Chaste Silent And Obedient Of Womanhood English Literature Essay

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'Chaste, silent, and obedient'. Do you think this accurately sums up the Renaissance ideal of womanhood? To what extent does literature by women and/or the literary representation of women respect or challenge the above description?

For a woman to be 'chaste, silent, and obedient' is to essentially be the embodiment of the Virgin Mary, seen as the second Eve, and the figure of female redemption[1]. Therefore if one was to follow the standard set of virtues laid down by 'patriarchal assumptions about power, privilege, and sexual desire'[2] they would be a good Christian woman. A value held in high esteem in the period. But they would also be puppets at the hands of men, whether willingly or not, women were subjected to conceptions placed upon them by men. But was their Renaissance 'ideal' a reality?

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The Renaissance period was a time of religious and political controversy. A breeding ground for repression and rebellion. At the centre of it all was the Christian conflict of Protestantism and Catholicism, affecting the monarchy's divine right of kings. Charles I was making contentious decisions, enlarging the chasm between belief systems and falling into a spiralling descent towards his execution. Civil war plagues the nation, tensions are high, the fate of the country lies in the hands of men. Yet, women are the sex deemed as dangerous, a threat to politics and society. Persecuted with socially accepted subjection, and the need to be kept in their place, which happened to be below men.

Within Renaissance society, women had a 'natural inferiority to men in the hierarchy of being'[3]. This concept had been derived from The Holy Bible, wherein Eve disobeys God thus bringing sin on to mankind. God's punishment for Eve is 'Thy desire shall be thy husband, and he shall rule over you.'[4] Within this one line all the ideals are present, Chastity in being exclusive to her husband, Obedience in allowing him to rule over her, and silence with no opposition. However this reading of The Holy Bible represents the view that the fall of mankind was Eve's fault. ?milia Lanyer and Lucy Hutchinson were two women writers that decided to splinter feminine ideals and write biblical exegeses, each giving a different perspective of Eve in an attempt to rewrite the religious and patriarchal discourse.

?milia Lanyer's, Salve Deus Rex Jud?orum, presents a misleading work that is intended to look like a book of Religious verse, which happened to be the only genre deemed fit for women. On the contrary, Religious poetry was classed as the highest form[5] of literature which contradicts the notion in the first place. In the title poem Salve Deus Rex Jud?orum, Eve is sympathised in a rhetorical speech 'Eve's apology'[6], where her 'fault was only too much love,'[7]. Lanyer emanates the view that women should not still be blamed for Eve's disobedience, furthermore she portrays the notion that there was no malice in Eve's actions, and if there was anything other than innocence then it must have been inside Adam as Eve's Origin. Lanyer argues that men are not blameless, and by entwining her forceful protest with rhetoric and insinuation, she lances a gaping wound into the patriarchal ideals of silence and obedience.

In Genesis 2:23, according to Adam Eve is 'bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.'[8] Which suggests equality, as Eve is as much part of Adam as he is her. Milton uses this line in Paradise lost, but interestingly adds 'my self before me'[9] at the end of the line. This suggests that Milton chose to portray Eve, the first woman, seen as an equivalent of Adam. Initially, the possessive connotations of Eve being produced from part of Adam could be seen as Patriarchal. However, upon closer inspection, Amanda Shepherd suggests it can be seen as Eve being superior as she was made from bone, a higher quality material than that of what Adam was created[10]. On the other hand it also refers to the Renaissance idea that men had all the power in procreation. Whereby with the theory of the homunculus it was believed that within a sperm was a fully formed miniature person, taking away any biological credit from the woman[11].

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Lucy Hutchinson's Order and Disorder fell victim to the Patriarchal constraints in that it was never published in its entirety until 2001. At the time of writing it, she was unable to sign her name to it because her husband signed Charles I's death warrant. Therefore, putting her name to a work would have encouraged mass criticism and public scrutiny, only amplified by her gender. In Order and Disorder, Hutchinson's epic lacks an assertive female tone and illustrates Eve's flaw as not listening to her husband. Which aligns itself within the Renaissance Ideals of womanhood, usually associated with male perception. However, she also goes against these ideals in her literary career 'I thought it no sin to learne or heare wittie songs and amorous sonnets or poems.'[12] As opposed the Patriarchal assumption that women should just tie themselves to the household duties and leave the learning to the men.

Hutchinson kept to her strong Puritan beliefs and hinted towards a lack of divine order within the political order.[13] This shows that Lucy Hutchinson was not a coward when it came to politics and her right to voice an opinion. This caused a furore among men who were hesitant about seeing women with their own views. It was a general consensus that women were not fit to rule[14], which rather creates a poor view of women's abilities rather than that of an 'ideal'. Hutchinson is aware of the power women conceal, and is very much her own woman but she does conform to some of the Renaissance ideals of womanhood, not due to Patriarchal culture but because she feels it's right and it is the godly way in which she wishes to live.

What power like that of subtle women when They exercise their skill to manage men, Their weak force recompensed with wily arts! While men rule kingdoms, women rule their hearts. (18: 219-22)[15]

Here Hutchinson reveals the truth in society, and the reason why patriarchal constraints were put in place. Ultimately men feared women due to the power they had over them, whether it be manipulative, seductive or love induced[16] they were still 'ruled' by women on the inside.

Until quite recently a lot of female Renaissance writers had been ignored or simply not acknowledged. This may have been because of the prohibitions in effect at the time, such as denial of authorship or excluding the work from the convention from which it resides[17]. There was an apparent boom when Charles I had his court turned into a hotbed of female literature, influenced by his Catholic Queen, Henrietta Maria[18]. The last few decades has seen innumerable studies of Renaissance women writers, bringing forth names that had never before been heard. Even now there is only a fraction of female works available compared to that of men. The majority of female works available are from aristocracy or women of higher classes. Aside from illiteracy, lower class women were generally deprived of literature due to familial responsibilities taking up most of their time. Generally the most linguistic creativity undertaken was the naming of their children,[19] even then there was a patriarchal dominance over boy's names to follow that of the father.

A prominent example of a woman writer that had her heredity privilege her publication was Mary Wroth. Part of the Sidney-Herbert family, she used her heritage to help secure publication and acknowledgement of her works. She is the first known woman to publish a prose romance and also a sonnet sequence. A 'woman written by men'[20] she lived a life that was initially somewhat dominated and decided by men. First her father, then her husband followed by her cousin, William Herbert with whom she defied all constraints by having two illegitimate children with, not only by being promiscuous but also being incestrally inclined.

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Wroth's most popular work is The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, a prose romance. This work within itself was a defiant act in that it was socially accepted that women read romances, but men wrote them. It was seen to be too indecent for a woman to write such encouraging fancies, as women were thought of as being unable to control their imaginations and were vulnerable to fantasy. Unfortunately Wroth succumbs to this notion by introducing the genre of roman-a-clef[21] to an extent that the boundaries between the fictional characters and her real life acquaintances become blurred. Suggesting that she lost the ability to distinguish between the two separate spheres, which is exactly why men thought it was unfitting for women to write within such a genre, thus advocating their opinion.

The Countess of Montgomery's Urania presents a successful combination of female unity and reference to wider reading in different genres. The female unison through coteries and friendships assure women's contentment with the story whilst simultaneously providing enough classical reference to bluntly belittle the voyeuristic male readers who secretly enjoy peeping in on the 'feminine' genre to benefit from a sense of intellectual superiority[22]. Female readers would have also taken pleasure in the conversation between Pamphilia and Veralinda upon the faultiness of Amphilanthus. The discussion of male flaws between two women breaks the ideals of womanhood and shakes the foundations of gender roles[23]. The female characters give women readers hope by signifying assertion and the benefits of personal endurance. Wroth puts forward her own idyllic society whereby mutual affinity between females as well as males, promote better relationships than those formed on a hierarchical basis.

?milia Lanyer also portrays an idyllic female locus amoenus in her epideictic poem The Description of Cooke-ham. Prior to this elegy, female praise had been printed by men with pre-fixed principles, in their view any woman that was being praised must have been a one off, a rarity among her gender[24]. As part of her praise and flattery of female patrons, Lanyer illustrates a friendship between the Countess of Cumberland and Jesus Christ. This is a hyperbolic scene paying great tribute to the countess suggesting that she is such a good virtuous Christian that she can walk alongside Jesus. Biblical figures are the only males present in the poem and are ordained as 'the other'[25], stressing the feminine centrality of the poem. The Countess is portrayed with having features associated with the Renaissance ideal of womanhood, she places a 'chaste yet loving'[26] kiss on the tree. Throughout Lanyer's work she promotes the importance of female virtue, but at the same time if defying them. Therefore it is possible that she had great admiration for women but expressed this within the contemporary social conceptions of ideal feminine qualities.

Unlike ?milia Lanyer, Mary Wroth inherited the priviledged life, she grew up surrounded by books and with well established authors as family[27]. Wroth lived the life of an aristocrat and did not enjoy it. Lanyer craved to have a life at court. By dedicating her poems to women, Lanyer was setting up a bond between author and reader, and also reversing the patronage system and going against the womanly ideals. She forms a classless ideal suggesting that she aspires to break down the barriers between classes for equality, yet she is obsessed by class and has a desire to move up to the next one. Like Wroth, Lanyer creates an exclusive female group for good Christian women, protected from the misogynistic world that lay outside, however her construction is more about social climbing than fighting for the rights of women.

Mary Wroth also defies gender assignments by promoting heroines rather than heroes, but she also subscribes to the Renaissance ideals with her public portrayal of Pamphilia as 'the most silent and discreetly retir'd of any princesse'[28]. Pamphilia's silent trait in public is a recurrent adjective present in descriptions throughout her appearances[29]. Prescribing to the Petrarchan tradition of muting women. This is contradictory seeing as Wroth was careful to compose the voice of women as the substance and building bricks of the culture in The Urania[30]. Milton also challenges a Petrarchan conceit in his own conceived ideal of woman. In his perfect Edenic setting, Eve, first thought of in Adam's head and brought to life by his own rib, is everything a man could want and competes with the sonneteers attempts at exaggerating mortal beauty[31]. However, Milton also takes the arch-masculine approach at blaming Eve for the fall of mankind. There is no way of knowing if this was his actual view on women or if he was just expressing public opinions of the time.

Having an ideal of womanhood in place meant that there must have been an ideal of manhood also. Containing characteristics of strength and power, to remind men that they must be manly at all times. In Wroth's The Urania, Pamphilia is commended on her 'brave and manlike spirit'[32], this can be read in two ways. One is that Pamphilia is going against the feminine ideals and breaking her female mould, the other is that Mary Wroth agrees with the gender conventions in place thus accepting the womanly traits expected of her. There was a popular notion of women resigning their female qualities in order to adopt a more 'male' persona. As Lady Macbeth asks 'unsex me here'[33] to dispose of her virtuous traits and swap them for that of strength and courage so that she can make an impact of her husband's public life and have the cruelty to carry out dark deeds.

Women who published successful works were discredited by being labelled as 'Intellectually male, and biologically female'[34] used against them as another patriarchal mechanism. Bearing in mind this supposed male brain, authors such as Isabella Whitney flipped gender roles and published The Copy of a letter where her voice was that of a woman deceived by a man. Whitney reverses judgement onto men, as they are scrutinized for their lusting. She advises women to 'alwayes trie before ye trust,'[35] subjecting men to be looked upon as a disposable item if they are not good enough for the woman. This show of assertiveness and independence from women would have been highly stigmatized at the time, it would have put men on the edge as they feared a loss in power as women increasingly sought areas of agency.

Whitney and Wroth in their life and literature dared to present overtly sexual commandeering. In The Copy of a Letter, Whitney uses Ovid's Metamorphoses as a key source as it proposes a broad assortment of sexual encounters. An acceptance and understanding of ones sexuality breaks the 'ideal' barrier of chastity and openly referring to it is all but silence. What made Whitney evermore potent was her simplistic style, making her work accessible to a wider audience, thus having the potential to inspire more impressionable young women. Mary Wroth not only led a promiscuous life but referred to sexuality in her works as well. Her sexual rebellion along with her active prolific writing, were both ways in which she could assert herself. Areas in which she primarily had the control.

?milia Lanyer's idealised Christian female virtues were piety, chastity and the dedication to religious scripture[36], which she featured in her work. They were more down to her religion than society. However, she clearly opposed the idea that women should be pigeon holed, and defied the literary and intellectual constraints. Mary Wroth lived a life beyond that of the Renaissance ideals, but her work was crucial in identifying aristocratic femininity[37]. Lucy Hutchinson was a devoted wife and puritan. She took on board the ideals of women and was careful to keep her distance from the female literary qualities in her works.

These women have been studied under 'gynocritical'[38] classification and have shown to keep different personalities in their private and public life. Some of them ascribe to the Renaissance ideals, some stand defiant, but what is for definite is that all the women mentioned in this essay hold true to Constancy, the forgotten virtue. The ability to develop a self and stay true to it no matter what happens to be public opinion at the time.

With all the Renaissance female writers concerned, it is clear that whatever their purpose for writing, their main motivation was not that of female standing. However, what is apparent is an emergence of a Renaissance female self[39]. Their work has been subjected to desperate feminist analysis singularly concerning their gender. For a Renaissance woman to write poetry they had to overcome many obstacles put in place by patriarchy.

The Renaissance ideals of womanhood and the oppression forced upon women shows how religion can act as a social weapon of suppression and power that can spread wildly. Overall, all the women that were published, or even those that wrote in their spare time, were defying the ideals[40] because they were assimilating themselves with a male occupancy that directly goes against the renaissance ideal of silence. They were not single handedly reforming the world they lived in, but they were presenting a readjusted one. 

In a society where Witchcraft was still feared, and misogynistic portrayals of evil women were distributed, complete with a healthy dose of Patriarchal sermons, it is fair to say that through fear and protective power ardour, men craved a suppressive framework of the ideal woman. Nonetheless, if Patriarchy was the only power there would not have been space for a female debate. There must have been some state of anxious masculinity, a level of society that felt Venus envy rather than penis envy.

Ideals are relative; they depend on a person's individual beliefs or social influence. Idyllic is wishful thinking, it is not necessarily going to happen or indeed already in occurrence. Ideally we would all like to live in world peace, realistically we do not. Therefore, the 'Ubiquitous ideologeme of chastity, silence, and obedience which defined female virtue of the period.' [41] undoubtedly portrays an accurate summation of the key features concerning the renaissance ideal of womanhood. However, some women did contest the ideal and sought agency and creativity to occupy their time rather than ironing, silently, whilst wearing a chastity belt.


[1] Elaine V. Beilin, Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1990) pp.xix

[2] Mark Breitenberg, 'Introduction', in Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp.1

[3] Barbara K. Lewalski, Writing Women in Jacobean England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993) pp. 1

[4] The Holy Bible: New King James Version (London: Samuel Bagster & Sons Ltd, 1982) Genesis 3:16

[5] Lewalski, Writing Women in Jacobean England, pp.221

[6] ?milia Lanyer, 'Salve Deus Rex Jud?orum', in Renaissance Literature: An Anthology, ed. by Michael Payne and John Hunter (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2003) pp.841, ll. 761-832

[7] ibid. pp.842, ll.801

[8] The Holy Bible: New King James Version, Genesis 2:23

[9] John Milton, Paradise Lost, in Complete English Poems, of Education, Areopagitica, 5th edn. ed. by Gordon Campbell (London: J.M. Dent Orion Publishing group, 1993) pp.329, ll.495

[10] Amanda Shepherd, Gender and Authority in Sixteenth-Century England: The Knox Debate (Keele: Ryburn Publishing, Keele University Press, 1995)

[11] William H Calvin, , 'The Fate of the Soul', in Natural History Magazine: Natural Selections, June 2004, <http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/0604/0604_selections.html> [accessed 11 December 2008]

[12] Lucy Hutchinson, 'The Life of Mrs. Hutchinson, Written by Herself: A Fragment', in Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, ed. by James Sutherland (London: Oxford University Press, 2001) pp.288

[13] David Norbrook, 'Introduction' in Order and Disorder (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001) pp.xxxvi

[14] John Knox, The First Blast (1558), in Amanda Shepherd, Gender and Authority in Sixteenth-Century England: The Knox Debate (Keele: Ryburn Publishing, Keele University Press, 1995)

[15] Lucy Hutchinson, Hutchinson, Lucy, Order and Disorder, ed. David Norbrook (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001) 18: 219-22

[16] Alexandra Shepherd, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) pp.78

[17] Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women's Writing (London: The Women's Press Ltd, 1984) pp.5

[18] David Norbrook, 'Introduction' in Order and Disorder (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001) pp.xlvii

[19] ibid. pp.xlvii

[20] Gary Waller, 'Mary Wroth and the Sidney Family Romance: Gender Construction in Early Modern England', in Reading Mary Wroth: Representing Alternatives in Early Modern England, ed. by Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller (Knoxville: The University of Tennesee, 1991) pp.60

[21] Helen Hackett, ''Yet tell me some such fiction': Lady Mary Wroth's Urania and the 'Femininity' of Romance', in Women, Texts and Histories 1575-1760, ed. by Clare Brant and Diane Purkiss (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp.48

[22] ibid. pp. 41

[23] Nona Fienberg, 'Mary Wroth's poetics of the self', Studies in English literature , 1500-1900, Vol. 42, No. 1, The English Renaissance (Winter, 2002), pp.121-136, <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/studies_in_english_literature/v042/42.1fienberg.pdf> [accessed 9 December 2008]

[24] Beilin, Redeeming Eve, pp.177

[25] Helen Wilcox, "Whom the Lord with love affecteth': Gender and the Religious Poet, 1590-1633', in 'This Double Voice': Gendered Writing in Early Modern England, ed. by Danielle Clarke and Elizabeth Clarke (Reading: McMillan Press Ltd, 2000) pp.198

[26] Elaine V. Beilin, Redeeming Eve. pp.205

[27] Danielle Clarke, 'Introduction', in Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney and Aemilia Lanyer: Renaissance women poets, ed by Danielle Clarke (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2000), pp.1

[28] Wroth, Mary, The First Part of The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, ed. by Josephine A. Roberts (New York: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1995) pp.812 <http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=1dRZAAAAMAAJ&dq=wroth+The+First+Part+of+The+Countess+of+Montgomery's+Urania&pgis=1> [accessed 12 December 2008]

[29] Jeff Masten, '"Shall I turne blabb?": Circulation, Gender, and Subjectivity in Mary Wroth's Sonnets', in Reading Mary Wroth: Representing Alternatives in Early Modern England, ed. by Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller (Knoxville: The University of Tennesee, 1991) pp.82

[30] Naomi J. Miller, 'Engendering Discourse: Women's Voices in Wroth's Urania and Shakespeare's Plays', in Reading Mary Wroth: Representing Alternatives in Early Modern England, ed. by Naomi J. Miller and Gary Waller (Knoxville: The University of Tennesee, 1991) pp. 155

[31] Margaret Kean, 'Dreaming of Eve: Edenic Fantasies in John Milton's Paradise Lost', in Writing and Fantasy, ed. by Ceri Sullivan and Barbara White (New York: Addison Wesley Longman Inc., 1999) pp.91

[32] Hackett, in Women, Texts and Histories, pp.55

[33] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, in Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Glasgow: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994 ) Act 1, Scene v, ll. 38, pp.1055

[34] Frances Teague, 'A Voice for Hermaphroditical Education', in 'This Double Voice': Gendered Writing in Early Modern England, ed. by Danielle Clarke and Elizabeth Clarke (Reading: Mcmillan Press Ltd, 2000) pp. 249

[35] Isabella Whitney, The Copy of a Letter, in Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney and Aemilia Lanyer: Renaissance women poets, ed by Danielle Clarke (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2000), pp.36

[36] Clarke, 'Introduction', in Renaissance women poets, pp.xi

[37] Elizabeth Hanson, Elizabeth Hanson, 'Boredom and Whoredom: Reading Women's Sonnet Sequences', The Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol 10, No. 1, (1997), pp.167

[38] Clarke, 'Introduction', in Renaissance women poets, pp.ii

[39] ibid, pp. x

[40] Constance Jordan, 'Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models' (New York: Cornell University, 1990) pp.173

[41] Hanson, 'Boredom and Whoredom', pp.179