Disgust, Lust, and Beasts with Breasts: The Portrayal of Females in Early Modern Literature

January 22, 2019 by Essay Writer

The literature of the English Renaissance demonstrates a remarkable range of attitudes towards women. While there are significant proclamations of chivalric attitudes towards women such as Walter Raleigh’s devotion to Queen Elizabeth I, nearly divine descriptions of love and fidelity such as John Donne’s poetry, and even rails against negative portrayals of women such as Rachel Speght’s “A Muzzle for Melastomus” much of the literature is steeped in warped attitudes that border on misogyny. Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost tend to equate women with sin, evil, and lust and portray such attitudes by presenting monstrous entities and beasts as female. While acknowledging that Early Modern England was a patriarchal society, it is perhaps simplistic to say that the portrayal of women as monsters, beasts, and devils is based on misogyny grown out of such a society. As critic Tim Reinke-Williams observes, “equating misogyny with patriarchy is misleading, not least because the latter term carries such diffuse meanings” (325). There are other possible explanations for the anti-female bent present in Early Modern Literature. In “’The Devil’s Gateway’: Women’s Bodies and the Earthly Paradise” Page Ann Du Bois points out that the attitudes towards women “draws…on a long tradition of Biblical, classical, and medieval misogyny” (Du Bois 45). Du Bois also posits that some of the distaste shown for women in Early Modern Literature is premised on the concern for women’s supposed ability to change their forms through witchcraft. “Fear of women’s power increased in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (Du Bois 44) partly due to an increase in “witch-hunting …[and] the wide-spread belief in witches, even among scholars” (Du Bois 44). It is also possible that Henry VIII’s penchant to behead wives for his own personal reasons promoted the “disposability” of women. The long and fairly successful reign of Queen Elizabeth I, particularly as an unmarried woman, may have created fear about man’s place in the world. The shifting religious environment may have also played a role as the push-pull of Catholicism and Protestantism may have underscored the role Eve played in original sin and called into question the venerated and non-venerated role of Mary as the mother of Christ. Spenser’s The Faerie Queene presents some horrible beasts as female. The first foe that Redcrosse meets is the dragon Errours. Errours is “Halfe …a serpent… halfe… womans shape… lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine.” (Spenser 1.1.14). The text goes on to describe her as over-breeding with “A thousand yong ones” (1.1.15) and with a corruption of female anatomy. Her breasts are described as “poisonous dugs, each one / Of sundry shapes, yet all ill favored” (1.1.15). The unveiling of Fidessa to reveal Duessa involves “strip[ping] her naked” (1.8.46). Her unveiling reveals her to be “a loathly, wrinckled hag, ill fauoured, old, …bald…. overgrowne with scurfe and filthy scald…wrizled [and] scabby” (1.8.47). Again Spenser describes her as having corrupt female anatomy that would be “loathd [by] all womankind” (1.8.47). Her breasts are “dried dugs, like bladders lacking wind [that] Hong downe” (1.8.47) and leak “filthy matter” (1.8.47). Her genitalia is called “Her neather parts [and are] misshapen, monstrous (1.2.41). She is also noted as being part animal having a tail of a fox and mismatched feet of an eagle and a bear. Some versions of Christopher Marlow’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus include a scene where Lucifer shows Faustus the Seven Deadly Sins. Intriguingly only one of the Seven Deadly Sins is identified by gender. The one exception is Lechery who is female even as Doctor Faustus addresses her as “Mistress Minx” (Marlowe 5.324). In keeping with her identity, Lechery describes herself as “one that loves an inch of raw mutton better than an ell of fried stock-fish” (5.325-27) saying that she prefers sex to food. Later, when Faustus asks for a wife, Mephistopheles brings in “a devil dressed like a woman” (5.145). Faustus is disgusted, however, and says, “A plague on her for a hot whore”(5.147) still referring to the false woman as a “her” when it might be more appropriate to call the devil an “it”. John Milton’s Paradise Lost also includes beasts as female while tying them to sin, evil, and lust. Lucifer, coming upon the gates of Hell, encounters a creature acting as gatekeeper. The creature is described as “one [that] seemed woman to the waist, and fair, But ended foul in many a scaly fold, Voluminous and vast—a serpent armed” (Milton 2.650-52). Like Spenser’s Errours, this beast also has a problem with over-breeding as her young are numerous “hellhounds” (2.654). The female beast is named Sin. Although Lucifer claims to be unfamiliar with Sin and calls the sight of her “detestable” (2.745), he is apparently her father. Lucifer had raped his own daughter, Sin, and she bears a child named Death, who also repeatedly rapes her. Also disturbing is Sin’s desire to rule with Lucifer, despite the rape and ensuing consequences, as his “daughter and …darling” (2.870). It is interesting to note that two of the three works discussed here, The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost, have beasts that are described as part serpent. The serpent is traditionally a metaphor for the devil based on the biblical story of Genesis when the Devil takes the form of a serpent to convince Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge (King James Bible, Gen. 3.3). Indeed, the story of Genesis as retold in Paradise Lost, also has Lucifer in the form of a Serpent. In describing Errours and Sin as half serpent, the “women” are not only monsters they are also half-devil. Granted, the works discussed here are rife with allegory, symbolism, and metaphor and each layer of meaning has different implications. The portrayal of women in perverted form is often part of a greater allusion or metaphor. In “Fleshly Embodiments: Early Modern Monsters, Victorian Freaks, and Twentieth-Century Affective Spectatorship” Sarah Orning suggests that “individual monstrous bodies [allude] to unbalanced, corrupt state bodies… [and that] one monstrous body [alludes to] the sins of the state and its religious affiliations” (Orning 36). But at some point one must see the words for what they are, and the words identify sin and lust as monsters and, often, those monsters are female.There are, as mentioned earlier, works of Early Modern Literature that portray women, at least certain women, with esteem and sensitivity. There are also others that portray women as lecherous and conniving or useless and mindless without making them monsters. A modern reader can at least chuckle over remarks that bemoan the lustful nature of women– a complaint so completely opposite to those of modern American men. While this essay is fairly narrow in its examination of only three works, a perusal of summaries of other works of the era reveals that these cases are not isolated in their depiction of women as beasts with breasts. Making women out to be monsters, devils, or the embodiment of sin makes women not only inferior, but worthy of disrespect and abuse. The presentation of such misogynistic ideas in Early Modern literature may have built the base for chauvinism that took centuries to overcome. Works CitedDu Bois, Page Ann. “’The Devil’s Gateway’: Women’s Bodies and the Earthly Paradise.” Women’s Studies 7.3 (1980): 43. Historical Abstracts. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.King James Bible. BibleGateway.com.Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. The Norton Anthology: English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/ The Early Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Vol. B. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2012. 777-984. Print. Milton, John. Paradise Lost. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. The Norton Anthology: English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/ The Early Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Vol. B. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2012. 1128-1165. Print. Orning, Sarah. “Fleshly Embodiments: Early Modern Monsters, Victorian Freaks, and Twentieth-Century Affective Spectatorship.” (2012): OAIster. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.Reinke-Williams, Tim. “Misogyny, Jest-Books and Male Youth Culture in Seventeenth-Century England.” Gender & History 21.2 (2009): 324-339. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.Speght, Rachel. “A Muzzle for Melastomus.” The Norton Anthology: English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/ The Early Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Vol. B. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2012. 1652-1654. Print.Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. The Norton Anthology: English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/ The Early Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Vol. B. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2012. 1945- 2175. Print.

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