Printer Friendly

Wife and window in Arcadia: re-envisioning the ideal.

In February of 1608, Margaret Ferne-seede, the window of a London tailor, was executed at Saint George's field for the murder of her husband. It was reported that Margaret, upon hearing of his death, demanded to be brought to the scene of the crime where, after viewing her husband's bloody, maggot-infested body, expressed no visible sign of emotion; instead, she dryly demanded "whether his throat were cut or [whether] he had cut his own throat" (Araignement 1608, n.p.) When asked by an astonished acquaintance why "the loss of a good husband [is] so slightly to be regarded," she coolly responded: "Tut sir, mine eyes are ill already and I must now preserve them to mend my clothes, not to mourn for a husband" (n.p.).

Whatever other evidence was used to convict the dry-eyed Margaret, perhaps none was as damning as her unnatural response to her newly acquired widow status. For she purportedly did not shed a tear at the sight of her husband's mutilated body; rather, as the Araignement reports, "the dryness of her brain would suffer no moisture to descend into her eyes" (1608, n.p.). From this lack of tears, a case was constructed around the stoic Margaret. Later it would be reported that she had, even prior to the murder, exhibited behavior unbecoming a wife.

She had been given to all the looseness and lewdness of life which either unlawful lust or abominable prostitution could violently call upon her, with the greatest infamy, yea, and with such a public and irrespective unchastity that neither being chaste nor cautious she was regarded not either into what care the loathsomeness of her life was founded or into what bed of lust her lascivious body was transported. (Araignement 1608. n.p.)

That she came to be labeled an unchaste wife ultimately doomed the emotionless Margaret Ferne--seede. For in casting aside her chastity, as the Araignement maintains, Margaret opened herself up even to the possibility of murder. Although no physical evidence linked her to this most heinous of domestic crimes, culturally inappropriate peripheral behavior led to the lighting of the execution flames.

Early modern women's behavior is explored at length in Sir Philip Sidney's New Arcadia (1593), where a wife's unsanctioned lust for another leads to the "death" of a husband and a conviction on charges of murder. Although Gynecia is ultimately absolved of her crime, her compromised virtue expediently restored, it is not before the text wrestles with cultural mandates dictating female behavior within early modern England. Indeed, it is in the dialogic opposition of two other figures, the highly stylized Parthenia and Cecropia, that we may glimpse the early modern debate over women's behavior. For although Parthenia and Cecropia respectively rehearse the "do's" and "don'ts" of virtuous wife and widow, each likewise questions the viability of a behavioral code for women. Exposed as a static, idealized construct, the code inevitably fails during unscripted moments of everyday experience. The text's problematic resolution to the tortured Gynecia's behavioral dilemma ultimately underscores the necessity of agency w ithin women's lives--be they maids, wives, or widows.

The early modern behavioral code seems to define the text's representation of Arcadian women. When, for example, we first learn of Parthenia, she is presented as the daughter of a "great lady" (1.87--88), whose intrinsic virtue literally informs her physical as well as social being. Michael McCanles observes that "in Parthenia, beauty manifests a fair mind" (1989, 54). She is

speech being as rare as precious; her silence without sullennness; her modesty full of wit, and a wit which delighted more to judge itself than to shew itself: her without affectation; her shamefastness without ignorance; in sum, one that to praise well, one must first set down with himself what it is to be excellent, for so she is. (Sidney 1977, 1.88)

Not only is she physically fair, but she appears to possess in abundance those qualities which comprise the behavioral ideal. Most noticeable is Parthenia's controlled speech. It is as if she measures out her words, speaking only when necessary about topics deemed appropriate to one of her gender and social status. Also noticeable is Parthenia's unparalleled modesty. Along with silence, it indicates behavioral control. As Joan Rees concludes: "As Argalus stands to the male characters in the books, so stands Parthenia to the female, giving an example of unimpugnable excellence" (1991, 52).

As a maid, the virtuous Parthenia is contracted in marriage to Demagoras. "a man mighty in riches and power and proud thereof, stubbornly stout, loving nobody but himself" (Sidney 1977, 1.88). Obedient to her mother's wishes, Parthenia consents to a marriage which neither delights nor favors her. An unexpected meeting with Argalus, however, immediately convinces this otherwise obedient daughter to reject Demagoras's marriage suit. Angered by her rejection, Demagoras retaliates, smearing poison on Parthenia's face. Left scarred by this vicious personal attack, the ever--chaste, silent, and obedient Parthenia unselfishly gives up the one she loves rather than subject him to a lifetime of pity and shame: "Live happy, dear Argalus, I give you full liberty, and I beseech you take it; and I assure you I shall rejoice (whatsoever become of me) to see you so coupled as may be fit both for your honour and satisfaction" (1.92). From her maiden days through her final anguished moments as Argalus's grief--stricken widow, Parthenia is thus set apart from all other women in the Arcadia-- "the perfect picture of a womanly virtue and wifely faithfulness" (1.160).

Parthenia's text, which extols virtuous female behavior, contrasts sharply with that of Cecropia, whose demonized presentation directly opposes the behavioral code. In contrast to Parthenia, Cecropia is represented as a creature of vile and unnatural habits, one whose behavior proves the source of perpetual social contention (1). Even her physical description opposes that of the virtuous Parthenia. Cecropia at the height of her power is styled "dry, lean and yellow" (Sidney 1977, 1.458), one whose reprehensible physical appearance mirrors her vile mischievousness. (2) Physical appearance is not, however, the only characteristic which distinguishes Cecropia from Parthenia: for even from her youth this devilish woman repeatediy defies the code. When wild beasts disrupt a peaceful Arcadian outing, Cecropia is to blame. The same is true when unruly clowns stage a revolt, threatening Arcadian authority. She is, as Lynne Dickson has observed, "a nightmarish image of feminine power anddemonic creation" (1992, 50), o ne whose unchecked political ambition repeatedly threatens the social and political order.

As a maid, Cecropia tells us, she carefully plotted her future. The daughter of a king, this princess agreed to marry the brother of a bachelor king only because his succession to the throne of Arcadia seemed assured. Although Cecropia protests that her now late husband was a worthy successor to the throne, it quickly becomes apparent that his valor interested her less than his advantageous political ranking. As she reminds Amphialus, "for else, you may be sure, the king of Argos nor his daughter would have suffered their royal blood to be stained with the base name of subjection" (Sidney 1977, 3.445). She is of a nature that Vives expressly warns against in his Education of a Christian Woman. "At the beginning of all marriages;' he advises, "women should be warned not to put their love in the fortune of the husband, but rather in the husband himself" (2000, 196). Cecropia's political ambition, however, structures her marital commitment; in essence, the husband becomes secondary to the political office he hol ds.

Once married to the heir apparent, Cecropia's ambition swells to dangerous proportions. As she recounts, "my port and pomp did well become a king of Argos' daughter: in my presence their tongues were turned into ears, and their ears were captive of my tongue" (Sidney 1977, 3.445). As the young wife of Basilius's designated heir, Cecropia literally goes on public display. In many respects, she represents an object of cultural worth: her presence a visual assurance of monarchical succession. Where she stumbles is in her inability to assume the role of silent majesty. For Cecropia is not content to appear before the people as bride of the future king; she vocalizes "male," mimick ing an authority deemed suspect in a woman. Unlike the radiant Parthenia. whose worth comes from unsolicited outside report, this would-be queen repeatedly articulates her value to a society, which tries desperately not to listen to her. Indeed, it is her tongue which most distinguishes Cecropia from Parthenia, for she clearly fails to uphold one of the most fundamental of behavioral dicta--female silence.(3) Needless to say, this outspoken, highiy ambitious woman fails to uphold the code.

To what extent early modern women as a whole adhered to behavioral guidelines authored by patriarchal authority is difficult to determine. Certainly, the sheer number of treatises which appeared during the early modern period devoted to policing female behavior should give us cause to believe that women were not behaving as patriarchal authority desired.(4 )An entry in Elizabeth Delaval's diary (1653-71) expresses the ambivalence of at least one seventeenth-century wife toward the behavioral guidelines advocated for women. In an entry made shortly after her marriage, Delaval notes:

In every change off our life we have reason to set a new watch upon our selves; for the same actions are not alike inocent in every condition ... the gayety of my humour and the harmlesse mirth in my conversation was pleaseing to those I formerly kept company withall, and what was estimed by them to be wit ... is look'd upon to be a gidynesse unbecomcing a wife. (Qtd. in Mendelson 1985, 192)

While Delaval's entry expresses a willingness to please, a desire to exhibit behavior deemed appropriate to maids and wives, it also reveals the anxiety of performance. Delaval may well have come to know the definitive rules of behavior advocated by her society, but did her roles as wife, perhaps mother, indeed woman inevitably conflict with prescribed cultural mandates? If she managed to contain her will, to what source did she turn to guide her through the varied and unique life experiences she undoubtedly faced? Juan Luis Vives's Education, which remained popular well into the seventeenth century, purports to educate the total woman through all stages of her life, offering guidelines, for example, on what education she should receive, what clothing she should wear, and how she should act both at home and abroad. (5) It does not, however, address the multiple, often conflicting roles much less life changes the early modern woman must have encountered as she attempted to negotiate the intricacies of her ever yday world. It failed, in other words, (as did countless others printed during this period) to recognize agency as an essential condition of being.

The conflict between code and practice is most evident in the case of the widowed Margaret Ferne-seede, whose tearless response following her husband's violent death results in a trial for inappropriate behavior. Tears, expected of one recently widowed, constitute a verifiable performance before a scrutinizing audience of the love and obedience a loving wife should express toward her husband. As Vives reminds the widow,

the holy woman should know that when her husband has died, she has suffered a most grievous loss. A loving heart, full of warmth and affection, has been taken from her; not only has half her soul perished (for that is how certain learned men referred to those whom they loved intensely), but her whole self has been wrested forcefully from her and annihilated. This is cause for honest tears, justifiable sorrow, and irreproachable grief. The greatest proof of a shameless and cruel mind is not to weep over a husband who has died. (Vives 2000, 299)

Because she remains tearless after so "grievous" a loss, Margaret is summarily judged guilty of "a shameless and cruel mind" and executed for her affront to cultural authority.

At the same time, however, Margaret's unanticipated demeanor following her husband's death provides evidence of an emergent agency, one needed if she is to function alone within her early modern world. Susanne Woods has defined agency as "the ability to act and the knowledge to make choices that lead to action" (1990, 163). Ellen Messer-Davidow adds that "when agency is attached to a 'self' and conceived as an element of psychological being, it is said to be an individual's capacity for self-determination through decision and action" (1995, 25). Margaret's failure to cry at a crucial juncture of her life proves a rather complicated response to a husband's sudden death. Does her failure to cry, i.e., to act, indicate an absence of agency? Or does the absence of tears itself constitute an action, a refusal to yield to the prevailing wisdom which says that a widow must weep at her husband's passing? As Shakespeare's wrongly accused Hermione observes during her trial on treason,
I am not prone to weeping as our sex
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew
Perchance shall dry your pities. But I have
That honourable grief lodged here which burns
Worse than tears drown. (The Winter's Tale, 2.1.110-114)


It is agency, I would argue, that empowers Margaret Ferne-seede to actively suppress a widow's tears, enabling her to mend the clothing she will need long after her husband's death. To give in to tears, to satisfy cultural expectations may be to render herself unfit to carry out the duties that she as a widow would likewise be expected to fulfill.

Vives's text, in fact, proves curiously ambiguous regarding a woman's responses during such moments of crisis. On the one hand, he praises the widow who mourns deeply for her late husband, giving historical examples of wives such as Porcia, Arria, and Laodamia who chose to end their own lives rather than live without their spouses. As he notes: "Because of women like these, the whole female sex has a good reputation, and it is a pleasure to marry wives, have daughters, and educate them with good hopes" (2000, 192). Later in the text, however, he warns against,

those women who cannot put an end to their tears and mourning...they fill the air with unceasing laments over their recent bereavementand throw all into confusion, tearing their hair, beating their breast, lacerating their cheeks, striking their head against the wall, dashing themselves upon the ground, and prolonging their grief to great lengths. (Vives 2000, 302-03)

The contradiction within Vives's text speaks volumes about the confusion that must have existed in the day-to-day world of early modern women's lives. That the code failed to provide guidance during unscripted moments merely underscores the need for women's agency. And, as Parthenia and Cecropia come to demonstrate, agency proves essential in Sidney's Arcadian world as well.

In the case of Parthenia, agency emerges during an unexpected domestic crisis. Following the arrival of Basilius's messenger (and shortly after their marriage), Parthenia pointedly questions Argalus's decision to participate in the on-going siege to rescue Pamela and Philoclea, who are being held captive by Cecropia. Distraught over his intention to leave, to endanger both his life and their marriage, she pleads: "My Argalus, my Argalus ... do not thus forsake me. Remember, alas, remember that I have interest in you" (Sidney 1977, 3.502). His terse response underscores the nature of her transgression: "Dear Parthenia ... this is the first time that ever you resisted my will. I thank you for it, but persevere not in it" (3.503; emphasis mine). Later, Parthenia again attempts to intervene on her husband's behalf, forcing her presence on the battlefield in an attempt to ensure his safety. Argalus's anguished irritation perhaps says it all: "Ah, Parthenia ... never until now unwelcome to me, do you come to get my life by request?" (3.507). It may be argued that Parthenia errs our of blind devotion, selfishly seeking to protect the one she loves. That disobedience is styled devotion does little to ease concerns about her adherence to the code, for what Parthenia attempts here is no less than a voice in a social institution valorizing, if not demanding, female silence. As Argalus angrily notes, Parthenia's emergent agency sorely conflicts with his will.

Parthenia's behavioral transgression becomes even more pronounced with her abrupt shift from wife to widow. The forlorn lady of Joshua Sylvester's Monodia (1594) mirrors her:
having lost her Knight,
This doleful Lady left all world's delight,
All shows of pleasure and all pomp forsaking,
Herself to sadness and to soleness taking,
With inward sighs and outward tears lamenting
His death whose life was all her life's contenting. (Sylvester
 1594, n.p.)


With Argalus's death, Parthenia virtually dies as well, engulfed by a grief from which she will never recover: "But when indeed she found his ghost was gone, then sorrow lost the wit of utterance and grew rageful and mad, so that she tare her beautiful face and rent her hair, as though they could serve for nothing, since Argalus was gone" (Sidney 1977, 3.508). Parthenia engages here in classic mourning behavior, a display meant both to vent grief and to show respect for the dead. While admiring those wives who follow their husbands to the grave, Vives would, nonetheless, have denounced Parthenia's display of grief. "Let a widow," he admonishes, "mourn her dead husband with true affection, but not cry out or afflict herself by beating her hands together or with blows to her limbs or her body. In her grief, she should observe modesty and moderation and not make such show of her distress that others will see it" (2000, 303). His concern for the communal consciousness becomes even more evident a short time later. As he notes, "when the first shock of sorrow subsides, she should begin to take thought of consolation ... [realizing that] death is the entrance into port from a voyage at sea. Those who die precede us, who are soon to follow" (2000, 303-04). Moderation is the key to behaving appropriately following the loss of one's husband. Protracted displays of excessive grief ultimately accomplish nothing; they merely disturb the public peace.

Moderation may be glimpsed in Anne Bathurst's recorded response to the ordeal of widowhood. An excerpt from her seventeenth-century diary reveals a sustaining hope for a spiritual reunion beyond the grave: "She desyred often in the day his return of Love, and hoped at night yt [to] ly in his arms as [shel had done the night before" (Mendelson 1985, 195). While it is clear that her husband's death must have proven an egregious event, Anne nevertheless finds a way to contain her grief. The sustaining feature seems to be the prospect of an otherworldly reunion, which this widow indulges during private moments. Grief seems not to consume her waking hours, seems not to disturb the peace of those around her. On the contrary while she maintains a respectful devotion to her late husband, one praised within her society, Anne Bathurst yet carries out the equally important responsibilities of everyday life.

While it is easy to overlook the problematic nature of Parthenia's excessive grief as an inevitably human reaction to a husband's death, it proves difficult to disregard her cross-gendered response to widowhood. For in exchanging her widow's weeds for male armor, Parthenia seizes, however momentarily, an authority expressly at odds with the code. The scene is emblematic; eerily arrayed as the Knight of the Tomb, Parthenia issues a suicidal challenge to Amphialus:

himself in an armour all painted over with such a cunning of shadow that it represented a gaping sepulchre: the furniture of his horse was all of cypress branches, wherewith in old time they were wont to dress graves.... In his shield.

for impressa, he had a beautiful child, but having two heads, whereof the one showed that it was already dead; the other alive, but in that case, necessarily looking for death. The word was: "No way to be rid from death but by death." (Sidney 1977, 3.526)

That Parthenia's presentation literally bespeaks death is most evident. That she makes use of such emotionally charged symbolism to signify not only their unity but also her own approaching demise is obvious as well. We must ask how her method of self-sacrifice--the male challenge--impacts her role as virtuous wife, now widow of Argalus. While it may be argued that

Parthenia approaches her task as a woman--she maintains her virtuous silence until mortally wounded--she clearly assumes the identity of a man. She may well be the "unfortunately virtuous wife of Argalus" (3.528), but in donning armor and engaging in an act of male prowess, she likewise confuses and threatens protected gender categories.

Masculinely attired women were the targets of more than one early modern pamphleteer, who viewed the practice as dangerous to the social order. The anonymously authored pamphlet Hic-Mulier; or, The Man-Woman, for example, attacks this trend among early modern women as monstrous. Such women,

swim in the excess of these vanities and will be manlike not only from the head to the waist, but to the very foot and in every condition: man in body by attire, man in behavior by rude complement, man in nature by aptness to anger, man in action by pursuing revenge, man in wearing weapons, man in using weapons, and in brief, so much man in all things that they are neither men nor women, but just good for nothing. (Hic--Mulier 1985, 270)

We know from the sumptuary legislation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that personal attire was a closely scrutinized commodity in early modern England, a visual indicator of an individual's birth, wealth, and status in a society protective of social ranking. (6) It was intended to separate the "haves" from the "have-nots' to distinguish the nobility from a rapidly rising and at times wealthier merchant class. One area the sumptuary laws had routinely slighted, however, was the regulation of women's clothing, surprising given otherwise concerted efforts to control female behavior. (7) The women decried by the author of Hie-Mulier not only don male attire; perhaps even more frighteningly from an early modern patriarchal perspective, their appropriation of gender-specific attire suggests an appropriation of gender--specific agency as well.

The author of Hic-Mulier goes on to praise those women who have not fallen victim to this "disease" of the times, who have preserved their non-- threatening femininity. As the author notes:

Are all women then turned Masculine? No, God, forbid, there are a world full of holy thoughts, modest carriage, and severe chastity. To these let me fall on my knees and say, "You, oh you women, you good women, you that are in the fullness of men's excellences, and the Seminaries of propagation; you that maintain the world, support mankind, and give life to society; you that, armed with the infinite power of Virtue, are Castles impregnable, Rivers unsailable, Seas immovable, infinite treasures, and invincible armies. (Hic-Mulier 1985, 265-66)

That Hic-Mulier's author recalls the behavioral code here is revealing. Not only does this positive example serve as instruction for those who have "trayeled to the dark side," but in so doing it also betrays the underlying anxiety motivating this impassioned diatribe. Indeed, what is significant is not simply the fear that women will start dressing like men. The real threat is that such "monstrous" women will likewise assume the authority attendant to the male wardrobe.

In their study of gender and dress, Joannne Eicher and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins argue the importance of clothing to the maintenance of identity. Not only does dress reinforce social ranking, but it delineates sexual identity as well. As they note, "gendered dress encourages each individual to internalize as gendered roles a complex set of social expectations for behavior" (1992, 19). The importance of gender-specific dress is readily apparent elsewhere in the Arcadia, where to gain proximity to the cloistered Philoclea, Pyrocles dons the attire of an Amazon warrior. Musidorus, cousin and companion to Pyrocles, expresses horror at the larger implications of dressing outside one's gender:

See how extremely every way you can endanger your mind: for to take this womanish habit, without you frame your behaviour accordingly, is wholly vain; your behaviour can never come kindly from you but as the mind is proportioned unto it: so that you must resolve, if you will play your part to any purpose, whatsoever peevish imperfections are in that sex, to soften your heart to receive them--the very first down-step to all wickedness. (Sidney 1977, 1.133)

To dress outside one's gender is thus to subject oneself to the behavioral code attendant to that sexual identity. While Pyrocles's female dress may be viewed as disturbing, but hardly emasculating--he maintains his exceptional masculine strength even while dressed as a woman--Parthenia's book three adoption of male armor becomes downright threatening. That she exits the text not as the dutifully obedient widow of the slain Argalus, but as an armored agent may thus be construed as open defiance of the male authority that robbed her of a husband.

Just as the virtuous Parthenia comes to challenge the early modern ideal for wives and widows, Cecropia likewise complicates the behavioral miscues her demonized character is meant to make manifest. Her reasoned assault against Arcadian authority during the siege merely raises additional questions regarding the code for women. Scholars have, for the most part, read Cecropia as an oppositional figure, one whose primary function is to serve as foil to other, more virtuous characters in the Arcadia. Several scholars have noted her strong resemblance to the vilified Catherine de Medici, a dark and disturbing figure in Sidney's late sixteenth century world. (8) Ronald Levao sees in her the "quintessential Machiavel ... the dark side of the princes' drive for autonomy through the 'law of vertue'" (1985, 236). Dickson, while acknowledging Cecropia's maternal conflicts, emphasizes "the prideful ease with which she [Cecropia] ticks off her evil plots" (1992, 50). There is no doubt that Cecropia is an ambitious, outspo ken woman whose unsanctioned demeanor repeatedly offends the cultural sensibility. There is likewise no question that Cecropia grossly abuses the public trust when she abducts Pamela and Philoclea and wages war against Arcadian authority. Yet, virtually all of Cecropia's crimes against the Arcadian state can ultimately be traced back to her role as the widowed mother of Amphialus. As Barbara Bono suggests, "Cecropia emerges as the full expression of the hitherto repressed maternal subtext in Sidney's Arcadia" (1992, 121). Indeed, it is the inevitable conflict between her roles as mother and wife, then widow which sparks the political rampage that disrupts Arcadian life. It is in these conflicted roles that we may likewise discern the early modern struggle with, as well as for, women's agency.

The experience of early modern widows sheds light here. As Margaret Ferne-seede noted, the widow was frequently forced to assume pressing responsibilities at the moment of her bereavement, responsibilities, which rivaled or surpassed her obligation to mourn. Immediate loss of income was a concern for many. According to historian Amy Louise Erickson, the median estate at a husband's death in early modern England was a mere [pounds sterling]33, making the widow's portion just [pounds sterling]11 (1993, 227). Even allowing for inflation, the average widow was left financially vulnerable. (9) Furthermore, as Eileen Spring has shown, a widow's dower rights, long protected under the common law, began to be dismantled early in the sixteenth century. (10) Henry VIII's Statute of Uses (1536) allowed for an "evasion of dower" responsibilities, substituting in its place the decidedly less compensating jointure (47). (11) Under this statute, the heir was required to pay the widow only a portion of the jointure settlement per year. Spring has estimated that the ratio of jointure to dower fell to one and ten by the latter part of the seventeenth century If, for example, a woman brought to the marriage [pounds sterling]10,000, she received [pounds sterling]1000 per year jointure payment in lieu of the minimum one third guaranteed under the common law (47). Moreover, the jointure was funded by the portion brought to the marriage. Not only did the bride's portion finance her widowhood, but the groom's estate was effectively excluded from the settlement equation.

While it may be argued that Cecropia's vulnerability lies less in diminished land and property rights than in loss of social ranking, it is nonetheless a real threat, for ranking constitutes symbolic capital in the New Arcadia. Ranking is especially important in the case of Arcadian maids, wives, and widows who take their identities from their fathers, husbands, and even sons. Cecropia is the daughter of the King of Argos, the wife of the Duke of Arcadia, and the mother of Amphialus, once heir apparent, her symbolic capital calculated against the fluctuating social and political worth of father, husband, and son. Frances Dolan has noted that "legal representations--those with the most direct material consequences--dwell on women's power over their children, assuming and criminalizing their agency and holding them accountable for its consequences" (1994, 126-27). While her actions may well be represented as an unlawful attempt to seize power, Cecropia's move to force a royal alliance must likewise be viewed in the light of a mother's responsibility to reclaim a son's land, property, and status rights. It may be, as Miriam Johnson observes, that "we expect mothers to be active, wise, brave, resourceful, caring and responsible for the growth and development of others. The very fact that real mothers are both idealized as capable of solving everything and blamed for any undesirable outcome attests to the power we impute to them" (1995, 153; emphasis mine).

Reading Cecropia as protective mother, however destructive, allows new insight into the misguided motivations not only of this much-maligned widow, but those of other Arcadian figures as well. Indeed, we might well read Cecropia's fierce concern for Amphialus's imperiled future against Basilius's curious indifference to that of Pamela and Philoclea, legal heirs to his estate. His abrupt removal of the two from the marriage market, indeed from Arcadian society, leaves uncertain not only their future, but that of the state as well. And Gynecia, to whom I will return shortly, is no better. According to early modern conduct manuals, one of a mother's primary responsibilities was to educate her children, and especially her daughters, in their future roles as husbands and wives. (12) Not only is Gynecia noticeably indifferent to her daughters' needs, but she actually vies with them for the love of one forbidden to all. At the very least, Basilius and Gynecia are as guilty of neglect as Cecropia is of encroachment: their personal desires clouding their responsibilities to lineage and state.

Gynecia's misguided roles as wife and mother prove particularly important to an understanding of how agency comes to function in the text. In many respects, the New Arcadia as female instruction is her text, that of a woman neither good nor bad: one who entertains poor decisions with dire consequences. From the beginning, this wife to Basilius is presented with models of female behavior to emulate or avoid. Gynecia is present when Basilius praises Parthenia as "the perfect picture of a womanly virtue and wifely faithfulness" (Sidney 1977, 1.160). Gynecia is likewise counseled against the likes of Cecropia. After the latter offers a suspicious account of the lion attack which abruptly ends a royal outing, we learn that "Gynecia took a further conceit of it, mistrusting greatly Cecropia, because she had heard much of the devilish wickedness of her heart" (1.182; emphasis mine). These models of good and bad female behavior present Gynecia, whose name literally means "woman," with outcomes from which to pattern h er own role as wife. To be like Parthenia is to win the undying praise of the Arcadian community. On the other hand, to follow Cecropia's lead is to earn its perpetual suspicion and condemnation. It would seem an easy decision to make.

However, Gynecia comes to prove, indeed, as Parthenia and Cecropia themselves repeatedly demonstrate, prescribed models of female behavior fail to accommodate the complexities of women's, much less human, experience. More specifically, they elide the troubling, yet ever present issue of agency: an elision that resurfaces during inevitable moments of crisis. What course of action should the virtuous Parthenia take at the death of her husband? Row should Cecropia respond when the future of her only son is called into question? The behavioral ideal offers no acceptable solutions just as it ultimately fails Gynecia when this otherwise faithful wife falls victim to an unsolicited extramarital attraction. It is during this latter, rapidly escalating crisis that the text struggles with a code inherently at odds with woman's experience. Gynecia, however deeply flawed her behavior may be, is still a good woman, one who yet possesses feelings for her husband. That her status as virtuous wife to Basilius is readily rest ored provides much commentary, in fact, about the flawed nature of the code itself.

Richard Berrong has observed that "one of the fundamental qualities of the New Arcadia is its ambivalence, its refusal to come to conclusions and proclaim clear-cut positions" (1989, 33). Nowhere is this more evident than in the conclusion to Gynecia's dilemma. For Gynecia proves no murderess after all because Basilius is not really dead but merely sleeping as a result of a love potion, not poison, that his wife delivers to him. Nevertheless, this substance which confuses Gynecia's intentions proves intriguing, for it is one which both heals and destroys. Indeed, as Jacques Derrida notes, "there is no such thing as a harmless remedy" (1981, 99).

Gynecia, of course, intends to use the potion to force the love of one who does not love her--which could apply as well to her straying husband as to her intended lover. At the same time, the potion represents a poison, endangering a relationship between husband and wife as well as a life. Gynecia, as does Basilius, goes to the cave intending an adulterous liaison with Zelmane. (13) While it may be argued that she makes love only with her husband, Gynecia does plot sex with another and thus is arguably just as guilty as if she had realized her intentions. On the other hand, this queen clearly knows the identity of her husband within the cave, which cannot be said about Basilius who believes he has been with Zelmane. Although Gynecia yields to her husband's overtures "with a determinate patience" (Sidney 1977, 3.679), it is equally clear that she resents his presence. Even at this moment, it is Zelmane that she desires, not this husband "of much greater age" (3.676) whose presence she has from the earliest day s of their marriage mote tolerated than embraced.

While Gynecia never directly offers the potion to Basilius, promises, in fact, no guarantee of its effectiveness, neither does she make a real effort to stop him from consuming a liquor of unknown substance. Does she desire here a more loving and attentive mate as she sought in Zelmane? Her refusal to use the substance early in their marriage would seem to undercut any notion that Gynecia ever actively seeks Basilius's affection. Nor does she offer it to him now. Although she has sorely rebuked this man for his derisive attack against her--"Remember the wrong you have done is not only to me, but to your children whom you had of me: to your country...lastly, to yourself" (Sidney 1977, 4.727)--her response seems more the result of unrepentant guilt rather than of any real desire to win his affections. While she appears submissive to her husband's authority. it would be a mistake to say she desires only what is best for him. In many respects, the potion may well be construed as poison, offering an as yet pained Gynecia a way out.

It is not until Basilius's "death" that Gynecia learns the proverbial error of her ways. Indeed, it is with a sudden and, in the end, undesired brush with widowhood that this errant woman draws back from the brink to become the kind of wife and mother prized within early modern culture. Unlike the dry-eyed Margaret Ferne-seede, Gynecia immediately lapses into uncontrollable grief, blaming herself for the death of one she so recently despised. While Parthenia's uncontrollable tears must be viewed as an expression of agency, a refusal to accept a husband's death--Gynecia's outburst seems less clear-cut. In many respects, her tears would seem to constitute a cessation of agency; she yields without appeal to a punishing patriarchal authority. Margaret Sullivan has observed that "Gynecia is the sole woman permitted to speak in book 5's public trial because she uses the opportunity to support patriarchy and condemn herself" (1991, 67). Not only does Gynecia appear to accept a murderess's responsibility for what she has done--she "rook a certain resolution to embrace death as soon as it should be offered unto her, and no way to seek the prolonging of her annoyed life" (Sidney 1977. 4.730)--but she appears to accept her role as widow as well: "And therefore kissing the cold face of Basilius; 'And even so will I rest,' said she, 'and join this faulty soul of mine to thee, if so much the angry gods will grant me"' (4.730). As Grace Tiffany has argued in another context, however, the act of yielding in itself constitutes agency (1993,44). In other words, one must choose whether or not to accede to the prevailing authority or to fight it despite expected outcomes. That Basilius awakens only after Gynecia appears to yield her agency should not blind us to the fact the she chooses to embrace her hus- band with love and commitment, chooses to accept responsibility for the crime she has apparently committed. Basilius may very well offer forgiveness for her would-be assault against person and state; at the same time, Gynecia's ep iphanic awakening, like Basilius's own, is to their mutual responsibilities as spouses and parents. By the end of the Arcadia, as Karen Saupe has noted, "Gynecia and Basilius are wiser and more virtuous" (1993, 25). Importantly, this errant queen finds forgiveness because she gives it: becomes a good spouse when she requires the same from her husband. Gynecia's resolution comes, I would conclude, not at the expense of agency, but as a result of it, underscoring the importance of the will to the overall social and political well being.

In his Defense of Poesy, Sidney argues the unique power of fiction to teach through "notable examples," exempla both good and bad which together provide instruction toward the attainment of virtue. As he notes, "in geometry the oblique must be known as well as the right, and in arithmetic the odd as well as the even, so in the actions of our life who seeth not the filthiness of evil wanteth a great foil to perceive the beauty of virtue" (1969, 129). Sidney could well be speaking of the demonized Cecropia, of the way in which her malice serves to illuminate the chaste Parthenia's virtue: a model, it would seem, of womanly perfection. Yet, as their complicated responses to crisis demonstrate, the New Arcadia likewise challenges the accepted wisdom it ostensibly supports, scrutinizing, ultimately redefining what it means to be virtuous and a woman in early modern England.

Indeed, as Sidney's Arcadian wives and widows instruct, the behavioral code fails not only because it ignores the conflicted realities of everyday experience, but because it chooses not to recognize the agency which both enables and enriches human existence. Even as the virtuous Parthenia unsuccessfully negotiates a voice within her marriage, the ambitious Cecropia reinforces her role as mother to the fatherless Amphialus: her dedication to her son ultimately as fierce and as blind as Parthenia's is to her husband. And the torturously misguided Gynecia awakens to her responsibilities as wife and mother only when she openly defies the code. In Sidney's New Arcadia, early modern wife and widow are re-envisioned as agents, whose unfettered will ultimately enriches the very patriarchal society it ostensibly threatens.

Notes

(1.) The names Cecropia and Parthenia are etymologically significant. Cecropia, which derives from the Greek, Kekrops, refers to the mythological creature which is half human and half serpent. Significantly, the creature's lower body is bestial, signifying a strong sexuality. It should be noted that the Kekrops is male. Such an association supports a reading that Sidney's Cecropia is gendered male within her society Cecropia is also linked to the term Cecropis, which designated the site of the devastating plague detailed at the end of Lucretius's De rerum natura, one which "filled the fields with dead and emptied the streets, draining the city of its citizens" (1948, 6.1139-140). Such an association links Cecropia not only to disease and disorder, but to virtual annihilation as well. Parthenia, on the other hand, derives from the Greek, Parthenos, the virgin goddess. The word became connected as well to the Greek Parthenon, meaning "maiden's chamber" (Seyffert 1966, 460). Importantly, during the Middle Ages, the Parthenon was converted to a church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Such an association establishes a clear link between Parthenia and an early modern cultural valorization of virginal chastity.

(2.) Based upon early modern humoral theory, Cecropia's physical appearance would have been indicative of disease. Her yellowness indicates an imbalance of the bodily humors, which were believed to affect disposition. In this case, too much yellow bile is present, resulting in ill-temper. Her dryness would also be viewed as unnatural. According to early modern complexion theory, women were supposed to be colder and moister than men. Cecropia's dryness thus becomes a kind of gender transgression. For a general discussion of humoral and complexion theories, see Siraisi (1990).

(3.) See Parker (1987). Parker ably discusses the perceived dangers of women's speech in early modern England.

(4.) See, for example, Vives (2000), Perkins (1982), Tusser, (1580), Brathwaite (1992), and Du Bosc (1992).

(5.) See Vives (2000).

(6.) For a discussion of sixteenth and seventeenth century English sumptuary legislation, see Baldwin (1994).

(7.) Although sumptuary legislation was periodically updated throughout the sixteenth century, it was not until relatively late in Elizabeth's reign that women's clothing first began to be regulated. Even then, sumptuary legislation was directed more toward rank than gender issues.

(8.) See Greenlaw (1923) and Raitiere (1982). The Machiavellian widow is a familiar figure in early modern Europe. Catherine de Medici, who bears a striking resemblance to the wicked Cecropia, entered, like her literary counterpart, into a politically arranged marriage, where she was at best only tolerated. As was the case with Cecropia, Catherine was a domineering mother, who pushed her weak sons into making catastrophic decisions. The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 24 August 1572, orchestrated on the eve of her daughter Margaret's marriage to the Protestant Henry of Navarre, is a poignant illustration of the measures this dowager queen would take to secure political power. In an effort to quash a divisive Huguenot force, she is believed to have arranged for the massacre of all Protestant noblemen in town for the wedding, a move that ended in a virtual blood bath that spilled well beyond Paris' boundaries. See Knechr (1998).

(9.) This vulnerability was heightened by the fact that many widows had to fight for what was legally theirs. Struggles with heirs over dower shares had since the Middle Ages forced widows into church and civil courts. See Walker (1983).

(10.) Under terms established by the Magna Carta, a widow was legally entitled to a minimum one-third of her late husband's estate. While there was some dispute as to whether that one-third included any lands and moveable goods acquired after the marriage, or was limited to that in possession at the time of the marriage, the widow's right in principle was generally upheld.

(11.) While a bride and her family were under no obligation to accept jointure in lieu of dower, marriage settlements increasingly followed this route. Only in the city of London did the dower prevail. See Spring (1993).

(12.) See, for example, Leigh (1992).

(13.) Zelmane is, of course, the cross-dressed Pyrocles. While Basilius accepts Zelmane's identity as female, Gynecia sees the Amazon warrior as a man.

Works Cited

The Araignement & Burning of Margaret Ferne-seede, the Murther of her late Husband Anthony Ferne-seede, found deade in Peck-ham Field neere Lambeth ... being executed in S. Georges-field the last of Februarie, 1608. London: H. Gosson.

Baldwin, Frances E. 1994. Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England. New York: AMS.

Berrong, Richard M. 1989. "Changing Depictions of Popular Revolt in Sixteenth-Century England: The Case of Sidney's Two Arcadias." Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 19: 15-33.

Bono, Barbara J. 1992. "'The Chief Knot of All the Discourse':The Maternal Subtext Tying Sidney's Arcadia to Shakespeare's King Lear." In Gloriana's Face: Women, Public and Private, in the English Renaissance, ed. S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Brathwaite, Richard. 1992. In The English Gentlewoman. Daughters, Wives, and Widows: Writings by Men about Women in England, 1500-1640, ed. Joan Larsen Klein. 1631. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1981. "The Pharmakon." In Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dickson, Lynne. 1992. "Sidney's Grotesque Muse: Fictional Excess and the Feminine in the Arcadias." Renaissance Papers: 41-55.

Dolan, Frances E. 1994. Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England 1550-1700. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Du Bosc, Jacques. 1992. The Complete Woman (1632). Trans. N. N. In Daughters, Wives, and Widows: Writings by Men about Women and Marriage in England, 1500-1640, ed. Joan Larsen Klein. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Eicher, Joanne B., and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins. 1992. "Definition and Classification of Dress: Implications for Analysis of Gender Roles." In Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning, ed. Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher. Cross- Cultural Perspectives on Women. Vol. 2. Providence: Berg.

Erickson, Amy Louise. 1993. Women and Property in Early Modern England. London: Routledge.

Gardiner, Judith Kegan, ed. 1995. Provoking Agents: Gender and Agency in Theory and Practice. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Greenlaw, Edwin. 1923. "The Captivity Episode in Sidney's Arcadia." In Manly Anniversary Studies in Language and Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Henderson, Katherine Usher, and Barbara F. McManus. 1985. Half-Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540-1640. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Hic-Mulier; or, The Man-Woman: being a Medicine to cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine-Feminine of our Times. 1985. Half-Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540-1640. 1620. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Johnson, Miriam M. 1995. "Maternal Agency vs. the Brotherhood of Males." In Provoking Agents: Gender and Agency in Theory and Practice, ed. Judith Kegan Gardiner. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Klein, Joan Larsen, ed. 1992. Daughters, Wives, and Widows: Writings by Men About Women and Marriage in England, 1500-1640. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Knecht, R.J. 1998. Catherine de Medici. Harlow, Essex: Longman.

Leigh, Dorothy. 1992. The Mother's Blessing: or, The Godly Counsel of a Gentlewoman Not Long since deceased, left behind for her children. Daughters, Wives, and Widows: Writings by Men about Women in England, 1500-1640, ed. Joan Larsen Klein. 1616. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Levao, Ronald. 1985. Renaissance Minds and Their Fictions: Cusanus, Sidney, Shakespeare. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lucretius Carus, Titus. 1948. De Renum Natura. Vol. 1.Ed. Cyril Bailey. 1910. Reprint. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

McCanles, Michael. 1989. The Text of Sidney's Arcadian World. Durham: Duke University Press.

Mendelson, Sara Heller. 1985. "Stuart Women's Diaries and Occasional Memoirs." In Women in English Society 1500-1800, ed. Mary Prior. New York: Routledge.

Messer-Davidow, Ellen. 1995. "Acting Otherwise." In Provoking Agents: Gender and Agency in Theory and Practice, ed. Judith Kegan Gardiner. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Parker, Patricia. 1987. Literary Far Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property. New York: Methuen.

Perkins, William. 1992. Christian Economy: or, A Short Survey of the Right Manner of Erecting and Ordering a Family According to the Scriptures. Trans. Thomas Pickering. In Daughters, Wives, and Widows: Writings by Men about Women in England, 1500-1640, ed. Joan Larsen Klein. 1609. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Prior, Mary, ed. 1985. Women in English Society 1500-1800. New York: Routledge.

Raitiere, Martin N. 1982. "Amphialus's Rebellion: Sidney's Use of History in New Arcadia." Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 12: 113-31.

Rees, Joan. 1991. Sir Philip Sidney and Arcadia. London:Associated University Presses.

Saupe, Karen. 1993. "Trial, Error, and Revision in Sidney's Arcadias." Sidney Newsletter and Journal 12.2: 22-29.

Seyffert, Oskar. 1966. Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. Ed. Henry Nettleship and J. E. Sandys. Cleveland: Meridian Books.

Shakespeare, William. 1997. The Winter's Tale. The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: Norton.

Sidney, Sir Philip. 1977. The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. Ed. Maurice Evans. 1593. Reprint. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

-----. 1969. The Defense of Poesy. Sir Philip Sidney: Selected Prose and Poetry, ed. Robert Kimbrough. 1595. Reprint. San Francisco: Rinehart.

Siraisi, Nancy G. 1990. Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Spring, Eileen. 1993. Law, Land and Family: Aristocratic Inheritance in England, 1300 to 1800. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Sullivan, Margaret M. 1991. "Amazons and Aristocrats: The Function of Pyrocles' Amazon Role in Sidney's Revised Arcadia." In Playing with Gender: A Renaissance Pursuit, ed. Jean R. Brink, Maryanne C. Horowitz, and Allison P. Coudert. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Sylvester, Joshua. 1594. Monodia. An Elegie, in commemoration of the Vertuous life, and Godlie Death of the right Worshipfull & most religious Lady, DameHellen Branch Widdowe, (late Wife to the tight worshipfull Sir John Branch, sometimes L. Mayor of this Honorable City) . . . who deceased the 10. of Aprill last. London: P. Short.

Tiffany, Grace. 1993. "Not Saying No: Female Self-Erasure in Troilus and Cressida." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 35.1: 44-56.

Tusser, Thomas. 1992. The Points of Housewifery, United to the Comfort of Husbandry (1580). In Daughters, Wives and Windows: Writings by Men about Women and Marriage in England, 1500-1640, ed. Joan Larsen Klein. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Vives, Juan Luis. 2000. The Education of a Christian Woman: A Sixteenth-Century Manual. Ed. and trans. Charles Fantazzi. 1524. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Walker, Sue Sheridan. 1993. "Litigation as Personal Quest: Suing for Dower in the Royal Courts, circa 1272-1350." In Wife and Widow in Medieval England, ed. Sue Sheridan Walker. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Woods, Susanne. 1990. "Freedom and Tyranny in Sidney's Arcadia." In Sir Philip Sidney's Achievements, ed. M.J. B. Allen et al. New York: AMS.

Chamberlain is Assistant Professor of English at Southeast Missouri State University, where she teaches Shakespeare and Renaissance literature. Her work on Shakespeare and early modern matrimonial reform appears in The Ben Jonson Journal (2000).
COPYRIGHT 2002 West Chester University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Philip Sidney's 'New Arcadia'
Author:Chamberlain, Stephanie
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Mar 22, 2002
Words:8465
Previous Article:The return of Damon and Pythias: Alan Dale's A Marriage Below Zero, Victorian melodrama, and the emergence of a literature of homosexual...
Next Article:The site of domestic violence and the altar of phallic sacrifice in Gus Lee's China Boy.
Topics:


Related Articles
A Continuation of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia
Castigating Livy: the rape of Lucretia and 'The Old Arcadia.'
The Sound of Virtue: Philip Sidney's Arcadia and Elizabethan Politics.
Critical thumbprints in Arcadia: Renaissance pastoral and the process of critique.
Representing women and female desire from Arcadia to Jane Eyre.
Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy.
Challenging humanism; essays in honor of Dominic Baker-Smith.
Arcadia boss foregoes his dividend.
No dividend for Sir Philip as he saves his cash to invest; RETAIL.
Sidney and Junius on Poetry and Painting: From the Margins to the Center.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters