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Reading the Lovesick Woman in Early Modern Literature

  • Author(s): Collins, Allison Brigid
  • Advisor(s): Ciavolella, Massimo
  • et al.

In early modern Europe, love was not a feeling, but a physiological change in the body. In its extreme, love was lovesickness, a deadly disease. Love makes the patient a desiring subject who seeks to author his own experience. The disease raises the stakes: if he cannot fulfill his desire, he will die. Yet lovesickness decreases the subject’s agency because sickness makes the patient an object to be "read" and diagnosed by outside authorities. This paradox of increased agency and decreased control is particularly fraught when the patient is a woman. My dissertation analyzes the representation of lovesick women in early modern literature. While scholars have claimed lovesickness empowers women, I argue that the disease highlights the potential for female agency, but ultimately subjects women to external interpretation and control.

A lovesick patient’s body may speak for her through its symptoms, or she may voice desire. The first two chapters look at these two types of speech, with the first analyzing how narrators read lovesick female bodies and the second considering how women express lovesickness. Chapter one argues that in Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Margaret Tyler’s The Mirror of Princely Deeds and Knighthood, and Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the narrators underscore the act of reading the lovesick woman. Lovesickness makes her body legible, and the narrators, in turn, interpret the value of her desire based on how it affects the narrator’s control. Chapter two turns to the lover’s voice, examining female lovesickness in Gaspara Stampa’s Rime and Mar�a de Zayas y Sotomayor’s Novelas amorosas y ejemplares and Desenga�os amorosos. Both authors connect the disease to female authorship, with Stampa using it to grant her speaker authority/authorship and Zayas using the diagnosis as a misreading that the patient must correct in order to achieve authority. These texts show constant anxiety about how vulnerable women’s bodies and voices are to misreading; this anxiety recalls how the narrators in chapter one read and interpreted lovesick women as a way to maintain their control.

The last two chapters turn to how lovesickness is used to rewrite desiring bodies. Chapter three analyzes lovesickness as a mechanism of control in Fernando de Rojas’s Celestina and William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. In both texts, the disease enables female characters to seize interpretive control. In interpreting others, they also rewrite them, reshaping or creating desire. The texts cast doubt on the merits of this re-writing. The final chapter examines Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen, in which outside authorities exert interpretive control to justify an unsettling “cure.” Men misdiagnose the Jailer’s Daughter with lovesickness so they can impose their desired narrative upon her body. Love and lovesickness are separate: while female desire is positive and creative, its diagnosis as a disease leads to medical, masculine control and a bed trick tantamount to a rape. Desire no longer produces interpretive possibilities or competition for control; instead, control obliterates women’s agency and forecloses possibilities rather than creating them.

The lovesick female body invites diagnosis, an act these texts compare to reading. To be diagnosed, read, and interpreted is to risk being misinterpreted and rewritten. The patient’s agency yields to the doctor’s control much like an author’s intentions become subject to a reader’s interpretation. This study of female lovesickness thus adds to gender studies and medical humanities, as well as to critical work on the history of authorship and readership.

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