Katherine Eggert. Showing Like a Queen: Female Authority and Literary Experiment in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2000. 289pp. ISBN 0 81 223532 0.
Robert Grant Williams
Williams, Robert Grant. "Review of Katherine Eggert, Showing Like a Queen." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.3 (January, 2002): 10.1-4 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/07-3/willrev.htm>.
In this intriguing study of queenship, Eggert sets herself the task of exploring the ways in which female authority not only imposes limitations on literature but also enables male writers to experiment with genre, particularly with innovative effeminized forms. She pursues her task ambitiously, tirelessly, and scrupulously through the major texts of three canonical writers of early modern English literature. After a preliminary chapter on her critical approach to queenship and genre, her second chapter traces The Faerie Queene's generic mutations from the feminized poetics and feminine rule embodied in Book 3 and Book 4 to the more reactionary and more masculine generic experiments in Book 5 and Book 6 (historical allegory, courtly pastoral, and mythopoetics). Her central chapters are devoted to Shakespeare: the third chapter demonstrates how the history plays, very much following the pattern of The Faerie Queene, perform literary experimentation through the gradual exclusion of queenship; the fourth chapter argues that Hamlet's innovation, psychological tragedy, is enabled by issues of succession, both monarchical and dramatic; and the penultimate chapter credits the Jacobean nostalgia for queenship with fostering the experiment of feminine tragedy in Antony and Cleopatra and The Winter's Tale. Finally, the sixth chapter argues that Paradise Lost at once disparages female rule--as articulated in Milton's writings on divorce and against monarchy--and colludes with female rule, especially in its revival of self-willed queenship as embodied in Eve. In each of these chapters, Eggert handles genre and gender with a nuanced, deft touch that avoids the heavy-handed binary logic so familiar to much scholarship under the banner of these two major critical categories.
Fascinated with the nexus between the gender of authority and generic succession, this book prompts questions of its own affiliation and influence, which the first chapter attempts to address. Eggert says that her work is indebted to the scholarship done by new historicism over the past two decades (1). Following the lead of Stephen Greenblatt and especially Louis Montrose, new historicism regards Queen Elizabeth's ubiquitous cultural presence as determining the imaginative and political boundaries of early modern English literature. Eggert goes well beyond this account of Elizabeth insofar as queenship does not simply territorialize literature with ideological agendas but effects in the social and political hierarchy dislocations that catalyze literary innovation. Despite her ingenious conceptualization of queenship, Eggert, however, still submits to the law of the father when it comes to describing her book's intended theoretical pedigree: "my aim in this book is to marry a new-historicist account of literature as a cultural form to a literary-historical account of the succession of texts" (20). For a book hypersensitive to the ways in which feminine rule suspends and facilitates patriarchal lineage, the loaded language of an arranged marriage dramatically betrays Eggert's actual approach. Her book painstakingly recognizes female authority on a literary, a historical, and a political level, while not acknowledging its own complicity with female authority on a theoretical level. No, Eggert's legitimate theoretical heir is not new historicism, but rather psychoanalysis, out of which she constructs a critical discourse for understanding the disruptive effects female rule has on male identity and dominance.
Much of the authority of Eggert's critical discourse comes from her concept of "ravishment"--a Spenserian term for the quality ascribed to the enervating effects of "seductive poetry and powerful female characters" (15). She marvellously applies this concept to a range of queenly figures and genres, including Britomart and the lyricism of the Garden of Adonis, Joan and the seduction of theatre, Cleopatra and feminine tragedy, and Eve and the "paradise within" of feminine romance. Because these seductive forms of queenship are dangerous to the maintenance of heroic identity, early modern male characters, readers, and writers who find themselves embracing effeminized genres eventually shake off its hold, retreating into a protective masculine poetics. Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton thus all conceive new literary genres through an interaction between the allure and the fear of yielding to female authority. Eggert's attention to the queen's power of "shaping fantasies" (6-7), though described as a debt to Montrose, finds a more direct kinship with Julia Kristeva's theory of the role of the maternal in avant-garde literature. Kristeva's Revolution in Poetic Language deploys the term "the semiotic"--the traces in language of the drives of the pre-Oedipal maternal body--to register the legacy of the mother in the realm of language and culture, what Lacan calls the Symbolic order. Despite phallocentric efforts to stabilize meaning and identity, avant-garde literature has the distinction of releasing the semiotic in the symbolic, that is, releasing the pleasure of asignification in the signifying process. Eggert's application of "ravishment" participates clearly in this "queenly" form of psychoanalysis. Just as the attraction to and horror of the maternal make possible groundbreaking techniques in the modernist canon, the power of queenship to elicit from male writers both vertiginous pleasure and violent revulsion produces generic innovation.
- Recognizing this book's actual theoretical authority enables us to grasp the significance of Eggert's impressive study. Eggert writes an early modern account of what Harold Bloom, starting with Milton, wrote for the modern canon in The Anxiety of Influence--although she seems dismissive of Bloom's contribution to her thinking (8). She traces the anxiety and allure of influence through the canonical lineage of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, revealing what each writer inherits from his predecessor. But instead of accepting an Oedipal narrative whereby the poet struggles with a precursor/king/father, her study interposes the dominant force of phallic mothers throughout the standard record of patrilineal succession. Eggert accomplishes this revision of canonical succession by enriching her notion of queenship with cultural contexts that threaten kingship, for example, the queen's two bodies, jointure, monarchical succession during the Wars of the Roses, and Stuart ritualistic remembrances of Elizabeth Tudor. As her book progresses, the development of literary form looks less like a competition between predecessor and successor than like an edgy dialectic between the symbolic and the semiotic--the repression and the expression of the maternal in phallocentric language. Eggert, in effect, displaces Bloom with Kristeva, complicating patrilineal succession with a strange and wonderful matriarchal rendering of the male canon. Eggert's blindness to her actual theoretical authority not only exposes the undeserved accession of new historicism in a work that surpasses the insights of new historicism but also attests to Eggert's own thesis that female authority even when actively contained or excluded can lead to "marvellous, unanticipated... innovation" (21).
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).