Thank you Lawrence Stone, for making my evening. My family never followed this piece of wisdom–the family that slays together stays together–but there is still time to change!
I am admittedly coopting today’s blog for something unrelated (at least for now) to my dissertation hunt in order to test out some ideas for a side-project on which I’m currently working. I want to explore Douglas Bruster’s concept of embodied writing in the context of the pamphlet war that occurred over gender in the early seventeenth century. In 1615, Joseph Swetnam published The Araignment of Lewde, idle, forward, and unconstant women, a humorously invective pamphlet that induced a flurry of female responses two years later, beginning with Rachel Speght’s A Mouzell and followed by Esther Sowernam’s Esther hath hanged Haman (1617) and Constantia Munda’s The Worming of a mad Dog (1617) later in that same year. Though Speght publishes under her own name, both Ester Sowernam and Constantia Munda are clearly pseudonyms, which will be of some importance later on in this discussion. Each woman directly addresses Swetnam and responds to specific moments from his pamphlet, and they also recognize and build on each other’s arguments, establishing a public conversation about gender.
This polemical conversation was enabled in part by the changing nature of print culture at the beginning of the 17th century. Bruster describes the advent of “embodied writing” at the end of the 16th century, in which works began to address specific persons and bodies in print. He defines embodied writing as “a kind of text and a textual practice that, increasingly during the 1590s, put resonant identities and physical forms on the printed page. Embodied writing aggressively drew real and imaginary figures into print for potentially indecorous handling” (50). Authors became associated with their works almost as an extension of their own bodies/selves. This tradition certainly has earlier precedents, but Bruster notices a marked increase in such styles of writing, particularly in the Martin Marprelate pamphlets from the 1590s and the War of the Theaters in the early 1600s.
Given the way each of the pamphleteers in the Swetnam debate addressed the other participants within their writing, Bruster’s concept of embodied writing might be a helpful way to theorize or understand the interactions. The pamphlets were highly reactionary, and on the one hand they clearly align with Bruster’s notion of embodied writing as the female respondents put Swetnam on the printed page in order to argue against him, and a later anonymously-published play, Swetnam the Woman-Hater (1620), completes this process by putting Swetnam’s body on the stage. The conversation was enabled at least in part by a print culture in which a literary work can become an extension of the author, to which other writers will then respond. On the other hand, Sowernam and Munda also trouble the concept of embodied writing by writing pseudonymously. Though not necessarily incongruous with Bruster’s discussion, since he indicates that “imaginary figures” or literary figures are included in the “bodies” being put into text, writing pseudonymously obscures the authors’ identities even as their texts bring Swetnam’s identity into focus. In that sense, writing under a pseudonym is disembodied writing.
Sowernam fashions a literary persona for herself at the beginning of her pamphlet by describing the initial dinner conversation with friends that initiated her writing, but using a pseudonym prevents the full embodiment of the author within the text, or at least prevents the creation of the literary Ester Sowernam from being connected with a specific authorial body outside of that text. Writing under a pseudonym mirrors Swetnam’s own authorial choice with the first publication of his pamphlet under the name Thomas Tell-troth, a proverbial and not uncommon pseudonym in the sixteenth century, but her name choice plays not on his pseudonym but on his actual name, “Sowernam” being the sour form of Swe[e]tnam. Her literary identity is, thus, completely bound up with Swetnam’s actual identity, building a fictional persona in reaction to an actual person.
Swetnam also becomes fictionalized as his identity off of the page transforms into a figurative persona within the pamphlets of the respondents. Swetnam the Woman-Hater illustrates this most clearly, because Swetnam goes by the name Misogynos in the play as a means of protecting himself and hiding his identity. His character represents both a common literary figure—the misogynist—but also a specific person, blurring the historical Swetnam with the fictional character on the stage. Misogynos’ identity clearly aligns with Swetnam’s from the first act, when he establishes a fencing school in Sicily, as he had done in England, a reference to the real Swetnam’s presumed authorship of the 1617 fencing manual, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence. I’ve crafted a graphic illustrating the transformation Swetnam goes, or at least what the transformation looks like in my mind:
Swetnam was a historical person, but the Swetnam represented in his own pamphlet and subsequent responses merges his identity with other cultural associations relating to misogynist pamphleteers, until he becomes both the figure of a misogynist and himself, especially in Swetnam the Woman Hater, where Swetnam’s body is represented by the body of the actor. Swetnam as a figure/character in each pamphlet response depends on how he was characterized in previous pamphlets, such that the Swetnam represented in Sowernam’s and Munda’s texts builds on how he was represented by Speght, and the play draws on both Swetnam’s characterization in The Arraignment and his characterization in the responses.
I’m going to draw to a hasty close, since these thoughts are still nascent and I don’t want this post to get too long. Plus, I want to give you a reason to read my fuller conclusions if it’s ever published, so consider this post a cliff hanger. Here are my conclusions about embodied writing and the pamphlet debate in one quick kernel: A changing print culture that depended on best-selling authors and literary figures for commercial success fueled the pamphlet debate as participants did not simply address issues of gender in an abstract or theoretical sense, but they specifically responded to the people/figures who made those arguments, staging a public debate in print. Swetnam metamorphosed from person to literary persona in both his pamphlet and the subsequent responses such that he becomes figured within the text and then later represented on the stage by the body of an actor, while the bodies of the female respondents somehow resisted such representation and caricaturization.
My next task is to figure out the significance of all of this!
I have now passed my field exam (a qualifying oral exam), which explains my absence from this blog over the past few weeks (cramming, examining, celebrating, and so on). Now that my exam is passed, however, the only task I have left is to write my dissertation, starting with the prospectus. As you might expect, this prospect fills me with fear and trembling, so rather than exploring a potential dissertation topic, in today’s post I’m going to address some of the reasons I find selecting a topic so difficult.
- I need to find a topic that I truly love and feel passionate about, because I will likely be spending the next ten years with this topic, between first writing the dissertation, then (ideally) getting a tenure track job, turning the dissertation into a book, and (again, ideally) getting tenured. If I don’t love it, the next ten years will be pretty miserable. That said, in talking with many of my colleagues who are a few years ahead of me in the process, they don’t actually like their dissertations anymore, largely due to the agony of the process. What this means for my dissertation selection process is that I need to find a topic that I truly love but would be comfortable hating, with the sense of loss that inevitably occurs when something one loves becomes repugnant.
- I hope that either my subject matter or my approach will be current and at least as hip as is possible in the academy. However, whatever is trending right now might be passé by the time I go on the job market a few years from now, so I actually need to choose something that I think will be current in the future, or select a topic that can easily be put in the transformed or related to the hottest academic trend while still being hirable. Daring, but not too daring.
- That said, I’m getting mixed messages about what is and is not current. For example, I’ve heard variously that single-author dissertations are an old, outdated model that no one does anymore, and that single-author dissertations are making a resurgence due the to time-to-degree pressure put on PhD students, and I should really consider it. Which is it? I would love feedback from readers about this question, specifically, so I’ve set up a reader poll at the end of this post.
- There is such a thing as being too correct, which is something I learned from the field exam process. My dissertation need to be idiosyncratic and really foreground my interests and strengths, and perhaps be just a skosh unusual, but not too unusual because, as previously mentioned, I do need a job someday.
- Of course, my biggest hang-up is myself. The fact that I’m writing a meta-post about dissertation anxiety rather than exploring dissertation topics is fairly telling with regard to my current level of enthusiasm. Procrastination is no longer a luxury I can afford—it’s time to start the dissertation! Look for a profusion of bad, buried ideas in the coming weeks as I do some preliminary research and exploring!
Today’s bad idea derives from a series of conversations I had with my former roommate, who is from Ireland, about common stereotypes held about Irish people. The offensive title of this post is, fortunately, not original, but, sadly, it comes from an actual show I saw advertised earlier this year in the Somerville Scout, the quarterly magazine that my city puts out. My roommate pointed at the advertisement and remarked on how prevalent stereotypes about the Irish still are in both America and England. The fact that a show is entitled “The Irish, and How They Got that Way” should perhaps be a good indication that the Irish are often viewed as Other, or as something to be explained. My roommate also remarked with horror on the time she went into the little Irish store down the road from us—according to the store’s merchandise, all Irish people wear wool sweaters, might be leprechauns, and definitely have a lot of shamrocks in their houses. Given these conversations, I of course sent my roommate this little gem from John Marston’s The Malcontent as soon as I came across it:
This admittedly comic quip from Malevole is immediately left behind in the midst of other witty banter, and the only other appearance Ireland/Irishmen make in the play is in a song sung by Malevole and Maquerelle. “The Irishman for [whiskey]” is a part of a longer string of national associations/insults in this song that includes the French, Dutch, and Danish, too (5.2.3). Other than these two brief moments, the Irish don’t make any other appearances in this play, which is about the deposed Duke Altofront, and how he poses as a discontented, disgruntled courtly figure in order to regain his throne. However, the cast-aside comic remarks about the Irish perhaps indicate the way Ireland and Irish people are treated in much of early modern English literature, and drama in particular: the butt of every joke (or, at least, every joke that isn’t about the French). Given the tumultuous political relationship England had with Ireland, it isn’t surprising that Irish people become the Other and, as such, help reify English national interests. Ireland at once features prominently in early modern English literature yet hovers at its periphery. Literature written in the late 16th and early 17th centuries is replete with references to the Irish made only in passing, as a source of comic relief, or symbolically or allegorically.
Of course, the Irish weren’t always portrayed negatively in early modern literature. For example, Captain MacMorris in Shakespeare’s Henry V, despite his heavy and comical accent, is loyal to King Henry and a valiant soldier. Beyond MacMorris, the entire play can be viewed (and has been viewed) as an allegory for England’s involvement in Ireland in the late 16th century. In his book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, James Shapiro addresses the impact of the conflict on Shakespeare in the four plays he is believed to have written or drafted in 1599 (Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and the first draft of Hamlet).
The Irish, and how they got that way in English literature, is not an especially viable topic, because it has already been covered in numerous settings (e.g. Shapiro’s book, studies on the stage Irishman that emerges in the later seventeenth century, or the articles and books written on Book V of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene). However, what interests me about the quips from The Malcontent is not necessarily the history of the Irish war and the tumultuous England-Ireland relationship, but the way in which a group of people is ventriloquized, and how a historical event is so thoroughly addressed by not addressing it. The Irish are not the only group of people to be used to reinforce English national interests, to be mentioned comically but not seriously. I doubt that Ireland will ever form a portion of my dissertation, but I suspect that learning to look at negative spaces—where a topic is deliberately not addressed or only comically dismissed—will be something I will likely find quite useful in my upcoming dissertation endeavors, particular as it relates to the female body. Though I’m burying this idea, I’m going to hang onto my spade…
In keeping with both the graveyard theme and the goal of coming up with a dissertation idea, today I’m contemplating the relationship between female sexuality and death.
In Milton’s masque Comus , two brothers worriedly discuss the potential harm that could befall their sister, who is lost on her own in the woods. However, the elder brother reminds the younger that she has a secret power that will protect her: chastity.
‘Tis chastity, my brother, chastity.
She that has that, is clad in complete steel (lines 420-1)
The elder brother imputes a protective power to their sister’s bodily chastity, indicating that it will serve as a suit of iron in lieu of other protective weapons. The elder brother then describes what the horrors that occur when a woman isn’t chaste. The sexual “defilement” of a virgin (woman) leads her soul to be “clotted by contagion” and to lose “the divine property of [its] first being” (467, 469), so much so that the soul is leery of leaving the body at death:
Such are those thick and gloomy shadows damp
Oft seen in charnel-vaults, and sepulchers
Lingering, and sitting by a new-made grave,
As loath to leave the body that it loved,
And linked itself by carnal sensuality
To a degenerate and degraded state (470-5)
Although chastity functions as a suit of armor and protects the virtuous virgin from physical harm, giving into temptation will corrupt not just her body but also her soul, so much so that it will haunt her grave after death. The soul is loath to leave the body because it fears going to the spiritual realm in its corrupted state. An unchaste woman, by this equation, is essentially a walking charnel house.
In sum: chastity = suit of armor. Lack of chastity = ghost.
Similarly, in Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam , Constobarbus describes the wicked Salome as “a painted sepulchre, / That is both fair, and vilely foul at once: / Though on her outside graces garnish her, / Her mind is filled with worse than rotten bones. (II.iv.325-8). Salome has a beautiful exterior but a corrupted interior. The sepulchre is a powerful image occurring throughout the play, illustrating the frequent discrepancy between outward appearance and inward virtue. Though not an exact parallel with the elder brother’s description of an unchaste woman in Comus, both instances relate a women’s sexuality to death and, more specifically, to the graveyard.
Whereas for Milton and Cary, only virtue-gone-sour results in the body as a charnel house for a rotten soul, in carpe diem poems, the chaste body becomes the grave. Marvell’s well-known “To His Coy Mistress” [ca. 1650s] describes what will happen to the lovers if they wait to consummate their love:
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace. (lines 25-32)
For Marvell, insisting upon chastity will ultimately lead a woman’s beauty to decay and her virgin body to be consumed by worms. Because chastity leads to lack of reproduction, it also leads to death, with no continuation of beauty.
In a quick conclusion, both chastity and lack of chastity are linked with death and burial, and whether chastity or its lack is the problem depends on the speaker and context. Either way, a woman’s sexuality in this time period seems to have grave consequences.
Why this topic ultimately is ultimately untenable:
Although perhaps more plausible than the early modern submarine, graveyard imagery is somewhat ubiquitous in early modern literature and certainly not limited to discussions of chastity. Thanks to the double meaning of “die” as both death and orgasm, the relationship between death and sex was fairly strong, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a woman’s body was always the grave. Shakespeare uses similar imagery when encouraging the young man in his sonnet sequences to reproduce, and describes the young man as the “grave where buried love doth live” (Sonnet XXXI, line 9). Nonetheless, the connection between a woman’s body and the grave is a recurring pattern and one that continues in later periods as well (think of Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations). Though too broad and tenuous of a connection to pursue as a dissertation topic, at least at this point, it certainly merits some exploration, I think. Feel free in the comments to post other examples where graveyard imagery is employed in relation to a woman’s sexuality, chastity, etc.
Thank you, 1960s, for either refusing to gloss indelicate expressions, or assuming everyone already understands their meaning. From The Works of Thomas Middleton, vol 4, edited by A. H. Bullen, New York: AMS Press, 1964. Pg 77.
Today’s buried idea is, admittedly, not a legitimate dissertation idea. It would, however, be hilarious and very meta to write a dissertation on funny annotations editors insert into early modern texts. This little joy comes from Ben Jonson, Three Comedies, edited by Michael Jamieson, Penguin edition, 1978.