Rescripting Coyness from Shakespeare to Cavendish

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Darby Fung, Megan Jean
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
July 28, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Marcy Lynne North, Dissertation Advisor
  • Patrick G Cheney, Committee Member
  • Garrett Sullivan Jr., Committee Member
  • Laura Lunger Knoppers, Special Member
  • Sherry Lynnette Roush, Special Member
  • coyness
  • gender
  • genre
  • women's writing
  • Renaissance
Any study of Renaissance coyness starts in the shadow of famous mistresses. Mistresses from John Donne’s reticent lover in “To His Mistress Going to Bed” to Andrew Marvell’s blushing paramour in “To His Coy Mistress” model a feminine coyness of inaccessibility, enticement, and manipulation that has long been accepted in studies of Renaissance literature. Participating in a long-standing interest in such depictions of flirtatious but resistant women, my project challenges the limiting assumption that such figures were the only version of coyness that early modern writers employed in their writing. Taking advantage of the increasingly searchability of databases like Early English Books Online (EEBO, I demonstrate that the uses of the word coy diverged sharply from the narrowness of the coy mistress to encompass everything from the alluring and enticing seduction of a wooer to the modesty and chasteness of a virgin to the reticent pride of a sinner to the soothing and coaxing mannerisms of falconers towards their falcons. Renaissance writers, I argue, conceived of the conception coyness more broadly as a term that marked a deliberate, sometimes gendered performance of reticence, enticement, or engagement. This wider concept of the term made it useful in a variety of contexts—sermons, husbandry manuals, translations, speeches, and letters, in addition to literary works. Also, my study illustrates that early modern writers did not sequester meanings of the word in one discourse or another. Rather, they borrowed freely between disparate meanings to enhance the complexity of their depictions of social interactions and gender dynamics. Such an extensive reconsideration of the meaning of coyness fosters a fuller appreciation of its importance in certain veins of early modern literature, as the remainder of my dissertation shows. Not only does this exploration broaden our appreciation of the range of the concept of coyness for the speakers of early modern English, it also exposes how patterns of usage in everyday discourse influenced the appearance of gender and authorship in early modern literary texts. In Chapter 3, I look at how Shakespeare redeploys the term’s function in hawking manuals to enliven his exploration of wooing practices in The Taming of the Shrew. In Chapter 4, I reexamine the concept of coy virginity in John Milton’s A Maske at Ludlow Castle and Thomas Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy, where female characters repurpose the simple moral scripts of female behavior to create more dynamic and agential depictions of virginal characters. In Chapter 5, I contend that lyric collections assembled by poetry enthusiasts preserve some of the richest repositories of the diversity of coyness, found especially in the productiveness of female-voiced responses and lyrics by women writers. Finally, I investigate how Margaret Cavendish, to evade conventional restraints on women writing, bridled the potential of coyness as a literary tool for women writers especially. In the end, my study returns us to the idea of female coyness, but that idea is changed. Throughout their diverse portrayals of coyness, I conclude, Renaissance authors confronted the limits of women’s and men’s roles, but coyness’ multiplying references and contradictions inspired women writers in particular to discard old narratives of composition and re-script new ones. Ultimately, such writers embrace a greater creative vision for the functions of coyness in early modern English, as should scholars.