Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan, and Dympna Callaghan, eds. Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. xvi + 301 pp. ISBN 0 521 55819 0 (paper) 0 521 55249 4 (cloth).

Martine van Elk
California State University, Long Beach

Van Elk, Martine. "Review of Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan, and Dympna Callaghan, eds. Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.1 (May, 2002): 6.1-13 <URL:

  1. This collection of essays brings together a number of major feminist critics of early modern literature. Refusing to provide a unifying framework within which no internal dissent or contradiction is allowed, the editors offer the collection up as a reflection of the multiplicity of feminist voices in current criticism of the early modern period. Indeed, they even promote the "dissonance" that may be perceived among the different critical approaches because they feel that "the conflicts between, as much as the intersections among, contributors comprise much of the value of this volume" (10). Sure enough, the reader of this collection finds a range of perspectives on and approaches to early modern texts and discourses, from highly theorized essays to more straightforward historical explorations of gender in the period.

  2. Yet, as the editors point out in their introduction, the contributors also have a great deal in common, including an interest in history and textuality, a strong new historicist bent, and of course a focus on gender in all its different aspects. Inspired by psychoanalytic theory, the editors use the phrase "emerging subjects" to create a critical umbrella under which all the essays can be united. The phrase has multiple meanings: it points to the idea of the subject as emerging in the early modern period, the notion of the subject in general as always emerging or in process, and the idea of the emerging subjects of feminism, both in the sense of the feminist critics themselves and in the sense of the topics under discussion. This view of subjectivity helps us to grapple with the historically contingent processes of subject formation without having to make a claim for the real lived experience of early moderns and without subscribing to the contested idea that the modern subject as such did not exist prior to the early modern period. Sensibly, therefore, Traub, Callaghan, and Kaplan position their collection in relation to continuing debates on early modern subjectivity by directing their attention not so much towards the real, lived experience of early moderns as subjects, as towards the "terms of the subject's intelligibility" (2) and the terms of gender, both of which were being reshaped in the period.

  3. The introduction to Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture thus finds common ground in disparate theories of subjectivity and gender and formulates one overarching critical meta-narrative that might be of great use to anyone interested in a succinct formulation of the critical consensus in early modern studies. The exciting range of essay topics makes this an important collection. Readers will find a continuing exploration of questions of inwardness and theatricality side-by-side with essays on topics like colonial discourse, queer theory, marriage, science, and humanism. The materiality of subjectivity, grounded in the body as well as in everyday objects of exchange, is central to many of the essays, placing this book alongside other recent collections such as Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture (1996) and Renaissance Culture and the Everyday (1999).

  4. Nevertheless, Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture also disappoints in some ways. The editors emphasize the diversity of the contributors, who are "lesbian, heterosexual, African-American, Indian, Jewish, WASP, publicly and privately educated in the United States, Britain, and India" (xv). But the essays themselves do not match these aspirations towards inclusivity. One would expect such a collection to include a greater number of essays on women writers. The prominent positioning of Sofonisba Anguissola's Self-Portrait at the Easel (c. 1556), next to the title page in the hardback and on the cover of the paperback edition, reinforces the expectation that the voices of early modern women will be heard in these essays. After all, their works constitute one of the major 'emerging subjects' in recent feminist studies of the period. Instead, the collection focuses primarily on male representations of women. It features only one essay on a woman writer, Margaret Cavendish, by Rosemary Kegl, but includes three essays on Shakespeare. Almost half of the essays deal with drama. As is often the case in collections such as these, the quality of the essays is uneven, with most featuring interesting and complex arguments that are clearly the product of extensive research, while others contain questionable argumentation, unnecessary repetition, and problematic uses of evidence. It is clear that the problem of evidence continues to vex new historicist criticism, as many of these essays use a single statement, a speech in a play, or an anecdote as proof of large historical developments, while others employ texts from widely different realms without considering their historical or generic context, treating them as transparent sources of evidence about historical realities. In short, we might say that this collection exemplifies both the merits and shortcomings of recent feminist new historicist work.

  5. Three essays are representative of continued critical interest in colonialism and the application of postcolonial theory to early modern texts. Kim Hall's "Culinary Spaces, Colonial Spaces: The Gendering of Sugar in the Seventeenth Century" focuses on the connections between the sugar trade and early modern Englishwomen, who read and used cookbooks that increasingly included the very exotic foodstuffs that legitimized and encouraged the colonial enterprise. Jyotsna Singh writes about race and gender in contemporary revisions of The Tempest, showing that plays like Aimé Césaire's A Tempest (1969) reproduce the gender relationships of the original, failing to protest its unequal treatment of men and women. Denise Albanese's "Making It New: Humanism, Colonialism, and the Gendered Body in Early Modern Culture" is a highly theoretical exploration of textual and visual representations of the past, on the one hand in Cindy Sherman's interesting series of photographs entitled "History Portraits" and on the other in the juxtaposition of the Pict with the Algonkian in engravings by Theodor de Bry in Thomas Harriot's A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590). Albanese uses the engravings to trace the development of a new perception of the past as primitive in the early modern period, a development in which alterity and gender played a central role.

  6. Albanese's is easily the most ambitious of the three essays, straddling, like Singh, the gap between the early modern and the postmodern, but also making much larger claims for humanism, science, and colonialism. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see the importance of gender (and especially femininity) to the illustrations in Harriot's book, even though the connection is central to Albanese's overall argument. She compares the representation of the Algonkian with humanism's view of women, because, she writes, "By virtue of their muteness, each is delimited by the brute fact of embodiment, or else incorporated through reduction to mere tropological convenience" (37). It is easy to see that both women and colonial subjects are other, silenced, and embodied, but Albanese's purpose is to show that the engravings 'really' tell us something about humanism's use of gender. In privileging gender as a concept through which to understand the early modern depiction of the colonial subject, Albanese's work threatens to erase distinctions between gender and race, without adding to our understanding of "the gendered body in early modern culture" (16).

  7. While Singh's purposes are more modest, her essay would have benefited from more complication and development. Applying the by now familiar argument from gift theory that marriage turns women into objects of exchange in male-male relationships to The Tempest, she points out that this mechanism continues to operate in the postcolonial rewritings of the play, in spite of their revolutionary agenda. Her main point about Césaire's A Tempest is well taken, but she could have done more to explore the historical specifics with which the postcolonial versions grapple to explain why these postmodern revisions perpetuate such notions of gender. Kim Hall's essay, the most interesting of the three, discusses cooking habits of upper-class women side by side with Richard Ligon's A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657) to show that women were central to the colonial project as consumers of sugar, even as such consumption allowed them to express themselves creatively within the confines of the household. The growing sugar trade encouraged not only the expansion of England's economic sphere, but also the use of domesticity to legitimate colonial trade and formulate a national identity that incorporated the exotic into the Englishwoman's kitchen.

  8. Like Albanese, Valerie Traub's work on early modern anatomy turns to illustrations to explore the role of gender in early modern science and empiricism. She shows that through the framing of gendered corpses (female bodies in a boudoir, male bodies in landscapes for instance), gender is deployed to manage the anxieties that arise out of the fear of death's effacement of gender distinctions. For Albanese and Traub, as for other contributors informed by psychoanalysis, like Cynthia Marshall, the production of subjectivity and gender is a violent process that involves the constantly reiterated display of the female body. Marshall makes this point evident by looking at the construction of interiority in Coriolanus, and more specifically in the scene in which the protagonist refuses to display his wounds to the Plebeians, a gesture that would associate him uncomfortably with femininity. Marshall's essay neatly mirrors Traub's: while Marshall shows how Coriolanus's refusal to put his body on show produces a theatrical illusion of masculinity and inwardness in the minds of the audience, Traub's argument focuses precisely on the anxieties about the disappearance of identity and gender in the display of the fragmented body in anatomical tracts.

  9. Essays by Lindsay Kaplan, Rosemary Kegl, and Frances Dolan offer less theorized and more straightforwardly historical accounts that centre on early modern women directly. Kaplan reveals the influence of Jewish thought on Reformation reshaping of marriage. She gives a solid account of changes in attitudes to marriage and divorce that relies quite heavily on work done by Susan Amussen and others, even as it provides its own focus on Jewish law. In a reading of The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World (1666) by Margaret Cavendish, Kegl discusses the ways in which intellectual activity of early modern women is beset by contradiction. Cavendish's work constructs a utopia that both contests and confirms political inequalities. In the context of the larger collection, Kegl's essay is a refreshing look at a female-authored text for its own sake, even as it serves as a springboard for a larger exploration of feminine engagement with intellectual life in the period, an issue that also concerns Dolan. Dolan's "Reading, Writing, and Other Crimes" concentrates on female literacy, arguing that literacy was often connected with crime and that it was not an unequivocally advantageous skill for women.

  10. Dolan's work is a pleasure to read and offers a welcome challenge to the historical commonplace that early modern women were largely illiterate, simply telling us with wonderful aplomb that "we need not assume that most English women could neither read nor write" (143). Analyzing an account of the case against cunning-woman Anne Bodenham in Doctor Lamb Revived (1653) by Edmond Bower, she uncovers a pervasive, dual representation of female literacy, "as virtuous when it aided social control and as criminal when it aided self-determination" (159). My only objection to this otherwise helpful essay is that it could have provided more extensive context for some of the evidence. Even though Dolan argues that it is difficult to find proof of an improvement in the relation between women and literacy in the course of the century, I was disturbed by the rather indiscriminate use of texts that range between 1592 and 1692. At the same time, Dolan refers to literary and non-literary texts without distinction, so that the play A Warning for Fair Women (1599) is named in one breath with A Fair Warning to Murderers of Infants (1692), a pamphlet on a widow's murder of her children. While the titles suggest that such texts may be connected in interesting ways, I should like to have seen at least some consideration of the different purposes and interests of stage texts on the one hand and pamphlets that present themselves as non-fiction on the other.

  11. The three remaining essays in Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture all engage, with various levels of theoretical concern, with the topic of gender through and in relation to sexuality on the early modern stage. Dympna Callaghan uses Elizabeth Cary's and Christopher Marlowe's literary recreations of Edward II to explore the relationship between feminism and queer theory, a relationship she argues has been unnecessarily contentious. Theodora Jankowski discusses the representation of virginity in John Lyly's Gallathea (1592), which shows that virginity enables women to express themselves as desiring subjects outside of and free from patriarchal constraints. And Laura Levine explores the interrelation of theatre and rape in A Midsummer Night's Dream to uncover the play's own problematic relationship to theatricality. Here too, the variety of critical methodology is apparent: for Callaghan the literary texts are primarily of interest for what they can tell us about our own critical and theoretical practices, but for Levine the play itself is primary, even as she uncovers the theoretical ramifications of its representation of rape. Jankowski's essay, to my mind the weakest in this trio, can be situated somewhere in between. While her topic is interesting, she provides too little in the way of historical context, in spite of the obvious relevance of the Reformation to virginity, and presents us with more questions than answers, leaving her reader confused. Levine's essay shows, by contrast, how a similar set of ideas may be more effectively presented if they are firmly grounded in the literary text. Her argument expands gradually from A Midsummer Night's Dream towards a consideration of different notions of subjectivity, one based on patriarchal notions of ownership and rape, the other an essentialist view to which "true love" is central. While Shakespeare's play may invoke the ideal of true love, it returns incessantly to the staging and language of rape, so that the attempt to repress sexual violence is shown to be vain in an art form that itself hinges on it.

  12. Callaghan's "The Terms of Gender: 'Gay' and 'Feminist' Edward II" seems deliberately placed at the very end of the collection, pointing to a future for feminist and queer theory and arguing for mutual recognition rather than contention. For Callaghan, early modern texts like Cary's and Marlowe's versions of the life and death of Edward II (c. 1592 and 1626) help us to see the ways in which both sexuality and gender are implicated in patriarchal power politics. Marlowe's play makes clear that sodomy is incorporated in patriarchy while Cary's prose version defends a powerful male order even as it advocates female agency. Callaghan uses these texts to argue against queer theory's attempt to 'liberate' sexuality from the constrictions of gender. Suggesting that such a division is in the interest of patriarchy's need to "divide and conquer" those who might resist it, Callaghan's argument has important implications for Singh's reading of postcolonial revisions of The Tempest and points to the potential for fruitful theoretical explorations of the relationship between feminism and other forms of resistance.

  13. Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture is a valuable collection and a useful resource in that it offers us a broad spectrum of feminist reading practices and critical concerns in approaching the early modern period. With essays that range widely both in terms of subject matter and in terms of quality, this collection offers an excellent opportunity to step back and look critically at the state of criticism in our field, reconsidering its uses of evidence, historical and literary contexts, and theoretical paradigms. In spite of some unevenness, the collection in its entirety opens up valuable avenues for further thought on the profession and our own assumptions and expectations as readers of early modern culture.

Works Cited

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).