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Ania Loomba & Melissa E. Sanchez, Rethinking Feminism in Early Modern Studies
by Tiffany Jo Werth

Rethinking Feminism in Early Modern Studies: Gender, Race, and Sexuality. eds., Ania Loomba and Melissa E. Sanchez. Routledge, 2016.

Desdemona’s dying words, ‘Nobody, I myself,’ might be the mantra for Rethinking Feminism in Early Modern Studies, a collection of essays edited by Ania Loomba and Melissa E. Sanchez. The chorus of ‘I myself’ critical voices within this volume refutes the scholarly and political anxiety that feminist criticism itself has expired and that nobody has retaken the stage. Although Desdemona remains focal, and neither Duessa, Una, nor The Faerie Queene make an appearance, critics of Spenser will find much to ponder in this volume where scholars (with a couple of notable exceptions) work through issues of sexuality, gender, race, and, most acutely, feminism in Shakespeare studies. More than merely a summative feminist or Shakespearean review, the collection raises issues relevant to all early modern scholars. It queries how scholarly fields form. It asks how methods and habits of reading shape our perceptions of what merits scholarly attention. What is absent? Silent? Overlooked? It is a book engaged with scholarly metamorphoses and its effects on bodies—whether corporeal or textual—and that alone should make any Spenserian take notice.

The book divides into four analytic domains—Histories, Methods, Bodies, and Agency. Yet these divisions are more suggestive of the volume’s themes and aspirations than absolute subject divides. Self-reflexivity and intersectional debate characterise the essays that frequently abrogate distinct topic categorizations. ‘Histories,’ for instance, which opens the volume, does so with a strong lead essay by the editors. In it, Loomba and Sanchez offer a rigorously cumulative response to the fear that feminism has lost its identity amidst the multiplicity of other identities (such as black, third world, lesbian, postcolonial, race, and, perhaps most combatively, queer studies). The essay’s evidence is history but that history is also its method: what does it mean to read as a feminist? Their essay should be assigned reading for graduate and advanced undergraduates for its shrewd overview of what is — continually — at stake in the question. The section’s following two essays, ‘Family Quarrels’ by Coppélia Kahn and Diana Henderson’s ‘Tempestuous Transitions,’ offer a history of feminism by means of a self-reflexive ‘I myself’ narrative that has been a hallmark of feminist reading. Together the essays show how histories of sexuality (and of gender) carry a vexed relationship to histories of race, which in turn are ‘refracted’ (231) through a colonial, empirical, and class lens. Amongst all of these foci, however, we might recognise ‘some family resemblance’ (57) wherein feminist histories serve as a bellwether for field metamorphosis.

‘Methods’ tackles a familiar feminist conundrum: how do we read for absence, for gaps, and silence? Crystal Bartolovich opens with a call to remember a feminist ‘we,’ a feminist ‘collectivity’ that she traces back to the labours of women petitioners in the 1640s and 1650s. Her focus denies the popularly emblematised idea of an individual in love from the film Shakespeare in Love. Rather she stresses the importance of female community. The Nurse’s disappearance from the last acts of Romeo and Juliet, she argues, serves as a reminder that a woman alone cannot overturn the powers of patriarchy; rather, that effort requires an ongoing, communal effort. Next, Natasha Korda reads for absence by recovering the long-silent work of early nineteenth-century feminist archivists who brought to scholarly attention the importance of ‘Shakespeare’s laundry list’, a rich archive of domestic knowledge. She shows how disdain for scholars who search for laundry bills in the archives stands counter to the ‘great men’ who theorise history. She then demonstrates through a brilliant reading of early modern laundry lists just how much great scholarly men might learn were they to pay attention to this domestic sphere. Clean linen, for example, was associated with a pure heart and interior; whiteness was thus equated with clean linen even more than with race. Korda concludes that something as seemingly trivial and everyday as linen has gendered, racial and classist ramifications—themes that go to the core of scholarly theoretical debate. In the section’s unsettling but outstanding final essay, Leah Marcus shows us yet again just how much editorial history and practice has to do with silence. Through a deft reading of additional speeches in the Folio as opposed to the Quarto edition of Othello, Marcus challenges our idea of a ‘gentle’ Shakespeare showing how ‘seemingly disinterested editorial choices can mask a subtle but pervasive misogyny and racism’ (115). She shows, for example, how F-only passages intensify the audience perception of Othello ‘as not the urbane Venetian’ but also as a ‘threatening outsider’ (121). Our critical methods, in other words, have an active hand, an agency, in a process that makes Shakespeare a ‘poet of empire’ (114) in the past and in the present.

In ‘Bodies’ Bernadette Andrea takes up the challenge to read absence by studying early modern travel narratives where the movements of gendered subalterns appear as ellipsis. Through a case study of a ‘Tartar girl’ who became a member of Elizabeth’s court and an Inuk woman who died shortly after being brought to England, Andrea reads a triangulation of racial coding between northeast (Russia) and the northwest (Inuit). These voices, if heard, unsettle ‘the anglocentric discourse of empire’ (148). Kimberly Coles next shifts attention from color as race to a correlation between color and rank within early modern texts through her careful reading of Elizabeth Cary’s Tragedy of Mariam. She argues that moral character is, literally, read and written in an inheritance of blood, a genealogy. Lineage, or inherited traits, also interests Sujata Iyengar who asks readers to shift their critical paradigm from a practice of ‘ekphrasis’ to a theory of ‘intermediality.’ Taking Ophelia as her test case she shows how this method of reading makes Ophelia less an object of a ‘gaze’ and instead ‘a mutual or collaborative endeavor among performer, readers, viewers, and artists’ that brings her ‘to life’ (169). Her argument chronicles a series of influential artistic renderings of Ophelia, including many familiar images from the Second Arden series of Shakespeare.

Richard Halpern opens the final section on ‘Agency’ with a meditation vis-à-vis Samson’s marriage to Dalilia in Samson Agonistes. Halpern probes how a ‘universal’ reading of sex and nation across distant periods of history reveals the failure of any such model. He concludes that the play registers the ‘absence of a globalizing framework in its very form’ (191) as it negotiates between the particular and the universal. In sum, historicizing sex requires a productive tension between the particular moment and a universalizing impulse of sexual desire. Next, Will Stockton’s stellar contribution accuses critics of a selective definition of chastity in order to ‘exonerate’ Desdemona (195). What counts as ‘chaste,’ Stockton, argues, changes. For instance, we may not consider licentious speech unchaste, but in Juan Luis Vives’s 1524 influential construction of chastity, it may have been: ‘Desdemona can be regarded as a whore simply for comprehending Iago’s jokes’ (205). Stockton concludes that the only response to the ‘flight of chastity from evidence’ is not pursuit but the ‘relinquishment of chastity as an object of certain, critical knowledge’ (201). Thus Desdemona’s last lines, ‘Nobody, I myself’ might be read as pointing back to the ‘imprecision of an epistemological certainty’ (207). In ‘Whose Body,’ Kathryn Schwartz concludes that Desdemona’s ‘nobody’ scrambles our critical codes that seek agency, culpability, answers. Instead Desdemona represents a kind of ‘negative capability’ in the Keatsian sense; she exceeds critical vocabularies. All three essays from the ‘Agency’, in other words, refuse it, pointing instead toward unknowing, epistemological doubt, and the dwelling with the absent presence.

Finally, Valerie Traub’s ‘afterward’ provides a conspectus that largely renders any review such as this superfluous. Ranging back across the volume’s contributions, Traub focuses readers’ attention to the footnote. Field formation (or division) happens, she reminds us, not only in the body of an argument or the person of the critic: citation habits can unwittingly create the ‘grammar’ of a field, separating or dividing a given group of critics. Citations, archives, texts, bodies, and history, are all elements enlivened by the ‘critical and political resource’ (245) of the imagination. As Traub reminds us, the premodern—in all of its spatial, temporal, and imaginative alterity—constitutes vital matter for modern identity constructions, for in them we might catch a glimpse of ‘modern formulations in their moment of inception’ (244).

The shifting nomenclature of the volume’s title reveals some of its underlying tensions and might account for its occasionally defensive stance. When initially invited to give a talk that later became a volume essay, Halpern recalls that the conference was titled ‘Historicizing Sex’; when the essay went to press the book title became ‘Rethinking Feminism’ (187). As any reader of Spenserian metamorphosis knows, how you call something matters. When Malbecco ‘forgot he was a man,’ he is rechristened and, henceforth, ‘Gelosy is hight’ (III.x.60). What happens when ‘historicizing sex’ turns to ‘rethinking feminism’? In her afterword to the volume, Valerie Traub remarks that she finished editing The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Embodiment (2016) at the same moment. The Handbook title chose to emphasise ‘embodiment’ rather than gender; in contrast, Dympna Callaghan’s 2015 A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell) retained gender as a focal titular category. The editors to the current volume chose to foreground gender rather than sex or embodiment because their aim was a ‘divergentist’ approach: one that recognises ‘irresolvable conflicts between identities and loyalties’ all the while remembering ‘a value of strategic collectivity’ (7). They chose a polemical claim rather than the more capacious, but also more neutral, ‘embodiment’ of Oxford’s title. As Loomba and Sanchez acknowledge, the complexities involved over where and how gender is racialised and sexualised frequently results in dissonance and contradiction. Yet the title asks that, despite dissonance and contradiction, we do not forget the collective ‘we’ (to paraphrase Spenser) ‘feminists are hight.’

This is, in sum, a volume with much to praise. Recognised by the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women in 2017 as the winner of the Collaborative Project Award, the collection excels at offering engaging essays that make important contributions to broader literary, historical, and theoretical fields. For my own practice and teaching, I have flagged Leah Marcus’s call for a two-text Othello, Will Stockton’s insistence on relinquishing a chaste certainty and embracing epistemological uncertainty, and the incisive feminist overview offered by the editors, Loomba and Sanchez, in their opening essay. These essays will inform my own canon of critical companions for thinking about early modern sex, gender, and race.

Rethinking Feminism is true to its name in so far as it is largely a ‘rethinking’ of the major trends in early modern identity scholarship from the past few decades; one only wishes it were a multi-volume endeavour with a ‘futures’ sequel that might have considered how emergent fields might offer a new inflection to the unfinished project of feminism. For instance, recent work by scholars such as Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche within the vital subfield of ecocriticism has much to contribute to the ways that ecofeminism might trouble field correlations between gender and nature. Or one might think of Donna Haraway’s call in her recent book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucuene. Haraway advocates what she terms ‘chthulucene’ ethics that entails finding family and making kin not only amongst those who resemblance us but also amongst the strangers and the nonhuman. Finally, the technologies afforded by digital humanities projects might also provide as yet unthought of methodologies for finding and for reading forgotten archives, like the domestic laundry list that Natasha Korda so trenchantly brings into focus.

As the volume editors acknowledge, feminism is an unfinished project, one very much ‘alive and kicking,’ and how it continues to develop will depend on how readers respond to Traub’s final words, and which I closely paraphrase: what, dear reader, will they inspire you do to? (245). Such a metacritical question should send us all back to faerie lond to rethink our genealogies, to reflect on the historical and political stakes of scholarly, as well as literary, norms. Each of us might then echo Spenserian scholar Katherine Eggert, who proposes in her own paraphrase of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, to ‘Show me, my women, like a queen’ (5.2.226).

Tiffany Jo Werth

UC Davis



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Cite as:

Tiffany Jo Werth, "Ania Loomba & Melissa E. Sanchez, Rethinking Feminism in Early Modern Studies," Spenser Review 48.1.9 (Winter 2018). Accessed May 28th, 2018.
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