Jodi Mikalachki, The Legacy of Boadicea: Gender and Nation in Early Modern England. London: Routledge, 1998. 202pp., 13 plates. ISBN 0 415 18264 6 Paper.

Huw Griffiths
University of Dundee

Griffiths, Huw. "Review of Jodi Mikalachki, The Legacy of Boadicea." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 24.1-12<URL:

  1. Legacies make demands on those that survive. They worm their way out of the past and into the future. They are the demands made on the living by the dead. They haunt. In Mikalachki's useful study of the development of national form in relation to questions of gender, the figure of Boadicea comes to represent just such a haunting presence. Her story is retold as a myth of origin for the nation, but not in any kind of straightforward way. Rather her story disturbs the present space of the nation, rendering it unfamiliar--barbarous and different. Haunting, as Derrida has helped us to realise, is, whilst historical, always disruptive of a straightforward chronology.

    [First suggestion: haunting is historical, to be sure, but it is not dated, it is never docilely given a date in the chain of presents, day after day, according to the instituted order of a calendar. ...]

    The disjointure in the very presence of the present, this sort of non-contemporaneity of present time with itself (this radical untimeliness or this anachrony ...). (Derrida 4 and 44)

    Derrida has associated haunting, then, with the anachronistic. The legacy is surely just such a hauntological and anachronistic figure. It exceeds the historical in its attempt to bring the lessons of the past to bear on the fortunes of the present. Boadicea interrupts the tidy narratives of national origin that are briefly marshalled under the sign of Elizabeth's inviolate island body in the late sixteenth century. As the seventeenth century and Mikalachki's narrative progress, the female body becomes less appropriate in the development of national identity. Boadicea, like Elizabeth, is confined to a dead history, just as real seventeenth-century women become confined to the sphere of the domestic.

  2. In her opening chapter, Mikalachki introduces the course of her narrative. Through her reading of Hobbes, she develops her thesis that the body of the nation, as it emerges in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, undergoes a sex change "from mater terra to artificial man." The picture that adorns the front of Michael Drayton's long topographical poem, Poly-Olbion, in 1612 has, by 1651, changed from the earth mother figure of Britannia to the hyper-masculine figure of the Leviathan. Of course, even in 1612, Drayton was writing in a self-consciously `old fashioned' style. Although the author does not mention it, you can see, from the useful illustrations contained here, that the cornucopia in Britannia's hand has been transformed into a sword in the hand of Leviathan. The nation state is no longer the site of generous bounty, but of law and justice. Spenser's Artegal finally fully occludes the fairy queen herself. This is, of course, mirrored in Hobbes' text. He famously has great difficulty with Elizabeth. Mikalachki sees his inclusion of Elizabeth at the end of the Leviathan as a departure from his "programmatic masculinisation of the state" which "marks a definitive break with the earlier feminine, land-based images of the nation" (57).

  3. This first chapter on Hobbes also contains a fascinating few paragraphs on Margaret Cavendish's Utopian text, The Blazing World, which Mikalachki reads as Hobbesian in its adherence to a politics of absolutist monarchy, but anti-Hobbesian in its revulsion for Hobbes' state of nature, through which fear becomes the prime motivation for the setting up of the state. Cavendish replaces the principle of fear with the principle of love and adoration via a resurrection of the iconography of Elizabeth as an image of female authority. Cavendish is a lone voice in the later seventeenth century, harking back to older configurations of female authority, at the same time as realising their impossibility. This short reading of this intriguing text sits interestingly alongside the longer treatment in John Rogers' recent book, The Matter of Revolution, in which he advances the idea that Cavendish's scientific discussions in this book deliberately hark back to an old-fashioned and discredited form of vitalism, as a form of resistance to masculinist sciences. The very old- fashioned nature of the science seems to speak of its inevitable failure.

  4. Mikalachki sees this disordering, and reordering, of the space of the nation as an inheritance from the previous century's national historiographies. As Britain's historians, from Polydore Vergil through to Camden, attempt to construct a myth of origins for 'Britain,' they looked eastwards to Rome. For this they use the trope of the translatio imperii, something that Mikalachki seems to miss out on. This meant, of course, that Boadicea becomes a problem for these latter-day Romans. She represents an alternative and savage origin for British national identity, an origin that needs to be denied. Hers is a legacy that not everyone accepts with good grace.

  5. For Elizabeth to be available for positive appropriation within a narrative of masculinist national origins, her body has to be protected from the female excesses of Boadicea's savagery. This savagery is given testimony in Holinshed who, with characteristic vigour, launches into an account of the atrocities that Boadicea and her troops performed on the battlefield: grotesque mutilations, including the amputation of her female victim's breasts, which were then sewed onto their mouths. This kind of perverse excess has to be excised from the national body. Hence the virginal Elizabeth, who was chaste and civilised where her queenly predecessor was promiscuous and barbaric.

  6. Mikalachki's insistence on the ironies that are put into play in this network of relations between feminised nation space, masculine politics and the two definitive queens, Boadicea and Elizabeth, comes into play in her discussion of Cymbeline. There, the vicious queen, Cymbeline's wife, embodies the savage feminine that needs to be eschewed in the development of a masculinist state. However, it is the queen in this play that is associated with the, elsewhere positive, imagery of the island nation--impregnable and isolated. As the play's narrative moves towards its famously awkward ending--the restitution of peace between the British and the Romans--what seems to be lost is the vision of an independent Britain. In killing off the ghost of Boadicea in the person of the Queen, Shakespeare presents us the vision of a masculinised nation that is, nevertheless, always invaded by its Roman heroes. Mikalachki figures this as a 'masculine embrace', and points out that the desire on the part of early modern English historians to reject the savage feminine origins of `Britain' was so great that they didn't mind appearing passive in the arms of their Roman saviours. Such is the horror at the prospect of feminine power that Shakespeare is quite prepared to feminise his British king, prostrating him at the foot of his Roman overlord and risk a homoerotic reading of the masculine embrace in order to defeat the greater danger of perverse womanhood-- John Knox's 'monstrous regiment'.

  7. In her chapter on Shakespeare's other 'British' play, King Lear, Mikalachki persuasively argues that Shakespeare revises his sources and analogues in such a way as to domesticate the queen and to marginalize female authority. In earlier accounts of Leir's reign, he had been succeeded by his daughter, Cordeilla, who had, according to Holinshed, ruled 'right worthily' as a 'woman of manly courage' after Leir's death. She was then overthrown by her nephews who resented being ruled by a woman-- echoes of Elizabeth's own male subjects spring to mind here--whereupon she commits suicide. (75) In denying his Cordelia this stoic end, and replacing it with the pitiful spectacle of the father mourning the untimely death of his daughter, Shakespeare has erased the possibilities of successful female succession, which the chronicle account opens up. In doing this, of course, Shakespeare also denies the possibility of any succession. Mikalachki figures the difficulties of resolution in this play by placing Dover in brackets. Unlike Milford Haven in Cymbeline, Dover is never reached--Britain remains unfinished in this version.

    This fusion of history and topography was the hallmark of early modern English nationalism. Within that vision of the nation, (Dover) emerged as a place of topographical and historiographical crisis, a verge or beginning to both the island and its history that could neither be reached nor defined as a unified locus of origin. (94)

    Shakespeare's theatrical 'Britain' represents, then, divergent national origins--difference at the origin of the nation. In her account of Cymbeline, however, which is astute and which also draws on the long tradition of political readings of Cymbeline, as far back as Emrys Jones' article form the 1950s, I believe Mikalachki falls too easily into the trap of granting the play's ending too much credence. Like Jonathan Goldberg before her, the final word of the text of the play, 'peace', is allowed to determine our reading of it in relation to Jacobean politics. It is then read as being wholly in support of King James's latter-day pax romana, the Union of the two crowns. This does not allow for some of the more troubling moments in the play, such as the near death experience of Imogen, a figure of Britannia herself, as she gets into trouble in Wales. Heather James' Shakespeare's Troy provides a reading of the Roman origins that are being excavated in Shakespeare's play, and she attends to the subtle disjunctures in the story. This reading, alert to the story's double classical inheritances (Virgil and Ovid)is more fully attendant to the radical possibilities of difference at the origin.

  8. Perhaps more typically for a North American writer, Mikalachki fails to see the ironic possibilities in Cymbeline's situating British origins in Wales. She is right to point out that Milford in the later play acts as a location around which myths of national origin circulate, and that, unlike its parallel location in Lear, all the characters do get there. However, the play's projected scene of national triumph is not Wales, but the return to London, 'Lud's town'. This is postponed beyond the end of the play whilst, at the same time, being played out on the stage at Blackfriars or the Globe. Although Wales is looked at from London/'Lud's Town', it is an 'anamorphic' perspective that fails to locate its object in one single view. The constant travelling from margin to centre in the construction of a 'Great Britaine' blurs the easy distinction between margin and centre. Just as Wales has difficulty being included within 'Britain' so then the critical position of the public theatres on the south bank of the Thames, like the Globe, is not wholly in accord with a centralised Jacobean order. Like Wales itself, the south bank is a marginal location. The two locations share a status of being slightly off-centre, included and excluded at the same time. The same can not really be said of the Blackfriars, which, with its proximity to the centres of the Jacobean court, might offer something more like the triumphal perspective projected at the play's close, although even this is qualified in the play by the association of this triumphalist perspective with Cloten, the wicked queen's clownish son:

    When I have slain thee [Guiderius] with my proper hand,
    I'll follow those that even now fled hence:
    And on the gates of Lud's town set your heads:
    Yield, rustic mountaineer (IV.ii.97-100).
  9. So that, whilst the play's ostensible message seems to accord with Mikalachki's summarisation--that, 'in contrast to the ancient queen's savage refusal of empire, the masculine embrace of Roman Britain became the truly generative interaction, producing a civil, masculine foundation for early modern English nationalism'(114)-- both the play's ending, and this account seem to forget the problems of elision between Britain, Wales and England. If Cymbeline attempts to portray James's project for union as already having happened in Britain's ancient past, then the savage borderlands of the new empire are the last places one might want to enact such a coming together. Mikalachki's forgetting the difference between England and Britain, strangely reminiscent of American tourists, serves to paper over the cracks of empire in a way that James may have approved of, but not in a way that a more careful reading of the play's topographies would allow.

  10. The fourth chapter of this book returns to the initial thesis developed in relation to Leviathan, that the seventeenth century witnessed an ongoing marginalisation of female authority in favour of an increasingly masculinised state, but rather than concentrate on the texts themselves, Mikalachki turns to concentrate on "situating historiographical and literary representations of Boadicea in a more fully developed social and cultural history of early modern gender relations." (115) It is here that Mikalachki allows us to see more clearly that it is not just that the stories of national origin were gendered, but that gender relations themselves changed alongside the development of the early modern nation. The possibilities for a female public voice diminish as the seventeenth century proceeds. Likewise, Boadicea retreats from the scene of national origins. In the Restoration, the Fletcher play, Bonduca, is adapted by George Powell, but Powell diminishes Boadicea's role in favour of her husband, Caratach, and her daughters, who themselves are transformed form vengeful murderesses into properly peaceable, domesticated women.

  11. In many ways this is both the most promising, and the most frustrating, part of this book. We move away from the more detailed discussions of individual texts--Leviathan and the two Shakespeare plays--into a more generalised account of the reception of Boadicea through the period. This changes from Spenser's equivocal uses of the story within the Faerie Queene through to her marginalisation on the Restoration stage. Fascinating though this development is, you get the sense that this would made a book in itself. Given the constraints of academic publishing, the emphasis is laid firmly on the more saleable idea of the criticism of individual texts-- especially Shakespeare--but the theoretical thrust of Mikalachki's argument would surely demand an entire book structured in the manner of her fourth chapter, filled out with greater detail.

  12. However, in its contribution to the ongoing development of a body of a work that seeks to outline the formation of the early modern nation, this book in some ways represents our own legacy. These books tell the story of the origin of the idea of nation at a moment when we are coming to terms with new spaces for the 'nation' of Britain. All of these works can remind us of the temporary nature of any national formation, and in the case of Mikalachki's fascinating book, how these temporary, but powerful, configurations can effect other structures of power, such as the gender system.

    Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS