Gwynne Kennedy, Just Anger: Representing Women's Anger in Early Modern England (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000). ISBN 0 8093 2261 7 (HB) $ 39.95.


Review



Women are not commonly associated with anger and aggression in twentieth-century psychology. Although research into female aggression is expanding, the general view remains that women are more likely than men to suppress their anger, even to turn their rancour inward instead of expressing it. According to Gwynne Kennedy, this view is at right angles to early modern ideas about women's anger. In her study of the representation of female anger in Renaissance England, Kennedy shows how women used to be considered the angry sex. Citing many contemporary sources, she explains how the emotions were gendered feminine, whereas restraint and reason were considered masculine concepts. Issuing from that binary division of feeling and reason was an idea that women were in fact unable to control their emotions, including anger. This perceived inferiority was also considered a moral defect. Any female expression of indignation could therefore be interpreted as evidence of her inferiority, and be used to disqualify her as a speaker. The "just anger" of her title, Kennedy argues, was reserved for men. Few models of justified anger -- anger sanctioned by God's laws, or benefiting the commonwealth -- existed for women, and female anger was soon interpreted as a defiance of patriarchy, an act of rebellion against male supremacy.

Just Anger brings together works from various genres of the period -- literary prose, a play, religious writing, and pamphlets. All texts discussed are authored under female names, and all express anger at the dominant early modern notion that women are inferior to men. These women writers react against misogyny and the patriarchal constraint of female agency. Kennedy addresses the extent to which these texts conform to prevailing ideas about anger in their time, but also the manner in which they probe and deconstruct those existing stereotypes.

The notorious woman-hater Joseph Swetnam deftly employs stereotypical notions of female anger in his Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women. Early in his pamphlet, he ventures that there is "nothing so terrible as the fury of a woman." With this and many more such characterizations of female anger as furious and destructive, Swetnam meant to undermine any female response to the Arraignment; such replies would automatically confirm women's presumed inferiority and fury, and add support to Swetnam's argument. Gwynne Kennedy illustrates how defences of women found a way to avoid this trap of self-incrimination.

Kennedy demonstrates how authors writing under conspicuously female names such as Jane Anger or Esther Sowernam seek to justify their anger by taking gender out of the stereotype. They turn the tables by labelling Swetnam a "scold." Other pamphleteers depict female anger as justified by God, or introduce a female persona who speaks reasonably as well as angrily, in order to create a model of women's anger that resists the prevailing platitudes. One pamphlet, however, sits uneasily in Kennedy's survey, namely Constantia Munda's The Worming of a Mad Dogge. It is such a sharp and satirical piece of writing that, Kennedy notes, it "has led some critics to speculate that [its] author is male." Curiously, Kennedy does not deconstruct these critics' association of outspoken anger with masculinity. Rather, she seems to concur when she aligns Munda's style of writing with Swetnam's, and compares them to "dueling satirists." Kennedy seems to prefer the other authors' calm and reasoned expression of anger to Munda's satire, which is also one of the reasons why she does not consider Munda's writing a "sustained defense of women."

Concentrating on representations of female anger over the assumed inferiority to men, Kennedy looks at plays as well as prose texts. Two chapters deal with Elizabeth Cary. The discussion of Cary's The Tragedy of Maid Mariam considers female anger in the context of marriage, and examines the possibilities for a wife to be angry at her husband without compromising her character. Carefully building on recent studies of the play, Kennedy demonstrates how the play's representation of the three central female characters' anger intersects with ideas of self-worth in terms of class and race. A similar construction of anger in terms of class exists in Mary Wroth's Urania. A close reading of the depiction of the female abandoned lovers in this poem reveals how Wroth contrasts aristocratic and fair-skinned women who are able to restrain their anger with vengeful and furious female characters from the lower classes. The romance thereby displaces the stereotype of uncontrolled female anger unto the non-elite. A comparison of The History of the Life, Reign, and Death of Edward II (which Kennedy attributes to Elizabeth Cary) with other early modern literature on the same subject renders fascinating insights, revealing how Cary's representation of an angry Queen Isabel comments on the misogyny and anxiety that accompany her portrayal in Francis Hubert, Drayton, or Marlowe's writing.

Easily the most forceful voice in this volume is that of Anne Askew, the Protestant martyr who was burned for her religious beliefs during the reign of Henry VIII. The Examinations are her report of her interrogation and torture, printed in Germany during the year of her execution. In a chapter that makes for enthralling reading, Kennedy examines the ways in which Askew represents her indignation. By speaking in quotations from the Bible, Anne Askew in her writings avails herself of the righteous anger and desire for vengeance that is voiced by male speakers in the Bible. Asserting her right as a woman to read and interpret the Scriptures, she employs them as a vehicle to justify her anger.

Just Anger is a valuable addition to the study of emotions and the representation of women in early modern England. Well versed in contemporary conduct books, medical and philosophical tracts, pamphlets and sermons, Kennedy grounds her discussion firmly in the early modern contexts, and effectively reveals how these women authors in their own writings deconstructed and recast those contemporary ideas.

Kristine Steenbergh

 

 

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