Context Matters: Intertextuality and Voice in the Early Modern English Controversy about Women
Ray, Maggie Ellen
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This dissertation examines three clusters of works from the early modern English controversy about women--the debate about the merits and flaws of womankind--in order to argue that authors in the controversy took advantage of the malleability of women's voices to address issues beyond the worth of women. I depart from standard treatments of the controversy by giving priority to the intertextual contexts among works that engage with one another. Attending to the intertextual elements of this genre reveals the metapoetic concerns of the authors and the way such authors fashion their feminine apologists as discursive agents in order to express those concerns. Chapter 1 examines Edward Gosynhyll's sixteenth-century works in tandem with Geoffrey Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women and "The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale," arguing that Gosynhyll's revisions of Chaucer--revisions embodied by the feminine apologists in the texts--are integral to his project of establishing the controversy genre as multivalent and dialectical. The resulting metacommentary examines in a new light the age-old rhetorical tradition of exemplarity, a persuasive tool used in diverse literary genres. Chapter 2 considers the way the anonymous play Swetnam the Woman-Hater uses cross-voicing and cross-dressing to establish the performative nature of controversy conventions. In doing so, the play argues for the social benefits of abandoning essentialist logic in favor of gender performance, as such performance makes the role of apologist available to men and women alike. This cluster reconsiders the very processes by which a person--male or female--can be known to others. Finally, I trace John Taylor's use of the marginal woman in his controversy works in order to demonstrate the extent to which Taylor makes these women instrumental in establishing his own poetic and social identity. This project contributes to studies on the English controversy as well as to the field of early modern women and women's writing by arguing that authors found the genre generally and the woman's voice specifically to be fit vehicles for articulating poetic agendas beyond the immediate task of debating the nature of womankind.