Hamlet Mourning and Misogyny: Hamlet, The Revenger's Tragedy, and the Final Progress of Elizabeth I, 1600-1607
by William Shakespeare

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Mourning and Misogyny: Hamlet, The Revenger's Tragedy, and the Final Progress of Elizabeth I, 1600-1607

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Steven Mullaney, University of Michigan


In 1597, André Hurault, Sieur De Maisse and Ambassador Extraordinary from Henri IV, noted that although the English people still professed love for their aging queen, the sentiments of the nobility were such that "the English would never again submit to the rule of a woman."1 There may have been more coincidence between high and low opinion than de Maisse thought. On the evening of Elizabeth's death six years later, the streets of London were lit by festive bonfires and punctuated by cries of "We have a king!"2 The advent of an orderly and Protestant succession does not in itself account for such a celebratory spirit; in fact, it was a significant transformation in the body politic, a reincorporation and regendering of monarchy, that was being heralded. Rather than a seamless transition of power reminding all the populace that the corporate body of the monarch was immortal, unchanging, and unaltered by the demise of a particular sovereign, the death of Elizabeth marked a breach in the body politic as much as a continuation of it, and one that could be figured, at least by some, as a welcome discontinuity. The queen is dead—long live the king.

There were extensive and sincere eulogies, to be sure, heartfelt expressions of grief over the passing of Elizabeth, but during the last years of her reign the "political misogynism of the early years"3 had also resurfaced strongly throughout her court and beyond its confines. It would not take many years of Jacobean rule to complicate the desire for a male sovereign, of course. As Christopher Haigh has noted, an idealized portrait of Elizabeth as a shrewd ruler and capable strategist emerged gradually over the first decade of James's reign, oftentimes in the form of a "coded commentary" on the defects of that reign.4 But the recuperation and even reinvention of such a queen—Gloriana, the Virgin Queen, who had reigned for a remarkable span of forty-five years—seems a more complicated cultural process than Haigh's pragmatic account suggests. It is this process of accommodation and revision, marked as it is by an uncertain economy between mourning and misogyny, that I wish to examine here; I am interested not only in Elizabeth herself but also in the complex and ambivalent affective process that her death allows us to glimpse—a process that might be called mourning under the sign of patriarchy. Indeed, the possibility I wish to entertain is that, for the Renaissance, (male) mourning is sometimes difficult to dissociate from misogyny: that misogyny may in fact be an integral part of the mourning process when the lost object or ideal being processed is a woman, especially but not exclusively when that woman is a queen of England, too.

Human emotions are no more free from historical and cultural construction than are genders or ideologies or gestures; that is to say, emotions and other forms of human affect have a history, or rather histories, since the differences traced by cultural historians, historical psychologists, and anthropologists must be charted along specific cultural, regional, communal, and geopolitical axes as well as temporal ones.5 When dealing with a contemporaneous or "living" culture, however, affective life is relatively accessible: an anthropologist may not only be able to discriminate between a wink and a blink (to use Clifford Geertz's famous example)6 but may also be able to postulate with some success, through interviews with informants, the "structures of feeling" that invest ostensibly common or shared human emotions with cultural difference.7 But when fieldwork is limited to archival interrogations of past cultures, an impassable interpretive aporia is soon reached, such that the analysis of even public and recorded expressions of emotions is difficult and fraught with uncertainty—an uncertainty that increases considerably, needless to say, when one moves from the domain of gestures or externalized behavior to the domain of...

(The entire section is 13,119 words.)