Reflection: Women, Power, and Period

I have learned that, in posting my poetry exercises, some readers took my response to the “Women in Power” topic as an indication of my personal attitudes about women in authority. I’m deeply saddened to hear that, and hope they accept my apologies for any offense. I have updated the post to better explain my intention, which was to write the piece from an Elizabethan perspective.

Of course, I fell far short in that. For any skill I may possess, I don’t imagine I could, in the space of one hastily-written sonnet, capture the complex feelings Elizabethans–men in particular–held about women in power. They lived, of course, at a time when women were expected to be subservient–everywhere except on the throne. Their mixture of pride and resentment in their Queen’s power over them shows up throughout the work of the period. The very lute song I performed at EK Bardic Champions, John Dowland’s “Can She Excuse My Wrongs?”, was probably written as a plea for Elizabeth I to show leniency against the banished Earl of Essex…but is framed as a romantic entreaty asking a woman’s favor from her would-be lover.

Elizabeth’s implicit challenge to England’s patriarchy, combined with the cultural changes of the Renaissance, seems to have brought into even sharper focus long-standing patriarchal attitudes about women’s sexual power over men. These attitudes are prominent in many of my favorite songs from the period, including Thomas Campion’s “My Love Hath Vowed”, which expresses with great compassion the plight of a young lady whose lover abandons her after he has had his pleasure of her and she has conceived. In the Tudor period she would have had little recourse, and would often have been the object of ridicule–as is the poor pregnant girl in the anonymous “Watkins Ale”, whose lyrics are so misogynistic (and unfunny), I decided the only thing worth doing with the piece was to adapt the tune for “Mug Your Gate”.

Shakespeare, in particular, was bolder than most in exploring these attitudes about women, and in giving his women freedom to express their umbrage. Witness Beatrice, who cannot, as a woman, avenge herself on Claudio, who slandered her cousin Hero’s virginity:

…O, that I were a man for his sake! Or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into curtsies, valor into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones, too. He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing; therefore I will die a woman with grieving.

(Much Ado about Nothing, Act IV, Scene 1)

Of course, in Shakespeare’s day this speech could only be given by boys: women were forbidden from performing on the stage.

I have yet to do more than scratch the surface of the wrongs men did to women in our period of study. I am deeply aware, as well, that many of these wrongs persist, some in similar and some in different forms, into our 21st century culture. When I reflect on them, I scarcely have the strength to protest that I am someone who strives break these cycles of injustice–and yet, my privilege as a male makes them impossible to wholly avoid, and doubtless I often participate in them without being fully aware of my impacts.

The way women were viewed in Tudor England shows up constantly in the writing of the period, and it is a challenge for me to write in a period frame without that ever-present attitude informing my content. This is a paradox I will have to grapple with as I move my studies forward, recognizing that our goal as a Society is to perpetuate what we admire about the way people lived during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and omit what we do not.

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4 thoughts on “Reflection: Women, Power, and Period

  1. Pingback: What’s Coming in May | Drake the Bard

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