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The Representation of Female Desire in Renaissance Verse

The Representation of Female Desire in Renaissance Verse

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Lecturer Nomination) Competition by Katie McNeice. It is nominated by Lecturer Siobhan Collins of University College Cork in the category of English Language & Literature
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Lecturer Nomination) Competition by Katie McNeice. It is nominated by Lecturer Siobhan Collins of University College Cork in the category of English Language & Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
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'Early Modern Poetry is a male poetry; there is no place for female desire.' Discuss thisstatement with reference to at least three poems on your course.
Early modern poetry may be seen as an artistic expression of the cultural and socio- political conceptions of its era. Legitimated by the embodiment of the patriarchal ideal,literary content is saturated by the phallic perspective. As such, the representation of thefemale is continually harboured by the male consciousness; the female’s sexual and socialstatus therefore amount to an identity devoid of the capacity to articulate desire. Voicelesswithin this paradigm of the male homosocial conversation that dominates poetic productionin this period, the sexuality of women is a cryptic topic asphyxiated by male control. Onemay only conceive of an eloquent female desire by investigating the anonymity which pervaded male texts. Hence, one may investigate the position of the feminine through themanner in which it is characterised, concerning female participation with and subjugation of the sexually defining regime of patriarch. As a founding for early modern writers, secondaryhistorical texts also provide insightful reference to a lineage of the estimation of femaleautonomy.The literary tools employed by male writers to characterise women are a conscioussymbol of scholarly awareness and social reflexivity. Drawing upon the Carpe Diem motif for example, a male writer doubly demonstrates his artistic talents firstly by illustrating hisliterary education, and secondly by competently engaging with the expectation of theinevitably male reader. Generally dependent upon patronage, the poets' adherence to thismodel is rarely challenged and consequently preserving of politically constructed sexualinequality. Intimately bound with the male subconscious, divergence from the psychosocialconscription of biased gender relations is embodied only through male hysteria at the prospect of its collapse. As such, the images of women who threaten patriarch are most
 
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telling of female desire, such as we find in William Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis'
 ,
Thomas Nashe's 'A Choice of Valentines'
 ,
and John Donne's 'Sappho to Philaenis'.Shakespeare's 1593 poem,
'Venus and Adonis',
diverges from the original Ovidianmyth, excluding the sexual consummation of the earlier tale. The text's polarisation of thatwhich is chaste and vulturous is one which allows the constitution of Venus as a depravedand sexually volatile character, whilst the pre-pubescent Adonis embodies the pure anduntainted. By opposing the protagonists thus, Shakespeare allows for the formulation of asexually implicit dichotomy which entwines the female and the predatory whilst alternativelyfusing the male and the innocent. Venus' desire for Adonis is therefore subject to an image of degeneracy when met with the youth's lack of reciprocation, by virtue of the linguisticconnotations which attend to their interaction. For example, unremitting appeals to thecolours red and white obviate a poetic association with virginity and promiscuity as in thelines, “She red as hot coals of glowing fire, / He red for shame but frosty in desire.” (35-6) Assuch, any deviation from that which signifies Venus' desire as illicitly masculine is incoherentwith the hunting theme of the poem, which simultaneously envisions Adonis as the feminizedobject of prey. This reversing of traditional roles is, as we will see, portrayed as monstrous.The portions of narrative which verbalise Venus' speech are interjected with anabsence of the narrator’s empathy, escalating the consideration of her unreciprocated sexual persistence as abnormal. There is a disdain for her narrative which is supported by the notionof female sexual hysteria, thus equating female desire with uncontrollability. As such, thesexual confidence of the female is attuned to a womanly power and desire which is inevitablycircumcised by an inability to separate itself from monstrosity in the male discourse. Thismay be seen in the animalistic imagery of the poem being assigned to that which isrepresentative of the female blazon, and whose relation to the character may even beconstituted by absence or negation in self descriptive flattery. Feeding into the psychological
 
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depiction of female as that which is lacking, Venus’ portrayal facilitates an undercurrent of ideological male criticism which fosters disturbance regarding female entitlement to sexualautonomy. Instances of this unfavourable personification include, “sick-thoughted...serpent...vulture...devouring...murder...wolf” etc. (6-480) Devoid of allusion tothe stereotypical maternal or marital image, Venus’ undermining of archetypal gender roles is profoundly disturbing to the male reader. Ironically, Adonis’ character doubly defends thedenunciation of his female counterpart through a composition typical of the literary tendencyto subvert women as objects of the male gaze. His femininity progresses the negativemasculinisation of Venus, and yet heightens male empathy with his supposed victimisation.For example, “Rose-cheeked Adonis...more lovely than a man...the maiden burning of hischeeks...his soft bosom.” (3-81) Willingness to accept this contradictory sexualisation as partof that which also delineates a female tyranny pays homage to the notion of early modernalignment of female desire with male disgust. Oscillating within masculine favouritism, theobvious disdain for female sexual experience fails to recognise its own hypocrisy as, “...therules of aesthetic production and indeed of the hermeneutic act itself are mapped onto a phallomorphic regime of production” (Miller, 291) ...which subverts the non-maleirrespective of the properties of its opposition.There is an absolute revolt against the powerful female in ‘
Venus and Adonis
’ whichseems to abet a consciously referenced precluded logic. Its integration into the text is subtleand yet resounding, and thus reflective of cultural discourses which also denounce femaledesire as heinous. Renaissance medical research is an example of one such discourse. Asnoted by Traub, “Not only was the existence of the clitoris disputed among anatomists [at thistime], but the representation of the clitoris became a focal point for anxieties about thecultural meaning of female bodies.” (Traub,204) The fear accompanying the physicality of a potential female uprising attached itself to those anxieties which had long been ideologically

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