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Manhood and the Duel: Masculinity in Early Modern Drama and Culture.

Manhood and the Duel: Masculinity in Early Modern Drama and Culture, by Jennifer A. Low. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. xvii + 238. Hardcover $59.95.

In one of the most outspoken of her Sociable Letters (1664), Margaret Cavendish expresses her fictional correspondent's reaction to a duel, probably closely modeled on Cavendish's own response to an actual seventeenth-century dueling incident:
 I Am Sorry that Sir C.A. is Kill'd, and as Sorry that V.A. hath Kill'd
 him, for by Report they were both Worthy and Right Honourable Persons,
 which causes me to wonder how such two Persons could Fall out, for
 surely they were such men as would be as Unwilling to Give an Offence
 as to Take an Affront, and if the Offence was Unwillingly given, as by
 Chance, they being men of Honour and Merit, would not be Grieved, at
 least, not Angry at or for it ... (1)

Cavendish's account contains almost all the important ingredients of an early modern duel. The participants are aristocratic males, known not only for their worth and "merit" but also, more significantly in this test of manhood, for their "Honour," a quality twice mentioned in one sentence by Cavendish. The apparent cause of their duel is the giving of "Offence" on the one hand and the taking of "Affront" on the other, though Cavendish wonders whether this occurred "Unwillingly" rather than with deliberate intent. In the ensuing discussion she goes on to note that the causes of duels are often "Frivolous, Idle, or Base," and include disagreements about "Words, or Women, or Hawks, or Dogs, or Whores, or about Cards or Dice," a list that is particularly remarkable considering that it was put together by a woman. However, what remains indisputable in this case is the fact that, of the two distinguished gentlemen, "the one is Kill'd, the other Banished" (81).

Cavendish's observations do not feature in Jennifer Low's study of the duel in early modern English culture, no doubt because her concern is largely with the period 1580-1620. However, I am gratefully conscious of having been made more alert to the significance of the details of this passage through reading Low's work. I never expected to find a whole book on Renaissance dueling so compelling and enlightening, and it is greatly to the credit of Professor Low that she manages to maintain the interest and variety of her study to the very end. Indeed, her arguments and examples thoroughly convince me of the appropriateness of treating the theory and practice of the duel of honor as a lens through which to view early modern English culture. As Cavendish's epistolary description makes clear, the duel involves not only matters of class, masculinity, and honor, but also broader issues of language and gender. After all, the first two causes of duels mentioned by Cavendish are "Words" and "Women." In addition, assumptions about religion and politics underlie many cases of single combat since a man could well be upholding the integrity of his faith or his monarch by means of the duel. The principles of dueling betray the often conflicting ideas of early modern English culture concerning law, violence, and the body. And bearing in mind the fact that a duel must be witnessed, and is therefore by nature always a performance, it has an obviously close relationship with theater and the dramatization of conflict. For all these reasons, a study of the duel is a welcome addition to our knowledge of the cultural and theatrical history of early modern England.

In each of her five chapters, Low examines an aspect of duelling and then explores its presence and impact in plays of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, rightly maintaining that "the duel frequently became a touchstone" in the drama (27). Throughout her study she interweaves historical, social, and literary material, demonstrating "the recent critical tenet that literature may affect the culture just as the culture does literature" (170).

The opening chapter begins with definitions of the early modern duel of honor, identifying both its roots in and contrasts with earlier versions of individual fighting such as single combat between two opposed leaders, the more playful chivalric tradition of jousting, and the judicial duel offering trial by combat. One of the most significant developments in the late sixteenth-century duel was the decrease in the perceived involvement of justice and providence, while the importance of sheer competence increased, especially after the introduction of the more easily maneuverable rapier. As Low neatly puts it, by the late 1580s "combatants generally recognised that victory in a duel depended more on skill in rapier fight than on God's intervention" (17). The words of Lord Bruce of Kinloss when challenging an opponent, "Be master of your owne weapons and tyme," (2) seem to sum up the era's new consciousness of individual responsibility and noble self-fashioning through dueling. Low investigates the idea of heroism associated with dueling in an excellent discussion of Benedick's challenge to Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, noting how "the stature of the protagonist" (27) in a drama may be measured in relation to the various dueling traditions. By the end of the play, she suggests, Benedick has achieved "at least arguably heroic stature" (39) through his desire to undertake a duel with Claudio, even though his plans, and by implication the efficacy of dueling, are ironically frustrated by Dogberry's thoroughly nonaristocratic intuition.

When Shakespeare was writing Much Ado, this new kind of dueling for honor was immensely popular in England. Low identifies the phenomenon as a side effect of increased travel on the Continent, where rapier fencing had been widely practiced throughout the sixteenth century. To be competent with a rapier became one of the expected accomplishments of a Renaissance gentleman, with the result that in England, as Low puts it, "the semiotics of aristocratic masculinity became literally foreign to the middling sort" (20). Vincentio Saviolo's manual of fencing skills, published in London in 1595, declares, "The dutie of gentlemen is to preferre their honor before their life," (3) and early modern English gentlemen began to take this "dutie" so seriously that James I issued a proclamation in 1613 forbidding duels. However, neither this royal disapproval, nor that of the merchant class, dissuaded early seventeenth-century English noblemen from indulging in this dangerously honorable way of settling quarrels.

In her second chapter, the most fascinating of the book, Low looks at the consequences of dueling for the sense of the body and personal space experienced by both the participants and the onlookers. Using the words and illustrations of contemporary fencing manuals, as well as the work of cultural historians such as Gail Kern Paster, Norbert Elias, and Anna Bryson, (4) Low examines the ways in which duelers worked within physical boundaries defined by their bodies and rapiers. The dueler's "ward," she suggests, was not only a "defensive blocking gesture" during combat but also "a parameter defining the physical limit of the combatant himself" (48). The practice of dueling thus encouraged the aristocratic male to use "a physical expansiveness denied to women and to men untaught in fencing" (44). As a result, the skills of fencing became integral to the sense of masculinity in the higher ranks of early modern English society. Low further cites the interesting work done on "the Renaissance elbow" by art historian Joaneath Spicer, who has observed how sixteenth-century painters suggest "the manly virtues" by means of "attributes and body language, such as the arm akimbo, most frequently showing one hand on the hip by a sword or rapier." (5) This emphasis on the trained movements of fencers leads Low to propose parallels between duels and dancing and, more significantly for her study, between the skills of fencers and those of English actors in this period. She tests this claim in a discussion of the importance of body language in The Alchemist, demonstrating the ways in which status and masculinity could be represented "in the realm of the non-verbal" (70).

Building on the idea that the penetration of the dueler's "ward" by the opponent's rapier has obvious sexual associations, Low's third chapter explores the assumptions by which early modern dueling defined the identity of mature men as opposed to women and young boys. The defeated party in a duel was "affiliated not only with the passive, permeable woman but also with her alternative, the immature male" (71). Low refines this argument with reference to the anonymous play, Swetnam, the Woman-Hater, Massinger's The Unnatural Combat and Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV. In Swetnam it comes as no surprise to learn that the misogynist Joseph Swetnam has just opened a fencing school in Sicily, where success in the fencing match symbolizes mastery in marriage. As Malefort Senior says while taunting his son before the duel in Massinger's play, "All that is manly in thee, I call mine; / But what is weak and womanish, thine owne." (6) Although Shakespeare depicts a form of single combat between Hal and Hotspur that is far removed from the early modern duel of honor, Low argues that the combatants' remarks about one another "manifest the same sense about proxemic penetration" (92) as contemporary manuals and accounts of fencing.

One of the most impressive features of Low's study is the range of texts to which it refers. In the third chapter, Swetnam, the Woman-Hater rubs shoulders with a Lancelot Andrewes sermon on effeminacy, while the fourth sets Chapman's Bussy D'Ambois plays alongside Bacon's anti-dueling tract of 1614. Low suggests in this chapter that useful links may be made between the arguments of those who attacked the practice of dueling, and the manner in which duels were exploited for dramatic purposes. Bacon, for example, questions the straightforward association of the duel with honor, imploring the nobility "for true honors sake, honor of Religion, Law, and the King our Maister" to abandon dueling, "this fond and false disguise or puppetrey of honor." (7) Low demonstrates how plays such as Middleton and Rowley's A Fair Quarrel make use of the dramatic ritual of a duel while simultaneously "interrogating" its assumptions, portraying honor and reputation as "dangerously unstable" concepts (109-10). In tragedy, too, the "dramatic intensity of the duel" is shown to be "undermined" (118). Low offers a splendid reading of the final scene of Hamlet, drawing together the play's preceding modes and ideas of single combat with Hamlet's own "oddly botched fencing match" (118-19). This leads into a subtle analysis of the way in which Hamlet's desires and obligations "fall into place" once he realizes that "he is in the midst of a duel rather than a fencing match" (123). However, the "distorted rituals" (134) of the duel also function as a measure of the corruption of the society that stages it.

In Much Ado About Nothing, when Beatrice realizes that she must rely upon Benedick to challenge Claudio for slandering Hero, her frustration is profound: "O God, that I were a man!" (8) Knowing that, as a woman, she cannot fight a duel, she longs for a man to act on her behalf but implies that this is a vain hope since "manhood is melted into cur' sies, valor into compliment, and men are only turn'd into tongue." (9) In this scathing image, men fail to match their words with deeds; the early modern proverb encapsulating gender roles--"Women are wordes, Men are deedes" (10)--is mockingly reversed. Several dramas of the period, explored in Low's fifth chapter, experiment with cross-dressing to the extent that women themselves, Amazon-like, fulfill Beatrice's wish, taking over men's "deedes" and participating in duels. The plays newly discussed in this final chapter are Heywood's Fair Maid of the West, Middleton and Dekker's The Roaring Girl, and Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy and Love's Cure, or the Martial Maid.

In addition to highlighting masculine pretensions with regard to dueling and honor, these early modern theatrical fencing women are shown to serve a double function. First, they can help modern readers to understand why early modern women cross-dressed in both drama and actual historical practice. Second, their mode of performance in duels, being significantly different from that of their male counterparts, serves to redefine both the rituals of dueling and what was meant by femininity in the early modern period. To take just one example: Moll Cutpurse (the roaring girl herself, wittily named by Low "Hic Mulier incarnate") (11) approaches her duel with Laxton with specifically didactic intent, hoping to teach him a lesson or two about herself, even while he expects no other knowledge than "carnal" (155) from his encounter with her.

It would be possible to supply many more instances of the intelligently analyzed examples in this fine study, but only a full reading of the book itself can do it justice. Inevitably, any reader will have minor quibbles over interpretation or coverage. I could have wished for a few more examples of actual duels to set alongside the manuals and plays, and should have enjoyed some further exploration of the metaphors of fencing and penetration, but the effect of Professor Low's work is to awaken our curiosity to seek these for ourselves. The arguments she puts forward are always sensitive to the potential paradoxes of historical and theatrical situations. In discussing the sense of masculine space encouraged by fencing, for example, she is conscious of the fact that noblemen distinguished themselves from those of lower rank even as their skills "renewed the upper-class Englishman's perception of himself as one linked to the yeoman class, or even to the soil of England" (45). Her elegant book--both well written and handsomely printed--concludes by rehearsing some of the dualities through which early modern masculinity was defined. These include gentlemanliness versus commonness, manliness versus womanliness, and maturity versus boyishness, though Low is at pains to stress the complexity of the simultaneous interaction of these modes of identity. The strength of her research is its openness to the mutual influences of social, spatial, dramatic, and verbal conceptions of "what it meant to be a man in the rapidly changing social world of early modern England" (170).


1. Margaret Cavendish, Sociable Letters, ed. James Fitzmaurice (New York, 1997), 80-81.

2. Lord Bruce of Kinloss, challenging Edward Sackvile (Folger MS 1054.4), cited by Low, 18.

3. Vincentio Saviolo, Vincentio Saviolo His Practise (London, 1595), Ee3v [my italics].

4. See Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, 1993); Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners and State Formation and Civilization, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford, 1994); Anna Bryson, "The Rhetoric of Status: Gesture, Demeanour, and the Image of the Gentleman in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England," in Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture, c. 1540-1660, ed. Lucy Gent and Nigel Llewellyn (London, 1990), 136-53.

5. Joaneath Spicer, "The Renaissance Elbow," in A Cultural History of Gesture, ed. Jan Bremmer and Herman Rodenburg (Ithaca, 1991), 93.

6. Philip Massinger, The Unnatural Combat, in The Plays and Poems of Philip Massinger, ed. Philip Edwards and Colin Gibson (Oxford, 1976), vol. 2, II.i. 176-77.

7. Francis Bacon, The Charge of Sir Francis Bacon Knight, His Majesties Attourney Generall, touching Duells (London, 1614), 34.

8. William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974), IV.i.305.

9. Ibid., IV.i.319-20.

10. Thomas Howell, Devises (London, 1581), D2r.

11. A passing reference to the anonymous 1620 pamphlet, Hic Mulier ("This [masculine] woman"], which together with Haec Vir ("This [feminine] man") explored the issue of cross-dressing in Jacobean society.

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Author:Wilcox, Helen
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Previous Article:Better a Shrew than a Sheep: Women, Drama, and the Culture of Jest in Early Modern England.
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