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Naomi Baker, Plain Ugly: The Unattractive Body in Early Modern Culture
by Jennifer Vaught

Baker, Naomi. Plain Ugly: The Unattractive Body in Early Modern Culture. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010. viii + 260. ISBN 978-0719068744. $80.00 cloth.

The physical unattractiveness of characters from literary works by Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare and their contemporaries is focal in this innovative study dealing with the changing relationship between the body and the self in the Early Modern era. Naomi Baker argues in short that “ugliness in Early Modern culture, time and again, is aligned with female matter” (187).  Throughout this book she contends that the cultural conception of male, rational consciousness as detached from the body of the Early Modern subject, which Descartes articulates in Discourse on Method (1637), is “perpetually and necessarily haunted by his terrifying opposite, the contagious, necrotic hag” (10). The stigma of revulsion attached to ugliness for women and other disempowered groups remains with us today. Baker begins her first chapter entitled “Theorizing Ugliness” by noting that the term “ugly” derives from the Old Norse word ugglig, meaning “to be feared or dreaded” (11). In the Middle Ages and Renaissance ugliness was commonly associated with evil, moral depravity, and danger. However, grotesque and monstrous figures on stage and page also elicit pleasure and laughter, suggesting that ugly bodies in Early Modern culture resist simple, unambiguous interpretation.

The second chapter, “‘Charactered in my brow’: Deciphering Ugly Faces” highlights the recurring opposition between beauty and ugliness as respective manifestations of goodness or depravity, as well as more elusive literary and cultural embodiments of deformity or the mark of Cain that resist moral categorization. In “Hymne to Beauty” Spenser perpetuates “the widespread association of physical ugliness with evil character” (43). In Shakespeare’s Richard III and 1 Henry IV and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi ugliness is similarly linked with moral corruption, illness, and old age. Platonic readings of the ideal female form, by contrast, yoke beauty with goodness. Interestingly, Baker observes that during the Early Modern period “an assumption that ugliness is infused with moral and supernatural meaning repeatedly collides with an emergent understanding of ugliness as a purely physical phenomenon, devoid of spiritual significance” (55). In Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois women are prone to deceptive appearances and generate anxiety as a result. Furthermore, in this play ugly faces that “are emptied of legible meaning” indicate a growing divide between physicality and identity (68). 

The third chapter, “Opening the Silenus: Gendering the Ugly Subject,” demonstrates that the unattractiveness of women, those of low social status, and other marginalized groups continues to define the self at a time when subjectivity for the majority of higher-ranking men was increasingly viewed in opposition to the body. Even female beauty in this era is often seen as an artificial disguise for moral depravity and is linked to idolatry in Protestant discourse. Spenser’s Duessa, for example, hides her monstrosity beneath ornate clothing and accessories that ally her with the Whore of Babylon. The Bower of Bliss further exposes the malignancy beneath artificial forms of beauty. In fact, female beauty is considered an art that conceals natural repulsiveness and its accompanying moral depravity. Male unattractiveness, by contrast, can mask inner beauty and is not necessarily aligned with vice. Ugliness thereby determines identity for women but not for men. Yet in the case of Shakespeare’s Othello his older, black body makes the man and contributes negatively to his tragic fate. Illustrating the ambiguity surrounding interpretations of deformity in at least the male subject in this period, the disabled body of Richard III provides him with an enabling cover of virtue, which he turns to his social advantage, but also curses him with an ostracizing stamp of villainy. Baker concludes that in Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling male ugliness is potentially suggestive of evil but fundamentally unstable and not necessarily indicative of a lack of moral character. William Hay’s Deformity: An Essay (1754), however, “illustrates the stubborn persistence of gendered models of ugliness” by arguing that unattractive, vulgar, or obese women remain tied to corruption but deformed men who control their bodily appetites with virtuous reason are perceived as “ideal Enlightenment subjects” (95-96).                                

The fourth chapter, “‘Sight of her is a vomit’: Abject Bodies and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy,” focuses on the abused, leaky, and old body of the transgressive woman serving as “diabolical opposite” to the Early Modern male subject noted for his “rational self-control” (97). As illustrated by Fradubio’s spying on Duessa while she is bathing in The Faerie Queene, female sexual organs are often the focus of the viewer’s disgust. Baker notes that the linking of a woman’s repellant sexuality with moral depravity also occurs in the classical and Medieval rhetorical tradition. She states with respect to a range of works by John Skelton to Robert Herrick about seeping members of an underclass, “Constructions of the uncontrolled lower social orders intersect with gendered models in descriptions of unregulated, fluid bodies” (103). The cultural anxiety aggressive and outspoken women or lower-ranking subjects evoke is expressed in terms of their figuration as excremental or diseased. Falstaff, whose fat body is feminized, and Ursula the “pig-woman” in Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair are both subjected to abusive discourse based on the “Early Modern correlation of excessive flesh with sin” (120). Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) presents melancholy as feminized and as a dangerous threat to masculinity as a result. His work exemplifies how abject descriptions of women are driven by anxieties about the fluidity of divisions between male and female, rationality and madness, beauty and ugliness, and youth and age.

The fifth chapter, “‘To make love to a deformity’: Praising Ugliness,” demonstrates how the creative, redemptive powers of male artists are celebrated at the expense of female figures depicted as ugly or deformed. In Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia the character of Parthenia, whose “features are destroyed by a jealous suitor, is represented as even more beautiful … after her poisoned features are restored by a male physician” (133). The female art of cosmetics, by contrast, counterfeits the beauty of nature and obscures the corruption of the body. Mock praise of women such as “the foolish and ugly Mopsa in Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia,” the Dark Lady in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, as well as ageing or unattractive mistresses in works by Donne and some Cavalier poets, foregrounds the rhetorical abilities of male speakers to define their objects of desire through such mockery while displacing the female subject. In smallpox poetry the horrors of this disease, which afflicted both men and women with physical deformity in the Renaissance, defies literary attempts to transcend “the material fact of the ugly face” (157).

In the sixth and final chapter, “Sacrificing Beauty: Defeatured Women,” Baker examines Early Modern works by men and women in terms of the possible association of ugliness with female agency and subversiveness. Because beauty can debase women in this era by subjecting them to the corrupting power of carnal desires, ugliness “seems to offer a means of escape” from threats to autonomy and an avenue for protecting their honor (163). In the case of Medieval virgin martyrs a disfigured body can serve as a vehicle for holiness. Although Early Modern women who engage in self-mutilation sometimes avoid rape and unwanted marriages, they also suffer the loss of identity because of the continuing link between corporeality and female subjectivity. In place of the self-mutilating virgin, who was gradually disappearing from Early Modern literature, emerged the new prototype of the disfigured heroine that provides male heroes with a means of proving their moral fiber. In Sidney’s Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, for instance, Argalus ascends the Neoplatonic Ladder of Love when he is lead to “a deeper appreciation of inner virtue” by the marring of Parthenia’s exterior beauty (180). Once she is restored to a purer form of beauty, she becomes “an exemplar of meek wifely obedience,” is associated with silence, and loses a degree of her former agency (187).

In Plain Ugly Naomi Baker crafts a convincing argument about the inextricable link between physical unattractiveness and the female body based on a vast number of literary and cultural works from the sixteenth through the late seventeenth century. In addition to poetry, prose, and plays by Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare and numerous other dramatists, she considers works by John Milton, Francis Bacon, Thomas Browne, John Foxe, and Desiderius Erasmus as well as those by Aemilia Lanyer, Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, and John Dryden. She concludes that the oppressive “power dynamics” of ugliness as a means of policing categories of gender, class, and race “resonates in many ways with its continuing significance today” (188). Baker’s study of the “diabolically repulsive hag” in Early Modern English literature and culture together with her examination of beauty or ugliness in visual texts from the European Renaissance is well worth reading because of her careful and sophisticated treatment of this cornucopia of primary and secondary texts as well as theoretical ones by Mikhail Bakhtin, Roland Barthes, and Judith Butler (188). 


Jennifer Vaught
University of Louisiana at Lafayette



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Cite as:

Jennifer Vaught, "Naomi Baker, Plain Ugly: The Unattractive Body in Early Modern Culture," Spenser Review 44.1.11 (Spring-Summer 2014). Accessed April 19th, 2024.
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