Andrew P. Williams, ed., The Image of Manhood in Early Modern Literature: Viewing the Male. Westport, Conn. & London: Greenwood Press, 1999. xv+196 pp. Cloth. ISBN 0 313 30766 0
Simon Fraser University
Daems, Jim. "Review of Andrew Williams, The Image of Manhood in Early Modern Literature." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.3 (January, 2003): 6.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/08-3/daemsrev.htm>.
The nine essays collected in The Image of Manhood in Early Modern Literature: Viewing the Male provide some interesting insights into the representation of masculinity in early modern England. Encompassing poetry, prose, drama, and translation, the collection foregrounds two critical perspectives on the representation of masculinity: first, "the identification and repression of some type of socially or culturally defined 'inferior'" (xiii). These generally include the effeminate male and/or the denigration of women -- misogyny, of course, underlying both of these strategies. The second perspective is that the social and political dynamic of early modern England "was significant in the development of various and often contesting masculine identities" (xiii). This contest, as Williams elaborates in his essay, leads to a hegemonic masculinity within a given socio-political milieu. The essays are consistent in exploring these perspectives on masculinity from the Jacobean period through to the eighteenth century.
Ian McAdam's essay on Carew and Edward J. Whitelock's essay on Marvell examine these poets' attempts to arrive at a more equitable relationship between the sexes. McAdam finds these moments fleeting in Carew's writing, as the poet remains limited in his imaginings by his socio-political context. These limitations, however, provide a relevant historical lesson: "we must remain eternally vigilant against the tendency to make others pay for the inevitable limitations placed on our own desires" (15). Whitelock's essay, though, is somewhat more problematic. While recognising the traditional western binary that genders nature feminine and creates a troubling relationship between masculinity and nature, particularly in the Mower poems, some of his conclusions end up back in the binary of female/body and male/intellect as the speakers in "Upon Appleton House" and "The Garden" are seen as transcending the "distractions" of both their physical bodies and feminized nature.
The issue of homoeroticism figures prominently in Goran Stanivukovic's and Lisa Hopkins' essays on Fletcher. Stanivukovic focuses on the classical concepts of heroic virtue and military honour and how these are disrupted by erotic transgressions and immoderate behaviour. Writing on Bonduca, he argues that masculinity is not strictly dependent on a normative heteroerotic desire. This allows male bonding to be an "appropriate avenue for masculine representation.... Ultimately, both homosociality and homoeroticism imply masculine desire for 'manhood'" (51). Homoeroticism within the play's context of male bonding, therefore, prompts no anxiety in its celebration of the central characters' masculinity. Hopkins, however, sees the attempt to clearly delineate masculinity and femininity in The Maid's Tragedy as "compromised at every turn" (55). Unlike Stanivukovic, Hopkins sees the interaction between men who have no familial or kinship ties as subversive of patriarchal structures and trembling "on the brink of homoeroticism" (57). This prompts an anxiety which manifests itself in a masculine identity which is contingent on possessing and controlling women as well as singling out the effeminate male as an inferior masculine subjectivity.
The essays on the latter half of the seventeenth century continue to historically contextualize constructs of masculinity. Taylor Corse argues that Dryden's translation of the Aeneid more strongly emphasises the boundaries between masculine and feminine than Virgil. Dryden reacts against Virgil's "soft" heroic masculinity. In addition, Dryden's strict delineation of masculine and feminine traits demonstrates both his fear of female sexuality and how his view of masculinity goes hand in hand with that fear. The denigration of women is also important to the libertine "identity project" that Williams identifies from the time of Charles II to the Glorious Revolution. The libertine identity is dependant upon reducing the female to a sexual organ as well as the identification and repression of effeminate males, leading the libertine to seek public acknowledgement of his masculinity through sexual prowess. "Simply put," writes Williams, "the unrepentant libertine surfaces as the hegemonic masculinity because he succeeds on his own terms where other versions of manhood tend to fail" (98). Thomas A. King examines the social spaces occupied by men and the centrality of the monarch's body in terms of patterns of domination and submission. King calls this exercise of power "residual pederasty," the "eroticization of early modern subjection" (123). This is accomplished along status rather than gender boundaries, and, as the liberal public sphere emerges, political resistance increasingly views this courtly type of eroticized alliance as effeminate.
Stephen Gregg's essay notes the shift from the libertine ethos to a more controlled "godly manliness" in Defoe's 1722 account of the 1665 plague, A Journal of the Plague Year. Locating Defoe's work within the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, Gregg argues that Defoe constructs an active masculinity against the effeminate passivity of the Restoration court. In A Journal, the "exemplary status of godly manliness is articulated via discourses of English Protestant nationhood, and also through the valorisation of the urban artisan class contrasted against the irreligious Restoration court" (157). Finally, Susan Korba compares the masculinity of two of Richardson's characters, the rake Lovelace and Grandison. Korba argues that Richardson intends to use his exemplary male character, Grandison, to "redefine manhood and reconstruct masculinity" (162). Misogyny and power, however, remain key to the identity of both male characters, as power sets these men apart from what they are not -- weak, dependent, in a word, feminine. "Although his deconstruction of rakish masculinity reveals that the principles which structure such an identity are specious and destructive," writes Korba, "Richardson does not question the assumptions and precepts upon which masculinity itself is based" (169). Grandison is simply a more refined form of rake who, ironically, succeeds where Lovelace fails.
- The essays collected in The Image of Manhood are, generally, effective in examining representations of masculinity during the period. They reveal the hegemonic masculinites as well as the development of a counter-hegemonic masculine identity project in the cause of political resistance.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)