‘For Fear to Be Infect’: Reading the Female Body in Early Modern Revenge Drama
From Firenze University Press Journal: Journal of Early Modern Studies (JEMS)
Molly Ziegler, The Open University
Despite attempts to limit revenge violence in real life — as seen through James I’s command for his subjects to ‘presume not vpon their owne Imagination and construction of wronge … to reuenge (as the Lawe findes it) their owne quarrels’ — such highly impassioned, honour-driven acts seem only to multiply within the worlds of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays (quoted inBowers 1959, 10–11). From Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father’s ‘foul and most unnatural murder’ (Hamlet 1.5.25)1 to Maria’s plot to punish Malvolio’s pride ‘on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work’ (Twelfth Night 2.3.128–129), representations of revenge are anything but limited.
However, although these narratives are indeed diverse, modern scholarship tends to marginalise the role of female revengers, framing instead revenge as a specifically masculine endeavour. Alison Findlay, for example, argues that ‘female characters often assume a masculine persona in the execution of their tasks’ (1999, 72). This has certainly been said of one of William Shakespeare’s most infamous female revengers, Tamora in Titus Andronicus. Derek Cohen claims that as Tamora’s quest for vengeance sees her provoking the rape of Lavinia, her revenge signifies a ‘renounc[ing of ] her own sexual identity’ in favour of a ‘male lust’ (1993, 88).
What is more, women were also seen to be incapable of exacting or imagining an effective revenge. According to seventeenth-century author Thomas Hill, ‘females hauea more dead minde, and are lesse patient’ than their male counterparts (1613, 11). Gail Kern Paster elaborates on this differentiation between male and female bodies, stating that within early modern culture, female bodies were considered too unstable and erratic to channel their passions towards a specific goal. They are (supposedly) ‘leaky vessels’ and lack ‘bodily self-control’ (1993, 25). As such, the female revenger must presumably fight against her female nature in order to exact a focused, reasoned vengeance; she must adopt ‘a language and manner that is inevitably masculinist’ (Cohen 1993, 85).
Marguerite Tassi remarks on this supposed rejection of female nature in her study of Shakespearean female revengers: ‘If the avenger is a woman, she steps over the bounds of culturally prescribed gender norms to pursue an action that may be deemed unwomanly’ (2011, 28).3While such characterisations of female revengers are certainly tempting, this article offers an alternative view of female-inflicted revenge. Rather than being an act devoid of features of female nature, I argue that representations of female revengers emphasise a link between their bodies and their vengeance.
For example, in John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan (1605), Franceschina’s body is central to her plot, as she is decried to wield her alleged ‘loose blood’ to make Malheureux sick with ‘lust’ (1997, 5.3.66–67). Additionally, in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1587), the violence Isabella inflicts upon her body — ‘So shall my womb be cursèd for his sake; / And with this weapon will I wound the breast, / The hapless breast, that gave Horatio suck’ — signifies the inseparability between her desire for revenge and her role as a woman and mother (1995, 4.2.36–38).
The relationship between revenge and the female body is examined at length by Liberty Star Stanavage, as she argues that ‘it is not despite their “leaky” and unstable female bodies but precisely because of them that these female characters can employ revenge as a rhetoric to empower their actions’ (2011, 64). However, though the revengers’ bodies are certainly implicated in their acts of vengeance, the portrayal of these revengers is perhaps less empowering than Stanavage claims. Namely, these representations are often infused with languages of disease and suffering, characterising the revengers as infectious and catalysts of sickness. For instance, Tamora in Titus Andronicus speaks of feeding Titus’s supposed ‘brain-sick humours’ (11.71), and Sir Toby in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night describes Maria’s scheme against Malvolio as an ‘infection’ (3.4.109).
As such, while there is indeed a correlation between revenge and female bodies, the portrayal of these bodies as dangerous and potentially sickening undermines the possibility of a wholly ‘empowered’ female revenger.The following sections of this article will examine the role early modern discourses on medi-cine and physiology play in dramatic representations of female-inflicted revenge. This discussion occurs over three sections: 1) an analysis of how bodies were conceptualised within the period’s medical discourses and how these bodies (particularly women’s bodies) were thought capable of infecting others; 2) a discussion of how female bodies are implicated in representations of female revenge; and, 3) an examination of what these representations imply about how early moderns were invited to read female bodies, infection and violence. Discussing these issues, this article will explore how female revengers’ bodies are implicated in (rather than removed from) their acts of revenge, and how such representations contribute to a cultural vilification of female bodies and female agency.