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., 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., Web. 28 Oct. 2016.

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