In Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale, an errant knight wants desperately to discover what women desire most in the world. An old
hag gives him the surprising answer: sovereignty. Beginning with this text and
its brash, controversial narrator, this course will examine
different forms of sovereignty and subjection in an early modern world
encountering new geographical, economic, and political terrain. Medieval and
Renaissance England was a place of paradoxes: even as women experienced
patriarchal subjection, England celebrated a powerful female sovereign. While
English writers began to articulate a national sovereignty, explorers and
colonists subjugated foreign peoples. And although the monarch was sovereign,
God’s representative on earth, eventually the turmoil of the Civil War
demonstrated how even he could be subject to the will of his people.
In this class, we will familiarize ourselves with
some of the “greatest hits” of early English literature—drama, poetry, and prose—with
a focus on such problems of sovereignty and subjection. We will also examine
how these debates may inform contemporary contexts. Our first reading will be
Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and
Tale, and other readings may
include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,
More’s Utopia, Shakespeare’s Othello, Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, excerpts from Hariot’s
Brief and True Report of the Newfound
Land of Virginia, and selections from Milton’s Paradise Lost, as well as poetry
by Donne, Sidney, Lanyer, Elizabeth I, and others.
Assignments will include four essays, midterm and
final exams, class presentations, and vigorous class participation.