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Incest and Agency in
Elizabeth’s England

Page 145

shared with them a cultural concern for the problematic status of Eliza-
beth’s anomalous female agency within Elizabethan society. Named for
Elizabeth, the epic could not escape concern with the disruption of the
Tudor traYc in women which her female sovereignty posed her culture.


Unlike the heroes of the other books of The Faerie Queene, in Britomart
in Book III does not appear to visit the Templar center of her particular
“virtue,” and therefore receives no direct vision of that which empowers
her. In this (as in her sex) she is anomalous. The Redcrosse Knight is
treated to a vision of the New Jerusalem in the House of Holiness in
Book I. Guyon and Arthur both spend time at the House of Alma and
there read their respective histories in Book II. In Book V, Britomart does
have a vision in Isis Church, which articulates the appropriate dynamics
of the virtue of Justice, but the vision makes clear how her power limits
Justice, and for that virtue Artegall and not Britomart is the central war-
rior. Even Calidore is allowed a brief glimpse of the power of poetic form
in Book VI before he inadvertently destroys it. The anomalous form of
Book III makes it most like the hero-less, more “Ariostan” interlace of
Book IV, where the marriage of the Medway and the Thames might be
considered the allegorical “core,” but it is a site that no individual charac-
ter visits.

The Garden of Adonis, in Book III has a “Templar” experience at its
center, but Britomart does not go to the Garden. Indeed, it is diYcult to
specify the relationship of this allegorical essence to the virtue of chastity
the heroine represents. Of course, Britomart is elsewhere in the presence
of the myth of Venus and Adonis, for it is represented on the tapestries
she views at Castle Joyeous, so it is clear that the story of Adonis—both
in malo and in bono—has a great deal to do with whatever we are to un-
derstand the chastity of Book III to be about.

It is possible to draw many Wliations between the titular character
and the Garden of Adonis; among them, the garden points to the fact that
Britomart’s chastity is not to remain virginal but to embody a married
chasteness that includes within it the full force of sexual desire: the garden
is a setting for the eroticism that powers the eternally fecundating cycles
of sexuality. But the most direct textual link between Britomart and the
myth of Adonis is far more problematic than any shared sense of the

136 Chapter 5

Page 146

philosophical centrality, if not the virtual sacredness, of sexual activity.
This link bears directly on the problem of incest that haunts active female
desire, a monstrous overblown desire emblemized by the incestuous
giantess Argante. That the text chooses to contain the threat with comedy
only heightens the fact of its presence at the origin of Britomart’s erotic

In canto ii, the narrator gives us a Xashback to the origin of Brito-
mart’s quest in faerieland to Wnd Artegall; in this backstory we are treated
to a comic view of the heroine’s falling in love with an image in a looking
glass. The comic tone of this fairy tale moment is made obvious by the
bathos of the language used to Wgure forth what ought to be a magical
and mysterious enchantment:

The damzell well did vew his personage
And liked well, ne further fastned not,
But went her way; ne her vnguilty age
Diud weene, unwares, that her vnlucky lot
Lay hidden in the bottom of the pot;
Of hurt unwisht most daunger doth redound:
But the false Archer, which that arrow shot,
So slyly, that she did not fele the wound,
Did smyle full smoothly at her weetless wofull stound. (III.ii.26)

In essence, Britomart, having seen the desired Wgure in the mirror,
takes contagion from the fact that “the faire visage” is now “written in her
heart.” This process of writing on or in a heart later becomes more tragi-
cally literalized in the baroque conceit of Amoret’s torture, which Brito-
mart must overcome in the Wnal moment of her quest in Book III. So this
earlier comic moment may be seen as the origin of that knightly challenge.
But while the plight of Amoret is delivered with all high seriousness, this
one is funny: “lot” and “pot” is too bathetic a rhyme for rendering Mer-
lin’s world of glass to leave its high Arthurian solemnity undeXated.

Linda Gregerson has analyzed Britomart’s gaze into the specular sur-
face in her father’s closet as an originary moment for the “Reformation”
subject; that is, she takes this incident (as well as Eve’s gazing into Narcis-
sus’s pool in Book V of Paradise Lost) to be the inaugurating moment for
a “Protestant” subject. Making reference to Jacques Lacan’s theory of the
mirror phase to underscore the way that these moments are originary for
early modern subject formation, Gregerson identiWes the desire revealed to
Britomart as the tricky negotiation of relations between a fantasized whole
self and the equally idealized other.5

Spenser’s Britomart 137

Page 289

work on monarchy and incest occupies an even deeper foundational
place. I do know for sure that had it not been for the anonymous reader
of Bruce’s book manuscript who suggested Jack Goody’s argument
about incest and the medieval church, I would probably not have found
that pivotal argument. Michael Vennera Wrst saw the windmill on the
frontispiece to the Urania—I had never even seen it there before. Vin
Nardizzi alerted me to the importance of Judith Butler’s Antigone to my
project. And these are just the students whose speciWc contributions I
can remember. I know I owe a general debt of gratitude to Kim Hall,
Wendy Wall, Juliet Fleming, Julie Solomon, Jennifer Morrison, Susan
Iwaniscwu, Greg Bredbeck, and JeV Masten, who have taught me far
more than I could ever hope to teach them.

There is a whole cadre of people whose entire profession is to help
scholars. Martin Kaufman, Keeper of Western Manuscripts at Duke
Humphries Library at the Bodleian, showed me the embroidery-covered
book eleven year-old Elizabeth Tudor made. He spread it out for me
among its tissue papers, opened as many pages as I asked for, and
allowed me to touch it. He gave me, as librarians are supposed to do, a
lot of bibliography for the volume. And he pretended all the while that
I might know—or come to know—more about it than he.

A half world away at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Cali-
fornia, Susie Krasnoo and Romaine Ahlstrom helped to make available
the largest books I have ever read, spread out for me on two whole tables
in the reading room so that I could compare all the fronstispieces and
emblems which made their way into Chapter 6. Without the amazing
resources of the Huntington, I could never have begun to make the
argument I have about the title page to Wroth’s romance, and I will be
forever grateful for the sublime moments I spent there in autumn 1999.

Rather diVerent versions of some of the chapters have appeared in
print over the past years; I am grateful to the following people and
presses for permission to reuse some of the material they published:

“Sidney and His Queen,” in The Historical Renaissance, ed. Richard Strier
and Heather Dubrow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 171–96.

“The Anthropology of Intertextuality: Mary Wroth and the Family
Romance,” in Unfolded Tales: Essays on Renaissance Romance, ed. Gordon
Teskey and George Logan (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989).

280 Acknowledgments

Page 290

“The Constant Subject: Instability and Authority in Wroth’s Urania
Poems,” in Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century
English Poetry, ed. Elizabeth Harvey and Katharine Maus (Chicago: Uni-
versity of Chicago Press, 1990), 273–306.

“Staging Gender: William Shakespeare and Elizabeth Cary,” in Sex and
Gender in Early Modern Europe, ed. James G. Turner (New York: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1993), 208–32.

“Incest and Agency: the Case of Elizabeth I,” in Genealogies, ed. Valeria Fin-
ucci and Kevin Brownlee (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001).

The Wnal group of people who need to be thanked and simultaneously
indemniWed against all responsibility for the errors in the pages are my
patient prepublication readers. First, Jonathan Crewe and Leah Marcus,
readers for Penn Press; Jerry Singerman and Alison Anderson, excellent
editors at Penn Press. And second, those people who read the material
as my friends: Margreta de Grazia, Annie Jones, Priscilla Wald, Laura
Edwards, and Anne Allison. I leave my last thanks for Michael Malone,
for his careful editing, great good humor, and enduring patience.

Acknowledgments 281

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