Book Review

Schwartz, Kathryn. Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Reviewed by Simone Chess | March 20, 2004

One-breasted, sharp-shooting warriors, Amazon women in early modern literature and culture could represent the dangers of otherness and the outside, the world. At the same time, Amazons played wives, lovers and mothers, demonstrating that they could also be domesticated and brought into the home. Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance, takes on the paradoxes inherent in Amazonian literary identity, and develops those complexities into a theoretical approach to examining gender, power, and the erotic in these texts. As Schwartz explains in her introduction, “the point is not whether Amazon’s ‘win’ or ‘lose’ in their battles with men, but rather the difficulty of telling the difference, as incorporation into the social makes the line between conquering Amazons and being invaded by them indecipherable” (3). In this way, the “spectacle of Amazonian domesticity is at least as disconcerting as it is triumphant” (3). Amazons in early modern English literature become a space for authors and audiences to explore the threats and allures of “deviant” sexual identities, sexed and gendered bodies, and gendered desire.

The Amazons that Schwartz examines in Tough Love function at once as cautionary examples, domestic allegories of out-of-control English women at home, erotic outlets, proto-feminist and anti-feminist exemplas, Elizabethan political commentary and incitements to early colonization. She explains, “if ‘Amazon’ can refer to history or myth or the new world or your queen or your wife, Amazons might be at once discovered and unknown”(22). The double figuration of the Amazon body that Schwartz focuses on is rooted in a trend to rewrite Amazons as mothers and wives (and even domestic queens!), reinscribed in the male heterosexual and homosocial system of power. Additionally, with their strange bodies and strange desires, Amazons confuse and complicate the heterosexual desire depicted in early modern texts. What does it mean to marry a masculine woman, to let her have children? How does this shift the heterosexual implications of the conventions of marriage and childbirth? In this way, the Amazon becomes a theoretical frame for reimagining the hetero and homoerotic, and blurring the lines between these erotic discourses. Schwartz argues that early modern narratives “are interested less in the Amazon’s resistance to patriarchy than in their participation in it”(3). Tough Love is an important analysis of the ways that the alien and exotic can also be a figuration of the local and domestic.

The book is divided into two parts: the first, “Abroad at Home: The Question of Queens” begins with a chapter that places Ralegh’s Guiana voyage in the context of several exploration narratives that also describe encounters with foreign Amazons. She focuses on how, even as “authentic” new world creatures, Amazons seem somehow familiar, “English”. Her second chapter’s exploration of Shakespeare’s chronicles, particularly 1 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI, draws attention to ruling women, and the difference between the “Amazonian” noun and the adjectival “playing an Amazon.” Finally, she looks to Daniel and Jonson’s constructions of female masculinity and female masquers in their Jacobean Queen’s Masques. The second part of the book, titled “Splitting the Difference: Homoeroticism and Home Life,” Schwartz questions the location of dominant masculinity, and theorizes that, rather than being linked to a male body, it is marked, in any body, but certain types of dominant power. She uses this section of Tough Love to examine women who take on this masculine power. Her fourth, fifth and sixth chapters take on, respectively, Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Britomart’s subversive strength, Sidney’s cross-dressing Amazon in The Arcadia, and finally, Shakespeare’s use of the queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Throughout, Schwartz uses the Amazon myth as a device through which she can trouble historical constructions and deconstructions of gendered social logic.

Calling on theorists and scholars who range from Lacan, Foucault, Sedgewick and Butler to Rambuss, Masten, Goldberg and Traub, Schwartz’s Tough Love contributes to the critical project of “queering the Renaissance” through the doubled and disputed figure of the Amazon. The book provides a new lens for looking at canonical and less often-studied texts. Though Schwartz’s project is at times over ambitious or vague, it offers an example of new ways to engage critical theory and early modern texts. For this reason, it is an important start toward conversations that engage themes of sexuality and gender in the early modern period with queer, feminist and cultural studies.

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