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Gender and Heroism in Early Modern English Literature

Gender and Heroism in Early Modern English Literature

by Mary Beth Rose

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For most readers and spectators, heroism takes the form of public, idealized masculinity. It calls to mind socially and morally elevated men embarking on active adventures: courageously confronting danger; valiantly rescuing the helpless; exploring and claiming unconquered terrain. But in this book, Mary Beth Rose argues that from the late sixteenth to the late


For most readers and spectators, heroism takes the form of public, idealized masculinity. It calls to mind socially and morally elevated men embarking on active adventures: courageously confronting danger; valiantly rescuing the helpless; exploring and claiming unconquered terrain. But in this book, Mary Beth Rose argues that from the late sixteenth to the late seventeenth centuries, a passive, more female, but equally potent dimension of heroic identity began to dominate English culture. For both men and women, heroism came to be defined in terms of patience, as the ability to endure suffering, catastrophe, and pain.

Interweaving discourses of gender, Rose explores ways in which this heroics of endurance became the dominant model. She examines the glamorous, failed destinies of heroes in plays by Shakespeare, Jonson, and Marlowe; Elizabeth I's creation of a heroic identity in her public speeches; the autobiographies of four ordinary women thrust into the public sphere by civil war; and the seduction of heroes into slavery in works by Milton, Aphra Behn, and Mary Astell. Ultimately, her study demonstrates the importance of the female in the creation of modern heroism, while offering a critique of both idealized action and suffering.

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University of Chicago Press
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Gender and Heroism in Early Modern English Literature

By Mary Beth Rose

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Mary Beth Rose
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226725731

ONE - "The observed of all observers": The Gendering of Heroism in Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare


I begin with Freud's reflections on heroism, which he explains in terms of audience, or reader, identification: "The feeling of security with which I follow the hero through his dangerous adventures," Freud writes, "is the same as that with which a real hero throws himself into the water to save a drowning man, or exposes himself to the fire of the enemy while storming a battery. It is this very feeling of being a hero which one of our best authors has well expressed in the famous phrase, 'Nothing can happen to me!' It seems to me, however, that this significant mark of invulnerability very clearly betrays--His Majesty the Ego, the hero of all day-dreams and all novels."

Leaving aside the alleged fame of the quoted phrase, Freud's remarks simplify to the point of disregarding the range and complexity of literary endeavor. His allusion to genre, comprehended in a casual reference to the modern novel, ignores the temporality of heroism, or the changing historical conditions that constitute and reconstitute heroic meaning. In his stress on direct, aggressive action, he also overlooks the long and continuing traditionof Western heroism that privileges the passive endurance of suffering. Consequently women--or cultural conceptions of the female--are excluded from the kind of behavior and event that both form the heroic subject and characterize his actions. Freud ironically--and deconstructively--accounts for these actions as the projected, idealizing identifications of the fragile male ego, fantasizing wishfully about its own omnipotence.

Despite the omissions and anachronisms of his description for purposes of literary and historical analysis, Freud's assumption that the heroic is an exclusively masculine province involving--whether or not it is intentional--bad faith in its represented drive toward omnipotence has a real usefulness for exploring Renaissance texts. I, too, want to consider heroic subjectivity as a gendered positioning of the self in relation to pleasure and power and to interrogate this process as unstable. But in what follows I would like to relocate Freud's focus on the individual ego, imagined as transhistorical, to the English Renaissance cultural creation of gender difference, as I investigate the representation of male heroism. How do Renaissance gender norms, themselves idealizations, intersect with the idealizing objectives of active male heroism? Which aspects of gender are being emphasized and which occluded or obscured in the construction of this version of the heroic? How does unraveling that process of evaluation reveal the instabilities of Renaissance heroism as a sustaining and enabling cultural description of masculinity and leadership? To explore these issues, I will focus on Tamburlaine and Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe and Volpone by Ben Jonson; I will turn in comparison and conclusion to Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Marlowe and Jonson are playwrights whose seemingly unmitigated masculinism provides a worst (or perhaps for my purposes best) case scenario. Most readers and spectators would agree that each of these dramatists in his different way is as unconcerned with, disgusted by, and eager to marginalize, demonize, and exclude women and the female as it is possible to be and still write plays. And so it appears that the performance of heroic identity in their plays as active and phallic in the extreme (that is, gendered exclusively male) is constructed and dependent upon marginalizing and erasing--optimally completely excluding--the female. In what follows it is certainly not my wish to deny the intent to contain the female in Marlowe's and Jonson's versions of male heroism. But what I find more interesting is that the attempt proves unsuccessful and, indeed, impossible. I will argue that in Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus, and Volpone, female positions are neither simply erased, silenced, nor immobilized, but rather inhabited flexibly and with desire in the performance of heroic identity by male figures. I will show that the active male hero's quest for omnipotence as exemplified in these texts does not seek to achieve the undiluted triumph of a dominant masculinity, but rather to monopolize all gendered subject positions.

The bad faith in this construction of heroism therefore inheres in its nominal and subsequent privileging of maleness; because femaleness is not merely included in this form of heroic identity as Marlowe and Jonson construct it, but is demonstrably constituent of that identity.

In contrast, it is Shakespeare's Macbeth who keeps the faith with the gendering of male heroism as it is idealized in Renaissance texts. Macbeth's quest to conquer and dominate takes the unambiguous form of eliminating women and the female. His journey is a savage one; but within the logic of male tragic heroism, it is supremely successful. In contrast to Tamburlaine's, Faustus's, and Volpone's, Macbeth's heroic identity is at once more idealistic, more terrifying, and more pristine. Because of the gendered purity of the hero's quest, Macbeth provides the most unrelenting scrutiny and scathing critique of aristocratic male heroism in all of English Renaissance literature.


Marlowe's Tamburlaine, parts 1 and 2 (1587-88), provides a case in point--perhaps the case in point--for the privileging of active male agency in defining and achieving heroic dominance. Creating himself through words and deeds, persuading, punishing, conquering, commanding, Tamburlaine is the man "ordained by heaven / To further every action to the best" ( Living out his fantasies and obsessions linguistically, he brazenly colonizes the imperative mood, for as he puts it,"will and shall best fitteth Tamburlaine" ( famous speeches in the play all emphasize Tamburlaine's heroic identity as rooted in a desire for omnipotence, idealized as courageous, nearly successful striving actually to fulfill human potential:

Nature that framed us of four elements,

Warring within our breasts for regiment,

Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:

Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend

The wondrous architecture of the world,

And measure every wandering planet's course,

Still climbing after knowledge infinite,

And always moving as the restless spheres,

Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest.
Soul-driven, desiring, and questing,Tamburlaine is self-consciously constructed as the male hero of action par excellence. His relationship with his abducted victim turned concubine turned wife, Zenocrate, whom he first degrades and then idealizes, augments and elaborates the paradigmatic quality of his heroic performance. Tamburlaine's only moment of conflict in part 1 is construed, again paradigmatically, as an unresolved struggle between love and duty, arising when Zenocrate begs him to refrain from savaging her country and murdering her father, which he has sworn to do. He does, in fact, partly give in to her by keeping her father alive, acknowledging that "neither Persia's sovereign nor the Turk / Troubled my senses with conceit of foil / So much by much as doth Zenocrate" ( In his love for Zenocrate Tamburlaine recognizes the dangerous potential for the defeat of his military ambitions. His defensive reaction is to abstract from the immediate and personal: "What is beauty, saith my sufferings then?" he ponders philosophically ( Rejecting his feelings as "unseemly," "effeminate," and "faint," by the end of this soliloquy he has articulated eloquently the traditional Neoplatonic/Petrarchan chivalric solution to the dilemma of male heterosexual desire in its relation to action. The beloved lady (subsumed here as an embodied presence by abstracted musing) must be internalized as an image, serving as the inspiration for Tamburlaine's military conquests: "And every warrior that is rapt with love / Of fame, of valor, and of victory, / Must needs have beauty beat on his conceits" ( Repressing, or from his point of view transcending, sexual desire,Tamburlaine is able to conclude his soliloquy by returning to the theme of military glory, now psychologically unimpeded.

Along with inspiring Tamburlaine, Zenocrate's function in the play is to add a moral dimension completely absent in the hero himself that at least partially qualifies his magnificence. Yet, as I have argued at length elsewhere, Zenocrate as embodied presence has little meaningful agency. Because she occupies a static and decorative role for the majority of the play, it is appropriate that Zenocrate's final appearance in part 2 is as a portrait decorating the coffin that contains her corpse. Despite Zenocrate's elevation of the play's moral tone, her narrative role is destructive. She fulfills her woman's part, which, from the point of view of dramatic structure, can be seen to impede the progress of masculine heroics. Through the devastating effect her death has on Tamburlaine, she can also be said to provide the prologue to the hero's doom.

The story of Tamburlaine and Zenocrate presents the familiar plot of the masterful male, constructing a heroism based on military conquest, political command, and possession of the conquered female, who is internalized as image, objectified, indeed fetishized, for these purposes. In what follows I would like to complicate this narrative by suggesting that the negotiation between gendered subject and object positions in the construction of heroic agency in Tamburlaine is considerably more complex than its normative dimensions indicate. In so doing I am not attempting to reverse, and I am not denying, the manifest intent in the play to consolidate male dominance and female submission. But I am questioning its stability by focusing more closely on the fluctuating interchange of gendered positions that constitute Tamburlaine's heroic identity. Emphasizing this dynamic not as an accomplished task, but as a fluid, never-ending process and, indeed, as a struggle, puts pressure on the systematic privileging of traditionally male terms which, in Marlowe, only partially constitute even the most unrelievedly masculine heroism.

Earlier I suggested considering the process of heroism as a gendered positioning of the self in relation to pleasure and power. When Tamburlaine and his henchmen reflect on the warrior-king's agency, the extent to which he is positioned, and positions himself, as an object is remarkable. For example, Tamburlaine objectifies Zenocrate by aestheticizing her and rendering her static. Yet, at his most awesome, Tamburlaine is himself constructed by others as an inspiring aesthetic object:

Of stature tall, and straightly fashioned,

Like his desire lift upwards and divine;

So large of limbs, his joints so strongly knit,

Such breadth of shoulders as might mainly bear

Old Atlas' burthen; 'twixt his manly pitch,

A pearl, more worth than all the world, is placed,

Wherein by curious sovereignty of art

Are fixed his piercing instruments of sight,

Whose fiery circles bear encompassed

A heaven of heavenly bodies in their spheres,

That guides his steps and actions to the throne,

Where honor sits invested royally.
Larger than life, the giant, pearl-headed monarch is a dehumanized figure. Conceived and appropriated by his subjects as the creative source of their own identities and power, the imagery representing Tamburlaine associates him with art, ornament, and spectacle. In short he plays a woman's part: when constructed as most magnificently male, Tamburlaine is imagined to occupy a traditionally female position.

This phenomenon can be understood politically by adding gender to Christopher Pye's illuminating study of Renaissance monarchy as a created spectacle involving reflexive relations of power and desire. Pye analyzes the formation of Renaissance sovereignty as a mutually constituted process of reciprocal gazing between monarch and subjects. Accounting for this specular dynamic as part of "the irreducible relationship between theatricality and absolutism during the English Renaissance,"Pye discusses the contradiction between the political subject's perception of his or her being as inhering in the sovereign's person and the simultaneous recognition of the absolute difference of the king: "[M]erely to gaze on the monarchic body, to discern it as a distinct form, was to renew the split inhabiting one's own being, and to conjure one's own origins in a divided and alien form--in spectacle."

Pye argues that ultimately the contradictions between the subject's perception of himself or herself as simultaneously part of and completely different from the king were theoretically resolved to shore up absolutism (e.g., in Hobbes). But he also contends convincingly that the spectacular Renaissance monarch remains poised in tension between the sovereign's dependency upon and power over his subjects: "[T]he vulnerability and the terrifying power of the monarch's visible presence are, in fact, inseparable. . . . [T]he subject's desire to reduce the sovereign presence to the fully exposed object of his sight lends the regal eye its penetrating, and impenetrable power." In turn the monarch's power would cease to exist without the subject's desiring gaze.

The description of Tamburlaine quoted above makes clear that, along with his astounding rhetorical power, the hero's strength radiates from his piercing eyes. Throughout the play his rule is represented in terms of vision and visibility: "To ask and have, command and be obeyed; / When looks breed love, with looks to gain the prize, / Such power attractive shines in princes' eyes!" ( Inhabiting a female subject position, the spectacular monarch is completely dependent upon the subjects' collective gaze, which legitimates, indeed creates, his power. Riding in triumph through Persepolis, for example, would be impossible by definition without admiring--that is to say, subjected--onlookers. Creating and recreating himself both through language and as spectacle, Tamburlaine simultaneously acknowledges and resents this dependency, expressing an aggressive desire to seize the power of spectatorship from the onlookers upon whom he relies: "And with our sun-bright armor as we march, / We'll chase the stars from heaven and dim their eyes / That stand and muse at our admired arms" ( The sovereign as spectacle keeps the subject in awe, subjected; at the same time his power depends upon his ability to command his subjects' gaze.

Seeking the solution to dependency and objectification in omnipotence,Tamburlaine attempts to monopolize all subject positions, which are, inevitably, gendered. Thus he imagines himself as watching his subjects watching him. A wonderful moment of unadulterated narcissism occurs at the end of part 2, when, dying, Tamburlaine mourns not his own departure from the world but his subjects' loss of him as their treasured, irreplaceable object of desire: "My body feels, my soul doth weep to see / Your sweet desires deprived my company, / For Tamburlaine, the scourge of God, must die" (

The tensions in Tamburlaine's heroism can be understood further by examining his own, often contradictory, positioning of himself in relation to the gods. First, he glibly inhabits various male positions in what is now commonly thought of as the oedipal narrative, that tale of rivalry, separation, and ultimately identification with the father, which offers an account of male identity formation. Frequently Tamburlaine conflates himself with Jove in Jove's role as son, identifying with the god's parricide.


Excerpted from Gender and Heroism in Early Modern English Literature by Mary Beth Rose Copyright © 2002 by Mary Beth Rose. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Mary Beth Rose is a professor of English and director of the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is coeditor of Elizabeth I: Collected Works and the author of The Expense of Spirit: Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama.

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