Tag Archives: literature

Gender and Otherness in “The Tempest”

By Miranda Garno Nesler

Previous work on Performing Humanity has explored the (in)human condition of Caliban, Sycorax’s enslaved son in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c. 1611). Caliban’s condition — as monster, human, native, and displaced inheritor of the island — garners regular attention in a world increasingly interested in post-colonial theory and its implications past and present.

At a recent performance of The Tempest hosted by BSU, however, I was struck by how little attention Ariel receives as a slave and Other within the play. During post-performance Q&A, the female actor who played the role discussed how Ariel is a “fun, airy figure” who is “joyful and fun to play.”  Is Ariel a light figure?  Certainly the play positions this spirit as someone who, like air or water, is changeable and hard to pin down.  Ariel is an elemental whose shifting nature is at odds with the physical world of the island.  Indeed, Shakespeare makes this contrast clear when every threat targeting Ariel involves punishment through physical constraint: captivity within a pine or an oak that will ground and concretize in a way that runs counter to Ariel’s own mercurial makeup.Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 10.37.54 AM

But we cannot deny that Ariel, like Caliban, is enslaved.  This enslavement, much like the threats of physicality imposed by sorcerers Sycorax and Prospero, highlights Ariel’s resistance to performing according to commands (as well as Ariel’s ultimate acquiescence under duress).  Unlike Caliban, Ariel seeks to reason with the master Prospero rather than violently threatening or rebelling, and Ariel rhetorically reminds Prospero that as a man and a Duke he is honor bound to keep his work and free the spirit within the promised time-frame.

If Caliban is oppressed because of his physical and linguistic differences from the Italian Prospero and Miranda, what justifies Ariel’s enslavement?  What markers set Ariel apart when, ostensibly, the spirit could easily generate the illusion of a physical appearance like his captors’?

My long-term contact with this play has me convinced that, for Ariel, it is androgyny that leads to Otherness.  Within the text, there are no sexed or gendered markers linked to the figure.  While Prospero at times uses diminutives such as “chick” to speak to his airy slave, even this is a term that would be used for a child (who, within early modern belief and practice, by which all children were dressed and treated the same until schooling age, had yet to fully conform to a particular gender).  As a spirit of air, Ariel highlights the shifting nature of gender as it was perceived during the period — as such, Ariel is a figure who awakens anxiety about what counts as male/female and masculine/feminine, and what this means for the period’s legal and social systems.

Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 10.39.59 AMI’ve discussed elsewhere on the blog how Galenic theory and the single-sex model led to anxiety about men and women’s transformative capacities based on their behavior; and I’ve discussed how problematic the legal and social responses were that sought to dehumanize women in order to generate reliable hierarchies.  Ariel’s enslavement, therefore, seems to fit within this category of action.  Rather than allowing Ariel to shift at will, a Western patriarchal figure in the guise of Prospero must Other this androgynous figure to dehumanize it, then must take control of how, when, and where Ariel’s shifting occurs so that Ariel works in service of patriarchal, hetero-normative goals of dynastic marriage and reproduction.

In my reading of Ariel, this character’s ability to deploy rhetoric and call upon systems of honor and law valued within Western patriarchy suggest that a figure of blended sex and gender troubles the idea that humanness during the period only emerges out of male masculinity.





Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is an Assistant Professor of Early Modern Literature at Ball State University in Indiana. Her work emphasizes the disruptive capacities of silence in women’s writing and performance, as well as human-animal hybridity in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. She is the editor of “Performing Humanity.”



1)  Henry Fuseli, “Ariel,” c. 1800-10. Oil on canvas, approx. 36.5 ” x 28 . The Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

2) “Ariel,” in An Illustrated Shakspere Birthday Book (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1883).

Notably, both images portray Ariel as neither stably sexed nor gendered, with the physical markers of sex strategically covered.


Bestial Empowerment: Approaching Polymorphous Nature

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

In a recent PMLA article, early modern scholar Melissa E. Sanchez seeks to “make available a mode of reading that reintegrates some of the foundational work of queer theory […] into understandings of female sexuality” (493).  Examining The Faerie Queene and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sanchez reads against the grain by deemphasizing the moments of masculine power or feminine subservience so often studied within the texts. Rather, she emphasizes moments of “deviant” female sexuality as instances of female empowerment:  Guyon’s intrusion into the Naked Damsels’ sado-masochistic bath, Hellenore’s decision to perform orgiastic sex with satyrs rather than go home to her impotent husband, and Helena’s self-figuration as an animal desirous of men and women’s violent sexual advances. Such instances trouble hetero-normative gender assumptions that male-female sex always disempowers women; they further unveil and disrupt problematic gender assumptions that homoerotic female couplings are necessarily egalitarian, emotional, or companionate.  For Sanchez, these moments urge us to perform readings of early modern texts that break free from rigid modern categories to instead embrace the polymorphous nature of Renaissance sexuality.  By extension, such reading urges us to perform more truly “queer” analysis that defies binarism.

By drawing attention to bestiality as one empowering mode of deviant sexuality for female literary characters, Sanchez’s research taps into issues at the heart of “Performing Humanity.”  Questions of bestiality enter into and complicate women’s roles as social, legal, and sexual subjects during the Renaissance.  Previous posts by Brittany S.Marc K., and myself have discussed how conduct literature, art, science, law, and religion represented women as unstable hybrids.  Women were considered part human, part animal, wholly dangerous, wholly helpless, and always in need of masculine containment.  Yet when bestiality becomes a site of empowerment, it becomes what I call “disruptive compliance”–an act through which an individual’s compliance with social expectation disrupts rather than reaffirms the dominant social order.  If women were, in fact, animals as law/religion/science posited, then it would be only natural for them to couple with other beasts.  Female literary characters’ participation in bestiality, however, causes uproar and as a result draws attention to three problematic possibilities: 1) That women are human despite social traditions’ assertion, and therefore are treated unfairly under law,  2) That women are beasts and implicate human men in bestiality when marital or non-marital erotic couplings occur.  A third possibility arises in cases like Hellenore’s, when sexual activity takes place between a women and a man-beast hybrid such as a satyr or centaur.  Such instances draw attention to the fact that just as women might be animal-human hybrids, so too might men regardless of their socially vaunted physical and rational capacities.  From the perspective of “Performing Humanity,” Sanchez’s work does double duty.  Not only does it remind us that Renaissance sexuality was polymorphous, but that human status was as well.


Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is the editor of “Performing Humanity” and is an assistant professor of early modern and medieval literature at Ball State University in Indiana.  Her current book project, Disruptive Compliance: Silent Women in Stuart Drama, argues that through the strategic use of silence, women were able to generate space for dramatic authorship and acting in the Renaissance.


Image: Piero di Cosimo, “A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph.” (Italy, c. 1495).

Sanchez, Melissa E. “‘Use Me But as Your Spaniel’: Feminism, Queer Theory, and Early Modern Sexualities.” PMLA 127:3 (May 2012), 493-511.

Pygmalion’s Transformative Influences in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew

By Miranda W.

The transformation of Pygmalion’s beloved statue in Ovid’s Metamorphoses influences transformation in Renaissance literature and drama. One example is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which draws from this classical myth via Petruchio’s transformation of Kate. Barbara Roche Rico stresses that Shakespeare “uses the myth to expose and to examine the issue of artistic control in its public and private forms.[ …] While Pygmalion carves and pampers his image, Petruchio asserts control over Kate, until she is carved and molded into shape” (288). Both the myth and the play pay particular attention to the treatment of the woman by the man, or to the creation by the artist. Yet Pygmalion praises his statue while Petruchio torments Kate. Petruchio, like Pygmalion, is not satisfied with Nature’s creation of women and therefore seeks to create his own: “Of such proportion, shape, and grace as nature never gave/Nor can to any woman give” (Ovid X. 266-267). Rico shows the relation to the Renaissance, saying that,  “in one sense the Pygmalion myth would seem to embody the ideal of Renaissance poetics, dramatizing both the artist’s wish to move his audience and his desire to create a world more perfect than Nature’s own” (286). Just as paintings often depicted men as fearful of women during the Renaissance, Pygmalion predated their concerns. For this reason Taming was “darkened by its medieval precursors, tales of seduction and idolatry, allegories about the threat of women and of art” (287).

While Pygmalion’s statue transforms into a live woman, Kate’s transformation is more psychological and temperamental. Even so, in each tale a man causes a woman to change one form for another. Lise Pederson says that both The Taming of the Shrew and Pygmalion contain the act of when “a man accepts the task of transforming a woman from one kind of person to another” (33). The differences are in the methods of how the woman is transformed. Pygmalion prays to the goddess Venus to turn his love into a real human being, while Petruchio takes the “taming” of Kate violently into his own hands.

Paul Barolsky brings in the tale of Narcissus to relate to Pygmalion, recognizing both as figures artists: “Although their stories end differently, with Narcissus’s love unrequited and Pygmalion’s realized, this difference should not obscure our understanding that both fables are tales of how the artist falls in love with his own creation, as Ovid metamorphoses one tale into the other” (453). While Pygmalion does not find a woman beautiful enough to satisfy him, and sculpts the woman of his dreams, Kate is a woman that no man wants because of her shrewd ways. Petruchio doesn’t fall in love with Kate the way Pygmalion falls in love with his statue, but both women transform into the women that the men desire.

The comical Taming of the Shrew image (above) shows the man’s power over the woman’s transformation; he hauls her over his shoulder while her mouth is wide open in protest. The bright costumes insist the situation is comical and does not show the “threat of women”. Representations of transformation continue from Ovid, to Shakespeare, to drama and literature today.


Image: “The Taming of the Shrew.” Carmel Shakespeare Festival, October 2003.  Wikimedia Commons (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/taming_of_the_shrew)

Barolsky, Paul.  “As in Ovid, so in Renaissance Art.” RSA (summer 1998): 451-74.

Pederson, Lise.  “Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew vs. Shaw’s Pygmalion: Male Chauvinism vs. Women’s Lib?” (UPenn Press, 1974).

Rico, Barbara Roche. “From Speechless Dialect to Prosperous Art: Shakespeare’s Recasting of the Pygmalion Image.” (University of California Press, 1985).


Mermaids and Sirens: Women’s Relationship with Water from Myth to Renaissance

By Elysia S.
 Though Renaissance ideas of the mermaid shape our modern vision of her, we can trace her origins as polymorphous character back to pre-literary visual records. Arguably this is where the mermaid’s power lies–not in her unabashed sexuality, as early modern artists asserted, but rather in her changeability.  This quality ties her with the sea. Women’s symbolic relationship to water has even been referenced as far back as the charter myths of the Assyrians, Mesopotamians, and Sumerians. According to Sumerian reliefs, the world was born as Abizu, the bisexual, primordial sea. Abizu was composed of the male fresh water named Abzu and female salt water named Tiamat. Coincidentally, A. A. Barb notes that Abizu is one of the many names of Hebrew demonic entity, Lilith. We see the name transcending regional and religious mythology, still maintaining however, its original definition: “of the sea” (Barb 7).

The sirens, bird-woman and the first representations of what we now call the mermaid, are usually attributed to the oldest water divinity, Achelous. Their existence is problematic because there are multiple stories describing how the sirens gained or lost wings and came to the water. Meri Lao explains that, in one version of the story, the sirens are banished to the sky by a jealous Aphrodite. In another, their wings are torn off by the Muses after the sirens dared challenge them to a singing contest (Lao 29). Even as creatures of the sky, they drown themselves when they fail to seduce Ulysses.

This return to the sea and its symbolic relationship is also demonstrative of the knowledge possessed by sirens. Lao states, “It is of the marine element, and thus prophetic and secret […] sirens call to man, urging him to abandon what he is…fear of the sirens is the fear of upsetting the established equilibrium, of transforming, of being replaced” (21). Lilith and Tiamat were said to possess similar knowledge: the kind that wreaks fear in the hearts of men. Lao describes said marine knowledge as ambivalent: water can be both a blessing and a curse. She says, “All the vital processes take place in aqueous substance […] in Greek mythology, rivers are the passage to the underworld” (20). Consequently, any woman tied to water or marine instinct should be feared for possessing the capability to dispense both death and immortality.

Before and during the Renaissance, the mermaid existed as a sort of anti-woman. For authors such as Poliziana, Milton, and Calderόn de la Barca, the mermaid’s knowledge or beauty led men from their paths to righteousness. The Catholic Church accepted this imagery, using the mermaid in masonry and carving for nearly 600 years. To Catholic priests, she was the temptress standing, or swimming, between a man and God (Philpotts 50). Michelangelo’s, The Fall of Man and his Expulsion from Paradise, further perpetuates this fear of the sexualized, learned woman. The figure seducing Adam and Eve at the Tree of Knowledge is a woman with a serpentine tail, reminiscent of the mermaid in shape and substance.

The question remains, is the mermaid subhuman because the Catholic Church, among others, depict her as evil? Or is the mermaid a sort of goddess entity, a purveyor of immortality? I suppose the answer lies in whether she has the opportunity to utilize her knowledge. She becomes problematic as a relatively silent figure in mythology—even committing suicide when she is not allowed to share. Perhaps the only truth of the mermaid is that she exists as a paradox. We fear her voice—that it may lull us to death. In this manner, she stays suspended in silence.


Images: Burney Relief. British Museum.

“Odysseus and the Sirens.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Odysseus-Sirens.jpg

Barb, A. A. “Antaura. The Mermaid and the Devil’s Grandmother: A Lecture.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 29 (1966): 1-23.

Franco-Lao, Meri. Sirens: Symbols of Seduction. Rochester, VT: Park Street, 1998.

Phillpotts, Beatrice. Mermaids. New York: Ballantine, 1980.

A Brief Introduction Into Perrault’s Renaissance Tales

By Benjamin S.

According to Graham Seal, “Stories involving heroes and heroines, transformations, supernatural beings, and happy endings exist- and presumably have existed in most of the world’s many cultures” (460). Stories depicting transformations and supernatural beings date all the way before Aspeh wrote his Greek fables (Ca. 620-640 BC). However, as Seal asserts, a fairy tale is different from other forms of story-telling, and the form “is almost entirely an invention of Western literature” (460). Indeed, it was “in the seventeenth century that the story form we now recognize as the fairy tale began to be given its familiar shape, mainly, though not exclusively, by French writers Charles Perrault (1628-1703) and Comtesse d’Alunoy (1650 or 1651-1705)” (460).

Within the pages of The Complete Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Neil Philip’s introduction states that “the fairy tale could be defined as a story which the characters, by means of a series of transformations, discover their true selves the inner meaning of such stories cannot easily be explained or defined. Rather, they are full of possible meanings, which resonate with the experiences and the characters of teller and listener” (12). The original written set of fairy tales such as Goldilocks, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood are credited to the French Renaissance author, Charles Perrault. Perrault wasn’t the person who invented these stories, but he wrote down these oral cautionary tales as told by the public. In doing so, the author captured each tale as it was known by the public, and he did not rush or flourish his texts with literary spoils. However, at the end of each fairy tale, Charles Perrault would write a short moralité, or moral of the story, to address the reader as (s)he finished. These morals were composed of rhyming verses that would allow the reader to identify easily the meaning of each story (Perrault 12).

The picture above is a scene from Perrault’s story Little Red Riding Hood, as illustrated by Gustave Dore. In this illustration, a young girl is lying in bed with a wolf disguised as her grandmother before the wolf eats the small child. Little Red Riding Hood is a cautionary tale of seduction, and warning the reader of the perils that come with being misled by strange men. Story analyst Bill Delaney says that Little Red Riding Hood was told to young children to teach them “not to speak to strangers because you do not know what could be used against you” (71). Delaney speaks about Little Red Riding Hood, and her appearance. He mentions that Little Red is wearing a red garment, carrying a basket full of goods, and is riding a pony alone through a forest in the story. Delaney notes that these activities are uncommon for young girls during this time period, and this raises questions about whether Little Red is actually in a dream state. Delaney questions if the young girl’s dream-like demeanor is the cause of her nativity. Bill Delaney concludes that, if so, it’s no wonder that Little Red doesn’t listen to her mother’s advice of not talking to strangers, and gets eaten by the anthropomorphic wolf at the end of the story (70).


Image: Dore, Gustave. “Little Red Riding Hood.” Les Contes de Perrault, dessins par Gustave Doré. Paris: J. Hetzel, 1867.

Delaney, Bill. “Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood.” Explicator 64:2 (2006): 70-72.

Perrault, Charles. The Complete Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. New York: Clarions, 1993. Print.

Seal, Graham. “Fairy Tale Heroes.” Folklore: An encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art. Charlie T. McCormick and Kim Kennedy White. Vol. 2. California: Santa Barbara, 2011. Print.

The Transformation of Suppressed Human Immorality

By Sarah W.

Within 16th and 17th century Renaissance cautionary tales, depictions of werewolves aid authors in questioning the extent of separability that exists between the human body and human soul. During my research, I explored what it means when human reason, intention, and identity can be temporarily hidden beneath an animal form, and to what degree early modern people believed that a transformed individual could still manipulate the animal body in which his human soul resided. If human consciousness were present during and after the transformation, then what does the human’s choice to willingly commit pre-meditated crimes against and within society inside of the animal body imply? To what extent does it illustrate suppressed, sinful desires of the human? If so, how does this blur the line that separates human from animal?

Renaissance literature ultimately portrays werewolf transformation as a way in which the immoral human can be punished by the “moral” human. Bacchilega states: “the werewolf or ‘manwolf’ embodies the proverbial peasant distrust of human nature” (55). Due to the difficulty of detecting a werewolf as a human, many focused on identifying the human as the werewolf instead: “Any neighbor or relative could be such a shape-shifter and turn dangerous” (Bacchilega 55). As a result, werewolves began to be associated with the “sub-humans” of society, such as criminals, murders, those possessing deficient levels of intelligence, or overly sexual females. According to 16th century alchemist-magician, Paracelsus, “if man has given way to his carnal and bestial cravings, then his phantasm is earthbound, in the guise of some terrifying and repellent animal – a wolf” (O’Donnell 13).

The poem of Lycaon in Ovid’s Metamorphoses illustrates this idea that an openly immoral human should be punished by “trapping” his sinful desires within an othered body. Hugo Goltizuis’s engraving, entitled, “Jupiter Changing Lycaon into a Wolf-Man” depicts Lycaon, king of Arcadia, who is suspected of committing evil deeds within his society. Indeed, he reveals his brutality by openly slaughtering a hostage and then serving his human flesh to the god Jupiter as a meal. Deemed a punishable act of cannibalism, Zeus retaliates by striking Lycaon’s palace with lightning, frightening him into the wild, where his werewolf transformation occurs.

The lines, “He fled in terror, reached the silent fields,/And howled…Foam dripped from his mouth; bloodthirsty still…/Yet he is still Lycaon, the same grayness,/The same fierce face, the same red eyes, a picture/Of bestial savagery” from Ovid’s poem imply a non-separability in the human soul and body during and after the transformation of Lycaon (Sconduto, 10). This reflection of animal as human and animal as human reveals a suppressed anxiety concerning human’s capability to commit sinful, “animalistic” acts within the human body. Otten states, “To admit the werewolf into human consciousness is to admit the need to examine the moral underpinnings of society” (15).

This study of Ovid’s interpretation of the werewolf illustrates that if the human is able to retain a human soul and consciousness within the animal body of the werewolf then moral-sensitivity is still intact. This is complicated by the fact that the animal does not possess the human brain’s higher-level of intelligence and reason that gives intention to murder, rape, or commit violent acts centered on motives of vengeance or greed. Therefore, my research has allowed me to uncover a human reluctance in acknowledging the evils in which the human mind is capable. Instead, the werewolf works as a body to hide what does not fit in accordance to society. Through the werewolf, the human is able to destroy and punish what he fears in himself.


Image: Goltizuis, Hugo. “Lycaon Changed into A Wolf.” 1558. Engraving. Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book I. Web.

Bacchilega, Cristina. Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

O’Donnell, Elliott. Werewolves. Wildside Press LLC, 2008.

Otten, Charlotte F. A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture. Syracus University Press, 1986.

Sconduto, Leslie A. Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity Through the Renaissance. McFarland, 2008.

Understanding and Relating “Daphne and Apollo” to Renaissance Literature

By Molly M.

There have been many instances of transformation within Renaissance literature. One well known example occurs is in William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Katherine’s psychological change within the play derives from Ovid’s tale of Daphne and Apollo. Within The Metamorphoses, humans were often transformed either into animal or vegetative forms, both causing the loss of a human body. As Tzachi Zamir points out, “The loss of a human body […] brings out the body’s singular significance for those what are changed and for those with whom they communicate” (Zamir 439). Daphne’s transformation into a tree shows the positive and negative effects of human transformation.

According to Zamir, the transformation of a person into a tree “results from an attempt to avoid intercourse’ (Zamir 444). This uncovers the reason behind Daphne’s transformation. Ovid’s tale of Daphne and Apollo is relatively straightforward, as “the arrows of Cupid, belittled by Phoebus, simultaneously incite the god to pursue Daphne and the nymph to flee, until appeals to her father Peneus change Daphne into the laurel tree” (Wills 143).

In Ovid’s stories “physical metamorphosis becomes an example of proper female behavior” (Liu 7). This is why when a woman in transformed within an Ovidian tale then the transformation is permanent. Aileen Lui argues that, “in cases when the girl herself is transformed of tries to resist the sexual advance, she faces exclusion from society” (Liu 7). When Daphne begs her father to alter her body to avoid the advances of the god Apollo, she ends up removing herself from human society. Once her transformation is complete she will no longer be able to possess her human body again. Her “active rejection of the god’s sexual advances, therefore, directly condemns her to an eternity of Otherness and utter lack of agency” (Liu 8).

Because Daphne’s transformation was in an attempt to defend herself from Apollo, her figure was “kept as close to living human beings as possible, while being removed from the sensible experience that could render them vulnerable to pain or undesired sex” (Zamir 444). So while she lost her status and agency as a human she still possess the somewhat appearance of a human. It would seem that the keeping of her appearance did not completely deter Apollo. Although he could not rape her, as she was in the form of a tree, she was still vulnerable to his touch and caress.

This tale allows us to see the benefits and consequences that came with human transformation. If it were not for the tales such as those contained within Ovid’s Metamorphoses many of the concepts that fall within the plays of Shakespeare and his affiliates would not exist. That is why reading and understanding these tales is so important when reading or studying Renaissance literature.

Liu, Aileen Y. “‘Am Not I Your Rosalind?’: Ovidian Identity and Transformation in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.” Scribd. 1 Dec. 2008. Web. 13 Feb. 2012.

Wills, Jeffrey. “Callimachean Models for Ovid’s ‘Apollo-Daphne'” Materiali E Discussioni per L’analisi Dei Testi Classici 24 (1990): 143-56.

Zamir, Tzachi. “Talking Trees.” New Literary History: A Journal Of Theory And Interpretation 42.3 (2011): 439-453.

The Metaphorical Werewolf

By Alisha L.

Throughout Renaissance folklore, the werewolf was a figure of controversy. Can humans physically transform into werewolves, or is the transformation purely symbolic? Are they in control of their transformations? Once these questions are presented, new questions arise: how is a person’s humanity affected by his transformation, and can the extent of his metamorphosis change the degree of his humanity?

Wayne Shumaker explains that transformation from human to beast was not literal according to the Christian faith. Shumaker states, “The reasoning soul given to man by God cannot enter an animal, and it is impossible to believe that the soul is restored when human shape is resumed” (93). Because God created the soul, the devil must influence the human to do mischief without affecting the soul. According to Shumaker, early modern Christians believed that the devil transformed humans into werewolves by one of two means: either he assumed the persona of a witch and transformed himself, or he possessed the witch and forced them to morph. In both cases, the soul remains intact because the human was not the creature performing the metamorphosis.

S.J. Wiseman supports Shumaker’s claims by saying, “wolves consistently represent those who had fallen so far from God that it was safe to assume that they were damned” (51-52). To clarify this statement, Wiseman presents the myth of Stubbe Peeter. The myth states that, after generating a contract with one another, the devil presented Peeter with a girdle that transformed him into a werewolf; when Peeter removed the girdle, he transformed back into his human form. Like Shumaker’s argument, Wiseman’s relation of the myth shows that the transformation of humans into werewolves is completely controlled by the devil (53).

Alternatively, Kristin Poole argues that the transformation of humans into werewolves is not a true metamorphosis. Although she concurs that European Christians believed in the devil’s ability to transform into other animalistic forms, she claims that when humans appeared to transform, it was simply an illusion used by witches, but especially the devil (196-197). This illusion, in turn, is a metaphor for some deep desire inside the human, and the devil—simply fulfilling the wish of the human—appears to transform him into a creature that represents this desire. If a man were to appear to turn into a werewolf, a creature known for consuming the flesh of humans and being extremely brutal, the werewolf form would be a metaphorical representation of the man’s desire to violate another human or perhaps fulfill a primitive bloodlust.

A person’s humanity becomes complicated when that individual is associated with lycanthropy. If someone transforms into a creature that is a mix between human and animal, has that person completely lost his/her humanity or is it only partially diminished? To answer this, it is important to look at Lucas Cranach’s “The Werewolf or the Cannibal.” In this woodcut, the werewolf first appears to be entirely human. But one notices that, while he is not completely covered in fur, his hair is long and shaggy, and his back is furry, suggesting that he is partially animalistic. Furthermore, he is on all fours like an animal and, without the use of his hands, has his victim clenched in his teeth just as an animal would eat. Despite having the initial appearance and qualities of a human, the humanity of a werewolf—much like Cranach’s subject—is weakened by the animalistic qualities that he displays.

Humanity is further complicated when we remember that the devil is often a contributing factor for transformation. If a person is forced into transformation by the devil, has he lost any of his humanity? If he worships the devil but still is unaware of his transformation, is he somehow less human than those not associated with the devil? Or is the desire to become a werewolf simply enough to diminish the humanity that he believes differentiates him from animals?


Image: Cranach, Lucas. The Werewolf or the Cannibal. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 17 Apr 2012.

Poole, Kristen. “The Devil’s in the Archive: Doctor Faustus and Ovidian Physics.” Renaissance Drama. 35 (2006): 191-219. Print.

Shumaker, Wayne. The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972. Print.

Wiseman, S. J. “Hairy on the Inside: Metamorphosis and Civility in English Werewolf Texts.” Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures. Ed. Erica Fudge. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2004. 50-67.

The Morality of Women During the Renaissance

By Amy B

Venus of Urbino depicts Renaissance concerns about women’s moral transformations in conjunction with their pets. At first glance the painting reads as a seductive work of art, with Venus’s hand gesturing towards her genitalia and her eyes piercing into the viewers. What is intriguing about this picture is the fact that there is also a small dog lying with her at the end of the bed. Her servants are turned away from Venus, as if her lying with the dog is something that should not be observed. During the Renaissance, having a dog or any other toy pet  was deemed as dangerous for women. Pets were only used for pleasure, the company that you got from having it around. Men were afraid of this because they felt like the animals were taking their place sexually.

Renaissance gender dialogues positioned women as sexual and sinful.  Looking further into the sinful nature, and at the same time drawing closer to a transformational conclusion, I sought to learn about how views on women such as Venus might inform the role witches played in the morality of the relationship between women and animals. During the witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was thought that women who were in the company of cats, dogs, or reptiles were deemed witches. When women “consorted with the devil” they became more animalistic and were treated as such.

Luke Mastin’s work discusses witchcraft, and it goes into great detail as to the torture that communities would perform on these poor women. Mastin’s article says that a “common witch-hunting method was “swimming” or “ducking” (based on the ancient “ordeal by water”) whereby the accused was tied hand and foot and immersed in deep water. If the accused witch floated, the water (God’s creature) had rejected her and she was deemed guilty; if she sank (and drowned), she was deemed innocent.”

We can see that women, though held on a pedestal of perfection, are also easily tipped and thrown into an abyss of hate and provocation. At one moment they are the epitome of perfection and the next they are scorned and thought to consort with the devil. By interacting with animals women were thought to be pleasuring themselves and in extreme cases to be having sinful relations.


Image: Vecelli, Tiziano. Venus of Urbino, 1538. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Venus_of_Urbino.jpg

Brown, David Alan. “Virtue And Beauty: Renaissance Portraits Of Women.” USA Today Magazine 130.2678 (2001): 36.

Mastin, Luke. http://witchcraftandwitches.com/trials.html. 13 December 2010. Web. 13 December 2010

Schiesari, Juliana. Beasts and Beauties. Toronto: University of Toronto Incorporated, 2010.

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