Monday, July 30, 2012

Monday Madwoman: Zanche

Gasparo. Thou art my task, black fury.

Zanche. I have blood
As red as either of theirs: wilt drink some?
'Tis good for the falling-sickness. I am proud:
Death cannot alter my complexion,
For I shall ne'er look pale. (The White Devil 5.6)

Above: A composite of Zipporah and Moses's Ethiopian wife from Jacob Jordaens, Moses and His Ethiopian Wife, c. 1650

The name Zanche may derive from Xanthippe, the "shrewish" wife of Socrates. The Greek "xanthe" means yellow or blonde, and may hint that Zanche is of mixed race, making her a devil in disguise too in the color symbolism of the play (cf. Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark). "The generic name Zanche/Zanthia functions as the Jacobean stage equivalent of the American diminutive Sambo. Four out of the five bondwomen so named follow the lustful immoral prototype established by Marston in Sophonisba" (1987 article, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol. 17). Her skin color is frequently mentioned, of course; she is called a Moor, a witch, a gypsy. Essentially, she is not white: she is other, subaltern. At the same time, she fits well in the circle of illicit lovers, schemers, and desperate villains that surround her.

Zanche. It is a dowry,
Methinks, should make that sun-burnt proverb false,
And was the Ethiop white. (The White Devil 5.3)

Zanthia, in Marston's Wonder of Women (1606) was her prototype, the first "Moorish" waiting-woman onstage in the early modern era, and possibly the first early modern theatrical representation of a black woman, according to Anthony Gerard Bartholomy (Black Face, Maligned Race). Another black maid named Zanthia figures in Beaumont and Fletcher's Knight of Malta, although she is in opposition to her white mistress Oriana.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Duchess of Malfi - Architecture

Liane Lefaivre describes “the single most extraordinary feature” of the medieval Hypnerotomachia Poliphili as “the series of buildings and gardens that the hero keeps encountering throughout the narrative” (8).  For Lefaivre, the eroticism in this abundant architecture challenges the desacralized body of the Christian tradition, privileging the sensuality of architecture, form, and actuality.  The Duchess of Malfi similarly abounds with architectural imagery, from pyramids and alabaster statues to chambers, coffins, palaces, and the famous glasshouse (2.2).  However, in Duchess, this architectural imagery participates in the devalued body, so easily destroyed and so little regarded. 

The duchess herself rebels against this devaluation of bodily desire, but a contrary thread in the play suggests that only when the walls of the body have been broken down by death can the soul be set free.  As Bosola taunts her, “Our bodies are weaker than those paper prisons boys use to keep flies in – more contemptible since ours is to preserve earthworms.  Didst thou ever see a lark in a cage?  Such is the soul in the body.  This world is like her little turf of grass; and the heaven o’er our heads, like her looking glass, only gives us a miserable knowledge of the small compass of our prison” (4.2.124-30).  According to this philosophy, freed from the body by violent death that literally strangles the breath from her, the duchess translates into the cassandrine Eccho that rings from her burial grounds near ancient ruins “very like my wife’s voice,” as Antonio notes (5.3.27).

Images of entrapment and encasement pen the duchessin  throughout the play, just as familial strictures confine her in a rigid role of ducal widow.  Her role as a widow plays a part in this confinement, as the duchess seeks to marry again for her own pleasure.  As though once more a young virgin to be wed, she has no control over her marital prospects; her brothers seek to circumscribe her movement within the bounds of propriety.  She herself condemns this philosophy, declaring amorously to Antonio, “This is flesh and blood, sir; / ‘Tis not the figure cut in alabaster / Kneels at my husband’s tomb” (1.1.454-56).  Though man and wife were one entity in law, the Italians do not practice sati.  The duchess has passions and desires because she is not yet bodiless.

Essentially materialist, The Duchess of Malfi seriously undermines ideals of bodily mortification, submission, and purification, just as the sensual voyage of the Hypnerotomachia recasts the journey into abstraction of the Christian Commedia.  When Bosola declares, “Mine is another voyage,” he sets himself in opposition to the world of men living in fear of death (5.5.123).  He passes the bounds of death fearlessly, like the duchess before him.  

The brothers who seek to enforce societal strictures on the duchess also suffer from their imprisonment in these grooves of thought.  Bosola, moving from vicious assassin to a Hamlet-like revenger by play’s end, pronounces judgment thus on the Cardinal: “I do glory / That thou, which stood’st like a huge pyramid / Begun upon a large and ample base, / Shalt end in a little point, a kind of nothing” (5.5.91-94).  This architectural metaphor encapsulates not only the Ozymandian arrogance of the Cardinal and Ferdinand, but, in its shape, precisely traces the lineaments of their malfeasant psychology.  Grandiose and fatuous embodiments of Medici and Mafia strains, these whited sepulchres prate of reputation and church doctrine while committing various sins and crimes.
Bosola’s materialist coda – “We are only like dead walls or vaulted graves / That, ruined, yield no echo” (5.5.115-16) – contradicting, as it does, the Eccho of 5.3 – celebrates again, at the very end, with the authority of a Hamlet or Lear, the essential sensual body of Duchess.  The architectural body is a symbol of death and lifelessness, against which the Duchess struggles throughout, for example.  With its various false bodies (alabaster figure or spiritual Echo), The Duchess of Malfi defies the typical body-soul dichotomy to suggest a deeply materialist understanding of the universe.


Lefaivre, Liane.  Leon Battista Alberti’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: Re-Cognizing the Architectural Body in the Early Italian Renaissance.  Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A.C. Swinburne - Virtue and Vice

I discovered Swinburne's criticism years ago in St. Anne's college library, and it added to my admiration for his poetry (check out Edith Sitwell's collection, if you haven't already). Here he is on Lear:

"Here is no need of the Eumenides, children of Night everlasting; for here is very Night herself."

Yet he continues:

"As it is, Shakespeare has gone down perforce among the blackest and the basest things of nature to find anything so equally exceptional in evil as properly to counterbalance and make bearable the excellence and extremity of their goodness. No otherwise could either angel have escaped the blame implied in the very attribute and epithet of blameless. But where the possible depth of human hell is so foul and unfathomable as it appears in the spirits which serve as foils to these, we may endure that in them the inner height of heaven should be no less immaculate and immeasurable."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Not a Warrior Princess

With all the "warrior princesses" lately -- Brave, The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman, Game of Thrones, Laurell K. Hamilton's groundbreaking Anita Blake, and Joss Whedon's recent ringside recitative of Buffy v. the Black Widow (the final straw) -- I've returned to thinking about the death of Webster's duchess.

(Image above of Daenerys, "Mother of Dragons")

I understand her death as triumphant.  Of course, she is assassinated.  However, she famously dies still asserting her power in her identity (not, apparently, in Brecht and Auden's adaptation, oddly enough). There is a Stoic or Christ-like quality to her death, and even, before that, to her mortification.  The act of remarriage itself, though secret, was a triumph over her brothers' obsessive control.  I even see the flight to Loreto as triumphant, because it is a return to the Holy House of the Mother.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Emilia Galotti

Emilia Galotti: Ein Trauerspeil in Funf Aufzugen by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, an influential early German Romantic work (a copy of it lies open beside the hero of Goethe's Young Werther when he commits suicide) and adaptation of John Webster's Appius and Virginia, was first drafted in 1758 and revised in 1767-1770, finally debuting on stage in 1772. Lessing is believed by critics to have been influenced by the 1750 Spanish tragedy Virginia by Don Agustín Gabriel de Montiano y Luyando, which he read in the French translation of 1754. Emilia Galotti is considered Lessing's most mature work and a major statement of his dramatic ethos. It was a critique of tyrannical princes, yet Emilia's response to the prince's advances is ambiguous and the play emphasizes the domestic tragedy, including a mother, Claudia, for Lessing's "burgerliche Virginia." While Montiano's Virginia chooses for herself whether or not to inform her father and fiance of her danger, Emilia herself (like Webster's Virginia) instigates her death, ordering her father to kill her rather than let her suffer moral degradation in an affair with the Prince.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

John Ford

The primal bonds of family unite young lovers in John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. Opposed to father, state, and church (see Giovanni's atheistic/agnostic comments), as well as the possible exogamous marriages for the young heroine, the brother-sister lovers' violation of the sexual taboo prohibiting incest participates in the play's overall anarchist bent. This bleak tale foregrounds incest with a sympathy almost unique to the period, and so the references to “blood” that proliferate in the text signify both the too-close bonds of kinship between the young lovers and the violence endemic to the plot.

This textual “bloodiness” literally problematizes incest: too-close DNA. Giovanni's early reference to the womb raises the issue of the Elizabethans' view of twin incest in the womb. Giovanni speaks of the first to the Friar: “Say that we had one father, say one womb / (Curse to my joys!) gave us both life and birth; / Are we not therefore each to other bound / So much the more by nature? By the links of blood, of reason?” (1.1.28-32).1 Shelly Errington, in her study of Southeast Asian tribal societies' beliefs that twins had incest in the womb, points out that, for royals, such births did not carry the same stigma as for commoners: “Incest or its compromise act, close marriage, in short, is a statement about status” (403). Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene refers to the same belief: “These twinnes, men say, (a thing far passing thought) / Whiles in their mothers wombe enclosd they were, / Ere they into the lightsome world were brought, / In fleshly lust were mingled both yfere” (Book 3, Canto 7). Giovanni and Annabella, born of the same parents (father and womb), still break an early modern taboo in their sexual relationship, though not in the womb.

Blood suggests equality in other manners, as the gentlemanly suitors use it as a term of rank and social status. Soranzo tells his rival, previous to an insult, “May be thou art / My equal in thy blood” (1.2.39-40). The young bloods desiring to gain some of Florio's property in the form of his daughter's dowry engage in this verbal (and otherwise) jousting to indicate the importance of their evolutionary imperatives. They focus on exogamy, suggesting in contrast to Giovanni's subversive argument that bloodlines need diversity to remain healthy. By turn, Florio, in his rebuke to the suitors, exclaims, “Have you not other places but my house / To vent the spleen of your disordered bloods?” (1.2.24-25). To him, their duels reflect poorly on their nature (their bloods), although, to the suitors, such duels necessarily weed out the inferior.

The violent action that concludes the play also enacts “bloodiness” - the literal spilling of blood and heating of blood in anger that follows the revelation of the incest (too-close blood relations) that has subverted the health of Annabella's exogamous marriage (to promulgate bloodlines). For example, upon learning of Annabella's incest, Soranzo exclaims, “All my blood / Is fired in swift revenge” (4.3.149-50). Giovanni, like his young rivals, also enacts “bloodiness” violently, as does Annabella, only upon her own body, writing a letter in her blood to Giovanni (5.3.31-32). Annabella enacts the ideal of early modern femininity in her repentance, particularly in her acceptance of guilt and shame (compare to Giovanni's defiance!). Annabella internalizes the violence of bloodiness: she takes no vengeance on others.

Blood, therefore, in an incestuous linguistic twinning, metaphorically represents not only existing social structures (the marriage mart), but also the anarchic drive that threatens them (the incest). Giovanni claims for his forbidden love the ultimate power in a blend of incestuous passion and avenging fury: “Here, here, Soranzo, trimmed in reeking blood / That triumphs over death, proud in the spoil / Of love and vengeance!” (5.6.10-12). The triumph of sterile celibacy over fertile sexuality in the conclusion, as the Cardinal claims the goods and possessions of the dead lovers, all of them, and the father too, enacts the ultimate tragedy. Blood thins.


Errington, Shelly. “Incestuous Twins and the House Societies of Insular Southeast Asia.” Cultural Anthropology 2.4 (Nov. 1987): 403-444.

Ford, John. 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology. Ed. David Bevington et al. New York: Norton, 2002. 1911-67.

Spenser, Edmund. The Complete Works in Verse and Prose of Edmund Spenser. London: Grosart, 1882. .

Monday, July 9, 2012

Monday Madwoman: Edith Craig

Edith "Edy" Ailsa Geraldine Craig was the daughter and frequent collaborator of the great Shakespearean actress Ellen Terry (they are pictured together at left). She was a silent film star, a costume designer, an actress, and a theatrical pioneer. She was also a memoirist and museum curator at Smallhythe, her mother's home.  For a time, she was involved in publishing and the feminist bookstore and cultural center the International Suffrage Shop.

In 1919, her Pioneer Players performed Susan Glaspell's feminist classic Trifles (1916), and she oversaw two successful performances in October 1925 of The White Divel at the Scala Theater for the Renaissance Theatre Society. The play had not previously been revived since 1682, according to the production notes.