Amazons and the “space of possibility” in Swetnam the Woman-Hater


In 1615, Joseph Swetnam published an anti-feminist tract entitled The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women that attracted the attention of numerous proto-feminist writers who rose to the defense of women. Rachel Speght, Esther Sowernam and Constantia Munda published pamphlets criticizing Swetnam’s arguments and defending feminine virtues. One of the responses to Swetnam’s misogynistic pamphlet was the 1620 anonymous play Swetnam the Woman-Hater Arraigned by Women. This Jacobean play is obscure now, although it was very popular when first performed. There has been very little research conducted on it, try to find more than fifteen scholarly articles on it, I dare you. However, if even one person is interested in learning more about Jacobean drama, you’ve come to the right place.

If you haven’t read the play, here is a brief synopsis before I delve deeper into analysis. Performed at the Red Bull Theatre, the play is a mixture between a main plot based on a Juan de Flores novel involving a tyrannical King, a missing prince, and a princess who will be put on trial for violating the king’s command by meeting with her lover alone, while the subplot deals with Swetnan’s antics as a bumbling fencer and misogynist. Prince Lorenzo returns to Sicily after surviving the Battle of Lepanto, but instead of letting his father know he’s alive, he disguises himself as the Amazon Atlanta so he can observe the health of the court. Lorenzo’s sister Leonida meets with her lover Lisandro, but King Atticus finds out and vows to have a trial to decide which one of them will be executed. The two plots intertwine when the king declares that the trial will be resolved by a debate of whether men or women are the morally weaker gender. Swetnam defends the male side, while the cross-dressed Amazon Atlanta defends women. Lorenzo/Atlanta loses the debate but manages to save Leonida, and trick Swetnam into coming to an orchard where is arraigned by a group of women who hate his misogynist views. Leonida and Lisandro get married, Lorenzo reunites himself with Atticus, and Swetnam promises to renounce his ways. Everyone lives happily ever after. That’s the bare bones of the plot; if you’re interested in reading the play, you can download the PDF here: Swetnam+the+Woman-Hater+ed.+Crandall

amazon women on the moon

Amazon Women on the Moon! Wrong type of Amazons.

Lorenzo’s choice to disguise himself as an Amazon raises a lot of questions. Why would the playwright put an Amazon in the play, seemingly randomly? Isn’t it problematic that it’s not a woman, but a cross-dressed men defending the virtues of all womankind? What’s the significance of Amazons in the early modern imagination? All these questions will be addressed in this entry! What fun.

Amazons always lie just beyond knowable space, upsetting social order by eschewing male authority and heteronormative family structure, but also as the racialized Other. As Kathryn Schwarz argues, Amazon encounters are “at once impossible and well-known, [and] become shorthand for a larger uncanniness, articulating a strangeness already present in the familiar”[i]. The prince Lorenzo, cross-dressed as the Amazon Atlanta creates this strangeness in the familiar within Swetnam the Woman-Hater, using the exotic “masculine Feminine” (IV.ii.65) of the Amazon figure to cure the “sicke court” (III.ii.19) of tyrannical patriarchal rule. Just as Queen Anna of Denmark uses the masque genre to subtly subvert and question James I’s rule, Lorenzo uses the strangeness of the Amazon to criticize his father, Atticus, and allow female characters to enact justice on Swetnam in their orchard trial. Lorenzo/Atlanta becomes a voice not only for women but for justice.

The source text for Swetnam (the de Flores novel) has the learned woman Hortensia as the champion of women in the trial rather than a cross-dressed Amazon. The choice to change the champion in Swetnam may appear to restrict female agency by suggesting that women need a man to defend them and establish the female court that arraigns Swetnam; however, I have a more reparative reading based on civility discourse regarding appropriate modes of female performance. Lorenzo/Atlanta serves the same role within Swetnam that male speakers do within court masques: he augments female communication and power. Within masques, there is always an actor narrating the actions and identities of the dancers; for example, Somnus in Vision of Twelve Goddesses introduces each of the goddesses he sees in his vision. Nevertheless, it is the female dancers themselves that present the main action on stage and draw members of the court into their dance, blurring the line between performance and reality. Clare McManus disputes the claim that the silent female dancers of masques are unexceptional, arguing that the masque dance and space associated with it could be realms of potential female assertion[ii]. Even if Lorenzo/Atlanta organizes the arraignment of Swetnam, he does not participate but allows the other women to have complete authority over their marginalized, but still effective space. Lorenzo also challenges authority by disguising his gender.

Swetnam-Image2-e1332126751637Cross-dressing is in numerous plays of the early modern period, appearing in plays of Shakespeare, Heywood, and Lyly. The cross-dressed man is more controversial than the cross-dressed woman—a cross-dressed woman tests the system, while the cross-dressed man testifies to its breakdown[iii]. The Amazon disguise puts Lorenzo in an unstable position; he is now caught between binaries of race, religion, and gender[iv]. Amazonian disguises raise the idea that if clothes can deliberately unmake the man, that effect suggests a larger cultural conviction that “such slippage can always and easily occur”[v]. If gender binaries are more crossable than initially appears, then the oppression of women justified through sex alone becomes destabilized, making the debate of “whether the Man or the Woman in love, stand guilty of the greatest offence” (III.ii.100-101) that much more absurd. Lorenzo encounters some of the same issues in his disguise as Pyrocles does in becoming Cleophila in Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. Cleophila works as a supplement[vi], allowing Pyrocles to become closer to Philoclea at the risk of replacing him, as Philoclea’s homoerotic desire for Cleophila disrupts the heterosexual love Pyrocles is attempting to obtain. As a lover and hero, Pyrocles loses place to his own Amazonian performance. Although Thauvette argues that Lorenzo’s Amazon disguise is a means of male self-representation that allows him to recuperate the patriarchy and deny the possibility of effeminization caused by Turkish capture, Lorenzo’s disguise blends masculine and feminine traits to disrupt social order. Amazons eschew the standard social order by rejecting traditional family units and political structures. Patriarchal rule may be maintained by Swetnam’s conclusion with Lorenzo’s return ensuring the continuation of Atticus’s bloodline, but it would be a potentially healthier alternative to Atticus’s blind tyranny.

Male characters, such as Nicanor and Swetnam, are more deceptive, a trait usually associated with women, than any of the female characters. Even most of Lorenzo’s hijinks are based around the “feminine” quality of trickery, first through his Amazon disguise and then through his additional disguise as the Shepherd in Nicanor’s masque, with the exception being when he beats Swetnam in a duel. This combination of traditionally male and female traits indicates that in becoming Amazon, Lorenzo becomes something more-than woman or man becoming, according to Jordan, an androgen capable of using the best aspects of both genders to restore order[vii]. “Androgen” may be too definite a title for what Lorenzo’s Amazon disguise is doing. Lorenzo seems instead to become a third sex in that his disguise is a “space of possibility”[viii], using his body as an instrument to disrupt categorical fixity of gender and gendered traits (such as deception, martial prowess, etc.). Atlanta, as a fantastical Amazon, is able to speak on behalf of “ordinary” women because she lies outside of the dominant society.

Cover to Swetnam the Woman-Hater

Cover to Swetnam the Woman-Hater

Amazon encounters, in their exoticism and eroticism, highlight the performativity of gender, and this is even more so in encounters of men cross-dressed as Amazons. Lorenzo becomes the fantastical Atlanta to become a representative not only for women but also against tyrannical patriarchal rule who combines positive masculine and feminine qualities, and in doing so creates a crisis in misogyny. If men and women are capable of the same admirable traits, for example, duelling, then what is inherently superior about men? The ending of Swetnam might re-establish patriarchal rule with Lorenzo’s casting off of the Atlanta disguise and returning to claim the throne, but with it he has enabled greater, albeit marginalized, potential for female power in the form of the arraignment of Swetnam he organizes. Swetnam is not a radically feminist play; there are no sentiments like in the Masque at Coleroton of an all-female Arcadia: “alas would it might bee/weomen could live and lie with one another!”[ix]. However, Swetnam does resist against certain types of patriarchal systems and certainly encourages a relative amount of female agency. That Lorenzo/Atlanta is the women’s champion does not necessarily mean that women are helpless without a male saviour, but that in order to have a dialogue about the value of women, Lorenzo needed to create the “space of possibility” in his third sex of the cross-dressed Amazon to have a truly effective conversation.

[i] Schwarz, Kathryn. Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance. London: Duke University Press, 2000, 53.

[ii] McManus, Clare. Women on the Renaissance Stage. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002, 18.

[iii] Jordan, Constance. “Gender and Justice in Swetnam the Woman-Hater.Renaissance Drama. 18. (1987): 149-169, 152.

[iv] Thauvette, Chantelle. “Masculinity and Turkish Captivity in Swetnam, the Woman-Hater.SEL. 52.2. (2012): 425-445, 435.

[v] Schwarz, 135.

[vi] Ibid, 193.

[vii] Ibid, 150.

[viii] Garber, qtd in Schwarz 197.

[ix] Finkelpearl, Philip J. “The Fairies’ Farewell: The Masque at Coleroton (1618).” The Review of English Studies. 46.183. (1995): 333-351, 343.


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