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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: October ::
SBReview_5: Lovesickness and Gender
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0540  Thursday, 29 October 2009

From:       Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:       Thursday, October 29, 2009
Subject:    SBReview_5: Lovesickness and Gender

SBReview_5:

Lesel Dawson. _Lovesickness and Gender in Early Modern English 
Literature_. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN: 
978-0-19-926612-8; 244 pp. £50 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Eric Langley, University College London

Reading representations of melancholia, hysteria, or erotic sickness in 
the context of period medical conceptions of disease, Lesel Dawson's 
_Lovesickness and Gender in Early Modern English Literature_ offers an 
authoritative and scholarly account of an absorbing subject. At times 
wryly ironic, brutally direct, or overtly relishing her unwholesome 
quotations, Dawson combines an engaging and lively candor with 
diagnostic precision, offering directed and illuminating readings of 
texts by major dramatists, medical practitioners, and period 
commentators. Situating the discussion within a critical lineage, Dawson 
receives support from, as well as offers alternative positions to, the 
work of Mary Wack, Carol Neely, Helen King, Juliana Schiesari, and, 
importantly, Elaine Showalter.
	
Dawson negotiates the period's permeable distinctions between mental and 
physiological illness, charting the complex relationship between the 
somatic and the psychological to allow female lovesickness to be 
diagnosed as much more than a merely uterine disorder and diagnosis 
itself to be much more than uncomplicatedly empirical. A real success of 
this study is that although depictions of a troubled early-modern 
interior can be described in terms inflected by psychology and even 
occasionally psychiatry, the discussion is characterized by precise 
employment of specific early modern terminology, couching textually 
analytic reading amongst graphic, impassioned, bloody, and lascivious 
period voices: "a gamesome bedfellow," we hear, is the "sure[st] physician."

Dawson undertakes a detailed anatomization of gendered medical and 
cultural assumptions concerning erotic sickness. So after suggesting 
that "whereas male lovesickness is classified as a form of melancholy -- 
a malady associated with creativity, interiority, and intellect -- the 
female version is considered a disorder of the womb"; Dawson further 
complicates this distinction by showing how the role of erotic 
melancholic is appropriated by women, requisitioned to claim an 
intellectually and artistically sensitive identity. Uncovering and 
thereby demystifying "gender-based dichotomies" concerning male and 
female models of lovesickness, Dawson suggests that a condition "that we 
often think of as overwhelmingly debilitating can function, at times, as 
either [a] site . . . of pleasure or form . . . of empowerment."
	
Chapter One considers period medical conceptions of desire, diagnosing 
the "disease of love" and exploring its symptoms and cures from 
phlebotomy to clysters, vomiting to astrology, taking characteristic 
care to distinguish between competing etiologies of lovesickness. We 
hear of visually infected lovers and suicidal mania, of phantasmal 
visions and insatiable sexual appetites collated from literary, medical, 
and historical sources, as Dawson describes a complaint understood both 
as a genuine corporeal condition, and as a carefully constructed 
performance; a particularly fascinating section considers the strategic 
employment of lovesickness, aggressively enacted in avoidance of 
unwanted matrimony. Here, as throughout this study, lovesickness is 
shown to be far more than a merely passive complaint, potentially 
excusing freedom of expression and allowing the articulation of 
otherwise unspeakable desire. Here, as elsewhere, Dawson mediates 
between the lived corporeal experience of lovesickness and the social 
affect of its pose.

Further evidencing cleanly articulated distinctions between different 
forms of erotic melancholy and the love disease, Chapter Two offers 
diagnostic reading of the symptoms of gendered erotic maladies. Dawson 
demonstrates how period medics and contemporary critics alike can -- 
potentially misleadingly -- conflate distinct but not discrete diseases, 
acknowledging the thin diagnostic distinctions between them. Here, one 
of the more vicious ironies of this often witty study emerges: that the 
diagnosis of green-sickness would often be strategically misapplied to 
illicitly pregnant women, proscribing sex as a cure for an "illness" 
already sexually transmitted. Dawson offers set-piece discussion both of 
Shakespeare's Ophelia and the jailor's daughter from _The Two Noble 
Kinsmen_, questioning critical consensus, and, as the study progresses, 
demonstrating the influence of these Shakespearean figures on later 
literary and non-literary texts.
	
Chapter Three's discussion of intellectual female melancholy turns to 
Beaumont and Fletcher's _The Maid's Tragedy_ and John Ford's _The Broken 
Heart_, alongside a wide range of contemporary dramas, juxtaposing the 
earlier discussion of Ophelia with consideration of two heroines whose 
willful, if self-destructive, manipulation of their maladies is typical 
of a more assertive enactment of cerebral melancholy. Aspatia of _The 
Maid's Tragedy_ in particular is shown to "fus[e] the role of Ophelia 
with that of Hamlet" as she accepts the twin roles of "faithful, devoted 
mistress and . . . angry [melancholic] avenger": her ability to exert 
control over her complaint, Dawson concludes, "provide[s] a 
proto-feminist commentary on the misogynistic cultural tradition from 
which she derives, revealing how lovesickness can operate as a complex 
strategy for self-assertion."

Addressing a continental Neoplatonic vogue in Chapter Four, Dawson 
describes the cautionary employment of lovesickness, offered in reproof 
in order to temper the heat of courtly romanticism; conversely, it seems 
"Platonic love inverts much of the medical advice for what Renaissance 
doctors hold to be healthy in love," advocating a regime of abstinence 
and spiritually inflected adoration that would leave the lovelorn 
dangerously susceptible to sexual frustration and erotic constipation. 
Elsewhere in the chapter, describing how the figure of Narcissus 
surfaces in erotic texts, Dawson demonstrates the inherent proximity of 
neoplatonic and narcissine desire discussed in relation to Ford's _'Tis 
Pity_, before concluding, perhaps with more optimism than might have 
been expected, that "Platonic love was beneficial to women" in 
"justif[ying] a prolonged period of courtship," "grant[ing] the female 
beloved an elevated spiritual significance,  . . . endors[ing] 
flirtation as morally educative," and "offer[ing] women a new way of 
envisaging love, in which one was encouraged to find, not a lord and 
master, but a second self."
	
If Chapter Four's conclusion is generous in its evaluation of arguably 
oppressive Platonic idealism, the remaining two chapters -- on remedying 
both lovesickness and love itself -- respond with earthy pragmatism, 
concluding that "the female beloved can be damned, as well as exalted, 
by exaggerated praise": firstly, exploring the dramatic and medical 
implications of blood-letting in some of the more brutal plays of the 
early seventeenth century; then, the purgative function of copulation 
which, in the words of William Vaughan cause "the vaporous fumes of the 
seede [to be] taken away from the Patient, which [otherwise] doe infect 
his braine, and lead him into melancholy"; before discussion of the 
restorative power of humiliation, which entails the kind of misogynist 
vilification of the beloved as can be found in Donne's notoriously 
"rank" and "defile[d]" in "Elegy 8." The final chapter, elaborating on 
the theme of humiliation and disgust, offers extraordinary material on 
the utilization of menstrual blood to cure, through repulsion, the 
erotic fixation of the male lover that brings this energetic study to a 
suitably unflinching conclusion.

	
Eric Langley lectures on Shakespeare at University College London and 
his book, _Narcissism and Suicide in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries_ 
(OUP), will be published in November 2009.

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