Online Publication of the South-Central Renaissance Conference

Review: Masculinity and Marian Efficacy in Shakespeare’s England, by Ruben Espinosa

Posted on July 2, 2012

Discoveries 29.1 (2012). 2 July 2012

Masculinity and Marian Efficacy in Shakespeare’s England. By Ruben Espinosa.
Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011. Pp. xii + 194. $84.83 cloth.

Reviewed by Sean Benson
University of Dubuque

Ruben Espinosa asserts that Shakespeare “infuse[s] his theater” with a “Marian efficacy that is profoundly substantial” (171), a claim that he substantiates in part. He argues that Shakespeare examines “phallocentric” masculinity, finds it wanting, and offers an alternative to it in Mary’s feminine strength and intercessory power—what he calls “efficacy.” The book, as he acknowledges, is a revision of his dissertation. On the good side, Espinosa marshals copious evidence for almost every substantive point he makes. Yet there is too much; the sources should have been winnowed down substantially. What passes for scholarly heft in a dissertation often makes for slow reading, and it would be difficult for undergraduates to sustain their attention through much of the book. Espinosa is also too dependent on a number of critics, particularly Janet Adelman and Katherine Eggert, both of whose views, because of the frequency with which he cites them, tend to subsume his own. And that’s too bad, as Espinosa does have an argument here.

Espinosa’s introduction, “Fracturing Mary: The Rise and Decline of the Cult of the Virgin Mary in England,” is actually broader than he suggests, beginning in the early centuries of the Church. Although his history of Mariology is engagingly written, it is largely extraneous and readers can safely skim it in order to see the points of tangency with Shakespeare’s plays. His first chapter focuses nicely on Joan La Pucelle as a Marian figure in 1 Henry VI. Espinosa demonstrates that, as far as the historical record is concerned, Joan did not compare herself to the Virgin Mary, but to other (biblical) figures. In 1 Henry VI, however, she draws on a Marian association to rally the French troops around her (1.3.57-61), demonstrating what Espinosa calls her ability to “organize community” (51). The Marian parallels are probably most pronounced in this one play, an outlier in this regard in the Shakespearean canon, and one would have liked to see Espinosa address the issue of Shakespeare’s likely coauthorship of the play. The same problem surfaces later in his discussion of Pericles, which Espinosa treats as wholly Shakespeare’s work.

Chapter 2 traces Marian intercession in The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure. He argues, first, that “Portia’s intercession at the moment that Antonio stands to lose his life could call to mind the lost intercessory power of the Virgin Mary” (65). Espinosa claims that by appearing at his trial, Portia is interceding for Antonio, as Mary is said to do for the believer, at the hour of his death. As tantalizing as the argument is, in this case it is too tenuous to be convincing, and Portia’s rough treatment of Shylock hardly fits the compassion Espinosa routinely associates with Mary. He is on firmer ground when he argues that Shakespeare makes a case for the power of female advocacy, both in Merchant and in Measure for Measure. In the latter play, Isabella intervenes powerfully with men, and Espinosa emphasizes what he regards as the “close parallel” (80) between Lucio’s “Hail, virgin” (1.4.16) and the angel Gabriel’s salutation to Mary, “Hail, thou that are highly favored” (Luke 1:28). For one who places such weight on the two words of Lucio’s greeting, it is surprising that Espinosa does not also view Mariana as a potential Marian figure; her name alone, not to mention her intercession with Isabella and the Duke, suggests a connection. In a later discussion of Pericles, for instance, he links Marina’s name with Mary (162). Espinosa does demonstrate that female intercession in Shakespeare’s plays can be quite powerful, and that sometimes (but not always) such intercession evokes Marian undertones.

Chapter 3 traces Marian aspects in the representations of Ophelia, Gertrude, Desdemona, and Cordelia. Espinosa’s attempts to read Ophelia, Gertrude, and later Cordelia as Marian figures are generally unpersuasive, and he even concedes in 5.3 of Lear, the Pietà scene, that “Lear—and not Cordelia—is ultimately aligned with the Virgin Mary” (125) when he carries Cordelia in in his arms. Espinosa often sees Marian influence everywhere, even in places where intercession is merely that. He also regards references to virginity as belonging solely to the Marian tradition when Elizabeth might also, or alternatively, be a referent; or when, as in Shakespeare’s pagan plays, the Vestal Virgins of Roman religion (or virgins such as Diana [166]) might also be in play. Espinosa tends to have a single-minded focus on Mary to the exclusion of other possibilities.

His argument regarding Desdemona as a Marian figure is more compelling; though, as he notes, the case has been made before. The chapter also contains two unusual perspectives. He first offers a plausible interpretation of Ophelia as a sexually experienced woman. He then reads, provocatively if irreverently, Ophelia’s account of an encounter with Hamlet in her closet (2.1.70-102) as suggesting that Hamlet masturbates in her presence (101-02). As outlandish as the claim appears on first glance, it is cleverly grounded in the play’s language.

Chapter 4 is a largely persuasive attempt to read Cleopatra, Marina, and Hermione as Marian figures. The exception is Cleopatra, who if anything is a parody of Mary, an argument that Espinosa makes compellingly in relation to Antiochus’s daughter in Pericles (159-60). This topic—Marian travesties—appears to be a rich area he could investigate further, especially since he spends so much time dealing with Protestant attempts to desacralize her. Espinosa’s assertion that Hermione’s statue recalls Catholic relics and Marian iconography is convincing and one of the best sections of the book. He relies here and elsewhere on Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, and to good effect.

Unfortunately, some of Espinosa’s comments on theology are tendentious. He indicts the “church Fathers” for their “hypocrisy about virginity” and claims, further, that “Catholics valued virginity only to allow prostitution as a necessary outlet for men . . .” (99, 101). The book’s title can give the impression that Shakespeare wrote crypto-Catholic plays, but nothing appears to be further from Espinosa’s intention. He reads Mary in terms of the largely secular benefits she can confer on the faithful—“mercy, compassion, and miraculous hope” (173). Espinosa examines her through a psychoanalytic and feminist lens, which is illuminating at times, but this method also distorts her religious significance. It is, for instance, hard to recognize the mother of God of Christian theology in the Mary who blandly “organizes community” or has “power to influence and help organize belief and self-perception” (170).

Moreover, Espinosa claims that Mary’s relation vis-à-vis the Trinity involves both “the undeniable trace of incest” (158) as well as “polyamory” (161). As happens in many dissertations, Espinosa appears to be unduly influenced by contemporary literary scholars; more attention to trained theologians would have helped him avoid such statements. He also posits that Mary represents a feminine, compassionate side in relation to the allegedly all-male Trinity and Church hierarchy. While he argues this point somewhat persuasively, he does not mention the ancient and orthodox understanding of God as spirit, as neither male nor female. Such theology would challenge his dichotomy of spiritual and temporal gender roles, and surely would have been valuable in a book devoted to Mariology and gender identity.

In the end, Espinosa wants us to consider “the enduring promise of the Virgin Mary in the works and the world that followed Shakespeare” (175). This book is the work of a promising scholar who, although he has occasionally read Marian influence too exclusively and too pervasively in Shakespeare’s drama, has nonetheless demonstrated her lingering, post-Reformation, presence in a number of the plays.