Jane Kingsley-Smith. Cupid in Early Modern Literature and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 264pp. ISBN 9780521767613.

William Junker
University of St. Thomas

William Junker, "Review of Jane Kingsley-Smith, Cupid in Early Modern Literature and Culture". EMLS 16.1 (2012): 11. http://purl.org/emls/16-1/revking.htm

  1. Jane Kingsley-Smith’s Cupid in Early Modern Literature and Culture is a wide-ranging and learned exercise in literary and cultural analysis which tracks visual, poetic, and dramatic representations of Cupid in England from 1557, the date of the publication of Tottel’s Miscellany, to 1635, when William Davenport staged The Temple of Love before Charles I and Henriettta Maria. The eighty years or so between these events represent “a highpoint in the cultural visibility of Cupid in England,” and correspond to “a series of political renegotiations with the ideals of English Protestantism: in the 1560s-80s, Elizabeth came under pressure to implement more extensive Protestant reforms; in the 1620s-30s, Catholic influence of the Stuart court was met by an increasingly hostile ‘Puritan’ response” (4-5). Kingsley-Smith argues that the cultural pervasiveness of Cupid across this period is a function of ongoing developments and tensions within the English Reformation.

  2. There are two reasons in particular why Cupid should occupy a central position in the late Tudor and early Stuart period. First, as Kingsley-Smith persuasively shows, Cupid became “visually familiar to an unprecedented extent” in the period, through the variety of visual media that circulated his image throughout Europe (2); and this increasing visibility of Cupid was doubled, in England at least, with a profound awareness that the visual appeal of Cupid, as expressed in the mythographic tradition and captured in paintings and prints, was the means of his captivating power. Consequently, Cupid came to symbolize the attraction and danger of idolatry (and hence Catholicism) while at the same time providing poets like Sidney and Spenser an avenue for testing the limits (and limitations) of iconoclasm. Second, Kingsley-Smith argues that “the kinds of desire that Cupid embodied were fundamentally opposed to the ‘erotic politics’ of English Protestantism” (2). By “kinds of desire” Kingsley-Smith means the extra-marital heteroerotic, the homoerotic, the pederastic, the maternal and incestuous, the sodomitical (in whatever form), etc., and by “‘erotic politics’” she means, roughly, companionate marriage, along with the sexual and gender roles that inform its ideal.

  3. While Kingsley-Smith's broad argument is both illuminating and provocative, her account of the "erotic politics" of English Protestantism is sometimes less than persuasive. She presents the Catholic position on sexual desire as more tolerant and lenient than it in fact was (Catholicism did not categorize "sexual incontinence as a venial sin," for example), and she similarly emphasizes to the point of distortion the confining and constraining elements of companionate marriage (19). Consequently, when she argues that representations of Cupid in the period tend to resist the Protestant ideal of desire, it is at times left ambiguous whether she intends that such representations are more in keeping with a Catholic account of desire, or with a pagan desire that disrupts every aspect of Christian heteronormativity. (Sometimes, in other words, her analyses seem more radical than the conclusions she draws from them.) Nonetheless, Kingsley-Smith’s attempt to link representations of Cupid to specific positions in the complex and contested religious debates of the period is helpful, and should inspire further work in this relatively unexplored field.

  4. Both the breadth of the book’s coverage and its admirable effort to integrate literary with cultural analysis make Cupid in Early Modern Literature and Culture a fine complement to Thomas Hyde’s The Poetic Theology of Love: Cupid in Renaissance Literature, which, prior to Kingsley-Smith’s own book, was the “only monograph-length” study of Renaissance Cupid on offer (23). Where Hyde’s study is really a history of ideas combined with sustained and close readings of major poetic texts, culminating in his still unsurpassed account of Cupid in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Kingsley-Smith’s book has a very different feel.  Focused as it is on Elizabethan and Jacobean England, Kingsley-Smith’s study affords us a thicker description of the cultural milieu within which Cupid functioned for some eight decades in England; moreover, Kingsley-Smith’s provocative alignment of Cupid-Catholicism-Paganism against Protestant or Calvinist or Puritan ideology—her descriptors differ—underscores, far more than Hyde ever does, the contested religious dimension of Cupid in Renaissance England.

  5. Each chapter of the book explores the encompassing religious and political significance of Cupid within the context of a quite specific social or cultural issue; the five chapters of the book analyze representations of Cupid in light of (1) art and idolatry, (2) death and tragedy, (3) gender and women’s writing, (4) homoeroticism and emasculation, and (5) the relationship between the popular theatre and the court masque. In every chapter, Kingsley-Smith does a fine job of integrating an analysis of major canonical texts, such as Sidney’s Arcadia, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Mary Wroth’s Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with an equally helpful treatment of lesser-known literary and cultural productions; along the way, she makes an intriguing case for the emergent sub-genre of “Cupidean tragedy” in the later Elizabethan period (74), she provides an illuminating comparison of how Mary Stuart, Elizabeth I, and Lady Mary Wroth incorporated Cupid within their own literary texts, and she offers a fascinating account of Sidney’s “infantile” desire—in Astrophil and Stella especially—and its relation to the figure of the boy Cupid that figures heavily within his poetry (161). Anyone working on gender, desire, or religion in the early modern period will benefit from reading Cupid in Early Modern Literature and Culture.


Work Cited



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