How Relationships Were Presented Through Sonnets in a Patriarchal Society

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  • Topic: Sonnet, Astrophel and Stella, Philip Sidney
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How Relationships were Presented Through Sonnets in a Patriarchal Society By Marcelle Rowbotham

This essay concentrates on the portrayal of male heterosexual love within two sonnet sequences. I will be analysing Pamphilia to Amphilanthus by Mary Wroth, and Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney. Pamphilia to Amphilanthus and Astrophil and Stella are cohesive in their themes of male hedonism, unpredictability and guile. At the time that these sonnets were written, females had very little power and influence in society; men were accepted as the more dominant and important sex. This in turn influenced Wroth and Sidney to challenge these Patriarchal views of males being of higher worth than females through their sonnets. Both Wroth and Sidney present their opinions on male heterosexual love in a particularly derisive manner, and the convergence of these opinions is the basis for this examination. Love is not heralded as a bringer of joy in these sequences, but more a destructive force which controls and inflicts pain upon the protagonists, leaving them dumbfounded.

Mary Wroth was an English Renaissance poet, and the niece of Philip Sidney and Mary Sidney, both of whom were accomplished poets. Wroth spent most of her childhood in the care of her aunt and uncle due to fact that her father, Robert Sidney, was appointed as the Governor of Flushing in 1588. Mary Wroth came from a family where it was expected that females should be educated and have access to culture and literature; beliefs which were not widely held at the time. Mary Wroth was married to Sir Robert Wroth in 1604, a man who was a reputed gambler, drunkard and womaniser, and his death in 1614 left Mary in vast amounts of debt. Mary was also mistress to her cousin, William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, and bore two illegitimate children to him. This scandal lead to Mary being exiled from court, which may have been the catalyst for her most prolific piece of work; Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, published first as a part of The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania.

Pamphilia to Amphilanthus was the only sonnet sequence to be written by a woman, which gives a unique insight into the ideals and beliefs of love that women at the time held. Mary Wroth was evidently challenging the double standards that permitted men to be adulterous, by creating such a constant and faithful character as Pamphilia. The sequence contains an underlying sense of anger towards the Petrarchan sonnets which preceded her work, as they portrayed themselves to be great, passionate seducers of distant women. I will focus primarily on the Crowne, (Sonnets 77-90), a collection of fourteen sonnets which document Pamphilia’s constant striving to understand love, both through her personal life and her spirituality. It is also interesting to note that Pamphilia means “all-loving,” and Amphilanthus means “lover of two.”

To understand Pamphilia’s views on male love, we first have to explore her femininity. In the Crowne, Pamphilia actively connects with love, both on a personal and spiritual level. In order to symbolise her dilemma, Pamphilia relates her struggle to a labyrinth. Not only is this a metaphor, it is also a literal reference to Theseus finding his way out of the labyrinth by following Ariadne’s thread, and his subsequent abandonment of her. This introduces a sense of irony into the Crowne as Pamphilia chooses “to leave all, and take the thread of love” (77.14) which indicates to the reader that the outcome of the sequence cannot be an entirely happy one. Mary Moore stated that by relating Pamphilia’s struggle to a labyrinth, Wroth allowed her to develop a markedly female “sense of self,” which is “isolated, enclosed, difficult and complex.”

Pamphilia’s commitment to love is apparent throughout Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, and we are given an implicit insight into Pamphilia’s perception of love with obvious religious implications in Sonnet 78:

Love is the shining starr of blessings...
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