Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England.
In this earnest but frustrating book, Mark Breitenberg argues the unexceptionable thesis that masculine subjectivity, as constructed and sustained by early modern England's patriarchal culture, inevitably spawned anxiety among males, especially as manifested in their obsession with female chastity. As analyzed by Breitenberg, masculine anxiety exposes the fissures and contradictions of patriarchy yet, paradoxically, also enables patriarchy's perpetuation. Describing his book as a "kind of ethnography of early modern England" (27), Breitenberg attempts both to illuminate the sex/gender system of the period (especially the tendency of men to construct "women" in a way that appears to serve their needs but which actually tortures them and undermines the masculinity that the idea of "woman" is intended to legitimate) and also to scrutinize selected texts that express or respond to masculine anxiety. Among the rather arbitrarily chosen works that are discussed in some detail are Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, Bacon's "The Masculine Birth of Time," Shakespeare's "The Rape of Lucrece" and Love's Labor's Lost, and the contributions by both male and female authors to the "querelles des femmes" debate. Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England concludes with an interesting (but inadequate) discussion of the text that has haunted - even impelled it - from the beginning, Othello. Regarding sexual jealousy as "both constitutive and symptomatic of the normative operations" of patriarchy, Breitenberg not surprisingly finds in Othello "the most complex and insightful treatment of jealousy as an inevitable constituent of masculine identity" (176).
In the course of his book, Breitenberg raises and confronts some fascinating issues, ranging from the humoural psychology of Burton's Anatomy and the reciprocity of gender and status in Bacon's new science to the controversy over cross-dressing women and other transgessions of the rigidly binarized gender constructions of the early modern period. Moreover, he frequently offers valuable insights into the texts he examines closely, especially "The Rape of Lucrece" and Love's Labor's Lost. Despite these moments of genuine interest, however, the book as a whole suffers from its own self-absorption, particularly from Breitenberg's obsessive policing of his own critical assumptions and methods. This book about masculine anxiety is itself rife with anxiety. Even as he employs a veritable arsenal of critical theory and practices, including Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, new historicism, cultural criticism, and queer theory, the author is acutely aware that many of these theories and methods are incompatible with each other. It is especially difficult to reconcile his attempt to historicize masculine anxiety in the early modern period with his use of psychoanalytic concepts. In any event, he spends as much time discussing his theoretical assumptions as he does in exploring primary texts. The problem is that there is a disproportion between the predictable (even commonplace) conclusions about masculine anxiety presented here and the laborious means employed to reach them.
When Breitenberg actually examines primary texts, he generally does a good job in teasing out the cultural tensions and contradictions that inform them. I was, however, startled by his description of the speaker of Shakespeare's Sonnet 20 as "not at all anxious about the ambiguity of sexual differences" (155). Such a conclusion depends on an extraordinarily literal reading of a rich and complex work. Similarly, I find it astonishing that Breitenberg concludes that in the early modern period the idea that "performance" is involved in gender identity could not be articulated. Surely, Rosalind's declaration as she dons her male disguise in As You Like It succinctly expresses her intuition that gender is performative: "We'll have a swashing and martial outside, / As many other mannish cowards have / That do outface it with their semblances" (1.3.120-22).
CLAUDE J. SUMMERS University of Michigan, Dearborn
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|Author:||Summers, Claude J.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1998|
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