Early
Mark Breitenberg. Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 225pp. ISBN 0 521 48141 4 Cloth; 0 521 48588 6 Paper.
Stephen Longstaffe.
University College of St Martin.
S.Longstaffe@ucsm.ac.uk

Longstaffe, Stephen "Review of Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.1 (May 1997): 8.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-1/rev_lon1.html>.

  1. Breitenberg's central point is that masculinity is inherently anxious, "always already its own worst enemy" (128), and founded upon the contradictory constitution of the masculine subject as both rational and desiring. Anxiety is not merely an unpleasant symptom of this contradiction, for it also functions to enable the reproduction of patriarchy. Expressing this anxiety, for example, is empowering in that it links the individual to a community of fellow sufferers and upholds the "discursive authority" of writer or speaker. Breitenberg analyses a range of examples to support his case about both anxiety and its recognition: the feminized melancholy of Burton's Anatomy, the gendered conception of "purity" in Bacon's writings on rhetoric and science, the destructive excess of the masculine pursuit of honour in The Rape of Lucrece, the paradoxes of Petrarchism in Love's Labours Lost, and Othello's demonstration of the centrality of sexual jealousy to anxious masculinity.

  2. In the first chapter, Breitenberg sees melancholy's function as allowing "the projection and disavowal of internalized forces that threaten masculinity" (39). Burton anatomises the melancholic man as a feminized man, but the melancholic man's struggle against the imbalance of his humours is just a heightened version of the reason/desire dialectic Breitenberg sees at the heart of masculinity itself. In humoural psychology, even the normal body is "a pressure cooker of volatile, combustible fluids" (68) and thus, in writing about melancholy as an effect of this body, Burton articulates, whilst misrecognizing, the perilous stability of early modern masculinity.

  3. The second chapter analyses Bacon's rhetoric through its inescapably gendered conceptions of purity. Bacon's writings are full of metaphors drawn from marriage, generative or destructive female sexuality, and the "chastity or promiscuity of a feminized 'Nature'" (78). Nature is cast in an antagonistic relationship to human knowledge, and the masculine/feminine opposition thus operating is reproduced elsewhere, so that the kind of rhetoric and science that Bacon proposes is opposed to feminine, vulgar, and many-headed alternatives.

  4. The chapter on The Rape of Lucrece focuses on the contradictions in the honour system as a basis for masculine identity. Both honour (for men) and chastity (for women) are definitive of identity, but both are vulnerable, as they are at least partly matters of public opinion. In addition, desire, another central constituent of masculinity, threatens honour in that it threatens both female chastity and masculine self-control. Tarquin's rape of Lucrece gains him honour (he "steals" it from Collatine) as well as destroying it. Breitenberg here appears to assert that any "conquest" of another adds to the conqueror's honour, but he does not support this with reference either to the poem (in fact, he writes that "Shakespeare clearly intends to show the emptiness and self-destructiveness of Tarquin's rapacity" [107]), or to contemporary conceptions of honour. Reference to Mervyn James' crucial work on early modern honour, which Breitenberg does not appear to have consulted, would show that honour was much more than the register of material success. As Collatine's honour is partly figured through Lucrece's chastity, it is clear that he can be seen to lose honour when she is raped; it is not clear that this honour is then transferred to her rapist--Breitenberg's economic model of the circulation of honour is not argued fully enough to support such a conclusion.

  5. The master trope for desiring masculinity is Petrarchism, here suggested as a "literary strategy of compensation" (134). Breitenberg pursues this strategy in Love's Labours Lost, arguing that "Woman" must be transcended or renounced to purify masculinity and establish homosocial bonds. The play itself is aware of the idealizing function of Petrarchanism; however, its retention of the conventional structure of courtship limits its disruption of the "patriarchal structure of masculine desire" (146). Othello, through Iago and Emilia, shows how reliance on an idealized conception of women always leaves men open to anxiety.

  6. There are some odd lapses. Breitenberg asserts that the London theatre audience was "probably half-composed of women"(10). He takes "surfeit" to simply mean fulfilling desire, when it in context seems also to have connotations of the nausea that follows overindulgence (172-4). He bases a minor point upon a reading of the "tire the ingener" speech in Othello which ignores the problematic textual status of the phrase and its multiple meanings. Gosson's and Stubbes' worries about boy actors are taken to "reveal a fundamental instability in the male subjectivities of the theater's spectatorship" (161). This last point illustrates the book's major weakness: though its readings of individual texts are often illuminating, it too often generalizes about early modern culture on the basis of them (the prime example is the discussion of the querelles des femmes pamphlets), or uses generalizations about early modern culture to demonstrate the text's representativeness.


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.


1997-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(RGS, June 16, 1997)