Emotion and Gender – Abstract

This is the abstract of my keynote paper at the Cultural History of Emotions in Premodernity Conference at Umeå, in Sweden, October 2008.

Emotions and Gender: The Case of Anger in Early Modern English Revenge Tragedies

Current debate in the cultural-historical study of the early modern emotions centres on the relation between the passions and the self. On the one hand, Michael Schoenfeldt (Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England, 1999) argues that notions of selfhood and identity took shape through the control of the passions in the early modern period. On the other hand, Gail Kern Paster in Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage (2004) recently stressed that humoral discourse emphasizes change and penetrability rather than identity and stasis. The body is not self-contained or self-controlled, but is in a constant state of flux with its environment, a condition that Paster calls “the humoral ecology.” If Schoenfeldt posits that identity is produced by the control of the passions, Paster argues that the historical self is not as stable as we tend to think: un-self-sameness in her view is the signal feature of early modern selfhood. The concept of gender plays an important role in the friction between these two models of emotions and selfhood. In Paster’s view, Schoenfeldt’s model ignores the realities of social and gender hierarchy in the early modern period. She writes that it presumes the existence of an ‘individual’ prior to biological and hierarchical classification.
I will argue that both Schoenfeldt and Paster’s concepts of the relation between emotions and the self exist in early modern culture, but they circulate in different institutional and political contexts. The category of gender plays a significant role in the conflicting discourses of emotion and self, a role that in my view is more dynamic than the biological and hierarchical classification Paster suggests. In my paper, I will focus on the representation of anger in early modern revenge tragedies. In some contexts, that emotion is represented as controllable and as contributing to a stable sense of masculine self. In other political contexts, however, anger is portrayed as uncontrolled and changeable, and associated with the feminine gender.
To analyse the role of gender in these historical views of emotions and the self, I will make use of Joan Scott’s theoretical model of gender as a category of historical analysis. In her model, gender is not primarily related to biological sex, but functions dynamically as a rhetorical tool in shaping relations of power. I will argue that when we read early modern revenge tragedies in the political context of the emerging nation state’s attempt to establish its monopoly on the right to punish and the resulting frictions with aristocratic traditions of blood revenge, we can see how gendered representations of anger function politically in early modern culture, and are not primarily related to biological hierarchies.

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