here because Burt's book seems to be about "culture wars" whereas Lanier's focus is more general and for a less specialized audience), from Klingon Hamlet to Broadway to the ever-present Branagh. I liked Lanier's book better from a teaching standpoint, but Burt's was more entertaining for me personally. I particularly enjoyed the essay on Branagh's films and British nationhood, which argues that the actor/director's Renaissance Films production company, pretentiously named as it may be, did a great deal to reclaim Britain's place in a list of powerhouses of cultural influence by " making the manners that revitalized Shakespeare for a postmodern audience," and then had the difficult job of defending those manners from everyone who came after. Another favorite was Fran Teague's article (and I'm not just saying that because I've studied with her, I promise, though my teaching persona owes a great deal to hers) on Shakespeare on Broadway, which examines how low and high culture oscillate in such musicals as Kiss Me, Kate and West Side Story concurrently with art common to misunderstood cultural groups (jazz, camp and drag, etc.).

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