A reviewof of Phillipa Berry’s Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen

A painting of Elizabeth I

A painting of Elizabeth I

While reading academic literature can be very engaging at times, it can also be extremely dull.  Sadly, in the case of Phillipa Berry’s Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen, the latter is the case.  The books sets a clear goal on the first page of the introduction, suggesting that: “with its assimilation of Petrarchanism and Neoplatonism, Renaissance absolutism adopted a potentially unorthodox model of gender relations, whose inner contradictions became especially apparent in literary representations of an unmarried queen as an object of sublimated desire” and that perhaps most “importantly, the idea of feminine chastity which was emphasized by Petrarch and the Renaissance Neoplatonists acquired a new and unexpected significance when associate with a woman who was possessed of both political and spiritual authority” (Berry, 1).  The assessment is true, and Berry makes some interesting points, but it takes entirely too long to get around to some of them, and many points are hammered in scores of times throughout the monograph.

 

Though Chris Hansen would likely have had Petrarch arrested for trying to lay a 14 year old girl today, in the Elizabethan period his lusting after a pubescent girl was considered inspiring.

Though Chris Hansen would likely have had Petrarch arrested for trying to lay a 14 year old girl today, in the Elizabethan period his lusting after a pubescent girl was considered inspiring.

The first two chapters seem to stall.  Elizabeth I is hardly mentioned in them and instead Berry discusses the context of courtly love and how Dante and Petrarch challenged and changed the conventions, which is important to establishing a context for later chapters (though Dante is not drawn upon much throughout the rest of the monograph). The second chapter focuses on French absolutism, which is merely shown to contrast English absolutism and doesn’t offer much in the way of the conversation on Elizabeth that could have been said inside of a paragraph.

 

Throughout the rest of the monograph Berry discusses several examples of iconography relating to Elizabeth I.  Diana and Cynthia are a primary focus and as Berry articulately exemplifies saw dramatic shifts throughout Elizabeth’s’ reign.  Linking Elizabeth with the sun and later the moon is also present, as well as with the biblical notion of Wisdom/Sophia.  But there is a degree of repetition in these chapters (which can perhaps fairly be expected in academic writing, though that doesn’t make it any more engaging).  We hear a number of times how the beloved served as a bridge to the spiritual world, for example, but I felt wanting in an explanation as to how the men perceived this.  And if I didn’t know better, I’d say that Berry was receiving some sort of remuneration for every time she employed the world Neoplatonic.  It seemed like there was not a paragraph in the monograph where that word didn’t appear at least twice.

 

 

There is also something lacking in the conversation.  First, a contextualization of Neoplatonic and some other phrases Berry uses would have been helpful to bring a focus to the work.  While it is fair to assume that the reader of academic writing is familiar with a variety of terms, there are also terms, like Neoplatonic, which can mean very different things to different people.  It is also a very board branch of philosophy so a clarification on what specifically Berry is speaking to would have helped the work.  Berry took the time (perhaps too much time) to speak to the Petrarchan tradition (which wasn’t even done as thoroughly as it could have been) and also absolutism (though she focuses on the French interpretation), but other key terms are not explored.  There is also a lack of exploration in works which may challenge how chastity is perceived.  Plays like The Honest Whore, The Honest Whore: Part 2 and Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, all present women who are virtuous despite the fact that they are not chaste, and each was written at the height of Elizabeth’s reign after her chastity had been heavily romanticized.

 

Nobody loved kissing Elizabeth I's ass more than Edmund Spenser, so it is fitting for Berry to touch upon his work.

Nobody loved kissing Elizabeth I’s ass more than Edmund Spenser, so it is fitting for Berry to touch upon his work.

It would have also been interesting to explore how the super-lunar and sub-lunar played out in the poetry of Shakespeare and John Donne.  Berry actually has a quote from Donne on the first page of the monograph, but then fails to really explore his impact (though his writing was more influenced by Elizabethan conceits as he wrote after her reign).  Shakespeare’s sonnets can certainly be seen in working in much the same way, while elements of chastity are present in works like Measure for Measure and remain unexplored.  It is perhaps unfair to hold such exclusions against Berry if these were not areas that interested her, but they are areas which many readers of Elizabethan academics are interested in so it would have been nice to see them explored a little more, especially since Berry references Donne at the onset and includes Shakespeare in the title of one of her chapters (there is actually less than three pages on Shakespeare in that chapter whilst the other authors featured in that chapter receive no less than half a dozen pages or more).

 

 

Kate Blanchett, who brought Elizabeth I to life for contemporary viewers in two films based on her reign.

Cate Blanchett, who brought Elizabeth I to life for contemporary viewers in two films based on her reign.

Considering how interesting a figure Elizabeth I, and how much she influenced the literary works produced during her reign, it seems like an academic book focusing on her influence would be highly interesting.  Berry though, perhaps, over reaches.  She tries to cover too much ground in too short a space.  She includes too many authors.  Spencer’s The Faerei Queene, for example, warrants a monograph twice as long Berry’s while Shakespeare’s contribution to the cult of Elizabeth is even more extensive; yet Berry tries to fit both in a chapter less than thirty pages long along with three other authors.  It is simply too ambitious a task.  There also seems to be a lack of focus and organization.  The chapter on French absolutism does not speak much to chastity, and many of the other chapters stray away from it for pages on end.  There is a disjoint between chapters and a lack of chronological sensibility as well.  In one chapter, which speaks to the 1580’s, Berry notes how military setbacks encouraged a more contemplative approach, and in the next chapter claims that a militant approach based on action was required.  This chapter spoke to the 1570’s.  It seems like perhaps the order was reversed.  The chapters read like essays that shared a similar theme at times, but did not work in unison and often explored the same terrain.  Sweeping statements, like claims the work of John Lyly is misogynistic, are also problematic as they are not backed up.  Berry suggests that because Lyly demonizes two female villains in one play, that the presentation is misogynistic, despite the fact that in the same play the protagonist is a female who is elevated, a common theme in Lyly’s work that often satirizes the masculine realm as well.  The work demonstrate Berry’s understanding on some subjects, but also displays a bias in others and a lack of focus and organization.

 

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Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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