Sid Ray. Holy Estates: Marriage and Monarchy in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries.
Sid Ray's Holy Estates: Marriage and Monarchy in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries is a valuable addition to the study of early modern drama in the context of contemporary conduct manuals and the marital and political ideologies that shaped and were shaped by them. Ray's work, as her subtitle suggests, extends the critical relevance of conduct books beyond their contributions to the period's ideas about marriage. She argues that such texts provided not only a realm in which to explore the idea of a wife's subjection to her husband and marital tyranny and resistance, but also a safer realm in which to explore subjects' subjection to their ruler and political tyranny and resistance. Her argument focuses on a particular fault line in these prescriptive texts, arguing that the conduct manuals' bondage metaphors (knotting, tying, yoking) often exceed their intended meaning, especially when appropriated by authors Mary Wroth, William Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, and John Webster:
The authors listed above tend to respond to the Church's pervasive and insistent marital injunctions by putting forth characters that flout marital directives, and, by having those characters appropriate the language of marital tracts for dissident purposes, the authors mock and resist such propaganda. These writers, perhaps more memorably by others, illustrate the subversive possibilities of literalized marital metaphors, all of them offering extraordinary scenes in which characters are at the mercy of some literal form of bondage or torture. (17)
By focusing on the potential subversion of literalizing metaphor, Ray contends that early modern drama allowed, and perhaps even encouraged, its audiences to envision the possibility of change.
Ray's first chapter appropriately focuses on the metaphors in the conduct books themselves, tracing the proliferation of what she calls "martial bondage metaphors" (26). In doing so, she astutely argues that the metaphors continually exceed, extend, and/or exaggerate their intended meanings and therefore undermine the very gender hierarchiesthey are meant to prescribe. When metaphors like to "tie the knot" take on literal connotations, implying the bondage and beating of wives, Ray suggests that the tracts' exaggeration of male dominance and female submission backfires; in other words, the metaphors move from reinforcing supposedly naturally occurring hierarchies to "provoking fear of the opposite" (40). Since Ray focuses on politics as well as marriage, one might hope for more analysis of the conduct literature's relationship to political texts and metaphors. Yet it is not until the end of the chapter that she makes an explicit connection between marriage and politics: "Ironically, then, in their rhetoric designed to augment the power of husbands and further to subordinate wives, the tract writers diminish their own positions as subjects of the monarch" (52).
In examining how these metaphors function in prose romance and drama in the succeeding chapters, Ray aims to show how they "contest [the very] orthodoxy" they were originally designed to support, and she often succeeds in elucidating the way these literary texts challenge marital and political ideologies to varying degrees (17). The most important aspect of Ray's book, its dedication to the slippage between the challenges to political and marital ideologies elicited by bondage metaphors, is also the most difficult to achieve and thus the least even aspect of her argument. The second chapter, "'To Have and to Hold': Arranged Marriage, Rank, and Bondage in Mary Wroth's Urania" offers a balanced reading of the intersection of politics and marriage by focusing on the arranged marriages (themselves inherently political) represented in Urania. Ray's analysis of the tortures inflicted on the heroines who refuse the mate chosen for them offers new insights into the towers and iron rods scattered throughout the romance. In Ray's reading, Wroth's romance insinuates that "those invested in controlling women ... are somehow promoting unorthodox sexual behavior in their injunctions to contain women" (58). Thus Wroth creates a world in which such codes of conduct are subverted as women characters rightfully rebel against them. Ray suggests, though, that Wroth's critiques of women's inability to choose their own husbands aren't fully transferable to the political realm because Wroth's class status allows her to go only so far in her political critiques. In this reading, Wroth validates marital rebellion through her favorable portrayal of women who rebel against marital "usurpers" of an inferior class status, but is unable or unwilling to posit a connection between a woman's ability to choose her own husband and a people's ability to choose its own rulers (61). In this chapter, class and gender are nicely intertwined in a reading that balances the political and marital challenges that Ray deems possible for Wroth to envision.
The following chapters focus on male playwrights from less-privileged class positions, and Ray suggests from the outset that their class and gender positions mean that they "rehearse the trials of oppressed women not to make a claim for female autonomy but rather to subvert the ruling class and the unchecked exercise of centralized power" (75). Whether or not there is an assumption here that male writers are less likely (or even unable?) to make claims for female autonomy, the "either-or" resonance of this statement is unfortunate in a book that often argues so well for the multiple valences of metaphors in political and marital contexts. In both chapter 3 "'Holy Knots': Marriage and Tyranny in The Taming of the Shrew and The Maid's Tragedy" and chapter 4 "'Thy Servant and Thy Handmaid': Mutilation and the politics of Consent in Titus Andronicus and The Duchess of Malfi," Ray sometimes focuses on the political at the expense of the marital, claiming, for example, that the works of Beaumont and Fletcher and Shakespeare "create political allegories from domestic bondage narratives" (76). Similarly, she occasionally follows Tennenhouse's much-criticized mapping of the political onto women's bodies too closely, suggesting that Lavinia "personifies the state" (117).
Even in these chapters, though, Ray's argument is subtler than these quotations suggest. In The Taming of the Shrew, she argues that Petruchio represents a domestic and political tyrant, denying Kate food and clothing and taking her money without providing for her needs. She continues her analysis of tyranny in The Maid's Tragedy, arguing that Evadne, while too lusty and ambitious to be a heroine, "literalizes the supposed reciprocal bond or covenant between king and subject" in her sadomasochistic bedroom scene, reminding the king "of his proper duties by literally tying him up" (101). In Titus Andronicus and The Duchess of Malfi, Ray focuses on the literal exchange of hands (Lavinia's maiming and the Duchess's receipt of a dead man's hand) to suggest that both plays represent "marital rituals in which a woman is stripped of her right to 'give her hand' in marriage" (133). In doing so, she argues, both plays show the devastating effects of ignoring the consent of a woman to be married or of a people to be ruled. Ray's reading is made all the more convincing by her analysis of the specific historical moment in which these plays were written--a moment when rituals representing the consent of the people to be ruled by a new monarch were shifting to those representing merely the recognition of the new ruler (113).
Ray's most original and ambitious arguments come in chapter 5: "'Mutual Society': Marital Equity and Gynecrocracy in Othello and The Tempest." Here she focuses on the references in each play to bodies with heads beneath their shoulders (Othello's wooing tales and Sycorax's "hooped" body) to suggest that these plays "allow for rethinking the human body as a model for political and marital hierarchies" (139). While she sees Queen Elizabeth as largely avoiding the gynecocratic question by refusing to marry, she sees the plays themselves positing answers to the question by creating images of a head (the ruler) existing within or even beneath the body (the people). And while she may not be able to prove that "Desdemona married Othello because with him she saw the possibility of a marriage without hierarchy, a no-headed marriage," she makes some startling connections between the literal and the metaphoric, arguing for example that Othello "opts ... to smother the talkative, 'head-strong' Desdemona" (145, 149). Ray's reading of the politics of The Tempest extends the literalizing of this metaphor even further, arguing that Sycorax's rule and her literal shape "challenges the European 'head over body' paradigm in form and function" (153). Some of Ray's most evocative suggestions are not yet fully developed with textual analysis and support. For example, she intimates that Sycorax, in her role as a queen/mother, shapes Caliban's understanding of what it means to rule, but she doesn't offer a thorough enough exploration of how this might have occurred.
Sid Ray's greatest contribution to the study of early modern drama in the context of marital metaphors lies in her insistence that these metaphors exceed the probable intentions of their authors, especially when literalized on the stage by Wroth, Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Webster. By focusing on one set of metaphors as they appear on and off the stage, her readings push us to examine the vexed relationships between prescriptive and literary texts as well as between marital and political hierarchies. Her contention that these authors "expose the flaws and fragilities of human bonds in both realms and communicate the need and also the possibility for social change" gives tangible and political weight to her work as a feminist and new historicist (162). While she argues that political change happened more quickly than marital change, we might consider how they continue to change in tandem.
AMY L. SMITH
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|Author:||Smith, Amy L.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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