Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Hermaphroditic Sovereign: Renaissance Exploration of Gender

Gender exploration emerged as a socially accepted practice under the guise of the transvestite theater during the Renaissance time period. Phyllis Rackin, a well known scholar on the subject of gender studies during the Renaissance commented "Recent literary historians have pointed out that the English Renaissance theater was an important site of cultural transformation- a place where cultural change was not simply reflected but also rehearsed and enacted. The theater provided an arena where changing gender definitions could be displayed, deplored, or enforced and where anxieties about them could be expressed" (Rackin). The biggest paradigm shift in terms of gender exploration came packaged as England's female King, Elizabeth Tudor. The date is August 18, 1588 in Tilbury England, when Queen Elizabeth addressed her militia in what has become one of her most memorable speeches, the Tilbury speech. This public appearance takes on a transvestite theater tone as Elizabeth played with wording and visual appearance to shape her words and image into one which is both masculine and feminine in gender and male as well as female in sex, making her claim of being England's king, although biologically not fitting that description, legitimate upon foundations of gender (the social role one plays which are masculine or feminine in nature), not sex (the biological factors which determine one to be male or female), qualifying one for position as King.

Words, Words, Words
Motivating Elizabeth's Tilbury speech was the Spanish Armada's ever looming threat against England. Standing there, facing her subjects, Elizabeth exhibited her mastery of combining dialogue ascribed to both genders. Studies have shown that generally speaking "Traditional gender roles embody the male role as agentive, where action, self-expansion and individuality are the rule. By constrast, traditional gender roles define the female role as communal, embodying emotional expressiveness and a focus on the needs of others" (Rackin). Elizabeth makes reference to herself twenty-nine times in her four paragraph speech. She asserts her individuality as possessor of authority, power and trust through using pronouns such as "I," "My," etc,. The pronouns are always followed with defining herself through her kingdom and the divine nature of her monarchy. She begins, "I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people" and ends proclaiming victory over the enemies "of my God, of my kingdom and of my people." Queen Elizabeth's Tilbury speech has the masculine component of individuality by defining herself through her country and people, yet that precise mode of defining individuality through her divine role as "caretaker" of her people makes her language feminine through being others-centered.

While these are subtle elements of wording, Elizabeth utilizes words which openly ascribe gender, combining genderized communication styles with words ascribing sex and biological factors associated with that sex. She claims, "I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king- and of a king of England too." Claiming the physical attributes of a female, in the same breath she declares her stomach to be that of a King, the word associated with a male monarchy position. During Elizabeth's time, the stomach was thought to be the place from whence courage emerged and thus Elizabeth claims the masculine characteristic of bravery through redefining her female anatomical features as that of a King's. Her subtle message, one which she pushed all through her monarchy, is that sex does not dictate gender, a direct contradiction to the values held by society she ruled. Scholars believe "Renaissance sexual mythology associated the feminine with body and matter as opposed to masculine intellect and spirit" (Rackin). One can be female and claim masculine attributes.

See the Gender
Separate from the words themselves, Elizabeth, against the counsel of her advisers, dressed in armor from the waist up and stood boldly before the crowd of militia to address the men. The visual appearance of the army's monarch, addressing them as their "King," standing boldly before them, outfitted for battle from the waist up, a skirt covering the lower portion of her body, makes this female suddenly transform into their leader, both feminine and masculine in appearance, admitting the body of a female while simultaneously claiming the masculine role of a male. Scholars have commented on what Renaissance society constituted as a masculine role with the assertion, "Renaissance historiography constituted a masculine tradition, written by men, devoted to the deeds of men, glorifying the masculine virtues of courage, honor, and patriotism, and dedicated to preserving the names of past heroes" (Rackin) all of which Elizabeth accomplished when she cried to her troops, "I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field." The militia was so large, runners were sent out into the crowd and on a cue they read Elizabeth's speech in sync with her. The audience hears her speech from a man's voice (due to the runners reading the speech), sees and hears a combination of both masculine and feminine gender indicators through clothing and word choice, all combining to create this monarch with androgynous physical attributes and a gender knowledge hermaphroditic in nature. Though she innately understands the feminine, Elizabeth appeals to the masculine and socially redefines the boundaries sex creates around gender.

A/N: This is the second in a series of three blog posts which explore the idea of the hermaphrodite as related to the Renaissance and modern digital age.
  1. The Digital Hermaphrodite
  2. The Hermaphroditic Sovereign: Renaissance Exploration of Gender
  3. Avatars: Exploration of Gender in the Digital Age


  1. Okay, Queen Elizabeth is seriously so rad. She clearly understood her role as a leader, her people, and the constructs of gender roles in society. Through her circumspect understanding of such issues, she had the courage and intellect to confidently win over the hearts of her subjects.

    Becca, I love what you're doing here on this blog. Your writing is so clear and well supported. Definitely mind-expanding.

    Also, I love Rackin's article and the insights she gives into the renaissance time period--very illuminating for a modern reader of Shakespeare.

  2. This is fascinating! I also like your use of photos and subheadings. I have 2 suggestions: 1)I'm a little confused by the last sentence in your first paragraph, the one about gender and sex. Could you clarify it, or explain what the difference between gender and sex is?
    2)You can add a "Read More" link to shorten the post. All you have to do go into edit post, change from Compose to HTML, then add in the tag where ever you want the break to be. More detailed instructions here: http://www.google.com/support/blogger/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=154172