Female Desire in Donne and Shakespeare

Failed due to lateness. Poo. It’s not a wonderous essay by any stretch, but I said I would publish everything I could from my uni course…

So I present my take on female desire in Renaissance Poetry, such as it is…. warts and all….

How do Donne and Shakespeare differ in their representations of female desire, if at all? You should mention two poems by each poet (ie four sonnets in total).

Renaissance poetry and female desire have a troubled relationship which is unsurprising due to the overwhelmingly male proponents of the craft during this period. John Donne and William Shakespeare are two such poets who through their writings demonstrate a preoccupation with masculine notions of desire, but both of whom have a much less immersive approach to exploring female desire. Shakespearean sonnets appear to be much more deeply rooted in a realistic idea of female desire, until it is contrasted with the fantastical nature of masculine love in the earlier sonnets, creating a stark contrast between the treatment of genders in his works. Donne’s treatment of female desire is more sublime, but is more a matter of conquest than appreciation. If Shakespeare’s depiction of female desire is negative, or at the very least apathetic, Donne’s depiction is one of entitlement; female desire and females in general are there to be seduced or attained. 

Donne’s urge to conquer female desire and wrangle it to his will has the effect of not only giving his poetry a tinge of bitter disdain but also objectifies the women he desires (DiPasquale, 2012). He often denies his female characters agency and this denial of female agency in the poetry is also the result of placing the male as the protagonist. Donne casts himself or his narrator as the hero of the piece, therefore any parties acting contrary to his will are antagonists, but the woman who reciprocates his advances is evidence of his successes. When the female exercises her agency by rejecting the narrator she is deemed unworthy and potentially irreparable, to the point were he would not change her fate if he could; “I’had rather thou shouldst painfully repent, Than by my threat’nings rest still innocent.” (Donne, The Apparition, 47)

Donne’s apparent misogyny in the eyes of modern audiences is somewhat redeemed by the pains he takes to convey the woman as human, while he does objectify he does not treat them as subhuman as Shakespeare does. While it’s true that Donne’s narrator often considers women as lesser than men, he does at least credit them with a level of autonomy and a distinct voice (Coren, 2001) in certain poems such as Elegy 16 (Donne, 111) in which his lover concocts her own plan, in a show of a level of agency that Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” fails to achieve.

Shakespeare carries out his own brand of objectification, whilst he does not deny his ‘Dark Lady’ agency, he breaks down the woman into a collection of physical attributes, she is not praised or beheld as a whole but is broken down into the required parts to create the appropriate figure of a Renaissance woman (Shakespeare, Sonnet 30). The Shakespearean woman is a domestic earthly creature, desirable but always less so than man. In his sonnets men are capable of more than women, in fact they are even better at being a woman than women;

A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted,

Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;

A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted

– (Shakespeare Sonnet 20).

The love triangle implied in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144 is potentially the reason for his disdain of women and his unsympathetic depiction of female desire (Burnham, 1990). Female desire and heterosexual love appears to lead to the devastation of the narrators desire, leading to the dichotomy of men as divine and women as evil; “The better angel is a man right fair, The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 144)

Both Donne and Shakespeare depict female desire as fickle and cruel, bemoaning it’s inconstancy and injustice. In The Apparition (Donne, 47) Donne, by denying the man his love the woman is considered a murderer; “When by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead” (Donne, The Apparition, 47). Her rejection is seen as malicious and spiteful, rather than an exercise of free will. The scorned narrator Wails and gnashes his teeth as he talks of her cruelty and how he will exact his posthumous revenge. If female desire is fickle then it is necessarily toxic to the woman and the man involved. She is corrupted in The Apparition (Donne, 47), by her own inconstancy  and suffers both physically and psychologically as a result. When the female desire is not directed unwaveringly at the Donne narrator he considers it deceptive and cruel, positioning himself as the primary and rightful focal point of female desire. 

Shakespeare shows the inconstancy and fickleness of female desire in Sonnet 20, where Shakespeare beholds his androgynous love he shows, through the reaction of others the nature of gendered desire;

“Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.” (Shakespeare, sonnet 20) 

In this passage men merely turn their heads at the appearance of the man who looks like a woman, whereas women are deeply effected by the masquerade, perhaps jealous of the success and beauty of the illusion. This passage indicates not only the narrator’s worship of the man in the story but the extent to which women are more easily effected by shallow stimuli such as changed appearance.

Shakespeare’s dim view to female desire is perhaps best explained within the context of the masculine power hegemony of the time, to praise a man is natural, to praise a woman in such terms is scandalous (Matz, 2010). There is an inappropriateness in addressing the desire of women, whereas the exploration of male desire is less corrupting. Donne courts societal outrage by blatantly praising in detail the form of a woman and exploring her role in the passions of man (Coren, 2012) in a way that Shakespeare fails to do. If some of his more lavish praise was directed at a woman Shakespeare would run the risk of encountering the same level of outrage as Donne experienced.

Shakespeare tends to position himself somewhat differently; as in competition with and inherently suspicious of female desire. He does not flatter females as Donne does, they are not on pedestals, however the way their desire manifests appears to be inherently deceptive or malignant in their effects in the Shakespearean narrator’s own intimate sphere.

The nature of desire and its ability to change perceptions of reality is addressed by both poets, and whether the way that desire manifests this change is a deceptive or creative force is heavily gendered. The world building that occurs between two lovers is a reoccurring motif for Donne and Shakespeare, with the enamoured subjects carving out a metaphorical space for themselves and their mutual desire to inhabit. In Shakespeare this manifests as  room, Donne however carves out an extended world and alternate space for his lovers to safely inhabit. These visions of a safe place for desire to flourish a conjured up by masculine desire is explored by both poets but the context of this gendered creation of intimate space differ.

Donne uses masculine and feminine desire as a building block for an alternate reality, a world in which the two parties can exist without condemnation and fear, and indulge in their lust and desires. This somewhat insular attitude to desire puts the couple engaged in such world building at odds with the reality of the greater society. By contrast Shakespeare’s desire involving women is firmly rooted within social realities; he is keenly aware  and alludes to the reality of the human condition and lays bare the deception at work in the world view of those bewitched by desire towards women (Shakespeare, sonnet 130). Shakespeare does however explore world building in his depiction of homo masculine desire and the conditions which could allow this love to flourish without the need for pretence. 

There is a certain amount of antipathy towards desire of women in both poets bodies of work. Shakespeare in particular does not dwell on the emotions and desires of women, with the key allusions to the inner workings of the female being those of deception and ill-nature.  He paints a picture in his sonnets of female desire as a corrupting force which lays waste to true and pure love;

“Wooing his purity with her foul pride” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 144)

This corrupting force manifests in Sonnet 138 as deception, whether this deception is knowing or unknowing; “ I do believe her though I know she lies,” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 138) Here the Shakespearean narrator is convinced of knowing deception, but it is also possible that the lady so overwhelmed with the experience and emotions of love and desire that she believes what she says. However this lack for world building potential in the female desire is not true of the sonnets that deal with homoeroticism (Shakespeare, sonnet 112). Masculine homosexual desire is not as deeply rooted in the deceptive workings of everyday social constructs, enabling the world building such as the desire to which Donne’s poems alludes. Shakespeare heterosexual explorations of female desire are firmly placed within the domestic, whereas masculine desire has the potential to inhabit the sublime. The woman in Shakespeare’s sonnets is firmly positioned in the earthly sphere, she “treads upon the ground”, he is almost pragmatic in his description of her (Shakespeare, Sonnet 130) unlike his male love interest who is held in company off gods. Donne’s women, providing they are supplicant, are divine and desirable. 

The inherently masculine power hegemony in Elizabethan and Renaissance England meant that women were given limited power to exercise their will, particularly within the romantic sphere. Female desire, when it falls contrary to the will of the narrator of Donne’s poems is deeply problematic and prompts  a furious and irrational response. The Apparition (Donne, 47) shows a man struggling to regain power over a woman who by rejecting his advances is not under his power. 

Donne’s irrational female desire as exemplified in Elegy 16, (Donne, 111); “Which my words’ masculine persuasive force” (Donne, Elegy 16, 111) when he beseeches his love not to do anything foolish, he points out the folly of her potential plan. He even likens her ability to disguise herself as that of an ape. Desire has almost rendered her insensible, and it is up to the Donne narrator, the self proclaimed hero and rational mind of the piece to prevail upon her to behave in an appropriate manner to prevent dire consequences for them both.

By contrast Shakespeare is less enraged than despairing when the power balance is tipped in favour of female desire. When the lady of the final sonnets is triumphant in her desire it ultimately means that Shakespeare’s own desire is unattainable. Female desire in Shakespeare sonnets is primarily an obstacle to the happiness of the narrator preventing him from attaining his desires and destroying the world of mutual masculine desire he has constructed with his love.

Female desire is often problematic for the poets as it does not often line up exactly with their own agendas. Whether this problematic desire tales the form of direct rejection or competition it does not tend to yield sufficiently to create contentment and a satisfactory resolution for the poets, this leaves the ultimate mark of female desire as being one denoting frustration and disappointment. The masculine and feminine desires are set up in opposition to one another, but the feminine desire often is seen as being the antagonistic force that refuses to bend to the superiority or sensibility of masculine desire.

In their depictions of intimacy and relationships Donne and Shakespeare struggle to convey anything other than a male-centric view of desire, however their approaches that lead them to this outcome differ considerably. Shakespeare dissociates female desire from the divine nature of masculine desire, whilst Donne renders female desire sublime by association with the right man, that is the narrator. Shakespeare and Donne agree on the potential cruelty and inconstancy of female desire, meaning that women whose desire does not line up with the poets’ are ultimately problematic and destructive.

Burnham, Michelle. “Dark Lady and Fair Man”: The Love Triangle in Shakespeare’s Sonnets and” Ulysses.” Studies in the Novel 22.1 (1990): 43-56.

Coren, Pamela. “In the person of womankind: Female persona poems by Campion, Donne, Jonson.” Studies in Philology 98.2 (2001): 225-250.

DiPasquale, Theresa M. “Donne, women, and the spectre of misogyny.” (2011).

Donne, John. The Poems Of John Donne [2 Vols.] Volume I & Volume II. 1st ed. Project Gutenberg, 2015. Www.projectgutenberg.org, Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

Matz, Robert. “The Scandals of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Elh 77.2 (2010): 477-508.

Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. 1st ed. Project Gutenberg, 2014. Www.projectgutenberg.org, Web. 28 Oct. 2016.

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Photo courtesy  of Brice Stratford on Wiki commons. 

Damning Eroticism in Psycho and Turn of the Screw

Eroticism and the politics of sexuality haunt the Gothic style. Analyse the narrative function of sexuality and the erotic in your chosen texts.

Damning Eroticism in Psycho and Turn of the Screw
Morgan Pinder

When the gothic meets the erotic the audience finds themselves in uncomfortable grey areas that subvert sexual norms and create a sense of deviance and madness. This technique of deploying deviant sexual behaviour to demonstrate the fragility of the human psyche and what separates the socially accepted human from the psychologically damaged, animalistic criminal can be found in both Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho and Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, texts which examine the nature of sexuality

and eroticism and how they link in to violence and madness. Sexual desire, real or imagined, is catalyst for the down fall of both predator and prey. In both texts the problematic nature of dealing with sexual deviance and madness is explored in particular in relation to when the child/carer relationship is exposed to the problematic nature of desire.
It is moral outrage and repression in the governess and Norman Bates that is the driving force for them to kill the object of that desire. Whilst Norma Bates is a figment of Norman’s imagination, the idea of his mother and her values, as Norman perceives them, have taken on a separate split personality that allows Norman to kill as his mother rather than taking responsibility himself. When confronted by their own sexuality Norman conjures up his mother, the governess conjures up the grounds keeper, Quint and her disgraced predecessor Miss Jessel both of whom died in the course of their employment.
A common theme in gothic fiction is the loss of innocence, in particular the loss of innocence in children and maidens. These themes tie in strongly with sexuality as sexual transgressions are particularly potent ways to demonstrate madness or immorality. Both the movie Psycho and the short story Turn of the Screw features young, single professional women succumbing to temptation. The governess in Turn of the Screw is so taken with her new employer that she compromises her safety and the safety of the children by maintaining a state of isolation as per his request, whereas Marion of Psycho, in addition to being tempted into an affair with a married man commits theft in order to assist him with his financial woes and secure their future relationship. Both women, by succumbing to temptation, set in motion a disastrous series of events that will result in death. Marion’s move from a state of relative innocence to criminality is signified by a change of wardrobe, from white clothes to black. The governess begins to hallucinate or see ghosts as the consequences of her desire begin to drive her to madness, (Renner, 179) seeing in addition to the corrupting groundskeeper, his partner, the disgraced former governess, who could be read as a projection of what could happen to the governess should she give in to her most transgressive desires:
“Another person – this time; but a figure of quite as unmistakable horror and evil: a woman in black, pale and dreadful – with such an air also, and such a face! – on the other side of the lake. I was there with the child – quiet for the hour; and in the midst of it she came.” (James, 35)
This passage, when read with the governess’s potential madness in mind perhaps begins to point at a much more devastating desire, that the fallen woman appears when she is alone with the child could perhaps be indicative of paedophilic desires, for in this moment the uncle and master of the house is nowhere to be seen. These desires could be symptomatic of her psychotic break or the catalyst for it.
In the child as a sexual being is one of the more confronting devices deployed in gothic and crime fiction and is used as both the symptom of paranormal phenomenon and in the post Freudian Gothic canon as pathological disturbance. It can be read both ways in James’ Turn of the Screw (Miall, 307). It is possible that the governess is seeing the ghosts of the people who abused her young charges Miles and Flora, meaning that the evil nature of their deeds caused them to be damned to haunt the home, or alternately that Miles, in particular is conjuring the ghosts into being because he has been exposed to sexual deviance  and evil by the Quint the groundskeeper and Miss Jessel. From a less paranormal or spiritual perspective the governess is quite clearly having a psychotic break and is herself engulfed by inappropriate desire for his uncle or even Miles himself, as evidenced by her obsession with the virtues of the young boy:
[Miles] made the whole charge absurd. My conclusion bloomed there with the real rose-flush of his innocence: he was only too fine and fair for the little horrid unclean school-world, and he had paid a price for it. (James, 22)
Her desire and her natural revulsion of such a desire are in constant conflict with each other leading to her externalising these impulses leading to the hallucinations of the corrupting ghosts. Her affection for the child grows worrying and increasingly inappropriate with James creating ambiguity as to who instigates the inappropriate affections, but on rereading we find that it is the governesses reflections that betray her true preoccupations. These reflections can appear innocent in isolation, but cumulatively the implications for a psychological reading of the text reveal a portrait of a woman obsessed with a child though the implications remain ambiguous:
We continued silent while the maid was with us – as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter. He turned round only when the waiter had left us. “Well – so we’re alone!”(James, 91)
Norman Bates sexually subversive nature is somewhat more politically problematic, tying into the contemporarily accepted transphobia and homophobia. Whilst today transgender is somewhat less controversial than it was in the 1960s when Psycho was made it is important to acknowledge the view of transgender and transsexuality as  deviant sexual behaviour in the contemporary society of the film and its initial audiences. The film was made in the wake of the apprehension of serial killer Ed Gein, whose use of corpses to make macabre artefacts created awareness of product killers (those who kill for purpose of having the corpse at the end) in the zeitgeist (Sullivan,1). With the supposed transgender killer as the inspiration for first the book Psycho and then its cinematic adaption, the allure of Freudian psychoanalytical explanations of the overbearing mother and her effeminate murderous son prove irresistible. His complex oedipal relationship with his mother and desire to be a woman, or recreate a particular woman, would be seen as the driving force behind his crimes and informed the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother as explained by the psychologist:
RICHMAN:  A man who dresses in women’s clothing in order to achieve a sexual change…or satisfaction…is a transvestite. But in Norman’s case, he was simply doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive. (Psycho, 1960)
The dangers of repressed desire are explicitly expressed in the film Psycho. While the psychologist Richman has some unusual points to his theory on Norman’s psychology, we have to take his opinion as expert in the Psycho universe. His speculation on Norman’s motive is very clear, it is Norman’s revulsion and suppression on his own sexuality that leads to the death of Marion and any previous victims, including his mother, for whom he has an unhealthy desire towards.
Rejection of his own sexuality is being expressed by the Norma Bates side of his personality through which he is able to express his own disgust with himself and to take action to stop himself from succumbing to desire. The state of gender distress exacerbates Norman’s fragile mind in its state of arrested development and pushes him into a psychotic, homicidal rage, thus rendering him more monstrous in the eyes of the audience (Sullivan,1). In hindsight “Norma’s” outrage is a direct outline of the perception of transgenderism as in direct conflict with his “natural” adult sexual attraction for Marion (Palmer, 12) when he tries to invite her for dinner:
NORMAN: [voiceover as his mother] I won’t have you bringing some young girl in for supper! By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap, erotic fashion of young men with cheap, erotic minds! … “Mother, she’s just a stranger!” As if men don’t desire strangers! (Psycho,1960)
Contemporary views of masculinity directly effect the use of sexuality in both Psycho and Turn of the Screw. The masculinity of the uncle is not in question despite the fact that his neglect of his niece and nephew is borderline criminal. This neglect does not detract from his appeal to the young governess, whereas the implied crimes of the grounds keeper make him a menacing masculine force. Distance from the home front does not impact on the masculinity of the lord of the house whatsoever, but the only adult masculine figure in the recent history of the domestic life of Bly House comes immediately under suspicion. Miles then, as an emerging masculine force also comes under suspicion despite being still a child. This suspicion of the masculine role in the domestic environment plays a part in the governess’s gradually changing perception of the boy, who she begins to see as irredeemably corrupted and therefore corrupting. This loss of innocence robs Miles of his rights to safety as a child in the eyes of the governess as he becomes akin to the ghosts who haunt her.
What it was most impossible to get rid of was the cruel idea that, whatever I had seen, Miles and Flora saw more – things terrible and unguessable and that sprang from dreadful passages of intercourse in the past. (James, 59)
The horrifying eroticism of the ghosts as a projection of the subconscious of the governess (Miall, 325) and her desire to go against her sheltered upbringing by lusting after the uncle has the effect of transferring her transgressive impulses on to not just the ghosts themselves but by extension Miles and his young sister, Flora, robbing them of their innocence with no further proof than the testimony of her own unreliable narration. Her comments when referring to the young boy in particular become increasingly paranoid and accusatory: “He couldn’t play any longer at innocence; so how the deuce would he get out of it?” (James, 52)
In Psycho the viewer is confronted with an image of Marian Crane as an erotic figure, frequently depicted in her underwear, who ultimately meets her end naked, in the shower and at the mercy of a man, albeit a man dressing as a woman. She is the object of desire throughout the film, with very few male characters failing to objectify her in one manner or another. This erotic portrayal of Marion invites audience judgement, opening the door to viewing Marion as a woman of limited morality who is in conflict with the conventional, patriarchal social contract (Palmer, 12). Her affair with Sam, who unlike Norman is the perfect picture of 1960s masculinity, therefore he is allowed to indulge his desires, allows the audience to suspend disbelief that a nice girl could commit theft against people who trust her. The film therefore has the need to paint her as a vixen, rather than a maiden in distress. This invoking of the Madonna/whore dichotomy provides a method of objectifying Marion, allowing the film to carry on without her after her death, because while she is a relative innocent she is also the object that allows the story of Norman Bates to be told (Palmer, 15). She is an object of desire, and as such is bound to be doomed as in much preceding gothic fiction. Notable doomed objects of desire that set such a precedent include:  Lucy Westerna of Dracula (Stoker, 1897), Isobella Thorpe of Northanger Abbey (Austen, 1817), Lucy Audley (Braddon, 1862), Dorian Gray (Wilde, 1890) and Elizabeth the bride of Doctor Frankenstein (Shelley, 1818). Whilst not all of these characters deliberately position themselves as erotic or desirable, once they have been deemed as such within a gothic story their fate is essentially sealed.
The death of an innocent, or an innocent corrupted is perhaps the most striking similarity between the two texts, and many other gothic texts preceding it. Whether the viewer or reader subscribes to Marion as an innocent who is undeserving of her fate, and similarly accepts Miles as an innocent undeserving of his fate determines whether the parallel can be found between the death of Marion at the hands of Norman Bates and the possible death of Miles at the hands of his governess. Both the governess and Norman are in positions of power and their victims are very much at the mercy of their tortured and insane whims. Norman’s position as predator is strongly implied in the discourse over dinner, where both the camera angles and setting leave the viewer in no doubt that Marion is in some kind of danger. Not only does the camera angle put Norman in a domineering position by shooting from below him but he has birds of prey positioned behind him, whilst Marion has little birds, the prey of the predators, positioned around her;
The sexuality in these gothic texts is depicted as perilous and corrupting, with Marion and Miles being the ultimate victims of sexually linked psychosis. There are no clear victors in these texts, and the morality and sexuality of the audience is called into question with Hitchcock and James creating a confronting portrait of madness and dysfunctional psychoanalytically inspired eroticism, most poignantly during childhood developmental stages, gone disastrously, horrifically wrong.

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Austen, J. (2009). Northanger Abbey. [Auckland, N.Z.]: Floating Press.
Braddon, M. (2009). Lady Audley’s secret. [Auckland, N.Z.]: Floating Press.
James, H. (2014). Turn of the screw. New York: Open Road Media Mystery & Thriller.
Miall, D. (1984). Designed Horror: James’s Vision of Evil in The Turn of the Screw. Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 39(3), 305-327. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3044807
Palmer, R. (1986). The Metafictional Hitchcock: The Experience of Viewing and the Viewing of Experience in “Rear Window” and “Psycho”. Cinema Journal, 25(2), 4. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/1225456
Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock. (1960).
Renner, S. (1988). Sexual Hysteria, Physiognomical Bogeymen, and the “Ghosts” in The Turn of the Screw. Nineteenth-Century Literature, 43(2), 175-194. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3045173
Shelley, M., Bennett, B., & Robinson, C. (1990). The Mary Shelley reader. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stoker, B. & Luckhurst, R. (2011). Dracula. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sullivan, K. (2016). Ed Gein and the figure of the transgendered serial killer by K.E. Sullivan. Ejumpcut.org. Retrieved 11 June 2016, from http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC43folder/EdGein.html
Wilde, O. (2009). Dorian Gray. London: Penguin.

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