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- Depictions of destructive queens in medieval and early modern British texts function as cultural responses to the alien power of queens in their maternal role in monarchical succession and to anxieties about conceptions of dynastic time. This recurrent figuration is embodied as a sequence of transformative, supernatural women with animal attributes, especially those of the strix ("screech-owl"), who prey upon royals and infants in a way that thematically combines death with consumption. The figuration appears in a range of manifestations in mythological classical, biblical, and Celtic texts, as well as in law codes. Its recurring, identifiable traits provide a trope that informs later depictions of problematic queens and their rule. The destructive queens who appear in William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum (1135), the 12th-century Liber Eliensis, Thomas of Britain's mid-12th-century Tristran, Geoffrey Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale (1380s), and William Shakespeare's Macbeth (ca. 1606), while serving varying textual functions, all operate within the features of the strix figuration. The power of these queens appears in symbolic ways that reverse or distort their expected maternal and royal duties into metaphorical images of usurpation and division. Resonating with imagery associated with the Old Irish horse goddess Macha and the Germanic valkyries, the Liber Eliensis' representation of Ælfthryth constructs the queen according to hagiographical conventions as a locally pagan figure who persecutes and martyrs Ely's first abbot. Through contrasting depictions and the Anglo-Saxon tradition of portraying individuals according to the etymology of their names, the narrative simultaneously frames the lustful witch, Queen Ælfthryth, the founder of Wherwell convent, as a reciprocal or paired figure with the saintly Queen Æthelthryth, the founder of Ely monastery. Through Queen Ysolt's lai about a lady who eats her lover's heart and Cariado's comment that she herself is a "fresaie," Thomas' Tristran frames the queen as a strix figure. The reflecting images in the lai and Cariado's comment structure the poem to include a mise-en-abyme that foreshadows the similarly thematic manner in which Tristan will meet his death. Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale casts the Sultaness as a lamia (literally a "serpent under femynynytee") and a strix figure and highlights the monstrous maternity associated both with her and her counterpart, Queen Donegild. Their interferences into the succession are figured as violent ruptures, contrasting with Queen Custance, whose productivity and symbolic absence provide a continuity that connects the ruling men in the royal family. This figuration also informs the characterization of Macbeth's Lady Macbeth in order to provide a fragmentary monster, representative of a type of queenship that can be rejected in favor of King James' new, masculine rule, imaginatively (if not in reality) free from the threats of queenly power.This literary figuration of destructive strong women, initially unrelated to queens, reemerges in these narratives, illustrating its unique utility to later monarchical societies in expressing fears about the stability of political identity, time, and kingly power. The recurrence of this figure across time gestures toward a trans-historical typology and establishes the queen's alien threat to dynastic succession as a perpetual condition. The queen's potential as a source of rupture in the monarchy causes her to endure and recur as a site for cultural fears about succession and concepts of monarchical time. Thus, the figure of the destructive queen, in offering a crucial example of continuity across multiple eras, challenges conventional periodization.
- Dissertation Note:
- Ph.D. Pennsylvania State University 2015.
- Technical Details:
- The full text of the dissertation is available as an Adobe Acrobat .pdf file ; Adobe Acrobat Reader required to view the file.
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