LECTURE NOTES: Sexual Politics and the Elizabethan Sonnet

Slides #1 & #2  "Siena" Portrait of Elizabeth (Metsys the Younger, 1580-83); Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, important advisor to Elizabeth and also believed to have been Elizabeth's secret lover (van der Muelen, c. 1560)

When the Protestant Elizabeth rose to the English throne in 1558, she did so in a culture that believed in what Castiglione had outlined in The Courtier--while gentlemen mastered the arts of rhetoric and warfare, gentlewomen were expected to display the virtues of silence and good housekeeping (and furthermore, it was the courtier's job to train the gentlewoman's virtue!). The existence of a reigning queen--especially a "virgin" queen whose marital intentions were a matter of anxiety, and who also possessed a shrewd mind and the same classical education of most of her male courtiers--threw court politics into new, uncharted territory and also heightened the fascination of courtiers and poets with the Petrachan themes of eros and the erotics of power. Crown lawyers wishing to downplay criticism that a woman, due to the defects of her "reason," was naturally unfit to rule, advanced the theory of "the king's two bodies" (first articulated by the lawyer Edmund Plowden in 1571): as England's crowned head, Elizabeth's person was mystically divided between her mortal "body natural" and the immortal "body politic." While the queen's natural body was inevitably subject to the failings of the human flesh, the body politic was timeless and perfect. In political terms, therefore, Elizabeth's sex was a matter of no consequence. But that is a legal argument, and the reality was that Elizabeth's sex did matter, and she used it to her advantage.

Unlike previous female monarchs who gave over most of their power to their male advisors, it was immediately clear that Elizabeth was going to do more than rule in name only. Although she had an intimate circle of advisors--chief among them William Cecil--she insisted on making many of the crucial decisions herself. Like most monarchs before her, Elizabeth was drawn to the idea of royal absolutism, the theory that ultimate power was quite properly concentrated in her person and indeed that God had appointed her to be His deputy in the kingdom. In reality, though, Elizabeth's power was not always absolute. The government had a network of spies and informers, but it lacked a standing army and a national police force, and Elizabeth also had to deal with the members of the House of Commons who were elected in their boroughs and had the sole right to levy taxes and grant subsidies. Under these constraints, Elizabeth ruled through a combination of adroit political maneuvering and imperious command, all the while enhancing her authority in the eyes of both court and country by means of an extraordinary cult of love.

Slide #3 -- Queen Elizabeth "en route" (attributed to Robert Peake, 1600)

Ambassadors, courtiers, and parliamentarians all submitted to Elizabeth's cult of love, in which the queen's gender was transformed from a potential liability into a significant asset. Those who approached her did so on their knees and were expected to address her with the most extravagant compliments; she in turn spoke, where it suited her to do so, in a comparable language of love. The court moved in an atmosphere of romance (you could even say it was sexually "charged"), with music, dancing, plays, and the elaborate, fancy-dress entertainments called masques. The queen adorned herself in dazzling clothes and rich jewels and would often have herself carried through commons areas both in the city and country where she could be viewed and adored. Her cult drew its power from cultural discourses that ranged from the secular (her courtiers could pine for her as the cruelly chaste mistress celebrated in Petrarchan love poetry) to the sacred (the veneration that under Catholicism had been due to the Virgin Mary could now be directed toward England's semi-divine queen). It was in this atmosphere that Elizabethan love poetry--chiefly, the sonnet--really flourished.

But let's back up for a minute.

Slides #4 & #5 -- Anne Boleyn (artist unknown, 1533-36); Thomas Wyatt (Holbein)

One of the typical features of the sonnet in both the Italian and English tradition is that the woman being addressed in the lines of verse is often unattainable--she is married, or she moves in a world and social realm far above the poet and hence, is "untouchable." One of the first Petrarchan poets in English was Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder (1503-42), who was educated at St. John's College, Cambridge and worked in the court of Henry VIII as the clerk of the king's jewels. In 1536 he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for (allegedly) having had an adulterous affair with the then-queen, Anne Boleyn, and he very well may have witnessed the executions of Boleyn and several of her alleged lovers from his cell window. For some reason, perhaps because he was considered politically useful to Henry at the time, Wyatt's life was spared (he dies young regardless--of a fever). Wyatt actually introduced the Italian sonnet into English poetry--he took much of his material straight from Petrarch, but he adapted his form from other Italian poets as well.

Wyatt differed significantly from Petrarch (and even some of his English contemporaries) in his more realistic depictions of what we might call the disappointments of love and the duplicities often attendant on sexual game-playing. For Petrarch (and for Castiglione's Peter Bembo) love was a transcendent experience, whereas for Wyatt it was often fraught with bitterness and cruelty--the lover is the victim of both an intemperate passion and an ideal but cruelly indifferent mistress. Ultimately, Wyatt's sonnets reflect the tensions and anxieties of the courtier's life in the court of Henry VIII, who was a ruthless and unpredictable ruler. Wyatt's poetry, therefore, reflects the sophisticated stratagems for self-display and self-concealment that were so necessary at court (sonnets, incidentally, were often written not for publication but for public performance at court and/or private circulation). "Whoso List to Hunt," adapted from Petrarch's "Sonnet 190," is believed to have been written about Boleyn and the dangers involved in pursuing such a woman.

Slide #6. Sir Philip Sidney (unknown artist, 1576); Double portrait of Penelope and Dorothy Devereux (unknown artist, c. 1581)

By the time of Sidney's sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella, there are certain features that seem predominant in the love poetry produced in the Elizabethan court:

Class/Gender Tensions -- lust in a woman is a base instinct signifying low birth and breeding, whereas courtly women are naturally chaste and may yield sexually only out of compassion for the lover's suffering and for his loyal service. Lust in courtly men is natural but should be repressed. The woman is often unattainable (for Wyatt that was Anne Boleyn; for Sidney it was his married cousin, Penelope Devereux Rich--to see how Sidney puns on Rich's name, see sonnet #37). The debates (which include female voices) in Castiglione's The Courtier over questions  of who is more naturally virtuous (a man or a woman?) and whether or not the beauty of women is the cause of evil, are actually useful for seeing the tensions that inhabited this age regarding the proper roles for royal men and women and what was perceived as the "natural character" of men and women, which tensions naturally spilled over into construction of male-female relationships in the love poetry.

Neo-Platonism -- the romance sonnets of the conventions received a quasi-philosophical rationalization in the Platonic/Petrarchan idea that physical beauty, which we experience through the senses, is a limited manifestation of a higher or spiritual beauty (Plato's "the One") which exists in the soul and can only be experienced through an intellect that has passed through the senses (in a baptism of sensual/sexual fire, as it were) to a higher awareness. This idea is expounded upon in Book IV of Castiglione's The Courtier, where Peter Bembo outlines his notion of the "ladder" or "stair" of love, whereby the courtier, "through the virtue of imagination," has to fashion a notion of beauty within himself that is far greater than any apparent physical beauty, but he must also use his mistress's real, actual beauty as a stair "to climb up to another far higher than it"  (NAEL, p. 588).

Sublimation -- the typical sonnet lover, such as Sidney's Astrophil ("star-lover," but also phil/Philip--how clever, hmm?), often finds it difficult to rise above the level of physical desire--the men are hot and frustrated, the women are cool and remote, and the poems themselves offer a means of re-channeling erotic energies. [click here for Freud's definition of sublimation, and also a really cool site on terms used in psychoanalysis] The ideal woman often plays the role of a personified superego, checking the male libido, which sometime retires humbly or sometimes breaks into bitter reproach (as in Sidney's sonnet #31). The poet ultimately attempts to re-channel (i.e., sublimate) his frustrated erotic energies into various pursuits--poetry, more virtuous forms of love, self-abnegation, etc.

Elizabethan sonnets, it must be remembered, were usually written for a coterie audience, and Sidney's Astrophil and Stella is an elaborate game of literary masks, psychological risk-taking, and open secrets. The loosely linked succession of poems provides glimpses of identifiable characters and also offers a remarkably intimate portrait of the author's inner life. The reason that Sidney could do this without fear of being discovered was because he relied upon the well-established conventions of Petrarchan, Italian, French, and Spanish love poetry. These conventions gave to the sonnet sequence a loose framework of plot, marking the stages of the love relationship from its starting point in the lover's first attraction to the lady's beauty ("love at first sight," so to speak) through various trials, misunderstandings, sufferings, conflicts, all occasional encouragement, all leading to a conclusion in which nothing is usually resolved. The poet undertook to produce an anatomy of love, displaying its shifting and often contradictory states: hope and despair, tenderness and bitterness, exultation and modesty, bodily desire and spiritual transcendence. Although Sidney relied upon these conventions, he could also be highly original within the traditional sequence--see, especially, sonnet #s 45, 49, and 71.

Ultimately, great artists both work out of their tradition while also breaking and re-making the conventions of that tradition and that leads us, of course, to Shakespeare:

Slides #7 & #8. Recently discovered portrait of Shakespeare (John Sanders, 1603); Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, patron of Shakespeare and possibly the main "beloved" of Shakespeare's sonnets #1 - 126 (artist unknown, c. 1600)

Shakespeare addressed his greatest love poetry to a man--follow this link to see a facsimile of the dedication page of the Chalmers-Bridgewater copy of the 1609 Quarto edition of the Sonnets. If you want to know a little bit more about Henry Wriothesley and his connection to Shakespeare as well as the part he played in the 1601 Essex Rebellion which, if you can believe it, involved a performance of a certain Shakespeare play and leaving in a scene that Queen Elizabeth had censored, follow these links: "A Plague, a Patron, Poems, and a Plot" and  "Stage and State: The Censorship of Richard II."


Notes above mainly cobbled together, quoted directly, and paraphrased from M.H. Abrams et al., "The Sixteenth Century," in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1, 7th ed., pp. 479-82 and Alfred David et al., "Teaching the Sixteenth Century," in Teaching with The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., pp. 46-47. Eileen A. Joy added a few choice lines of her own.