‘There was a woman known to be so bold’: Gender in Petrarchism

Distiller, Natasha
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The Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (SASMARS)
As Valeria Finucci and Regina Schwartz put it, ‘The literature of psychoanalysis is preoccupied with the literature of the Renaissance’ (‘Worlds Within and Without’ 3). This relationship of influence has been addressed by Philip Armstrong (Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis), Malcolm Bowie (Freud, Proust and Lacan: theory as fiction), and Jane Gallop (Reading Lacan), amongst others. Both psychoanalysis and Renaissance literature can be seen to be particularly responsive to the language that shapes human possibility. This is not to suggest that subjectivity is purely discursive. I would not wish to advocate the lifting out of history of Renaissance literature, or of specific subjectivities. Rather, precisely because a psychoanalytic reading seeks the seams which join the self to the language of possibility, which the self inherits by virtue of being born into a specific time and place, it can be nuanced by the specificities of history and – in the example discussed here – genre. In this way a psychoanalytic reading can draw on the conditions of its text’s production in order to bring both history and a theory of subjectivity to bear on the language it seeks to elucidate. This paper will make use of a psychoanalytic approach in order to read the sonnets of Mary Wroth, the first woman to publish a Petrarchan sequence. (The conditions of this act of publication are themselves telling, as will be discussed below.) I suggest that the poetics of Wroth’s sequence illustrate the gendered limitations of the Petrarchan self/other mode of subject constitution, and of the ontology of desire as lack. Wroth’s sequence makes it clear that the poetic subject of desire in this crucial Western tradition is supposed to be male. To this end, I take Joel Fineman’s Lacanian reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets as a starting point for reading Wroth’s Petrarchism.
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