Review of Gender and Heroism in Early Modern English Literature

by Jessica C. Murphy

Mary Beth Rose.  Gender and Heroism in Early Modern English Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002.  xxii + 133 pp. $8.95. ISBN: 0-226-72573-3.

Review by José Jiménez-Justiniano

Readers might be surprised at the way that Mary Beth Rose approaches the topic of heroism in her study, Gender and Heroism in Early Modern English Literature, although, I would like to think, not as surprised as they might have been a couple of decades ago.  Indeed, the topic of heroism seems to be strictly associated with masculinity and the male dominated public sphere, yet Rose’s book is principally concerned with how the feminine and the private realm become an important part of heroism in the literature written in England during the sixteenth and the seventeenth century.  However, as the diversity of the material included in the book demonstrates, her objective goes beyond a revision of literary history.  With Gender and Heroism in Early Modern English Literature, Rose attempts to reveal a change in the social attitudes towards the feminine that, so far, had been considered by scholars to be marginal.  In other words, this ambitious, yet succinct, book proposes that the feminine was not excluded from the privileged arena of the heroic, as most feminists would assume, but rather that it was progressively accepted as the norm.

Throughout the book, Rose looks at a wide diversity of texts, literary, political, historical, to expound how the principal figures in these texts, whether they are historical or fictitious, embrace a female subject position, whether they are male or female.  Indeed, her study concentrates on how society in general embraces what she calls a heroism of endurance, which is associated with female characteristics and private values, rather than the heroism of action associated with the male warrior aristocracy of the middle ages.  Perhaps, the scope of the project is the biggest problem with the book, as Rose herself notices in the “Prologue,” where she admits that her readers might “feel frustrated” at the exclusion of such texts as Hamlet, The Faerie Queene, and Paradise Lost, which seem very relevant to her discussion (xviii).  Nevertheless, the readers will also have to admit that the book covers two centuries of tumultuous English history adequately without compromising the discussion of a diversity of texts that come from canonical male writers, princess, nobles and middle class women.  Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of this study is the diversity of the material that it examines, from drama to political speeches to autobiographies, which really conveys the sense that this change in attitude is happening at all levels of society.

The first chapter covers four plays from the late sixteenth century that are dominated by the presence of their male characters: Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Dr. Faustus, Ben Jonson’s Volpone and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  With the exception of Macbeth, the protagonists of all the other plays try to monopolize all gendered subject positions.  In the case of Tamburlaine, which is possibly the play that receives the most attention, Rose argues that Tamburlaine willingly transforms himself into the object of admiration for his henchman in order to consolidate his power.  Furthermore, she explains how he conveys the range of this power by presenting himself as the beloved figure of the gods, which he does by assuming the position of a raped woman.  Hence, Tamburlaine assumes and controls both subject positions in the play: the male position through his deeds in battle and the female position through the objectification of himself (for the pleasure of both henchman and gods).  Macbeth is at odds with the other three plays, since the protagonist does not take advantage of the female position to consolidate his power, but rather tries to disassociate himself from everything female, adhering to a pure male position of heroism, which is ultimately condemn in the play by a depiction of his action as violent crimes rather than heroic deeds.  Hence, through her discussion of Macbeth, Rose successfully demonstrates that the literature of the late sixteenth century did not only see the inclusion of the feminine, but also the rejection of the masculine system of values.

The second chapter examines the use of both male and female position in a historical context by examining the way that Queen Elizabeth I consolidated her power.  Focusing only on the speeches of Elizabeth I, Rose is able to demonstrate how English Queen assumed both the male and the female position in order to maintain her authority.  Elizabeth’s use of the male and female rhetoric of authority has already been studied by critics, whom have pointed out her use of the discourse of the kings two bodies and the discourse of the divine right of kings as representative of the male position and the cult of the virgin queen as representative of the female position.  However, Prof. Rose goes further identifying the use of lived-experiences as an important source of authority in her speeches and arguing that she depicted herself as a survivor.  In other words, the discourse that Elizabeth used to sustain her royal authority rested on the experiences that came from having survived personal trails, which is clearly in tone with the feminine heroic of endurance.

Through the study of both the sixteenth century plays and the speeches of the Queen, which cover not only literature but also the political arena, Rose is able to demonstrate the initial movement towards the predominance of a female heroics or heroics of endurance which is finally seen in the seventeenth century.  In her third chapter, Rose discusses the autobiographies of four remarkable women that lived during the tumultuous times of the seventeenth century: Margaret Cavendish, Ann Fanshawe, Alice Thornton, and Anne Halkett.  Her discussion of these autobiographies highlights the flexibility that social categories acquired during the English Civil War.  One, evident, example of this is seen in her discussion of Ann Fanshawe’s autobiography, where she points out how Fanshawe participates in the public sphere and assumes “a starring role in the male heroics of action” (68).  However, this seems to only represent an exception, as the other female figures all remain within the boundaries set by their social roles: wife and mother. (Prof. Rose would argue that so does Fanshawe, who sees this incursion into the male world as her wifely duties.)  The underlying argument in this chapter is that through their autobiographies, these women were able to become the heroes of their life, raising the domestic labors of women to a heroic position.  Furthermore, Rose argues that the capacity shown by all four women to adapt to the changing circumstances, escape defeat, and survive marks them, like Elizabeth I, as heroes of endurance.  These historical figures represent the types of heroics that would be found in the literature of the seventeenth century: a heroism that was very much concerned with marriage and domestic life.

The fourth and last chapter of the book examines John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, and Mary Astell’s Some Reflection Upon Marriage.  In the first two texts, the male protagonist are slaves who have abandoned or rejected their position as male heroes and, under their present circumstances, assume the female subject position of the heroics of endurance.  Unlike the male characters of the late sixteenth century (discussed in the first chapter), Samson and Oroonoko do not assume multiply gendered position, but rather embrace the female definition of heroism.  The last text discussed in the book, Astell’s Some Reflection Upon Marriage, attacks physical strength, central to male heroics of action, as the misguided source of male authority.  She concludes with an idealization of the heroics of endurance, but, as Prof. Rose points out, only because “she has little choice” on the matter (110).  Notwithstanding the limitations of choices that still existed during the seventeenth century, a predominance of the female heroics of endurance in English Literature, replacing the male heroics of action, represents an unacknowledged acceptance of the feminine in society, as Prof. Rose points out.

Indeed, Gender and Heroism in Early Modern English Literature presents a new and unexpected perspective of heroism in English literature.  Furthermore, it appears to be the result of an ambitious project that demands a continuation.  Perhaps, this is the best quality of the book, that it generates interest and curiosity in its readers, provoking further research on the topics discussed, in this case, gender and heroism.  However, the book should not only be interesting to scholars working with gender studies and epic literature, but it should be interesting to anyone studying the Early Modern Period.

José Jiménez-Justiniano

University of Texas-Dallas