In the Likeness Of: Christology, Gender, and the Self-Emptying Subject in Early Modern Literature
My dissertation examines the way that certain early modern literary texts explore their characters’ subjectivity in light of ideas about Christ—particularly where these texts draw or trouble gender lines, either affirming or disturbing the masculinity of the ideal subject. I discover two major trends in works by Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Spenser. On one hand, I expose the crystallization of Christological dualisms—God-man and man-woman—along early modern lines, distinctions framed by emerging gender roles and formulations of the state and family as corporations in Christ’s image. Where the literature combines these corporations with Christianity’s sacrificial mythology, it subsumes women—and the queer or womanly in men—as secondary subjects and necessary sacrifices. It uses their containment and even trauma to stabilize a closely related early modern household and nation. However, I argue the coexistence of a Christological model of subjectivity predicated upon Christ’s “kenosis,” a word that refers to his self-emptying in both the incarnation and the Passion. Certain ideas about kenosis provide a self-consciously literary framework for the theatrical and poetic explorations of selfhood we find on the Renaissance stage and in Spenser’s sprawling allegory. The subject that emerges is intensely relational and continually evolving, a being that challenges both gender hierarchy and gender essentialism. Where the constructions of the first model enable caste, the constant deconstructions of the second enable a more holistic community.
My project provides a Christological framework within which to study subjectivity. I draw on both early modern theology and more recent work directed toward specifically literary and gendered conceptualizations of Christ. Focusing on genres that are themselves considered to be gendered, the masculine history/epic and the feminine romance, the dissertation moves into intensely detailed readings that highlight the complexity and interrelationship of these themes. My first two chapters each pair one text (Edward II, Cymbeline) that reestablishes and bounds the subject through an appeal to Christological dualisms and sacrifice with one (Richard II, Twelfth Night) more invested in the kenotic expansion of the individual. My final chapter turns to The Faerie Queene and Spenser’s attempt to fashion a composite ideal, honing in on the twins Belphoebe and Amoret, characters related to the era’s female monarch, Elizabeth.
Unlike the heavily populated field of early modern “sacramental poetics,” Christology has gone relatively unstudied as a paradigm relevant to this branch of literary criticism. Yet, the concerns of kenotic theology resonate with the ethical and metaphysical investments of both the English Renaissance and our current ideological climate. As befits a humanities for whom “the human” remains deeply suspect, kenosis formulates the ideal subject in his negation. My work both teases out a problematic history in which a sexist Christology influences our understanding of subjectivity and complicates that history in ways that indicate our own ability to revise and move forward.