The seventeenth century – and the times before that – were not particularly great times to live in as a woman. Today we live in a mostly patriarchal society where men often have a lot more to say than women, but we also have feminism and feminist theory. Simone de Beauvoir states that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” , which suggests the society at large and its arbitrary rules concerning boys and girls, men and women, are what makes certain things feminine and thus, part of the female gender. We have critical engagement with the concept of gender as well, which is described by Judith Butler as being “a performance—that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing.” . This means that gender is not fixed, but acted out in manners according to social conventions. In earlier times, though, awareness about gender was much less present, and gender roles were kept intact much more strongly than today. However, not everyone always did. While writers were certainly bound by conceptions regarding gender, through the use of voice, they had a certain sense of freedom and an ability to speak their minds implicitly. Voice is term used in this essay to describe not what the author or narrator says, but what is conveyed beyond a regular surface reading of a text. Voice may reveal an author’s attitude or opinion that conflicts with the most literal meaning of a text. In order to explore the concept of gender, gender stereotypes and conventions and the way writers defied this in and around the seventeenth century, the use of voice will be applied to two relevant historical texts: Elizabeth I’s Speech to the Troops at Tilbury and Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. The former is a speech which Elizabeth I is thought to have written herself and orated in anticipation of an imminent invasion by the Spanish, which she famously delivered without her guard detail and during which she walked among her armed troops. The latter is a very well-known Carpe Diem poem written some sixty years later, in which a narrator tries to seduce an unknown lady. A surface reading of both texts will be given in order to illustrate how a text might at a glance be interpreted, both now and at the times they were written. A comparative reading, which makes use of the concept of voice for each text, will also begiven for each text to gain insight in what the author might have intended to convey that would be inappropriate, if not impossible, to state overtly.
On a surface level reading, in her Speech to the Troops at Tilbury, Elizabeth I can be considered a strong woman, defiant of the limitations that come with her gender. At the same time, however, she can be found adhering to some patriarchal and societal rules. For instance, Elizabeth states how she, despite being advised to be careful of how she “committed herself to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery” , doesn’t fear the many armed men in front of her, and places her trust in them. Rather than having a proper armed escort, she walks among her troops, after which she states her intent to fight in battle, to “live and die amongst you all” . This shows her defiance towards her gender; it was virtually unheard of that a woman would walk among armed soldiers, let alone fight with them. She also mentions not coming for “recreation and pleasure” – something many might feel is feminine, as the men were the ones warring and defending the country. This distances her further from her role as woman in her society. Her attitude towards her gender continues when she scorns her female body and says how she has “the heart and stomach of a king” . The statement strongly conveys a feeling of empowerment, showing that women, too, are able to fight. The speech, however, ends with Elizabeth stating she will not lead the men after all, but that the Earl of Leicester would do so in her stead , thereby somewhat mitigating the empowering message and adhering to the societal limitation that a woman could not possibly lead an army, and indeed placing a man in charge instead.
A closer reading, more so still than a surface reading, reveals a strong Elizabeth, who not only is strong and defiant, but also very aware of her gender and the limitations that she faces, and as much as she can, defies them. When Elizabeth goes among her troops, she not only is strong and trusting, but also states how she ignored advice about going. Since the advice was given by military advisors, and therefore by men, the voice in this part reveals a woman standing up to a group of patriarchal men. Her defiance against patriarchy persists throughout the speech, when she says she will fight with the soldiers against the Spanish as the only woman among many men. Aside from rising up against patriarchal norms, however, she also displays a keen awareness of the patriarchal structure she lives in, as well as some knowledge of the fact that gender roles are performative and therefore not fixed, even though this was only argued in the 1990s. Elisabeth uses masculine terms throughout the speech, such as “chiefest strength”, “honor”, “valor”, and “blood” , not only to appeal to her audience, but possibly also to convey through voice that she feels more masculine than she is seen as. She mentions her female body before describing herself as having “the heart and stomach of a king” . By stating that she feels unbound to her female body in terms of identity, through voice, she implies she feels that gender is indeed only a performance. Another example of Elizabeth’s awareness concerning the patriarchal structure of the time is that she does not lead the army in the end. While it may seem less empowering than the rest of the speech in a first read, it does show that Elizabeth, stretching the limits of what she as single woman can do, is aware that this line is not something she can cross. In the speech she appoints a renowned leader to command the army. This is somewhat made to fit the socially acceptable norms by citing his virtues and him being the most “noble or worthy subject” , but at the same time, on a voice level, she is reinforcing her authority and rights by at the least choosing herself who is to lead, rather than her advisors making that decision for her.
Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress is, at least on a surface level, a lot less feminist and empowering than the speech by Elizabeth I, and seemingly reinforces gender roles for both males and females. The poem, written in an iambic tetrameter, is a dramatic monologue in which the male speaker sets out an argument of why his audience, an unknown woman, should make love to him. The narrator can quickly be discerned as being stereotypically masculine, as he makes use of ostentatious language, and lusts after the female. Initially, he addresses his lady’s coyness, which he tries throughout the poem to dispel. To this end, the first stanza is placed in an ideal world, where the narrator says that he “would love you ten years before the Flood, and you should, if you please, refuse till the conversion of the Jews” – that is millennia long. This would allow him to allot time to adore his lady’s physical aspects, spending a hundred years on “thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze; two hundred to adore each breast, but thirty thousand to the rest” . This hyperbole portrays the lust of the narrator, and both sexualises and objectifies the woman, thus keeping both masculine and feminine gender roles in place. The narrator goes on to describe a personified Time as both his and his lady’s villain, describing a “wingèd chariot hurrying near” . This vilification, as well as the allusion to the woman’s vanity by saying that “Thy beauty shall no more be found” and that “worms shall try that long-preserved virginity” , further reinforces gender roles; the man caring primarily about her appearance rather than her personality, and the woman always being concerned with beauty. The use of a pun, saying that the worms shall “your quaint honor turn to dust” – quaint being a derivative of queynte, a synonym for a woman’s privates – further supports the masculine sense of desire. Ultimately, the poem concludes with the narrator outright asking for sexual intercourse, saying they should “like amorous birds of prey” proceed to “tear our pleasures with rough strife” . The phrasing – especially ‘rough strife’ – is very masculine. The fact that the poem’s final stanza is specifically about having sex adds to the stereotype of the narrator as typically masculine, as well as to the objectification of the woman he addresses.
Contrasted to this stereotypical portrayal of gender roles one might read in the poem is an argument that arises from a closer reading that once again incorporates the voice, and a more nuanced – and gender defying – portrayal of both the narrator and the woman in question might be found. While it remains undeniable that the narrator actively lusts after the woman, and badly wishes to have sexual intercourse with her, it is possible to also consider him a caring, loving person who respects the lady he tries to woo. He displays affection towards her, and upturns gender conventions by creating a different world where he pays homage to her in his monologue. He describes his immense devotion to her by stating just how long he would wait by means of a biblical hyperbole, and says his love would be “vaster than empires” . He states how he would spend thousands of years adoring her, which indeed reveals a kindness beyond what might be expected of him as man. This might be read as sexualising the woman. However, through voice, it is implied that the narrator would serve the lady, rather than the other way around as gender roles would command. The presentation of the narrator as lustful continues through the second stanza, but a certain sense of worry and caring are nonetheless present through the voice, although somewhat obscured by the sexual desires on the narrator’s part. He wants her to lose her virginity to him rather than to worms . This is simultaneously driven by desire and longing for her, and by concern for her pride and honour; losing her virginity to a lifeform like worms would do her greater dishonour than having sexual intercourse. In the third stanza, the question to have sex seems mostly to stem from the narrator’s lust, but again, a deeper implied concern is present; the woman’s pleasure is also important, as seen by referring to “our sweetness” and “our pleasures” rather than solely his own. Again, this is not in agreement with traditional views on sex, which placed the man’s pleasure above that of the serving woman who is lusted after. The woman, too, can be seen as stereotype defying, to some degree. She does strongly adhere to the idea that women are expected to be virtuous, and by having her as focus for the narrator’s lust, she is unquestionably sexually objectified. However, by portraying her as unwilling to cooperate with the narrator, she is at the same time in defiance of her gender role, and portrayed as strong enough to withstand the patriarchal idea of women’s primary purpose being in servitude of men. Furthermore, due to the more nuanced view of the woman given through the voice, she is no longer solely a lust object. In the end of the poem, with the implied union between the narrator and the woman, they are placed on equal footing with one another, with both being able to find enjoyment, and both able to “tear our pleasures with rough strife” . In the closing lines of the poem, it is even implied with a biblical allusion that only with both the male and female genders as equals can the sun be moved; Joshua could “make our sun stand still”, being a sole man, while they “will make him run” together.
Both Elizabeth I and Andrew Marvell lived in times where patriarchy was much more present than it is in our current society, but it did not stop them from attempting to identify and defy it. Regardless of their background – Elizabeth being the queen, bound to even more rules than most women, and Marvell being a man who therefore did not experience the masculine oppression as a woman would – they took up their pen and dealt with it. They used voice throughout their texts to bring nuance and a degree of acceptance regarding gender that was far beyond their times. Both authors are still being read and discussed to this day. It can therefore be hoped that their progressive attitudes inspire readers, now and in the future, to keep up a fight for a society where people of all genders can live in harmony and acceptance, unbound by patriarchal notions.