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Sid Ray, Mother Queens and Princely Sons: Rogue Madonnas in the Age of Shakespeare (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

Sid Ray, Mother Queens and Princely Sons: Rogue Madonnas in the Age of Shakespeare (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). ISBN: 978-1-137-003379-9, 210 pp. £50.00.

Reviewed by Thomas Rist


[1] The Virgin Mary is having a Renaissance. The evidence is in Miri Rubin’s Mother of God (2009) and Marina Warner’s recent reassessment in The London Review of Books (8 November, 2012) of Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. It is also visible in early modern studies, where the revisions to the Reformations of the last two decades have led to significant historical works on Mary by Christine Peters and Diarmaid McCulloch among others. In early modern literary studies, Regina Buccola and Lisa Hopkins have given us Marian Moments in Early Modern British Drama (2007); Dominic Janes and Gary Waller have presented Walsingham in Literature and Culture from the Middle Ages to Modernity (2010); Rubin Espinosa has published Masculinity and Marian Efficacy in Shakespeare’s England (2011); and now Sid Ray gives us Mother Queens and Princely Sons. Underlying each of these literary studies are fundamental questions, asked by the likes of Eamon Duffy and Christopher Haigh in the final decade of the last century, about what England’s Reformation was. The picture that has emerged is of an England of conflicted religion long after Elizabeth I became queen in 1558 and made the country officially Protestant – a gift to scholars of the literature of the age already interested in the subversively political, since their studies now extend to the subversively religio-political. And of benefit to literary study more generally, since the literary now speaks as a historical source for post-Reformation scholarship. Literature quietly venerating Mary, it transpires, is one kind of evidence for an un-reformed England that survived long after England was officially reformed. Like the previous books in the field I have mentioned, Ray’s focus on the Virgin ‘in the age of Shakespeare’ thus contributes to a complex set of recent intellectual interests with significant and wide-ranging implications.

[2] Like those books, Ray is also interested in Mary’s feminist possibilities – immediately so when naming and shaming twentieth century theorists for ‘stubbornly selective historicising’ of the Virgin (p. 12); but with early modern purchase when noting that: ‘Protestants regarded Madonna and Child icons as inverting at least three unassailable hierarchies: that of God over human, that of male over female, and that of husband over wife’ (p. 9). This feminism sees the Reformation as anti-, and the preceding eras of Catholicism as relatively pro-, women, in a style recalling Frances Dolan (whom Ray cites more than once) in Whores of Babylon: Catholicism, Gender and Seventeenth-Century Print Culture (repr. 2005). Yet it is one thing to show Marian subversions as a proto-feminism in the era’s ‘Protestant patriarchalism’ (p. 129) – though the argument would have benefitted from more early modern examples; but it is another to use it as an effective critical tool for interpreting particular plays, mainly by Shakespeare, as this study would do. For while Marian images, fragments and controversies are certainly everywhere in his culture, they are almost nowhere explicit in Shakespeare, if, as Ray does, one excludes the playwright’s 238 evocations of the oath ‘Marry’. In a scenario where art is not easily reducible to culture, Ray must bridge the gap between a grand narrative of feminine disempowerment centring on the reform of Mary and would-be feminist readings of Shakespearean plays where the Virgin can be hard to find. The book best achieves this aim where cases of Catholicism or Marianism in the drama are relatively clear-cut.

[3] The Winter’s Tale has been repeatedly noted for its Catholicism and Marianism: its debt to Catholic ritual is now largely beyond doubt. Ray does a decent job of bringing out the salient points: the sixteen years of Leontes’ penance (p. 120), the ‘statue’ in the ‘chapel’ (p. 125) and the ‘context of forbidden art’ (p. 128). Only what Alison Shell has called the ‘dehistorisized critic’ can today miss the Catholic in these phenomena, so Ray’s further points – that the play ‘explores and critiques the unchecked power of Jacobean patriarchalism through family analogies to the state’ (p. 119), including fascinating analogies to James I and his Catholic queen, Anna of Denmark (pp. 122-3); that ‘Mamilius and Herminone are a Madonna and child’ (p. 121); that Leontes ‘Taking his wife for a harlot is the flip side of the status she shares with the Virgin Mary, who … was transfigured after the Reformation into the whore of Babylon’ (p. 123); and that Paulina’s chapel seems ‘recusant’ (p. 125) – are all well-founded, advancing understandings of the play. Ray is also on solid ground discussing Macbeth, with its equally established allusions to Father Garnet, the Gunpowder Plot and equivocation. Although I remain to be convinced that Lady Macbeth presents ‘Shakespeare’s most notorious of Rogue Madonnas’ (p. 81), the Dolan-inspired claim that she ‘embodies Protestant anxieties about the powerful version of Mary venerated by Catholics’ (p. 81), but in a play where ‘Shakespeare critiques Protestant excesses as well as Catholic ones’ (p. 87), is largely persuasive.

[4] Where Shakespeare’s plays touch the religio-political of the time less overtly, or through histories as yet undiscovered, the argument is less effective. Frequently evoking the king’s two bodies of Ernst Kantorowicz is Ray’s interesting way of thinking about male and female in the domestic setting, but it does not easily produce analogies for Mary and her family in Shakespeare. Although the readings of The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, Henry V and (the one non-Shakespearean play considered) The Duchess of Malfi, are often insightful regarding gender, they do not clearly lead either to arguments about Mary or her dramatisation. Webster’s play might fruitfully, perhaps, have linked Kantorowicz to Mary, since it stages the Marian shrine at Loretto, but Ray never discusses the shrine.

[5] The larger problem is the un-bridged gap between broadly feminist and Marian dramatic perspectives alluded to. Although the book sometimes tries to overcome this by claiming the plays are allegory (p. 15) or through moments of historicism, the development of both approaches is limited and the concept of the Rogue Madonna itself is based on a fragmentary and rather potted history. Mother Queens and Princely Sons contributes to a growing and worthwhile field of early modern literary study. A bigger and richer book on the subject, though, remains to be written.

University of Aberdeen, November 2013